The truth about the false choice (Ruth Marcus)

It’s time to retire the false choice.

As a rhetorical device, particularly as a political rhetorical device, the false choice has outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any. The phrase has become a trite substitute for serious thinking. It serves too often to obscure rather than to explain.

President Obama has employed the false-choice device in assessing financial reform, environmental regulation, defense contracting, civil liberties, crime policy, health care, the deployment of troops in Iraq, Native Americans, the space program and, most recently, the situation in Libya.

On his South American trip, he pulled off a false-choice trifecta, citing “the old stale debates between state-run economies and unbridled capitalism; between the abuses of right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing insurgents; between those who believe that the United States causes all the region’s problems and those who believe that the United States ignores all the problems.” All three, Obama said, “are false choices, and they don’t reflect today’s realities.”

The false-choice dodge takes three overlapping forms. The first, a particular Obama specialty, is the false false choice. Set up two unacceptable extremes that no one is seriously advocating and position yourself as the champion of the reasonable middle ground between these unidentified straw men.

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