Charity is such a lonely word

Everyone is so unfair. And this fairly well captures the problem with David Brooks’ op-ed in today’s New York Times.

But there are lots of ways of being unfair. One of them is to interpret the statements of your opponent very narrowly, or play on the ambiguities of the English language, in order to claim that she is guilty of some gross absurdity or logical fallacy. One of the more common ways of achieving this result–especially common with David Brooks–consists in forcing your opponent into a specious either/or type of choice. Some types of either/or choice are exclusive: “you can have either soup or salad,” for instance, “but not both.” But many types of either/or choices are not exclusive: “dinner or a movie?” There is no reason in this case one can’t do both–dinner then a movie, a movie then a dinner, dinner while watching a movie, a movie while eating dinner. Recognizing the difference in ordinary English between these two senses of “or” requires a fair bit of skill and confounding them is often part of a rather devious rhetorical strategy. And this is just the strategy that David Brooks employs in today’s op-ed.

Take the following for example:

The crucial passage in the speech was this one: “The principles that should guide American policy in Iraq now and in the future are clear: we must make Iraq the world’s responsibility, because the world has a stake in the outcome and others should share the burden.” From a U.S. responsibility, Iraq will become the world’s responsibility.

Kerry said the United Nations must play a central role in supervising elections. He said other nations should come in to protect U.N. officials. He called for an international summit meeting this week in New York, where other nations could commit troops and money to Iraq. He said NATO should open training centers for new Iraqi soldiers.

He talked about what other nations could do to help address the situation in Iraq. He did not say what the U.S. should do to defeat the insurgents and stabilize and rebuild Iraq, beyond what Bush is already doing. He did not say the U.S. could fight the insurgents more effectively. He did not have any ideas on how to tame Falluja or handle Moktada al-Sadr. He did not offer any strategy for victory.

The weird thing about the last paragraph is that it depends on an absurdly narrow construal of the quotation from Kerry’s speech (as well as, by the way, speech: as a whole). This interpretation rests on taking the phrase “the world’s responsibility” in exclusive opposition to “the U.S.’s responsibility.” Having established this silly dichotomy, he concludes that Kerry has nothing to say about what the United States can do to resolve the various problems that plague Iraq, other than what the Bush administration has already argued.

Now this line of reasoning suffers from two problems. First, for reasons having to do with the simple relationship of sets, the United States is a subset of the world (and therefore not necessarily in opposition to it). Second, Kerry has not drawn a distinction between the United States and the World that would challenge this otherwise obvious fact of set membership. On the contrary, he insists that the U.S.’s job at this point is to enlist the more effective participation of the other nations of the world because the problem of Iraq is now a global problem, involving the vital interests of every nation in the world, including, of course, the United States as a subset. So, unless the United States is not a part of the world, or the United Nations, then Kerry has offered something of a plan for the United States’s continued engagement in Iraq.

Brooks’ second argument also depends on this fundamentally flawed argumentative strategy:

The president’s case is that the world is safer with Saddam out of power, and that we should stay as long as it takes to help Iraqis move to democracy. Kerry’s case is that the world would be safer if we’d left Saddam; his emphasis is on untangling the United States from Iraq and shifting attention to more serious threats.


The editors of promise a more detailed analysis of this particular argument in tomorrow’s post. But for the time being, we might note that the claim that “the world is safer with (or without) Saddam in power” is an instance of what logicians call a “relational predicate.” Another term for a relational predicate is “incomplete predicate.” This is to say that the meaning of “safer” depends on some such phrase as “than it would have been otherwise” or “than it would be today.” Without specifying the “than what?,” the “safer” claim carries quite a lot of rhetorical force, but no logical force. While it appears to force Kerry into a dichotomy of the soup or salad variety, in actual fact it does not, for Brooks has done nothing to establish the exclusivity of the choice.

But again, more on that tomorrow.

Finally, not content with what he has (failed) to establish so far, Brooks concludes with a rapid-fire series of fallacious arguments:

Substantively, of course, Kerry’s speech is completely irresponsible. In the first place, there is a 99 percent chance that other nations will not contribute enough troops to significantly decrease the U.S. burden in Iraq. In that case, John Kerry has no Iraq policy. The promise to bring some troops home by summer will be exposed as a Disneyesque fantasy.

The conclusion–that Kerry’s speech is “irresponsible”–does not follow from the claim that there is a great likelihood that the world will not contribute enough troops to reduce our presence in Iraq. At worst, if it turns out to be the case that the other nations of the world do not participate, then Kerry will have to revise his policy in light of this fact. It certainly does not follow that he has or would have no Iraq policy. And once again this argument depends on the reader drawing the inference that the either the “world” or the U.S. deal with Iraq (but not both). Since the world will not do it, on Brooks’ calculation, then Kerry has no policy.

But Brooks isn’t finished with the silly dichotomy he set up earlier in his piece:

More to the point, Kerry is trying to use multilateralism as a gloss for retreat. If “the world” is going to be responsible for defeating Moktada al-Sadr and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then no one will be responsible for defeating them. The consequences for the people of Iraq and the region will be horrific.

The only way Brooks can draw the conclusion that “no one will be responsible for defeating [Moktada al-Sadr and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi]” is if he makes something like the following argument. Either the “world” or the “U.S.” is responsible for defeating them, but the “world” won’t and Kerry will retreat, so no one will defeat them. The problem with this argument, like the other arguments in this piece, concerns the force of the “or.” Brooks takes the “or” to be the exclusive variety–either but not both–when Kerry obviously means it to be the inclusive variety–one, the other, or both (but preferably both). Certainly the consequences of Brooks’ misleading dichotomy (the U.S. or the World) would be disastrous. Considering the extreme nature of the conclusion, a fair-minded reader should expect that Brooks do more to establish that Kerry intends the “or” in this exclusive sense.

Finally–apologies for having nattered on–in the grand tradition of the junior league football pile-on, Brooks winds up his piece with the following argumentative coda:

Finally, if the whole war is a mistake, shouldn’t we stop fighting tomorrow? What do you say to the last man to die for a “profound diversion”?

Much like the rest of today’s piece, this claim relies on an absurdly narrow misreading of Kerry’s argument. It may have been a mistake to have gone to war the way we did, as Kerry claims, and indeed the whole adventure might be a mistake, but it does not follow that the contradictory is necessarily true. While it certainly seems right to conclude that the opposite of a mistake is correct, that inference relies very much on ignoring the myriad facts that (God forgive the nuance) color and qualify the employment of such a term as “mistake.” Perhaps, for instance, it was a mistake to have invaded Iraq, but it would be a bigger mistake simply to up and leave. The proper logical contradictory of “mistake” in this case–un-invading in March 2003–is in any event not available.

2 thoughts on “Charity is such a lonely word”

  1. Poor David Brooks again. What he doesn’t seem to recognize that sharing responsibility is only half of the argument for multinationalism. The more significant argument, in my opinion, is that taking the American face off the occupation (an argument Kerry has made) is the only hope (though hardly a guarantee) for a political, as opposed to miliary, solution to the problem. In other words, to the extent that Iraq’s governing institutions shed their association with the USA they attain legitimacy in the eyes of the populace. Brooks’ logical oversights pale in comparison to his ignorance concerning post-colonial politics and Middle Eastern history. So what qualifies this guy for a forum in the NYT??

  2. Concerning the US/World dichotomy: Over the past years I have seen the misuse of this
    dichotomy many times. The US is obviously different from the World (often represented
    by the UN) but the US is also a major part of the UN. I have noticed that numerous
    conservative writers have used this ambiguity to argue for a whole host of things. It
    has become a powerful rhetorical tool in the conservative community to change this
    dichotomy into the US vs. the World. David Brooks has used this false jump before and
    it maybe because he actually believes that the situation truly is the US vs. the world
    and thus may support the claim that the US should withdraw from the UN because staying
    in muddles this distinction. (I’ve listened to other conservatives make this claim). Obviously though this still leaves the fact that the US is still apart of the world.
    On another point, I have often wondered why the major newspapers don’t hire a logician
    to check the validity of the arguments made in their opinion pieces. I mean if they
    hire editors to make sure articles and content are of a professional standard, wouldn’t
    they also try to make sure their articles are professionally argued. Wouldn’t this
    raise the level of respect for the paper or are they afraid they would have to fire
    most of their opinion staff?

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