Category Archives: Ad Hominem

Et tu quoque Al Gore

John Tierney, no friend of the global warming camp, discusses “carbon footprints” this morning in his “Times Select” column (sorry, no free access). Al Gore he says:

He advises you to change your light bulbs, insulate your home, and cut back on driving and air travel. If you must make a trip, he notes helpfully, “buses provide the cheapest and most energy-efficient transportation for long distances.”

And yet,

Fine advice, and it would be even better if he journeyed to his lectures exclusively on Greyhound. But he seems to prefer cars and planes. When you tally up his international travel to inspect melting glaciers and the domestic trips between his homes — one in Washington and another in Nashville, not to mention the family farm in rural Tennessee featured in the movie — you’re looking at a Godzilla-sized carbon footprint.

Tierney doesn’t draw the fallacious conclusion–that Al Gore’s position (we should reduce our carbon footprints) is false. Instead he seems to be suggesting the conclusion, which is not necessarily fallacious, that “Al Gore is a hypocrite.”

We should note that although this is not necessarily fallacious, it isn’t obvious that the evidence above provides good reason to believe that Al Gore is in fact a hypocrite. In fact, Al Gore–much to the chagrin of many environmentalists–has always favored various market solutions to carbon emissions:

Gore and David say they offset their energy usage by sponsoring reductions in greenhouse gases through alternative forms of power and energy conservation (like building wind farms and paying farmers to turn methane into electricity).

But, how does Tierney argue that this isn’t sufficient? By invoking the judgment of a more radical environmentalist position:

Quoting Gandhi — “Be the change you want to see in the world” — Komanoff says his fellow environmentalists should stop offering “get out of purgatory free” cards [carbon offsets] to the rich and instead insist that everyone personally reduce energy use.

So apparently, Gore’s position is not internally hypocritical, though Komanoff disagrees with it. Nonetheless, Tierney thinks that if you want to work to reduce carbon emissions you must accept Komanoff’s positions:

I’m not such a purist myself — I’d let the average person salve his conscience with a carbon indulgence. But I’d hold environmentalist preachers like Gore to higher standards, especially when they’re engaging in unnecessary energy use.

The tu quoque fallacy is an interesting one. If one is too explicit with the fallacy, it isn’t very effective. But subtle forms of it–like Tierney’s here–which assert hypocrisy and therefore suggest that the messenger and the message are somehow compromised are very effective. Most readers of Tierney’s column will probably conclude that because Al Gore is a hypocrite his arguments and prescriptions do not need to be taken seriously.

A game of pong

In today’s Washington Post, Richard Cohen aligns himself with such bellicose pundits as Victor Davis Hanson as he argues for unhinged and indiscriminate violence against any and all associated (if only geographically) with Hezbollah terrorists. To suggest otherwise, as he *imagines* serious people have done, is pernicious anti-semitism:

>It also includes a whole bunch of European newspapers whose editorial pages call for Israel to respond, *it seems*, with only one missile for every one tossed its way. Such neat proportion is a recipe for doom.

>The dire consequences of proportionality are so clear that *it makes you wonder* if it is a fig leaf for anti-Israel sentiment in general. [emphasis mine]

Two points. First, those who have urged restraint have not suggested (and even Cohen admits as much with “it seems”) Israel engage in a game of missile pong–one for one. Proportionality is a principle of just war–of *jus in bello* to be exact. Those who urge it have rightly suggested that Israel not obliterate innocent civilians who are no more capable of controlling Hezbollah than Israel is. This argument is made on two independent grounds. First, it’s morally wrong to kill civilians. Second, as a matter of prudence, Israel cannot achieve its goal of eliminating Hezbollah by advertising for it’s most extravagant claims–that Israel engages in terrorism.

Second, to criticize Isreal’s reaction to the kidnapping of two soldiers (remember that) is not anti-semitic:

>These calls for proportionality rankle. They fall on my ears not as genteel expressions of fairness, some ditsy Marquess of Queensberry idea of war, *but as ugly sentiments pregnant with antipathy toward the only democratic state in the Middle East.* After the Holocaust, after 1,000 years of mayhem and murder, the only proportionality that counts is zero for zero. If Israel’s enemies want that, they can have it in a moment. [emphasis mine].

First, no one seriously urges the kind of silly military policy Cohen suggests; second, sometimes, believe it or not, Israel can be in the wrong–not because it’s *Israel*, but just because, like anyone or anything human, it errs.

So, Cohen, show how Israel is not wrong this time, not how anyone who criticizes them secretly wishes its annihilation.

***UPDATE***

It’s hard to say the author of the following in today’s Washington Post has in mind a straw man: we have seen in recent days on this site various iterations of the argument he attacks. Read the whole thing, but especially:

>Unfortunately — as the United States itself discovered during World War II and Vietnam, to cite just two examples — strategic bombing has almost never worked. Far from bringing about the intended softening of the opposition, bombing tends to rally people behind their own leaders and cause them to dig in against outsiders who, whatever the justification, are destroying their homeland.

While this point had already been made by Mr.Grey in a comment a few days ago, it’s worth repeating.

The last refuge

We’ve been debating this for a while, but it’s time we took another turn through the internet tubes.

This from Instapundit, a right wing blogger, on 11/11/2005:

>The White House needs to go on the offensive here in a big way — and Bush needs to be very plain that this is all about Democratic politicans pandering to the antiwar base, that it’s deeply dishonest, and that it hurts our troops abroad.

>And yes, he should question their patriotism. Because they’re acting unpatriotically.

>

>UPDATE: Reader Kathleen Boerger emails: “Could you do me a favor and define ‘patriotism’ please?”

>I think it starts with not uttering falsehoods that damage the country in time of war, simply because your donor base wants to hear them.

>Patriotic people could — and did — oppose the war. But so did a lot of scoundrels. And some who supported the war were not patriotic, if they did it out of opportunism or political calculation rather than honest belief. Those who are now trying to recast their prior positions through dishonest rewriting of history are not patriotic now, nor were they when they supported the war, if they did so then out of opportunism –which today’s revisionist history suggests.

We’re intrigued that patriotism asks so little of the patriot: simply believe the irresponsible tripe you say. So, one might wonder, how does patriotism differ from just plain honesty?

And this underscores the general pointlessness of questioning others’ motives–the you’re just saying that because (you want to be on TV, you want sympathy, you want money, you want votes, girls, attention and so on): motives are private, often even to ourselves. The only things we can fairly and responsibly judge are *reasons*–yes, the things that compose *arguments*.

If we confined ourselves to arguments, we’d all be better off.

Bottomless Chum Bucket

While one would certainly expect to encounter stench in the gutter discourse of the likes of Limbaugh and O’Reilly (as well as Hannity, Krauthammer, Liddy, Coulter and Malkin–to name a few), we were somewhat–but mind you only somewhat–surprised to see that George Will has stuck his arm full to the shoulder in the bottomless chum bucket that constitutes much of the conservative discussion of Cindy Sheehan’s request for a meeting with the President:

>Since her first meeting with the president, she has called him a “lying bastard,” “filth spewer,” “evil maniac,” “fuehrer” and the world’s “biggest terrorist” who is committing “blatant genocide” and “waging a nuclear war” in Iraq. Even leaving aside her not entirely persuasive contention that someone else concocted the obviously anti-Israel and inferentially anti-Semitic elements of one of her recent e-mails — elements of a sort nowadays often found woven into ferocious left-wing rhetoric — it is difficult to imagine how the dialogue would get going.

Never mind also the implication that the President of the United States is too thin-skinned to meet with someone who has called him names, or has, God forbid, expressed disatisfaction with his protean justifications for the war in Iraq. What’s interesting about Will’s remark is the claim that Sheehan is “*inferentially*” anti-Semitic apparently for (unquoted here) anti-Israel remarks. What, however, does “*inferentially* anti-Semitic” mean? Who draws the inference? On what grounds? Is the inference correctly drawn–or is it, as is more likely the case, drawn fallaciously in the service of character assassination? Anti-Semitism, a form of racism, is too serious a charge to be drawn “inferentially.”

Had Will stopped at “inferential” racism, he would only have been guilty of wallowing neck-deep in the rancid tripe of irrelevant character assassination. Whatever your position on the personal political views of Mrs. Sheehan, she continues (despite Will’s claim that she has “has already been largely erased from the national memory by new waves of media fickleness in the service of the public’s summer ennui”) to occupy the front pages of newspapers. Not to mention the fact that George Will favors her with a column in the *Washington Post*. Beyond that, he promotes her to Michael Moore:

>Do Democrats really want to embrace her variation of the Michael Moore and “Fahrenheit 9/11” school of political discourse? Evidently, yes, judging by the attendance of 12 Democratic senators at that movie’s D.C. premiere in June 2004, and by the lionizing of Moore at the Democratic Convention — the ovation, the seating of him with Jimmy Carter.

This just doesn’t make any sense. That 12 Democratic senators attended the opening of a documentary (one milder in tone, more solidly based in fact, and more cogently argued than many of the accuser’s columns) in 2004 (among other things) can have nothing to do with whether they will embrace *Sheehan’s* variation on it (which shows up in 2005–a year after 2004 by our count).

The logically and temporally impossible connection between Moore and Sheehan is only a set-up for Will’s sneering dismissal of the Democrats’ political position:

>It is showing signs of becoming an exhausted volcano. Regarding Iraq, it is mistaking truculent asperity and tiresome repetition for Churchillian wartime eloquence. Regarding domestic policy, intellectual anemia has given rise to behavioral patterns not easily distinguished from corruption, as with the energy and transportation bills. Yet the Democratic Party, which by now can hardly remember the far-distant past when it was a volcano not of molten rhetoric but of serious thought, seems preoccupied with the chafing around its neck. The chafing is caused by the leashes firmly gripped and impudently jerked by various groups such as MoveOn.org that insist the party adopt hysteria as a policy by treating the Supreme Court nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. as a dire threat to liberty.

As is usually the case with the ever clever Will, some of these phrases have a nice lilt (however irrelevant, Churchillian [the analogy fails here–the one who should sound Churchillian is the current war leader, Mr.Bush] always sounds nice)–but they would be more interesting if they were arguments (or at least parts of arguments) rather than simply hyperbolic–and therefore likely to be false or at best (“inferentially”) misleading–*assertions*, more appropriate (therefore not appropriate at all) for “TV’s bottomless chum bucket” than the op-ed page of even of the *Washington Post*.

Give me that old time religion

Over the year we’ve been in business we’ve seen plenty of ironic fallacies–these are the fallacies people commit by accusing others of committing fallacies. During the election the favorite was the reverse ad hominem–accuse someone else of attacking (thereby ignoring their justified attack and attacking them in turn). Here’s another variation on that theme–the reverse ad populum:

>These things come in waves, of course, but waves need to be resisted, even if the exercise leaves you feeling like King Canute. The new wave is fashionable doubt. Doubt is in. Certainty is out.

So Charles Krauthammer (famous for his use of the reverse ad hominem) would have us believe that since doubt is fashionable, people who believe it must do so simply because others do, not because perhaps they have a reason to doubt. This is a nice way of abdicating your responsibility for an argument against their view. That doesn’t make it right. And worse, I’m not sure if Krauthhammer knows this, but just because your belief is deeply held or profoundly felt doesn’t mean it’s *true.*

Of course, Krauthammer’s jeremiad (he used that word) on belief is really just a set up for his main argument.

>The Op-Ed pages are filled with jeremiads about believers–principally evangelical Christians and traditional Catholics–bent on turning the U.S. into a theocracy. Now I am not much of a believer, but there is something deeply wrong–indeed, deeply un-American–about fearing people simply because they believe. *It seems perfectly O.K. for secularists to impose their secular views on America, such as, say, legalized abortion or gay marriage. But when someone takes the contrary view, all of a sudden he is trying to impose his view on you.* And if that contrary view happens to be rooted in Scripture or some kind of religious belief system, the very public advocacy of that view becomes a violation of the U.S. constitutional order.

Now let’s look at this a little more closely. Embedded in the usual tripe about anti-religious feeling in the liberal media, is a familiar argumentative trope: religious [think Christian Evangelical not Muslim] versus secular. These two things do not rightly belong in the same category (at least in the way Krauthammer arranges them), so any attempt to compare them is bound to mislead. Besides, *legalized* abortion is not imposed on anyone the law recognizes; gay marriage (wherever it is legal) is not imposed on anyone either (barring probably unlikely shotgun weddings). These are activities, not views. Views cannot be imposed on anyone; activities can, but these activities can’t–unless your parents force the gay lifestyle on you; or force you to get an abortion. To avoid gay marriage, don’t go to gay weddings, or don’t be gay; to avoid abortion, give birth to any children you conceive.

Argumentum pro homine

Just about everyone who has had Intro to Logic knows about the fallacy of the attack against the person, or ad hominem. It's a question of relevance, they are told, in that the negative features of a person's character have nothing to do with the argument she is making. That's why it's called an "attack" or "against" or in Latin, "ad." Even George Bush, Michael Moore, or why not, even Paul Wolfowitz deserves to have his argument assessed on its own merits. Rarely if ever, however, does one hear of the negative counterpart, the obverse, of the argumentum ad hominem, the argumentum pro homine. Despite its rarity and notwithstanding the absence of cruel or mean-spirited irrelevance, it's fallacious for the same reasons. And we have a fine example of this in David Brooks March 8, 2005 opinion piece in The New York Times. Take a look at this:

Let us look again at the man who's been vilified by Michael Moore and the rest of the infantile left, who's been condescended to by the people who consider themselves foreign policy grown-ups, and who has become the focus of much anti-Semitism in the world today – the center of a zillion Zionist conspiracy theories, and a hundred zillion clever-Jew-behind-the-scenes calumnies.

It's not necessary to absolve Wolfowitz of all sin or to neglect the postwar screw-ups in Iraq. Historians will figure out who was responsible for what, and Wolfowitz will probably come in for his share of the blame. But with political earthquakes now shaking the Arab world, it's time to step back and observe that over the course of his long career – in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in Central and Eastern Europe, and now in the Middle East – Wolfowitz has always been an ardent champion of freedom. And he has usually played a useful supporting role in making sure that pragmatic, democracy-promoting policies were put in place.

If the trends of the last few months continue, Wolfowitz will be the subject of fascinating biographies decades from now, while many of his smuggest critics will be forgotten. Those biographies will mention not only his intellectual commitment but also his personal commitment, his years spent learning the languages of the places that concerned him, and the thousands of hours spent listening deferentially to the local heroes who led the causes he supported.

To praise Wolfowitz is not triumphalism. The difficulties ahead are obvious. It's simple justice. It's a recognition that amid all the legitimate criticism, this guy has been the subject of a vicious piling-on campaign by people who know less than nothing about what is actually going on in the government, while he, in the core belief that has energized his work, may turn out to be right.

The occasion for the reconsideration of Paul Wolfowitz's character is the irresponsible–and to judge by the headline of the March 8, 2005 New York Times–incorrect belief that the "political earthquakes now shaking the Arab world" are unremittingly positive. More Lebanese have descended into the streets in favor of Syria than those who a week earlier showed up against it.  And besides, even those who came out against Syria wanted to be rid of a foreign occupier (never mind, as everyone hask the reasons for the occupation) as we Americans ourselves happen to be (in Iraq, another Arab country).

My colleague at the Thenonsequitur.com has been closely following these arguments as they appear in various op-ed pages and has promised to discuss them soon. The problem with Brooks' argument lies elsewhere. In particular, it consists in his logically clueless response-in-kind to perceived attacks on Paul Wolfowitz the person. We've discussed this sort of argument, the reverse ad hominem before.

In logical strategy it very much resembles the straw man: falsely accuse your opponent of not making an argument but of attacking the person, and in so doing you attack her rather than her argument (since you've accused her of not having an argument). This time, however, in addition to attacking the attacker (note the rhetorical juxtaposition of the "the infantile left" with the lunatic antisemitism on the order of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), Brooks responds to those attacks by pointing out what a patient listener and marvelous student of foreign languages Wolfowitz is, among other achievements and personal virtues.

No question Wolfowitz has all sorts of personal virtues and has accomplished something in his life. That's not the issue, however, in the serious critiques of his political positions and arguments. And besides that, and more to the point actually, Wolfowitz may be motivated by the purest desire to improve the lot of humankind in general, but many serious questions have been raised about the means he has chosen to these ends. Some have argued, so we have heard, that those means have been disastrous for those asked to carry them out in reality, as well as those who never asked Wolfowitz for his help.

Nature Wrecked

In the previous post we discussed George Will’s violent reaction to the violent reaction to Larry Summers’–President of Harvard University–foray into *a priori* genetics. On the basis of all of the scientific auctoritas as his armchair will provide, Will continues here and in the following op-ed piece (which we will discuss some time in the near future) to pontificate about the philosophical realities of human nature. Not only did it gall him that academic liberals would dare question the unjustified assertions of the president of Harvard University, but some in the left-wing political media had the temerity to challenge similar claims in the inaugural address of the President of the United States:

>This criticism went beyond doubts about his grandiose aspirations, to rejection of the philosophy that he might think entails such aspirations but actually does not. The philosophy of natural right — the Founders’ philosophy — rests on a single proposition: There is a universal human nature.

Continue reading Nature Wrecked

Ad Feminam

Only just recently George Will argued that Michael Crichton’s appendixed and footnoted science-fiction thriller about global warming–sorry, climate change–merited unironic juxtaposition with the body of unthrilling and nonfictional scientific research from the majority of the world’s qualified scientists. Now this past week in The Washington Post
he argues that Larry Summers’ off the cuff and argumentless remarks about the genetic basis of gender differences in cognitive ability warrant the same kind of careful attention and consideration. The failure of academia to take them seriously, and its quick, negative reaction to them constitutes to Will’s mind evidence of academia’s not so latent hypocrisy:

>Forgive Larry Summers. He did not know where he was.

>Addressing a conference on the supposedly insufficient numbers of women in tenured positions in university science departments, he suggested that perhaps part of the explanation might be innate — genetically based — gender differences in cognition. He thought he was speaking in a place that encourages uncircumscribed intellectual explorations. He was not. He was on a university campus.

Continue reading Ad Feminam

When an opinion is just an opinion.

When we envisioned this project and then began to work on it, we expected to spend our time roughly equally on editorial writers from all political orientations. It is, of course, readily apparent that our focus has primarily rested on four writers–David Brooks, George Will, William Safire, and Charles Krauthammer. These four are, of course, the most conservative of the opinion page writers of the country's two major dailies–The New York Times and The Washington Post. For the last two and half months, we have, therefore, spent most of our efforts criticizing conservative arguments. This probably gives the appearance of a certain "partisanship." This is not, however, our intention. Nonetheless, having read probably several hundred opinion pieces in the last two and half months from political opinion magazines as diverse as Pat Buchanan's *The American Conservative,* *The Nation* (the largest and oldest opinion weekly in the country), middle america weeklies likes *Time* and *Newsweek*, and newspapers from the flagships mentioned above to the *The Boston Globe,* *Chicago Sun Times,* and the *Cleveland Plain Dealer,* we are in a position to reflect on this appearance of partisanship. To do that, I think we need to address the question of the purpose of I have come to think of Maureen Dowd as the "purest" opinion writer around because her columns rarely involve explicit inference or argument. Instead, she largely describes her own reactions to the world, spicing it up a little with a few one-liners or cheap shots. This means that there is little in her columns for us to analyze, and also explains the impression that they are generally "fluffy" (leaving aside her hatchet jobs on Clinton and Monica from the 90's). There is, of course, implicit inference and the logic underlying her one-liners, but for the most part her columns remain somewhat impressionistic. At some point I will return to this and try to demonstrate it more rigorously. The first half of Brooks' column today (Source: NYT 11/02/04) is pure opinion. Brooks treats us to his reflections on the course of the campaign and his mild uncertainty whether his support of the Bush administration is wise or justified. >As I look back over the course of this campaign, I should confess I've gone through several periods convinced I should vote against President Bush. I know I'm not the only conservative to think this way. I look at my favorite conservative bloggers and see many coming out for John Kerry. I talk to my friends at conservative think tanks and magazines and notice that they are deeply ambivalent about the administration, even those who would never vote for a Democrat. This is part of Brooks' persona as the reasonable conservative who is more concerned with the merits of the various positions than with maintaining a strict party line–a persona that his columns over the last two and half months have given pleny of reason to doubt. Nonetheless, as his confession continues and he reveals his doubts about the Bush administration, we find nothing to analyze. Reporting the autobiographical facts about his personal beliefs does not involve argument or inference. For example to say as Brooks does: >I'm frustrated that Bush didn't build the governing majority that was there for the taking. is merely to report a psychological and biographical fact, which for the purposes of our analysis we assume to be true. Certainly Brooks wants to *explain* his frustration, but he does not need to *prove* it to us. Insofar as he remains at the level of his opinions and the explanation of his opinions there is generally little for logical analysis. But it is an entirely different matter to say as Brooks does later: > Then other considerations come into play. The first is Kerry. He's been attacked for being a flip-flopper, but his core trait is that he is monumentally selfish. Since joining the Senate, he has never attached himself to an idea or movement larger than his own career advancement. >It's not for nothing that people in Massachusetts joked that his initials stand for Just For Kerry. Or that people spoke of him as the guy who refuses to wait in lines at restaurants because he thinks he's above everybody else. Here he does more than report his belief that Kerry is "monumentally selfish." He attempts to provide the evidence that provides *reason* to believe that he is selfish. We have moved from reporting his opinions to attempting to establish the truth of an objective claim. It is at this point that our analysis is required. Does Brooks have good reason to believe that Kerry is "monumentally selfish?" Or more importantly, are the reasons that he advances sufficient to establish either the likelihood or the truth of that claim? He appeals here to two pieces of evidence: 1) "He has never attached himself to an idea or movement larger than his own career advancement." 2) People have the impression that he is selfish. We must now evaluate the strength of the inference from these two claims to the conclusion that "Kerry is monumentally selfish." As they stand they both suggest significant logical fallacies. In the first case, the fallacy of suppressed evidence, and in the second, appeal to unqualified authority (perhaps), or a sort of appeal to the people. Without thinking very long or spending any time with Lexis/Nexis, the first claim seems simply implausible, and certainly lacks any actual evidence to support it. It is, however, part of the attempt to portray Kerry (or Gore, or Clinton, or . . ..) as a cynical self-aggrandizing politician. This is common trope in political discourse and Brooks of course is willing to stoop to it. The second claim is an equally bad argument for his conclusion but a little harder to analyze. He seems to be arguing that "people" have the impression that he's the kind of guy who "refuses to wait in lines at restaurants." His only attempt to bolster this impression is to assert that "it is not for nothing that people . . ." have this impression. The fact that people believe something is not evidence that it is true, and not reason that we should believe it to be true. Of course, there may be reason to believe this, but Brooks does not provide that and so does not provide any reason to believe that "Kerry is monumentally selfish." Again we can see quite clearly that Brooks stumbles when he attempts to provide an argument for his beliefs. His arguments are consistently bad. His opinions may be true or may be false, just as they may be interesting or not. But when he remains within the domain of reporting his own opinions, we will find ourselves with much less to criticize–if he doesn't make arguments, then he can't make bad arguments. I will leave Brooks' editorial aside now, and end by briefly returning to the original question. But before I do that, I want to distinguish one other sort of opinion piece that we find more often I think being penned by the liberal or centrist commentators of the two major dailies. An example of this is today found from a right wing commentator, George Will. Rather than an "opinion editorial" in the pure sense delineated above, this might be referred to as a "reporting editorial." An example from the left-center occupants of the editorial pages might be Nicholas Kristof's recent reporting editorials from Afghanistan. Like pure opinion editorials these are concerned first of all with the reporting of facts rather than with argument and inference. George Will begins his piece today with a quick tour through the electoral almanac: >If, for the fourth consecutive election, neither candidate wins a popular vote majority, relax. There were four consecutive such elections from 1880 to 1892. In 1876 a candidate (Samuel Tilden) got 51 percent — and lost (to Rutherford Hayes). Six elections since World War II produced plurality presidents — 1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, 2000. Woodrow Wilson was consequential although he won his first term with just 41.8 percent and his second with 49.2 percent. Once again, there is nothing to contest as a matter of logic here–we assume that his facts are correct. The first half of the editorial continues in this vein, relating interesting parallels between past elections and possible outcomes today. The latter half of the editorial departs from this concern and highlights a number of things that Will wants us to "watch" such as Nevada and Maine's 2nd congressional district. Here he explains the reasons that these might be interesting without attempting to prove anything in particular. Here we move back in the direction of a "pure opinion" piece since in essence Will is saying "I think Nevada will be interesting to watch because. . .." It has been our impression over the last two and a half months that the these quartet of op-ed writers on which we have focused tend to spend more time arguing than opining. In contrast writers such as Dowd or Kristof *tend* to spend less time arguing than opining. Since the arguments offered by our quartet of writers are so often fallacious we are immediately attracted to analyze them. This is not to say that we do not have partisan tendencies or that we are not blinded to some fallacious reasoning by any number of psychological factors or beliefs. Nonetheless, our focus on this quartet is not a simple reflection of these things, but we believe a reflection of the failures of their arguments.

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.