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David Brooks, Triple Threat

Today Brooks concludes a 750 word meditation on political courage with the following comment:

The coming weeks will be so tough because the essential contest – of which the Swift boat stuff was only a start – will be over who really has courage, who really has resolve, and who is just a fraud with a manly bearing.

Here we have Brooks embracing the highly dubious claims of the so called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, forcing them into a radically silly false dilemma (“who really has the resolve and who is just a fraud”), seasoned with another abusive and vicious–but this time rather direct–ad hominem attack (“a fraud with a manly bearing”), in order to conclude with a hasty generalization about the themes of the election (“the essential contest”). Nevermind the ridiculous excursus on the virtue of holding beliefs without the taint of self-doubt (the term “obtuseness” comes to mind), and nevermind the fact that none of the courageous Republicans contrasted with Kerry actually carries the name of the current Republican candidate (McCain is a senator from Arizona, Shwarzenegger is Governor of California, and Giuliani holds no political office), this conclusion–a combination of three howling non sequiturs–merits a special place in the non sequitur hall of shame.

First, the silly false dilemma. There are of course only two real choices for President. But the choice is not between a fraud and someone with resolve, it is a choice between a rather complicated set of political positions and choices. To claim that one of them is a fraud is a rather dastardly attempt to make the choice seem inevitable (I don’t wanna vote for a fraud, do you?).

Sometimes you can weave a false dilemma out of whole cloth: “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” But sometimes you can mask it in another equally atrocious non sequitur–such as this one: “who is just a fraud with a manly bearing.” Unless Brooks thinks we’re too slow to see the implicit connection between “Swift Boats” and “fraud with a manly bearing”, we’re supposed to conclude that Kerry (and not the warrior in a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier) is the fraud the Swift Boat vets have claimed he is. And there you have the other pole of the false dilemma.

Finally, on the basis of this reasoning–to call it specious would be a compliment–Brooks asks us to conclude that this is the key theme of the election, that this is the “essential contest”. A bit hasty, we think. Other sources have pointed out other equally “essential” themes: the economy, the environment, the war in Iraq, social policy, education, among many others. Claiming that this one dominates grossly exagerates its importance (at the expense, one might argue, of substantive questions of domestic and foreign policy).

Will to power

After a description of the horrors that nuclear briefcase bombs could bring to a city such as New York, George Will turns to consider which candidate is best equipped to confront this truly terrifying threat:

On the other hand, Allison argues that any hope for preventing, by diplomacy, nuclear terrorism depends on “readiness to use covert and overt military force if necessary” against two potential sources of fissile material — Iran and North Korea. But the candidate Allison is advising has opposed virtually every use of U.S. force in his adult lifetime.

The candidate Allison supports is of course John Kerry. Now Will does not draw the explicit conclusion that Kerry would not use military force to protect us from the horrors of nuclear suitcase bombs, he leaves that conclusion to the reader (once again, the unstated conclusion carries more rhetorical force than the stated one). That conclusion would follow, Will implies, from Kerry’s failure to support just about every military action in his lifetime. Notice how Will carefully avoids specifying which uses of force Kerry did endorse (Afghanistan).

But that conlcusion does not follow from the simple fact (for the sake of argument let’s assume that it’s true) that Kerry has opposed “virtually every use of U.S. force”. In order for Will to avoid the screaming non sequitur here, he would have to show how Kerry’s justification for not supporting military action in the past has anything to do with the–to Will’s mind–very real possibility of nuclear suitcase terrorism. Simply because Kerry has opposed the use of force in the past does not mean that he is a pacificist who opposes every possible use of force. The general rule, in other words, that Will attempts to draw out of the past simply does not have any real argumentative force.

How Thoughtful

The funny thing about op-ed writers is that oftentimes they don’t seem to make any arguments at all, eschewing words such as “therefore” or “hence” or perhaps even “ergo” which let the reader know that he or she has just brought an argument to its conclusion. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this practice per se. After all, why bore the reader with the tedium of logical place-holders when a good writer can make an argument without them?

The problem with this strategy is that sometimes one cannot be quite certain what the actual argument is. Such is the case with David Brooks’ piece in today’s New York Times.

As best as we have been able to establish, Brooks attempts to show the reader that not all Republicans are right wing nut jobs by “introducing” us to a fundamentalist Christian legislator from Indiana who simultaneously denies the theory of Evolution and thinks that Clinton should not have been impeached. Nothing strange about that. Or is there?

Let’s take a closer look at how Brooks begins his argument:

One of the most thoughtful politicians in Washington doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution. I thought I’d introduce him to you because over the next week we’re going to hear a lot of stereotypes about Republicans and especially social conservatives. It might be useful to interrupt those prejudices with the more complicated reality.

Unless Brooks is attempting to demonstrate a fact obvious to anyone who paid attention to primary elections that were recently held around the country (where even Republicans disagreed with Republicans–Imagine that!), then he is setting up a kind of fallacious argument in reverse. This is to say that he is alleging that his opponent (where there are arguments, there are always opponents, real or imaginary) thinks that Republicans can all be painted with one brush as, note the choice of words, not “thoughtful”. He then proceeds, with a long series of anecdotes from the life and career of the conservative Republican in question, to demonstrate that this particular Republican doesn’t always take typical positions. By making this argument Brooks alleges–indirectly, mind you–that his opponent (that is, the author of the stereotypes, here unnamed) is the one who commits the fallacy of hastily generalizing. This implicit accusation of intellectual irresponsibility, is itself intellectually irresponsible. It implicity claims that his opponent does not have reasons or arguments against the views (nuanced though they may be) of his Republican poster child. While some–nay perhaps many–may believe that no one who fails to embrace the theory of evolution can possibly be “thoughtful” in any meaningful sense of the term, many others indeed have reasons to oppose some or all of his arguments. By claiming that his views are thoughtful and accusing the opposition of stereotyping, Brooks stereotypes his opposition’s argument as absurdly weak, a straw man, in other words.

Now it may be objected that Brooks isn’t making any argument at all here. Well, if he’s not, then what is this doing on the op-ed page? But if in fact Brooks’ argument is directed at those who actually do hold such caricatured views, then we have grossly overestimated the intellectual heft of the average reader of the New York Times.

Ad hominem in Reverse!

Today’s Krauthammer presents us with an interesting example of what we might call a reverse ad hominem fallacy. But before that, a little straightforward ad hominem, just to get going:

Actually, this time around, even more apoplectic. The Democrats’ current disdain for George Bush reminds me of another chess master, Efim Bogoljubov, who once said, “When I am White, I win because I am White” — White moves first and therefore has a distinct advantage — “when I am Black, I win because I am Bogoljubov.” John Kerry is a man of similar vanity — intellectual and moral — and that spirit thoroughly permeates the Democratic Party.

So the basic strategy is to heap up abuse on the Democratic candidate. Nothing new or interesting about that. We all know that Kerry has arguments for his positions and that these arguments should be examined on their merits. The same naturally is the case for the Republican candidate, George W. Bush. But herein lies Krauthammer’s trick. Ignoring the arguments of the Republican candidate, Krauthammer instead accuses the “liberals as a body” of engaging in vicious and groundless attacks on Bush himself:

The loathing goes far beyond the politicians. Liberals as a body have gone quite around the twist. I count one all-star rock tour, three movies, four current theatrical productions and five bestsellers (a full one-third of the New York Times list) variously devoted to ridiculing, denigrating, attacking and devaluing this president, this presidency and all who might, God knows why, support it.

So what we have is the claim that the opposition’s arguments are nothing but vicious ad hominem personal attacks and as such not worth pondering even for a moment. Now to some extent–sometimes to a great extent indeed–these sorts of attacks do take place. But in the sources alluded to here–and indeed in any serious discussion of the current election–arguments are put forward, evidence is offered, and conclusions drawn (justifiably or not). The arguments, like all arguments, deserve in civil political society to be examined on their merits. Broadly generalizing–generalizing hastily–that all such attacks are ad hominem is to make their arguments seem weaker than they might (“might” becuase no attempt is made to address their claims) actually be. As far as rhetorical dirty tricks goes, this is not only one of the dirtiest, but also one of the cleverest. You accuse the opposition of a being intellectually irreponsible, and so force him or her on the defensive. This may play well on a cable TV shoutfest, but its printed form only too quickly shows it to be absolute nonsense.

Equal opportunity

Guest Columnist for the New York Times Dahlia Lithwick makes the following argument about Abu Ghraib and the November election:

You can choose to connect these dots, or cast your vote in November based on whether Colonel Mustard was in a Swift boat with a lead pipe. But Abu Ghraib can’t be blamed solely on bad apples anymore. It was the direct consequence of an administration ready to bargain away the rule of law. That started with the suspension of basic prisoner protections, because this was a “new kind of war.” It led to the creation of a legal sinkhole on Guantánamo Bay. And it reached its zenith when high officials opined that torture isn’t torture unless there’s some attendant organ failure.

There are two textbook non sequiturs here. The first, a classic false dichotomy, erroneously claims that there are two alternatives–assign blame for Abu Ghraib all the way up the chain to the Whitehouse, or believe the now completely discredited Swift Boat story on Kerry. One can, however, not believe the Swift Boat story and not connect the dots all the way to the Whitehouse, or connect the dots all the way to the Whitehouse and believe the Swift Boat story. The two altenatives, in other words, are by no means mutually exclusive.

The second non sequitur, the post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this) fallacy, claims that the horrendous torture of Abu Ghraib is a direct consequence of the policies the current administration and its equivocal statements on the laws regarding detainees in what it describes as the “war on terrorism.” No doubt the one event–the torture–follows the existence of the administration and its various policies. But whether these events are causally linked in the manner of a “direct consequence” is something that needs to be established on the evidence. The temporal precedence of the one is hardly sufficient.

Now this is not to say of course that it is not the case that the administration is directly responsible. It is just isn’t responsible on the argument Lithwick has offered.

40,000 Frenchmen can’t be wrong

Under the heading of politicians today we have the following classic non sequitur from former Bush 41 aide Les Csorba:

From that emotional instant, Bush rose to the occasion, what he poignantly called the “middle hour of our grief.” The American people looked in that mirror that day and saw a picture of themselves: a grown man, burdened with the grief at the loss. At that moment, almost 80 percent of the American people said that they could trust the president

Now aside from the exploitation of the sense of grief and outrage in the days following September 11th, 2001, Csorba is guilty of the even more appalling crime of a leap in logic. Even granting that 80 percent of the people actually did find the President trustworthy, it certainly does not follow that he is. It merely follows that 80 percent of the people find (or rather found) him trustworthy. Whether the President–or anyone for that matter–actually is trustworthy depends on whether he tells the truth, acts responsibly and judiciously and so forth. Some, perhaps on the internet, have alleged that this is not the case.

Logically impossible?

Strong words from Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post today:

We’ve arrived at this juncture because it’s logically impossible both to honor the First Amendment and to regulate campaign finance effectively. We can do one or the other — but not both. Unfortunately, Congress and the Supreme Court won’t admit the choice. The result is the worst of both worlds. We gut the First Amendment and don’t effectively regulate campaign finance.

A round square, a married bachelor, and an explicit contradiction are logically impossible. It must be something about the definition of bachelor (an unmarried man) that makes it logically impossible for one to be married. The same, unfortunately for Mr. Samuelson, is not the case with campaign finance and speech. One might notice first of all that these are of entirely different categories–speech and money. Second, one might also notice that certain types of speech are regulated under the First Amendment–yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is the most famous example. Libel and slander, with their consequent penalties, also fall under the heading of “regulated” speech. Complete ownership of the airwaves, or their domination by the government in power, are also regulated. Now none of this means that it is not difficult to balance free speech and campaign finance, it means merely that it is not logically impossible.

Bear Patrol

Here’s an oft-repeated howler printed in the New York Times from op-ed contributor and Marine Major on duty in Iraq Glen G. Butler

The pre-emptive doctrine of the current administration will continue to be debated long after I’m gone, but one fact stands for itself: America has not been hit with another catastrophic attack since 9/11. I firmly believe that our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq are major reasons that we’ve had it so good at home. Building a “fortress America” is not only impractical, it’s impossible. Prudent homeland security measures are vital, to be sure, but attacking the source of the threat remains essential.

How often have you heard this one in its various versions? The implication here is that the war on terrorism (including the invasion of Iraq) is the cause of there not being any terrorist attacks in the United States. Now the factual claims are no doubt true. First, we have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and there has not been another major terrorist attack-or any terrorist attack-in the United States. No attempt, however, on the part of the author, is made to demonstrate that the two major military operations are the cause of there not being any terrorist attacks in the United States (we should not forget the bombings in Bali and Madrid and elsewhere). Just because, in other words, the war on terrorism (including the invasion of Iraq which even according to George Bush had nothing to do with 9/11) has preceded the absence of catastrophic terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 does not mean it is the cause. What we have here, in more technical terms, is a perfect example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy-after this, therefore because of this, or the correlation-causation fallacy.

Should someone not be convinced by this analysis, consider the following scene from the Simpsons, where Homer remarks on the success of Springfield’s attempt to control bear activity:

Homer: “There’s not a single bear in sight–the ‘Bear Patrol’ is working like a charm”

Lisa: “That’s specious reasoning,”

H: “Thanks, honey,”

L: “According to your logic, this rock keeps tigers away”.

H: “Hmmm. How does it work?”

L: “It doesn’t.”

H: “How so?”

L: “It’s just a rock,”

H: “But I don’t see a tiger, anywhere.”

H: “Lisa, I want to buy your rock.”

And consider how many times this passage comes up in the context of the war on terrorism and similar matters. Should the author want to avoid the rock-tigers problem, and therefore avoid utter nonsense, he should offer evidence to the effect that specific terrorist attacks have actually been thwarted by the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq. Simply believing it firmly-and in the present author’s case, actually putting your life on the line for that belief-does not make it so. Undergoing much personal danger and sacrifice in the service of one’s belief does not make them true.

The Thrill is Gone

A champion debater–always a red flag in the logic world–at the University of Chicago, David Brooks illustrates for us today the distinction between rhetoric and real argument:

Kerry’s speeches in the 1990’s read nothing like that 1971 testimony. The passion is gone. The pompous prevaricator is in. You read them and you see a man so cautiously calculating not to put a foot wrong that he envelops himself in a fog of caveats and equivocations. You see a man losing the ability to think like a normal human being and starting instead to think like an embassy.

Here we have two if not more basic logical howlers. First, and most obviously, Brooks attacks Kerry the person rather than his arguments. He heaps abuse on the Senator from Massachussets (“the pompous prevaricator”) for not taking clear and unnuanced positions (as do “normal human beings”) on complicated matters of policy. Second, in executing this attack, Brooks suggests that the only responsible way for to go is passionately to embrace one or another position (apparently it matters not what that position is as long as it is held passionately). We find it perplexing in the extreme that one would suggest embracing false dichotomies as a habit of thought.

Later in the same piece, Brooks continues his rhetorical charge:

Most people take a certain pride in their own opinions. They feel attached to them as part of who they are. But Kerry can be coldly detached from his views, willing to use, flip or hide them depending on the exigencies of the moment.

Here we have the appeal to the people–the argumentum ad populum–the last refuge of the op-ed writer. If I can’t make an argument for my position, then perhaps I can directly appeal to the good sense of “most people.” Unfortunately, just because most people “take pride in their opinions” does not mean that they should. If recent history has shown us anything, most people can be wrong, terrifyingly wrong (please fill in your own examples). The intellectual virtue of detachment–of seeing the limits of one’s own beliefs and revising them–becomes a vice in Brooks’ intellectual landscape. And of course when one changes one’s views, it’s not because of any honest reflection–a possibility Brooks wholly ignores–but because of the “exigencies” (that is to say the circumstances) of the moment.

So that’s at least four for Brooks today–ad hominem (abusive variety), false dichotomy, ad populum, and ad hominem (circumstantial variety). And this is only a cursory reading. Should you like to find more, here is the link.

And this brings us back to our original point. What Brooks says sounds very convincing, and he harnesses all of his considerable rhetorical training to make his case. Unfortunately, what results is nothing but so much hot air, so much nonsense. In the examples here cited, he does nothing to demonstrate, to support, or to argue for his position–whereby “argue” we mean state reasons that lead with significant probability to his conclusion.

et tu quoque Krauthammer?

Charles Krauthammer loves you too, I mean, tu quoque:

Strange. I do not remember any of these critics complaining about the universally hailed Oslo peace accords that imposed upon the Palestinians a PLO government flown in from Tunisia composed nearly entirely of political exiles.

Now I suppose the conclusion of the argument is that since these critics (note how they are unspecified–who is he talking about?) said nothing about the PLO exiles negotiating with Isreal, then lest they be hypocrites they better be quiet now that Iraqi exiles are doing the same thing. Well, even if it is true that every single critic of the Iraqi exiles wholeheartedly embraced the idea of PLO exiles negotiating with Israel, the two cases are hardly similar enough–or jeez, even if they are similar, very similar indeed–he has done nothing to counter the argument “these critics” are making. So they changed their mind. One must still demonstrate that they are wrong.