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Damned if you do

In the category of just plain bad arguments, David Brooks, never one to let down the logical analyst, argues that the Kerry campaign has been “incompetent, crude and over-the-top” in this the final phase of the campaign. Brooks offers the following four points as evidence for this claim: Bush will cut social security benefits; Bush will reinstate the draft; The Mary Cheney remark; and finally, Christopher Reeve would have walked again.

It’s not worth it to descend into the fray on the merits of these points. For, first of all, they have been hopelessly deprived of context, and every reader of Brooks knows just how much context Kerry tends to give his points (and how bad that fact usually is). Second, and more importantly, the Bush campaign probably has a better response to them than the ones Brooks provides. In each case, Brooks has Bush simply assert the opposite or claim its ridiculous. Unless the Bush campaign simply asserts its own unique and unverifiable version of reality, they have to have a better response than this. That response, along with Kerry’s real contextualized comments, deserves more fair consideration than Brooks pretends to offer here. Third, Brooks himself says *his* aim is not to discuss the morality of facts and arguments in political campaigns but rather what the incompetence of these charges as *campaigning* says about the *campaigner* and his *campaign*. The problem is not in other words the supposedly baseless and false charges (the truth), it’s the competence of the baseless and false charges (the lie). The problem with Kerry lately then, is that some other baseless and false charges would have been more *effective* as *lies*.

And Brooks does not hesitate to suggest which strategy would be more efficacious:

Bush’s key vulnerability is that people fear he is in over his head. By lashing out wildly, Kerry muddles all that. Instead his blunderbuss approach suggests a candidate devoid of perspective, driven by unattractive and naked ambition.

Aside from telling incompetent falsehoods, Kerry has failed to narrow those same incompetent falsehoods in on a single theme: Bush’s intellectual incompetence. Kerry’s strategy instead reveals him as an incompetent distorter of facts; his “blunderbuss” approach to distortion fails to mask his “unattractive and naked ambition.” Let’s put aside for a moment the morally repugnant claim that Kerry be a better and more effective liar, and focus on the notion that Kerry should hone his message to focus on the single theme of Bush’s intellectual incompetence.

By way of explaining the reasons Kerry has chosen the blunderbuss route, Brooks claims:

Why is he doing this? First, because in the insular Democratic world, George Bush is presumed to be guilty of everything, so the more vicious you can be about him, the better everybody feels.

This is truly mystifying. Brooks has just claimed that “Bush’s key vulnerability is that he is in over his head.” It seems to us that his being “guilty of everything” is a consequence of his being in over his head, and attacking Bush the person for being in over his head is the very advice Brooks has just given. The accusation of being “in over your head,” after all, constitutes a personal attack. So Brooks has argued that the Democrats are incompetent prevaricators, and if they want to win they should attack Bush on a single theme (his incompetence). But attacking Bush for his incompetence (perhaps by giving arguments or distortions to the effect that the consequences of his being in over his head will be a disaster for the solvency of social security, draft age young men and perhaps women, the rights of homosexuals, and finally the progress of scientific research) is vicious.

There is simply no way that Kerry can come out ahead in Brooks’s argument. For if he does not attack Bush for his intellectual failings, he’s incompetent; and if he attack him on these grounds, he’s vicious, and incompetent. So the result of Brooks’s argument is that if Kerry does not want to be incompetent, he must be incompetent. Whatever the virtues or vices of Kerry’s campaign, there is no doubt that this analysis of it is fundamentally contradictory. And anything that is fundamentally contradictory really is incompetent.

Missing the point

The Duelfer report states conclusively that two of the primary rationales for going to war in Iraq were seriously wrong. Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and he had no ties to al Qaeda. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped David Brooks and George Bush from claiming that the report somehow justifies the war in Iraq. What is interesting is that each of them offers the same round-peg-square-hole kind of argument. To be more precise, each of them commits the fallacy of *ignoratio elenchi*, which is Latin for “missing the point,” in such a textbook way that it’s worth looking at their arguments together.

In short, the fallacy of missing the point occurs most often in cases of drawing extreme conclusions when the evidence would more properly suggest a more moderate conclusion.

First, let’s look at David Brooks. After a reciting litany of reasons the sanctions regime was not only faltering but that it had also strengthened Saddam Hussein’s grip on power, Brooks concludes:

But we know where things were headed. Sanctions would have been lifted. Saddam, rich, triumphant and unbalanced, would have reconstituted his W.M.D. Perhaps he would have joined a nuclear arms race with Iran. Perhaps he would have left it all to his pathological heir Qusay.

We can argue about what would have been the best way to depose Saddam, but this report makes it crystal clear that this insatiable tyrant needed to be deposed. He was the menace, and, as the world dithered, he was winning his struggle. He was on the verge of greatness. We would all now be living in his nightmare.

Note that from the uncertainty of the “perhaps” of the first paragraph here cited Brooks derives the certainty of Saddam’s return to greatness, his need to be deposed, and that we would *now* be living in his nightmare. Never mind the practical impossibilities of Saddam reconstituting anything with an inspections regime that had not only been effective, but that was still in place at the start of the war. The real problem with Brooks’ argument is that when the evidence suggests corruption in the U.N. oil for food program, and Saddam’s uncanny ability to play it to his advantage (none of which actually produced weapons of mass destruction or ties with al Qaeda), Brooks concludes that the whole thing was a failure and needed to be scrapped. Considering the aims and successes of the sanctions and inspections, one would more reasonably conclude that the system only needed to be fixed. So the evidence does not suggest anything like the extreme measure of invading Iraq, deposing Saddam, and occupying Iraq.

So much for Brooks. We have another version of this same fallacy from last Friday’s Presidential debate. When asked whether despite the absence of WMDs the invasion of Iraq was still justified, Bush had this to say:

And I saw a unique threat in Saddam Hussein – as did my opponent – because we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. And the unique threat was that he could give weapons of mass destruction to an organization like Al Qaeda, and the harm they inflicted on us with airplanes would be multiplied greatly by weapons of mass destruction. And that was a serious, serious threat. So I tried diplomacy, went to the United Nations. But as we learned in the same report I quoted, Saddam Hussein was gaming the oil-for-food program to get rid of sanctions. He was trying to get rid of sanctions for a reason. He wanted to restart his weapons programs.

The attempt to get rid of sanctions, “game” the oil-for-food program, and the intent to get weapons of mass destruction do not constitute an actual imminent threat. At worst, they show the various U.N. programs to have been successful. At most, they might justify a revision, but not a wholesale rejection, of them. Furthermore, granting the increase in the perceived threat of the Hussein regime after 9/11, this rejection was not an actual live option. To suggest that letting Hussein go free and unhindered is to compound the fallacy of missing the point with a false dilemma: there were many other options between ineffective sanctions and war.

It depends on what the meaning of liberal is

Part of the problem with labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” consists in the fact that they have all manner of (often negative) political and social connotations. For this reason, calling Kerry a “liberal” or Bush a “conservative” has such rhetorical effectiveness. And juxtaposing one of these terms with a geographical or institutional region strengthens the verbal blow–the Massachusetts liberal, the liberal media, the Bible Belt conservative, for instance. In the end, however, they are little more than a shortcut for a lazy, uninquisitive mind, which likes to dwell at a level of generality where facts are made to fit neatly into predetermined categories, such that easy categorical disjunctions can be enacted–liberal *or* conservative. And this is more or less what George Will
is up to in his column in the *Washington Post*.

In short, Will sets out to explain “Conservatism’s 40-year climb to dominance” in light of two sources: its congruence with American values and “anomalous” religiosity and the “elaborate infrastructure” of think tanks and similar institutions. But Will fails to note–among other things that simply tell against the truth of the phenomenon he is trying to explain–that 40 years is a long time–in fact, in the Bible that’s just what it means–and a lot can happen to labels in 40 years. To claim that “conservatism” has won dominance over a 40 year struggle is to say, at the very least, that there exists a coherently self-identical movement expressed by a growing but organized body of adherents. If “conservatism” has won a victory over “liberalism,” then first of all we must at least be talking about the same teams.

But by Will’s own characterization of liberalism, we are hardly talking about the same teams. Herbert Hoover–hardly the paragon of Willian liberalism today–called himself “a true liberal” and Eisenhower, hardly a member of a liberal party by Will’s characterization, reckoned himself in that number. This cuts the other way as well. While Barry Goldwater may share party affiliation with some current conservatives, it would be wrong to say that Bush and Goldwater (and Reagan and Nixon) are conservatives in the same sense. So to claim the ascendancy of conservatism over liberalism isn’t to say that one coherent and unified ideology has defeated another (and judging by the popular vote in the last Presidential election as well as other well established data, that isn’t even clearly the case), but rather one meaningless label employed by conservative pundits (oops!) has triumphed over another.

Second, just as one might challenge the diachronic unity of the labels he traffics in. More to the point, one might also challenge the synchronic unity of such terms. Just who is a liberal (and who is a conservative) nowadays in the sense that Will intends? Both parties have, to the disillusionment perhaps of a the greater portion of the electorate, adopted the rhetoric and ideology of the other. Bush’s heavy political (but perhaps not monetary) investment in public education and other expansions of entitlement programs suggest much less than conservative ideology in the Goldwaterian sense. Besides, the Republican party encompasses quite a broad coalition of extreme social conservatives, moderates, and libertarian elements. Claiming that its recent victories (again the 2000 election–when it lost the popular vote–combined with Clinton’s two victories hardly constitute evidence of “dominance”) are a sign of core conservative values grossly oversimplifies the kinds of coalition-building necessary to win Presidential elections. But worse than that, it does violence to language.

Will to compare

Among the hundreds of thousands of student victims of the whims of the all powerful teachers’ union, all students of Logic 101 have been subjected to the following counterintuitive stipulation: “some” is a quantifier; it tells you how many. But how many does “some” mean? Well, and here’s the counterintuitive part, it means *at least one*–not necessarily more than just one. Those same students, those victims of the powerful agents of a government-sponsored Democratic political lobby, also know that “some” is infinitely distant from “all.” So when some use some it may mean only some, that is, one.

That said, in today’s *Washington Post* George Will
attempts to “understand some of the Democratic rage about the specter of a second term for George W. Bush.” In turns out that the “some” here refers not to an unspecified number of Democrats, but rather to an undetermined quantum of their motivation for fearing a second term of George Bush. In case you thought that this undetermined quantum of rage was directed at profound or even superficial concerns over the domestic policies of the current administration, you’d be sorely disappointed. For Will’s analysis concerns the political survival of the Democratic party as an entity, not, as it might seem, the agenda of the Democratic party; if Bush gets reelected, Will muses, then his policies might produce fewer Democrats.

Now of course on the other hand we are only talking about *some* of the rage. So that’s a pretty low bar to hurdle. But the unspecified quantum of rage doesn’t constitute the worst feature of Will’s argument today. It’s the fact that he pits *some* of the motivation for the “rage” of *some* Democrats against the policies of the current administration (not a “some,” but an “all”); this specious comparison juxtaposes the selfish and shortsighted Democratic motivations with principled Republican stands on policy. *Some* of the Democrats’ rage results from the gutting of their base that would happen under the policies of a new Bush administration. Take the worst of the selfish and shortsighted Democratic base (and the one which for completely selfish reasons is closest to our heart) for example, the teachers’ union:

The public education lobby — one in 10 delegates to the Democratic convention was a member of a teachers union — wants government to keep impediments in the way of competition. That means not empowering parents with school choice, including the choice of private schools, which have significantly lower per-pupil costs.

Here–and throughout the rest of the piece–Will compares the ruinous and obtusely self-serving motives of the Democratic base with the reasoned stands of the Republican party. The Democrats, of course, want only to continue to exist and further their own self-interest. The Republican platform, on the other hand, is characterized here by the apparent soundness of its policy and the purity of its motivations. One more example:

Welfare reform, the largest legislative achievement of the 1990s, diminished the Democratic Party’s dependency-bureaucracy complex. That complex consists of wards of government and their government supervisors. And Bush’s “ownership society” is another step in the plan to reduce the supply of government by reducing the demand for it.

That felicitous formulation, from Jonathan Rauch’s masterful analysis of Bush’s domestic ambitions (National Journal, July 26, 2003), follows from two axioms of which conservatives are fond: Give a person a fish and you give the person a meal; teach the person to fish and you give a livelihood. And: No one washes a rental car. Meaning people behave most responsibly about what they own. Hence Bush’s menu of incentives for private retirement, health, education and savings accounts.

Here again the policies of the Bush administration clash with the entirely political motivations of Democratic operatives. But, as we have argued here before, for comparisons to work, the items compared must be of the same category. So Will should either compare the selfish motives of the Republican party with the selfish motives of the Democratic party, or the policies of the one with the policies of the other. Now of course in the end just because there might in fact be *some* Democrats who fit Will’s description doesn’t make his comparison any less specious.

Contrast then compare

It may come as no surprise to some readers that Saturday’s *New York Times* presents another of David Brooks’ dichotomous observation pieces. This time, however, Brooks attempts to inject his usual trope with a healthy dose of balance; he expresses a hope (“in weak moments”) that the opposition neutralize itself in the proper combination of two complementary sorts of minds: Kerry’s (“rationalistic”) and Bush’s (“creedal or ethical”).

If we are really talking about balance, then the two sorts of mind must be compatible, not mutually exclusive. If we are talking about exclusive opposition, then the opposite is the case, that is, the one type of mind cannot have the characteristics of the other. A false dichotomy results when one treats the compatible as an instance of the incompatible. Strictly speaking, that’s not what we have here, since Brooks professes the false hope that the two might on some twin earth exist together on the same ticket. And if they can exist together on the same ticket somewhere, then they can exist on it here.

Instead of the false dichotomy, we have an interesting variation on that theme. To force the contrast between the two, Brooks compares their positions regarding different issues and their answers to different questions in the debate. Take the following for instance:

When John Kerry was asked how he would prevent another attack like 9/11, he reeled off a list of nine concrete policy areas, ranging from intelligence reform to training Iraqi troops, but his answer had no thematic summation. If you glance down a transcript of the debate and you see one set of answers that talks about “logistical capacity” or “a plan that I’ve laid out in four points,” or “a long list” of proposals or “a strict series of things” that need to be done, you know that’s Kerry speaking. [emphasis added]

The question, as it is reported by Brooks, concerns the *how*, or the *means* of preventing another attack. That is a process question. And Kerry has answered it by referring to concrete and specific matters of process. One might even assert that these concrete proposals constitute the *thematic summation* of Kerry’s answer. Now this gets compared in the following way with Bush:

If, on the other hand, you see an answer that says, “When we give our word, we will keep our word,” you know that is Bush. When you see someone talking about crying with a war widow, you know that’s Bush.

This makes Bush look like an idiot. For if the issue for Kerry is how he responds to questions of process, then we should expect–since a comparison is being made–Brooks to present us with Bush’s answer to the *same* question, or at least the same type of question. It’s rather like comparing the dinner and dessert choices of two diners–Kerry likes steak for dinner, but Bush likes apple pie for dessert. The reader is left to wonder what Bush likes for dinner and what Kerry likes for dessert.

Now what’s the question?

The op-ed page of today’s *New York Times*
offers its readers, among the usual fare, three proposed questions for each of the participants in tonight’s Presidential debate. Naturally, the proposed questions for Bush come from Kerry supporters, and vice-versa. Among these questions, William Kristol of the *Weekly Standard* proposes the following oft repeated, rhetorically effective, but logically troublesome question for Kerry:

You have said that we cannot cut and run from Iraq and that we could “realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years.” But if you now consider the war to have been a mistake, how could you, as president, “ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake”?

That this question is a *rhetorical* trap is obvious. *Jeune* Kerry, dour and uniformed, asked it in his testimony before the Senate in 1971. It wasn’t a real question then, and it’s not real question now. It’s a rhetorical question. In other words, it’s a question with no possible answer.

This “question” of Kristol’s is a brilliant rhetorical strategy, thick as it is with references *Weekly Standard* readers find compelling: Kerry’s protests against the Viet Nam War, his *apparent* modification of positions on Iraq (“you *now* consider. . .”), and his stated aim of extracting the U.S. from Iraq.

Those matters aside, there is no way Kerry can answer this question without falling into the *complex question* trap Kristol has prepared for him. If he explains how he can ask the last man to die for a mistake, then he contradicts the young John Kerry and at the same time affirms that the soldiers are now dying for a mistake. If he says that he won’t ask anyone else to die for a mistake, then he claims that the soldiers who have died have died in vain. So there is no way that Kerry can answer *that* question without looking like a dope.

But there’s more to Kristol’s question than his attempt to force Kerry into a 30 year-old self-contradiction. The preamble to the question is meant to suggest Kerry holds a series of inconsistent positions. It might help to examine the explicit claims in greater detail.

1. We cannot cut and run from Iraq;

2. We can realistically aim to have our troops home in four years;

3. The war was a mistake.

Kristol aims to show that Kerry cannot consistently hold all of these positions at once. One appears inconsistent with two–setting a timetable for disengagement is another phrase for cutting and running. One also seems inconsistent with two and three in the following sense. The war was either a mistake or it wasn’t. If it was a mistake, then we should not be there *now* (let alone four years from now). If we are there now or four years from now, then it’s not a mistake. Something, Kristol believes, has to give. But what has to give is not Kerry’s position, but rather Kristol’s simple minded formulation of it. While challenging the question may not constitute a very smart political ploy–as Kerry is so often accused of offering answers too complicated for the ordinary pundit–it would certainly uncover the logical trap Kristol is setting for him.

Here is how Kerry might respond:

1. To *have invaded* Iraq in March 2003 was a mistake, a grave one. But the fact is that mistake has already been committed.

2. But to “cut and run” *now* would make matters worse, for it would leave Iraq in a chaos of our making. In other words, the mistake has been accomplished, what remains are the *consequences* of the mistake. Cutting and running would constitute a new mistake.

One and two, then, are clearly not inconsistent. The only way they can be made to be inconsistent if one vaguely determines the temporal boundries of the term “mistake.” For Kerry, the “mistake” of the Iraq war refers to an event in the past. For Kristol, however, Kerry’s claim that it is a mistake means that everything associated with it *now* is a mistake. These are two fundamentally irreconcilable meanings of the term “mistake.”

Finally,

3. Therefore, a clear and realistic timetable for withdrawl is not inconsistent with either two or three above. And the only way Kristol can make this inconsistent is if he conflates “cutting and running” with “clear and realistic timetable for withdrawl.” But these two hardly mean the same thing.

Once Kerry clarifies these matters, Kristol could then ask him a real question.

Analogies

The imaginative arguer can intuit connections between otherwise distinct facts or events; she can identify the proper analogates with a certain amount of precision and shed light on otherwise obscure phenomena. And she knows that analogies, like other arguments in inductive or informal logic, are tricky creatures. Their conclusive force depends on the degree to which the analogates can be reasonably compared. When the analogates cannot be reasonably compared, then the analogy is a false one. But determining whether an analogy is strong or weak requires more of the critical reasoner than most other kinds of inductive arguments. For she must have a command over the facts relevant to the strength of the analogy. Such an analysis of the facts takes time and effort, things which most newspaper readers–even careful ones–have in short supply.

Fortunately for us, David Brooks relieves his readers of the painstaking work of researching the analogy that constitutes the core argument in his op-ed today (NYT 09/28/04). After expending more than three quarters of the space allotted for his twice-weekly column working up an analogy between the situation in El Salvador in the 1980s with Iraq *and* Afghanistan today, Brooks points out that

“[o]f course the situation in El Salvador is not easily comparable to the situations in Afghanistan or Iraq.”

So the reader need not expend any energy pointing out that El Salvador had not been invaded by a foreign power (like Afghanistan and Iraq); that the insurgents in El Salvador had a clearly articulated “positive” agenda; that this positive agenda consisted in part in the advocacy of the very democracy Brooks claims they challenged; that Afghanistan and Iraq have in common primarily the fact that they have been invaded by us; that the insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq is aimed primarily at ousting or humiliating a foreign occupier. Pointing out such things is tedious and Brooks’ admission that such a comparison is not easy saves us a lot of time that we could have otherwise spent on puzzling over his conclusion:

It’s simply astounding that in the United States, the home of the greatest and most effective democratic revolution, so many people have come to regard democracy as a luxury-brand vehicle, suited only for the culturally upscale, when it’s really a sturdy truck, effective in conditions both rough and smooth.

Certainly the snobs who claim that only the “culturally upscale” are suited to democracy have taken quite a licking here. But one might wonder whether any such people exist, or whether they exist in such numbers, strength and influence to be considered worthy of mention. But perhaps, as is more likely the case, the reader is supposed to attribute this shallow, snobby view to those who are concerned that the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan makes the holding of elections difficult, dangerous, or impossible. But more to the point, the claim that democracy may flourish in “*conditions* rough and smooth” (here contrasted with “luxury” and “cultural upscaleness”) ignores legitimate questions of economic and political stability (such as, for example, voting) so often considered to be the minimal requirements for the existence of truly democratic institutions.

If it walks like a duck

Today I’d like briefly to add a few more wrinkles to my colleague’s very clear and perhaps overly charitable analysis of Charles Krauthammer’s abominable and wildly fallacious op-ed of last Friday. In particular, I would like to discuss Krauthammer’s rather devious attempt to identify John Kerry with the terrorists in virtue of the fact that they can be construed to share vaguely similar objectives. While such a strategy often results in the more obviously fallacious ad hominem argument, the frequency of its employment in recent political discourse, and its outrageously erroneous logical structure, warrants a separate discussion.

How does Krauthammer go about this? First he needs to find common ground for Kerry and the terrorists. To this end, after pointing out that two recent terrorist attacks aimed at allies of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (specifically Australia and Spain) seemed geared toward undermining support among coalition members, Krauthammer makes the following startling observation:

That [Abandon America and buy your safety] is what the terrorists are saying. Why is the Kerry campaign saying the same thing? “John Kerry’s campaign has warned Australians that the Howard Government’s support for the US in Iraq has made them a bigger target for international terrorists.” So reports the Weekend Australian (Sept. 18).

Americans Overseas for Kerry is the Kerry operation for winning the crucial votes of Americans living abroad (remember the Florida recount?), including more than 100,000 who live in Australia. Its leader was interviewed Sept. 16 by The Australian’s Washington correspondent, Roy Eccleston. Asked if she believed the terrorist threat to Australians was now greater because of the support for President Bush, she replied: “I would have to say that,” noting that “[t]he most recent attack was on the Australian embassy in Jakarta.”

She said this of her country (and of the war that Australia is helping us with in Iraq): “[W]e are endangering the Australians now by this wanton disregard for international law and multilateral channels.” Mark Latham could not have said it better. Nor could Jemaah Islamiah, the al Qaeda affiliate that killed nine people in the Jakarta bombing.

First of all, the conclusion (which appears in the first paragraph), “the Kerry campaign is saying the same thing,” raises logical eyebrows of its own. For just what is “the same thing”? If it means that the U.S. has erred in invading Iraq, then lots of people (many of them not terrorists) are saying that. If he means that countries who continue to support U.S. policy in Iraq are more likely targets for terrorists, then, again, lots of non-terrorists are saying that. In addition, that is an observation well supported by the evidence (take Jakarta and Madrid, for instance), and not, as Krauthammer might be taken to suggest, a threat on Kerry’s part (for more on that see Friday’s post). So the Kerry campaign, on the analysis of this particular op-ed, is alleging (and correctly too, if we are to take Krauthammer’s own claims about the Madrid and Jakarta bombings as true) that the invasion of Iraq has done more to foment terrorism than end it.

But whether or not Kerry is or is not saying the same (or a substantially similar) thing as the terrorists is beside the point. Why don’t we, for the sake of argument, suppose that to be the case. If we do, we can unveil the more subtle (for Krauthammer avoids directly stating it) but nonetheless devious identification of the Kerry campaign and the terrorists. This identification occurs in two different places in the passage just quoted.

First, there is the obvious “the Kerry campaign is saying the same thing.” And second, we have the less overt, but more pernicious, “Mark Latham [and Jemaah Islamiah] could not have said it better.” In the second instance, the real terrorists may be offended that “disregard for international law and multilateral channels” is being attributed to them as a justification for their terrorism. But never mind that terrorists rarely if ever have such legalistic motives, for Krauthammer’s obvious intention here is to identify the Kerry campaign in some rhetorically underhanded way with terrorists; after all, they both say the same thing. Aside from being just plain false (or too vague), this claim depends on an absolutely specious inference from accidental property to substantial identity.

Let’s illustrate this distinction with a counterexample. Both Bush and Bin Laden consider Saddam Hussein to be their enemy. And let’s say that they even say similar things about him. We should hardly be justified in concluding that their agreement on Saddam is anything more than purely coincidental (they dislike Hussein for radically different reasons). If this is not the case, then, in Krauthammer’s eyes, Bush has a lot of explaining to do.

Which one of these things is not like the other?

The reporting media’s feverish desire for fairness and balance and its consequent abdication of its role as checker of facts seems to have spread to the op-ed pages. The ones who suffer most from this malady are those most often numbered among the “liberal” commentators. Unlike their more ideologically driven colleagues (who feel no such scruple), liberal commentators–and we use the term “liberal” only because that’s what people tend to call them–often argue against both advertised sides of an issue. In many, perhaps even most, contexts this would be a positive thing; it challenges the silly notion that for any argument there are only two parties. Sometimes, however, this urge for balance becomes an end in itself. This is what we have in yesterday’s column by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof:

If they're intellectually consistent, Democrats will speak out not only against the Swift Boat Veterans but also against Mr. Kerry's demagoguery on trade, like his suggestion that outsourcing is the result of Mr. Bush's economic policies. Trade demagoguery may not be as felonious as an assault on a war hero's character, but it harms America by undermining support for free trade.

Naturally what interests us about this passage is the mention of intellectual consistency. Ironically, this passage contains none. For the following two things are too different to warrant comparison in terms of consistency:

  • the Kerry campaign’s suggestion that Bush’s economic policies lead to outsourcing;
  • and

  • “a felonious assault on a war hero’s character.”

We might examine this puzzling comparison from two points of view, for it is almost (but not quite) equally inapplicable to both Kerry and Bush. Let’s look at how it is unfair to Kerry first. First, Kristof says that the Kerry campaign has leveled the charges. Second, the charges concern the effects of the policies of the current administration. Third, these charges are alleged to “harm America” by “undermining support for free trade.” Whether “outsourcing” and “support for free trade” can somehow be seen to entail each other is another matter, for what Kristof charges is not that the charges of the Kerry campaign are false, but that America may be harmed by failing to support free trade. So the Kerry campaign has challenged the Bush administration’s economic policies with the potential result of harming a feature of America’s economic system. On the other hand, this comparison is somewhat unfair to Bush since supporters of Bush have falsely claimed that John Kerry the person is a liar. The Bush campaign has not made the charges (though the President has refused to repudiate them specifically, but that’s besides the point here). But the balance of Kristof’s analysis tilts against Kerry, for Kristof alleges that legitimate questions about the effectiveness of economic policies of his opponent stand on equal footing with spurious assaults on Kerry’s honesty and service to his country. On the strength of this ridiculous analysis, Kristof concludes:

I'm afraid that the dishonesty of politics has infected all of us if we're so partisan that we're willing to point out only the sins of the other side. Intellectual consistency requires a tough look first at one's own shortcomings. So Republicans should be denouncing the smear against Mr. Kerry's war record, and Democrats should be denouncing their candidate's protectionist tone on trade.

Speaking of intellectual consistency, this is even more muddled than the previous paragraph. Kristof claims that the “dishonesty” of politics infects each side. But how are the smears against Kerry’s character of the same class as the Kerry campaign’s “protectionist” tone on trade? The first certainly is a matter of honesty (again, for those who leveled the charges, and perhaps for the campaign that refuses to issue a specific condemnation of them), the second is just a matter of honest political disagreement. In the end, a more readily available comparison suggests itself. Kristof might charge Kerry supporters with attacking the honesty and character of President Bush. In that case, even though the cases may still be too different to compare (for one of these charges seems to be true), at least Kristof would have gotten the basic comparison right.

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.

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The editors of www.thenonsequitur.com 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.