March 14, 2011

Of Sound Bites, Panic Buttons, and Scare Quotes

Mr. Ferrara’s “Author’s Introduction” begins with a true enough reminder that “[w]e live in an age of demagogues and sound bites,” as opposed to the “reasoned polemics that once characterized public discourse” on important matters.” (1)  Perhaps he is tacitly promising his readers that the book they are about to enjoy is a specimen of reasoned polemic. As his rhetorical style puts one in mind of the sound bites found in electoral campaign attack ads, his complaint is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. For in that opening paragraph he announces, with no hint of irony, that he will occasionally interrupt his discourse to post sound-bite-sized “panic buttons” to which, he claims, Austro-libertarian advocates resort when confronted with inconvenient facts and arguments.  Here are the nine “buttons”:
“Industry is evil, evil, evil! (21)
“So, corporations are evil, evil, evil. What about all the good they have done?” (26)
“So, you want to soak the corporations!” (29) 
Socialism!” (137)
“Minimum wage laws!  Mandatory health insurance! Crushing burdens on business!” (172)
“Socialism!  Government-imposed caps on executive pay! Envy of the rich! Class warfare!” (197)
“OSHA! OSHA! OSHA! Government bullying of small businesses and a further expansion of the ‘nanny state’!” (200)
“You’re making excuses for the Fed” (221)
“Government regulation of business! Burdensome requirements! More bureaucracy!” (281)
“The abolition or breakup of big business!” (284)
It is hard to interpret these imputations of panic as anything other than rhetorical sound effects intended to enhance the perceived impact of Ferrara’s attempts at argument. The sputterings he puts into the mouth of his adversaries add nothing to them, but detract considerably from their presentation. By his resort to them he shows contempt for the reader’s intelligence, for although he “identifies” the buttons, he does not source them, that is, he does not name the “opponents of the arguments to be presented here” who might “activate” those buttons. (1) That is, before he has presented one word of his opponents (or before he has even told the reader who they are), he characterizes them as purveyors of “bugaboos” that serve only as “distractions from real issues.” (2) 
For all Ferrara has shown to the contrary, none of the Austro-libertarians he names, none of the anarcho-Catholics who have provoked him to write TCATL, have ever pushed those buttons in an actual exchange of views. Yet somehow they are supposed to “prepare the reader” for such an exchange.
We also get a first look at his mixed message to libertarian readers. He wants to explore “common ground” with libertarians in an effort to dismantle “the modern state” (but not the state as such), which “was built on the ruins of former Christendom by the very principles doctrinaire libertarians defend as essential to what they think is Liberty.” ([2]; emphasis in the original). 
Ah, Christendom. The man who insists that his argument is not with libertarianism as such, but only with the “Austro” brand—and any suggestion to the contrary is but a “diversionary tactic”—puts no distance between himself and that phase of Christianity’s history during which so many un-Christ-like things transpired in His name. He will not entertain the possibility that the ruins of Christendom were forecast in the venal stupidities and crimes of so many doctrinaire Catholics of Christendom who defended them as essential to what they thought was Christianity.
Mr. Ferrara excoriates, for example, the revolutionary expropriation of ecclesiastical property in France, but not the absolutist state of Louis XIV who reserved to Roman Catholics the privilege of owning human beings in France’s colonies, provided the slaves were baptized and their families not broken up. His Royal Highness was only acquiescing in then-current Catholic Social Teaching which, thank God, contrary to Mr. Ferrara, can change. (More on the evolution of Catholic Social Teaching on slavery in due course.)
Continuing in the introduction, we find one of the first of countless instances of mocking scare quotes redundantly combined with “so-called”:  
This book originated in a series of articles for the Catholic bi-weekly The Remnant examining the opposition between Catholic teaching and the so-called ‘Austro-libertarian movement,’ a combination of radical libertarianism with the so-called ‘Austrian School’ of economics . . . . (3) 
He causes us to wonder whether he believes his criticism has a real object. For if he accepts the label by which it is commonly referred to, there is no need for punctuation that only renders his reference uncertain.
The tic-like use of scare quotes renders many of his statements ambiguous. To a critic of any of those uses, Mr. Ferrara can always retort, “I wasn’t referring to x!  I was referring to ‘x’!” Or: “I didn’t say S’s assertion was heretical!  I said it was ‘heretical’!” And so when we read that “this book is not an attempt to ‘excommunicate’ anyone from the Catholic Church” (2) we face a problem of interpretation, for no one seriously believes that Mr. Ferrara has the power either to excommunicate or even to set in motion a series of events that would result in excommunication. 
My surmise? His use of “excommunicate,” like “heresy” later, contributes to an atmosphere of suspicion without his appearing to arrogate any authority to himself (which conceit would cost him all credibility). But then what we have here is polemical theater, which impedes rather than promotes a serious engagement of ideas. 
Despite the accusatory tone of that permeates his book, Mr. Ferrara denies that he wrote it “to make accusations against the persons who have uttered them.” (3) Either he does not know what an accusation is, or some other defect accounts for his use of that word.