All posts by John Casey



It was a close election. Very close. But you’d never know that from the tone of the election post-mortem across the conservative and non-conservative (that doesn’t mean “liberal”) punditocracy. While talk of “mandates” with 51 percent of the electorate is absurd on its face, equally ludicrous–but no less frequent–is the blizzard of simplistic explanations for why three percent of the popular vote, and more to the point, 136,483 (actually less when one subtracts unexplained votes for Bush) in Ohio went to the Republican candidate. With such slim margins, the cold analytical mind would shudder at grand explanations, epiphanies, and electoral exaggerations. Such a mind would have to conclude that such a slim victory precludes grand conclusions. Thus the following from E.J.Dionne in the *Washington Post*:

These numbers do not lend themselves to a facile ideological analysis of what happened. The populist left can fairly ask why so many pro-government, anti-corporate voters backed Bush. The social liberals can ask why so many socially moderate and progressive voters stuck with the president. The centrist crowd can muse over the power of the terrorism issue. The exit polls found that perhaps 10 percent of Al Gore’s 2000 voters switched to Bush. Of these, more than eight in 10 thought the war in Iraq was part of the war on terrorism.

But such a deep appreciation for the complexity of the 2004 electorate seems not to have had any effect on Dionne’s conservative *Post* colleague, George F. Will, for Will has wasted no time in reveling in the “epiphanies” of last Tuesday. We won’t waste the reader’s time with an exhaustive catalogue of them (the first of them is that Bruce Springsteen does not select the President, electoral votes do). Among other epiphanies we find the following:

While 44 percent of Hispanics, America’s largest and fastest-growing minority, voted for Bush, African Americans continued to marginalize themselves, again voting nearly unanimously (88 percent) for the Democratic nominee. In coming years, while Hispanics are conducting a highly advantageous political auction for their support, African Americans evidently will continue being taken for granted by Democrats.

Keep in mind that this is an epiphany, so we are meant to be surprised by some important bit of electoral analysis. Only a conservative would be surprised, however, that minority groups do not constitute a monolithic entity. Perhaps there is some reason beyond their willful marginalization (having voted for the candidate who received the second highest number of votes in the history of the United States and the one who won 48 percent of the popular vote constitutes marginalization in Will’s mind by the way) that explains how 88 percent of the African American vote went to Kerry. Maybe–and perhaps this is a stab in the dark–a large number of them–88 percent in fact–rightly or wrongly *believed* Kerry to be the candidate who best represented their economic interests, vision of the Presidency, moral values, view in the war on terror, or whatever other of the sundry *reasons* one casts a vote for President. And in fact, when it comes to divining reasons for votes from the non-minorities, Will doesn’t hesitate to assume there is some reason, some reasonable reason, for their voting:

Newsom’s [mayor of San Francisco] heavily televised grandstanding — illegally issuing nearly 4,000 same-sex marriage licenses — underscored what many Americans find really insufferable. It is not so much same-sex marriage that enrages them: Most Americans oppose an anti-same-sex amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is why it fell 49 votes short of the required two-thirds in the House and 19 short in the Senate. Rather, what provokes people is moral arrogance expressed in disdain for democratic due process.

On Will’s analysis, minorities get no special treatment. He doesn’t even wonder *why* they vote the way they do. That a certain group is reported to have voted en masse may certainly cry out for an explanation–just as the fact that all eleven proposals to ban same-sex marriages must be accounted for–but that explanation will perhaps best begin (and perhaps end) with one question: *why* did you (and 48 percent of the electorate) vote for the Democratic candidate?


Though facts constitute one of the two essential features of any argument, we the editors of *The Non Sequitur* do not normally pronounce on questions of fact. We lack the resources to engage in the kind of rigorous fact-checking one finds at, for example,, and besides, we have made it our objective to focus narrowly on the way op-ed writers, politicians, and assorted others weave facts into inferences. In testing the strength or validity of inferences, we generally assume the facts to be as the writer alleges. For whatever the facts may be, they oftentimes cannot hide the howling non sequiturs a disconcerting number of these writers attempt to pass off as sound reasoning. Some non sequiturs, however, rely on shameless and obvious factual distortions or fabrications, so sometimes it is impossible for us to exclude the factual
concerns from our analysis of the logic of the inferences. The straw man argument, for instance, relies on a misleadingly weak version of an opponent’s argument, and uncovering this fallacy obviously requires that the critical reader to have some knowledge of the argument being attacked.
We find a string of such straw man arguments in Saturday’s *New York Times*.
David Brooks insults the Gray Lady’s honor and reputation by distorting the words of one of her own reporters in the assembly of one of the most rickety straw men we have seen in recent months. But, as we shall see presently, the straw man is only the first in a series of equally egregious fallacies.
First, the straw man.

The nuisance is back!

Remember when John Kerry told Matt Bai of The Times Magazine that he wanted to reduce the terrorists to a nuisance? Kerry vowed to mitigate the problem of terrorism until it became another regrettable and tolerable fact of life, like gambling, organized crime and prostitution.

That was the interview in which he said Sept. 11 “didn’t change me much at all.” He said it confirmed in him a sense of urgency, “of doing the things we thought we needed to be doing.”

We remember that too, and like all those gifted with high-speed–nay any speed–internet, we are also capable of checking to see whether Brooks *charitably* or *accurately* represents the Democratic candidate’s words. For there are various degrees of straw man argument. Some rely on factually correct, but unfair or uncharitable, interpretations of an opponent’s words or meaning; others depend on simple distortion or outright fabrication. The more common version of the fallacy, and the hardest to detect, is the first. But Brooks commits the second. In original *Times* article, Kerry had quite a bit to say about terrorists and terrorism, and on any reading, he does not come across as anything remotely like the detached and effete intellectual of Brooks’ portrayal who was unaffected by 9/11, who wants to “mitigate” the problem of terrorism rather than obliterate terrorists, and worst of all, who claims that *Bin Laden* is a nuisance.
First, let’s look at the claim that 9/11 didn’t change Kerry much at all since, as a matter of fact, this comes first in the article. This otherwise trivial fact about the order of Kerry’s statements underscores Brooks’ context-free selective quotation of them. For the sake of charity, completeness, and honesty, we will provide ample context.

This is the Republican line on Kerry — that he lacks guts. Kerry’s often wobbly attempt to be both like and unlike Bush in his approach to terrorism and the war in Iraq enabled the Bush team, by the time Kerry and I spoke in August, to portray him, devastatingly, as a ”flip-flopper” who careens from one position to another. In our conversation, Kerry seemed unusually sensitive to these allegations, to the point where he seemed unwilling to admit to having evolved or grown in the way that politicians — or human beings, for that matter — generally do. When I asked Kerry how Sept. 11 had changed him, either personally or politically, he seemed to freeze for a moment.

”It accelerated — ” He paused. ”I mean, it didn’t change me much at all. It just sort of accelerated, confirmed in me, the urgency of doing the things I thought we needed to be doing. I mean, to me, it wasn’t as transformational as it was a kind of anger, a frustration and an urgency that we weren’t doing the kinds of things necessary to prevent it and to deal with it.”

As you can see, the entire passage relates quite a different picture. Rather than a man who is unaffected by 9/11, we find one with *anger*, a *sense of urgency*, and *frustration* at the failure to address the problem of terrorism. Brooks omits these terms from his analysis and so presents a man blithely unperturbed by an event of which he himself was a witness, and perhaps, a target.

Now for the question of “mitigation.” Brooks takes this to mean Kerry is weak and uncommitted to the fight against terrorism. We should note that the word “mitigation” appears *nowhere* in the article, and even a cursory reading of it will show that it does not fairly characterize Kerry’s position with regard to the war on terrorism. First, a little context of our own. When asked whether the war on terrorism is really a war, Kerry said:

”There’s a danger in it,” Kerry said, nodding. ”But it’s real,” he went on, meaning the war itself. ”You know, when your buildings are bombed and 3,000 people get killed, and airplanes are hijacked, and a nation is terrorized the way we were, and people continue to plot to do you injury, that’s an act of war, and it’s serious business. But it’s a different kind of war. You have to understand that this is not the sands of Iwo Jima. This is a completely new, different kind of war from any we’ve fought previously.”

Kerry told me he would stop terrorists by going after them ruthlessly with the military, and he faulted Bush, as he often does, for choosing to use Afghan militias, instead of American troops, to pursue Osama bin Laden into the mountains of Tora Bora, where he disappeared. ”I’m certainly, you know, not going to take second seat to anybody, to nobody, in my willingness to seek justice and set America on a course — to make America safe,” Kerry told me. ”And that requires destroying terrorists. And I’m committed to doing that. But I think I have a better way of doing it. I can do it more effectively.”[emphasis added]

In the article that Brooks cites as evidence that Kerry wants to “mitigate” the terrorist problem, Kerry says quite clearly that he is committed to “destroying terrorists.” He says nothing to the effect that he wants to deal softly with actual terrorists. Finally, let’s see whether Kerry called Bin Laden a nuisance.

But when you listen carefully to what Bush and Kerry say, it becomes clear that the differences between them are more profound than the matter of who can be more effective in achieving the same ends. Bush casts the war on terror as a vast struggle that is likely to go on indefinitely, or at least as long as radical Islam commands fealty in regions of the world. In a rare moment of either candor or carelessness, or perhaps both, Bush told Matt Lauer on the ”Today” show in August that he didn’t think the United States could actually triumph in the war on terror in the foreseeable future. ”I don’t think you can win it,” he said — a statement that he and his aides tried to disown but that had the ring of sincerity to it. He and other members of his administration have said that Americans should expect to be attacked again, and that the constant shadow of danger that hangs over major cities like New York and Washington is the cost of freedom. In his rhetoric, Bush suggests that terrorism for this generation of Americans is and should be an overwhelming and frightening reality.

When I asked Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. ”We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance,” Kerry said. ”As a former law-enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”

The nuisance remark not only clearly refers to the ultimate objective of the war on terrorism (not its actual present day state), but appears in fact to be more optimistic than the President’s own claim that the war on terrorism cannot be won. A rigorous application of Brooks’ interpretive strategy necessitates and equally brutal interpretation of the President’s remark. He might say, for instance, with regard to Bin Laden’s recent video release, “there goes that Bin Laden again, the guy who has defeated us (since we cannot win) in the war on terrorism.” And that remark wouldn’t even take that much–or any–distortion. If we cannot win the war on terrorism, then the uncaptured Bin Laden is the victor. While such a remark would be patently uncharitable, and for that reason simply unacceptable in serious debate, it would not rest on a fabrication of Bush’s comments. Since it is obvious that none of Brooks’ characterization of Kerry actually applies to him, the conclusion he draws simply does not follow:

Well, the Osama bin Laden we saw last night was not a problem that needs to be mitigated. He was not the leader of a movement that can be reduced to a nuisance.

Few people would disagree with that, least of all John Kerry. Even Cornel West–no right wing intellectual he–the other night called Bin Laden a “gangster” who needed to be–note the phrase–“brought to justice.” But there’s more to Brooks’ argument. His completely dishonest rendering of Kerry’s position on terrorism constitutes one half of a Brooksian false dichotomy:

One of the crucial issues of this election is, Which candidate fundamentally gets the evil represented by this man? Which of these two guys understands it deep in his gut – not just in his brain or in his policy statements, but who feels it so deep in his soul that it consumes him?

Given Brooks’ silly caricature of John Kerry, he probably means Bush (and not, by the way, the Bush who “isn’t all that concerned with Bin Laden”). Nevertheless, it’s certainly possible, and, discounting the many distorted, selectively quoted, or just plain fabricated statements on the matter, very likely that Kerry both understands the problem of terrorism as a policy issue *and* “deep in his gut”.
This false dichotomy aside, we still might wonder how we know that Bush is the right man for the war on terrorism. Is it because he has demonstrated unrivaled acumen in prosecuting the war? Because he has enlisted–not alienated–the world’s support in it? Because he has actually captured the individual who plotted and financed 9/11? Because he demonstrated unwavering support and cooperation with the 9/11 commission in an effort to understand the causes of 9/11? Because he selflessly refused to exploit 9/11 for short term partisan political gain? Because he courageously took on those countries responsible for the actual financing of al Qaeda? Or is it perhaps because the Gallup poll indicates that people *think* that he is? If you chose the last one, you’d have been right:

It’s quite clear from the polls that most Americans fundamentally think Bush does get this. Last March, Americans preferred Bush over Kerry in fighting terrorism by 60 percent to 33 percent, according to the Gallup Poll. Now, after a furious campaign and months of criticism, that number is unchanged. Bush is untouched on this issue.

Need we bother to mention that just because people believe that Bush is better that he actually *is* better at it? While it may be true that most Americans think the affirmative of whatever the Gallup question actually was, this demonstrates only that they think that. If that sounded pointlessly circular, and it was meant to be that way. Whether Bush actually is the right man for the job, whether his gut feeling and his policies are more effective is a question that must be settled on an appeal to the relevant evidence, and the people’s impression, positive or negative, is not relevant evidence.
We could continue, but time and space constraints force us to stop here. Allow us dear reader to close with the following observation. We had cause to wonder in recent days whether Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, a fake news program on Comedy Central, was right when he said partisan hacks were hurting America. They seem indeed to go beyond being a simple nuisance. Given a public forum for rational, informed, and honest discussion of matters fundamental to the existence and flourishing of our democratic institutions, they all too often opt to repeat shallow and dishonest partisan talking points. While it may not be hurting America, it certainly doesn’t help.

Some and all

In the simple logic of many pundits, you’re either a liberal or a conservative. Conservatives reject anything that’s “liberal” and liberals likewise reject–or should reject–any utterance of a “conservative.” In the simple logic of George Will, anything that is not a complete government giveaway to the poor with no strings attached (or a thievish taxing of the rich) is “conservative,” no matter how many liberals support it (or variations of it). Since any such program is conservative, any liberal who does not reject it outright is not challenging conservativism. And thus the failure to challenge the conservative program is a victory, nay a “triumph” for conservativism, and a defeat for “liberalism.” Take the following for instance:

John Kerry’s campaign shows that liberalism remains merely reactive, and reconciled to many of conservatism’s triumphs. Kerry complains about No Child Left Behind and the USA Patriot Act but does not call for repealing either. For all of Kerry’s histrionic sorrows about “the rich” being too laxly taxed, his proposal to raise the top income tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent accepts Ronald Reagan’s revolution in lowering the rate from 70 percent. And Kerry has not proposed even a mild modification of modern conservatism’s largest legislative achievement, the 1996 welfare reform that repealed the 1935 Social Security Act’s lifetime entitlement to welfare.

There is an odd categorical logic to this claim. The first sentence–which is the conclusion of the argument–claims that *All* “liberalism” (whatever that means, see previous posts) is reactive. The evidence for this is a series of points about *some* of Kerry’s positions. Never mind the fact that Dennis Kucinich would justly recoil at the suggestion that Kerry is “liberal.” Notice how the strength of the conclusion (*Liberalism remains merely reactive*) rests on a narrowly selected range of domestic issues–the No Child Left Behind Act, the USA Patriot Act, taxation, and welfare reform. On Will’s formulation, Kerry’s stated campaign positions range from measured agreement to silence.

For Will’s conclusion about “liberalism” to follow he would need to do more than this. First, he would have to take into consideration that Kerry in the current election has the role of *challenger*. As challenger, his posture might seem “reactive,” because, in fact, that’s just what one might expect of a candidate who is challenging a President who has had four years with a friendly Congress and Supreme Court. Whatever one’s position on the current President, Bush has left his opponent with much to respond or react to.

Second, Will would need to examine a greater range of domestic issues. Even a poorly informed voter knows that Kerry has made concrete policy proposals regarding health care, education, and the environment that go beyond simple reactions or slight modifications of Republican or conservative achievements. The sample of issues here examined, in other words, does not warrant the universal categorical assertion that all liberalism is reactive.

Third, and most importantly, Will needs to show why it must be the case that Kerry must completely reject every policy proposal vaguely associated with conservative politicians. Perhaps, one might suggest, Kerry agrees with some, but not all, of the policy in question. Or perhaps he even agrees with it entirely. His failure to reject it outright does not necessarily constitute a victory for conservatives, and consequently render liberals reactive, it might be a victory for those who do not confine their minds to the simplistic and vaguely defined labels of punditology.

Entity multiplication

It’s not exactly a question of logic, strictly speaking, but the dictum *entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem* or *pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate* might aptly characterize what is wrong with George Will’s Sunday op-ed in the *Washington Post*. Even though such hefty Latinisms are no doubt familiar to the typical Will reader (cf his recent “Pennsylvania *est omnis divisa in partes tris*”), for the sake of those not used to Will’s Latin, it means, in paraphrase, “the simpler explanation is probably the better.” And that is just what we found in Sunday’s post; complicated explanations when simpler ones would probably do.

Part of the problem with the coming election, as Will sees it, consists in the “fraud-friendly” voter registration systems, such as the National Voter Registration Act, and their effect in a couple of key states–in particular, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In the wake of such measures, Will worries that

perhaps we should not be surprised that . . . since 1995, Philadelphia’s population has declined 13 percent but registered voters have increased 24 percent. Are we sure we should be pleased?

The unexamined belief that an ever-higher rate of voter registration is a Good Thing has met its limit in the center of the state that this year is the center of the political universe — Ohio. The Census Bureau’s 2003 estimate is that in Franklin County — Columbus — there are approximately 815,000 people 18 or older. But 845,720 are now registered.

A simple explanation quickly presents itself: voters whose status has changed–they moved, died, or went to prison–remain on the voter rolls. And, oddly, this is exactly what Will reports. However sufficient this explanation seems to be, Will immediately suggests something more sinister to be afoot:

One reason for such unacceptable numbers in various jurisdictions across the nation is that voter rolls are not frequently enough purged of voters whose status has changed. For example, in 2000, the Indianapolis Star’s Bill Theobald reported that “hundreds of thousands of names, as many as one in five statewide” were improperly on Indiana registration rolls “because the people behind those names have moved, died or gone to prison.” Unfortunately, there is reluctance, especially among Republicans, to support measures that might appear to have a “disparate impact” on minorities and therefore be denounced as racist.

This is a red herring. The question seems to be why–in one county in Ohio–so many people seem to be on the voter rolls. The simple explanation, people have changed their voting status, is converted into a concern–by someone in Indiana–that the Republicans are afraid of being called racists for purging the voter rolls. Before diverting out attention from the integrity of the voting process to the far more interesting (however groundless) reverse racism accusation, Will should follow through on the simpler explanation: what evidence is there for the claim that outdated voter rolls leads to electoral fraud? Will offers none. In fact, for someone to commit fraud, she would have to vote in more than one county on election day. And for this to amount to anything, thousands of people would have to do the same thing, fraudulently (voting in several counties or states by absentee voting or just by doing a lot of driving). It would have to be a plot of enormous complexity and secrecy for it to pretend to have any effect on the outcome of the election.

Against the existence of a plot of such devious and gratuitously baroque complexity, one might say that both political parties have perhaps come up with an equally sinister, but much simpler, scheme: register people to vote.

Off the trail

Today George Will seems to argue against the “reckless” charges about the “certainty” (his term) that there will be problems recording the perhaps 110 million votes in the coming election.

The charges are couched in the language of liberalism: much talk about voters’ rights, no talk about voters’ responsibilities and dark warnings of victimization — “disenfranchisement” and “intimidation.”

We recently discussed Will’s straw man version of the sloppy class term “liberalism,” so we direct the interested reader to that discussion.
The interesting variant on this argument here is that Will purports to show the recklessness of the charges of “disenfranchisement” and “intimidation” by distracting the reader with an argument against the incompetent use of punch-card ballots. This voter incompetence results in two well-known errors: overvotes and undervotes. To buttress this claim Will points out the various sorts of things voters can do to avoid undervoting or overvoting–read the instructions, double check the ballot for dimpled, hanging or pregnant chads. Despite the snide tone of Will’s analysis, there does not seem to be anything wrong with the suggestion that voters be circumspect in the exercise of their constitutional right. Nor do we think that anyone (even liberals) would seriously suggest that the voter has some minimal responsibility for ensuring that she casts her vote properly.

So Will has perhaps earned the conclusion that irresponsible or sloppy voting does not constitute “disenfranchisement” or “intimidation.” Such charges, as Will correctly points out, require much more by way of evidence. Unfortunately, aside from his brief and problematic discussion of possible disenfranchisement in Ohio, Will never seriously considers what the actual evidence for such heavy language might be. Perhaps he might have considered the secretive and seriously flawed felon list in Florida–remember Florida?–that kept enough voters from the polls to swing the election to George W. Bush. Despite having failed to consider the serious and well established charges, however, Will claims no one has demonstrated that “intimidation” and “disenfranchisement” have taken place or will take place and that “liberals” who make such charges do not understand that rights come with responsibilities.

The critically minded reader will not be fooled, however, by the powerful scent of Will’s red herring, for she will know the real issue is not incompetent voting, but the systematic or just plain incompetent efforts of some state officials to keep some voters from the polls. And she will notice also that Will, despite his whining about whining liberals’ whining, has done nothing to show that this is not the case.

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.