Written by Caitlin Johnstone; Originally appeared at her blog
I saw a Twitter thread between two journalists the other day which completely summarized my experience of debating the establishment Russia narrative on online forums lately. Aaron Maté, who is in my opinion one of the clearest voices out there on American Russia hysteria, was approached with an argument by a journalist named Jonathan M Katz. Maté engaged the argument by asking for evidence of the claims Katz was making, only to be given the runaround.
I’m going to copy the back-and-forth into the text here for anyone who doesn’t feel like scrolling through a Twitter thread, not because I am interested in the petty rehashing of a meaningless Twitter spat, but because it’s such a perfect example of what I want to talk about here.
Are you aware of what Russian agents did during the 2016 presidential election, by chance?
— Jonathan M. Katz 🐱 (@KatzOnEarth) July 19, 2018
Katz: Are you aware of what Russian agents did during the 2016 presidential election, by chance?
Maté: I’m aware of what Mueller has accused Russian agents of — are we supposed to just reflexively believe the assertions of prosecutors & intelligence officials now, or is it ok to wait for the evidence? (as I did in the tweet you’re replying to)
Katz: Why are you even asking this question if you’re just going to discard the reams of evidence that have supplied by investigators, spies, and journalists over the last two years?
Maté: Why are you avoiding answering the Q I asked? If I can guess, it’s cause doing so would mean acknowledging your position requires taking gov’t claims on faith. Re: “reams of evidence”, I’ve actually written about it extensively, and disagree that it’s convincing.
Katz: Yeah I’m familiar with your work. You’re asking for someone to summarize two years of reporting, grand jury indictments, reports from independent analysts, give agencies both American and foreign, and on and on just so you can handwave and draw some vague equivalencies.
Maté: No, actually I’ve asked 2 Qs in this thread, both of which have been avoided: 1) what evidence convinces you that Russia will attack the midterms 2) are we supposed to reflexively believe the assertions of prosecutors & intel officials now, or is it ok to wait for the evidence?
Katz: See this is what you do. You pretend like all of the evidence produced by journalists, independent analysts and foreign governments doesn’t exist so you can accuse anyone who doesn’t buy this SF Cohen Putinist bullshit you’re selling of being a deep state shill.
Maté: Except I haven’t said anything about anyone being a “deep state shill”, here or anywhere else. So that’s your embellishment. I’m simply asking whether we should accept IC/prosecutor claims on faith. Mueller does lay out a case, that’s true, but no evidence yet.
Katz: No. You should not accept a prosecutor’s claims on faith. You should read independent analyses, evidence gathered by journalists and other agencies, and compare all it to what is known on the public record. And you could if you wanted to.
Katz continued to evade and deflect until eventually exiting the conversation. Meanwhile another journalist, The Intercept‘s Sam Biddle, interjected that the debate was “a big waste of” Katz’s time and called Maté an “inverse louise mensch”, all for maintaining the posture of skepticism and asking for evidence. Maté invited Katz and Biddle to debate their positions on The Real News, to which Biddle replied, “No thank you, but I have some advice: If everyone has gotten it wrong, you should figure out who really did it! If not Russia, find out who really hacked the DNC, find out who really spearphished American election officials. Even OJ pretended to search for the real killer.”
Biddle then, as you would expect, blocked Maté on Twitter.
If you were to spend an entire day debating Russiagate online (and I am in no way suggesting that you should), it is highly unlikely that you would see anything from the proponents of the establishment Russia narrative other than the textbook fallacious debate tactics exhibited by Katz and Biddle in that thread. It had the entire spectrum:
Gish gallop — The tactic of providing a stack of individually weak arguments to create the illusion of one solid argument, illustrated when Katz cited unspecified “reams of evidence” resulting from “two years of reporting, grand jury indictments, reports from independent analysts, give agencies both American and foreign.” He even claimed he shouldn’t have to go through that evidence point-by-point because there’s too much of it, which is like a poor man’s Gish gallop fallacy.
Argumentum ad populum — The “it’s true because so many agree that it is true” argument that Katz attempted to imply in invoking all the “journalists, independent analysts and foreign governments” who assert that Russia interfered in a meaningful way in America’s 2016 elections and intends to interfere in the midterms.
Ad hominem — Biddle’s “inverse louise mensch”. You have no argument, so you insult the other party instead.
Attempting to shift the burden of proof — Biddle’s suggestion that Maté needs to prove that someone else other than the Russian government did the things Russia is accused of doing. Biddle is implying that the establishment Russia narrative should be assumed true until somebody has proved it to be false, a tactic known as an appeal to ignorance.
I’d like to talk about this last one a bit, because it underpins the entire CIA/CNN Russia narrative.
"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
"What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."
"We have to believe that Russia is attacking our democracy because the TV and the CIA told us to."
— Caitlin Johnstone (@caitoz) July 22, 2018
As we’ve discussed previously, in a post-Iraq invasion world the confident-sounding assertions of spies, government officials and media pundits is not sufficient evidence for the public to rationally support claims that are being used to escalate dangerous cold war tensions with a nuclear superpower. The western empire has every motive in the world to lie about the behaviors of a noncompliant government, and has an extensive and well-documented history of doing exactly that. Hard, verifiable, publicly available proof is required. Assertions are not evidence.
But even if there wasn’t an extensive and recent history of disastrous US-led escalations premised on lies advanced by spies, government officials and media pundits, the burden of proof would still be on those making the claim, because that’s how logic works. Whether you’re talking about law, philosophy or debate, the burden of proof is always on the party making the claim. A group of spies, government officials and media pundits saying that something happened in an assertive tone of voice is not the same thing as proof. That side of the Russiagate debate is the side making the claim, so the burden of proof is on them. Until proof is made publicly available, there is no logical reason for the public to accept the CIA/CNN Russia narrative as fact, because the burden of proof has not been met.
This concept is important to understand on the scale of individual debates on the subject during political discourse, and it is important to understand on the grand scale of the entire Russia narrative as well. All the skeptical side of the debate needs to do is stand back and demand that the burden of proof be met, but this often gets distorted in discourse on the subject. The Sam Biddles of the world all too frequently attempt to confuse the situation by asserting that it is the skeptics who must provide an alternative version of events and somehow produce irrefutable proof about the behaviors of highly opaque government agencies. This is fallacious, and it is backwards.
I understand why skeptics are eager to come up with counter-narratives which contradict the 2016 Russian hacking allegations, but remember: that's not how the burden of proof works. You don't need to prove the Russians didn't do it, the US government needs to prove that they did.
— Caitlin Johnstone (@caitoz) July 16, 2018
There are many Russiagate skeptics who have been doing copious amounts of research to come up with other theories about what could have happened in 2016, and that’s fine. But in a way this can actually make the debate more confused, because instead of leaning back and insisting that the burden of proof be met, you are leaning in and trying to convince everyone of your alternative theory. Russiagaters love this more than anything, because you’ve shifted the burden of proof for them. Now you’re the one making the claims, so they can lean back and come up with reasons to be skeptical of your argument. Empire loyalists like Sam Biddle would like nothing more than to get skeptics like Aaron Maté falling all over themselves trying to prove a negative, but that’s not how the burden of proof works, and there’s no good reason to play into it.
Until hard, verifiable proof of Russian election interference and/or collusion with the Trump campaign is made publicly available, we are winning this debate as long as we continue pointing out that this proof doesn’t exist. All you have to do to beat a Russiagater in a debate is point this out. They’ll cite assertions made by the US intelligence community, but assertions are not proof. They’ll cite the assertions made in the recent Mueller indictment as proof, but all the indictment contains is more assertions. The only reason Russiagaters confuse assertions for proof is because the mass media treats them as such, but there’s no reason to play along with that delusion.
There is no good reason to play along with escalations between nuclear superpowers when their premise consists of nothing but narrative and assertions. It is right to demand that those escalations cease until the public who is affected by them has had a full, informed say. Until the burden of proof has been met, that has not even begun to happen.