Category Archives: Op-Eds and other opinions

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. . ..

You would have noticed this hypocrisy… if you weren’t such a hypocrite

Jonah Goldberg at NRO rings up a fantastic subjunctive tu quoque:

Yes, it’s extremely unlikely he ordered the IRS to discriminate against tea-party. . . . And his outrage now — however convenient — is appreciated. But when people he views as his “enemies” complained about a politicized IRS, what did he do? Nothing.

Imagine for a moment if black civil-rights organizations, gay groups, or teachers’ unions loudly complained to members of Congress and the press that the IRS was discriminating against them. How long would it take for the White House to investigate? Answer honestly: Minutes? Hours?

The overall form of subjunctive tu quoque is not that you have actual inconsistent behavior or double standards, but that you would have them.  You just know it!  Of course, this form of tu quoque requires, for the subjunctive to be accepted, that the audience think the President is a hypocrite and an employer of double standards.  So, often, the subjuctive form of the tu quoque isn’t an argument from hypocrisy, but one to it.

**A later addition to the post 5/21/2013**

For other discussions of  subjunctive tu quoque, see Colin’s original post HERE, and John’s got a lengthy discussion HERE, and we three co-wrote a paper that appeared in INQUIRY about a year back, which I’ve posted on my page HERE. For cases that tu quoque arguments are regularly relevant, see one of my recent posts on it HERE, and my essay in Informal Logic HERE.



Pretty in pink

Check out Charles Krauthammer’s downplaying analogy over at the NRO for Obama’s ‘Red Line’ ultimatum with Syria using chemical weapons and what the Right thinks is dithering (or “fudging and fumbling”) in the face of the worry they’ve used them.  The headline:

Pink Line over Damascus

Get it?  Not red, but pink.  You see what he did there? Replaced red with pink. So, it’s like a girl’s ultimatum, which is, you know, not very decisive:

He would have it both ways: sound decisive but never have to deliver.

Yeah, just like a little girl, so pink.  And conservatives wonder why they have a problem with women.

The old ball and chain

Fig. 1: Marriage

A playground loser may save his ego with the following: I didn’t want to win anyway.  Here’s Yale Professor David Brooks’ latest version.

But last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom. A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage.

Marriage is one of those institutions — along with religion and military service — that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come. It narrows your options on how you will spend your time, money and attention.

Whether they understood it or not, the gays and lesbians represented at the court committed themselves to a certain agenda. They committed themselves to an institution that involves surrendering autonomy. They committed themselves to the idea that these self-restrictions should be reinforced by the state. They committed themselves to the idea that lifestyle choices are not just private affairs but work better when they are embedded in law.

This is correct only in the most restrictive sense–the sense in which every choice to do some activity x involves doing x (and maybe for a time not y).  But in every other meaningful sense it’s appalling dumb: having the right to marry recognized involves adding choices to one’s life.

Scarequote overkill

Scarequotes are a form of downplayer (I’d posted on them and what I call the scarequote exercise earlier HERE) — you use them when you invoke the vocabulary of the opposition, but to call attention to how false the vocabulary is.  And so, when you introduce the opposition’s experts, you call them “experts,” and thereby you are on record for holding that they are only so-called experts. It’s a form of indirect discourse, like sarcasm or irony.  But it’s the club-instead-of-scalpel form of indirect discouse.  Now check out George Neumayr’s post over at the American Spectator and his use of the scare quote to address those who support gay marrige:

Were the people on their side, they wouldn’t need to doctor “social science” to justify their propaganda. They wouldn’t need to use judicial activists to undo democratic results. They wouldn’t need to ignore the written Constitution in favor of a “living” one.

Plenty of regimes that no longer exist once thought themselves on the “right side of history.”

There’s plenty more, but it would require more work contextualizing than it’s worth.  Here’s the weird thing: most of it doesn’t actually make sense.  Take the first use of scare quotes.  Unless Neumayr doesn’t think there’s any legitimate social science, the claim that doctored “social science” is being used by the opposition is a form of double-dipping.  Why not say just ‘doctored social science’?  What does doctoring so-called social science do?  In fact, that seems counter-productive for all sides.   The same goes for the “right side of history” downplayer, too.  Nobody he’s invoking thought they were only on the so-called right side of history.  Notice further that Neumayr’s thoughts aren’t clarified by adding the scarequotes — you can get the message that he thinks the social science is illegitimate, that the written constitution is preferable to the doctrine of a living constitution, and that those who believe they are on the right side of history are regularly wrong.  In every case, scarequoting in attributing thoughts to others confuses what’s so-called and what’s being attributed.  Scarequoting like that is just sloppy writing.

I’ll perform the scarequote exercise from earlier below, taking the last few sentences from my previous paragraph.

Notice further that Neumayr’s “thoughts” aren’t clarified by adding the scarequotes — you can get the “message” that he thinks the social science is illegitimate, that the written constitution is preferable to the doctrine of a living constitution, and that those who believe they are on the right side of history are regularly wrong.  In every case, scarequoting in attributing thoughts to others confuses what’s so-called and what’s being attributed.  Scarequoting like that is just sloppy “writing”.

Now that’s how you use a scarequote! And, again, notice that it’s mostly just cheapshots.

Classic Krugman

Check out this video on Bloomberg.

The story goes something like this.  In the remark shown on the screen, Paul Krugman cautioned that he is not calling someone a name (via a Monty Python reference lost on the speaker), but rather questioning the evidence for his view.  The stunningly clueless commentator remarks that this is “classic Krugman” for “going after a person,” which is greeted with all sorts of agreement from the assembled panel brainless commentators.  She then refers to Niall Ferguson, who in his turn says Paul Krugman uses ad hominem arguments because he must have been abused as a child.  That, of course, is an actual ad hominem; Krugman’s is not.  You just cannot be this dumb.

Reduce, reuse, recyle

Fig.1: Conservativism

Here is a post for those who think that pointing out the inconsistency between a party’s name and its alleged position on an issue constitutes a decisive refutation of their view.  That “conservatives” fail to “conserve” or “preserve” or anything else along those lines does not mean they embody some kind of contradiction.  George Will has used this line on “progressives,” or his army of hollow men in years pastHere he is the other day:

Progressives are remarkably uninterested in progress. Social Security is 78 years old, and myriad social improvements have added 17 years to life expectancy since 1935, yet progressives insist the program remain frozen, like a fly in amber. Medicare is 48 years old, and the competence and role of medicine have been transformed since 1965, yet progressives cling to Medicare “as we know it.” And they say that the Voting Rights Act, another 48-year-old, must remain unchanged, despite dramatic improvements in race relations.

What kind of move is this?  I think it’s an equivocation–a rather textbook variety.  Clearly “progressive” means something different to “Progressives” (the name a half-hearted attempt at rebranding “liberal,” by the way).  Will’s thought goes something like this:

your name implies you like progress, but here is progress which you don’t like, so you’re not “progressive.”  Your self-understanding therefore is laughably contradictory.

The problem with this is that “progress” (1)–things getting better, more just, etc–and “progress” (2)–things changing–mean different things to alleged “progressives”.  Besides, what is at issue with voting rights is an empirical question: has progress been made on voting rights?  Progressives say, pointing to the recent election, no; (some) conservatives say yes.

*minor edit for clarity.

Love democracy, despise your fellow citizens

Check out last Friday’s Mallard Fillmore:


The thought here is a familiar sour-grapes yuckface that those on the losing ends of elections make about what they think wins elections — catering to the intellectual tastes of a credulous and decadent electorate.  It’s a old Platonic worry about democracy, and it’s usually invoked by those who think their own democracy has made a bad decision.  (It’s all about what a good means for decision-making democracy is when they win elections, of course.)

As I take it the trope here is a form of what I’ve started calling the ‘No Reasonable Opposition’ strategy for political argument.  Take the move here as follows:  The electorate made a decision I disagree with;  from this, we can infer that they were deeply distracted and mis-informed.  They wouldn’t have made that kind of decision if they knew what they were doing.   There are two bad consequences of this line of thinking.  First, it’s self-sealing (as losing elections isn’t taken as evidence one needs to rethink one’s views, but of how fargone the rest of the citizenry is).  Second, it’s a perfect way to not even bother to get one’s views out for inspection — pearls to swine, at this point.

Reductio by analogy

Johah Goldberg wrote a book about public and political discourse.  That makes him an expert about how people argue about policy.  His recent criticism of Joe Biden’s rhetorical flourish “if it saves one life,” reason to heavily regulate fire arms is an occasion for him to act the logic hound:

Maybe it’s because I wrote a whole book on the way phrases like “if it saves only one life, it’s worth it” distort our politics, but whenever I hear such things the hairs on the back of my neck go up.

Ok, so what’s Goldberg’s critical point?  That the ‘saves one life’ line of reasoning doesn’t work for lots of other things we could regulate:

The federal government could ban cars, fatty foods, ladders, plastic buckets, window blinds, or Lego pieces small enough to choke on and save far more than just one life. Is it imperative that the government do any of that? It’s a tragedy when people die in car accidents (roughly 35,000 fatalities per year), or when kids drown in plastic buckets (it happens an estimated 10 to 40 times a year), or when people die falling off ladders (about 300 per year). Would a law that prevents those deaths be worth it, no matter the cost?

Oy.  Well, for sure, he’s responding to stark version of the ‘saves one life’ principle, but the application of the principle in the gun laws case is about regulating a product that’s designed to kill.  For sure, if we can prevent the wrong kinds of deaths, that’s the objective.  So the analogy may be appropriate for a straw liberal, but that’s not Biden’s argument.  And note, on top of all that, we do use a version of the ‘one life’ principle with all those other products, only that we don’t prohibit their purchase.  We regulate salt in foods, we institute speed limits and require safety measures in car production, and have pretty clear warnings about buckets and ladders on them (the presumptions being that people don’t purchase them so as to drown toddlers or jump off of).

The irony of it all is that Goldberg says that phrases like Biden’s cheapens our political discourse.  Sometimes, it’s not the phrase that cheapens, but the way it’s taken.


Progressivism Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing

Sometimes I think the real reason Hume aimed his skeptical arguments at the notion of causation is because he perceived the manifold ways dubious argumentative strategies can give causal arguments tremendous rhetorical force.   George Will was kind enough to provide us with just such a perverse causal claim this week.  Recent events at Penn State, University of Georgia,and Syracuse have prompted many journalists to consider the peculiarly American phenomenon of the state university football coach.  Will surveys the scene and deduces a culprit for this quasi-demagogue: American Progressivism, of course.  Will argues

With two extravagant entertainments under way, it is instructive to note the connection between the presidential election and the college football season: Barack Obama represents progressivism, a doctrine whose many blemishes on American life include universities as football factories, which progressivism helped to create.

To quote my favorite small business owner, I don't even know where to begin to correct that sentence.  But before we being with the correcting, let's get a taste of the argument:

Higher education embraced athletics in the first half of the 19th century, when most colleges were denominational and most instruction was considered mental and moral preparation for a small minority — clergy and other professionals. Physical education had nothing to do with spectator sports entertaining people from outside the campus community. Rather, it was individual fitness — especially gymnastics — for the moral and pedagogic purposes of muscular Christianity — mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.

Pick a lane, George.  Eliding is fun, but if there's a connection between Progressivism's causing universities to become football factories and this host of religious universities "embracing athletics" as some sort of corporeal moral education, it's not apparent from this graph.  If there isn't such a connection, then this paragraph seems to contradict the one which preceded it. But let's see where this goes:

Intercollegiate football began when Rutgers played Princeton in 1869, four years after Appomattox. In 1878, one of Princeton’s two undergraduate student managers was Thomas — he was called Tommy — Woodrow Wilson. For the rest of the 19th century, football appealed as a venue for valor for collegians whose fathers’ venues had been battlefields. Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895) — the badge was a wound — said: “Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.”

Who needs arguments?  String barely-related facts together in temporal order, manufacture narrative, close with pithy quote, QED.  I have wasted my life.

Harvard philosopher William James then spoke of society finding new sources of discipline and inspiration in “the moral equivalent of war.” Society found football, which like war required the subordination of the individual, and which would relieve the supposed monotony of workers enmeshed in mass production. 

Setting aside the risible reading of James…wait, no, let's not set it aside.  Here's what James actually argues:

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man's relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

Well, we already know how George feels about trains, so it's no small wonder he would drag poor Billy James into the fray.  The problem is Will's completely misrepresented the claim.  James isn't concerned here with the plight of "workers enmeshed in mass production," and Will's desperate attempt at a dogwhistle connection between Progressivism (as represented by a Boston Brahma, natch) and Marxism can't make that so.  James' "moral equivalent to war" is proffered as a mitigation of the seeming impasse between the "war party" and the "peace party."  James sees the former as promoting martial virtues to extremes that actually run counter to goals of human society, while the latter engage in a fool's errand to utterly eliminate martial virtues.  James' middle way mollifies both parties: martial virtues are extolled, but instead of being channeled into war, they are channeled into productive human activity (which activity could plausibly include monotonous mass production-type activities!).  James is thinking here of things like the Peace Corps and Teach For America, not the LSU Tigers (although one might reasonably argue that the argument could extend to those things, but not in terms that Will would accept).  Moreover, there's something else going wrong here, with this talk of the individual. As Will continues,

College football became a national phenomenon because it supposedly served the values of progressivism, in two ways. It exemplified specialization, expertise and scientific management. And it would reconcile the public to the transformation of universities, especially public universities, into something progressivism desired but the public found alien. Replicating industrialism’s division of labor, universities introduced the fragmentation of the old curriculum of moral instruction into increasingly specialized and arcane disciplines. These included the recently founded social sciences — economics, sociology, political science — that were supposed to supply progressive governments with the expertise to manage the complexities of the modern economy and the simplicities of the uninstructed masses.

Football taught the progressive virtue of subordinating the individual to the collectivity. Inevitably, this led to the cult of one individual, the coach. Today, in almost every state, at least one public university football coach is paid more than the governor.

I've never been convinced by this sort of "kingdom of the blind"-type argument.  They either seem painfully tautologous ("If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns"), or they seem self referentially incoherent, as is the case above.  But more to the point, the contradictions in this claim point to a deeper flaw in Will's argument, namely that Will doesn't even seem to have a firm grasp on what he takes Progressivism to be, let alone show concern for what it actually is, so he enmeshes himself in a web of contradictions and half-hearted historical claims that ultimately come to nothing. Instead of providing himself a worthy foe, "Progressivism" functions as an umbrella term for a loosely related set of social doctrines to which Will objects.  Will might have proved that some particular doctrine lent a hand in the rise of college sports as public spectacle, but he hasn't shown (1) that American Progressivism as such is a cause, nor has he shown, most importantly, (2) that even a majority of American universities are football factories.  He clearly seems to think so, but he's never offered even a hint of an argument for either view.   In place of an argument, we get a shitty reading of William James and a milquetoast narrative more worthy of small-time sports blog than the Op-Ed pages of a major newspaper.  

Another sparkling moment in our national discourse.