Thursday, December 27, 2007

How to Write; Chapter 1. Mr. Eberstadt’s Korean Sleight-of-Hand

I would like nothing better than to go to some place warm, sit in the shade under a tree, and wait for people to stop by so that I could talk with them all day long, until the sun came down. But circumstances dictate otherwise. So, for the time being, this blog is my tree.

I’ve been blogging for over a year now, and I’ve come to realize how difficult it is to express my thoughts in ways that accurately reflect the varying degrees of uncertainty with regard to the material on which they are founded. I’ve noticed that one of the tools that writers use to get around this predicament is the all purpose “may”, a word that can be applied equally to events of vastly different probabilities. More often than not, a writer cannot be sure how unsure he is, and sometimes he should just drop the matter altogether. At a minimum, he should be honest about his uncertainties.

Another not uncommon way of fudging the conclusion is by way of what I shall call the That Is the Question Ending. Imagine Hamlet delivering that soliloquy and the curtain dropping right there and then. A typical op-ed using TITQE begins and ends the like this: “X is at a crossroads… the choice is X’s to make.” Sometimes, the crossroads itself is such a revelation that it justifies an article on its own. At other times, the non-ending is the manifestation of the writer’s inability or lack of courage to make the call.

But far more often, a polemicist prefers to bend the facts to fit his conclusion, and he has many items in his tool kit. Outright lying is all too common, but other, more subtle methods are also widely employed. Creative interpretation of the facts (Hillary accuses Obama of harboring presidential ambitions since pre-school; Al Gore claims he invented the Internet) is very effective. Mislabeling (whales are the lungs of the ocean) is another.

Pure sleight-of –hand can be lethal in the hands of an adept. This WaPo op-ed by Nicholas Eberstadt is a good example. This trick is particularly insidious because, if executed properly, it will be difficult to catch even when you think you know the subject.

Mr. Eberstadt’s argument looks like a perfectly reasonable argument that calls on the Bush administration to return to a harder line against North Korea in concert with the incoming Lee Myung-bak regime in South Korea. Who knows, maybe he’s right. But the argument hinges on a South Korean public that will accept the kind of measures that Mr. Eberstadt and the men who populated the first-term Bush administration used to push. And here is where the trick comes in:

The landslide vote, to be sure, was in large measure a rebuke of President Roh Moo-hyun's inept handling of the economy and polarizing domestic policies. Yet, taken together, the candidates who opposed the "Peace and Prosperity" policy (originally dubbed "Sunshine") toward North Korea in last Wednesday's election received more than 63 percent of the vote -- compared with 35 percent for all those who approved of it. Why the widespread discontent with "sunshine"?

First, he admits to the obvious, incontrovertible fact that Mr. Roh lost because of policy failure on the domestic front. It is also true, as the second sentence says, that “Peace and Prosperity” policy opponents polled 63% of the vote. So, isn’t it natural to ask, as the third sentence does, why the South Korean electorate is dissatisfied with a soft-sell approach to North Korea?

But wait, where does Mr. Eberstadt say that in rejecting Mr. Roh’s favored candidate, the South Korean electorate rejected the “Sunshine” policy? Actually, he doesn’t. He has slipped this unstated premise into the narrative by sleight-of-hand.

I know that this is deliberate and not mere faulty thinking. Look closely, and there are two, telltale signs. First, note the use of the qualitative “large measure” to gauge the impact. Is two-thirds large? Of course. But one-third? Without resorting to outright lying, he has diminished the impression of the impact by the use of this qualitative word that maintains its substantiality while shedding the sense of enormity, the overwhelming nature of the cause for rejection.

Second, and more obviously, he shifts terminology at each step, from the “Peace and Prosperity” policy to “Sunshine” to “sunshine”. This too is deliberate. You see, he starts by insinuating the rejection of President Roh’s policy, then moves on to the rejection of President Kim Dae-jung’s policy, and finally arrives at the rejection of the generic “sunshine” approach. Note that he manages to drop the word “policy” along the way, a word that implies a set of measures which could be accepted singly or collectively, or modified. This is important, for the notion that the South Korean electorate rejected the soft-sell approach in every guise is vital to an argument essentially in favor of a return to pre-Six Party level demands on North Korea.

Now this is not the place to argue whether or not such a reversal is in order. But in avoiding an argument on the facts, Mr. Eberstadt implicitly acknowledges that if anything does happen, the changes will still fall far short of his desires. And in that, at least, he is correct, because if Mr. Roh’s trip to North Korea in October failed to save his favored candidate, he did succeed in vaulting his dismal approval rate over the 50% mark. The South Korean electorate did not reject President Kim’s “Sunshine” policy, much less a soft-sell approach in general; President-elect Lee Myun-bak is not going to blot out the “sunshine”.

This trick is surely one of many different illusions that advocates, both explicit and implicit, use to undermine reason. If I come up with other examples that catch my attention, I may post them.

As a coda, I’ll indulge in some speculation. Why did Mr. Eberstadt write this op-ed in the first place? Part of it must be that birds are born to sing, and this happens to be the only song that it knows. But he must feel secure, with good reason, that the soft-sell approach will achieve unsatisfactory results (at least from the perspective of his back-to-the-future approach, which, luckily for him, will never be tested). Thus, he thinks that he will be able to continue pleasing his constituency by criticizing whatever policy that any administration adopts and the outcome thereof from the vantage point of an untested hypothesis. In that at least, he will be right.

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