It began when I criticized Mark Levin, prompting David Frum and Rod Dreher to pile on. Enter Dan Reihl, who defended Mr. Levin. Incredulous, I challenged Mr. Riehl to a debate, offering an opening salvo here, and welcoming his rebuttal.
That’s when things got interesting — Mr. Levin himself responded (don’t miss the comments on that post), though I fear that he hasn’t done himself any favors by doing so. The argumentative approach he uses is striking given that he is a trained lawyer, intelligent enough to know the difference between a fallacious argument and a sound one. Even so, his initial defense against Rod Dreher is that “I don’t know Dreher and as best I can tell, most nobody does.” It’s the same nonsensical distraction that Mr. Levin used when he debated David Frum: your platform isn’t very big, therefore you’re obviously wrong. Needless to say, Mr. Dreher’s fame hasn’t any bearing on the matter at hand, nor does my obscurity (though I suspect that Mr. Levin won’t soon forget my name).
I’ll now restate the original criticisms made of Mr. Levin, and reprint his responses so that the reader can consider them.
Criticism # 1
It relates to the following exchange:
LEVIN: Answer me this, are you a married woman? Yes or no?
LEVIN: Well I don’t know why your husband doesn’t put a gun to his temple. Get the hell out of here.
Mr. Levin’s critics contend his behavior in that exchange is hateful, destructive of healthy political discourse, and likely to alienate people from conservatism. He offers several rebuttals in the course of his post and subsequent comments. Let’s take them one by one.
Mr. Levin writes:
Oh my. How brutish of me.
You would have thought I had spent the last 25 years befriending the likes of Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, or had driven the car that ended Mary Jo Kopechne’s life. But no, those are the leaders of the Democratic Party.
A transparently irrelevant argument — as if the good or bad behavior of Democrats has any bearing on Mr. Levin’s behavior.
Another defense offered by Mr. Levin:
Rod wonders, among other things, “Think about what WFB would say about Levin’s rhetoric. I bet he’d be embarrassed by the low-class schlock of it all.” Well, Rod, WFB is a hero to all sound-thinking conservatives. But I do recall an exchange between Gore Vidal and Bill Buckley in which Buckley called Vidal a “queer.” Maybe Rod missed it while doing his vast research for his post about me. Well, here it is. Buckley was a brilliant and complex man, unlike Rod. He was also a fighter who knew his adversaries, unlike Rod. It was certainly wrong and offensive for Buckley to say what he did; yet Rod intones Buckley to admonish me. He wants readers to think Buckley would stand with him and against me. How cheap and pathetic.
Hmmm. As a friend of mine noted in an e-mail, John Judis wrote in his Buckley bio that WFB “felt ashamed at ‘having blown his cool’ and having ‘misbehaved on the air.’” Perhaps Levin noticed that hectoring guests—and challenging their spouses to top themselves—was not a tactic he often deployed while hosting Firing Line.
Still later, Mr. Levin offers a different defense of the “gun to his temple” remark:
Ok, let’s debate your point Conor. I told the caller she way extremely annoying. That is what any sensible person would have understood the comment to mean. Now, you don’t like it. You don’t like the way I said it. So what? If you were a dear friend or someone I knew and admired, I might think about it. But you are none of those things. I don’t know who you are and I don’t care if you don’t like it. My purpose was not to win over converts or represent the Republican Party. It was to dispatch this caller as I chose to. As for appealing to people, if I say I have a very large following in broadcast and print media, the likely response would be, “well, what does that have to do with the substance of my criticism.” So, you will have created your own maze of logic by shifting points.
I’ve no doubt that Mr. Levin found the caller annoying, and meant to communicate that fact to her. The criticism is that he chose a needlessly hateful way to dispatch her — human beings owe one another better than that, and vitriol of that kind is destructive to public discourse. I’m not sure why Mr. Levin thinks his lack of admiration for me bears on the rightness of that criticism.
Mr. Levin also says that his purpose wasn’t to win converts or represent the GOP. But his purpose is irrelevant to the question of whether his behavior hurts the ideological movement with which he affiliates himself. It is probably most harmful to conservatism insofar as Mr. Levin’s legion listeners mimic his off-putting, illogical approach to public discourse. As one of his listeners states in comments, “He has taught me how to go to battle against the enemy.”
Finally, Mr. Levin’s sizable audience is testament to his popularity among people who already self-identify as conservatives, not his ability to persuade new folks to switch their ideological allegiance. Grasping the distinction is hardly akin to navigating a maze.
This concerns the following exchange on Mr. Levin’s show:
HOST: My God. He’s so smart. His own party voted against him on Guantanamo Bay. How stupid was that, Cindy? His own party refused to fund the closing of Guantanamo Bay.
CALLER. Yeah but you know he can just move those people over here anyway. He’s already doing it with the one guy.
HOST: Yeah, sure, he can do whatever he wants. Let me ask you a question. Why do you hate this country?
CALLER: No, I love this country.
HOST: (angrily shouting) I SAID WHY DO YOU HATE MY COUNTRY! WHY DO YOU HATE MY CONSTITUTION? WHY DO YOU HATE MY DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE? You just said it. He can blow off Congress. He can do whatever he wants, right?
In this exchange, Mr. Levin berates the caller for asserting that Barack Obama can move Gitmo detainees to the United States, even though Congress objects to the transfer. His logic seems apparent: the caller is saying that President Obama can “blow off Congress” and “do whatever he wants,” therefore she is anti-American and anti-constitution — she’d just give President Obama whatever power he wants to transgress against the rule of law.
What a weird argument for Mr. Levin to make, I thought. A person opposed to executive power might well argue that it’s anti-Constitution to say the president can move detainees, Congress be damned. As I noted in my original post, however, “the host is weirdly blind to the irony that he himself thinks a wartime president possesses the power to house detainees where he sees fit… by the host’s own standard of executive power—not to mention Dick Cheney’s standard — President Obama possesses the inherent power to close Gitmo, what Congress says be damned.” How could Mr. Levin berate a caller as anti-American for articulating his own view of executive power, albeit applied to a new president?
Well. Here’s how Mr. Levin responded to my criticism:
Where did I say the president does not have the power to move the prisoners to the United States? The reason they were housed at GITMO was because of a 1950 Supreme Court decision (Eisentrger) in which Justice Jackson made clear that the court had no jurisdiction over detainees held outside the United States. I have written at length about it. The issue of the Constitution, the nation, and the Declaration relates to the danger moving terrorists into this country would pose to the country, a fact that even the Democrat-controlled Congress somewhat understands, and is the reason they voted down Obama’s $80 million request to shut GITMO. And, yes, Conor, I believe such a mindless position is unpatriotic. That may offend you, but it seems you are easily offended, except by your own accusations.
Is it just me, or is Mr. Levin clearly fudging what the exchange with the caller was really about? After all, he stated on his show that the caller is anti-American and anti-Constitution not for thinking that Obama SHOULD move Gitmo detainees to the United States, but because she thought HE POSSESSED THE POWER TO DO SO. “You just said it. He can blow off Congress. He can do whatever he wants, right?” What Mr. Levin claims after the fact makes no sense given the language that he used.
Having established that, let’s assume the point he meant to make is his latest offering. As far as I can tell, Mr. Levin’s position is now as follows: Under the Constitution, President Obama possesses the inherent power as Commander in Chief to move Gitmo detainees to America — and if he exercises that inherent constitutional power, he is anti-constitution.
To sum up, I think that all of the original criticisms I made about Mr. Levin stand, that his efforts to rebut them are so obviously weak that any independent observer would regard them as failures, and that he is additionally guilty of shamelessly using transparently fallacious rhetorical techniques to attack his interlocutors rather than addressing their arguments. As I hope this exchange demonstrates, one can argue civilly and logically, and nevertheless systematically devastate the credibility of opposing arguments.