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.

Stopping President Bartlett

The last week there has been a lot of talk about fear-mongering. The conservative punditry, almost phalanx-like, exercised a concerted attack on Kerry designed to caricature a number of his arguments as manipulative appeals to fear. The appeal to fear can be a form of fallacious argument, though it is not always enumerated in canonical lists (Douglas Walton has a good discussion of this in *Scare Tactics*). It has a structure similar to the structure of argument *ad baculum* (the appeal to force). By producing in the listener fear of some consequence, the arguer is able to persuade the listener of some unjustified claim. Perhaps we could schematize it as follows:

1. If you do X, then Y will occur.
2. Y is very bad.
3. Y is such as to produce legitimate fear for you.
4. Therefore, you should not do X.

Not all arguments with this form will be fallacious. In fact, as it stands this is can be a perfectly legitimate argument (premise 3 is unnecessary and we need to add a premise that Y is more undesirable than X).

Nevertheless, there are specific dangers concealed within the appeal to fear that we need to watch for. Appeals to fear have a tendency to involve a false dichotomy because of the first premise. This is why they often take the form of a proffered choice: Abstinence or Death! The connection between X and Y becomes a necessary and exclusive connection. In logical terms this is an inference from “If X then Y” to “X or Y.” Unfortunately, these two sentences have different truth conditions and so are not logically equivalent.

To evaluate arguments that appeal to fear we need to ask at least two questions:

1. Is the fear of Y reasonable?
2. And is the connection between the act and the result necessary?

Such complicated analysis is probably unnecessary to diagnose the fallacies in Krauthammer’s “Sacrificing Israel” (Source: NYT 10/22/04). In a nutshell, Krauthammer argues, if Kerry is elected, Israel will be destroyed.

Before turning to the argument such as it is, we might wonder whether Krauthammer has confused Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett with John Kerry, since in the season premiere of the *West Wing* we find the president seeking peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis as a response to a terrorist attack on U.S. officials. Perhaps this is the origin of this almost bizarre argument today.

>The centerpiece of John Kerry’s foreign policy is to rebuild our alliances so the world will come to our aid, especially in Iraq. He repeats this endlessly because it is the only foreign policy idea he has to offer. The problem for Kerry is that he cannot explain just how he proposes to do this.

Since he has not explained how he will do this, Krauthammer argues:

>In what currency, therefore, would we pay the rest of the world in exchange for their support in places such as Iraq? The answer is obvious: giving in to them on Israel.

So the argument takes the form:

1. If elected, Kerry will seek international cooperation on Iraq.
2. The only way to achieve this is to sacrifice Israel’s interests.
3. Sacrificing Israel’s interests is really bad.
4. The reader (should be) is afraid of this.
5. Therefore, we should not elect John Kerry.

Now the problematic premises are 2 and 4. The questions are thus whether the only way to achieve international cooperation is by sacrificing Israel’s interests, and whether it is reasonable that someone fears that this will come about as a result of Kerry’s election.

In order to justify his 2, Krauthammer argues that international cooperation will come at the price of re-engaging in the peace process.

>”Re-engage in the peace process” is precisely what the Europeans, the Russians and the United Nations have been pressuring the United States to do for years. Do you believe any of them have Israel’s safety at heart? They would sell out Israel in an instant, and they are pressuring America to do precisely that.

For Krauthammer the “peace process” is not in Israel’s interests, and so engaging in it is selling out Israel. Why?

>Do not be fooled by the euphemism “peace process.” We know what “peace process” meant during the [Clinton Administration] –a White House to which Yasser Arafat was invited more often than any other leader on the planet. It meant believing Arafat’s deceptions about peace while letting him get away with the most virulent incitement to and unrelenting support of terrorism. It meant constant pressure on Israel to make one territorial concession after another — in return for nothing. Worse than nothing: Arafat ultimately launched a vicious terror war that killed a thousand Israeli innocents.

I don’t want to contest Krauthammer’s claim about the number of visits Arafat made to the White House, but in the absence of evidence it seems a little implausible. More importantly, this is a wild caricature of the efforts of the Clinton administration and one that cannot be taken seriously. We must, at least, remember that Barak (no moderate on Israeli security) found the process congenial, while the Palestinians found it ultimately dangerous to their interests (primarily through concerns of Bantutisation of the West Bank).

There is little reason to believe that engaging in the peace process is equivalent to sacrificing Israel. The false dichotomy implicit raises its head most clearly right here. In effect, Krauthammer is arguing:

A. “either engage in the peace process, or protect Israeli interests.”

But this is simply a false dichotomy. Israel engaged in the peace process *and* was protecting its interests during the Clinton era and there is good reason to believe that not only are the two disjuncts compatible, but that ultimately the only way of attaining the latter is to engage in the former.

Krauthammer can advance such an obviously fallacious argument for two reasons: First, he is appealing to the fear of certain constituencies; Second, he collapses the distinction between means and ends. The goal of peace is desirable, some means to peace (i.e., surrender) are not desirable. The question is always how to attain the desirable end through acceptable means. This is politics.

Worse than the logical confusion is Krauthammer’s manipulation of the fears of some readers. It is only on this basis that Krauthammer can make his strikingly fallacious argument appear even slightly reasonable.

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.

Desperately seeking Plumbers

It might almost be comical to watch pundits scramble to accuse the Kerry campaign of fear-mongering, if their arguments were not so well coordinated. William Safire (Source: NYT 10/20/04) suspiciously repeats David Brooks' accusations of fear-mongering (on social security, stem cell research, the draft, and the Mary Cheney non-issue (Safire replaces the last with a "flu crisis" argument)) (Source: NYT 10/19/04). As was said yesterday in this space: "It’s not worth it to descend into the fray on the merits of these points." And given the bar set by Dick Cheney for cynical fear-mongering this year– "If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again: that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States"–it's hard for anyone to get themselves terribly upset by the Kerry campaign's legitimate political concerns. Perhaps this is the reason that the Mary Cheney story seems to trump even these substantive issues that could be debated. The consistency between the two is at least clear. They are both parts of a concerted attempt to paint Kerry as an opportunistic and unscrupulous politician unfairly attacking the president. The fact that there are good reasons to be concerned about these four points of policy is irrelevant for Brooks and Safire: They need only caricature the arguments to draw the conclusion that they want to draw about John Kerry's motivations and character. It is an interesting argument for a number of reasons. The pundits take an articulated and reasonable concern about Bush's policy or intentions, replace it with a straw man caricature that seems so baseless and perverse that the only reasonable inference must be that Kerry is unscrupulously attacking the president. For example, Safire writes:

You a youngster? The fearmongers noticed an urban legend floating around the Internet about a "January surprise" to bring back the draft and throw you into the first wave into Falluja. Never mind that it won't happen, because the military knows that a volunteer army works best; the scare tactic is sure to whip up the old fears in the young voters.

I'm not sure how Paul Krugman feels about his columns being described as "an urban legend floating around the Internet," but the attempt to trivialize the argument by impugning its source is transparent and not worth taking seriously. Safire also offers a reason for rejecting the likelihood of the draft–that the military doesn't want it because a volunteer army works best. (Compare with Brooks' even sillier claim "Given the nature of military technology, it doesn't make sense to bring back the draft.") But clearly, the concern with the draft is not unfounded and rhetorical. Krugman offers a clear and rigorous argument for worrying about the draft. It certainly does not prove that there will be a draft, but instead argues that (a) there is a severe shortage of soldiers at present, (b) we are already "conscripting" soldiers against their will through various "backdoor" mechanisms, and (c) whether by Bush's choice or not we cannot rule out the possibility that we will need more troops during a second Bush term (Source: NYT 10/19/04). But neither Brooks nor Safire want to engage in the debate about the issue. Their interest in the point is only to represent it as a baseless argument, which allows them to bring into question Kerry's motivations (despite Brooks' denial–"I'm not trying to make a moral point here about sleazy campaigning"–a classic rhetorical move, "praeteritio" in which you mention something by stating that you are not going to mention it: "I am not going to dirty the campaign by talking about my opponent's felony conviction." This allows you both to claim the moral highground while simultaneously engaging in the negative attack). To do this, they represent the arguments underlying these policy concerns as entirely empty and trivial. This is to commit the "straw man" fallacy. I had originally intended to address Safire's editorial about Mary Cheney (Source: NYT 10/18/04) The same analysis holds for this argument, even if it is not aimed at a policy dispute. In essence, the mention of Cheney's daughter's sexual preferences is taken as a sign of the campaign's unscrupulous tactics. Safire argues that (a) the mention was calculated and deliberate, (b) it was revelatory to the public at large, (c) it's purposes were cynical and political. Even granting both (a) and (b) (which if we were concerned with evaluating the truth of these premises would give us significant pause as Safire gives little reason to be persauded of these two claims. See Media Matters for a discussion of this.), there is little to worry about until we consider the justification for (c). This is twofold:

One purpose was to drive a wedge between the Republican running mates. President Bush supports a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a union of a man and a woman; Cheney has long been on record favoring state option, but always adds that the president sets administration policy. That rare divergence of views is hardly embarrassing.

The sleazier purpose of the Kerry-Edwards spotlight on Mary Cheney is to confuse and dismay Bush supporters who believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, to suggest that Bush is as "soft on same-sex" as Kerry is, and thereby to reduce a Bush core constituency's eagerness to go to the polls. If these were the motivations, then perhaps Brooks was right yesterday to question the Kerry campaign's competency. Fortunately, Safire saves the Kerry campaign from Brooks' accusation by quoting Margaret Carlson's analysis:

[they] "realize that discussing Mary Cheney is a no-lose proposition: It highlights the hypocrisy of the Bush-Cheney position to Democrats while simultaneously alerting evangelicals to the fact that the Cheneys have an actual gay person in their household whom they apparently aren't trying to convert or cure."

This is a much more plausible explanation of their motivations: Unfortunately for Safire it isn't "sleazy" or unreasonable. It is clear, and almost uncontroversial, that part of the Republican strategy for this election has been to motivate the homophobic members of its base by foregrounding the specter of gay marriage spreading from Massachusetts into the heartland. Thus, highlighting the hypocrisy underlying this pandering is not at all unreasonable or immoral. In fact, the only way to suggest that it is immoral is to paint Mary Cheney as a victim of scurrilous attacks: Hence Lynn Cheney's aggrieved mother act. Unfortunately, Mary Cheney is an out homosexual who has worked for the campaign. She is not a poor defenseless child, but in fact a political operative. There is little reason to cast this tactic–even granting the truth of Safire's premises–as "cheap and tawdry." Certainly Safire's suggestion that this amounts to a "dirty trick" borders on the comical when we compare it with the tactics of his old boss's Plumbers.

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.

Outrage is not an argument

Among the pundits, Charles Krauthammer has a particular authority on questions of bio-medical ethics. As a member of the president’s commission on Bioethics and a medical doctor, he displays a level of scientific understanding and a grasp of the philosophical analysis of the relevant moral concerns which is not generally considered a necessary prerequisite for the national publication of one’s opinions.

This doesn’t stop him, however, from running afoul of the canons and standards of argumentation with which we concern
ourselves here.

Last Friday (Source: WaPo 10/15/04) he jumped on the Senator Edwards bashing bandwagon with an editorial on stem cell research and Edwards’ sloppy comments during a speech earlier last week in Iowa. Here’s the relevant sentence from the speech:

>”If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”

It was undoubtedly a poorly formulated claim on an issue that the Kerry campaign has been treating with some degree of care. Krauthammer doesn’t, however, give any credit to Edwards’ intentions.

>In my 25 years in Washington, I have never seen a more loathsome display of demagoguery. Hope is good. False hope is bad. Deliberately, for personal gain, raising false hope in the catastrophically afflicted is despicable.

So Krauthammer argues that John Edwards deliberately raised false hope in the catastrophically afflicted for personal gain. We can concede the further, seemingly uncontroversial, claim that such an act is “despicable.” Whether such a “despicable” act is a disqualification for the vice-presidency is a question we cannot address here.

Krauthamer thus needs to show (1) intention to deceive and to profit from the deception and (2) the falsity of the hope.

In a presidential campaign it is easy to infer the second part of (1) from the very fact that Edwards said what he said as a candidate. He seeks to profit from everything he says. But it is much harder to show that Edwards intended to deceive, or to raise “false hope.” Before we turn to consider whether these are “false hopes” or not, it is worth commenting on this political rhetoric.

Politicians like to talk about ends and not the means to attain them when they are campaigning. To put it simplistically, means are boring and often difficult to understand, while ends are inspiring and seductive. From Kennedy’s call to land a human being on the moon, the war against terrorism, or the goal of bringing democracy to the middle east, politicians propose lofty goals leaving the implementation to the policy makers. Hopefully those ends are attainable and beneficial. But there is nothing unusual about politicians promising great benefits that are just down the road–in fact, if they were to abstain from this it isn’t entirely clear what they could still talk about.

But, perhaps there is something particular about the case of the “catastrophically afflicted”? The hopes and desires of the catastrophically afflicted are presumably much more easily played upon by the unscrupulous than our desires to reach the moon (as shown by the failure of Bush’s Kennedy act earlier this year). I cannot easily determine whether promising jobs, affordable housing, or health care, are more like the case the the catastrophically afflicted than the desire to go to the moon. Nevertheless, until we decide whether Edwards was fostering a “false hope” or not we can leave this question aside.

Krauthammer “deconstructs” Edwards’ “outrage” with three points:

>First, the inability of the human spinal cord to regenerate is one of the great mysteries of biology. The answer is not remotely around the corner. It could take a generation to unravel. To imply, as Edwards did, that it is imminent if only you elect the right politicians is scandalous.

This involves a significant mis-characterization of Edward’s claim. He is certainly not arguing that the mere fact of electing Kerry will solve the “great mysteries of biology.” He is, of course, arguing that the ability of researchers to do so has been hampered by Bush’s appeasement of the religious right: Electing Kerry will result in a policy that does not depend upon particular religious beliefs, but instead secular arguments about the status of and necessary protections for embryos. And this in turn, if we believe some scientists working in the field, could bring about clinical trials of some therapies by the end of the decade. Admittedly not imminent, and admittedly not certain, but also not quite as absurd as Krauthammer endeavors to make it seem.

>Second, if the cure for spinal cord injury comes, we have no idea where it will come from. There are many lines of inquiry. Stem cell research is just one of many possibilities, and a very speculative one at that. For 30 years I have heard promises of miracle cures for paralysis (including my own, suffered as a medical student). The last fad, fetal tissue transplants, was thought to be a sure thing. Nothing came of it.

Certainly we do not know what the outcome of this research will be, and Edwards is wrong to state the outcome so assertorically. Nonetheless, there seems good reason to believe that promising therapies may be derived from this research, and that clinical trials of some therapies could begin within a decade. Even Christopher Reeve–who is supposedly being exploited by this sentence–said that with increased funding it is possible–according to unnamed researchers–to have clinical trials for therapies for spinal injuries in six or seven years. (On this, see the discussion of the California stem cell funding ballot initiative in the recent issue of the New Yorker.)

But, this is a matter for experts to decide. If the therapies are unlikely then we should reject funding *on that basis* not on the basis of a religious view that life begins at conception. As they stand, Krauthammer’s arguments look like either arguments from ignorance or fairly weak inductions. We do not know for certain whether the therapies derived from this research will be useful. But from this claim we cannot conclude that therefore the hope is “false” as Krauthammer wants. Only perhaps that Edwards should be more measured and state the point in terms of possibilities not necessities.

So there doesn’t seem to be good reason to believe that Edwards is fostering “false hopes.” Undoubtedly he is fostering hope, and the ground of the hope (that we will discover these cures) should not, perhaps, be promised. But neither of these things make the “hope false.” Or more precisely, neither of the arguments that Krauthammer advances are strong enough to show that the hope is false.

Edwards did not formulate this cautiously and the picture he draws is easy to caricature. Nonetheless, his intentions seem somewhat clear. Bush has limited access to stem cell lines and federal funding. Kerry would reverse that decision, enabling researchers access to the funding that is needed to determine whether these therapies will be available or not. In this case, Edwards is arguing in favor of a means (looser strictures on funding for stem cell research) on the basis of the promise of what might be attained.

The third criticism that Krauthammer advances is the weakest:

>Third, the implication that Christopher Reeve was prevented from getting out of his wheelchair by the Bush stem cell policies is a travesty.

There are two concerns with this. First, there seems no reason to think that this is an “implication” of what Edwards said. Second, contrast this with Reeve’s own words several years ago: “If we’d had full government support, full government funding for aggressive research using embryonic stem cells from the moment they were first isolated, at the University of Wisconsin in the winter of 1998, I don’t think it unreasonable to speculate that we might be in human trials by now,”

Krauthammer’s point here, however, is to defend the Bush position against the suggestion that it has retarded the development of useful therapies. He does this by arguing that there is no ban on stem cell research and that there is not that much likelihood of many of these therapies being developed from stem cell research. On this question we would need to ask the researchers who are affected by the Bush policies, few of whom seem to agree with Krauthammer on either of these points.

But more to the point, Krauthammer himself supports a position essentially identical to Kerry’s and opposed to the Bush administration’s, though he seems to bend over backward to allow his conservative friends to have some purchase on the issue, requiring that their religiously motivated views be treated with an undue degree of respect in this political debate, (and has even attempted to fashion a “secular” argument against stem cell research which he himself does not seem to find convincing (the centerpiece of which is a fairly bad slippery slope argument that is easily countered, see his argument in the New Republic in 2002).
 
So what is Krauthammer’s argument ultimately? It seems to be that the Kerry campaign wants to use the stem cell research issue for their own political ends. Since the justification of their policy is the possibility of therapies that will help the catastrophically afflicted, their arguments, however carefully they are formulated, will always run afoul of Krauthammer’s concerns. But this does not seem to be a reasonable restriction on political argument. Policies must always be justified by their promise, whether that promise is certain or not.

Perhaps then we are brought back to the wisdom of Bill Clinton–“it all depends on what ‘is’ means”: a sentence perhaps only a lawyer or a philosopher could love. Nonetheless, it contains a lesson that it would behoove Edwards to learn. If he had had said “may possibly walk” rather than “will walk,” there would be less for his political opponents to latch on to in order to divert the debate on this important question of policy. Then we would be having a conversation focussed on the substantive differences between and relative merits of Bush’s and Kerry’s policies, rather than on the supposed immorality of the use of these differences in a stump speech.

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.

Kerry’s Soviet-Style World-View

By now it seems likely that David Brooks has never met a dichotomy that he didn’t like. Impressed by the difference between his weekend perambulation in the country and a drive back into the city, Brooks muses:

>I was struck again by how powerfully the physical landscape influences our view of politics and the world.

This leads Brooks to one of his standarad reflections on the differences between the rural commitment to “Goldwateresque virtues” and the urban commitment to the “Kennedyesque virtues.” No sociological subtleties, and no empirical evidence is needed. Not even any historical contextualization is needed for Brooks to conclude that there are two types of people in this country. Looking at a map with the red and blue states colored in for us, this sort of limpid generalization seems plausible. The south and the rural west we’re told are red and the northeast and coastal west, home to our biggest cities, are blue. Need we go any further?

Again at some level of generalization this seems reasonable. But we only need to start thinking about states such as Florida, Ohio, Illlinois, Wisconsin, and perhaps ultimately the majority of the states to realize that this dichotomy is far too simplistic to be either useful or interesting.

But now Brooks suspects that this same opposition might explain the debate we are having about foreign policy as well: perhaps, the physical landscape powerfully influences our views of foreign policy. However implausible this sounds at first, it will only get worse:

>the foreign policy debate between George Bush and John Kerry is really a conflict between two values: freedom and internationalism.

O.K. Once again at some level of generality there is little to quibble with here. What’s interesting is that Brooks cites an article by Adam Wolfson in the Weekly Standard which discusses the difference between the two candidates’ foreign policies. Wolfson, in fact, argues that both come from the same source, liberalism. But the dichotomy is much more to Brooks’ tastes.

>When Bush talks about the world he hopes to create, he talks first about spreading freedom. What he’s really talking about is a decentralized world. Individuals would be free to live as they chose, in their own nations, carving out their own destinies.

>When Kerry talks about the world he hopes to create, he talks first about alliances and multilateral cooperation. He’s really talking about a crowded world. People from different nations would gather to work out differences and manage problems.

One thing to note, however, is that Brooks replaces Wolfson’s distinction between the democratic and the internationalist sides of liberalism with his own opposition between internationalism and freedom. These latter are not really coordinate, however, as they compare a means with an end. Yet it serves an important rhetorical purpose: Brooks can suggest, though of course not state outright, that Kerry’s internationalism is at opposed to a commitment to freedom.

This move is important. Brooks is transforming the debate into a disagreement about values rather than policy, and simultaneously he is suggesting that Kerry values constraint more than freedom.

>Put this way, the argument we are having about international relations is the same argument we are having about domestic affairs, just on a larger scale. It’s a conflict between two value systems. One is based on a presumption of a world in which individuals and nations should be self-reliant and free to develop their own capacities – forming voluntary associations when they want – without being overly coerced by national or global elites. The other is based on the presumption of a crowded world, which emphasizes that no individual or nation can go off and do as it pleases, but should work instead within governing institutions that establish norms and provide security.

Yes, perhaps, *if* you put the debate this way, this is true. But in fact, this is not the debate we are having. Bush and Blair justify the invasion of Iraq on the basis of U.N. resolutions and on the basis of the claim that “the world is better off. . ..” Kerry and Clinton do not reject, as far as I can tell, the value of democratization–and in fact, this was a cornerstone of Clinton-era foreign policy. The question, however, has always been about the best means to attain the end of democratization. Kerry and other democrats have a certain skepticism, born from experience, about the possibility of promoting democracy with the barrel of a gun. And this probably explains to some degree the preference, at least notionally, among democrats for humanitarian interventions rather than interventions to install a government.

>Seen in these terms, this election is not just a conflict of two men, but is a comprehensive conflict of visions. Both these visions have been bloodied of late. Still, they do address the central issue confronting us: How do we conceive of an international order in the post-9/11 world? Bush, the conservative, conceives of a flexible, organic, spontaneous order. Kerry, the liberal, conceives of a more rationalist, planned and managed order.

Now we find that the problem is in fact how best to conceive internationalism and not as Brooks suggested earlier what we should be striving for as a nation in our foreign policy. Of course, this also serves a rhetorical purpose as the contrast between the two sorts of “order” suggests. By changing the terms of the disagreement, Brooks has painted Kerry into some sort of soviet style socialist foreign policy.

I have a feeling that the logic underlying these rhetorical moves could be better illuminated than I have done here. Brooks’ whole argument seems to rely on a series of equivocations, and tracking more precisely how he equivocates might be an illuminating task. Nonetheless, I will leave this commentary with one last quotation that is not interesting for its logic, but only because it is perhaps the worst last sentence in op-ed. history:

>This debate could go on for a while since both sides represent legitimate points of view, and since both sides have concrete reasons to take the positions they do.

Not only that, however, it is also strikingly disingenuous. Brooks offers himself as the “reasonable conservative”–an understanding and fair minded judge of the both parties’ policies and values. When we look carefully at the logic and rhetoric of this piece, however, his pretense to neutrality becomes absurd. The language in terms of which he chooses to describe the differences between the two candidates betrays a suggestion of cynicism in his studied neturality.

Neither running nor hiding

Is there a logic, or perhaps an illogic to “spin”? Or, more generally, how does “spin” work? “Spin” takes accepted facts and represents them in a positive or negative way. To accuse someone of “spinning” is to accuse them of a biased representation of the facts. Bias plays an interesting role in arguments. The mere existence of bias does not by itself allow us to conclude that the conclusion drawn on the basis of the representation of the evidence is false: To do so would be to commit an *ad hominem* fallacy.

Safire begins his Monday column “How Bush Won Round 2” (NYT 10/11/04) by committing precisely this fallacy:

>When pro-Kerry commentators solemnly pronounce Debate Round 2 to have been “a draw” – you know George Bush won that round.

One, of course, knows nothing of the sort. Fortunately Safire does not rest his case on this argument. The only thing, however, that can determine who won the debate is an evaluation of it according to some accepted set of criteria That is, we need first to determine: What exactly constitutes winning a debate? Who is in a position to decide who won the debate? In the absence of such criteria, the conclusion that Safire wants to establish will escape him.

Bush’s hackneyed use of Joe Louis’ “He can run, but he can’t hide” seems curiously impressive to Safire and on the basis of this cliche, Safire seems to have confused the Louis/Conn fight in 1946 with Kerry/Bush in 2004. I could comment on the weak analogy running consistently through Safire’s column. It probably provides some persuasive force, if there is any, to Safire’s argument while concealing this as a rhetorical device. But ultimately the analogy is just silly. There was no knock-out in the eighth round. There was no strategic miscalculation in thinking Bush was tired leading to the non-existent knock-out. And Bush is surely not to debate what Joe Louis was to boxing.

Nevertheless, setting aside this attempt to transform the debate into epic, Safire rests his case on two things.

>Bush’s debate plan was to keep boring in on the Kerry record: flip-flopping this year on the war, but all too consistently liberal for 20 years on tax increases.

There was little new on the first point–though Safire has set the bar for President remarkably low by commenting:

>This not only showed that Bush knew these allies personally, but could also pronounce Kwasniewski’s name. . ..

The rest of Safire’s argument on the war is that Kerry contradicts himself on Iraq policy. These arguments have been examined before and certainly do not suggest decisive victory for Bush.

On taxes his case is even thinner amounting to two points:

1. Kerry’s channeling of Bush’s father by promising no new taxes on anyone making less than $200,000, an admittedly less impressive oedipal strategy than in his first debate quotation of Bush-41’s explanation for the foolishness of occupying Iraq.

2. A supposed “blunder” concerning Bush’s $84 of revenue from a lumber company.

This latter point is entirely misconstrued and illegitimately dismissed by Bush and Safire (see Media Matters). But, even if it were true it is very thin ground on which to base victory in the debate.

Safire’s final comments concern Bush’s attempt consistent attempts to conflate voting for a particular bill and standing on a particular issue–like in the debate about Iraq this is a conflation of questions about ends and means to those ends. Consistently, in political debates, disagreements about means are translated into disagreements about ends. So for example:

>In an anguishing moment, Kerry said he was against partial-birth abortion (as are most voters, including many pro-choice) and then explained why he voted against the ban that is now law. Countered Bush: “He was given a chance to vote and he voted no. . . . It’s clear for everybody to see. And as I said, you can run, but you can’t hide.”

Kerry, of course, voted against the bill, as he explained not because he promotes partial-birth abortion, but because the constitution as it is currently interpreted by the Supreme Court requires a provision in the law that protects the right of a woman to have even this procedure when her health is threatened. In the absence of such a provision the law is in a sense illegal.

Variations on this argument are consistently used by the Bush campaign (voting against 87 billion for the troops, not voting for the bill that capped punitive damages in medical liability cases etc..) to create a straw man against which to campaign. This is, of course, fallacious as Safire surely knows.

Undoubtedly Safire is spinning the debate. His argument is extremely selective and relies on a weak analogy between the debate and a prize fight. Undoubtedly as well, Safire has a bias towards one candidate. This bias, however, is not the reason that his argument is implausible, but only perhaps, the reason he finds such an implausible argument persuasive. Nevertheless, I cannot say whether Bush or Kerry “won” the debate, and in fact, the question is probably not of interest to anyone other than the media who would like to sell politics as another spectator sport.

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.

Your argument is invalid

%d bloggers like this: