False equivalence is when you say one idea, event, or act is equally as egregious, offensive, or wrong as another act, particularly when there are mitigating circumstances or underlying differences of degree or intention which may invalidate the comparison. Pretty much any mention of Hitler online — unless one is actually discussing Hitler — is a sign of Godwin’s Law being demonstrated for the bajillionth time and a false equivalence. Your hangnail and Hitler should never be mentioned as being equally horrible.
Here’s how to recognize a false equivalence when you see one.
Example 1: Deep within his tin foil-wrapped padded bunker, Glenn Beck is SIMPLY APPALLED, people. Obama, when he was a small child, living in a country that does not have the same taboo about eating dogs that we do, was given dog meat to eat by his adult caretaker. Well then, Beck, I guess you have to stop sucking up to the pinheads in your audience by hinting that President Obama is a Muslim then, since noshing on dogs is forbidden by their faith. (What with the beer-drinking and pork-eating and church-attending Christianity, Obama is, like, the Worst. Muslim. Ever.)
Man, the conservatives really had to dig deep to counter Romney’s callous treatment of the family dog. Ever hear of “two wrongs don’t make a right?”
Or, more accurately, that the offending passage from one of Obama’s books that they are attempting to color as “just as bad” does not elaborate on whether Obama knew he was eating dog beforehand (I have been fed donkey and snake and rabbit–and I have had pet rabbits that I loved dearly–without knowing that was what it was before I ate it), does not mention that it is common in the country where he was raised (even if it is totally gross and distressing to Western sensibilities), and involves, at best, being a passive bystander child who was encouraged to be a consumer of an anonymous and nameless livestock animal raised for food, like meat-eating Americans would eat a cow or chicken or pig.
Compare that to what Mitt Romney admits he did as an adult: he was an actively responsible grown-up person mistreating a living animal with a name (Seamus) who was already elevated to the status of house pet when he strapped Seamus into a crate and left him there for 12 hours atop the family car, and then he did nothing to remedy the situation even after the supposedly beloved companion animal — their four-legged family member — expressed discomfort, fear, and distress by, well, crapping himself. Mitt just got a hose and sprayed him and the car clean with it, then carried on.
So Beck compared what Obama did as a child to an anonymous animal — when he had no choice but to eat what his adult guardian told him to eat — to what Romney did as an adult to a family pet, when he had several options he could have chosen at any time (such as putting his luggage atop the car and the dog inside it, like normal human beings do). What, was he more concerned that a suitcase might fall off than the dog carrier? To repeat: Obama was a child who was fed dog meat by his caregiver (how much choice did you have in deciding the dinner menu at your home when you were a little kid?), while Romney was an adult who freely chose how to treat the family dog and to ignore the poor animal’s obvious distress, and that was setting an example as a parent to his own children inside the car.
In short, weaksauce all around. But would you expect anything else?
One of the kings of false equivalencies is Matt Drudge. You know, I remember Matt Drudge spamming the entire USENET with his screeds, not bothering to check if it was wanted or appropriate.
Hold on, I have to fetch a walker and some Werther’s Originals before I reminisce. Back in the day, self-promotion and advertising of any sort were loathed and resisted. The first asshats (that I recall) to spam the ‘net were Canter & Siegel, some green card lawyers. There were newsgroups (sort of like forums) which existed as separate little “islands” of discussion devoted to a narrow-focus subject, and people resented — especially when access was via a slow dial-up modem, and even more when they got on USENET via the first paynets — reading something off-topic. Canter & Siegel posted their ad in each and every newsgroup. This did not end well.
Most people using USENET had access to approximately 5,000 newsgroups of varying degrees of popularity. Drudge, like Canter & Siegel before him, would spam his long and 99.8% off-topic and self-indulgent/self-promotional “reports” to every single newsgroup he had access to, meaning everyone would see his posts every time they read a new newsgroup (imagine every single website on the Internet posting the exact same obnoxious advertisement on it) and would ignore everyone raising hell about it (verdict from damn near everyone: YOU ARE SO FUCKING RUDE, Drudge). He did not participate in discussions (not that I EVER saw, anyway). He was out to talk about what he wanted to talk about, and to hell with you or considering whether it was an appropriate venue or even if anyone else was interested even tangentially in his posts. Honey Drudger didn’t give a shit.
If there was any justice, he would eventually have gotten tired of spamming the world and being hated by nearly everyone with USENET access globally and would have gone away (or, when the Internet finally had a GUI, he would have made a ranty Angelfire or Geocities webpage with spinny skulls, “under construction” animations, rainbow-hued horizontal dividers and GIFs of Reagan with a halo and Clinton with devil horns…maybe he’d include an ASCII cow or Bart Simpson picture). Unfortunately for us all, he was leaked documents about the Lewinsky scandal, probably because he was a self-important global spammer who ignored all criticism in his unwarranted self-importance and pathological need to blather about how much conservetism rocks and liberals all suck, and wanted to post his opinion to EVERY DAMN BODY’S newsgroups. So, when he got the Infamous Blue Dress Gossip, he posted THAT all over the damn place, and, voila, the little asshole has never stopped being self-important, or spreading gossip and mostly unsubstantiated dross, or trying to just shout louder than anyone else without regard for anyone who might find him tedious, wrong, annoying, et cetera. Just because you shout louder than everyone else doesn’t make you right. (Well, in his case, he was Right, as in Republican, but he was rarely correct.)
So, there you go.
I’m not upset that he busted Clinton and Lewinsky, for what that is worth. Someone else would have. I’m just annoyed that he has ended up being rewarded for being a giant hateful conservatard asshole with no social skills or courtesy for others.
Seriously, sometimes it feels like there is no justice in this world.
Example 2: Drudge is one of many who think that the manufactured nonsense about Obama’s birth certificate is of equal importance to Mitt Romney refusing to reveal his tax returns. No, these are not equivalent situations.
Let’s compare. Obama’s birth certificate was released as early as 2008, before he took office. It has been released in long form and short form, and verified multiple times. No other president has ever had to present a birth certificate. Conversely, Romney’s own father, George, released 12 years of tax returns, and all candidates who have actually succeeded in being elected as President have released more than two years of returns. Romney has released two partial returns with some tax shelter-related data conveniently omitted.
Another false equivalence: Obama’s college transcripts are equivalent to Romney’s returns. Again, no. Though Bush’s transcripts were leaked (which was a shitty thing to do), we do not require — nor have a tradition of requesting a look at — candidates’ college transcripts before we elect someone as President. We do have a tradition of asking candidates to cough up their tax returns, and it is a tradition that, again, Mitt Romney’s own dad started! (Furthermore, there is a federal law prohibiting educational institutions which receive government funds of any type from releasing anyone’s college transcripts to third parties without express permission from the student.)
A fourth false equivalence: When Romney was caught on video disparaging the 47% of Americans who rely on some form of government assistance, conservatives, including Drudge, quickly released a 14-year-old video of Obama discussing “redistribution” and implied — if they didn’t just say outright — that it meant that Obama was an Evil Socialist who Hates Capitalism. This false message was helped along with some judicious editing that omitted the part where Obama stressed that he just wanted to ensure that everyone could have a decent chance to be successful — ”to make sure that everybody’s got a shot” — which is a non-offensive message if I ever heard one. You know, this was the same kind of selective editing that provided the RNC with their “We Built This” meme, which was a comment taken way out of context from an Obama speech, and, strangely enough, several conservatives have said many of the same things Obama said in that speech.
Here’s another: Comparing Obama to Carter and Romney to Reagan, ignoring all the other extenuating circumstances that have Romney trailing in all the polls (including the fact that it is not 1980, we’re not dealing with 13% inflation or a gas panic which caused extremely long lines at the pumps, and there aren’t a bunch of American hostages being held in Iran), and insisting that Romney can come from behind, like Reagan did, and win the election. Time will tell, of course, but unless voter disenfranchisement attempts work or there is some kind of monkey business with Diebold voting machines, people being harassed at polling places, or Return Of The Night Of The Hanging Chads, Romney is unlikely to sweep past Obama at the very last second and win fairly.
Then there was the time David Gregory compared Rick Perry‘s waffling about secession to Obamacare: “You know, Perry talked about potentially seceding from the union. You think that’s extreme. Well, people on the other side think that introducing health care reform for the whole country is akin to European Socialism.” I can’t even, with that guy. When is FOX News going to offer him a job? Making sure people can access decent healthcare is the same as threatening to secede? Because secession worked out so well the last time a bunch of states gave that idea a go.
Or how about the one where Republicans are criticized for not wanting to bother with facts or fact-checkers, and their response — via the Associated Press — is to try and bring Lewinsky’n'Clinton back into the picture? (See, there was a reason I gave a little USENET history earlier!)
Example 8: One of my conservative friends (who was very irritated that I reminded him that the Heritage Foundation was actually responsible for the parts of Obamacare he had been ranting about the most; he did not enjoy learning that it was originally a Republican idea) treated me to this false equivalency:
- Windmills for wind power kill birds.
- Birds fly into the windmills and die.
- Lots of them.
- Ergo, windmill blades killing birds is just as bad as drilling for oil and having a pipe burst and spill oil everywhere.
- PROFIT! (“Take that, liberals! How you like us now?! You bird-murderers!”)
Yes, indeed. Birds fly into stuff. That is, of course, exactly equivalent to BP getting away pretty much scot-free with dumping tens of thousands of gallons of biohazardous material into the Gulf, killing dozens if not hundreds of species (including birds; heck, including fish and shrimp that humans eat) and then trying not to actually pay any of the damages without being arm-twisted. Except it isn’t.
Man. That was a Take Two Tylenol assertion. I did not even bother to get into a long, fruitless discussion about it. Because birds flying into windmills is exactly the same thing (to my Republican friend) as BP’s spill and its probably permanent damage to not just birds but also a lot of sea life and human beings in the area. He thinks wind power is just evil, anyway, because Republicans are wary of it. No big money in wind power, I guess. No Big Wind Corporation to suck up to and appease? So yeah, wind power…it has to be eeeeeevil and bad and wrong. Don’t get me started on solar power, you guys. Free energy from the sky? That’s like witchcraft. It could never work. Except, you know, how Germany has made it work quite well. So, let’s recap:
Birds fly into wind power windmill blades: BAN WIND FARMS!
Birds also fly into jet engines on places. BAN PLANES?
Birds also fly into house and business windows. BAN WINDOWS?
Seriously? As columnist Dave Barry says, I am not making this up. And, actually, if you care about the facts, the “wind farm turbine blades slaughter eleventy-jillion birds OMGWTFBBQ!” isn’t even all that accurate.
In all fairness, though, we can’t pretend that only Republicans play the false equivalency game. Both major political parties have their flawed cheerleaders, though, and most of them pop out with a false equivalency now and then.
A Facebook pal of mine, Nick Kerton, once said, “The bad thing about [Joe] Scarborough isn’t that he’s a harsh conservative, but that he constantly says he’s a ‘centrist.’ His fucking theme song is ‘Stuck In The Middle With You.’ Scarborough is obvious, though. Chris Matthews is a bit conservative-leaning as well, while Al Sharpton tends to paint atheists unfairly when religious issues come up — in one segment he explicitly suggested that social justice could be an exclusively religious value. But CNN…argh. When they’re not saying the Dems just need to give more to the rabid dogs, they’re spending half an hour explaining how an exit poll works.”
I agree with all these criticisms. Joe is mostly an economic conservative. Chris gets very hawkish and sort of, hmm, fratty, and he never met a boring sport analogy he didn’t love to rant at length about. Al is probably still recovering from the heat he got during the Tawana Brawley situation and his mild animus towards any atheist or agnostic folks is irritating. CNN has become increasingly less interested in factual information, perhaps craving a slice of the FOX misinformed viewer ratings pie. While we are at it, I like Keith Olbermann (and his affection for James Thurber is charming), but he’s kind of a douchenugget off-camera.
The false equivalencies are thoroughly annoying, whichever side does it. There is something to be said for comparing apples to apples, rather than apples to kumquats, Ford Pintos, or monkey wrenches.