Category Archives: specious comparisons

Help, I’m steppin’ into the Twilight Zone

President Trump tweeted that he’d snubbed Mika Brzezinski last new years eve, because she was bleeding still from a face lift.  Here’s the tweet:

Sheesh.  OK, so here’s where things get interesting, at least for the sake of argument.  When asked to explain/defend/just talk about apologetically Trump’s tweet, Deputy Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders says he was fighting “fire with fire.”

I think the president has been attacked several times by people on those programs. They elected someone who is stuff, smart, and a fighter. I don’t think it is a surprise to anyone that he fights fire with fire. The things this show called him, not just him but numerous members of his staff, incuding myself and many others, has been very deeply personal. So to turn and pretend like this approach is, you know, I guess it is kind of like living in the Twilight Zone.

So there are two things happening here.  First is the thought that if one’s criticized in harsh terms, one has the right to do so in reply.  Second is that when one is criticized for one’s tone in reply, it is like the Twilight Zone, that it’s not just wrong but bizarre.

The first point is one about two wrongs reasoning.  For sure, arguers should be allowed to give back as good as they get, but there are occasions where this is inappropriate.  Consider being a teacher — students are often rude to you, criticize you relentlessly, and maybe make ridiculous requests and claims.  But they do so because they don’t know any better.  Lucky for them, they have a teacher.  And it would be inappropriate to fly off the handle and reply in kind to every critique, no matter how badly off base they are.  So, the lesson is: there are institutional roles one plays wherein it is inappropriate to give back in kind.  The POTUS is one of those roles.  Surely using one’s voice in the role of that office to single out private citizens for hateful censure is an abuse of that office (just as it would be for a teacher to do so in a classroom).

The second is one about what censure one incurs when one breaks a rule of discourse.  For sure, it can seem wrong to someone who follows the give it back as good as you got it rule to be on the receiving side of some criticism for doing so.  But when is it like the Twilight Zone, where it is bizarre, not even identifiably relevant?  Invoking the Twilight Zone is a move that says that the lines of argument are so far off base, one doesn’t even know what to say back.  It is a theater of the absurd.  But surely Sarah Huckabee Sanders knows what this all means.  That’s why she follows up with:

If it happened in the previous administration, the type of attacks launched on this program, the things they say, utterly stupid, personality disorder, mentally ill, constant personality attacks, calling people liars to their faces on programs. They would have said no way, hold on.

Oh.  Yes.  But that’s exactly what happened.  Do you remember when President Obama had that SC Representative yell out “You Lie!” in the midst of the State of the Union?  Watch the President stay on track, reply and go on.

For sure, people said “no way, hold on,” but the President didn’t go on a twitter tear about what a doofus Representative Joe Wilson looks like. Or how there’s a question about whether he wears adult diapers. (People are saying!)

But the point is that there’s a difference between (a) saying “no, wait, hold on” when faced with nasty bile and (b) spitting bile back.

Finally, I think it’s pretty great that folks on the right, too, are invoking Rod Serling’s great contribution to our culture, a television series about how fragile our grasp on reality really is.  Because, yes, in this political climate, I, too, feel like I’m steppin’ into the Twilight Zone.

Some analogies are like idolatry

It was a pretty widely used trope to invoke idolatry to criticize the support for the Obama Presidency, especially early on.  So it’s not a surprise to see it come back for critique of opposition to Trump, except in this case, invoking the fall of what the believers took to be the true religion.  Enter David French for some gloating:

I’m beginning to get a sense of what it was like to be alive in ancient times when a marauding warlord melted down your village’s golden calf. Weeping. Gnashing of teeth. Rending of garments. Wearing of vagina hats. Their god failed to protect the village, and now he’s a bracelet on the warlord’s wrist. It’s pathetic, really, the emotional reaction to Donald Trump’s victory, but the intensity of the emotion is nothing new. Remember the ecstasy when Barack Obama won?

So, the point is supposed to be that Obama-style liberalism was a kind of false religion — a golden calf, of sorts.  Now that it’s not only fallen, but is destroyed by another, the old true believers are in shock, despair.  And French takes it that it’s because these true-believers just have got the wrong religion.

This is post-Christian politics to its core. This is the politics one gets when this world is our only home, and no one is in charge but us. There is no sense of proportion.

The funny thing about analogies is that they are supposed to not be identities.  But French just went from saying that liberalism is like a false religion that’s fallen to just saying it is a false religion that’s fallen.  Doesn’t that change the point?  And, hey, don’t conservative Christians get angry when their religion’s not the law of the land, too?  Of course, one’s sense of proportion is indexed to the religion (or set of values) one thinks is true – of course you think that others have no sense of proportion when they mourn things you think are worthless or vicious.

Persecution anxiety

Bruce Chapman reports at AmSpec that Christians are widely persecuted around the world, and one of the prominent examples is the treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt. Chapman says someone should do something about it.  That’s right.  Ah, but then he hypothesizes why people haven’t already done something about it:

One reason for neglect in Washington is probably the continuing secularization of the West. Political forces that demand that domestic religious organizations provide employees insurance for contraception, that Christmas manger scenes be banned from the town park and that graduating high school seniors not be allowed to invoke God in their valedictory addresses are not the kind of people who care much about Christian prisoners in the North Korean gulag or burning churches in Egypt.

Here’s the analogy behind Chapman’s explanation.  Those who oppose mangers in town squares and compulsory prayer are like those who put Christians in gulags and burn churches — they sympathize with the oppressors.  In Chapman’s eyes, secularism is religious oppression lite.

Chapman’s error is that those who oppose state-sanctioned religious displays do so precisely in the spirit of opposing oppression.  Sure, it may feel like being oppressed when the state capitol doesn’t have a manger scene – you’re not getting complete control over the state.  But that’s not oppression, that’s a reduction in your undeserved and disproportionate power.

And so the analogy isn’t just false, it’s entirely backwards — you get the kind of oppression of gulags and church burnings when you have a state that endorses only one kind of religious view.  You see, the secularization of the West isn’t motivated by the desire to oppress the religious, but by the desire to reduce religious oppression.

Almost, Douthat, almost. . ..

But it seemed that way because it was hard to imagine the Obama White House botching the design and execution of its national health care exchange. Building Web sites, mastering the Internet — this is what Team Obama does!

Except this time Team Obama didn’t. Like the Bush administration in Iraq, the White House seems to have invaded the health insurance marketplace with woefully inadequate postinvasion planning, and let the occupation turn into a disaster of hack work and incompetence. Right now, the problems with the exchange Web site appear to be systemic — a mess on the front end, where people are supposed to shop for plans, and also a thicket at the back end, where insurers are supposed to process applications.

The disaster can presumably be fixed. As Cohn pointed out on Friday, many of the state-level exchanges are working better than the federal one, and somewhere there must be a tech-world David Petraeus capable of stabilizing And the White House has some time to work with: weeks before the end-of-year enrollment rush, and months before the mandate’s penalty is supposed to be levied.

Yep, it’s a disaster almost like Wolfie and J-Paul’s destruction of a nation, loss of millions billions of dollars, and bringing about an insurgency against the US occupation.

Almost, Douthat, almost. . ..

Ad Stalinem


We’ve had discussions of the Ad Hitlerem and Godwin’s Law here at the NS a few times.  There’s a close cousin to it, which is the Ad Stalinem.  The argument runs in the form:

You did X

Stalin did X (or something like it)

Therefore, your doing X is wrong.  And you’re like Stalin.

Arguments by analogy have trouble with relevance, and this one has plenty. In recent news, a rodeo clown took over the mic at a state fair in Missouri and put on an Obama mask.  The announcer asked if they wanted to see Obama run down by a bull.  That’s pretty crazy.  The rodeo clown in the mask has been banned for life from participating in rodeos in Missouri, and all the other cowboys have been required to attend sensitivity training seminars.

The RIGHT, instead of feeling a little silly for catering to people who think that having bulls trample a president in effigy is good political commentary, they rush to these guys defense.  This is where the Ad Salinem comes in.  So here’s a taste of it over at the American Spectator:

I’m surprised, in the efforts to lynch the Obama Clown and brainwash other cowboys with sensitivity training, that the Obama regime and cronies have failed to recount one of my favorite Stalin stories from long ago.

After a hard day’s work, Uncle Joe blessed a Moscow circus with his presence. The clowns performed a bit that contained (what Stalin perceived as) political commentary obliquely critical of him. Yet the audience roared with delight at the funny clowns!

True to form, Stalin had his armed guards line up the clowns in center ring and execute them, on the spot.

Then, as a clever follow-up on Stalin’s part, he had the guards turn their guns on the audience and slaughter dozens. Call it a curtain call: it was curtains for all.

Oh, the dangers of mocking Great Leaders.

For arguments by analogy to work, there must be some important factors in common between the cases.  Here are a few.  1. The objection to the clown’s portrayal of Obama wasn’t about criticizing his policies, but about the racist overtones of the portrayal. 2. None of the consequences visited on him are from the Obama administration, but from the Missouri State Fair officials.  3. Nobody in the audience had anything bad happen to them.  4. If you look at the picture closely, you’ll see that it looks like the guy’s got a broom halfway up his butt.  He should be fired for that, solely.  That’s not funny. It’s weird. Even for a rodeo clown.

OMG. What if?

Mark Steyn’s recent contribution to NRO’s page is an exercise in (a) guilt by association, by way of (b) rampant speculation.  The ultimate payoff is to criticize the food stamp program.  Here’s how the line of argument goes:

[The House Audit and Oversight Committee] are now trying to discover whether the Tsarnaev brothers used [Food Stamp EBT cards] to pay for the Boston Marathon bombing

OK.  So where it stands is: we don’t know if they did.  But there’s an investigation into the funding.  Ah, so we might have, in providing a safety net for millions, provided the means for a lunatic fringe to build a bomb from household and cooking supplies. (Pressure cookers.) Maybe.

Ah, but all the ‘maybes’ in the world won’t hold Steyn back.

Paying Islamic terrorists to blow you up is more like assisted suicide.

And… Scene.

Earlier in the post, Steyn complained about the fact that the EBT cards had been used to buy porn, piercings, and manicures.  Add funding terrorist attacks to the list.  (Maybe.) Well, that’s enough to be up in arms about the welfare state — we, as Steyn sees it, not only encourage dependence, but irresponsibility and wantonness with welfare.  And terrorism.  (Maybe.)

Oh, and Steyn’s analogy is flawed: in providing the minimal means to live to the Tsarnaevs, we weren’t paying for them to blow us up. We were paying for them to survive and eventually prosper.  That they used that generosity against us is simply more testament to the fact that their minds were infected with hate — they were aggressive toward a society and state that had showed them some consideration.  We didn’t deserve that.  Would Steyn’s alternative be that because we don’t want that, we’ll cut off all those other people welfare helps?  I’m pretty sure that’s the plan.




We’ve had discussions of the use of persuasive comparison with the Ad Hitlerum and Godwin’s Law here at the NS a few times.  (Just a sample from John HERE and from me HERE).  Here’s a stealthier version (hence, sneakyGodwin), one that uses invocations of the Holocaust to make the analogy.  Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC) invoked Martin Niemöller’s famous line about the temptations of ignoring Nazi oppression:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist…

Foxx, as reported by IHE, in defending for-profit colleges from govermental regulation:

” ‘They came for the for-profits, and I didn’t speak up…’ ” Foxx said. “Nobody really spoke up like they should have.”

The trouble, as with all the Godwins, is that government regulation of an industry isn’t akin to sending people to the camps.  The objective of the regulation is to keep people from amassing debilitating debt to these colleges. But, you know, sometimes it’s worth a shot to appropriate the vocabulary of resistance to oppression.

Lead with the Godwin!

Thomas Sowell opens his article over at the American Spectator with a sentence that would make any fan of Godwin proud (see the know your meme bit on it!):

It was either Adolf Hitler or his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who said that the people will believe any lie, if it is big enough and told often enough, loud enough. Although the Nazis were defeated in World War II, this part of their philosophy survives triumphantly to this day among politicians, and nowhere more so than during election years.

What Sowell points out as the lie is that the gap between rich and poor has widened (because the rich are getting richer, not that the poor are that much poorer).  Whether it's a lie or not isn't the issue, but rather the analogy employed to describe the dialectical and political situation.  Or, perhaps, I was just reading a parody site of Thomas Sowell's essays (think Poe).

Well, if they didn’t have the guns…

Just as predictable as the question about whether we need stronger gun controls follows after a public shooting spree, there is the predictable response from conservatives that guns don't kill people, evil/crazy/bad people kill people, so stop with gun control. (See John's earlier link to the Onion article on this point).  Here's Thomas Sowell, over at National Review Online:

Do countries with strong gun-control laws have lower murder rates? Only if you cherry-pick the data…. Britain is a country with stronger gun-control laws and lower murder rates than the United States. But Mexico, Russia, and Brazil are also countries with stronger gun-control laws than the United States — and their murder rates are much higher than ours….

This is the old bait-and-switch, isn't it?  (Otherwise known as red herring)  The question about gun control laws, at least under these circumstances, is whether it's a good idea to have assault weapons available, as with them, public shooting sprees are very, very destructive.  It's not about whether the murder rate will go down.  If you want to murder someone, you'll likely do it with a gun or without.  But if you want to go on a spree of violence, you'll do that with a gun or without, too.  The point of the question is that with the latter, the with the gun option, the public spree of violence kills more people.  Sowell's point about homicide is just beside the point.  Well, at least he's not running the if there were more people with guns, this wouldn't happen line (see, John Lott for that one).

Implicature by comparison

We can find implicature all around us, from how we use sarcasm, to how we use innuendo.  I think that some comparisons can communicate something else, too.  So, say, for example, that I say:

Today's as hot as hell.

We take the second comparator as a given (exceedingly and unrelentlingly hot) and use that given to determine something about the first (that it is very, very hot).  The implicature of this is that you know that hell is very, very hot, and that then gives us information about today.  This works with lots of them:

She is as hot as Georgia asphalt

As strong as a bull

Drunk as a lord

I'm not as drunk as you think I am

So the lesson: our defaults are to take the second comparator as the given. You have to be committed to the obviousness of the heat of GA asphalt and the strength of bulls.  Lords are drunk, and it's clear you must think I am very, very drunk. The second comparator can't be even in question for the analogy to be successfully communicative.  (Or, at least, it is communicated as being taken as beyond question.) Notice how one of the two following comparisons is the funnier 'your momma' joke than the other:

Your momma is as fat as Jupiter

Jupiter is as fat as your momma

The second, because your momma's fatness is taken as the base comparator for Jupiter, not the other way around.  That's funny… in a 'your momma' joke sort of way. Here's where the interpretive lesson gets weird.  I bought some bargain basement cat litter at the corner market, and it had the following comparison on the back:

It reads:

For those of you who are as passionate about your pets as you are about price.

Isn't the implicature of this comparison that whoever buys this cat litter is someone who is passionate about price?  Isn't this an overstatement?  Shouldn't it be realistic about price? Moreover, isn't this a questionable thought?  I'm not passionate about price at all, but I love my cats.  So shouldn't the comparators be switched?  I think it's a more obvious commitment that we're passionate about the pets. I don't buy cheap cat litter because I have a passion for saving money, but rather, I have a passion for beer, travel, nice things, cats, and so on.  So I buy cheap cat litter to fit the budget.  That's not price-passion.  That's other-stuff-passion. Or, perhaps, I'm not the target market — I had no idea Ebenezer Scrooge was a cat-owner.