1000 dead, ergo. . ..

Source (NYT 09/10/04): It is a lot easier to find logical fallacies in arguments with which you disagree. For the thoughtful reader, disagreement prompts reflection concerning the ground of the disagreement. If, however, I believe deeply that Dick Cheney is right when he claims that electing John Kerry will make us more vulnerable to attack, then my agreement will in all likelihod obscure the fallacies in his implicit argument.

There are many candidates in the op-ed pages of the last few days for analysis and criticism–Novak’s false generalizations about the 500,000 protestors in New York on the basis of a few particular encounters (yesterday in the Chicago Sun Times Source (ChST 09/09/04)), or Krauthammer’s mis-characterizations of the arguments and positions of the Kerry campaign (straw man fallacies) in the Washington Post (Source(WaPo 09/10/04). In a departure from previous form, I want to analyze an argument with which I agree entirely. In a palpably emotional reponse to the NYT’s honouring of the 1000 men and women who have had their lives ended by the conflict in Iraq–and if you have not scrolled through this wracking testimony stop reading and follow this link (Roster of the Dead.) –Herbert asks:

How many thousands more will have to die before we acknowledge that President Bush’s obsession with Iraq and Saddam Hussein has been a catastrophe for the United States?

The question is so serious and necessary that I am, at first, perplexed by the task I have set myself–to analyze the logic of his argument.

His answer to the question is not a precise number, of course, but takes the form of a confirmation of the premise of the question:

At some point, as in Vietnam, the American public will balk at the continued carnage, and this tragic misadventure will become politically unsustainable.

This is the conclusion that Herbert is arguing for. What reasons does he advance for the conclusion?

  1. There is no persuasive goal for this war.
  2. The Americans are not at all clear what they’re fighting for. Saddam is gone. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The link between Saddam and the atrocities of Sept. 11 was always specious and has been proven so.


    You can wave goodbye to the naive idea that democracy would take root in Iraq and then spread like the flowers of spring throughout the Middle East. That was never going to happen

  3. There is no adequate means for winning the war.
  4. And our Iraqi “allies” will never fight their Iraqi brethren with the kind of intensity the U.S. would like, any more than the South Vietnamese would fight their fellow Vietnamese with the fury and the effectiveness demanded by the hawks in the Johnson administration.


    The Iraqi insurgents–whether one agrees with them or not–believe that they are fighting for their homeland, their religion and their families.


    We won’t–and shoudln’t–wage total war in Iraq either. But to the insurgents, the Americans epitomize eveil. . .For them, this is total war.

  5. The cost will eventually be too high for the American people.
  6. There is undoubtedly an unspoken premise here:

  7. The American people will balk at continued carnage, if they perceive the war to pointless, unwinable, and too costly.
  8. Therefore, the American people will (eventually) make this war politically unsustainable.

That I take it is his argument, and as it stands it seems entirely valid. Of course, the truth of the premises could be questioned if our concern was with the soundness of the argument rather than its validity. The premises have not been entirely justifed. His claim about the unlikelihood of democracy arising in the Iraq would certainly be contested and then would need further justification. But we cannot fault him for having premises that need further justification, since all arguments must begin provisionally from premises.

I want to ask now about the presence or absence of two fallacies in his editorial: an appeal to pity and an ad hominem argument.

Appeal to Pity: There will be some I suspect who will try to tarnish the NYT for printing this Roster of the Dead. As Ted Koppel’s Nightline found out months ago, the motives of this memorial will be viewed cynically as a form of manipulation. These critics will argue that the purpose of showing the roster of the dead is to trade on the public’s emotions in order to lead them to the conclusion that the war is not worth the cost. By ratcheting up the publics perception of the real human cost (or at least, the cost for Americans, since a “Roster of the Civilian Dead” would fill a day or more of the NYT) the public will be led to conclude that the war is not worth the price. Of course, the emotions that this Roster of the Dead provoke include at least sadness, pity, and respect. Thus, it might seem to be an implicit argumentum ad misericordiam, or the fallacy of an appeal to pity.

Herbert interrupts his argument three times with a line of four names and nothing more. The question is thus, what is the function of this rhetorical gesture and is it implicitly fallacious?

An argument by appeal to pity is an argument that claims that something is true by evoking an irrelevent emotional experience of pity that makes the listener willing to grant the truth of the claim without justification or reason. The traditional example given in virtually all logic textbooks is: “I deserve an A because if I don’t get an A I won’t get into Law School.” Although the reason might be a motivation for giving an A, it is not a reason for deserving an A. This is where it gets tricky. An appeal to pity only occurs when the appeal is irrelevant for justifying the conclusion.

Herbert’s rhetorical use of the soldiers’ names, however, is directly relevant to his argument: the cost of the war in Iraq is already too high. To judge the truth of this requires that we have a clear sense of what that cost is. The pages of photographs, although it will never convey the real loss experienced in each and every one of the 1000 dead, strives, however failingly, to evoke a sense of its magnitude.

Ad Hominem:

They were sent by a president who ran and hid when he was a young man and his country was at war.

This one sentence stands out in the editorial: It rings of an ad hominem fallacy. An ad hominem fallacy occurs when one argues for a conclusion based on an irrelevant fact about a person who maintains an opposing view. Not all arguments that rest on premises about a person’s character are, however, fallacious. Often character is relevant to the inference that is being made, and even if the character is represented unflatteringly it does not make the argument fallacious.

Once again it is a question of relevance: Is George Bush’s avoidance of risk during the Vietnam war relevant to an assessment of his qualifications for ordering soldiers to their deaths or relevant to the justification of the war?

This is a profoundly difficult question, and one which I suspect those who have served in the military might answer differently than those of us who have not. Given the way the campaign is shaping up, however, we will have ample opportunity to address this question in the future.

In place of that here, I would point out only the following: This sentence does no logical work here and assuming it is true, it would not provide reason to disagree with Bush’s policies and decisions. I don’t think, however, that Herbert intends it to provide such reason, though, in fact, I am not sure what it contributes to his argument.

Arguments, if they are to succeed in persuading, are directed towards those who either disagree or who have not made up their minds. Sometimes even the hint of a fallacy, however, can detract from the persuasiveness of an argument. Just as a fallacy can induce people to accept a conclusion that is not justified, so the appearance of a fallacy can induce people to reject a conclusion that has been justified.

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).

Of explanations and equivocations

Source: NYT 09/07/04 and Source: NYT 09/07/04: I suspect Paul Krugman and David Brooks were not attending the same Labor Day celebration when they decided to write today on the same theme. Nevertheless both the NYT’s editorials today address a question that is of special interest: How is it that people come to believe such obviously irrational, false, immoral, or simply contradictory things. There are profound questions here that transcend the strict scope of logic and require some dabbling in the philosophy of action and perhaps even raising the question of evil. Nonetheless, have no fear, Brooks does not disappoint: With a little bit of preparation we will discover at the heart of Brooks’ argument an illustrative case of concealed equivocation.

But we should start with Krugman who focuses on a discussion of the psychology of war by war correspondant Chris Hedges. It is Krugman’s claim that the impression of a perpetual state of war that the Bush administration works so assiduously to maintain is about the only thing that keeps Bush’s poll numbers from plummetting. “War psychology” disposes people to faith in their leaders even when the leaders are undeserving of it.

The administration creates a climate of war. This climate leads to a unreasonable over-estimation of our leaders. Bush’s lead in the polls is a result of the war climate.

Strictly speaking this is not an argument, but rather an attempt at explaining what to Krugman and others seems obviously irrational–Bush’s persistence in the election when by every objective measure (economy, jobs, war on terror, war in Iraq, never mind scandal after scandal) he should be plummeting in the polls.

Explanations are interesting creatures: They possess the same structure as an argument (This fact is true because this other fact is true), yet they are evaluated according to different criteria. Arguments proceed from supposedly well established facts (the premises) and justify the conclusion which is generally less well-established than the premises (and hence in need of argument). Explanations, however, begin from a commonly recongized fact (Bush is persisting or even gaining in the polls) and attempt to provide some means of understanding that fact on the basis of other less well known facts (war psychology).

This isn’t, of course, to say that explanations cannot fail in ways analogous to argument. In fact, many explanations are themselves the conclusion of an implicit argument–the argument being that the proposed explanation is the best available explanation of the given fact. For explanations themselves, we can assess the degree to which the explanation integrates with our other beliefs, has a relevant degree of explanatory scope, and is clear, testable, frugal, and precise. (A nice discussion that goes beyond the scope of these brief comments can be found in Thomas McKay’s Reasons, Explanations, and Decision. (Wadsworth publishing) from which I draw here especially Chapter 7). I will leave the evaluation of this explanation for another time and place.

Now where Krugman utilizes psychology to articulate a plausible reason for what he believes to be irrational conviction, Brooks does something entirely different with the same problem. Brooks takes as his subject the morally repugnant and perverse decision to use terrorist tactics. At first glance, the whole point of his editorial seems to be to sustain his moral outrage at terrorism for 750 words or so. To do so he uses a metaphor of a “cult of death,” under which description he includes the radicals and extremists at the “fringe of the Muslim world.” The cult of death “loves death,” Brooks sententiously informs us, and is motivated by nothing but the “joy of sadism and suicide” and “massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness.”

This is the cult that sent waves of defenseless children to be mowed down on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war, that trains kindergarteners to become bombs, that fetishizes death, that sends people off joyfully to commit mass murder.

Whether there is a single factual claim in this sentence is not something we can or need to consider right now because the trope does not need any factual basis in order to focus our moral outrage. Brooks is trying to argue against the possibility of any explanation of terrorism, by rejecting any attempt to “understand” it.

His metaphorical indulgence obscures the argument, but not enough to conceal its basic fallacy.

1. To understand terrorism is to understand its reasons.
2. If terrorism has reasons, then it is justifiable.
3. But terrorism is unjustifiable.
4. Therefore terrorism has no motivation or reason (it is simply a perverse nihilistic cult of death).

This, of course, is to provide Brooks’ meandering and at times self-contradictory editorial with a basic rational, even if fallacious, structure. But imposing on this op-ed the formal inference of modus tollens, allows us to highlight the basic flaw in his reasoning.

The flaw is a very common instance of equivocation on the notions of reason and motivation: Specifically, the argument collapses the distinction between a causal or psychological sense of “reason” and an evaluative or moral sense. This amounts to claiming that:

To claim that terrorists had a “motivation” to commit a particular act, is to claim that the terrorists had a “good motivation” to do that act.

However, to recognize that human beings act necessarily out of their conception of what is best is not to claim that they are right about what is best: Nor is it to claim that they are not morally responsible for what they think (erroneously) to be best. A psychological explanation does not imply moral justification.

Once we see this, Brooks’ editorial falls into place. He can assert his moral consternation at the Boston Globe and the Dutch Foreign Minisiter (?!?) who suggest that Russian authorities may have mishandled the events. Ever aiming at clarity, or at least simplicity Brooks reminds us, “And it wasn’t Russian authorities who stuffed basketball nets with explosives and shot children in the back as they tried to run away.”

But if we remove the basic fallacy in his reasoning we can see that the hypothesis of a “death cult” in order to explain terrorism is unnecessary and moreover a poor explanation. First, it conflicts with our basic understanding, stretching back to Aristotle, of human agency. Second, it is in fact a vacuous explanation–(Why do terrorists kill? Because they like to kill.) Third, the explanation is obfuscatory. It proceeds by lumping together all sorts of disparate groups and their motivations. Fourth, is imprecise and does not explain differences among particular acts of terrorism.

Once we dispose of the basic equivocation in Brooks view his explanation can be seen to be the empty metaphor that it is.

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.

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).

Counting to Four with Safire

Source (NYT 8/30/04):
Back from vacation, Safire contributes a surprisingly obtuse editorial today. Titled “Four Connected Elections” it meanders from a discussion of recent events in Najaf to Safire’s advice to the Republican party about political strategy. Lacking anything that resembles an argument or even an explanation, one feels crass to nit-pick.

The logical nits need nonetheless to be picked.

George W. Bush comes to the G.O.P convention on the heels of victory in the Najaf primary. . . Not quite an electoral “primary”–the al-Sadr forces prefer bullets to ballots–but the result was political. Nobody now doubts who is the most powerful Shiite leader. And though he cannot publicly express his gratititude to the foreign soldiers who made possible his victory over the abusers of sanctuary, the ayatollah is on the side of a general election soon.

Apparantly, according to Safire, Grand Ayatollah Sistani has joined the Republican party! Even assuming that what Safire

says bears any resemblance to the truth of what occured in Najaf last week, the claim that this represents a “Najaf primary” which endorses George W. Bush conceals, though not particularly well, fallacious reasoning.

The conclusion that Safire wants to suggest to his readers is that George Bush has been endorsed by the majority of Shiites in Iraq, via his functionary Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

He argues this through an analogy between an election and an expression of popular will. Although the restoration of the mosque was not the result of a vote, he detects in the outcome of the negotiations a “political” expression of popular will. It is as though al-Sadr was “voted” out of the mosque and Sistani was voted in.

O.K. so far the analogy seems plausible, even if it is straining a little. Arguments from analogy hold when two things are similar in a number of ways, and it is likely that therefore they also possess some further characteristic in common.

So we must ask, to what degree were the events in Najaf similar to what we consider to be an “election?” Are all political victories analogous to electoral victories? Are all expressions of popular will electoral victories. Does a mob on the street constitute a sign of “popular will?” We need only remember the mobs of Republican staffers that were flown down to Florida in 2000 to present the appearance of public outrage at the “recounts” to recognize the danger of identifying the appearance of public support with the actual existence of public support. The difference between an election and a mob is that unless the Supreme Court overides you, in an election you must actually count the votes. Thus, the essential characteristics of an “election”–what distinguishes from mob rule–are seemingly absent in the Najaf case.

So Najaf can be considerd an election only in the most abstract and weakest sense of the word. Safire’s analogy is false.

But even beyond this basic disanalogy between mob politics under the gun of an occupying army and elections, the inference that Sistani is a Republican apparatchik and that George Bush won a primary in Najaf can only be interpreted as Safire’s subtle comic senee.

Nevertheless, laughter does not constitute analysis. The fallacy here is one of implicit false dilemma. In essence, Safire argues that since Bush wanted al-Sadr out of the mosque and Sistani was able to accomplish this through an expression of popular will among Shiites, the Shiite population has chosen George Bush rather than al-Sadr.

While it is probably true that if politics makes for strange bed-fellows, war makes for desperate bed-fellows, to argue that support for Sistani rather than al-Sadr is support for George Bush and the occupying army rather than al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army” is to take Bush’s “You’re either with us or against us” fallacy and invert it with equally fallacious results: not actually at present shooting at American troops must not be confused with supporting American troops. Opposing the use of a mosque for military purposes, with the attendant massive destruction of the city center, can in no way be interperted as support for those who destroyed the city center.

Your argument is invalid

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