Category Archives: Op-Eds and other opinions

Two wrongs of straw

Kellyanne Conway has had a hard couple weeks.  She had the ‘alternate facts‘ brouhaha, then she had the case where she made up a massacre in Bowling Green.   That then yielded a refusal by  a number of news outlets to interview her.  CNN’s ran for 48 hours. She had a credibility deficit.

Jonah Goldberg, over at National Review Online has come to Conway’s defense saying that she is “good at her job, and the media hates her for it.”  You see, she’s regularly been sent on a tough mission – to defend Trump’s policies against a media set on interpreting everything they say in the worst possible light.

President Trump’s surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence, have mastered the art of defending straw-man positions that don’t reflect the actions and views of the president himself.

Just for clarity’s sake, it’s worth noting that I don’t think Goldberg is holding that Conway must defend straw man positions, but rather she must defend against straw men of her positions.  It has been a bit of a pet peeve of mine to see the language of informal logic abused, but this one is a doozy!  Regardless, the point is a fair one.  If folks have been getting the views and policies wrong, it’s the job of the communicators to set the record straight.

But it’s here that Goldberg switches gears – you see, if you must defend against those who straw man in hostile fashion, then you, too, must fight dirty. And a lesson from history is a case in point.

In 2012, Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s national-security adviser, flatly lied on five Sunday news shows, saying that the attack on the Benghazi compound was “spontaneous” and the direct result of a “heinous and offensive video.” No one talked of banning her from the airwaves. Nor should they have. Here’s a news flash for the news industry: Birds are gonna fly, fish are gonna swim, and politicians are gonna lie.

This, of course, is a curious line of argument, since the lies made the administration’s position (in both cases!)look considerably worse.  Who needs a straw manner in one’s opposition when one is doing such a bang-up job oneself?

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.