Posts By hwfielding

Rhetoric referee: Heads I win, tails I win

Even before special prosecutor Robert Mueller filed his report on the two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and claims of obstruction by President Trump, Democrats were calling for immediate release of the full, unredacted report and all supporting documents and testimony.


Attorney General William Barr

Attorney General William Barr released a four-page summary and promised to release a redacted copy of the full report by mid-April, but Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said that was condescending and arrogant and that the documents should be released to Congress immediately so members could make up their own minds.

Republicans say Barr should be given time to review the 400-page report and redact information that will affect national security or identify individuals who have not been charged with any crime. This is the legal standard for redaction of documents from such investigations.


Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler

Today the House Judiciary Committee voted on party lines to authorize subpoenas for the full report, and supporting documents. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, said he will meet with Barr before serving the subpoenas, but will do so within days if he isn’t satisfied.

This is an example of a false choice, much like the false dilemmas and false dichotomies of the Groundhog Day scenario. A false choice assumes there are only two possible outcomes — in this case, either don’t release the report or release the report in its entirety.

To imply that the White House would not release the report at all is also a straw man. The president and attorney general have already both said the report should be released; there’s no controversy on that score although it serves their opponents’ objectives to imply that’s the intent.

The other choice — to release it in its entirety — is probably impossible for legal reasons. But given the false choice, failure to do so will be taken as evidence of obstruction.

It’s impossible to defeat this circular reasoning. Either choice will give the Democrats ammunition leading up to the 2020 national election.

Rhetoric Referee: False dilemmas


In celebration of Groundhog Day, let’s look at false dilemmas and false dichotomies.

Although it was sunny in Connecticut, Punxsutawney Phil, the nation’s most celebrated groundhog, failed to see his shadow in Pennsylvania, thus predicting an early spring. (If he sees it, the prediction is for six more weeks of winter.)

This is an example of a false dichotomy: There’s really only one outcome. Either way, spring will come at the same time, at the vernal equinox on March 20. That’s 46 days away, or about six and a half weeks. So six weeks is, by definition, an early spring.

A false dilemma is an apparent choice between two options, when actually there are others. The one that’s making the rounds now that 2020 presidential candidates are emerging: “Vote for an independent, elect Trump.” A third-party candidate might, and probably will, draw voters from both parties and thus could swing an election either way.

NoMoNaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month is over


Wow. Whoever chose November for the National Novel Writing Month challenge must have had a sadistic streak.

For starters, November hath 30 days, which makes it one of the shorter months. Mathematically, a 30-day goal may be cleaner to calculate than 31 days, but it does increase the tension.

Speaking of tension, in November most Americans celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, which involves more than the day set aside for preparation and consumption of the feast. Depending on your role, you are also making time for housekeeping, travel, Black Friday shopping, tree-cutting, holiday decorating, and more that week — which also happens to be close to the deadline for the contest.

Many, if not most, of the participants in this project appear to be teens or young adults, working around school or work, or both. As a retired old fart, I’m an exception to that rule. 

Even though I generally kept ahead of the 1,667-word-a-day pace for making the 50,000-word monthly challenge, I fell behind during the Thanksgiving weekend because family took priority. Some days I wrote nothing, some days only a few hundred words.

All this does, as we say in the news business, bury the lede — or lead, if you prefer:  Yes, I completed the challenge and wrote 50,000 of a novel within the deadline. (Newsies understand deadlines.) It was a full novel, with beginning, middle and end. With some revision — and that process is covered in January and February — it may actually be publishable.

That said, it was what we called in my college days a unidraft — that is, you sit down at the typewriter (today, your keyboard), start writing and don’t look back. No time for a rewrite, although on the final day I did reread, correct obvious errors, and make a few minor revisions.

Without getting into too much detail, I did have a couple of factors in my favor. “Welcome to Betelgeuse” is an introduction to a fictional universe that I’ve been imagining and pondering for years. (Coincidentally, during November I opened an old file drawer and discovered a folder called “Betelgeuse Project” with printouts dated 1999.) Second, because of the nature of this universe, many of the characters I was using were already familiar so I did not have to develop them from scratch, although I did have to research them, so there was a tradeoff.

Some takeaways from the experience:

  • The deadline was what got me off the dime on a project.
  • It takes discipline to say “I’m going off to write now” and to do that.
  • I write much better dialogue than action, and better action than visualized setting.  Maybe I should stick to playwriting.
  • Setting daily goals and keeping track of them helped keep up the pace.
  • Now that I’ve completed a draft of a book, I should be able to do it again because “I can’t” and “I never” are not valid excuses.
  • It was actually fun and I’ll probably try the contest again next year.

National Novel Writing Month

NaNo-2018-Writer-Twitter-Header

So there I was, scrolling through my emails, when I found a missive from the Mark Twain House in Hartford. I’m on their mailing lists because I attended a writers’ weekend a couple of years ago, and because I donated to their foundation.

It pitched one of the new programs, in which writers can book some time to write in Mark Twain’s library at the mansion. It sounds like fun, although the fun has its limits: pens are not permitted (pencils are), and power in the library is limited so laptops have to be fully charged and able to last.

Part of the pitch was that writers could get in shape for #NaNoWriMo, which of course led me to wonder what the heck had such a strange acronym. It turns out that this national nonprofit organization’s program called National Novel Writing Month has taken place every November since 2006. It’s sponsored by schools and libraries and local writers clubs across the country and encourages writers, young and old, experienced and new, to pound out a 50,000-word fiction manuscript during the 30 days that hath November. It’s a free program but the nonprofit accepts donations.

This word count results in a modest-sized novel, but the rules are loose: it doesn’t HAVE to be a novel or even fiction; it doesn’t HAVE to be complete; it doesn’t even HAVE to be good. The idea is to push the writer to Just Do It — overcome the self-editor, the procrastinator, the deep planner, the researcher — and bang out a first draft. That has been exactly my problem with my first two novels, which are both about one-quarter of the way through. I put them aside for Real Life, or for research, or for just plain fear, and may not get back to them for months or even years.

One of the few rules of NaNoWriMo is that they discourage you from working on an existing project, finishing or editing something that you already have in the works. You start with a clean slate, zero words on Day -1, and try to complete it in the time allotted. That’s an average of 1,667 words a day — a difficult pace but not grueling. My typical columns would have run about 700 words, so this is a little more than two columns worth of writing, or about four to five hours of writing.

This post comes to just over 500 words. It’s taken me about 30 minutes, including interruptions and editing in links the morning after. So this won’t exactly be a piece of cake, but it’s a reasonable target. I’m going to give it a try with a third project I’ve been thinking about. Perhaps the experience — and Scrivener, the writing tool I’m trying out through the program — will give me the confidence and practice and discipline needed to complete the challenge. Wish me luck! (And if you’re inspired to try NaNoWriMo too and want to be a writing buddy, look me up on the site. I’m listed as hwfielding.)

So if you don’t hear from me for another month or so, you’ll understand. Or perhaps I’ll share some of the story as it develops. Just don’t expect too much. (NaNoWriMo continues with editing and revisions in January.)

(542 words, or about 1/3 of a daily goal)

Rhetoric Referee: The Curious Kavanaugh Case

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., administers the Constitutional Oath to Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh in the Justices’ Conference Room, Supreme Court Building. Mrs. Ashley Kavanaugh holds the Bible.
Credit: Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States. Source: WhiteHouse.gov

To wrap up the last two postings, the controversy over the nomination of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court provided high political drama just weeks before the mid-term elections.

Americans generally don’t understand judicial theory and philosophy, but they do understand politics, at least as far as their teams go. The winning team in the presidential election gets to appoint federal judges, including justices, with what the Constitution calls the “advice and consent” of the Senate.

Since the 1980s, Republicans have been trying to turn away from what they call “activist judges” and appoint “originalists” who look to the letter of the law and the Constitution rather than attempting to enforce broad social policy through the courts. Democrats tend to prefer courts that will interpret the laws in the context of current political and social issues.

Thus when then-Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, an originalist whose appointment would secure a 5-4 conservative majority on the  U.S. Supreme Court, was nominated in the summer before the midterm elections, it became a political race against the clock. With a narrow Republican majority in the Senate, Democrats sought to delay the vote on the appointment until after the midterms in hopes they would gain a majority. Republicans pressed for a speedy vote, partly to get the new justice on board in time to hear arguments at the beginning of the session, but mostly because they were uncertain they’d hold the Senate and be able to approve him in a lame-duck session.

Beyond his judicial conservatism, Democrats had many reasons to dislike Kavanaugh for political reasons. He had served as associate to Independent Counsel Kenneth Star and written much of the so-called Starr Report about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal; he worked on the George Bush legal team regarding the Florida recount in 2000; and was a key player in vetting Bush’s judicial nominees, including Chief Justice John Roberts.

The Democrats’ first attempt to run the clock was to demand, in addition to his court rulings, documents from his time as White House secretary under President George W. Bush, who had appointed him to the D.C. Circuit. When, late in the game, some 42,000 pages of documents were released, Democrats complained that they had no time to review them before a vote and requested that the vote be postponed.  When that was denied and the Republican-led Judiciary Committee pressed on with the nomination, Democrats pulled the pin on a grenade that they’d apparently been holding onto for three months.

In July, even before Kavanaugh’s name appeared on the short list of potential nominees, Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University, contacted the Washington Post and her congresswoman, Rep. Anna Eschoo, D-Calif., with a report that Kavanaugh had sexually attacked her during a drunken high school party in the 1980s. Fearing retribution, Ford demanded that she be kept anonymous, but she met with Eschoo, who was convinced of her credibility.  Eschoo referred the matter to Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, who honored Ford’s request for anonymity and did not bring the accusations up during the committee hearings.

In mid-September, with a vote on the nominee expected at the end of the month, an online news organization reported that Feinstein was withholding a report from fellow Judiciary Committee members. Feinstein then forwarded the letter to the FBI. The resulting news reports eventually forced Ford to go public with her accusations. She and Kavanaugh both had a chance to testify before the committee in a dramatic extra day of hearings on Sept. 27. The next day,  Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, asked to postpone the vote for an additional week so the FBI could investigate Ford’s claims. This was granted, but apparently the FBI was unable to confirm the claims within the time allotted. The Senate approved the nomination on Oct. 6 in a party-line vote.

The testimony has been thoroughly rehashed and books are already in the works, so there’s no need to revisit that. What’s interesting here are the rhetorical strategies used in this campaign.

I suspect that the whole thing was never intended to go this far, that the politicians involved hoped that the anonymous charges would either force the nominee to withdraw (or be withdrawn) or justify a further background investigation that could delay the vote until after the midterms. When the accuser went public, things spun out of control. Compounding the matter were copycat accusers, anonymous and named.

On the day Kavanaugh was sworn in, one of my Facebook friends, apparently a Democrat, posted how disappointed she was — hashtag BelieveSurvivors. This illustrates the full transition of changing the subject from the Federalist Society (see previous post) to an assumption of guilt regarding men accused of sexual improprieties. The public doesn’t get excited over judicial philosophy. It does get excited over partisanship, and much more so over sex. Sex is, well, sexy.

When the subject-matter bottle was spun, it ended up pointing to hashtag BelieveSurvivors. If that’s the bottom line of the whole ugly mess, here’s how I believe survivors:

  • I believe survivors have the right to be treated fairly and honestly by the politicians they entrust with their personal concerns.
  • I believe survivors should not be exploited by politicians.
  • I believe survivors and those they accuse have the right to due process, including the right to produce and cross-examine witnesses, in a court of law and not in the court of public opinion.

A footnote on believing survivors: In early November, at least one “Jane Doe” complainant admitted to the Judiciary Committee that she had fabricated an anonymous report of sexual assault against Kavanaugh. She was referred to the Justice Department for making false statements.