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    D’Hominem Attack

    Here is a man who spent his formative years—the first 17 years of his life—off the American mainland, in Hawaii, Indonesia and Pakistan, with multiple subsequent journeys to Africa.

    Dinesh D’Souza in an essay for Forbes

    Argumentum ad hominem, the character attack. From the Latin, meaning “argument to man.” 

    Dinesh D’Souza, one of the intellectual pillars of the always-right wing, cut his fangs at the Dartmouth Review, a right-wing student paper. Figaro, who worked at Dartmouth College, met him a couple of times. The young man spoke American reasonably well for someone who spent his formative years in India (next door to Pakistan).

    His latest article shows the man’s mastery of the character attack. D’Souza turns a set of less-than-ominous facts into the portrayal of a secret foreigner, and goes on to accuse the President of being an “anti-colonialist,” a strange accusation given that America owes its existence to anti-colonialism. 

    Want to dissect an ad hominem? Hold up a magnifying glass to each ominous-sounding fact.

    • How do you define “off the American mainland”? Canada separates Sarah Palin’s home state from the rest of us. (Palin bragged about seeing Russia from Alaska!) Are you implying that only 48 states are truly American?
    • How much time did Obama spend in Indonesia? (Four years with his white American mother.)
    • How much time did Obama spend growing up in Pakistan? (None; he visited it once in college.)
    • What does “multiple” journeys to Africa mean? More than one? (He visited twice before he became President.)
    • “Subsequent journeys to Africa” implies that he never visited Africa during his formative years. (He didn’t.)

     Under the magnifying glass D’Souza’s accusations look innocuous, even admirable. In these tribal times, closely examining ad hominem attacks not only make you smarter; they make you a better citizen.

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    Reader Comments (23)

    How can you defend against an ad hominem if you don't know the facts?
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterN. Comium
    Rhetoric helps you do just that. With practice, you can immediately see something suspicious in "Hawaii" being used as one of those places Obama lived "off the mainland."

    You know that Hawaii is part of America, but D'Souza is hoping that you pay more attention to Indonesia and Pakistan.

    So your role as ad hominem buster is to focus on what D'Souza doesn't want you to focus on. How much time did he spend in Hawaii, versus Indonesia and Pakistan? It's pretty easy to look up on the Web. But even if you don't, you already know one thing: This is a sleazy argument.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone. What does that make him?
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMrs. Fig
    Your book is great at showing how to spot fallacies, which you call the Seven Deadly Logical Sins. Which one exactly does D'Souza's fall under? Your book argues that ad hominem isn't itself a fallacy, though logicians say it is.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSarah
    In rhetoric, attacking someone's character isn't a fallacy. In politics, knowing about a candidate's character is important to your vote. In D'Souza's case, the sin lies in the Second Deadly Logical Sin, the bad example. His example--Obama grew up in Hawaii--doesn't fit the conclusion: Obama is a foreigner.

    Oh, and thanks for plugging "Thank You for Arguing."
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Love D'Hominem Attack! Absolutely D'Lightful, unlike D'Nesh himself.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlicia Sordira
    Hey, Fig, Alaska actually is on the mainland. Most of it, anyway. You might want to correct your mental atlas.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBob L'Argent
    Thanks for spotting my own bit of trickery there, Bob. I equated being separated by Canada--a country with national healthcare, and therefore Communist--with being off the mainland. But I only implied that, so it's technically not a lie. Technically.
    September 16, 2010 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    REALLY enjoyed reading Thank You For Arguing!

    So it's rather interesting that you're also using ad hominem against D'Souza. I guess it's an all too human failing after all. By the way, conflating America's anti-colonialism with Obama's anti-colonialism is another fallacy.

    Did I talk you into admitting wrong? :-D

    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFred Woodbridge
    The accusations are not innocuous, the explanations are.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Hritz
    Just noticed your entry, Mrs. Fig. John McCain also spent significant time with Communists in Vietnam. Even heroes are susceptible to ad hominem.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Can always count on Dinesh to be provocative, but this one is really ludicrous. I just read "Dreams from My Father" (finally) and any quick glance at the book really disproves all of this. I think some people try to be provocative, just to have something to say.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer
    D'Souza has attacked opponents for using the same tactics, Jen. So there's definitely a deep cynicism behind all this. I wish liberals would label it for what it is: un-American.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Unfortunately, no one is listening to people like you (and me) these days, Jay. I feel truly shaken.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichael
    well done, and well said. but don't pull your punch, Jay. Just go ahead and say he's full of shit.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSteve
    So am I half the time. But Figaro's don't stink.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    H'm. Ignoring a question can be a valid rhetorical device as well, I guess.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFred Woodbridge
    Missed your question, Fred, sorry. (Far more egregious to have missed Mrs. Figaro's comment.)

    As I often tell people, there's nothing wrong rhetorically with the ad hominem attack. The question is how to analyze them, and defend against them.

    I certainly used an ad hominem approach in this blog post; though Dinesh really does have pronounced canines, and a passion for using them, they're not really fangs.

    As for Obama's anti-colonialism vs. "America's," I'd argue that distinguishing Obama from America constitutes an ad hominem attack all its own. You're right; hard to resist.

    And thanks for the kind words on my book!
    September 16, 2010 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    John, you point out an interesting aspect of D'Souza's rhetoric. He takes minor facts, or relatively insignificant parts of Obama's speeches, and claims they represent the man in his entirety. These factlets come off as bizarre, making Obama himself look bizarre. That makes D'Souza's outrageous analysis--in this case, that Obama's foreign policy came from his "tribesman" father--seem more reasonable.

    It's a common bullying tactic. Wait for an opponent to say something you can debate, however, trivial. Then make that the entire subject of the debate, putting your opponent on the defensive.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Thanks for taking the time to expose, line by line, what a cheap shot artist D’Souza is--it's very helpful.
    September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTJ Walker

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