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January 09, 2009

How To Respond To Ad Hominem Attacks: A Case Study

What should one do in public debate when confronted with an ad hominem attack? Martin Indyk, US ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration, conducted a master class on this subject on yesterday's Democracy Now!

The disgusting smears began with Norman Finkelstein's endless litany of personal insults toward Indyk:

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I think we should talk about [Indyk's] book. In fact, I stayed up ’til 1:30 a.m. to complete the book, made sure I read up to page 415, read every word of the book...

According to Mr. Indyk’s account of the negotiations that culminated in the Camp David and Taba meetings, he says it was the Palestinians that were blocking a settlement. What does the record show? The record shows that in every crucial issue raised at Camp David, then under the Clinton parameters, and then in Taba, at every single point, all the concessions came from the Palestinians. Israel didn’t make any concessions...

The law is very clear. July 2004, the highest judicial body in the world, the International Court of Justice, ruled Israel has no title to any of the West Bank and any of Gaza...

Now, the important point is, on all those questions, the Palestinians were willing to make concessions. They were willing to allow Israel to keep 60 percent of the settlements, 80 percent of the settlers. They were willing to compromise on Jerusalem. They were willing to give up basically on the right of return. They made all the concessions. Israel didn’t make any concessions...

To his credit, Mr. Indyk kept his cool in the face of this onslaught. At the same time, he insisted on naming Finkelstein's appalling tactics for what they were:

MARTIN INDYK: I told you, Amy, I’m not here to debate Norman Finkelstein...I’m not going to respond to his ad hominem attacks.

Even more impressive, Mr. Indyk then showed the ability to rise above his opponent's ugly behavior, and demonstrate by example what reasoned political discussion should look like:

MARTIN INDYK: Well, why don’t we focus on some other issues, like the American role in this or something that can get us out of this ridiculous debate, in which he’s just a propaganda spokesman for Hamas, you know.

Thank you, Ambassador Indyk. In these troubled times, you are a model of rationality and decency for us all.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at January 9, 2009 09:02 PM

I just watched that exchange! That was a classic. My opinion of Indyk was already pretty low, but it just got lower. Watching him squirm was pleasurable.

The Indyk line that made me really raise my eyebrows was this slip: "Hamas, having won the PA elections and then—we don’t need to go into the details of that, but essentially what happened was, as a result of a competition between Hamas and Fatah over who would rule, Hamas took control of Gaza by force in what was, in effect, a putsch against the Palestinian Authority."

Haha! Indyk admits Hamas won the elections, realizes he fucked up his propaganda, says "we don't need to go into the details of that," and then proceeds to the directly contradictory assertion that Hamas engaged in a "putsch."

Posted by: Rojo at January 9, 2009 09:59 PM

I haven't seen it yet, but I don't object to her having these mainstream types on, so long as there is someone there to call them out on their lies. I'm going to assume one or two lies will always slip through without being corrected, but if she let him get away with a lot more than that, then she's not doing her job.

Finkelstein isn't exactly a shrinking violet, and he sounds like his usual self in Jon's excerpt.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 9, 2009 10:29 PM

Ouch, Indyk was not only taken to task but shown to be a complete liar. On his comment about not going into the details of the election I am sure he would not want to discuss the fact that Bush pushed for the Palestinian election and ended up with egg on his face when Hamas won the election—whoops.

That of course brings up another point which is apparently the U.S. and Israel only believe in democracy when the results of an election are what they wished them to be but if doesn’t, well then democracy isn’t as grand as they thought it was. Then it is time to start bringing the military aggression in to replace their beloved democracies. No hypocrisy there that I can see.

Posted by: Rob Payne at January 9, 2009 10:29 PM

Well, I read the transcript and Amy did fine. She let Indyk talk and Finkelstein talk and the result is what you'd expect--Indyk sounded like a petulant spoiled jerk much more used to the kind of interview he'd probably get from Charlie Rose. (If he hasn't already been on there.) He's not used to knowledgeable opposition and doesn't know what to do with it.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 9, 2009 10:37 PM

I wonder what Indyk meant by all the talk about wisdom and humility and so forth. That could either be good or bad--it'd be good if Obama didn't browbeat the Palestinians and blame them for any holdups, but I think he probably will. The Israelis will offer, I'm guessing, less than they did before, Americans will be told this is realistic and it's too much to ask the Israelis to uproot too many settlements because look how traumatic it was in Gaza (wisdom, you know) and the Palestinians won't accept this or Abbas will and then there will be a Palestinian rejection of Abbas, maybe violent, and either way, it just goes to show those crazy Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 9, 2009 10:45 PM

That was definitely a surprise in this age of sanitized news.

However, though I do love Goodman and the show, I'm not sure I would completely agree with tricking Indyk into a debate. That definitely makes the alternative POVs look like the marginalized POV that desperately needs some type of conflict with the establishment in order to gain traction. I don't think that's a good position to be in, and I'm not sure its ethical either. But either way, it was pretty exciting to watch and I def agree, Indyk looked like a spoiled brat who felt above a debate.

My favorite part of the whole interview:

Indyk: "I don’t think that the Israelis purposely decided that this was the moment to strike. If Hamas had not launched rockets, I think they would have been perfectly happy to continue with the ceasefire…So, yes, I think that Barak probably calculated that he needed to get this operation over on Bush’s watch and have it finished before Barack Obama came into office….There is another date that I think probably was even more important in his own mind, and that is the date of February 10th, in which he, along with Israel’s other politicians, will have to face the Israeli electorate in a general election, unless those elections are postponed, and that doesn’t look likely."

Doesn't he realize he just disproved his own point?

Posted by: Kyle M at January 10, 2009 01:43 AM

The best part was Indyk claiming he had been "sandbagged" and that a debate with Finkelstein wasn't part of the "ground rules." Those were Bill Clinton's exact words after Amy did that amazing cross-examination of him the day before the election in 2000. Amy's response was, "Ground rules? You called me!"

It makes me wonder what sort of "ground rules" these guys get out of a standard-issue corporate "journalist" before they do an interview. Although in most cases I suppose no "rules" are needed - it's simply understood that the interview is going to be a tongue-bath.

And I don't fault Amy for not being tougher on Indyk. She was moderating, and Finkelstein did all that was necessary. Common sense says that when you've got Norman Finkelstein to make the case for you, the smart thing is to get out of his way and let him proceed with the dissection.

Posted by: SteveB at January 10, 2009 01:50 AM

To me, Finkelstein sounds very ungrateful. This guy provided him with a great book, so exciting that old Norm couldn't put it down and had to stay up late reading every word despite his early morning event the next day. And then he acts as if it's the biggest sin in the world that Israel didn't bring any concessions like beer and dogs and fries, right. Well, duh, Israel is a Jew place and they hate pork which is probly, like, all ground up in hot dogs so of course they couldn't bring any friggin' hot dogs to, which game was it again? Anyway, an exciting one, cuz somebody got sandbagged, sounds like.

When I was traveling in Israel in 1995, we picked up some hitchhiker Israeli settler kids who spoke perfect American English, almost like they'd grown up half in the U.S., and one of them described the whole situation between the IDF and Palestinians like it was a sporting event. When we picked up a Palestinian peasant woman hitchhiker in the West Bank, she seemed like she'd never even been to a game. How can those Palestinians expect to get anything worked out in this rivalry if they don't show up to the field, even just to watch? I bet her company doesn't even provide any sponsorship dollars! Can you say shabby uniforms!?

Posted by: Joel at January 10, 2009 10:05 AM

I think I've heard mainstream guests on "Democracy Now" complain about not knowing who else was invited on other shows, so apparently Amy does this a lot. I don't have a problem with it, unless there is active lying going on. It'd be wrong to say "Mr. Indyk, you'll be the only one on the show and I'll pitch you the kind of softballs that Charlie Rose would deliver" and then produce Finkelstein, but then it's also wrong to be the sort of interviewer who lets interviewees get away with murder (like Charlie Rose). If she just invited him on to discuss his book and he finds that someone else who can call him on his BS is there with him, boohoo.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 10, 2009 10:15 AM

Indyk behaved just like any normal American would, after all. It's a free country, and we have freedom of speech, and that means no one is allowed to disagree with us, but we can disagree with anybody we like! The "Hamas propagandist" thing was not a personal attack; calling someone a poopy-face is what your average citizen considers reasoned debate, while pointing out logical or factual flaws in what they've said is a vicious personal attack --unless of course someone calls *them* a poopy-face, which just goes to show how far we Americans have fallen from the kind of civil discourse that befits a great nation.

Posted by: Duncan at January 10, 2009 11:19 AM

I agree completely, Steve. It's like the interview Goodman did with Bill Clinton: when else was someone like Goodman get to take on Clinton? (And -- one thing that doesn't seem to get noticed much -- it's to Clinton's credit that even though he invoked those non-existent "ground rules", he stayed on the line and kept talking to Goodman much longer than he must have expected to do.)

It would be nice if people like Clinton and Indyk got asked hard questions more often. Wouldn't it be interesting to see someone like Goodman interview someone like Colin Powell or Madeleine Albright? But they -- like most Americans, as I said before -- don't think they should have to answer hard questions about their deeds or their policies. When they do, as Albright did for Katie Couric, the answers can be revealing. "We think the price [half a million dead Iraqi children] is worth it."

Posted by: Duncan at January 10, 2009 02:44 PM

Joel, funny.

I had to turn it off when Indyk started talking. And I agree with those who say Amy spends too much time with debates. The other side is all over the rest of the media; I don't see why she has to spend the valuable one hour a weekday we get for progressive news.

How do you pronounce Indy, anyway. Indykay, or Indick (ooh, I like that; sorry, no offense to male readers).

Posted by: catherine at January 10, 2009 02:54 PM

I disagree, catherine, because as others point out it's precisely in these contexts that you can get these mainstream types to show their true colors. Though Albright was dumb enough to show her true colors when it wasn't even a debate format and she should have had a ready-made answer for the sanctions question, something other than the truthful one she inadvertently gave.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 10, 2009 04:10 PM

He was definitely expecting a Charlie Rose-type situation. My favorite part is this exchange:

AMY GOODMAN: But we want to give you a chance to represent your own book.
MARTIN INDYK: (condescending laugh) Look, yeah. You know, that’s what I thought you were doing.

Geddit? It's the interviewers job to represent the inerviewee's book. Boggles, mind, you know the drill.

Posted by: scats at January 10, 2009 04:29 PM

I disagree, catherine, because as others point out it's precisely in these contexts that you can get these mainstream types to show their true colors."

Donald, I guess your point is that the colors don't show when they're by themselves on a MSM show (except for that never-to-be-forgotten shout out by Albright). I accept that, I think. It's just that the lies get another stage from which to be heard. Tough call.

Posted by: catherine at January 11, 2009 02:27 PM

catherine, if it always worked out as it did with Indyk, I'd have no objection. Yes, the lies got another stage from which to be heard, but they were also refuted effectively. The odd thing is that after Indyk was revealed to be a liar and an Israeli propagandist, we get people saying here that it was wasn't fair for DN! to put him opposite someone who could do the job -- that, apparently, he should have been allowed to spread these falsehoods without rebuttal. But that is the corporate media's job.

Posted by: Duncan at January 11, 2009 03:48 PM