Category Archives: George Will

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.

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.

Big Boss Man

Michael Bloomberg is the Republican mayor of New York.  He has advocated a ban a gigantic sodas in New York.  This provoked the following reaction from George Will on ABC's "This Week."

STEPHANOPOULOS: And it's not easy. I want to get to one more issue before we go. Michael Bloomberg this week banning the sale of 16 — anything over 16 ounces of soda in movie theaters, restaurants (inaudible) got that ad right there in the New York Times. It says he's the nanny. And, George, I got to — I got to confess, the minute I heard about this plan from — from Michael Bloomberg, the first person I thought about was you…

(CROSSTALK)

WILL: Let me read you what Michael Bloomberg said, because in one sentence, he's got the essence of contemporary liberalism, that is something preposterous and something sinister. Listen to this. We're not taking away anyone's right to do things. Could have fooled me. We're simply forcing you to understand. Now, that's modern liberalism, the delight in bossing people around, the kind of irritable gesture that'll have no public…

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it is a massive problem, George. Obesity is a problem across the country.

WILL: Of course it is. And regulating the size of these drinks at some outlets will do nothing about it. By the way, the sale of sugary, carbonated sodas has fallen 24 percent since 1990. The American people are getting the word on this. But what this really says is — what Bloomberg is saying, the government helps with your health care, the government's implicated in your health, therefore, we own you, therefore, the government can fine-tune all the decisions you make pertinent to your health.

Bloomberg, again, is a Republican.  How his behavior expresses the "essence of liberalism" is a mystery.  What it does express is the fact that many laws entail "bossing people around."  As a matter of very obvious fact, the law is a kind of big boss person, who tells you how fast to drive, to wear a seatbelt, or a helmet, or to have a child safety seat, or not to drive drunk, or to pull over for emergency vehicles, or any other of the hundreds of very bossy rules about driving, walking, and riding.  Some people, Republicans, also try to use it to tell you which person you can marry, or which words you can use on TV (could go on, but why bother?)

Will then finds that the Republican soda plan is just like climate change:

WILL: But this is one of the reasons liberals are so enamored of the issue of climate change. They say all our behavior in some way affects the climate. Therefore, the government — meaning, we, liberals, the party of government — can fine-tune all your behavior right down to the light bulbs you use.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Wow, the leap from soda to climate change. Donna, you get the last word, 10 seconds.

BRAZILE: George, all I could tell you is that this is a very serious concern and I commend the mayor for raising it and also giving you something to drink about.

Ah, the lightbulb thing.  Cheers to Brazile for the joke; but couldn't anyone have pointed out that Bloomberg is a Republican?  It's not that hard folks.

H/T Crooks and Liars.

Arguers arguing

My sense is that critical thinking and informal logic classes stress the evaluation of arguments, not arguers.  This is fine as a starting point, but as a long run strategy, it ignores the fact that we have very often to evaluate arguers.  Someone who makes good ones, like someone who can throw good pitchers, is a good arguer; someone who makes bad ones, is a bad arguer.  It's a kind of skill.  The judgement about the person arguing strikes some, however, as having too much of an ad hominem character.  But ad hominems are not by their very nature fallacious.  They're fallacious only when the ad hominem judgement has no relevance to the truth or falsity or reliability or whatever of what a person is saying. 

In light of this, consider George Will's latest attack on his favorite hollow man, "progressivism."

In 2011, for the first time in 62 years, America was a net exporter of petroleum products. For the indefinite future, a specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance. Because progressivism exists to justify a few people bossing around most people and because progressives believe that only government’s energy should flow unimpeded, they crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing — by them — that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans’ behavior.

and then later:

An all-purpose rationale for rationing in its many permutations has been the progressives’ preferred apocalypse, the fear of climate change. But environmentalism as the thin end of an enormous wedge of regulation and redistribution is a spent force. How many Americans noticed that the latest United Nations climate change confabulation occurred in December in Durban, South Africa?

Let's put this another way.  A person who makes up phony opponents (hollow men) merely in order to knock down their imaginary arguments with demonstrable scientific falsehoods is a very sorry arguer.  That's an ad hominem.

via Washington Monthly 

Stop contradicting yourself

Check out the image:

Yes, this is exactly what diversity means.  This reminds me of a classic George Will argument (with the same equivocation) against "Liberals."

Although liberals give lip service to "diversity," they often treat federalism as an annoying impediment to their drive for uniformity. Feingold, who is proud that Wisconsin is one of only four states that clearly require special elections of replacement senators in all circumstances, wants to impose Wisconsin's preference on the other 46. Yes, he acknowledges, they could each choose to pass laws like Wisconsin's, but doing this "state by state would be a long and difficult process." Pluralism is so tediously time-consuming.

Got them liberals there George!  Maybe, by way of satire, we could construct the following argument to make the same very immature point: If you favor diversity, you favor it all of the time, if you have diversity all of the time, then you have uniform diversity, so you have uniformity, so if you favor diversity, you favor uniformity.  I should add: stop contradicting yourself. 

 

Smack Down!

The Huffington Post, despite much promise, is a huge disappointment.  One reason is that the editors characterize any kind of discussion as a "battle" and any kind of response to  criticism as a "smack down" or "slap" or somesuchother expression. 

Now some have argued, wrongly I think (irony alert), that Philosophy is to blame for this adversarial culture of argument.  This is what critical thinking and logic courses teach, they allege, so it's no wonder we have this language of argument filled with metaphors of war and sports.  Scott Aikin has a discussion of that topic here

But I don't think that's really the case for Philosophy.  Speaking somewhat anecdotally, philosophers deploy critical analysis (including "the fallacy technique") to uncover the silliness of HuffPo style "debates."  Here's a good example from this morning's HuffPo.  It's an article which the front page calls "Barney Frank Smacks Down George Will."  The actual article, however, is actually appropriately titled "Barney Frank, George Will debate Pot Legalization".  This includes a video here.

I think this is actually a fun exchange.  Frank argues that self-regarding behavior of adults is their own business, Will plays the conservative end of the conservative side (not the libertarian end), arguing that the jury is still out on these things, and that "liberalism" is averse to facts.  Even if Frank had successfully dismantled the dishonest structure of Will's pseudo libertarianism, I wouldn't call this exchange a "smack down."  Come to think of it, I'm not even sure what a "smack down" is. 

With a rebel yell, they cried “Moore, Moore, Moore”

I happened across two related items on the Atlantic Wire, a blog of the Atlantic Monthly.  One reports that liberal filmmaker Michael Moore has a very nice vacation home on the shores of Torch Lake, near Traverse City, MI.  The other wonders whether George Will should disclose his political consultant wife's clients

The Moore item carries the water of ubertroll Andrew Breitbart, who alleges that Moore is a hypocrite for being rich and criticizing the rich:

No one begrudges Moore his wealth, but it is deceitful for him to claim poverty while encouraging class warfare among other Americans. It is also purely narcissistic and selfish for Moore to back radical and destructive socialist policies that would deny other Americans the opportunity to become as rich as he is.

Torch Lake is a nice lake, Michael Moore is a rich guy.  How rich?  It does not matter.  Has he made his money on Wall Street.  No.  Boo to the Atlantic for running this kind of intellectual garbage.

The other item on George Will is almost as dumb. 

But it does seem that in all his words written about the Republican field so far, and particularly in the broadside against Romney, there might have been room for Will to note that he's related to someone who is actively working with some of the very campaigns he covers. Then, this is an improvement over earlier election cycles, when Will played both sides of the journalistic line, all by himself

George Will is not a journalist.  He is a pundit, a professional arguer guy, he's paid to have opinions about stuff.  You can look through the archives here for what we think of his opinions (not much).   

Iron man versus straw man

Here is serial straw manner George F.Will on Elizabeth Warren, candidate for Senate in Massachussetts:

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. . . . You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Warren is (as William F. Buckley described Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith) a pyromaniac in a field of straw men: She refutes propositions no one asserts. Everyone knows that all striving occurs in a social context, so all attainments are conditioned by their context. This does not, however, entail a collectivist political agenda.

Such an agenda’s premise is that individualism is a chimera, that any individual’s achievements should be considered entirely derivative from society, so the achievements need not be treated as belonging to the individual. Society is entitled to socialize — i.e., conscript — whatever portion it considers its share. It may, as an optional act of political grace, allow the individual the remainder of what is misleadingly called the individual’s possession.

In large part the straw man diagnosis is purely factual: does arguer A hold position p?  You merely have to go and check (um, editors?  fact checkers?).  Rarely does a serial straw manner such as Will make it so easy.  For Will's favorite straw man version is the hollow man–the variety of the straw man which attacks positions no arguer is alleged to hold.  Here we have Warren's actual words.  Sensisble or not (hey, I think they are and I've been making that argument for years, before it was cool), she is not asserting anything like what Will is saying.  

Worse than this, is the way Will poses the iron man–the egregiously charitable reading of his own team's view–next to the straw man of the other team.  Few in the Republican establishment seem to endorse that part about paying it forward via taxes, or that social infrastructure spending, education spending, etc., serves the purpose of individual striving.

See other commentary here, here, and here.

Crazy Train

We've all been busy here at the Non Sequitur.  But today I had a moment for a short post.

Here's Paul Krugman on George Will (via Eschaton):

Oh, boy — this George Will column (via Grist) is truly bizarre:

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

As Sarah Goodyear at Grist says, trains are a lot more empowering and individualistic than planes — and planes, not cars, are the main alternative to high-speed rail.

And there’s the bit about rail as an antiquated technology; try saying that after riding the Shanghai Maglev.

But anyway, it’s amazing to see Will — who is not a stupid man — embracing the sinister progressives-hate-your-freedom line, more or less right out of Atlas Shrugged; with the extra irony, of course, that John Galt’s significant other ran, well, a railroad.

Like Kramer on Seinfeld, I'd take issue with the last bolded comment.  This argument, such as it is, is classic Will:  The most dishonest kind of straw man used to provoke an explanatory hypothesis about the the straw manned arguer's motives and intellgence in making such bizarre and wrong-headed claims.  On the strength of this, you'll feel justified in ignoring anything else such a person would say.

This one is especially odd since trains are self-evidently awesome–and they're kind of bow-tie conservative-ish, like baseball.  Besides, as Sarah Goodyear points out, they do the same things planes do: they send you in a tube to another city.  The only difference is that trains usually drop you off downtown.

Every effect has a cause, usually

Someone quipped the other day that whatever we do in the wake of Saturday's massacre (not tragedy), we must not consider what might have caused it.  And so, George Will:

It would be merciful if, when tragedies such as Tucson's occur, there were a moratorium on sociology. But respites from half-baked explanations, often serving political opportunism, are impossible because of a timeless human craving and a characteristic of many modern minds.

Well, I say all men by nature desire to know.  I'd also say the very frequency of mass casualty attacks means they fall into the "things deserving explanation category."  It's "tragedies" plural, after all.

Who can blame George Will (and the rest of the pack of Wapo conservatives); no one likes to be associated with psychos.  As someone else quipped (on twitter of all places): if they're looking for advice on how to manage the unjust assocation, maybe they can ask Muslims.  If someone holds beliefs remotely similar to yours, after all, you're guilty unless you spend all day every day distancing yourself from them.  Well, that's the way it is for Muslims, at least.

Anyway, the point I wanted to make today was already made by smarter and more articulate people.  So I'll just repeat most of what they said.

While calling for caution, honesty, and rigor in attributing specific causes to the events in Tucscon, George Will casts caution to the wind in interpreting the words of others.  He writes:

Three days before Tucson, Howard Dean explained that the Tea Party movement is "the last gasp of the generation that has trouble with diversity." Rising to the challenge of lowering his reputation and the tone of public discourse, Dean smeared Tea Partyers as racists: They oppose Obama's agenda, Obama is African American, ergo . . .

Let us hope that Dean is the last gasp of the generation of liberals whose default position in any argument is to indict opponents as racists. This McCarthyism of the left – devoid of intellectual content, unsupported by data – is a mental tic, not an idea but a tactic for avoiding engagement with ideas. It expresses limitless contempt for the American people, who have reciprocated by reducing liberalism to its current characteristics of electoral weakness and bad sociology.

By way of analogy, which is a kind of argument, I might pick out eleven words from Erick Erickson or Glenn Beck, or whoever, that suggest one ought to take up arms against the government.  But that wouldn't be fair, would it?   Well in their case it just appears to be plainly true. Anyway, the point is that Dean was making a more nuanced point that Will's slimy quotation suggests.  And so we have, I think, the beginnings of a classic representational form straw man.  It begins with pure distortion directly attributed to someone else.  But this one has, I think, a key feature of the fallacious straw man–the employment of the distortion to close the argument–which is exactly what Will does.  It's not enough, in other words, that Dean's contribution to the Tea Party discourse blows.  He's also a moron for offering it, a moron not worthy of further serious intellectual engagement.