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The argument clinic


Fans of Monty Python's Flying Circus will remember the sketch where Michael Palin goes to the Argument Clinic and—after a great deal of confusion—ends up across a desk from John Cleese.

When Palin asks for an argument, Cleese starts contradicting everything he says.

Finally, Palin objects: "I came here for a good argument!"

Cleese: Ah, no you didn't. You came here for an argument.

Palin: An argument isn't just contradiction.

Cleese: Well! it can be!

Palin: No, it can't! An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.

Cleese: No, it isn't!

Palin: Yes, it is! 'tisn't just contradiction.

Cleese: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position!

Palin: Yes but it isn't just saying "No, it isn't."

Cleese: Yes, it is!

Palin: No, it isn't!

Cleese: Yes, it is!

Palin: No, it isn't!

Cleese: Yes, it is!

Palin: No, it isn't! Argument is an intellectual process. Contra- diction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.

Cleese: It is not!

Palin: It is!

Cleese: Not at all!

The sketch goes on, of course (and can be found in its entirety here).

Watching it again recently, it struck me that Cleese's logic is exactly what's driving the Democratic Party today.

So profoundly antagonistic are its leaders to anything that comes from the President's mouth that they leap reflexively to contradict it:

President Bush: Across Iraq today, men and women have taken rightful control of their country's destiny, and they have chosen a future of freedom and peace.

Senator Kennedy: Sunday’s election is not a cure for the violence and instability.

President Bush: If we don't address the [Social Security] problem now, it will only get worse with time.

Senator Dorgan: The President is certainly going to use his megaphone to convince people this is a crisis, and he's dead wrong on that. We have to make the case that he's wrong.

President Bush: The fundamental question facing the country is, Can we have a health care system that is available and affordable without the federal government running it?

Senator Kerry: You know what that sounds like to me? Sounds like a cradle-to-grave irresponsibility plan.

As the Michael Palin character in the sketch appreciates, however, an argument involves (or should involve, anyway) an intellectual process—not just an instinctive assault on every item of your opponent's agenda.

You can't just say, "No, it isn't"; you need to have thought through a position of your own based reference to first principles. And that's just what the Democrats seem unwilling or unable to do. Hence this predictable headline, which appeared on January 12: "Dems Plan to Obstruct Bush Agenda." (In fact, so deeply ingrained has the contradiction habit become that Democrats now announce their disagreements preemptively.)

After eight years of a political philosophy grounded in public opinion polls, then four more of reflexive Bush-bashing, the party of the New Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society finds itself bereft of any idea beyond "No, it isn't."

The Iraq war was the "wrong war" (in the wrong place at the wrong time). Fixing Social Security is hyping a "phony crisis." Creating an ownership society is an "irresponsibility plan." Saying that freedom is eternally right is giving the U.S. a license for unlimited military intervention.  Yadda yadda yadda.

And, anyway, the Vice President's mom dresses him funny.

If any further proof of this sorry state of Democratic affairs is required, one need look no further than the incipient election of Howard Dean as party chairman. "I hate Republicans and everything they stand for," says Dean by way of presenting his credentials for the job. "The Democratic Party will not win elections or build a lasting majority solely by changing its rhetoric, nor will we win by adopting the other side's positions."

Hating Republicans and contradicting their every utterance doesn't exactly make for a compelling vision to present to the American people. And a political figure best known for a wildly out-of-touch concession speech that ended in a hysterical scream is probably not the wisest of leadership choices for a party that badly needs both to reinvent its ideas and reconnect with its ideals.

And so the sketch continues …

Bush: I am grateful for the honor of this hour, mindful of the consequential times in which we live, and determined to fulfill the oath that I have sworn and you have witnessed.

Dean: No, you're not

UPDATE: Christopher Hitchens has found another Pythonesque parallel in liberals' conceits about the Iraq "quagmire," from the dead parrot sketch: "The Vietnam/Iraq babble is, from any point of view, a busted flush. It's no good. It's a stiff. It's passed on. It has ceased to be. It's joined the choir invisible. It's turned up its toes. It's gone. It's an ex-analogy." (Hat tip: The Truth According to Mark)

Posted by Rodger on February 1, 2005 at 09:50 AM | Permalink


Good that you added the links. The newspaper articles, at least as much as newspaper articles can, showed that Democratic leadership aren't just contradicting the President, but providing critiques and counter-proposals to Bush administration policies. You might call it gainsaying, I call it dissent, and perhaps a healthy thing for our country. All too often dissenters come looking for an argument and wind up in the abuse room.

FROM THE BLOGDESK: I wish that I could be as sanguine about the Dems' "critiques and counter-proposals" as you are, Mark.

I agree that dissent and debate are vital, but if that's all the Democrats have to offer by way of representing the interests of 56 million people, that's not good for the health of our democracy. I think the firebrands of the Democratic Party need to come up with their own equivalent of the Contract with America. Not something that's directly in opposition to the President's agenda, but something that puts the Republicans on the defensive, that keeps them up at nights, that makes them say, "Why didn't WE think of that?" Maybe Dr. Dean and company have something like of the sort up their sleeves, but I see no evidence of it. I'd sincerely welcome your thoughts. I think the health of our two party system depends on it.

Posted by: Mark Stroup | Feb 1, 2005 2:08:35 PM

There are those times in your life that the most pedestrian of events converge to form a singularity of wit. There is no way to accurately describe these events to anyone, so the only option is to embrace the warm feelings that well up within and smile.

Thank you for translating that feeling into words.

Posted by: joekujo | Feb 3, 2005 2:28:59 AM

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