Purple prose people

Sticking with the facts is better for everyone

Issue: "UK: Two faiths collide," July 22, 2000

A lot of my conservative friends have been dragging themselves about of late, down at the mouth and sniveling as if God were no longer enthroned on high and everything on earth had gotten totally beyond His control. Lose a couple of Supreme Court decisions-like the partial-birth abortion case in Nebraska and the school prayer case in Texas-and some folks would have you believe civilization is in the worst shape it has ever known.

Yet, oddly, it hasn't been those folks in recent days who have been given to verbal excess. They mumble and grumble, to be sure, about how bad things have gotten. But the hyperventilating and caterwauling you hear all about you these days is coming at least as much, and probably more, from the folks on the left who are supposedly winning all the cultural battles.

Take a column by Hearst Newspapers writer Marianne Means, who in spite of her euphonious name continues column by column to fuss like a radical. She was so distressed by the narrowness of the 5-4 high court majority upholding

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partial-birth abortion that she railed like this against the dissenters: "Three of the four justices in the minority disgraced their black robes by abandoning all pretense of judicial dignity, hurling insults at the majority and resorting to hysterical accusations grounded in emotion rather than law. They threw a collective hissy fit more appropriate for a political rally than the high bench."

Columnist Means said "Justice Antonin Scalia wildly accused the majority of practically condoning infanticide. 'It is a value judgment,' he thundered, pressing his own fetus-obsession as the only value that matters ..." She said "Justice Clarence Thomas complained about court-mandated 'abortion on demand,' a crude pejorative that anti-abortion activists prefer instead of the more civilized 'request.'" And she couldn't stand the fact that Justice Kennedy "groused" in writing his dissent.

But I thought that's the kind of purple prose conservative right-wingers are supposed to be given to-not the suave open-minded folks who have everything going their way. What's got them so upset?

Or take Donald Kaul, who is widely syndicated by Tribune Media Services, but who apparently cannot stand the much greater media success of Dr. Laura Schlesinger. "I understand why she's so popular," Mr. Kaul wrote last week. "AM radio has become the nearly exclusive province of moronic call-in shows that cater to people with the IQs of a geranium. She fits in perfectly: a shrewish scold who berates the poor slobs who bring their problems to her, looking for sympathy. Looking to Dr. Laura for sympathy is like expecting humility from Donald Trump."

"I understand," continues Mr. Kaul, "why she feels gay people are lesser beings ('biological errors,' she calls them) in need of reform. She is religious (an Orthodox Jew) and says she finds confirmation of her views on gay people in Scripture. Sadly, there is a type of religious person who finds inspiration for prejudice in the Bible, a circumstance that allows them to be bigoted and feel morally superior at the same time. She is of that type."

And we might say the same thing of Mr. Kaul-that he is of "that type"-that type, you know, who seek to destroy by ridicule those with whom they disagree. For them, ad hominem fallacies (arguing by going after the person instead of after the reasoning) are not errors to be avoided, but clever games to be polished and perfected.

Traditionally, folks resort to such superficial arguments only when they feel cornered, when their better arguments have failed, when they're running scared, and when they know they've almost lost the game. So why are otherwise sane people like Ms. Means and Mr. Kaul, no friends to folks on the right, making themselves look silly with such verbal excess? If things are really as bad as some of my conservative friends think they are, why do the pagans seem to be in such a panic? I'd suggest several lessons.

First, it's good for us all to be warned how silly any of us looks when engaging in such argumentation. Because we too are sometimes tempted to take such rhetorical shortcuts, it's worth being reminded that such pitiful caricaturizing loses as many arguments as it wins.

Second, keep in mind this wise advice from WORLD's editor, Marvin Olasky, to our reporters and writers: "Sensational facts, understated prose." The implication is that when you don't have the facts to make your case, you tend to crank up the horsepower of your adjectives and adverbs. But sooner or later, readers see through such trickery.

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