How Thoughtful

The funny thing about op-ed writers is that oftentimes they don’t seem to make any arguments at all, eschewing words such as “therefore” or “hence” or perhaps even “ergo” which let the reader know that he or she has just brought an argument to its conclusion. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this practice per se. After all, why bore the reader with the tedium of logical place-holders when a good writer can make an argument without them?

The problem with this strategy is that sometimes one cannot be quite certain what the actual argument is. Such is the case with David Brooks’ piece in today’s New York Times.

As best as we have been able to establish, Brooks attempts to show the reader that not all Republicans are right wing nut jobs by “introducing” us to a fundamentalist Christian legislator from Indiana who simultaneously denies the theory of Evolution and thinks that Clinton should not have been impeached. Nothing strange about that. Or is there?

Let’s take a closer look at how Brooks begins his argument:

One of the most thoughtful politicians in Washington doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution. I thought I’d introduce him to you because over the next week we’re going to hear a lot of stereotypes about Republicans and especially social conservatives. It might be useful to interrupt those prejudices with the more complicated reality.

Unless Brooks is attempting to demonstrate a fact obvious to anyone who paid attention to primary elections that were recently held around the country (where even Republicans disagreed with Republicans–Imagine that!), then he is setting up a kind of fallacious argument in reverse. This is to say that he is alleging that his opponent (where there are arguments, there are always opponents, real or imaginary) thinks that Republicans can all be painted with one brush as, note the choice of words, not “thoughtful”. He then proceeds, with a long series of anecdotes from the life and career of the conservative Republican in question, to demonstrate that this particular Republican doesn’t always take typical positions. By making this argument Brooks alleges–indirectly, mind you–that his opponent (that is, the author of the stereotypes, here unnamed) is the one who commits the fallacy of hastily generalizing. This implicit accusation of intellectual irresponsibility, is itself intellectually irresponsible. It implicity claims that his opponent does not have reasons or arguments against the views (nuanced though they may be) of his Republican poster child. While some–nay perhaps many–may believe that no one who fails to embrace the theory of evolution can possibly be “thoughtful” in any meaningful sense of the term, many others indeed have reasons to oppose some or all of his arguments. By claiming that his views are thoughtful and accusing the opposition of stereotyping, Brooks stereotypes his opposition’s argument as absurdly weak, a straw man, in other words.

Now it may be objected that Brooks isn’t making any argument at all here. Well, if he’s not, then what is this doing on the op-ed page? But if in fact Brooks’ argument is directed at those who actually do hold such caricatured views, then we have grossly overestimated the intellectual heft of the average reader of the New York Times.