From Cigarettes and Grammar to Refugees and Veterans


“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” the ad sang out from our televisions. When people started correcting the faulty grammar of using “like” instead of “as” (“tastes good AS a cigarette should”) the company struck back with a new ad asking us which we wanted, “good grammar or good taste.” Huh? How is such a choice to be made when the two options are not alternatives?

There we have the false dilemma fallacy which I’m calling the phony choice method for misleading people by presenting them with an either/or decision that is contrived and fake. How would correcting the grammar of the cigarette slogan have worsened the taste of the cigarette? Is poor grammar a flavor booster? As correctness of grammar goes up, does cigarette flavor go down? Of course not. So how could the phony “which do you want?” question have succeeded in helping promote the product?

I have chosen a trivial example just because the phoniness of the choice is obvious, which is not always the case, but let’s stay with the trivial example a little longer. I suspect that by criticizing the advertisement’s English, the proponents of correct speech hooked into the resentments of many who have had their English grammar and usage corrected. In American society, there is a bias against people who speak too properly, but there is also a corresponding resentment within people who have been shamed by having attention called to their grammatical flaws.

Would you like it if someone corrected your English in public? Imagine the situation, and put yourself into it. You are telling a story your listeners appear to be enjoying with increasing interest in the outcome. You have them. Suddenly, someone interrupts you to point out that you have wrongly used the word “lay” where “lie” was correct. The group’s interest in your story is broken. Attention has shifted to your faulty English, but something deeper has happened inside you, something of which you may not even be aware. You wanted and expected to finish your story, enjoy the group’s reactions, and maybe share a good laugh. Instead you’ve been blind-sided by criticism, triggering your shame affect. How big a deal is that? The answer depends upon your self-confidence and your personal history with shaming. You may brush off the person’s rudeness as you would flick away a fly and go right on with your story. If, however, your personal history makes you sensitive to such corrections or to public shaming itself, then the feeling may be worse than mere annoyance and your response more intense. If you are deeply susceptible to such shaming, you may even erupt into anger, complete with the name calling and profanity which saturate Facebook comments.

Let’s consider a more serious and less obvious example of the phony choice method for fooling people. This one sets its hooks into something more dangerous.

Should we care for Syrian refugees or our own homeless veterans? Phony choice. We could care for both, and there is no opposition between the two, nothing that makes one cancel out the other, but the deception of this phony choice works its malice upon a significant number of Americans. How? Are they stupid? Incapable of logical thought? Or just so uninformed about federal spending that they really believe we can do only one or the other, that caring for refugees takes care aware from veterans? No, I don’t think stupidity or ignorance is the answer, and I’m quite sure calling people stupid or ignorant will worsen the problem, further dividing our nation and stiffening opposition to receiving refugees. Dismissing people as stupid in the name of respect and compassion for all is also blatantly hypocritical. We are in deep trouble as a nation in significant measure because we keep treating each other as disgusting or laughable enemies.

The phony choice between refugees and veterans works because it hooks into fears and prejudices while offering a way to make those fears and prejudices look and feel like patriotism and benevolence. It makes something shameful feel commendable. The phony choice sounds good to people who resent being told that if they were good people or, perhaps, good Christians, they would feel sympathy for the refugees. So the phony choice empowers them to say something like this:

No, we’re not the bad people, and you bleeding hearts that want to bring in those refugees are not the good people! We are the good people because we want to protect our country from terrorists and help our own veterans!

There is no legitimate reason to choose between refugees and veterans. Not only are the two concerns unconnected, but the goal of employing the phony choice method of deception is not to help either the refugees or the veterans. The goal is to inflame fears and resentments or (when the other side derides the fallacy) snobbery and contempt so that divided we can be conquered by those seeking power.

My purpose in writing this piece in not merely to promote awareness of a logical fallacy, but rather to remind us all of how easy it is for people seeking to manipulate public opinion to hook into our fears and resentments or into our pride and snobbery. How easy it is to polarize us, turning neighbors and even family members against each other. The phony choice method is only one tool in the manipulators’ kit.

Remember 9-11?


This morning, September 11, 2105, my Facebook screens are filled with exhortations to remember 9-11, as though I could forget it. I doubt that any American who was old enough that day to realize what was happening will forget. The question is not, “Will we remember?” but, “What have we done with our remembering, and what will we continue to do with it?” In what direction will the memories lead us?

“Remember the Alamo!” was a battle cry, a call reinforcing the urge to take revenge. Is remembering the attacks of September 11, 2001 the same kind of exhortation? Our vengeance after 9-11 was disgraceful. We invaded a nation that had not attacked us and was not developing nuclear weapons. We attacked and invented reasons as we went along, as the formerly invented reasons proved false. We celebrated “shock and awe” as though as though it were a fireworks show and people were not dying on the ground. Our vengeance created al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State.

Certainly remembering 9-11 can and should include holding in memoriam those who were killed in the attacks by terrorists, caring in our actions as well as our hearts for the responders still suffering the consequences of their heroism, and respecting the grief of the people whose loved ones were slain. This kind of remembering can generate empathy and compassion for all who suffer and are put to grief; it can also reinforce our responsibility to police officers, firefighters, medics, and others who still live with the effects of that terrible day.

But does our remembering move us to be more human within a world of suffering and loss or, on the contrary, more self-centered in our identity politics and more strident in our nationalism? Surely we do not think that we alone have suffered unjustly. I hope we do not believe that ours is the only suffering that matters.

I feel a strong aversion to comparisons of human suffering, as though the murder of fewer, by the measure of a body count, were less grievous. Yes, indeed, there have been many atrocities in recent history quantitatively greater than 9-11, but that fact does not reduce the grief of that day, as long as we do not try to make ours the greatest or the only grief that matters.

This morning I return to the sermon I preached the Sunday following the attacks, and two paragraphs stand out for me. The first is in memoriam:

We come today to our God to mourn, to grieve as a nation and a people. The innocent and the courageous have perished together, and we don’t yet even know most of their names. We mourn for people sitting in their offices unaware that death was flying toward them at jet speed. We mourn for firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers who charged into the tumult to help the victims and then became victims. We marvel at acts of heroism that, as so often happens, probably did not feel like heroism at all to the people performing them. They were simply doing what they knew had to be done. And how many heroic acts were there that we will never even know of?

The second raises the questions of which way our remembering will lead us:

Now, I have to wonder what it is we will take from this living nightmare and generalize for use in the days and years ahead. That is the biggest question. What will we take from this terrible experience and internalize so it becomes part of us and part of our nature to use in the pursuit of life? Will it be fear? Hatred? The understandable but deadly lust for revenge? No doubt some of it will be patriotism, a drawing together as Americans, but what kind of patriotism? Will it be a kind that makes us supportive of all Americans and more fully and productively part of our world, or will it be a jingoism that cares only for its own distorted image of America? I hope and pray that what we have experienced as a nation and continue to experience will draw us into solidarity with people around this world who experience the same type of horrors, many on a regular basis. We have seen people in business suits suddenly reduced to refugees running for their lives. Can we learn to feel more deeply for the world’s millions of refugees and victims? Just a short time ago, Ted Koppel apologized to us because his Nightline show and the rest of the news media had for so long ignored the Democratic Republic of the Congo where, since 1998, war has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and killed millions more.

When I wrote that sermon, we had not yet invaded Iraq or even gone after Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. We were still in shock as a nation.

Where are we in our minds and hearts and in our world now, on September 11, 2015? The same voices that called for war after 9-11 are calling for war again. The backlash against our actions in the Middle East continues to be terrible, and the refugees are overwhelming an economically struggling Europe as xenophobic fever rises. What has our remembering taught us?

Shall we remember 9-11? I have no choice because I cannot possibly forget it. But I remain convinced that the better question is, How? How shall we remember that terrible day, and what will be the effects of our remembering – upon us and upon our world?