If you look at opinion journalism, you'll often find the author complaining of someone's willful dishonesty and/or lack of basic critical thinking skills. This is the "opponent" (yes, I'm looking for a new name) variety of op-ed. That's the op-ed directed at specific opponents (this also includes specific fantasy opponents). This specific type of op-ed is typical of the conservative pundits usually featured on this page. Paul Krugman is the only liberal I can find who writes frequently in this genre. So, again, when people ask, "where are the liberals?" this is the answer–they just don't write or argue like their conservative colleagues. In many respects I think they should.
The typical opponent op-ed will consist in the claim that the object of criticism fails some basic critical thinking and/or honesty test. Such charges seem to me to be very serious. It's also very worthwhile that they be made. But it's worthwhile especially when they're made properly. When they're not made properly,they lead to the misspelling of misspelling problem. In other words, there's a right way to attack an argument and a wrong way.
It's truly surprising to me, however, how often such charges are made. Take David Brooks today:
You wouldn’t know it to look at them, but political consultants are as faddish as anyone else. And the current vogueish advice among the backroom set is: Go after your opponent’s strengths. So in the first volley of what feels like the general election campaign, Barack Obama has attacked John McCain for being too close to lobbyists. His assault is part of this week’s Democratic chorus: McCain isn’t really the anti-special interest reformer he pretends to be. He’s more tainted than his reputation suggests.
This is the basic opponent style attack. Obama's consultants lack imagination and independent thought (they're part of the chorus!), so they mistakenly go after McCain on his strengths–he's not cozy with lobbyists, as the evidence will show. Then he proceeds to deal with evidence.
This, it seems to me, is the wrong way to go about the opponent op-ed. Brooks sets the whole thing up in psychological terms. Obama's consultants lack imagination and critical thought–they follow "fads" that lead them into making silly and false claims about McCain. After a partial list of McCain's achievements on special interests, Brooks concludes:
Over the course of his career, McCain has tried to do the impossible. He has challenged the winds of the money gale. He has sometimes failed and fallen short. And there have always been critics who cherry-pick his compromises, ignore his larger efforts and accuse him of being a hypocrite.
This is, of course, the gospel of the mediocre man: to ridicule somebody who tries something difficult on the grounds that the effort was not a total success. But any decent person who looks at the McCain record sees that while he has certainly faltered at times, he has also battled concentrated power more doggedly than any other legislator. If this is the record of a candidate with lobbyists on his campaign bus, then every candidate should have lobbyists on the bus.
And here’s the larger point: We’re going to have two extraordinary nominees for president this year. This could be one of the great general election campaigns in American history. The only thing that could ruin it is if the candidates become demagogues and hurl accusations at each other that are an insult to reality and common sense.
Maybe Obama can start this campaign over.
But this remark is also funny because this column is an accusation of the variety Brooks describes. Brooks is right to respond to the claim that McCain is tainted by special interests. In fact, if he thinks its false and he has the evidence that it is, then by all means he ought to respond. This is a crucial function of the opponent op-ed. It can go directly at the argument–focus the mind of the reader on whether specific claims warrant belief.
But that's where it ought to stop. Brooks does himself in with the silly framing of his piece: people who wonder about McCain's honesty (and they are legion, by the way) suffer from a fundamental lack of critical skill–or they're mediocre. We could do, in other words, without the ad hominems. If it's wrong or misleading to say that McCain is cozy with special interests, then just show why. Accusing people who think of this of shallow partisan hackery is shallow partisan hackery.