Monday, March 22, 2004

no basis

maybe i’m being nit-picky or maybe this is just more evidence of the long term side effects of law school, but this morning joe lieberman waltzed right into something that really annoys me. lieberman was referring to the richard clarke’s newly published book and accompanying interviews in which clarke charged that the bush administration focused more on iraq than al-qaeda immediately after 9/11:
"I see no basis for it," Lieberman said on Fox News Sunday. "I think we've got to be careful to speak facts and not rhetoric."
"no basis?" isn’t clarke’s eyewitness account a basis? isn’t the fact that it is largely corroborated by former treasury secretary paul o'neill's similar accusations a basis? of course there’s a basis. while clarke could be wrong–he could be lying, or maybe he just misunderstood the discussions going on around him in some kind of three’s company-esque series of coincidences, overheard bits of conversation and remarks taken out of context–you can’t say his story is baseless.

baseless means there is no evidence, not even bad evidence, to support the assertion. eyewitness accounts to meetings is a form of evidence and thus it is a basis.

here’s an example of something that has no basis: lenny bruce says that in private briefings just after 9/11, the president announced he will invade benin after iraq finally stabilizes. there’s no basis because lenny was not in any post-9/11 meetings. he was dead. there is no basis for believing his account is true.

clarke’s account, on the other hand, has a basis. the basis is clarke’s own account of the events, coupled with the fact that clarke was actually present at the meetings he is talking about. again, just because it has a basis for believing it, does not mean it is necessarily true, but it does count for something. it at least needs to be addressed by those who want to contradict clarke's account

but "no basis" (along with its close cousin "no evidence") in political discourse has come to be used as a synonym for "wrong." "wrong" however is falling out of favor because it requires support–you need to back up the "wrong" charge with an argument. if lieberman has just said "clarke is wrong" he would be expected to explain just why that is. with "no basis" he isn't because the term implies a sort of objectivity that "wrong" does not have. right or wrong is an opinion. whether or not something has a basis is about reality. but because it has this air of objective truth, it actually operates to stifle debate. note that lieberman did not actually have anything concrete to contest what clarke was saying. he did not counter clarke's story with any contradictory evidence. he didn't even try to cite any. instead he resorted to scolding: "speak facts and not rhetoric." but who exactly, is speaking about facts and who is resorting to rhetorical tricks like "no basis"?