William Safire’s resignation from the opinion pages of the NYT in February was a great blow to our enterprise here. While being regular fans of Safire’s language column in the Sunday Times’ Magazine, we were confident that his opinion pieces would almost always provide fertile material for logical analysis. His replacment, John Tierney, has baffled us ever since.
Tierney’s columns seem to share a singular argumentative structure. Often, rather than offering an elaborate argument for a particular position, Tierney reports on a particular person anecdotally as holding that position with the suggestion that this individual possesses a certain epistemic privilege over the reader, and thus the reader should adopt the relevant position. This “argument” is then bolstered by a very terse ideological argument for the relevant position. The anecdotal argument seems to work by a peculiar form of an appeal to authority–and not necessarily a fallacious one. But even though it seems to avoid fallacy, the argument is so weak that it is hard to see how it provides anything more than this anecdote as support for its conclusion. This often leaves Tierney’s ideological argument as the only support for his claim.
His column today “Sagebrush Solution” (Source: NYT 7/26/05) seems to conform to this structure. Here we are introduced to Dell LeFevre who dislikes hikers, the Bureau of Land Management, and some environmentalists.
>Mr. LeFevre, who is 65, has no affection for the hikers who want his cows out of the red-rock canyons and mesas in southern Utah, where his family has been ranching for five generations. He has considered environmentalism a dangerous religion since the day in 1991 when he and his father-in-law found two dozen cows shot to death, perhaps by someone determined to reclaim a scenic stretch of the Escalante River canyon.
Yet, despite his suspicion that environmentalists randomly shoot his cows, Mr LeFevre likes environmentalists when they give him money.
>But he is not bitter when he talks about the deal he made with an environmentalist named Bill Hedden, the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust. Mr. Hedden’s group doesn’t use lobbyists or lawsuits (or guns) to drive out ranchers. These environmentalists get land the old-fashioned way. They buy it. To reclaim the Escalante River canyon, Mr. Hedden bought the permits that entitle Mr. LeFevre’s cows to graze on the federal land near the river. He figures it was a good deal for the environment because native shrubs and grasses are reappearing, now that cows aren’t eating and trampling the vegetation.
But, the Bush administration is not standing for this capitalist free-market system:
>The Interior Department has decided that environmentalists can no longer simply buy grazing permits and retire them. Under its reading of the law – not wholly shared by predecessors in the Clinton administration – land currently being used by ranchers has already been determined to be “chiefly valuable for grazing” and can be opened to herds at any time if the B.L.M.’s “land use planning process” deems it necessary.
>But why should a federal bureaucrat decide what’s “chiefly valuable” about a piece of land? Mr. Hedden and Mr. LeFevre have discovered a “land use planning process” of their own: see who will pay the most for it. If an environmentalist offers enough to induce a rancher to sell, that’s the best indication the land is more valuable for hiking than for grazing.
>The new policy may make short-term political sense for the Bush administration by pleasing its Republican allies in Utah and lobbyists for the ranching industry. But it’s not good for individual ranchers, and it ensures more bitter range wars in the future. If environmentalists can’t spend their money on land, they’ll just spend it on lawyers.
Thus, when you strip away the anecdote, you have an argument for the claim that environmentalists should be able to retire grazing permits. The reasons that Tierney thinks this is true seems to be something like
a) Retiring grazing permits is done through the free market.
b) The government should not interfere with the free market.
The anecdote provides evidence, it seems, that the motivation for allowing environmentalists to retire grazing permits is not environmental but rather because it benefits a rancher. But this is just a smoke screen for the ideological argument presented above–at least, it is such a weak argument (Are all ranchers benefitted by this? Will they continue to be benefitted if more grazing land is retired?) that it cannot lend much support to the conclusion: It’s as though the argument that Tierney offers us is “Well, Hell. Dell LeFevre thinks this is wrong, so it’s wrong.”
Now perhaps I am being uncharitable here. Tierney might reply that Dell LeFevre isn’t really part of his argument. It is a little bit of color meant to interest the reader, as presumably every Journalism 101 class suggests students begin their articles with a “hook.” That aside, the anecdote is logically related to Tierney’s claim and provides some rhetorical support for that claim. The vaporous nature of that support is all that I wish to reveal here.