All posts by John Casey


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.


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

But again, more on that tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring Out Your Dead

(Washington Post 09/16/04): George Will’s diagnosis of a lethal “capitol plague” that afflicts northeastern Senators is a bit premature. The 2004 election has not taken place, so it’s a little early to bring out the dead, unless, of course, you try to club them to death first. Will attempts this self-confirming diagnosis of Kerry’s candidacy in a variety of unrelated ways. Among these the most noteworthy for our purposes–and the only ones we’ll take the time to comment on–are the following: a shallow analysis of two of Kerry’s stump speeches and a hopelessly misdirected discussion of two of Kerry’s votes as a Senator.

First the stump speeches:

“And the Northeastern senator at least went to the border region, to the banks of the Ohio River, for yet another “major” speech clarifying his position(s) on Iraq. John Kerry chose the Cincinnati venue where in October 2002 President Bush made his case for using against Iraq the force that Kerry voted to authorize. In Cincinnati, Kerry complained there was ‘$200 billion for Iraq, but they tell us we can’t afford after-school programs.’”

What the Weekly Standard and Monday Night Football commentators achieve with the rhetorically effective but semantically empty “flip-flop” talking point, Will achieves with a typographical innuendo (“position(s)”) and a subordinate clause (“[which] Kerry voted to authorize”). But amid these grammatical insinuations lies an even more clever and sinister device: the imputed false dilemma (and hence straw man). To underline the ridiculousness of Kerry’s remark (in this context-free formulation of it), Will imagines a response from Bush in which the former Governor from the Southwest logically outmaneuvers the Senator from the Northeast:

“‘Oh, so that is the problem. Why didn’t you say so sooner? In the interest of wartime unity, I will support adding to the current $1 billion spent on after-school programs an additional $1.5 billion — the amount you liberals say is needed. Now, senator, will you flip back to where you were 13 months ago when, talking about funding for the war, you said, we should ‘increase it’ and ‘by whatever number of billions of dollars it takes to win'”?”

This would be devastating to Kerry’s silly dilemma–it’s either 200 billion for Iraq (n.b., Kerry’s claim is actually false) or 1.5 billion for after-school programs–if only it were something approaching a fair reading of Kerry’s position. The quotation Will cites doesn’t suggest anything along the lines of the false dilemma he and the imaginary Bush are defeating. On a more honest and charitable reading, it suggests rather that Kerry believes the priorities of the Bush administration to be worthy of criticism.

But there’s more rhetorical trickery here. Will observes:

“Kerry might then have, as liberals are wont to do, upped the ante. While the nation was reeling from the horrors of Beslan and Baghdad, he promised a North Carolina audience that as president he would create a “Department of Wellness” to deal with problems such as house mold.”

The odd Mooresque juxtaposition (cf. “Now watch this drive”) of these three things asks us to conclude that Kerry is primarily concerned with matters wholly peripheral to the grave tasks that face the President of the United States. But we can hardly believe that Kerry’s response to the horrors of Beslan and the chaos of Iraq was to combat household mold. Will’s editing of the intellectual footage of the campaign trail would make Michael Moore’s head spin.

Turning his attention from the hustings to the Senate, Will indirectly claims that Kerry’s motivation for two key Senate votes has nothing to do with reasons or arguments:

“Better to talk about that menace [i.e., the mold] than about those two votes he cast that seem to have been equally insincere. One authorized the use of force against Iraq. The second opposed $87 billion to fund coping with the consequences of force having been used. Kerry can say nothing in defense of the first vote that does not offend the intense Democratic activists who are disgusted by it. And he can say nothing in defense of the second vote — his genuflection to those activists, made when Howard Dean was their pinup — without offending an American majority.”

Couched in the language of metapolitical analysis (“better to talk”), we can isolate the fairly obvious ad hominem attack on Kerry’s political motivations for his votes. No doubt there are political motivations for Kerry’s votes, as there are political motivations for anyone’s votes, whether this means the reasons given for the votes are insincere is another matter entirely, and one which, by the way, is very difficult to establish. Charity might suggest believing the reasons offered in the absence of countervailing evidence (of which we have nothing of the sort here). At the very least, Will might consider Kerry’s reasons for voting the way he did. For in the end, they may not be good reasons at all, and Will might have a stronger argument.

Don’t know much about comedy

While Paul Fussell’s Class uncovered something like six distinct classes in its hilarious and self-referentially ironic analysis of the American class system, David Brooks (NYT 09/11/04) can only seem to come up with two:

“There are two sorts of people in the information-age elite, spreadsheet people and paragraph people. Spreadsheet people work with numbers, wear loafers and support Republicans. Paragraph people work with prose, don’t shine their shoes as often as they should and back Democrats.”

One almost blushes with shame at the prospect of taking this kind of comment seriously, or for that matter, as political satire. After all, there have got to be more than two sorts of people, more than a few frumpily dressed Republicans, and an abundance of ultra-chic and polished democrats (Metrosexuals anyone?). But the Gray Lady saw fit to offer its author the space for two columns each week and so we can only assume that there must be something to exercise the synapses of the readers of the nation’s “paper of record.” What this something might be, however, is anyone’s guess.

Our best guess is that this is shtick for a very wonkish evening at one of the many exclusive Washington-insider comedy clubs (also called “think tanks”). Unlike funny comedy routines, but quite like op-eds in Saturday editions of the newspaper, this one, with its detailed by-the-numbers analysis of the ever more polarized electorate, completely lacks the self-referential irony that would call into question the very sort of superficial quantitative analysis it engages in. In other words, much like an argument in reverse, the logic of the joke–jokes have their own perverse logic–demands that the purposely specious demographic analysis in the op-ed show itself to be absurd and its excogitator a political hack. For its fairly obvious that the analysis of political donations does not in the least support the obviously silly and besides the point conclusion that liberals wax prosodical whilst conservatives enumerate.

But we have nothing of the sort here, as the author fancies himself an exception that proves the rule (rather than the absurdity of the rule), a class-traitor, a paragraph man who sides with the numerate conservatives:

“It should be added that not everybody fits predictably into the political camp indicated by a profession. I myself am thinking of founding the Class Traitors Association, made up of conservative writers, liberal accountants and other people so filled with self-loathing that they ally politically with social and cultural rivals.”

So the joke seems to rest on the claim that the absurd paragraph/numerate dichotomy, despite its apparent support on the numbers, does not perfectly represent the divided electorate. But two things in particular militate against Brooks’ own attempt at self-referential irony. First, his paragraph work eschews the kind of nuance one would expect of paragraph people:

“Why have the class alignments shaken out as they have? There are a couple of theories. First there is the intellectual affiliation theory. Numerate people take comfort in the false clarity that numbers imply, and so also admire Bush’s speaking style. Paragraph people, meanwhile, relate to the postmodern, post-Cartesian, deconstructionist, co-directional ambiguity of Kerry’s Iraq policy.”

And second, the content-free quantitative analysis that leads him to that conclusion demonstrates that he’s not really a paragraph man at all, but rather a numbers man with a phony mustache and glasses. And never mind the simplified straw man evident in the reference to the “post-Cartesian, [and what does that mean? Empiricist? Kantian? Logical Positivist?], deconstructionist, co-directional ambiguity” of Kerry’s Iraq policy, which doesn’t warrant comment (but watch us comment anyway) by us paragraph people who like the clarity of evidence and sound arguments, or their subversion in our jokes, rather than the mono-directional opacity of the uninterpreted data of political commitment.

Valencia or Granny Smith?

Both John Kerry and George Bush, George F. Will argues, share the “liberal expectancy” of the retreat of religious fanaticism and ethnic conflict in the face of “education, science, secularism, [and] prosperity.” But therein lies an important difference. Citing University of Virginia political scientists James W. Ceaser and Daniel DiSalvo, Will points out that “Bush says that ‘liberty is the design of nature’ and that ‘freedom is the right and the capacity of all mankind’ and “not since Lincoln has the Republicans’ leader ‘so actively sought to ground the party in a politics of natural right.’” Now one can certainly argue with this characterization of Bush foreign policy. One could point out for instance that the administration has no argument, in the sense that it has taken no action and spoken no words, against the anti-modern political systems on whose mineral wealth we rely, or whose form of anti-modernist dictatorship conveniently breaks in favor of our political strategies. But that’s another matter. And besides, this is not really what Will is writing about anyway. For immediately after the above cited passage, he turns his attention to Kerry:

“Kerry is the candidate of the intellectually vain — of those who, practicing the politics of condescension, consider Bush moronic. But Kerry is unwilling to engage Bush’s idea.”

While we have a fairly charitable reading of the philosophical and political motivations of the Bush administration, we have a ruthlessly uncharitable characterization of the psychological state of the Kerry supporter. The comparison of Kerry-supporter to Bush philosophy wholly out of place, the more logically sound comparison would consider items that belong in the same category–Kerry political philosophy versus Bush political philosophy, for instance, or psychological state of Kerry supporter versus psychological state of Bush supporter. But aside from the perplexing nature of this apples-oranges comparison, Will makes matters worse by his doubly abusive assault on the position of the Kerry supporter: he is intellectually vain, and he practices the “politics of condescension” by considering Bush “moronic.” This neat, but devious, rhetorical trick hypocritically embraces the fallacy it condemns: Kerry’s supporters are intellectually vain (attacking the person not the argument) because they–and here is the kicker–attack the person and not the argument! Disengaging himself from the rhetorical underhandedness of the first sentence in the passage just cited, Will turns for the rest of the essay to making the case for his initial comparison:

Hence he is allowing Bush to have what he wants, a one-issue election. The issue is a conflation of the wars in Iraq and on terrorism in the single subject "security." Kerry is trying, and failing, to pry apart judgments about the two. But even if he succeeds, he continues to deepen the risible incoherence of his still-multiplying positions on Iraq. In his speech last week to the American Legion convention, Kerry said that in Iraq he, as president, would have done "almost everything differently." The indisputable implication is that if he had been president since 2001, America would be in Iraq.

Again, the more logically sound comparison would be between Bush political philosophy and Kerry political philosophy, not, as it is here, between Bush political philosophy and Kerry’s position on the management and execution of the Iraq war. Whatever their positions on the source of human freedom (and one can fairly suspect that they both agree to the view that freedom is a natural right or something of that sort), Kerry’s argument that Iraq should have been handled differently and that Iraq might still be considered to have had something to do with “security” are not “risibly incoherent.” But it certainly appears that way when it is posed against something it should not rightly be compared with (Bush’s writ large political philosophy). Kerry’s position, however poorly it may be articulated by him, his surrogates and supporters, concerns the execution not, as Will has it here, the philosophical foundation. Now in the end, of course, Kerry’s arguments might fail. But they should be challenged for what they are (apples), not for what Will would like them to be (oranges).

Weapons of mass distraction

Sometimes op-ed writers in the major dailies opt out of arguments altogether. Such was the case–as far as we could tell–this weekend. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post even admitted that he was too tired of arguments to make any. Props to Cohen, for we might have squandered precious time pointing out that fact. But we didn’t have to look far–as far as John Leo’s column in US News in fact–for our daily sustenance of nonsense in the guise of intelligible discourse.

In discussing Thomas Frank’s recent book What’s the matter with Kansas? Leo poses the following question:

Frank is stupefied that abortion, evolution, and gay marriage are major political issues and that 80 percent of the state’s voters backed George W. Bush in 2000. Why are they wasting their voting power on cultural and social issues instead of pursuing their own self-interest?

In answering this question for Frank, Leo illustrates for us the beguiling rhetorical technique of attempting to distract the reader with the powerful odor of a urine-scented cross:

Part of the problem is that liberals who focus sharply on economics tend to have no feel for noneconomic issues that so many of us care deeply about. Right at the start of his book, Frank cites the controversy (which he apparently considers stupid) over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ: “because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.” But “the hicks” had a point: Alleged art that traduces religion was now supported and often funded by the same sensitive people who quickly took down or painted over works of art that offended the sensibilities of blacks, American Indians, or women. A new value system was descending on the culture. And under that system, not only were prayers disappearing from the schools (a good idea, in my opinion), but student valedictory speeches that included a line of praise for God were being censored, and small schoolchildren, asked to draw a picture of anyone they admired, were being reprimanded if they drew Jesus.

Leo supports his analysis of the liberals’ (a silly unsupported generalization repeated throughout the piece) lack of rural cultural sensitivity with a series of extreme examples that have nothing to do with the orignal issues mentioned–abortion, evolution, and gay marriage–and everything to do with shocking us into agreement. Since Leo clearly disagrees with Frank’s argument–that Kansans ignore their own economic self-interest and vote instead on social issues on account of hickdom–he should stick to the social issues in question, rather than charging the fictitious liberals with hyprocisy (the ones who “quickly took down or painted over works of art that offended the sensibilities of blacks, American Indians, or women”) and distracting us with peripheral and largely undocumented (save the explicit reference to Andres Serrano)episodes from the culture wars of the 90’s. One might even reasonably claim that these hyberbolic examples have nothing to do with abortion and gay marriage (which are not art forms or otherwise required at school graduations) and evolution (which is not a moral issue, but has everything to do with high school graduation).

Assuming that we’ve been wholly distracted by the urine-scented cross and the removal of Jesus portraits from admiring religious youngsters, Leo completes his shift to “morality” (again–evolution?). Putting himself inside the head of the clueless liberal, Leo argues:

The left usually chalks this up to fear of change, hardening arteries, racism, or some other insulting cause.

But that’s ridiculous! Not everyone in Kansas suffers from arteriosclerosis! And indeed they do not. Nor would anyone seriously hold the moldly straw man of an argument Leo attributes to the left.

But not content with the ineffective but sneaky reverse straw man, Leo employs the more straightforward tactic of oversimplifying, exaggerating, and ridiculing peripheral positions of one’s argumentative opponent:

But the real reason is that ordinary Americans no longer feel that they can transmit their culture to their young–the schools and media make that almost impossible now. (One indicator is the home-schooling movement, which includes 1.1 million children, a number sure to keep rising.) The multicultural and universalist side of the new morality undercuts community and mocks patriotism. America and the West, we are told, are nothing to be proud of, merely entrenched systems of domination. The courts increasingly reflect the law-school culture, which is nearly as one-sided as the campus culture.

The fact that there might exist someone who holds this panoply of views does not do anything to make its attribution to the “left” any less ridiculous and irresponsible. This argument, with its irrelevant evidence and its unsupported generalizations about campus and law-school culture, compounded with the previous argument’s National Endowment for the Arts’ funded distraction, make for first class logical balderdash.

So much ink has been spilled in the service of the defeat of outlandishly fictitious opponents by stealth weapons of mass distraction.

Straw Girlie-man

SOURCE (NYT 9/02/04):Considering the attention the following sneering remark has already received (or was it simply played over and over without comment or consideration of the context of Senator Kerry’s remarks?), perhaps it hardly warrants critical analysis. But we cannot restrain ourselves.

Even in this post-9/11 period, Senator Kerry doesn’t appear to understand how the world has changed. He talks about leading a “more sensitive war on terror,” as though Al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side. He declared at the Democratic Convention that he will forcefully defend America — after we have been attacked. My fellow Americans, we have already been attacked, and faced with an enemy who seeks the deadliest of weapons to use against us, we cannot wait for the next attack. We must do everything we can to prevent it — and that includes the use of military force.

So aside from the fact that Cheney again quotes Kerry out of context (and indeed aside from the fact that Cheney and Bush have used the adjective “sensitive” in the very same contexts), how absurd it would be to impress our enemies with our softer, perhaps feminine, side! Very silly indeed. And what a decisive rhetorical victory Cheney has won!

Now if he could only find a democratic candidate for President of the United States running in the current election who actually holds this view, then he could avoid the charge that he has simply taken down a straw girlie-man of an argument.

Starting the race halfway from the finish line

To reason fallaciously is to cheat. It’s like arriving at the finish line of a race without having set out at the start line. Like finish lines in races, conclusions in arguments must be earned. And one earns them with the hard work and sweat of a fair analysis of the evidence available. Sometimes the argumentative race is a 100 meter sprint, sometimes a 5k, sometimes a marathon. The op-ed piece is something like the 5k. The time is short, but it is not too short to develop some depth to one’s argument.

That said, Will cheats again in today’s 5k argumentative race in the Washington Post (SOURCE (WashPost 9/02/04)::

Goldwater was, in a way, the first angry man of the angry ’60s. But he actually smiled far more than he scowled. In his last years some conservatives excommunicated him because of his support for abortion rights and his relaxed views regarding homosexuality. However, this week his spirit is smiling broadly.

Will argues that the placement of two not so doctrinaire (but for different reasons wildly popular) Republicans on the podium of the convention during prime time TV coverage constitutes a revival of the socially “liberal” but fiscally conservative side of the Republican party. But Will can only conclude this if he thinks the race judges are not paying attention, for the race judges know that the party platform approved only days before (and wholeheartedly embraced by the actual candidate in this election) did not reflect anything like the social agendas of the few speakers at the convention Will refers to. It was anything but socially liberal. Nevertheless, Will chooses to ignore this obvious fact, and so draws a conclusion he does not warrant, and claims to win a race he has not run.

I’m not a political analyst, but I star in plays with political themes

The depth of the liberal media squad shows its teeth:

“All these figures in Shakespeare suffer from hubris, and that’s what W. is suffering from,” says Kenneth Albers, a veteran Shakespearean actor who is playing Lear in Ashland.

On the strength of this actor’s knowledge (note the term “veteran”) of the behavior of semi-fictional characters in Elizabethean drama, one can only conclude that Mr.Bush (here just “W”) does indeed suffer from hubris. In addition to the political pressure of such “Hollywood liberal elites” as Ben Affleck, the Bush campaign must now contend with the power and influence of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Make the pie higher

Not to be outdone by the argumentative vacuum of David Brooks’ piece, George Will offers several contributions to today’s fallacy hall of shame:

Kerry squandered his convention opportunity, incessantly telling voters only what they already knew about him — that he served in Vietnam. Then, when citizens’ groups questioned his patently questionable claims about his Vietnam service, he asked the government to construe the campaign finance laws to silence this political speech.

Two cases of suppressed evidence here. Kerry said a lot of things during his convention speech. Some of them–indeed many of them, perhaps even the greater part of what he said–had nothing to do with Vietnam. In addition to this, Kerry has made speeches throughout the country, given interviews, and written statements about substantive questions not related to his service in Vietnam. Should Will–a Pulitzer Prize winning commentator–like to engage Kerry’s position in the calm light of reason, then he should not purposely ignore the candidate’s own statements and offer nonsensical and vitriolic partisan talking points in place of rigorously executed analysis. Second, like Brooks of the New York Times, Will embraces the not only questionable but largely refuted (“refuted” here means “shown to be false”, not, as it often seems, “objected to”) claims of the Swift Boat Vets.

But this is only part of Will’s contribution to today’s logical hall of shame. When short of arguments against an opponent (which Will clearly is today), the self-confident but devious rhetorician nearly always finds away to interpret the statements of his opponent uncharitably:

Kerry insists he is not a “redistribution Democrat.” But of course he is. And Bush is a redistribution Republican. There is no “natural” distribution of social wealth. Distribution is influenced by social arrangements, from property laws to tax laws to educational arrangements, all of them political choices. Both parties have redistributionist agendas.

Will’s lack of context forces Kerry to sound like a clown. But what we have here is a fallacy of equivocation. It’s obvious that Kerry means something else by “redistribution” than does Will. But we’d never know that from Will’s simplistic semantic analysis. Whether Kerry’s policy is sensible or not, of course, is a question that Will would have to think about. No time for that, however, because Will has to turn this semantic analysis into the most pungent of red herrings:

In disavowing “redistribution,” Kerry presumably means he rejects the old liberal belief in recarving the economic pie, rather than making the pie grow, to ameliorate the condition of the poor. But he favors using government power to direct the flow of wealth to public school teachers, or to protect the flow to trial lawyers. Up-to-date liberalism defends the strong, not the poor, who are either reliable Democratic voters or nonvoters. Republicans defend their own muscular interests.

What looks like an honest attempt to evaluate Kerry’s understanding of the term “redistribution” (note the use of the word “presumably”) turns into a distracting reference (the red herring throws the dogs of the scent!) to those pointlessly litigious trial lawyers and those sickeningly wealthy public school teachers. While it is obvious that there is no flow of “wealth” to public school teachers, and trial lawyers generate their own cash by subtracting it from tortiously challenged coporations (not government handouts), this constitutes the core of Will’s conclusion that Democrats protect the “strong.” That may indeed be the case, but this silly excuse for an argument does nothing to establish it.

In all fairness, you will have noted that Will directs his considerably impoverished analysis at an equally hollow diatribe against the Republican position–it’s just not as hollow as his case against Kerry. So for a change Will offends the good sense of Republicans as well as Democrats.

One final point. Lest you think we are needlessly naughty nitpicking nabobs of negativism, then consider the following bit of Will’s own logical analysis:

This year’s political raptures are perfunctory. In Boston, Democratic delegates, who loathed the Vietnam War partly because they thought it unrelated to America’s defense, dutifully applauded John Kerry’s revisionism: “I defended this country as a young man.”

That does sound like a contradiction indeed. But Kerry didn’t contradict himself, and the delegates didn’t either–unless somesuch statement had been made at the convention (something for which no evidence is put forward here). What might make this a contradiction is some statement of Kerry’s that denies Vietnam was a defensive operation (and he’d probably find that with a little research). But what in the end would that show? Not much. Merely that Kerry can be found to have contradicted himself or that he had a sloppy choice of words. Perhaps Will might better spend his time tracking down and discussing the real issues of policy that should constitute the core of the debate in an advanced democracy such as our own instead of the pointless minutiae of partisan politics. The readers of the Washington Post might be richer for it.