Category Archives: George Will

Someone to agree with me

I wish I had a flattering one-idea explanation for the outcome of Tuesday's election, where Republicans took a majority in the house, and made gains in, but did not take, the Senate (weren't they supposed to do that?).  But I know such an explanation would likely be inadequate.  One idea, I think, couldn't explain the entire complex thing.  Not even the one chosen by most political scientists (i.e., the people who study this stuff as a job)–the economy, the economy, the economy–could do the trick. 

But I'm not George Will.  He has studied the data, consulted with the nation's top political scientists and economists, and come to the conclusion that one idea–the idea he blathers about all of the time–happens to the be just the one that explains the election, the desires of the American people, and the failures of "liberalism":

It is amazing the ingenuity Democrats invest in concocting explanations of voter behavior that erase what voters always care about, and this year more than ever – ideas. This election was a nationwide recoil against Barack Obama's idea of unlimited government.

It's just false that Obama believes in "unlimited government" (or anything remotely close to it).  But perhaps few of George Will's devoted readers would likely believe that.  This notion–which pretty much drives the rest of this sorry piece of thinking–forms the basis of George Will's thinking about government, inasmuch as his thinking, to the extent that you can even call it that, is entirely defined by opposition to a fantasy opponent, one who holds beliefs no one really holds, and one who, tellingly, never utters the words he attributes to them.

So he spends the rest of this piece defining this liberal–citing not one thing a liberal in recent years has actually endorsed–but relying on the authority of someone else's hollow man:

Recently, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter decided, as the president has decided, that what liberals need is not better ideas but better marketing of the ones they have: "It's a sign of how poorly liberals market themselves and their ideas that the word 'liberal' is still in disrepute despite the election of the most genuinely liberal president that the political culture of this country will probably allow."

"Despite"? In 2008, Democrats ran as Not George Bush. In 2010, they ran as Democrats. Hence, inescapably, as liberals, or at least as obedient to liberal leaders. Hence Democrats' difficulties.

Responding to Alter, George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux agreed that interest-group liberalism has indeed been leavened by idea-driven liberalism. Which is the problem.

"These ideas," Boudreaux says, "are almost exclusively about how other people should live their lives. These are ideas about how one group of people (the politically successful) should engineer everyone else's contracts, social relations, diets, habits, and even moral sentiments." Liberalism's ideas are "about replacing an unimaginably large multitude of diverse and competing ideas . . . with a relatively paltry set of 'Big Ideas' that are politically selected, centrally imposed, and enforced by government, not by the natural give, take and compromise of the everyday interactions of millions of people."

To most liberals, Alter hardly counts as a representative (hey, let's torture now!).  And besides, Will obviously distorts what Alter meant.  Alter probably meant something like: how can mildly progressive ideas about health care lose to people (just an example) who fear government taking away their medicare (but hey, go read it for yourself–it's a review of a zillion books about liberals).  That point, I think, deserves fairer consideration.

The funny thing about this passage, however, is the bolded part.  Will's assistant found someone else who shares the same hollow man he does in precisely the same way he does: a grand characterization, attributable to no one, full of ad hominem and invective.  And he cites that as evidence for his view.

I don’t usually practice psychiatry in my blog

If there is a logic to the arguments of politicians, I don’t know what it is.  A vote for a politician involves a complex web of commitments whose primary objective is action, not belief.  So when politicians violate the rules of argumentative propriety, it’s hard to complain too much.  You know their ads are going to go ad hominem, too often egregriously so, when they’re not distorting the record, or otherwise strawmanning, hollow manning, or weak manning their opponents.

Columnists in the newspaper, on the other hand, play a different kind of game.  Well some of them do.  They advance reasons for believing proposition x or proposition y.  We can, I think, hold them to a higher standard.

So for instance, today George Will  argues that Democrats are desperate in the face of the march of obviously moderate, reasonable, non masterbating Tea Party candidates.  His argument is bad.  Here’s how it goes:

P1.  The Democrats have accomplished nothing that people like;

P2.  They have plans for more stuff people don’t like;

C.  Therefore they now wrongly characterize grass roots, very reasonable, centrist small-government people as “extremists.”

Just for the record, I think P1 is very questionable, and a partisan operator such as Will ought to offer better evidence (he doesn’t offer any).  P2 is weak for the same reason.  Now if those premises were true, which they aren’t, maybe that conclusion would follow.  But the conclusion is false anyway–because the candidates in question stand far from the center of American politics.  That is not to say they’re wrong.  It’s just to say they are not unfairly criticized as on an extreme.  Time to take that word back extremists.  Embrace it.

Now Will moves to a more serious objective: a logical critique of Democrats in general:

Democrats, unable to run on their policies, will try to demonize the opponents with Tea Party support as unstable extremists with personality disorders. They have ridden this hobby horse before.

As I argued above, this is a vacuous critique.  But it’s hilarious, because it’s an attempt at logic criticism–and Will sucks at this.  Here’s how is argument goes for that conclusion:

In response to a questionnaire from a magazine, 1,189 psychiatrists, none of whom had ever met Goldwater, declared him unfit for office — “emotionally unstable,” “immature,” “cowardly,” “grossly psychotic,” “paranoid,” “chronic schizophrenic” and “dangerous lunatic” were some judgments from the psychiatrists who believed that extremism in pursuit of Goldwater was no vice. Shortly before the election, Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter published in Harper’s an essay (later expanded into a book with the same title), “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” that encouraged the idea that Goldwater’s kind of conservatism was a mental disorder.

On the eve of the convention that nominated Goldwater, Daniel Schorr of CBS, “reporting” from Germany, said: “It looks as though Sen. Goldwater, if nominated, will be starting his campaign here in Bavaria, center of Germany’s right wing” and “Hitler’s one-time stomping ground.”

Goldwater, said Schorr, would be vacationing near Hitler’s villa at Berchtesgaden. Schorr further noted that Goldwater had given an interview to Der Spiegel “appealing to right-wing elements in Germany” and had agreed to speak to a gathering of “right-wing Germans.” So, “there are signs that the American and German right wings are joining up.”

But as Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard has reported, although Goldwater had spoken vaguely about a European vacation (he did not take one), he had not mentioned Germany, and there were no plans to address any German group. Der Spiegel had reprinted an interview that had appeared elsewhere.

The relevance of this for 2010? There is precedent for the mainstream media being megaphones for Democratic-manufactured hysteria.

Nonsense.  Let’s reconstruct this.

P1. A bunch of psychiatrists thought Barry Goldwater was crazy in 1964.

P2. Richard Hofttadter wrote the “Paranoid Style in American Politics”

P3.  A reporter for CBS (recently deceased) is alleged to have slandered Goldwater.

C.  Therefore, the Democrats “have ridden this hobby horse before.”

Gee, he doesn’t even really try here.  It just doesn’t follow that the “Democrats” have done any of this–various unrelated people have.  But anyway, Charles Krauthammer, a non anonymous psychiatrist who shares the Post’s op-ed page with George Will, said the following of candidate Al Gore:

KRAUTHAMMER: Crying for help, you know. (LAUGHTER) I’m a psychiatrist. I don’t usually practice on camera. But this is the edge of looniness, this idea that there’s a vast conspiracy, it sits in a building, it emanates, it has these tentacles, is really at the edge. He could use a little help.

He does that all of the time and he sits in the cubicle next to Will at the Post.  And he’s not a Democrat.

And here’s the introduction to Hoftstadter’s piece in the Atlantic:
American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics., In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
Gee, How many Republicans have doubted whether Obama is an American citizen?  A Christian non-terrorist?  Pro-American?  A gay Nazi Muslim?
But this just underscores the blind ignorance WIll must suppose his readers to live in.  How often does one hear on Fox News and other similar outlets (and Tea Party rallies) analogies between begnign Democratic policies and Nazism?  Very often (I wonder, should one ever answer a rhetorical question?  Probably not).

W-T-F

Some maintain that arguments are dialogues and such therefore be evaluated as such.  I have my doubts about this view, because so many of the arguments I encounter seem to be monologues, or at least the critical parts of them don't have anything to do with dialoguing with someone who disagrees with you (assuming the back-and-forth exchange is what is meant by "dialogue").  They seem–the critical parts–to be old-fashioned inferences of the inductive variety, or variations thereof.

Here's an example.  Today George Will argues ("superbly" according to some twitterers) that collective action to address an economic crisis is bad.  His argument, such as it is, goes something like this:

1.  During the depression, FDR's NRA attempted  price-fixing as a tool of economic recovery;

2.  One of those charged with overseeing this program admired Mussolini;

3.  Those who attempted to sell goods or services for less than the fixed price were punished  (just like in Cold War Poland);

4.  Today, as in the Great Depression, the government is trying to aid recovery:

Today, as 76 years ago, economic recovery is much on the mind of the government, which is busy as a beaver — sending another $26 billion to public employees, proposing an additional $50 billion for "infrastructure" — as it orchestrates Recovery Summer to an appropriate climax. But at least today's government is agnostic about the proper price for cleaning a suit.  

5.  But, in 1937 the Great Depression got worse:

In 1937, FDR asked in his second inaugural address for "unimagined power" to enforce "proper subordination" of private interests to public authority. The biggest industrial collapse in American history occurred eight years after the stock market crash of 1929, and nearly five years into the New Deal, in . . . 1937.

6.  Therefore:

The NRA lives on, sort of, in this Milton Friedman observation: Pick at random any three letters from the alphabet, put them in any order, and you will have an acronym designating a federal agency we can do without.

That's the best I can do with this argument.  In the first place, Will hasn't done anything to show that price-fixing (or the New Deal) caused the industrial collapse of 1937.  Second, there seems to be no analogy between stimulus spending on teachers, firefighters and police (among others) and arguably misguided price-fixing in the Thirties.  

Now had this been some kind of back and forth of a dialogue, WIll might have anticipated that.  But he didn't.   

Statism

The caricature of the Tea Party type holds a sign and calls every single government action "communist."  Please tell me how this caricature is not on display here:

Today's evidence suggesting sluggish job creation might give pause to a less confident person than Obama. But pauses are not in his repertoire of governance. Instead, yielding to what must be a metabolic urge toward statism, he says the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is yet another reason for yet another explosion of government's control of economic life. The spill supposedly makes it urgent to adopt a large tax increase in the form of cap-and-trade energy legislation, which also is climate legislation, the primary purpose of which is, or once was, to combat global warming, such as it is.

For the uninitiated, "statism" means "any increase in government activity."  That is a charitable interpretation (on my part).  Because the other one would be "communism," which wouldn't make this any different from the average Tea Party screed about health care or guns. 

So let's get this straight. 

  1. An under-regulated and unmonistored private industry, which enjoys by the way subsidies of all sorts (highways, etc.) incentivizing its products, caused what appears to be a calamity affecting the economy and ecology of entire region, if not the world.
  2. One contributing factor to the disaster was lax oversight.
  3. Therefore, this is not an argument for government regulation. 

That's really silly I think.  If we have an argument for effective government regulation, even if it requires "statism" (God is that term dumb), then this is it. 

On the other point in the paragraph, by the way, oil is dirty in the procuring (seeMexico, Gulf of) and dirty in the using (see Warming, Global).

Strongly implies

Most of George Will's straw men are hollow men–enemies, usually "liberals" made up out of thin air, and made to hold views that would embarass a member of the communist party.  Today we are provided with a rare treat.  We can watch, almost in slow motion, the process of George Will-style straw manning.  We can see, in other words, how his dishonest mind distorts his opponent's words and then attacks them.  Today's column begins:

"Physician, heal yourself," said the founder of the church in which Roger Mahony is a cardinal. He is the Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, and he should heed the founder's admonition before accusing Arizonans of intemperateness. He says that Arizona's new law pertaining to illegal immigration involves "reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation."

"Our highest priority today," he says, "is to bring calm and reasoning to discussions about our immigrant brothers and sisters." His idea of calm reasoning is to call Arizona's law for coping with illegal immigration "the country's most retrogressive, mean-spirited, and useless anti-immigrant law." He also says that it is "dreadful," "abhorrent" and a "tragedy" and that its assumption is that "immigrants come to our country to rob, plunder and consume public resources."

The problem of illegal immigration is inflaming Mahony, who strongly implies, as advocates for illegal immigrants often do, that any law intended to reduce such illegality is "anti-immigrant." The implication is: Because most Americans believe such illegality should be reduced, most Americans are against immigrants. This slur is slain by abundant facts — polling data that show Americans simultaneously committed to controlling the nation's southern border and to welcoming legal immigration.

First off, note the classic ad hominem (tu quoque variety) flavor to the piece–"physician heal thyself" (but you haven't ha ha ha).   More basically, note that Mahoney (who shares a name with my cat), is talking about discussions of immigrants, not the particular immigration law in question.  For Mahoney, and for any third grader who can read his blog (he's got a blog), you can tell that he is referring to the general topic.  That may be a minor quibble, anyway.  Because the real distortion comes next. 

The clue to this is the twice-used "implication."  Now Will ought to know that the good Cardinal is not likely to make the claim that any law intended to reduce immigration is anti-immigrant simply because this one does.  That would be something like illicit subordination–concluding the universal proposition from the particular.  Ergo–that's Latin–the inference that most Americans are against immigrants does not follow from what Mahoney said. 

But the straw-manner is dishonest, and his objective is to close out the discussion of the opposition on their chosen position, and instead force them to defend, retract or respond to a weaker one.  Whatever they do–and I really don't know what the best way to reply here is–Will's monological tactic wins.  He controls the forum–the newspaper column–he can distort as much as he wants–until, of course, some adult at the Washington Post grows a pair. 

Those fine men and women

In the category of "strange things people say" (not a category here by the way), here's George Will on Arizona's new immigration law:

Non-Hispanic Arizonans of all sorts live congenially with all sorts of persons of Hispanic descent. These include some whose ancestors got to Arizona before statehood — some even before it was a territory. They were in America before most Americans' ancestors arrived. Arizonans should not be judged disdainfully and from a distance by people whose closest contacts with Hispanics are with fine men and women who trim their lawns and put plates in front of them at restaurants, not with illegal immigrants passing through their back yards at 3 a.m.

Mysterious.  Read the rest for the usual ad hominem and parade of straw men.

Their reasoning is a non sequitur

George Will should not use the phrase "non sequitur."  He writes:

Some liberals argue that the Constitution is unconstitutional. Their reasoning is a non sequitur: The Constitution empowers each chamber to "determine the rules of its proceedings." It requires five supermajorities (for ratifying treaties, endorsing constitutional amendments, overriding vetoes, expelling members and impeachment convictions). Therefore it does not permit requiring a sixth, to end filibusters.

No one I know of argues that–and Will doesn't try to cite anyone.  It's a dumb argument, after all.  So he's right about that.  He ought to know, of course, because that is precisly Will's argument against everything else about government he doesn't like.  Since the Constitution doesn't expressly provide for it, it doesn't exist.  There is no right to x, because the Constitution doesn't say so. 

Now since no one argues for this silly view (other than Will), it's a perfect example of the hollow man.  Note the use of "some."    

Thanks to Aaron at the Stopped Clock for the hat tip, the pointer, and for generally reading this blog. 

Dialogue more valuable than ever

Here's another article about how liberals condescend to conservatives.  It begins:

It's an odd time for liberals to feel smug. But even with Democratic fortunes on the wane, leading liberals insist that they have almost nothing to learn from conservatives. Many Democrats describe their troubles simply as a PR challenge, a combination of conservative misinformation — as when Obama charges that critics of health-care reform are peddling fake fears of a "Bolshevik plot" — and the country's failure to grasp great liberal accomplishments. "We were so busy just getting stuff done . . . that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are," the president told ABC's George Stephanopoulos in a recent interview. The benighted public is either uncomprehending or deliberately misinformed (by conservatives).

This condescension is part of a liberal tradition that for generations has impoverished American debates over the economy, society and the functions of government — and threatens to do so again today, when dialogue would be more valuable than ever.

Perhaps this guy is joking.  Or he is just very seriously misinformed, because it has been a mainstay of conservative opposition to any Obama initiative to call it "socialist" or worse (Liberal fascism anyone).  I'm not going to bother linking to anything because just googling the combination of "Obama" and "Socialist" nearly crashed the Google server. 

It's not, in other words, condescension.  It is a plain and to my mind surprisingly charitable interpretation of an opposition many of whose key members and leaders have excluded themselves from minimally reasonable discussion.  That's just true, whether or not many liberals are condescending a–wholes. 

As he wraps up this factless and meme-driven piece, the author goes for a little balance:

Of course, plenty of conservatives are hardly above feeling superior. But the closest they come to portraying liberals as systematically mistaken in their worldview is when they try to identify ideological dogmatism in a narrow slice of the left (say, among Ivy League faculty members), in a particular moment (during the health-care debate, for instance) or in specific individuals (such as Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom some conservatives accuse of being stealth ideologues). A few conservative voices may say that all liberals are always wrong, but these tend to be relatively marginal figures or media gadflies such as Glenn Beck.

Really.  Again, I'd say this is plainly false.  No bother.  This guy doesn't even try to produce evidence (here's an assignment, google "liberals" and see what comes up–it's entertaining.  Then google "liberals" and the name of any leading conservative, you won't find George Will making fine-grained distinctions).  Perhaps, however, as a conservative, he doesn't know that claims about reality stand or fall on the basis of the evidence offered.  "Just trust me phrases" in an advocacy piece don't count.

Political fights

I'm trying to find a charitable interpretation of this comment by George Will on This Week with David Brinkley (via Crooks and Liars):

MORAN: Let's — let's go across the street from the Congress for a moment. There was a historic decision this week out of the Supreme Court of the United States on the First Amendment, the court holding that the campaign finance reform prohibition on corporations and unions using the money from their general funds to support or oppose candidates, that's a violation of free speech. So is this a vindication of the First Amendment, or is this a surrender to the plutocracy?

WILL: Vindication, because the court recognized the obvious, which is that you cannot disseminate political speech without money. And, therefore, to restrict money is to restrict the dissemination of speech. To that end, they have freed up the amount of money that will be spent.

Now, some people are saying, oh, corporations, that means Microsoft will be buying ads. Microsoft's trying to sell software. They're not interested in getting into political fights.

What this really emancipates are nonprofit advocacy corporations such as the Sierra Club. I pick that not at random because the Sierra Club was fined $28,000 in Florida last year for falling afoul of the incomprehensible, that-thick set of regulations on our political speech.

I'd reject the first biconditional.  But I think there's something obviously wrong about the claim that "Microsoft is not interested in getting into political fights."  Well, ok, they're not interested in that as their primary mode of business.  But Microsoft, and oh, I don't know, the Banking Industry or the Oil Industry or the Defense industry are interested in conditions which are politically favorable to them.  That's their business.  Am I missing something?

Iroquois Twists

Sorry for the absence–I was on vacation.  To start off another season of The Non Sequitur, here's our favorite pseudo-intellectual, George Will on the constitutionality of health care legislation.  I wonder if we have a case of the slippery slope here:

Although Democrats think their health-care legislation faces smooth sailing to implementation, there is a rock dead ahead — a constitutional challenge to the legislation's core. Democrats who assume it is constitutional to make it mandatory for Americans to purchase health insurance should answer some questions:

Would it be constitutional for the government to legislate compulsory calisthenics for all Americans? If not, why not? If it would be, in what sense does the nation still have constitutional, meaning limited, government?

Supporters of the mandate say Congress can impose the legislation under the enumerated power to regulate interstate commerce. Since the New Deal, courts have made this power capacious enough to include regulating intrastate activity that "substantially affects" interstate commerce. Hence Congress could constitutionally ban racial discrimination in "public accommodations" — restaurants, motels, etc. — as an impediment to interstate commercial activity.

Opponents of the mandate say: Unless the commerce clause is infinitely elastic — in which case, Congress can do anything — it does not authorize Congress to forbid the inactivity of not making a commercial transaction, of not purchasing a product (health insurance) from a private provider.

One reason we might call this a slippery slope is that Will's objection hinges on permissiveness: if we allow activity x, then we will eventually have to allow absurd activity y, as they are fundamentally or in principle no different.  Permitting the one–the (sometimes subsidized) purchase of health insurance) will logically compel us to permit the other (the mandatory practice of morning jumping jacks).  The argument, then, isn't against the current proposal, it's against exercise, which will follow logically from the current proposal.  

Well that's just dumb.  There are lots of arguments against the current lame proposal in Congress.  This is not one of them.