The Blog

Argument By Metaphor

The left may lack substantive heft, but it's not short on figures of speech.

12:00 AM, May 2, 2005 • By PAUL MIRENGOFF
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

RUTGERS UNIVERSITY professor Alex Hinton has warned that our government's prosecution of the war on terror may be causing us to resemble the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal gang that once ran Cambodia. In a piece titled "Lessons from killing fields of Cambodia--30 years on," published in the Christian Science Monitor last month, Hinton concluded that "the Khmer Rouge teach us difficult lessons about ourselves and the world in which we live." The chief lesson, according to Hinton, is that we risk heading down "their path to evil" through our conduct "right now in the war on terror." Hinton's piece, of little consequence in its own right, represents a specimen of the left's use of the war on terror to deconstruct American values.

To negate Hinton's bizarre analogy, one need only recall the history of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. Hinton, without irony, does this himself. The Cambodian government, he notes, collectivized production and consumption, forced essentially its "entire population" into backbreaking and unceasing labor, abolished freedom of worship, cut off contact between its citizens and the outside world, attempted to control what the public "ate and did every day," and--oh yes--caused the death of more than 1.7 million of the country's 8 million inhabitants.

Inasmuch as the U.S. government has done none of the above, in what respect does Hinton think we are coming to resemble the Cambodian mass murderers? Well, for one thing we are not always politically correct. Hinton notes that most of us have "used euphemisms and stereotypes, followed instructions better questioned, succumbed to peer pressure, disparaged others, and become desensitized to the suffering of others." Not only that, but we have "turned a blind eye to what our government should not be doing." Specifically (and this is the only specific Hinton supplies) our government has engaged in torture, as did the Khmer Rouge. But we have we hardly turned a "blind eye" to this. The disgraceful conduct at Abu Ghraib was widely condemned; indeed, our government began investigating the matter even before it came to light. Where's the Cambodian analog? More fundamentally, it would be obscene to compare the actions at Abu Ghraib with genocide. In fact, Hinton presents no evidence that our government has intentionally killed even one foreign terrorist in our custody, much less 1.7 million of its citizens.

If Hinton had really been interested in finding a current version of the Khmer Rouge, or a regime of a different sort that engaged in genocide, he would have looked no further than the Taliban's Afghanistan and Saddam's Iraq. But then he would have had to acknowledge that the United States has toppled both of these monstrous regimes and has held free elections for the liberated citizens of both countries. Hinton prefers to turn a blind eye to these accomplishments

Unfortunately, Hinton's piece is symptomatic of a disturbing trend in leftist thinking. For a while now, the left has been fond of argument by creative metaphor--Zionism equals racism; pornography equals sex discrimination or even rape; and, more recently, Bush equals Hitler. In this way, a controversial phenomenon is equated with one that everyone agrees is bad. Leftists in the academy particularly favor this show-stopper approach, since they are used to having their theories evaluated not for their objective validity (a hopelessly passé concept), but rather for their creativity.

Hinton's genocide meme resembles this approach. He begins with something controversial--the difficult trade-offs our government makes between optimizing our security from terrorists and optimizing individual rights and liberties. He then associates it, however loosely, with the worst evil known to mankind--genocide. In this way, he avoids the difficult work of having to discuss how we can protect ourselves from terrorism (and what that means for our civil liberties), or of having to explain why we should protect ourselves less well.

But Hinton's piece also echoes an even more disturbing form of leftist argument. This approach involves taking phenomena that, far from widely being considered controversial actually help define us as a nation, and equating them with evil. The professor hints at this in a passage purporting to find echoes of the Khmer Rouge in "an era of new fanaticisms." Hinton does not identify which doctrines (beyond militant Islamic fundamentalism, one assumes) he counts as new fanaticisms.