Category Archives: Jonah Goldberg

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?

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.



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.


An interesting weak man argument

Jonah Goldberg has a nice piece over at National Review Online about the way the recently upheld Affordable Care Act has been received at National Public Radio.  He picks out Julie Rovner's question about whether there are really any losers in the decision.  She eventually concludes that there aren't any.  Goldberg can't hold himself back:

It is an interesting perspective given that this is arguably the most controversial law in our lifetimes. It nearly sparked a constitutional crisis, helped cause the Democrats to lose their majority in the House, and, despite herculean efforts by the president to “sell” the law . . .  And yet, according to Rovner, the law creates only winners if properly implemented. Why on earth are its opponents so stupid?  For the record, there are losers under Obamacare. Here’s a short list: ….

He then goes on with your expected list (taxpayers…it's a tax, you see, Catholics who see part of the law as subsidizing condom use, and people at the bottom of the slippery slope of medication rationing).  This, so far, isn't what's good about Goldberg's column.  In fact, so far, it's just his usual schlocky version of what a dumb person would think a smart person would say about the issue and about the opposition.  But then he surprises:

Obamacare defenders have responses to these objections, and critics have responses to those responses. Still: Serious people do believe that the law creates — or just might create — losers, a fact Rovner might have mentioned.

I don’t mean to pick on Rovner. Her views on Obamacare don’t strike me as exceptional so much as typical — typical of a liberal Washington establishment that still seems incapable of grasping what the fuss is about.

This is nice, except for his saying that he doesn't mean to 'pick on' Rovner.  That, of course, is ridiculous — he's making an example of her. That's not wrong, nor is it worth making a big deal about not doing it.   Rather, what's nice is that Goldberg sees that this isn't the best the other side can do in the debate, but that it's typical of what the other side does in the debate.  That's a good observation, one that shows some real self-awareness and also dialectical sensitivity.  You have to disabuse your audience of the bad but widely made arguments before you can get to the good but infrequently given arguments. 





In what's good for the gander news, NRO's Jonah Goldberg thinks that President Obama's rhetoric has turned ugly.  He's using patriotism against Republicans. 

According to his new stump speech, if you oppose his agenda, then you don’t care about America as much as he does.

Well, let's see the line that Goldberg thinks crosses the line.

What is needed is action on the part of Congress, a willingness to put the partisan games aside and say we’re going to do what’s right for the country, not what we think is going to score some political points for the next election. . . . There is nothing that we’re facing that we can’t solve with some spirit of ‘America first.'

Goldberg objects that the 'America First' spirit is supposed to "separate the patriotic from the petty."  But surely this is mild compared to, say, Michele Bachmann saying liberals are unAmerican or even the rest of Goldberg's article, which makes hay about how the President is going on vacation (and so thereby must not be patriotic, either!).  

The point, however, isn't to make the hypocrisy charge here.  The point is to say that Goldberg doesn't defend those charged with pettiness.  He only cries foul at their being called petty.  But surely if there is a group of legislators that are out only to save their hides for the next election rather than making hard choices or getting on with the work of governing, then they need to be called out.  Moreover, it's not the charge of being unpatriotic that I saw in the Obama speech, but the charge of political cynicism.  And it's easy to be a political cynic and be really patriotic.  In fact, those all too often go hand in hand, don't they?

I won’t forget to place roses on your grave

Tu Quoque arguments, it seems to me, have a statute of limitations on when the first of the two inconsistent acts can be relevantly inconsistent with the second. (See my long article in Informal Logic for the full story)  For example, someone may express appropriate surprise at the fact that the altarboy later became an atheist when he was a grownup, but that's not inconsistency in the relevant sense for an accusation of hypocrisy.  The two acts need to be close enough in time for them to be relevant to each other.  And so it's usual when someone runs an argument from inconsistency, she will say something like:

Person S says we should not do X, but then she turns right around and does X.

The important thing is that S turns right around and does it.  If she did X years ago, perhaps S has learned her lesson.  Or she's changed her mind.  Or maybe the facts regarding X have changed.  X may be the best option, nowadays.  The lesson: with charges of hypocrisy, time's relevant.

With that in mind, let's look at Jonah Goldberg's commentary on the (albeit grudging) praise of Ronald Reagan's presidency from liberals.  This is part of a trend he sees. Barry Goldwater, after being demonized by LBJ, was later portrayed as an "avuncular and sage grandfather type." William F. Buckley, too, went from being called a Nazi to later being an actual defender of liberalism.  Reagan, now:

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Gipper is enjoying yet another status upgrade among liberals. Barack Obama took a Reagan biography with him on his vacation. A slew of liberals and mainstream journalists (but I repeat myself) complimented Obama’s State of the Union address as “Reaganesque.” Time magazine recently featured the cover story “Why Obama (Hearts) Reagan.” Meanwhile, the usual suspects are rewriting the same columns about how Reagan was a pragmatist who couldn’t run for president today because he was too nice, too reasonable, too (shudder) liberal for today’s Republican party.

Trouble is, while Reagan was alive, liberals didn't have too high an opinion of him:

[My] favorite comes from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London, which in 1982 held a vote for the most hated people of all time. The winners: Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Dracula.

Now, first, note that these are cases where we're looking at things said in 1982 and 2011.  Almost thirty years difference.  Second, note that these inconsistencies are ones distributed over a group, Liberals, not individual people.  Regardless, it's almost as though Goldberg isn't paying attention to the subtext of these retrospectives:  that despite the fact that liberals disagreed with these conservatives, liberals could nevertheless see their virtues as people in retrospect.  And one of the reasons why those virtues are worth mentioning now is that current conservatives so clearly fail to have them.  I take it back.  Goldberg gets that part:

[S]o much of the effort to build up conservatives of the past is little more than a feint to tear down the conservatives of the present.

But, for some reason,  he thinks instead this is a point he's scoring on liberals by showing how they're inconsistent.  Again, in cases where time's changed the variables, sometimes what you've inveighed against earlier becomes the best choice.  Ask any liberal: would you take  Reagan or Buckley over Palin or Goldberg for a decent conversation about government and political norms?  You know the answer.  Goldberg thinks this means that liberals think that the only good conservative is a dead conservative. He's missed the point.  The point, instead, is sadly that all the good conservatives are dead.

Now, that’s a strawman!

Jonah Goldberg has a piece defending Lindsey Graham's recent proposal for a Constitutional Amendment (one that would revise the 14th Amendment's citizenship clause so that children born of illegal aliens are not citizens).  More importantly, Goldberg is out to defend our responsibility to revise and interpret the Constitution as the cases demand.  Now, this should come as a surprise to all the conservatives who take themselves to be strict "Constitutionists" — this sounds all too much like the old 'living document' take on the Constitution conservatives hate so much.  Goldberg anticipates this:

...this "living document" argument is a straw man. Of course justices must read the document in the context of an ever-changing world. What else could they do? Ask plaintiffs to wear period garb, talk in 18th-century lingo and only bring cases involving paper money and runaway slaves?

Goldberg's a little confused about straw men, as straw-manning depends on how you portray your opposition, not how obvious your views are.  But his point is reasonable enough — if the options are, on the one hand, seeing the world and the Constitution's relevance through the lenses of 18th Century Yankees and, on the other hand, looking at the world with the judgment of 21st Century Yankees, we should take the 21st Century perspective… given that we're out to deal with 21st Century problems.  So Jonah Goldberg has made a nice point and also has highlighted a straw man argument.  Oh, but then he steps right back into the straw man mode, himself:

When discussing the Constitution on college campuses, students and even professors will object that without a "living constitution," blacks would still be slaves and women wouldn't be allowed to vote. Nonsense. Those indispensable changes to the Constitution came not from judges reading new rights into the document but from Americans lawfully amending it.

Even professors?  Really?  Even professors?  Goldberg owes us at least one name for this charge.  But he provides no documentation, no names, no nothing, just vague allegations of intellectual incompetence.  Nobody said that living document interpretation of the Constitution was the solution to those things — we had Constitutional Amendments to solve those problems.  Only utter morons would say those were cases of living document work.  But how about, say, Brown v. Board, or pretty much every privacy rights case?  Or, maybe Gregg v. Georgia, with the notion of an evolving standards of decency in punishment?  Those are all cases of reading the document of the Constitution in a way that keeps its core commitments but also extends them to the cases that the framers did not anticipate.  Ignoring these cases (and actual discussions of them on academic campuses) not only distorts what the "living document" interpretation is, but it makes it impossible to make sense of what Goldberg's own views on the Constitution are.  For someone out to prevent straw manning about Constitutional interpretation, Jonah Goldberg is an expert at constructing and knocking the stuffing out of them.

Doesn’t anyone read this stuff before they print it?

For half a second–OK, a couple paragraphs–I thought Jonah Goldberg might have an interesting argument for an interesting distinction. Goldberg is tired of hearing about moral hypocrisy, understandably perhaps, given the exposure of the pecadillos of so many of his party's stalwarts. But, this just fuels his desire to accuse those pointy headed liberals of some form of hypocrisy. Since, he can't seem to wait patiently until Geithner is caught shacking up with a Bolivian movie-star, he tries to invent a charge of hypocrisy.

Regardless, what I don't think we hear enough about is intellectual hypocrisy. What do I mean? Well, if moral hypocrisy is saying what values people should live by while failing to follow them yourself, intellectual hypocrisy is believing you are smart enough to run other peoples' lives when you can barely run your own.

I'm not entirely sure that this is a coherent idea (see my comment below), but let's play along for the time being. If someone is "barely able to run their own lives" and yet believes that she or he is able to "run other peoples' lives" then lets call this "intellectual hypocrisy."

The chairman of a small college's English department thinks it's obvious intellectuals should take over healthcare, but he can't manage the class schedule of three professors or run a meeting without it coming to blows or tears; a pundit defends government intervention in almost every sphere of economic life, but he can't figure out how to manage the interns or his own checking account.

Goldberg seems to have forgotten his definition just two paragraphs earlier. Our chairman does not seem to be "barely able to run his own life" nor does believing that "intellectuals" should take over health care meet his own definition. The same can be said for the pundit. So maybe we can revise his definition in the light of his actual examples:

I.H. occurs when a person believes that intellectuals (does he just mean "experts" here?)  should manage parts of our society while being unable to manage every problem in their lives (run an obstreperous department or manage interns). But, what's wrong with this? Does it make any less sense than saying that I am unable to diagnose my own health perfectly, while believing that others are smart enough to diagnose other peoples' health. I'm not sure that this is an analogous, but the general point seems right to me–there is nothing intellectually dishonest occuring in either of these examples.

But, Goldberg has some more loaded examples to try to make fit his definition.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) offers a more timely example. Rangel heads the Ways and Means Committee, which writes the tax code, and he recently backed the imposition of an income tax surcharge on high earners to pay for healthcare, calling it "the moral thing to do." Yet he can't seem to figure out how to file his own taxes properly or, perhaps, legally. The lapses are the subject of a House Ethics Committee investigation.

Is the problem here really intellectual hypocrisy, or perhaps the moral hypocrisy that Goldberg is tired of? Perhaps, Goldberg didn't have time to revise his op-ed to free it of this self-contradiction, but this example does not seem to bolster his case for intellectual hypocrisy.

Now I also know lots of conservatives who are basket cases at everything other than reading and writing books and articles, giving speeches and thinking Big Thoughts (just as I know lots of liberals who despise conservative moralizing about sex and religion who nonetheless live chaste and pious lives themselves). The point is that conservatives don't presume to be smart enough to run everything, because conservative dogma takes it as an article of faith that no one can be that smart.

So, even when conservatives think that they're smart enough to re-write tax code, and have the same difficulties paying their taxes on time, they aren't being intellectually dishonest, because they hold an ideology that takes it as an article of faith that no one can be smart enough to re-write the tax code!?

Moral hypocrisy is still worth exposing, I guess. But we are living in a moment when revealing intellectual hypocrisy should take precedence. The American Enterprise Institute's "Enterprise Blog" recently ran a chart from a J.P. Morgan report showing that less than 10% of President Obama's Cabinet has private-sector experience, the least of any Cabinet in a century. From the stimulus to healthcare reform and cap-and-trade, Washington is now run by people who think they know how to run everything, when in reality they can barely run anything.

Hmmmm. Somehow Goldberg seems to infer from a claim about people not having run a business to a conclusion that they can barely run anything.

If I follow the implicit argument here it seems to be: 90% of Obama's cabinet are intellectual hypocrites. By hypocrites I mean people who haven't worked in the private sector (but who now work in government). Intellectual hypocrites should not be in power. Therefore 90% of Obama's cabinet should not be in power ((All liberals are Nazis, by Nazis I mean people who vote democratic. Nazi's support genocide, Therefore all liberals support genocide.)

I’m not an economist

Since I'm not an economist, I can't easily judge the content of the Krugman's arguments against anti-stimulus arguments. But what makes Krugman stand head and shoulders above the rest of his fellow pundits, is that he makes arguments.

Next, write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

The point is that nobody really believes that a dollar of tax cuts is always better than a dollar of public spending. Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts — and therefore costs less per job created (see the previous fraudulent argument) — because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

This suggests that public spending rather than tax cuts should be the core of any stimulus plan. But rather than accept that implication, conservatives take refuge in a nonsensical argument against public spending in general.

Now to be fair, we can criticize the argument in a couple of ways–first, air traffic control involves a task of coordination and it isn't clear that priming the economic pump does in the same way. It isn't just that centralized air traffic control is more efficient than a "free market" equivalent. So we might ask whether the analogy holds.

Second, we might ask whether the claim that "taxpayer are the best judges of how to spend their money" (see last paragraph here) implies that all public spending should be replaced with private spending. A more moderate position might be to argue that when it comes to something like economic stimulus this principle holds true. However, Krugman is arguing against some of the simplistic and fallacious dismissals of stimulus spending, and so aims to free the discussion for substantive arguments from economists and policy makers rather than from the ideological hacks.

By the way, what is the fallacy in the argument he is attacking? Is it a fallacy? Accident, perhaps? Seems to involve the universalization of a principle that probably holds true in many cases (better to let me choose whether to spend my money on a Squeezebox Duet rather than a Sonos System, than have the government choose for me. Maybe something like "When there's no compelling public need, it is preferable to allow citizens to choose how to spend their money than have government choose." What counts as a compelling need is a political question–in the case of the stimulus plan Krugman makes the case that the public need is stimulating the economy and government spending is just much more effective than private spending in doing that.

The "fallacy" seems to work by arguing:

1. We accept principle x.

2. Principle x entails we should not do y.

3. Therefore we should not do y.

However, principle x is either a) not accepted as stated or b) when qualified does not apply to case y.

1. It is wrong to kill.

2. If it is wrong to kill then we should not use lethal force to defend ourselves.

3. Therefore we should not use lethal force to defend ourselves.

 But, either a) it is not wrong (always to kill) or b) it is only wrong to kill without justification.

The fallacy seems to arise when the principle is taken to be persuasive because on the surface it seems true.


In a meritocracy, people earn their way upwards.  So foundational is the notion of merit to a meritocracy, that for some, such as myself for instance, it has a broader application.  In a meritocracy democracy, such as ours would like to be, people advance their position on the strength of their arguments.  If your argument has no merit because it rests on made up facts–or lies as some call them–you ought to realize it does not deserve to be made not to mention win.  Well, would that Jonah Goldberg thought this way,  He writes:

I have no idea whatsoever if there's merit to this, and if there is how much merit, but lots of email like this:

When are people going to start talking about the REAL reason the markets are down – Obama up in polls. If I was McCain, I'd start telling people, "If you want to lose more money, vote Obama."

A person such as Goldberg could perhaps be bothered to check to see whether there is any merit to his obviously contentious, to say the least, claim.  His readers could be forgiven, after all, they read him.  

Thanks to Glenn Greenwald for the tip.