Category Archives: Fallacies of ambiguity

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

Illicit contrariness

The debate concerning the “value’s vote” in the election will probably continue for some time. Many pundits have weighed in already, arguing that there was no “value’s vote,” or that the “value’s vote” was misguided, etc. John Leo in the last issue of the U.S. News and World Report (Source: USNWR 11/29/04), seeks to defend the value’s vote from its critics.

>I am struggling to understand the “don’t impose your values” argument. According to this popular belief, it is wrong, and perhaps dangerous, to vote your moral convictions unless everybody else already shares them.

It’s hard to know what argument Leo is unable to understand–the ascription of this view to “popular belief” makes it seem unlikely that he has a particular advocate in mind and so does not feel the need to consider what exactly the argument might involve. Presumably, Leo is trying to capture a sense of the “secular liberal” who adheres to a strict understanding of the separation of church and state and sees religiously motivated “value’s argument” to be as potentially insidious as the installation of the Taliban. But, in the absence of anyone who would actually advance this argument it is hard to take it seriously or Leo’s refutation of it as particularly significant. This is a sort of “straw man fallacy”–the argument that he is actually concerned with is the argument against the place of religious values in political debate, or the rationality of choosing to vote on values rather than economic self-interest.

>Nobody ever explains exactly what constitutes an offense in voting one’s values, but the complaints appear to be aimed almost solely at conservative Christians, who are viewed as divisive when they try to “force their religious opinions on us.”

So Leo seems to be confusing two distinct issues:

1 The argument that a significant number of voters chose to vote on “values” rather than for example economic self-interest etc.
2 The argument that the parochial values of religious sects should not be the grounds for government.

The former is a matter for sociology and political science (and has been discussed in Thomas Franks’ *What’s the Matter with Kansas?*): The latter is a matter of constitutional theory respecting the “establishment clause” of the first amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). But Leo wants to argue against a caricature of #1 in order to suggest that we have grounds for rejecting #2 (which he does not in fact give) and therefore demostrating the contrary of #2:

2a Parochial values of religious sects should or can be the grounds for government.

What he wants to do is refute claim that “values should never enter into politics” in order to justify the inclusion of religious values in politics. But of course the negation of the first does not imply the contrary of the second since the two are not strict contradictories.

The logical form of this argument:

1 Either no values have a place in government or some do.
2 It is not the case that values *do not* have a place in goverment.
3 Therefore, *all* (including religious) values have a place in government.

So in fact, there are two fallacies here: The straw man in #1 and the equivocation on the notion of values that enables him to conclude that religious values have a place in government even though he has only shown that some values have a place in government.

Strictly speaking, however, this is a formal fallacy based on the difference between contrary and contradictory statements. Contradictory statements possess opposite truth values (one is false, the other true): Contrary statements, however, can both be false.

a No S is P. —- a1) All S is P.
b No S is P. —- b1) Some S is P.

In the first case we have contraries–both can be false (when “Some S is P”). In the second we have contradictories since whatever the truth value of one, the other is opposite. (So we can infer from the falsity of “No S is P” that “Some S is P” is true.) Leo seems to commit the formal fallacy of “illicit contrary” here.

> If the “don’t impose” people wish to mount a serious argument, they will have to attack “imposers” on both sides of the issues they discuss–not just their opponents. They will also have to explain why arguments that come from religious beliefs are less worthy than similar arguments that come from secular principles or simply from hunches or personal feelings.

The first of these two claims is eminently reasonable: Logic here demands consisitency, and so the argument–if there ever has been such a one–that values must be entirely excluded from politics would, of course, have to apply to *all values*–assuming, however, that all “values” are on a par in this case.

But of course there is good reason to exclude certain sorts of religious arguments from political debate in a nation that adheres to the “separation of church and state”–these arguments *are* “less worthy than similar arguments that come from secular principles or simply from hunches or personal feelings” in the context with which we are concerned.

To conclude the column, Leo spends some time looking at several cases where the supposedly “anti-values” people will need to argue against their customary positions as a consequence of the logical virtue of consistency. But the massing of examples does not hide the fact that all he can argue is:

1 If you hold the belief that “imposing values is always wrong,” then you must be opposed to the imposition of values in case x.


But this argument is far too weak for Leo’s purposes. What he in fact wants to conclude is:

>No arguments are privileged because they come from secular people, and none are somehow out of bounds because they come from people of faith. Religious arguments have no special authority in the public arena, but the attempt to label those arguments as illegitimate because of their origin is simply a fashionable form of prejudice. Dropping the “don’t impose” argument would be a step toward improving the political climate.

Leo seems to think that he has established that “religious arguments” are legitimate grounds for political decisions. But, the fact that *some* values are legitimate in public discourse does not of course imply that *all* are.

In fact, as an example, when the Colorado Supreme Court was examining Amendment 2 denying “special consideration” to homosexuals, one of the central issues was whether the moral motivation of the amendment was necessarily founded in a particular religion. Conservative advocates argued that the Ancient Greeks had a non-religious disapprobation of homosexuality.

Thus, at least as far as I understand the underlying issue–not of course being a constitutional lawyer–a *merely* religious argument is in fact “illegitimate” in this case precisely because of its orgin. That is, if a particular law or policy is simply designed to enshrine or impose the moral or religious beliefs of an individual sect on the country as a whole, the arguments in its favor are illegitimate.

And this is not, as Leo wants it, a matter of “prejudice.” For the same reason that the biblical calculation of *pi* can be excluded from mathematics textbooks, so moral beliefs based solely in religious principles are not necessarily legitimate for the purpose of policy and political argument.

After exposing these fallacies and the illegitimate conclusion draws from them, let me make one last comment. I think Leo is in fact right that the debate surrounding stem cell research etc. is a debate about “values”–but the rules of this debate are set among other things by the principles contained within constitution and its tradition of interpretation. Presumably to the chagrin of Leo and others, these rules do in fact exclude certain arguments without the exclusion being a matter of “prejudice.”

One last complication to consider. Surely in a democracy it is legitimate to vote on the basis of one’s values–no one, despite Leo’s suggestion, argues that one should not do so. But these values or the intentions and policies of the candidate who reflects these values are not on that basis legitimate as a matter of public policy. In fact, this was precisely what the founding fathers wanted to avoid: The possibility of the local prejudices of various religions from being imposed on all citizens.

There and here

“Moral values” played an important role in the recent election, at least in the minds of many conservative pundits and pollsters. To them, red state concern over the erosion of moral values in blue states, universities, and Hollywood delivered a resounding Bush mandate. Despite, or perhaps on account of, such a colossal victory, the red-state of mind continues to harp on the erosion of the nostalgic red state values of moral courage, sexual purity, the distinction between good and evil, and the existence or nature of the “soul”–things which blue state universities (how dare they) subject to rigorous intellectual analysis. And so David Brooks approvingly cites (or distorts–we haven’t read the novel) Tom Wolfe’s description of red state/blue state moral conflict in his *I am Charlotte Simmons*:

>His latest, “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” is about a young woman who leaves Sparta, a small town in North Carolina, and enters an elite university. She finds all the rules of life there are dissolved: the rules of courtship, the rules of decorum and polite conversation.

Young Charlotte “finds *all* the rules of life” to be “dissolved”, and here is the important part, “*there*”. What are the “rules of life”? Well, they do not involve honesty, charity, generosity, magnanimity, equanimity, or anything of that sort, rather they involve polite southern belle sexual behavior: the “rules” of courtship, decorum, and “polite” conversation. The “there” (as in not “here” in deep red Sparta, North Carolina) underscores the Brooksian dichotomy, and, considering the sheer variety of rules of courtship, decorum, and polite conversation, across the red and the blue, it’s a false one.

But there’s more.

>The social rules have dissolved because the morality that used to undergird them dissolved long ago. Wolfe sprinkles his book with observations about how the word “immoral” now seems obsolete, about how sophisticated people now reject the idea of absolute evil, about a hypermaterialistic neuroscience professor who can use the word “soul” only when it is in quotation marks.

As academics, we can guarantee you that it doesn’t take a “hypermaterialistic neuroscience professor” to be skeptical about the existence or nature of the soul, or a relativist to question the proper use of the word “immoral,” or a “sophisticated” person to wonder about “absolute evil.” After all, since the first fragmentary origins of Western Thought, philosophers have wondered whether there is such a thing as the soul (distinct from the body, brain or heart), whether there is a knowable basis of morality, and finally, whether absolute evil is conceivable. On this last point, not even St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas thought that absolute evil “existed.” Since creation was good, they argued, there could not *be* any such thing. Now of course, perhaps there exist unreflective dogmatists who hold such positions. But they are as empty-headed and clueless as their ideological obverse. To pick on them, as Brooks has here done, is to undergird your false dichotomy (here or there) with a straw man.

Now where we come from, we worry about the erosion of the intellectual and therefore moral virtues that undergird rigorous, critical, honest and fair discourse.

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.


Though facts constitute one of the two essential features of any argument, we the editors of *The Non Sequitur* do not normally pronounce on questions of fact. We lack the resources to engage in the kind of rigorous fact-checking one finds at, for example,, and besides, we have made it our objective to focus narrowly on the way op-ed writers, politicians, and assorted others weave facts into inferences. In testing the strength or validity of inferences, we generally assume the facts to be as the writer alleges. For whatever the facts may be, they oftentimes cannot hide the howling non sequiturs a disconcerting number of these writers attempt to pass off as sound reasoning. Some non sequiturs, however, rely on shameless and obvious factual distortions or fabrications, so sometimes it is impossible for us to exclude the factual
concerns from our analysis of the logic of the inferences. The straw man argument, for instance, relies on a misleadingly weak version of an opponent’s argument, and uncovering this fallacy obviously requires that the critical reader to have some knowledge of the argument being attacked.
We find a string of such straw man arguments in Saturday’s *New York Times*.
David Brooks insults the Gray Lady’s honor and reputation by distorting the words of one of her own reporters in the assembly of one of the most rickety straw men we have seen in recent months. But, as we shall see presently, the straw man is only the first in a series of equally egregious fallacies.
First, the straw man.

The nuisance is back!

Remember when John Kerry told Matt Bai of The Times Magazine that he wanted to reduce the terrorists to a nuisance? Kerry vowed to mitigate the problem of terrorism until it became another regrettable and tolerable fact of life, like gambling, organized crime and prostitution.

That was the interview in which he said Sept. 11 “didn’t change me much at all.” He said it confirmed in him a sense of urgency, “of doing the things we thought we needed to be doing.”

We remember that too, and like all those gifted with high-speed–nay any speed–internet, we are also capable of checking to see whether Brooks *charitably* or *accurately* represents the Democratic candidate’s words. For there are various degrees of straw man argument. Some rely on factually correct, but unfair or uncharitable, interpretations of an opponent’s words or meaning; others depend on simple distortion or outright fabrication. The more common version of the fallacy, and the hardest to detect, is the first. But Brooks commits the second. In original *Times* article, Kerry had quite a bit to say about terrorists and terrorism, and on any reading, he does not come across as anything remotely like the detached and effete intellectual of Brooks’ portrayal who was unaffected by 9/11, who wants to “mitigate” the problem of terrorism rather than obliterate terrorists, and worst of all, who claims that *Bin Laden* is a nuisance.
First, let’s look at the claim that 9/11 didn’t change Kerry much at all since, as a matter of fact, this comes first in the article. This otherwise trivial fact about the order of Kerry’s statements underscores Brooks’ context-free selective quotation of them. For the sake of charity, completeness, and honesty, we will provide ample context.

This is the Republican line on Kerry — that he lacks guts. Kerry’s often wobbly attempt to be both like and unlike Bush in his approach to terrorism and the war in Iraq enabled the Bush team, by the time Kerry and I spoke in August, to portray him, devastatingly, as a ”flip-flopper” who careens from one position to another. In our conversation, Kerry seemed unusually sensitive to these allegations, to the point where he seemed unwilling to admit to having evolved or grown in the way that politicians — or human beings, for that matter — generally do. When I asked Kerry how Sept. 11 had changed him, either personally or politically, he seemed to freeze for a moment.

”It accelerated — ” He paused. ”I mean, it didn’t change me much at all. It just sort of accelerated, confirmed in me, the urgency of doing the things I thought we needed to be doing. I mean, to me, it wasn’t as transformational as it was a kind of anger, a frustration and an urgency that we weren’t doing the kinds of things necessary to prevent it and to deal with it.”

As you can see, the entire passage relates quite a different picture. Rather than a man who is unaffected by 9/11, we find one with *anger*, a *sense of urgency*, and *frustration* at the failure to address the problem of terrorism. Brooks omits these terms from his analysis and so presents a man blithely unperturbed by an event of which he himself was a witness, and perhaps, a target.

Now for the question of “mitigation.” Brooks takes this to mean Kerry is weak and uncommitted to the fight against terrorism. We should note that the word “mitigation” appears *nowhere* in the article, and even a cursory reading of it will show that it does not fairly characterize Kerry’s position with regard to the war on terrorism. First, a little context of our own. When asked whether the war on terrorism is really a war, Kerry said:

”There’s a danger in it,” Kerry said, nodding. ”But it’s real,” he went on, meaning the war itself. ”You know, when your buildings are bombed and 3,000 people get killed, and airplanes are hijacked, and a nation is terrorized the way we were, and people continue to plot to do you injury, that’s an act of war, and it’s serious business. But it’s a different kind of war. You have to understand that this is not the sands of Iwo Jima. This is a completely new, different kind of war from any we’ve fought previously.”

Kerry told me he would stop terrorists by going after them ruthlessly with the military, and he faulted Bush, as he often does, for choosing to use Afghan militias, instead of American troops, to pursue Osama bin Laden into the mountains of Tora Bora, where he disappeared. ”I’m certainly, you know, not going to take second seat to anybody, to nobody, in my willingness to seek justice and set America on a course — to make America safe,” Kerry told me. ”And that requires destroying terrorists. And I’m committed to doing that. But I think I have a better way of doing it. I can do it more effectively.”[emphasis added]

In the article that Brooks cites as evidence that Kerry wants to “mitigate” the terrorist problem, Kerry says quite clearly that he is committed to “destroying terrorists.” He says nothing to the effect that he wants to deal softly with actual terrorists. Finally, let’s see whether Kerry called Bin Laden a nuisance.

But when you listen carefully to what Bush and Kerry say, it becomes clear that the differences between them are more profound than the matter of who can be more effective in achieving the same ends. Bush casts the war on terror as a vast struggle that is likely to go on indefinitely, or at least as long as radical Islam commands fealty in regions of the world. In a rare moment of either candor or carelessness, or perhaps both, Bush told Matt Lauer on the ”Today” show in August that he didn’t think the United States could actually triumph in the war on terror in the foreseeable future. ”I don’t think you can win it,” he said — a statement that he and his aides tried to disown but that had the ring of sincerity to it. He and other members of his administration have said that Americans should expect to be attacked again, and that the constant shadow of danger that hangs over major cities like New York and Washington is the cost of freedom. In his rhetoric, Bush suggests that terrorism for this generation of Americans is and should be an overwhelming and frightening reality.

When I asked Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. ”We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance,” Kerry said. ”As a former law-enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”

The nuisance remark not only clearly refers to the ultimate objective of the war on terrorism (not its actual present day state), but appears in fact to be more optimistic than the President’s own claim that the war on terrorism cannot be won. A rigorous application of Brooks’ interpretive strategy necessitates and equally brutal interpretation of the President’s remark. He might say, for instance, with regard to Bin Laden’s recent video release, “there goes that Bin Laden again, the guy who has defeated us (since we cannot win) in the war on terrorism.” And that remark wouldn’t even take that much–or any–distortion. If we cannot win the war on terrorism, then the uncaptured Bin Laden is the victor. While such a remark would be patently uncharitable, and for that reason simply unacceptable in serious debate, it would not rest on a fabrication of Bush’s comments. Since it is obvious that none of Brooks’ characterization of Kerry actually applies to him, the conclusion he draws simply does not follow:

Well, the Osama bin Laden we saw last night was not a problem that needs to be mitigated. He was not the leader of a movement that can be reduced to a nuisance.

Few people would disagree with that, least of all John Kerry. Even Cornel West–no right wing intellectual he–the other night called Bin Laden a “gangster” who needed to be–note the phrase–“brought to justice.” But there’s more to Brooks’ argument. His completely dishonest rendering of Kerry’s position on terrorism constitutes one half of a Brooksian false dichotomy:

One of the crucial issues of this election is, Which candidate fundamentally gets the evil represented by this man? Which of these two guys understands it deep in his gut – not just in his brain or in his policy statements, but who feels it so deep in his soul that it consumes him?

Given Brooks’ silly caricature of John Kerry, he probably means Bush (and not, by the way, the Bush who “isn’t all that concerned with Bin Laden”). Nevertheless, it’s certainly possible, and, discounting the many distorted, selectively quoted, or just plain fabricated statements on the matter, very likely that Kerry both understands the problem of terrorism as a policy issue *and* “deep in his gut”.
This false dichotomy aside, we still might wonder how we know that Bush is the right man for the war on terrorism. Is it because he has demonstrated unrivaled acumen in prosecuting the war? Because he has enlisted–not alienated–the world’s support in it? Because he has actually captured the individual who plotted and financed 9/11? Because he demonstrated unwavering support and cooperation with the 9/11 commission in an effort to understand the causes of 9/11? Because he selflessly refused to exploit 9/11 for short term partisan political gain? Because he courageously took on those countries responsible for the actual financing of al Qaeda? Or is it perhaps because the Gallup poll indicates that people *think* that he is? If you chose the last one, you’d have been right:

It’s quite clear from the polls that most Americans fundamentally think Bush does get this. Last March, Americans preferred Bush over Kerry in fighting terrorism by 60 percent to 33 percent, according to the Gallup Poll. Now, after a furious campaign and months of criticism, that number is unchanged. Bush is untouched on this issue.

Need we bother to mention that just because people believe that Bush is better that he actually *is* better at it? While it may be true that most Americans think the affirmative of whatever the Gallup question actually was, this demonstrates only that they think that. If that sounded pointlessly circular, and it was meant to be that way. Whether Bush actually is the right man for the job, whether his gut feeling and his policies are more effective is a question that must be settled on an appeal to the relevant evidence, and the people’s impression, positive or negative, is not relevant evidence.
We could continue, but time and space constraints force us to stop here. Allow us dear reader to close with the following observation. We had cause to wonder in recent days whether Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, a fake news program on Comedy Central, was right when he said partisan hacks were hurting America. They seem indeed to go beyond being a simple nuisance. Given a public forum for rational, informed, and honest discussion of matters fundamental to the existence and flourishing of our democratic institutions, they all too often opt to repeat shallow and dishonest partisan talking points. While it may not be hurting America, it certainly doesn’t help.

Stopping President Bartlett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the argument takes the form:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerry’s Soviet-Style World-View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therefore, everyone is a neo-conservative

Last Thursday’s debate seemed to frustrate conservative pundits. There was little to criticize in Kerry’s answers and less to praise in Bush’s. In his editorial yesterday (Source: NYT 10/04/04), William Safire chose a third alternative, praising Kerry. According to Safire, Kerry’s foreign policy has undergone a “sea change.”

> On both military tactics and grand strategy, the newest neoconservative announced doctrines more hawkish than President Bush. . . Last week in debate, John Kerry – until recently, the antiwar candidate too eager to galvanize dovish Democrats – suddenly reversed field, and came down on the side of the military hard-liners.

So Kerry apparently has joined the ranks of the “neo-conservatives” among whom surely Safire intends the intellectuals and apparatchiks who were the masterminds behind the Iraq war. In order to judge this claim, we would first need a clear idea of what constitutes neo-conservatism. We can’t investigate this thoroughly, but perhaps a few general characteristics will help. In its recent appearance in politics, the neo-conservatives have been identified with the activist and interventionist foreign policy that led to the Iraq war. Neo-conservatives believe that “national interests” are not geographically defined and that fostering them requires the perception of and intervention on the side of our “friends” against our “enemies.” (This latter shibbolethic opposition is derived from Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and ultimately Plato’s Republic) (see Irving “grandfather of neoconservatism” Kristol’s description here.

William Safire knows that “neo-conservativism” cannot be reduced to particular strategic decisions. It is a political ideology defined by a certain understanding of the national interest and the broadest requirements for fostering that interest. But, this doesn’t stop him from caricaturing both Kerry’s position and neo-conservative ideology in order to salvage the debates as a supposed victory for Bush’s policies as voiced by Kerry.

His case rests on four claims:

> “What I want to do is change the dynamics on the ground,” Kerry volunteered. “And you have to do that by beginning to not back off of Falluja and other places and send the wrong message to terrorists. … You’ve got to show you’re serious.” Right on, John!

This, of course, confuses strategy and motivation. With 135,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground and the insurgency flowering, we might conclude that an offense is the best defense for our troops. This, of course, has little to do with ideology and much to do with strategy.

> Next, to grand strategy: Kerry was asked by Jim Lehrer, “What is your position on the whole concept of pre-emptive war?” In the past, Kerry has given a safe never-say-never response, but last week he gave a Strangelovian answer: “The president always has the right and always has had the right for pre-emptive strike.” He pledged never to cede “the right to pre-empt in any way necessary” to protect the U.S.

“Just war” theory has always allowed pre-emptive attacks based on “imminent threats.” The difference bettween Kerry and the neo-conservatives is over the question of whether a “gathering” threat or some other vaguely defined description of a supposed threat is grounds for preemption (such as “weapons program related activities”).

> On stopping North Korea’s nuclear buildup, Kerry abandoned his global-testing multilateralism; our newest neocon derided Bush’s six-nation talks and demands America go it gloriously alone.

This claim is a sort of false dichotomy: It is not the case that in order for Kerry to believe that multilateralism is generally preferable that he must eschew either bilateralism or even perhaps unilateralism. Safire assumes that if you reject unilateralism in the case of Iraq you must reject it always. This is an unreasonable assumption.

> And in embracing Wilsonian idealism to intervene in Darfur’s potential genocide, Kerry’s promise of troops outdid Pentagon liberators: “If it took American forces to some degree to coalesce the African Union, I’d be prepared to do it. …”

Once again, nothing strange in this. Being willing to assist in a multi-lateral humanitarian intervention does not make one a “neo-conservative” unless Safire is expanding the definition to include virtually every leader and politician in the world except Pat Buchanan.

Certainly there are analogies between the neo-conservative foreign policy seemingly ascendant in the Bush administration and some of Kerry’s positions. But that no more makes Kerry a “neo-conservative” than Bush’s reluctance to attack Iran would make him a convert to Gandhi’s pacifism. As Safire formulates the argument, it is laughably fallacious.

At best–and this is an act of interpretive charity that goes beyond his own expressed intentions–he might be understood to argue that Kerry has approached some neo-conservative positions. But, since Kerry was seemingly never opposed to those positions in themselves (only their inappropriateness under specific circumstances or the inept bungling of their implementation), there is nothing really interesting about these similarities.

Finally, we can note that a complete reading of the debate transcript shows that Kerry also accepts several strategic goals that are at direct odds to the policy formulated by the neo-conservatives and the Bush administration. Most importantly, he calls for the U.S. to commit itself to no long term presence in Iraq. Since part of the neo-conservative strategy has been to occupy Iraq at least in the 14 bases currently under construction, it is easy to see that for all of the similarity in Iraq policy, there is also significant dissimiliarity that Safire has conveniently ignored in order to make his case, a fallacy of “suppressed evidence.”

Contrast then compare

It may come as no surprise to some readers that Saturday’s *New York Times* presents another of David Brooks’ dichotomous observation pieces. This time, however, Brooks attempts to inject his usual trope with a healthy dose of balance; he expresses a hope (“in weak moments”) that the opposition neutralize itself in the proper combination of two complementary sorts of minds: Kerry’s (“rationalistic”) and Bush’s (“creedal or ethical”).

If we are really talking about balance, then the two sorts of mind must be compatible, not mutually exclusive. If we are talking about exclusive opposition, then the opposite is the case, that is, the one type of mind cannot have the characteristics of the other. A false dichotomy results when one treats the compatible as an instance of the incompatible. Strictly speaking, that’s not what we have here, since Brooks professes the false hope that the two might on some twin earth exist together on the same ticket. And if they can exist together on the same ticket somewhere, then they can exist on it here.

Instead of the false dichotomy, we have an interesting variation on that theme. To force the contrast between the two, Brooks compares their positions regarding different issues and their answers to different questions in the debate. Take the following for instance:

When John Kerry was asked how he would prevent another attack like 9/11, he reeled off a list of nine concrete policy areas, ranging from intelligence reform to training Iraqi troops, but his answer had no thematic summation. If you glance down a transcript of the debate and you see one set of answers that talks about “logistical capacity” or “a plan that I’ve laid out in four points,” or “a long list” of proposals or “a strict series of things” that need to be done, you know that’s Kerry speaking. [emphasis added]

The question, as it is reported by Brooks, concerns the *how*, or the *means* of preventing another attack. That is a process question. And Kerry has answered it by referring to concrete and specific matters of process. One might even assert that these concrete proposals constitute the *thematic summation* of Kerry’s answer. Now this gets compared in the following way with Bush:

If, on the other hand, you see an answer that says, “When we give our word, we will keep our word,” you know that is Bush. When you see someone talking about crying with a war widow, you know that’s Bush.

This makes Bush look like an idiot. For if the issue for Kerry is how he responds to questions of process, then we should expect–since a comparison is being made–Brooks to present us with Bush’s answer to the *same* question, or at least the same type of question. It’s rather like comparing the dinner and dessert choices of two diners–Kerry likes steak for dinner, but Bush likes apple pie for dessert. The reader is left to wonder what Bush likes for dinner and what Kerry likes for dessert.