Category Archives: Politicians

Logical fallacies straight from the horse’s mouth.

You ain’t just (dog)whistling Dixie

Newt Gingrich suggested that Romney serve Chick-fil-a at the Republican convention (reported in Newsmax here). 

I certainly think that the Romney campaign would be smart to serve Chick-fil-A at the convention for one occasion. I think that would send a pretty clear signal to people without having done very much except to make it happen.

Now, there's the first read of this, which is, I think, what Newsmax has in mind: that Romney, who's seen as having missed an opportunity to show his cultural conservative bona fides with the chicken sandwich issue, can make clear that he stands with opponents of gay marriage with a small token.  But I have a bit more of a less optimistic reading of what Newt communicated with this.  I think he's asking for Romney to make the move only to show just how weak Romney is on cultural issues important to conservatives. (Does anyone remember the "who's a real conservative?" issue in the Republican Primaries?)  And if Romney doesn't make the move, then even worse for him.  Gingrich was clear in the primaries that he didn't see Romney as a real conservative, and this suggestion here has ambiguous import on that issue. Here's another way to put my second point:  Gingrich, with the second sentence, is implicating that Romney hasn't been clear on the issue.  That's enough for social conservatives. 

Adventures in false dilemmas

Here's the title of Howard Rich's post at American Spectator.

Barack Obama: Socialist or Nouveau Fascist?

Rich argues that Socialism isn't quite right about Obama's policies, as he does let many who have done well keep their spoils.  So it's fascism.  But the fascism label, Rich concedes, "isn't perfect".  That's why he calls it Nouveau Fascism. You see… when the term doesn't work, just call it a new version of that! 

Ad rockstarium

I think it's worthwhile to keep track of the ways the sides in a debate try to paint the character of the other.  Sometimes, it is simple observations about what kind of person would hold such and such a view, other times, it's about what kind of person would be blind to evidence of such and such degrees of obviousness.  Often, it's mere rhetorical window-dressing, and often enough, it's direct ad hominem.  I've been keen on the recent presidential character-painting.  Romney's a robot (a very funny meme) or vulture-capitalist, Obama's either a socialist-totalitarian or a decent but unqualified doofus.  These all seem fine to me, at least in the sense that they're at least capable of being put in the service of evaluating the character of the person who's to be the President of the United States and the Commander in Chief.  Who occupies the office matters, so character evaluation is relevant. 

One line of argument that I don't see the point of, though, is what I've come to call the ad rockstarium argument against Barack Obama.  Mark Steyn at National Review Online runs it in his recent "Our Celebrity President."  Here's the basics from Steyn:

Last week, the republic’s citizen-president passed among his fellow Americans. Where? Cleveland? Dubuque? Presque Isle, Maine? No, Beverly Hills. These days, it’s pretty much always Beverly Hills or Manhattan, because that’s where the money is. That’s the Green Zone, and you losers are outside it.

As I can gather, here's how the argument runs:

1) The President goes to fundraisers in California and New York, not Middle America.

2) You live in Middle America

So: The president isn't interest in you or your money. Well… maybe your money.  How much you got?

Steyn goes on:

It’s true that moneyed celebrities in, say, Pocatello or Tuscaloosa have not been able to tempt the president to hold a lavish fundraiser in Idaho or Alabama, but he does fly over them once in a while.

That's right!  He went to the 'fly-over' line.  OK, so if I'm right that some evaluations of character are relevant, does this one count as one?  I don't think so, as the issue isn't whether Obama is popular and adored but whether he's the kind of person who can be trusted with policy decisions.  I think the best that this line of evaluation can do is say that Obama is a rockstar, and rockstars do things differently from you…  I'll be trying to keep up with more of the rockstarium argument as the campaign goes on.  Any help on seeing how the line is relevant?  Is it a form of upside down ad populum: he's not like us, so he's wrong?

Cautionary analogies

Democracies are fragile, and one of the worries about them is that the seeds for their overthrow are sewn and grown inside.  That's a thought as old as Plato (see Republic IX's son of the democratic man, the eventual tyrant), but it's the Romans who lived it fully and provided us with a model for it:  Julius Caesar.  Invocations of Caesar haunt American democracy, and one point of interest is that John Wilkes Booth invoked Brutus in the aftermath of his assassination of Lincoln.  The dangers of an imperial presidency has been a longstanding worry.

Kevin Williamson's essay in National Review Online has the same analogy at its core: Obama as Caesar.  Now, we've seen this trope before with the Obamacare concerns and with the general teaparty invocations of the blood of tyrants nourishing the tree of liberty.  But I think Williamson's point shouldn't be lumped with these.  His, I think, seems considerably more reasonable.  First, Williamson's concern is with the fact that Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen that was targeted for assassination.   Sure, under conditions of combat, we don't need to arrest and mirandize our opponents, but those we know are citizens and not in the midst of a shootout deserve some legal concern.  Yes, he was an al-Qaeda leader and planner.  Still a citizen.  Second, the Bush administration cleared the ground for both treating al-Qaeda operatives as combatants and as dialing back protections for citizens suspected of being in league with them.  This yielded the following:

Running with the ball we passed him, Obama and his administration now insist on the president’s right not only to order the assassination of U.S. citizens, but to do so in secret, without oversight from Congress, the public, or anybody else. Barack Obama today claims powers that would have made Julius Caesar blush.

A good deal of the work on this blog is devoted to picking out fallacious forms of these kind of arguments.  This time, I think it's appropriate.  Even if you think the President's decision was right, you must admit that it is a considerable extension of his power to trump the Fifth Amendment's requirement of due process.

Another squirmish* in the culture wars

In the category of self-refuting worries (by now noticed by all of the web), here is disgraced former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich:

"I have two grandchildren: Maggie is 11; Robert is 9," Gingrich said at Cornerstone Church here. "I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American."

A secular atheist country dominated by religious fundamentalists.  


Hypocrites that aren’t

This isn't quite the tu quoque some might believe (from Politico):

A cadre of Democratic House members – all fierce defenders of President Obama’s health care reforms — are asking Republicans who want to repeal the law to forgo their taxpayer-subsidized health insurance out of principle.

 The group, led by Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) and three other progressives – responding to a POLITICO report that repeal proponent Rep.-elect Andy Harris (R-Md.) complained about a lag in his federal coverage – is circulating a letter among Democrats that would call upon Republicans to ditch their insurance, paid in part by taxpayer funds, if they are committed to rolling back Democratic reforms.

The missive is expected to pick up a lot of support among liberals, who now make up a much larger proportion of House Democrats following the party’s 61-plus-seat loss earlier this month. Spearheading the effort: Crowley, Donna Edwards of Maryland, Tim Ryan of Ohio and Linda Sanchez of California.  “If your conference wants to deny millions of Americans affordable health care, your members should walk that walk,” Crowley writes in a letter to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

You cannot enroll in the very kind of coverage that you want for yourselves, and then turn around and deny it to Americans who don't happen to be Members of Congress. We also want to note that in 2011, the Federal government will pay $10,503.48 of the premiums for each member of Congress with a family policy under the commonly selected Blue Cross standard plan.”

I think they're obviously going to reply that they get insurance from their employer–in this case is the federal government–which (I'm guessing here) is the view they have endorsed all along.  And lo:

Boehner and McConnell spokesmen declined comment. And Harris defenders argue that he’s simply availing himself of the same insurance enjoyed by private employees, coverage administered by many of the nation’s private health care companies.

This story has gotten a surprising amount of attention for how thin this argument is.  Seems like Boehner and McConnell could have pointed that out, however.

Fill in the blanks

Dear Readers–been off for a bit, usual excuses.

Writing for the New York Times, Peter Baker alleges that "Obama fills in the GOP's blanks."  Ok, that's the title of the article, but I didn't find anything in the article that made that same decisiive point.  It's an interesting one, because it alleges Obama is a serial hollow manner:

WASHINGTON — In speech after speech lately, President Obama has vowed to oppose a Republican proposal “to cut education by 20 percent,” a reduction that would “eliminate 200,000 children from Head Start programs” and “reduce financial aid for eight million college students.”

Except that strictly speaking, the Republicans have made no such proposal. The expansive but vague Pledge to America produced by House Republicans does promise deep cuts in domestic spending, but it gives no further detail about which programs would be slashed. So Mr. Obama has filled in his own details as if they were in the Republican plan.

Let's say it's the case that there exists no Republican plan to cut spending on education by 20 percent.  Obama's attacking that claim would amount to a hollow man–attacking an argument no one actually makes. 

Not every employment of the hollow man scheme is fallacious, however.  I think this is a good example of a non-fallacious use.  Let's say for the sake of argument that there exists a non specific plan to cut domestic spending (which includes education among other things) "deeply."  In the absence of detail, the critic of this plan is forced to "extrapolate" or as I would say, "infer" which programs would receive cuts (and how much).  

So the critic–Obama in this case–infers.  His move is a fair one, as it asks for clarification of something admittedly vague.  In a direct dialogical exchange, this would be a perfect opportunity for the Republicans to clarify their position.  Near the bottom of the article, the author finds that they do:

That means, the White House said, that the $100 billion cut would amount to a 20 percent reduction in domestic programs, so it is fair to extrapolate the effects on education, Head Start, college aid and other programs. Republicans said they could choose to cut more deeply in some programs while sparing others, so education would not necessarily be cut 20 percent. At the same time, they do not rule it out

So his hollow man, which admittedly is an argument made by no one, turns out not to be illegitimate.  The counter move–logically at least–ought to be a claim that they will not cut education by 20 percent, or that the programs in question will remain in place.  But they havent' (in this article) done that.  They can't even deny that Obama is wrong.  This seems like a perfect use of the hollow man. 

A little back and forth

Normally these op-ed arguments go one way: pundit makes them, you must sit in stunned silence at the lunacy or the genius.  This week, however, we get a chance to see a little back-and-forth.  Well just once–once back, once forth (not sure if that phrase is supposed to work this way).  Anyway.  Here is Eugene Robinson on Newt Gingrich:

The latest example comes in an interview with the conservative Web site National Review Online. Unsurprisingly, he was criticizing President Obama. Bizarrely, according to the Web site, he said the following: "What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?" According to Newt, this is "the most accurate, predictive model" for the president's actions, or policies or something.

What in the world is "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior" supposed to mean? That Obama is waging a secret campaign to free us from the yoke of British oppression?

So Robinson wonders what Newt's claim means.  Here's Newt's Spokesperson's reponse today in the Post:

Speculation on the origins of the worldview of world leaders has been going on since there have been world leaders, and the influence of fathers is often the strongest influence. The reaction to Newt Gingrich's remarks has bordered on irrationality. Mr. Robinson asserted that merely bringing up President Obama's father in this way is equivalent to doubting that the president is a U.S. citizen, and others have gone so far as to suggest that doing so is coded racism. What is so off-limits about Mr. Obama's past, specifically his father?

Nice.  Robinson did not say anything was "off limits."  He wondered what the hell Gingrich's approving citation of the blathering D'Souza was supposed to mean.  He didn't question the legitimacy of the remarks, he questioned their meaning and by extension their cogency. 

This is why we can't have nice discussions, part 3,453.


Burn out the day

Perhaps we can file this intervention by Sarah Palin in the "things that aren't analogous" file:

"Book burning is antithetical to American ideals," she wrote. "People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation — much like building a mosque at Ground Zero."

The peaceful practice of basketball and religion is just like a book burning.

One more thing.  The title of this article on the Huffington Post: "Sarah Palin: Burning Quran 'Antithetical to American Ideals.'"  That doesn't quite capture her view, I think.

An Exercise in Scarequoting

Classic downplaying is the strategy of making something look less important or significant.  You can do this with euphemisms, so you can call a pay cut "salary compression," or you can call the victims of indiscriminate use of lethal force "collateral damage."  Another strategy is to employ the terms of regular use, but use scare quotes around the terms.  This method of downplaying at once both acknowledges that some use the term to describe the case, but it also registers your objection to it.  No reasons are given, but it's a clear wink to one's preferred audience, a kind of code to let them know that it's a larger cultural battle in the works. But also note that scarequoting just communicates this challenge to the naming, but not its grounds or even what the alternatives are.  It is a particularly weak and lazy form of criticism, one that effectively relies on the audience to supply their own arguments.

In the wake of the leaked Katie Couric tape, with Couric laughing at Sara Palin's kids names, Douglas MacKinnon re-opens the case that Sara Palin was treated unfairly by the media in '08.  He thinks her performances in the Gibson interview (when she couldn't define the Bush Doctrine) and Couric interview (when, she couldn't name a single news magazine) were because of the treachery of the liberals who ran the interviews.  But the real fault lays with the McCain campaign for not protecting her from these ambushes.  That's weird, as it seems that these questions were hardly surprises and could have easily been turned into cases for Palin to showcase her knowledge of politics and foreign affairs, had she done any homework.  Regardless, MacKinnon has the perfect downplayer setup for his case in his opening paragraph:

As the video popped-up this week of far-left, ultra wealthy, and privileged CBS “News” anchor Katie Couric going after then Governor Sarah Palin while mocking the names of her children, it reminded me all over again how much Palin is owed an apology from the “leadership” of the McCain campaign.

That paragraph without the scare quotes still gets the point across — McCain's campaign advisers should have known that liberals would try to take down their witless VP candidate, and they should have stayed with only Sean Hannity and Greta Van Sustren interviewing her.  But with the addition, really, of no more words but a few extra marks (eight little apostrophes), MacKinnon communicates so much more and expresses (and encourages) real hostility to his opponents.

Here, let me show you.  I'll re-write my last paragraph with the addition of scare quotes.

That paragraph without the scare quotes still gets the "point" across — McCain's campaign advisers should have known that liberals would try to take down their witless VP candidate, and they should have stayed with only Sean Hannity and Greta Van Sustren "interviewing" her.  But with the addition, really, of no more words but a few extra marks (eight little apostrophes), MacKinnon "communicates" so much more and expresses (and encourages) real hostility to his opponents.

See?  It's easy to sound much more outraged by and better informed than your opponents with just a few scare quotes.  No wonder a lazy mind like MacKinnon uses them so… liberally.