Category Archives: Maureen Dowd

Compatible Concepts

Has Hillary Clinton been subjected to more "scrutiny" on account of her gender?  All signs point yes.  A cursory examination of the media coverage will find Clinton having to contend with questions directed at gender in a way that, say, John McCain won’t.  Here’s just one of countless examples.  Enter Maureen Dowd (courtesy of Media Matters):


After saying she found her
"voice" in New Hampshire,
she has turned into Sybil. We’ve had
Experienced Hillary, Soft Hillary, Hard Hillary, Misty Hillary, Sarcastic
Hillary, Joined-at-the-Hip-to-Bill Hillary, Her-Own-Person-Who-Just-Happens-to-Be-Married-to-a-Former-President Hillary,
It’s-My-Turn Hillary, Cuddly Hillary,
Let’s-Get-Down-in-the-Dirt-and-Fight-Like-Dogs Hillary.

Just as in the White House, when her cascading images and
hairstyles became dizzying and unsettling, suggesting that the first lady woke
up every day struggling to create a persona, now she seems to think there is a
political solution to her problem.
If she can only change this or that
about her persona, or tear down this or that about Obama’s. But the
whirlwind of changes and charges gets wearing.

And Maureen Dowd, by the way, is supposed to be a liberal.  But, like we’ve been saying, the liberal op-eds disappoint.  In the face of such evidence, Ruth Marcus argues that Clinton cannot claim to be "hampered" by her gender.  Marcus’s claim (isn’t she supposed to be a liberal too?) has what we professionals call a ring of falsity to it.  But she also makes a conceptual claim to support the false empirical claim:


The candidate of inevitability and the victim of the uneven playing field aren’t compatible concepts.

The candidate of inevitability is an empty concept.  There might have been a presumption among media types like Marcus that Clinton was the candidate of inevitability, but there hadn’t been an election yet.   Besides, being a candidate for a job, as I can attest from personal experience, doesn’t mean you’ll get the job–or that you even have a chance of getting the job. 

The Lights are On, But No One’s Home

Last week we spoke about  MSM-types resorting to specious attributions of motive to "argue" against viewpoints they find reprehensible. After all, it's a lot more creative to divine the reason someone said something than it is to discuss their reasons (note that the two are different) for saying it, right? While Maureen Dowd seems possessed of this view, we beg to differ. And yet she insists: 

Better the devil you know than the diffident debutante you don’t. Better to go with the Clintons, with all their dysfunction and chaos — the same kind that fueled the Republican hate machine — than to risk the chance that Obama would be mauled like a chew toy in the general election. Better to blow off all the inspiration and the young voters, the independents and the Republicans that Obama is attracting than to take a chance on something as ephemeral as hope. Now that’s Cheney-level paranoia.

Bill is propelled by Cheneyesque paranoia, as well. His visceral reaction to Obama — from the “fairy tale” line to the inappropriate Jesse Jackson comparison — is rooted less in his need to see his wife elected than in his need to see Obama lose, so that Bill’s legacy is protected. If Obama wins, he’ll be seen as the closest thing to J. F. K. since J. F. K. And J. F. K. is Bill’s hero

In the midst of this stunning array of ad hominem attacks, we again witness the pedantic urge of the punditocracy to explain to we, the huddled masses, yearning to be informed, why, exactly, a politician says what she said. As usual, it has nothing to with her reasons for saying it, but with some superadded, ethereal psychoanalytic gibberish. 

Two pundits

The lack of ideological "balance" among the distribution of syndicated columnists (pointed out by Media Matters) ought perhaps to be considered in greater depth. (This is not to say, by the way, that "balance" is some kind of objective worthy for its own sake). Eric Alterman pointed out the other day that the "progressive" pundits tend to be far less ideological and much more prone to argue against "progressive" positions than ideological conservatives will argue against conservative positions: >Were I writing about it in detail, and I may, I would note that many of the top "liberal" columnists, including particularly Richard Cohen, Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kistof, Susan Estrich, and Nat Hentoff, among others, are the kind of "liberal" columnists who feel no sense of loyalty whatever to liberals and liberalism and actually enjoy bashing them whenever possible. This is not true of the conservatives. And so the balance is actually much worse than it looks from these numbers and graphics. George Will, for instance, has remarked on a few occasions that the war in Iraq has been an unmitigated foreign policy disaster. Count how many times, however, liberals such as Joe Klein attack the progressive left. That's a good point. But there's more. E.J. Dionne spends most of his time on meta-political navel gazing: >As Virginia goes, so goes the Senate — and the nation? >The decision of former Virginia governor Mark Warner to run for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. John Warner is more than just bad news for the GOP. It reflects fundamental shifts in the balance of political power in the country, the growing force and volatility of suburban voters, and the fact that the old red-state-blue-state maps are becoming obsolete. That's really political reporting. What it's doing on the op-ed page is a mystery. Here's Jonah Goldberg, in another paper: >For years, some of the shriller voices on the left have argued Sept. 11, 2001, was a classic example of blowback from our support of the mujahedeen's struggle against Afghanistan. But the fact is, we didn't "create bin Laden" — he largely created himself. And to the extent that any superpower can claim credit for him, it's the Soviets. It was their withdrawal, not our support, that convinced the foreign fighters that their pinpricks felled the Soviet bear. >Today, a new blowback thesis is in the works. The Washington Post, Time magazine and The Associated Press are just a few of the news outlets that have asserted the U.S. is arming the Sunnis in Iraq. This is simply not true, Gen. David Petraeus insisted in congressional testimony Monday. But it's no surprise that many people are leaping to that conclusion because the familiar blowback story line is the only plausible one for millions of people who've made up their minds that the war is, was and forever shall be hubristic folly. Similarly, opponents of the war denounced Petraeus' testimony before he said a single word, not because they know the facts better than Petraeus — please — but because anything that doesn't fit the narrative of an ever-worsening quagmire must be a lie. Many war supporters have certainly forced reality to kneel before faith in recent years. But reality can't stay on bended knees for very long. Many Democrats, too, have been grudgingly breaking from their base's otherworldly narrative of late, though they continue to insist that a "political solution" can be had in Iraq without a concomitant military one. Even the Sunni insurgents are coming to grips with the fact that Al Qaeda doesn't have Iraq's best interests at heart. >But there is one group that is under no inclination to nod to reality: Al Qaeda. The jihadis' mission, as always, is to create a new reality. If the bin Laden of the late 1980s could convince himself that his motley crew delivered the death blow to the Evil Empire, leading to the formation of Al Qaeda, one can only imagine what lesson he and the bin Ladens of tomorrow would take from America's defeat in Iraq. That's a story line we should all hope won't be written. However full that passage is of sophisms (pick them out if you want), you have to admit that Goldberg has the courtesy to use the op-ed page in attempt to advance a thesis.

Bland assertions

One of our commenters remarked a few days ago that much of punditry suffers from saying nothing at all. At least, it doesn't say the kinds of things one can subject to any kind of serious critical scrutiny. If it can't be subjected to scrutiny, then it's not saying much. Maureen Dowd suffers from this. But if one reads The Daily Howler, as one should, then one might come to the view that Maureen Dowd says quite a lot, it's just that none of it can be subjected to critical scrutiny–so she says nothing at all. In the interest of enlarging the regions of punditry we analyze, take a look at the following from Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post: >Today, the mood feels different — whether it's because that electability strategy didn't work out so well; that Bush will be out no matter what; that Democrats seem favored to win in 2008; that Iraq is more of a disaster; or that the primary is far enough away that voters can vent now and strategize later. >For the moment, Democratic primary voters don't want Kerryesque parsing. "Let the conversation begin," Clinton's banners proclaim, but she's not saying what many of them want to hear — words like "mistake" and "sorry." >Instead, in the Clintonian formulation, the mistake was Bush's and the regret is that he misused the authority he was given. Iraq "is a gnawing, painful sore," she said. "People are beside themselves with frustration, and I understand that completely." >But people in that agitated state don't want to hear about the 60 votes required to proceed to Senate debate on a nonbinding resolution. "I know that is hard medicine for some people, because people say, 'Just do something,' " Clinton acknowledged. And so on. It's difficult to imagine what evidence could be advanced to support such broad assertions about what people want or what "the mood" is like. It gets worse. By way of conclusion, Marcus writes: >But Clinton in person seemed "much more inspirational and much more genuine," Cesna said, complimenting her willingness to stay more than an hour after the meeting, answering questions and posing for pictures. "She's willing to do her job to meet people in the state and maybe dispel some of the coldness and harshness that people feel about her." >In other words, campaigning in person Clinton can win over skeptics. But her nuanced position on the war, at a time when base voters are impatient with nuance, means laying off the doughnuts isn't going to be her biggest challenge here. The evidence for that claim seems to be the opinions of one slightly skeptical voter. In all of this, however, Marcus neglects to tell us what Clinton's position is that has won over that one skeptical voter a year and a half before the next election.

How to avoid Nonsequitur

When I taught Logic for the first time years back I was tempted to spend very little time on the section in Patrick Hurley’s Introduction to Logic that deals with distinguishing argumentative from non-argumentative texts. In this chapter, students learn the ability to distinguish texts that contain inferences from texts that lack them. Examples of the latter include

  • Illustrations: "Great presidents are made not born. So, Roosevelt became the great leader he was only after much development.
  • Statements of belief: "The most difficult problem facing this country, I believe, is economic inequality."
  • Report: Median wages in real dollars have remained stagnant over the last twenty years, while the proportion of income earned by the top 5% of households has increased. This is an increase in economic inequality.
  • Explanations: Economic inequality has increased because median wages have remained stagnant while the proportion of income earned by the top 5% of households has increased.

Students tend to find this section hard, I think. It requires a great deal of interpretive ability to precisely define many passages and the distinctions between them are sometimes hard to identify in practice. The same "content" can be expressed in both argumentative and non-argumentative forms. The difference is one of intention and connection between statements. I have come to see that time spent on these distinctions is extremely important for learning logical analysis. (A great exercise is to have the students express the same content in as many of the various categories as possible. For those without a copy of Hurley handy, the section distinguishes between: warnings, advice,statement of belief, loosely associated groups of statements, reports, expository passages, illustrations, explanations, and conditionals.) I bring this up to elaborate on J.’s comments here explaining some of the reasons that we tend to "pick on" certain columnists more than others. J. points out that these columnists argue for their claims, but often do so badly. This morning I gave the op-ed pages at WaPo and NYT a quick read and found that there was nothing to comment on. No arguments to analyze and no fallacies to uncover. And I thought it might be useful to explain this. Today, our friend George Will reports the argument of Thomas B. Edsall in a book titled Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power. Reporting another’s argument is a non-inferential "speech act." If we found a fallacy in Edsall’s argument we might explain it, but Will is safe from our analysis today. John Tierney follows suit with an exposition of the capitalist philanthropy a la Google and Whole Foods. Tierney doesn’t merely report another’s views and arguments as Will did. Instead he couples this reporting with statements of his own belief: >"It’s smart of Google’s founders to try using capitalist tools to save the planet; the market’s discipline should keep their philanthropy from backing too many lost causes. Still, whatever accomplishes, I’d bet that it will pale next to the social good accomplished by" I don’t know whether I agree with anything that is said there, but the crucial point is that there is no inferential content. Just a series of assertions of Tierney’s beliefs. Finally we cometo Maureen Dowd. In two years of scrutinzing the op-ed pages of the NYT we have never (I think) raked Dowd over the coals. Today’s column can illustrate why this is so. Once again, it is the lack of inference and argument. Dowd’s columns are generally combinations of statements of her beliefs and reporting with a few witticisms thrown in. >He has changed American culture, for sure. Bustling under Bill Clinton, the nation is now insecure about its moral force and military force. The president should take responsibility for the hash he’s made, instead of insisting every decision was correct, and come up with more astute cultural and military analyses. The “awakening” should be W.’s. Once again, I don’t know how much of her three claims here I agree with, but there sure isn’t an inference in sight.

When an opinion is just an opinion.

When we envisioned this project and then began to work on it, we expected to spend our time roughly equally on editorial writers from all political orientations. It is, of course, readily apparent that our focus has primarily rested on four writers–David Brooks, George Will, William Safire, and Charles Krauthammer. These four are, of course, the most conservative of the opinion page writers of the country's two major dailies–The New York Times and The Washington Post. For the last two and half months, we have, therefore, spent most of our efforts criticizing conservative arguments. This probably gives the appearance of a certain "partisanship." This is not, however, our intention. Nonetheless, having read probably several hundred opinion pieces in the last two and half months from political opinion magazines as diverse as Pat Buchanan's *The American Conservative,* *The Nation* (the largest and oldest opinion weekly in the country), middle america weeklies likes *Time* and *Newsweek*, and newspapers from the flagships mentioned above to the *The Boston Globe,* *Chicago Sun Times,* and the *Cleveland Plain Dealer,* we are in a position to reflect on this appearance of partisanship. To do that, I think we need to address the question of the purpose of I have come to think of Maureen Dowd as the "purest" opinion writer around because her columns rarely involve explicit inference or argument. Instead, she largely describes her own reactions to the world, spicing it up a little with a few one-liners or cheap shots. This means that there is little in her columns for us to analyze, and also explains the impression that they are generally "fluffy" (leaving aside her hatchet jobs on Clinton and Monica from the 90's). There is, of course, implicit inference and the logic underlying her one-liners, but for the most part her columns remain somewhat impressionistic. At some point I will return to this and try to demonstrate it more rigorously. The first half of Brooks' column today (Source: NYT 11/02/04) is pure opinion. Brooks treats us to his reflections on the course of the campaign and his mild uncertainty whether his support of the Bush administration is wise or justified. >As I look back over the course of this campaign, I should confess I've gone through several periods convinced I should vote against President Bush. I know I'm not the only conservative to think this way. I look at my favorite conservative bloggers and see many coming out for John Kerry. I talk to my friends at conservative think tanks and magazines and notice that they are deeply ambivalent about the administration, even those who would never vote for a Democrat. This is part of Brooks' persona as the reasonable conservative who is more concerned with the merits of the various positions than with maintaining a strict party line–a persona that his columns over the last two and half months have given pleny of reason to doubt. Nonetheless, as his confession continues and he reveals his doubts about the Bush administration, we find nothing to analyze. Reporting the autobiographical facts about his personal beliefs does not involve argument or inference. For example to say as Brooks does: >I'm frustrated that Bush didn't build the governing majority that was there for the taking. is merely to report a psychological and biographical fact, which for the purposes of our analysis we assume to be true. Certainly Brooks wants to *explain* his frustration, but he does not need to *prove* it to us. Insofar as he remains at the level of his opinions and the explanation of his opinions there is generally little for logical analysis. But it is an entirely different matter to say as Brooks does later: > Then other considerations come into play. The first is Kerry. He's been attacked for being a flip-flopper, but his core trait is that he is monumentally selfish. Since joining the Senate, he has never attached himself to an idea or movement larger than his own career advancement. >It's not for nothing that people in Massachusetts joked that his initials stand for Just For Kerry. Or that people spoke of him as the guy who refuses to wait in lines at restaurants because he thinks he's above everybody else. Here he does more than report his belief that Kerry is "monumentally selfish." He attempts to provide the evidence that provides *reason* to believe that he is selfish. We have moved from reporting his opinions to attempting to establish the truth of an objective claim. It is at this point that our analysis is required. Does Brooks have good reason to believe that Kerry is "monumentally selfish?" Or more importantly, are the reasons that he advances sufficient to establish either the likelihood or the truth of that claim? He appeals here to two pieces of evidence: 1) "He has never attached himself to an idea or movement larger than his own career advancement." 2) People have the impression that he is selfish. We must now evaluate the strength of the inference from these two claims to the conclusion that "Kerry is monumentally selfish." As they stand they both suggest significant logical fallacies. In the first case, the fallacy of suppressed evidence, and in the second, appeal to unqualified authority (perhaps), or a sort of appeal to the people. Without thinking very long or spending any time with Lexis/Nexis, the first claim seems simply implausible, and certainly lacks any actual evidence to support it. It is, however, part of the attempt to portray Kerry (or Gore, or Clinton, or . . ..) as a cynical self-aggrandizing politician. This is common trope in political discourse and Brooks of course is willing to stoop to it. The second claim is an equally bad argument for his conclusion but a little harder to analyze. He seems to be arguing that "people" have the impression that he's the kind of guy who "refuses to wait in lines at restaurants." His only attempt to bolster this impression is to assert that "it is not for nothing that people . . ." have this impression. The fact that people believe something is not evidence that it is true, and not reason that we should believe it to be true. Of course, there may be reason to believe this, but Brooks does not provide that and so does not provide any reason to believe that "Kerry is monumentally selfish." Again we can see quite clearly that Brooks stumbles when he attempts to provide an argument for his beliefs. His arguments are consistently bad. His opinions may be true or may be false, just as they may be interesting or not. But when he remains within the domain of reporting his own opinions, we will find ourselves with much less to criticize–if he doesn't make arguments, then he can't make bad arguments. I will leave Brooks' editorial aside now, and end by briefly returning to the original question. But before I do that, I want to distinguish one other sort of opinion piece that we find more often I think being penned by the liberal or centrist commentators of the two major dailies. An example of this is today found from a right wing commentator, George Will. Rather than an "opinion editorial" in the pure sense delineated above, this might be referred to as a "reporting editorial." An example from the left-center occupants of the editorial pages might be Nicholas Kristof's recent reporting editorials from Afghanistan. Like pure opinion editorials these are concerned first of all with the reporting of facts rather than with argument and inference. George Will begins his piece today with a quick tour through the electoral almanac: >If, for the fourth consecutive election, neither candidate wins a popular vote majority, relax. There were four consecutive such elections from 1880 to 1892. In 1876 a candidate (Samuel Tilden) got 51 percent — and lost (to Rutherford Hayes). Six elections since World War II produced plurality presidents — 1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, 2000. Woodrow Wilson was consequential although he won his first term with just 41.8 percent and his second with 49.2 percent. Once again, there is nothing to contest as a matter of logic here–we assume that his facts are correct. The first half of the editorial continues in this vein, relating interesting parallels between past elections and possible outcomes today. The latter half of the editorial departs from this concern and highlights a number of things that Will wants us to "watch" such as Nevada and Maine's 2nd congressional district. Here he explains the reasons that these might be interesting without attempting to prove anything in particular. Here we move back in the direction of a "pure opinion" piece since in essence Will is saying "I think Nevada will be interesting to watch because. . .." It has been our impression over the last two and a half months that the these quartet of op-ed writers on which we have focused tend to spend more time arguing than opining. In contrast writers such as Dowd or Kristof *tend* to spend less time arguing than opining. Since the arguments offered by our quartet of writers are so often fallacious we are immediately attracted to analyze them. This is not to say that we do not have partisan tendencies or that we are not blinded to some fallacious reasoning by any number of psychological factors or beliefs. Nonetheless, our focus on this quartet is not a simple reflection of these things, but we believe a reflection of the failures of their arguments.