Nine years

What to say after nine years?  Colin and I started this with the idea that too much of commentary, especially political commentary, would not pass an introductory Critical Thinking class.   I still think this.

On the bright side, we’ve squeaked out a fair number of academic papers out of our work here–if all goes well, we’ll get a book as well.  So there is that.

I define the terms here

Ross Kaminsky holds that the popular appellation “libertarian populist” (see Ross Douthat’s recent column) is a contradiction in terms.  In short, because ‘libertarian’ is about freedom, and populism has “nothing to do with freedom”.  Now, first, that’s not yet a contradiction.  So when I say that Bill has a brown dog, it’s not an oxymoron, even though being a dog doesn’t have anything to do with being brown.

But Kaminsky’s argument is more for contradiction than for irrelevance.  First, he opens by defining ‘populist’ from the dictionary.

A standard definition of “populist” includes supporting ordinary people over the elites.

So far, that’s perfectly consistent with libertarianism.  In fact, very much consistent with the commitments of libertarians – these elites think they know better than the average Joe, and coerce him this way or that.  So Kaminsky shouldn’t have a problem with the populist brand of libertarian, right?  Wrong.  That’s because Kaminsky means something different by ‘populist’:

Getting away from the dictionary, I have always understood “populist” to mean “demagogue” or to be a synonym for various adjectives modifying the word it’s connected to. Adjectives such as “ersatz” or “-lite” or “but not fully adhering to its principles” or “shrill.”

Whuh? Look, I’m no great fan of the dictionary for definitions of controversial terms, but the more controversial term is ‘libertarian,’ not ‘populist.’  Not respecting common usage is the first sign of Humpty-Dumpty Semantics.  Moreover, I still don’t yet see why this new stipulated defintion is inconsistent with libertarianism, either.  How is demagoguery inconsistent with the exercise of freedom?  Isn’t that exactly what demagogues invoke when they talk to folks (especially here in the States)… how we love our freedom? Moreover, why is being an ‘ersatz’ X inconsistent with being an X?  Or how is ‘ersatz X’ an oxymoron?  And, by the way, does he really mean ‘popularizer’?  Seriously, it’s pretty sad when you can’t even stipulate your way to a contradiction.

Culture warriors, like, always commit hasty generalization

Robert Stacy McCain’s post at the American Spectator is an exercise in hasty generalization.  McCain reports on the egregious behavior of one Hugo Schwyzer of Pasadena City College.  Schwyzer loves sleeping with the undergrads.  By his own reckoning, by 1998, he’d slept with at least 24 of his students.  He also passed himself off as a scholar of feminism, sexuality, and gender justice.  So he teaches classes about pornography and then sends out pics of himself masturbating.  Dude sounds like a straight-up weirdo, no doubt.  Trouble is, McCain takes Schwyzer to be representative of what the professorate is like generally.

Actually, there was a lot odd about Schwyzer’s career, but he may have seemed fairly normal among the lunatic perverts employed by sex-crazed academia nowadays….

But he is certainly not alone in his madness, which is merely symptomatic of how American academia has lost its collective mind.

So, how does McCain base this thought that Schwyzwer’s behavior is representative of academic culture?  By invoking Bill Ayers, Herbert Marcuse, some women’s studies professors who are ‘queer theorists’ and advocate lesbianism to their students, a Columbia prof who had a sexual relationship with his own daughter, and Freud.

Here’s the deal.  It’s too easy to take the worst actors (or who may seem the worst) in a group as representative of the group.  Say, for example: Republican Senators against gay rights but who nevertheless proposition men in bathrooms.  Or preachers who preach clean living yet take advantage of their position of power to coerce women to have sex with them.  See? Easy.  But they aren’t necessarily representative.  What happens is that these folks and their behaviors are so egregious, they stick with us and become easy ways to characterize the groups.  This is the error of what’s called an ‘availability cascade,’ and it screws up the way we make reliable inductive inferences. And so we see one here – egregious behavior by professor causes right-wing pundit to generalize that behavior to all profs.

Not the way to conduct reasonable political discourse

It is very hard to have an adult discussion about distributive justice when the very notion sends some people’s minds sliding down slippery slopes to Hitler and Stalin (see yesterday on the ad stalinem).  A recent exchange illustrates this point.  Last month, fellow Chicagoan Harold Pollack wrote a reply to Greg Mankiw’s defense of the 1 percent.  Pollack argued for some version of distributive justice.  This prompted the following comment from John Goodman, health care policy person:

In some ways this is all very surprising. After all, the 20th century was the century of collectivism. It was the century of communism, socialism, national socialism (fascism) and the welfare state. Each and every one of these isms was devoted to taking from some and giving to others. After all these years and all that misery you would think that someone, somewhere would have perfected an argument for forcible redistribution of income. And yet what we find today at the leftwing blogs is truly pitiful.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating. The left is intellectually bankrupt. It has been that way for almost a half century.

Sorry, but this is moronic and just a bit insulting, as Pollack himself notes in a comment on the post:

“In some ways this is all very surprising. After all, the 20th century was the century of collectivism. It was the century of communism, socialism, national socialism (fascism) and the welfare state. Each and every one of these isms was devoted to taking from some and giving to others. After all these years and all that misery you would think that someone, somewhere would have perfected an argument for forcible redistribution of income….”

Having grown up with refuseniks and the children of holocaust survivors victimized by the first three isms you mention, I find this crude paragraph especially insulting. Social democracies and liberal welfare states–whatever faults they may have–should not be likened to to criminal authoritarian regimes. That’s not the way to conduct reasonable political discourse. Harold Pollack

That bolded sentiment is exactly right.  Goodman, ever clueless, responds:

Harold makes a point that deserves a thoughtful response.

I do indeed see all the collectivist isms of the 20th century as forming a continuum. Some were more brutal than others in practice of course — a lot more brutal. But ideologically speaking, the differences among them are differences of degree, not of kind.

This is how people in the 20th century also saw things. Roosevelt, Stalin and Hitler all believed they were more ideologically similar to each other than to classical liberalism. In fact for all three, the principal philosophical enemy was liberalism. This is also how Woodrow Wilson and other progressives thought. (See Jonah Goldberg’s lay history of the early 20th century progressives for a very readable summary.)

Also, this is the way they thought in the universities.

It’s a slippery slope, he insists (also, Jonah Goldberg, seriously?).  Pollack replies:

My last comment on this unfortunate thread. The distinction between the first three isms and the rest resides in institutions which respect political liberty, the rule of law, checks and balances, and other features of constitutional democracy. The U.S., Sweden, Britain, France, and year-2013 Germany have these institutions, laws, practices, and political norms. Nazi Germany, the USSR, and many other authoritarian regimes of the right and left did not.

That was nice of Pollack to try one more time, but Goodman’s entire approach is a textbook slippery slope to Communism and Hitler.  I don’t know if any more refutation is necessary.

Just like a philosopher to stereotype

Branding small

Today, this was pinned on the bulletin board in the departmental office.

I don’t see any reason to think that this is how philosophers in general think of branding.  On the basis of what is this individual performance to be taken as representative?  However, this performance is a very good sterotyping version of hasty generalization.  So there’s that.

Ad Stalinem


We’ve had discussions of the Ad Hitlerem and Godwin’s Law here at the NS a few times.  There’s a close cousin to it, which is the Ad Stalinem.  The argument runs in the form:

You did X

Stalin did X (or something like it)

Therefore, your doing X is wrong.  And you’re like Stalin.

Arguments by analogy have trouble with relevance, and this one has plenty. In recent news, a rodeo clown took over the mic at a state fair in Missouri and put on an Obama mask.  The announcer asked if they wanted to see Obama run down by a bull.  That’s pretty crazy.  The rodeo clown in the mask has been banned for life from participating in rodeos in Missouri, and all the other cowboys have been required to attend sensitivity training seminars.

The RIGHT, instead of feeling a little silly for catering to people who think that having bulls trample a president in effigy is good political commentary, they rush to these guys defense.  This is where the Ad Salinem comes in.  So here’s a taste of it over at the American Spectator:

I’m surprised, in the efforts to lynch the Obama Clown and brainwash other cowboys with sensitivity training, that the Obama regime and cronies have failed to recount one of my favorite Stalin stories from long ago.

After a hard day’s work, Uncle Joe blessed a Moscow circus with his presence. The clowns performed a bit that contained (what Stalin perceived as) political commentary obliquely critical of him. Yet the audience roared with delight at the funny clowns!

True to form, Stalin had his armed guards line up the clowns in center ring and execute them, on the spot.

Then, as a clever follow-up on Stalin’s part, he had the guards turn their guns on the audience and slaughter dozens. Call it a curtain call: it was curtains for all.

Oh, the dangers of mocking Great Leaders.

For arguments by analogy to work, there must be some important factors in common between the cases.  Here are a few.  1. The objection to the clown’s portrayal of Obama wasn’t about criticizing his policies, but about the racist overtones of the portrayal. 2. None of the consequences visited on him are from the Obama administration, but from the Missouri State Fair officials.  3. Nobody in the audience had anything bad happen to them.  4. If you look at the picture closely, you’ll see that it looks like the guy’s got a broom halfway up his butt.  He should be fired for that, solely.  That’s not funny. It’s weird. Even for a rodeo clown.

A remarkable talent

Please enjoy this extended exchange between a 14 year-old Rachel Parent and Canadian talk show host Kevin O’Leary on the subject of labeling GMO food.  A bit of background: Parent advocates the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) while Kevin O’Leary thinks, from what I can gather based on this video, being against GMO foods is tantamount to condemning hundreds of thousands of Asian children to death.  Didn’t make sense to me either.  Watch the whole thing: the kid is amazing.

The kid is amazing, but the real talent is O’Leary: in the face of the kid’s lucid focus on the issue in question he manages not to understand a single thing.

Scarcity of arguments

Paul Krugman puzzles over a dazzling bit of dishonesty in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Oregon’s Medicaid program.  Here’s the basic issue:

Aaron Carroll reads the Wall Street Journal, which is outraged, outraged, at the prospect that Oregon’s Medicaid system might seek to limit spending on treatments with low effectiveness and/or patients who aren’t going to live much longer in any case. Death panels!

Carroll points us to the actual staff recommendation, which is far milder than the WSJ blast would have you believe. But as Carroll points out, the larger point is the absurdity of the Journal’s position. On one side, it’s fanatically opposed to Medicaid expansion — that is, it’s eager to make sure that millions have no health coverage at all. On the other side, it claims to be outraged at the notion of setting priorities in spending on those who do manage to qualify for Medicaid. It’s OK for people to die for lack of coverage; it’s an utter horror if taxpayers decline to pay for marginal care.

Krugman (and the Aaron Carroll, whom he is citing here) doesn’t quite put the matter this way, but it seems to me that you have a basic issue of scarcity here: in part on account of objections from conservatives, money for Medicaid is short.  So best to distribute what little there is to those who need it, not everything can be covered.  So the discussion ought perhaps to be about that.  That’s not, sadly, what the Wall Street Journal was interested in.  Their interest, rather, was in using such perennial problems as evidence that Big Government will put you to death.  That is a rather different issue.

So Krugman wonders:

So I understand what’s going on here. What I don’t understand is the mindset of the editorial writers. At some level they have to know that they’re engaged in an act of grotesque cynicism. Do they admit that to themselves? Do they rationalize it by saying that truth is a secondary consideration when you’re engaged in a crusade against the evils of big government? Have they mastered true Orwellian doublethink, managing to believe things they know aren’t true?

My vote is they are probably capable of knowing the difference, but have long ago confused success at selling an idea with the idea’s being true.  Or perhaps something else: they believe their are better arguments out there, and though the one they offer may be a stinker, you argue with the arguments you have, not the ones you’d like to have.  Someone, after all, will come along an iron man them out of this one.

Downplayer overload

It’s a common strategy when characterizing one’s opposition to use the non-argumentative device commonly called the downplayer So one may use the opposition’s language, but scarequote its best points or one may go out of  one’s way to emphasize how little you think of them and their points.  In so doing, you prime  your audience to hear anything the other side says as ridiculous.  The problem with downplayers is that if you do them too much, it’s not entirely clear why you’re bothering to argue with or even correct this person.  If the quality of the opposition is so bad, then perhaps you’re not trying hard enough to find thoughtful interlocutors.  Or the thoughtful ones don’t talk to you.

Now, hear Sean Hannity’s characterization of Ryan Adams, the alt-country star, here. You see, Adams posted a tweet directed at Hannity, saying that he was “controlled by fear and by hate,” and that Hannity should “evolve” and “see reality.”  He also called Hannity “little chicken man.”  In response, Hannity had decided to respond.  But instead of defend himself against the charges (such as they are), he goes out of his way to downplay. Some highlights of his response to the tweet:

Now isn’t that nice.

You probably don’t know him. He’s not that popular.

His little agent…

If we wanted to torture terrorists, we should play his music to them 24-7.

He’s hiding behind his rockstar makeup like a little gutless coward.

A lot of people don’t even know who he is… so forget it.

And so now once Hannity has successfully downplayed to this point, he’s made himself look pretty silly here — he’s now having to respond to someone who he doesn’t think he should have to respond to.  As if to say: This person criticized me… but look at how unworthy of my concern this person is.  I mean… really, just pathetic this person.  Criticizing me.   I’m not peeved by this or even perturbed… being criticized by such a low, low person.  I mean… really.  It doesn’t bother me at all, because this person is such a lowly piece of garbage and he criticizes me…  It’s not even worth my time to even think about it, that guy, that lowly guy.  Not even worth my time to even think about it. Because that guy is just so low.  And to criticize me, such a lowlife.  Not even worth my time.  Sometimes, when you downplay too much, it undoes the force of it.

(Oh, it may not have been worth Hannity’s time to respond, but it clearly was worth the time of Miss Oklahoma.)







That’s not hypocrisy

Actor Matt Damon is an advocate for public schools. He also is currently sending his kids to a private school.  When asked why his kids aren’t going to public schools, his answer was that they were not progressive enough.  The conservative media went crazy.  Sean Hannity in this VIDEO says:

If you love public schools so much, why don’t you send your own kids there, Matty?

The piece is, of course, titled “Hollywood Hypocrite?”.  First, there’s the obvious problem with the tu quoque fallacy – hypocrisy is rarely relevant to the acceptability of the conclusion, and is more a matter of turning our attention to the person speaking and less to the matter at hand.  Hence we call it a specie of ad hominem.

But I don’t see Damon’s case as hypocrisy.  Being a public school advocate means that you want the public schools to be better and teachers to be treated with dignity.  If you live in a place where those ends aren’t being met, it’s not hypocrisy for you to send your kids to private schools.  You may not be buying in by sending your kids in, but you still pay your property taxes and can still look out for teachers.  That’s not hypocrisy, because there’s no inconsistency there.  It’s like saying: We should fix the refrigerator, but move the food to your portable cooler in the meantime.