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).

6 thoughts on “I don’t usually practice psychiatry in my blog”

  1. The first segment of your post hit on something that I've been trying to pin down, and only as close as I have gotten is: poisoning the well.  If you can characterize your opponents rhetorical options in a way that kills their strength even in logical argumentation, then that leaves you standing as the righteous victim of (pre-characterized) malicious and desperate attacks.

  2. Hi Sigo,

    I'm not really sure what you're referring to here.  My sense is that politicians are going to go after their opponents in ways that amount to fallacious.  I think this is wrong, but it's part of the genre.  Politicians need to motivate action.  That's their job. 

    Having said that, I think there is a moral and a practical argument to be made for not going too crazy (or crazy at all) with bad arguments.  You have to motivate people, but it would be nice if you motivate them with reasonable arguments, etc.

    You point out something interesting, however.  The kind of ironic insistence that any criticism of my positions amounts to ad hominem is itself a kind of ad hominem.  But I wonder if your puzzlement is mine.  This inoculates the extremist (who really is an extremist in these cases) from legitimate criticism (1) because the opponent is allegedly going ad hominem and is therefore desperate and (2) because the opponent's argument has been disqualified in advance–it has been "pre-distorted" so in a sense "pre-strawmanned" or pre-hollowmanned."

    Is that what you're after?

  3. With respect to the first argument you discuss, you say that "maybe" the conclusion follows if the premises are true.  But I don't see how the conclusion could possibly follow from those premises.  Maybe I'm missing something.

  4. I don't think you are.  I think I'm not being very clear.  I think the idea is that if it is the case that the Democrats' proposals, laws, policies are unpopular and they have nothing to offer, it would stand to reason that they mischaracterize their opponents.  It's still a terrible argument.

  5. You hit the nail on the head, John. 
    I've begun a post (which is not published because I'm still thinking about it) about poisoning the well to pre-establish an ad-hominem before it even happens.  I just recently watched a clip of a Sarah Palin speech where she said we had to "hold the press accountable when they're making things up and not telling the truth." Before that, I listened to Dr. Laura tell the networks that she wants to take back her Second-Amendment Rights to free speech that have been hijacked by the likes of Media Matters (re: her use of the 'N' word in a broadcast).  In both instances, the issue for these two was pre-characterizing any criticism of what they say or do.

Comments are closed.