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.

Will to power

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

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

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

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

How Thoughtful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ad hominem in Reverse!

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

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

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

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

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

Your argument is invalid

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