Category Archives: Op-Eds and other opinions

Love democracy, despise your fellow citizens

Check out last Friday’s Mallard Fillmore:


The thought here is a familiar sour-grapes yuckface that those on the losing ends of elections make about what they think wins elections — catering to the intellectual tastes of a credulous and decadent electorate.  It’s a old Platonic worry about democracy, and it’s usually invoked by those who think their own democracy has made a bad decision.  (It’s all about what a good means for decision-making democracy is when they win elections, of course.)

As I take it the trope here is a form of what I’ve started calling the ‘No Reasonable Opposition’ strategy for political argument.  Take the move here as follows:  The electorate made a decision I disagree with;  from this, we can infer that they were deeply distracted and mis-informed.  They wouldn’t have made that kind of decision if they knew what they were doing.   There are two bad consequences of this line of thinking.  First, it’s self-sealing (as losing elections isn’t taken as evidence one needs to rethink one’s views, but of how fargone the rest of the citizenry is).  Second, it’s a perfect way to not even bother to get one’s views out for inspection — pearls to swine, at this point.

Reductio by analogy

Johah Goldberg wrote a book about public and political discourse.  That makes him an expert about how people argue about policy.  His recent criticism of Joe Biden’s rhetorical flourish “if it saves one life,” reason to heavily regulate fire arms is an occasion for him to act the logic hound:

Maybe it’s because I wrote a whole book on the way phrases like “if it saves only one life, it’s worth it” distort our politics, but whenever I hear such things the hairs on the back of my neck go up.

Ok, so what’s Goldberg’s critical point?  That the ‘saves one life’ line of reasoning doesn’t work for lots of other things we could regulate:

The federal government could ban cars, fatty foods, ladders, plastic buckets, window blinds, or Lego pieces small enough to choke on and save far more than just one life. Is it imperative that the government do any of that? It’s a tragedy when people die in car accidents (roughly 35,000 fatalities per year), or when kids drown in plastic buckets (it happens an estimated 10 to 40 times a year), or when people die falling off ladders (about 300 per year). Would a law that prevents those deaths be worth it, no matter the cost?

Oy.  Well, for sure, he’s responding to stark version of the ‘saves one life’ principle, but the application of the principle in the gun laws case is about regulating a product that’s designed to kill.  For sure, if we can prevent the wrong kinds of deaths, that’s the objective.  So the analogy may be appropriate for a straw liberal, but that’s not Biden’s argument.  And note, on top of all that, we do use a version of the ‘one life’ principle with all those other products, only that we don’t prohibit their purchase.  We regulate salt in foods, we institute speed limits and require safety measures in car production, and have pretty clear warnings about buckets and ladders on them (the presumptions being that people don’t purchase them so as to drown toddlers or jump off of).

The irony of it all is that Goldberg says that phrases like Biden’s cheapens our political discourse.  Sometimes, it’s not the phrase that cheapens, but the way it’s taken.


Progressivism Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing

Sometimes I think the real reason Hume aimed his skeptical arguments at the notion of causation is because he perceived the manifold ways dubious argumentative strategies can give causal arguments tremendous rhetorical force.   George Will was kind enough to provide us with just such a perverse causal claim this week.  Recent events at Penn State, University of Georgia,and Syracuse have prompted many journalists to consider the peculiarly American phenomenon of the state university football coach.  Will surveys the scene and deduces a culprit for this quasi-demagogue: American Progressivism, of course.  Will argues

With two extravagant entertainments under way, it is instructive to note the connection between the presidential election and the college football season: Barack Obama represents progressivism, a doctrine whose many blemishes on American life include universities as football factories, which progressivism helped to create.

To quote my favorite small business owner, I don't even know where to begin to correct that sentence.  But before we being with the correcting, let's get a taste of the argument:

Higher education embraced athletics in the first half of the 19th century, when most colleges were denominational and most instruction was considered mental and moral preparation for a small minority — clergy and other professionals. Physical education had nothing to do with spectator sports entertaining people from outside the campus community. Rather, it was individual fitness — especially gymnastics — for the moral and pedagogic purposes of muscular Christianity — mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.

Pick a lane, George.  Eliding is fun, but if there's a connection between Progressivism's causing universities to become football factories and this host of religious universities "embracing athletics" as some sort of corporeal moral education, it's not apparent from this graph.  If there isn't such a connection, then this paragraph seems to contradict the one which preceded it. But let's see where this goes:

Intercollegiate football began when Rutgers played Princeton in 1869, four years after Appomattox. In 1878, one of Princeton’s two undergraduate student managers was Thomas — he was called Tommy — Woodrow Wilson. For the rest of the 19th century, football appealed as a venue for valor for collegians whose fathers’ venues had been battlefields. Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895) — the badge was a wound — said: “Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.”

Who needs arguments?  String barely-related facts together in temporal order, manufacture narrative, close with pithy quote, QED.  I have wasted my life.

Harvard philosopher William James then spoke of society finding new sources of discipline and inspiration in “the moral equivalent of war.” Society found football, which like war required the subordination of the individual, and which would relieve the supposed monotony of workers enmeshed in mass production. 

Setting aside the risible reading of James…wait, no, let's not set it aside.  Here's what James actually argues:

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man's relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

Well, we already know how George feels about trains, so it's no small wonder he would drag poor Billy James into the fray.  The problem is Will's completely misrepresented the claim.  James isn't concerned here with the plight of "workers enmeshed in mass production," and Will's desperate attempt at a dogwhistle connection between Progressivism (as represented by a Boston Brahma, natch) and Marxism can't make that so.  James' "moral equivalent to war" is proffered as a mitigation of the seeming impasse between the "war party" and the "peace party."  James sees the former as promoting martial virtues to extremes that actually run counter to goals of human society, while the latter engage in a fool's errand to utterly eliminate martial virtues.  James' middle way mollifies both parties: martial virtues are extolled, but instead of being channeled into war, they are channeled into productive human activity (which activity could plausibly include monotonous mass production-type activities!).  James is thinking here of things like the Peace Corps and Teach For America, not the LSU Tigers (although one might reasonably argue that the argument could extend to those things, but not in terms that Will would accept).  Moreover, there's something else going wrong here, with this talk of the individual. As Will continues,

College football became a national phenomenon because it supposedly served the values of progressivism, in two ways. It exemplified specialization, expertise and scientific management. And it would reconcile the public to the transformation of universities, especially public universities, into something progressivism desired but the public found alien. Replicating industrialism’s division of labor, universities introduced the fragmentation of the old curriculum of moral instruction into increasingly specialized and arcane disciplines. These included the recently founded social sciences — economics, sociology, political science — that were supposed to supply progressive governments with the expertise to manage the complexities of the modern economy and the simplicities of the uninstructed masses.

Football taught the progressive virtue of subordinating the individual to the collectivity. Inevitably, this led to the cult of one individual, the coach. Today, in almost every state, at least one public university football coach is paid more than the governor.

I've never been convinced by this sort of "kingdom of the blind"-type argument.  They either seem painfully tautologous ("If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns"), or they seem self referentially incoherent, as is the case above.  But more to the point, the contradictions in this claim point to a deeper flaw in Will's argument, namely that Will doesn't even seem to have a firm grasp on what he takes Progressivism to be, let alone show concern for what it actually is, so he enmeshes himself in a web of contradictions and half-hearted historical claims that ultimately come to nothing. Instead of providing himself a worthy foe, "Progressivism" functions as an umbrella term for a loosely related set of social doctrines to which Will objects.  Will might have proved that some particular doctrine lent a hand in the rise of college sports as public spectacle, but he hasn't shown (1) that American Progressivism as such is a cause, nor has he shown, most importantly, (2) that even a majority of American universities are football factories.  He clearly seems to think so, but he's never offered even a hint of an argument for either view.   In place of an argument, we get a shitty reading of William James and a milquetoast narrative more worthy of small-time sports blog than the Op-Ed pages of a major newspaper.  

Another sparkling moment in our national discourse.

An interesting weak man argument

Jonah Goldberg has a nice piece over at National Review Online about the way the recently upheld Affordable Care Act has been received at National Public Radio.  He picks out Julie Rovner's question about whether there are really any losers in the decision.  She eventually concludes that there aren't any.  Goldberg can't hold himself back:

It is an interesting perspective given that this is arguably the most controversial law in our lifetimes. It nearly sparked a constitutional crisis, helped cause the Democrats to lose their majority in the House, and, despite herculean efforts by the president to “sell” the law . . .  And yet, according to Rovner, the law creates only winners if properly implemented. Why on earth are its opponents so stupid?  For the record, there are losers under Obamacare. Here’s a short list: ….

He then goes on with your expected list (taxpayers…it's a tax, you see, Catholics who see part of the law as subsidizing condom use, and people at the bottom of the slippery slope of medication rationing).  This, so far, isn't what's good about Goldberg's column.  In fact, so far, it's just his usual schlocky version of what a dumb person would think a smart person would say about the issue and about the opposition.  But then he surprises:

Obamacare defenders have responses to these objections, and critics have responses to those responses. Still: Serious people do believe that the law creates — or just might create — losers, a fact Rovner might have mentioned.

I don’t mean to pick on Rovner. Her views on Obamacare don’t strike me as exceptional so much as typical — typical of a liberal Washington establishment that still seems incapable of grasping what the fuss is about.

This is nice, except for his saying that he doesn't mean to 'pick on' Rovner.  That, of course, is ridiculous — he's making an example of her. That's not wrong, nor is it worth making a big deal about not doing it.   Rather, what's nice is that Goldberg sees that this isn't the best the other side can do in the debate, but that it's typical of what the other side does in the debate.  That's a good observation, one that shows some real self-awareness and also dialectical sensitivity.  You have to disabuse your audience of the bad but widely made arguments before you can get to the good but infrequently given arguments. 




Via Media

Cathy Young wonders,

Which is the more serious problem today: Islamic extremism or anti-Islamic bigotry?

In her even-handedness she admits that both are serious. But guess who doesn't? That's right. The Left. Young argues that Liberals have spent ample energy railing against anti-Islamic bigotry, but have failed to also take seriously the threat of Islamic extremism: 

Yet nowhere in The Nation will one find recognition that extremism in Islam is a particularly serious problem. 

Young has beef with the Muslim-lovers at The Nation for failing to call out the bad stuff Muslims believe and do. Unfortunately, her evidence is rather weak: 

One author dismisses the issue by stating that "every group has its loonies." Another writes that while misogyny and religious repression in some Muslim countries should be denounced, it can be done without generalizing about Islam.

These authors are apparently not serious enough! We need to generalize…

Evidence against her assertion, on the other hand, is rather strong (see here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and…you get the point). 

Instead of letting basic internet research get in the way of her argument, Young paints a picture of left-wing political discourse as biased in favor of protecting the good name of Islam while failing to face up to the very real threat of what she considers a particularly dangerous religion. Young contends that, "for complex historical and cultural reasons, radicalism in Islam is far closer to the mainstream than in other major religions right now." What evidence does she provide? 

There is no country today where a Christian government executes people for blasphemy, apostasy or illicit sex.

(Except for here. Also, while the few places that do have death penalties are Islamic, many other non-Islamic countries have severe penalties for homosexuality)


Freedom House, an esteemed human rights organization, reports that many U.S. mosques carry extremist literature. Supposedly moderate Muslim groups such as the Islamic Circle of North America have hosted speakers with extreme ideas.

So, there must be some truth to all this anti-Islamic sentiment (except from you, Pam Geller!). Get serious. It is entirely disingenuous for Young to write that, "Concerns about bigotry are justified. But they should not deter legitimate debate about problems in modern Islam." Legitimate debate about problems in modern Islam are not necessarily separate from concerns about anti-muslim bigotry. Indeed, one of the main causes of extremism in Islam is the West's callous abuse of Islamic peoples over the last century. Further, there is no evidence that the Left's anti-bigotry writings have come anywhere near the level of debate-killing as shouts of "anti-Semitism" have done in discussions of extremism in Israel. Young provides no real evidence that the Left has confused legitimate criticism of Islam with bigotry. Rather, Young has created a false narrative in the guise of being even-handed in order to both attack the Left and keep open the door for continued abuse of Muslims around the world. 

Big Boss Man

Michael Bloomberg is the Republican mayor of New York.  He has advocated a ban a gigantic sodas in New York.  This provoked the following reaction from George Will on ABC's "This Week."

STEPHANOPOULOS: And it's not easy. I want to get to one more issue before we go. Michael Bloomberg this week banning the sale of 16 — anything over 16 ounces of soda in movie theaters, restaurants (inaudible) got that ad right there in the New York Times. It says he's the nanny. And, George, I got to — I got to confess, the minute I heard about this plan from — from Michael Bloomberg, the first person I thought about was you…


WILL: Let me read you what Michael Bloomberg said, because in one sentence, he's got the essence of contemporary liberalism, that is something preposterous and something sinister. Listen to this. We're not taking away anyone's right to do things. Could have fooled me. We're simply forcing you to understand. Now, that's modern liberalism, the delight in bossing people around, the kind of irritable gesture that'll have no public…

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it is a massive problem, George. Obesity is a problem across the country.

WILL: Of course it is. And regulating the size of these drinks at some outlets will do nothing about it. By the way, the sale of sugary, carbonated sodas has fallen 24 percent since 1990. The American people are getting the word on this. But what this really says is — what Bloomberg is saying, the government helps with your health care, the government's implicated in your health, therefore, we own you, therefore, the government can fine-tune all the decisions you make pertinent to your health.

Bloomberg, again, is a Republican.  How his behavior expresses the "essence of liberalism" is a mystery.  What it does express is the fact that many laws entail "bossing people around."  As a matter of very obvious fact, the law is a kind of big boss person, who tells you how fast to drive, to wear a seatbelt, or a helmet, or to have a child safety seat, or not to drive drunk, or to pull over for emergency vehicles, or any other of the hundreds of very bossy rules about driving, walking, and riding.  Some people, Republicans, also try to use it to tell you which person you can marry, or which words you can use on TV (could go on, but why bother?)

Will then finds that the Republican soda plan is just like climate change:

WILL: But this is one of the reasons liberals are so enamored of the issue of climate change. They say all our behavior in some way affects the climate. Therefore, the government — meaning, we, liberals, the party of government — can fine-tune all your behavior right down to the light bulbs you use.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Wow, the leap from soda to climate change. Donna, you get the last word, 10 seconds.

BRAZILE: George, all I could tell you is that this is a very serious concern and I commend the mayor for raising it and also giving you something to drink about.

Ah, the lightbulb thing.  Cheers to Brazile for the joke; but couldn't anyone have pointed out that Bloomberg is a Republican?  It's not that hard folks.

H/T Crooks and Liars.

Nothing to fear, they’re nihilists

"Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it was an ethos."  That was Walter Sobchek of the Big Lebowski.  One finds a similar thought in a recent discussion:*

Say what you will about the prosperity gospel and the cult of the God Within and the other theologies I criticize in Bad Religion, but at least they have a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify their claims. Whereas much of today’s liberalism expects me to respect its moral fervor even as it denies the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place. It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims.

That's Ross Douthat, New York Times' pious columnist.  For a discussion of the Euthyphro Problem-denying angles to this, see John Holbo at Crooked Timber (my source for the passage above). 

My quibble would be that "secular" and "scientific" enterprises cannot have "methaphysical" claims.  Seems that insofar as they make claims about what sorts of things are real, or not, they do.

*edited this sentence to make it clear I'm not going Godwin on Douthat.

Ein Volk

Seems obvious that racism is not just hatred of another race.  Someone tell Juan Williams and Pat Buchanan.  Note the following puzzling exchange on Fox News (via the Huffington Post):

Williams added, "In your case, the charge is one that is so powerful in the American mind…the charge is: Pat Buchanan is a racist. So let me ask you. Are you a racist, Pat?"

"Do I hate black folks?" Buchanan asked. "That's what racism mean— that I hate black folks, I want them discriminated against… No! It's not that. I do disagree profoundly with the affirmative action agenda, and a number of other issues but I've argued as I said with African American folks my whole life. Our schools that I went to, the Catholic schools, were the first ones desegregated in D.C."

Buchanan added, "Juan, you and I, if we sat there and watched cable 24 hours, we can hear people called [a racist] everyday. And it makes one of the points of [my book], that American society is disintegrating. It's breaking down and breaking apart because we've lost our common faith and common moral consensus…all of these things that once held us together."

At the end of the interview, Williams said, "I feel like we are brothers in understanding what these groups, on the left primarily, decided that you're not to be allowed to speak. They will banish you and make you an outcast and Pat, I'm sorry that's happened to you."

Racists don't usually just hate other races.  Their hatred, when it happens, is derived from the perceived inferiority of the people they hate–that they have benefits in society, for instance, they don't deserve; that they "get away with stuff"; that they are "lazy" and so forth.  But I'd hardly call the hatred a necessary condition for racism, sufficient yes.

Watch the video, at the link, for a hilarious exchange from two people who don't really get that the discussion has moved on (the video also fills in some of the gaps in the piece above).  There is probably no one better than Williams for this interview, for Williams still thinks he's justified for fearing Muslims in airports.

Here's a thought.  When you charge someone with racism, and that person responds, as Buchanan and Williams have done, by first alleging you're trying to silence them, then you're on the right track.  Buchanan and Williams spend the first part of this shocked at the McCarthyism of the racism charge.  Then, when they get to actually talking about the charge, Buchanan says that Mexicans are "hard working" (at menial labor) and "friendly," but "culturally and politically tied to Mexico."  Not racist at all.

Also, equal justice for white Christian people.


There is a debate about whether everything that can be debated ought to.  The thought goes something like this: just because something can be known or discovered, does not entail that it ought to be (or it does mean it ought to be, or some variation on this thought).  A corollary to this argument involves Poe's law considerations: just because there are people who will argue for abhorrent view x, does not entail that either (a) their view deserves consideration or (b) the matter is open for debate.  We have moved beyond the KKK, the Nazis, the young-earth creationists.  They still exist, of course.  Their views no longer merit debate, but rather explanation: why in the face of so much evidence, does this person continue to believe x?  That's the issue now. 

MSNBC fired Pat Buchanan for being what he has always been: an unrepetent racist.  Good, I say.  There are things we need to get done around here, and we no longer have the time, and never should have had the time, to sit around and wonder whether some of us were genetically or culturally up to the challenge. 

Buchanan's MSNBC friends, however, thought he still had a place in the debate.  They write:

"Everyone at Morning Joe considers Pat Buchanan to be a friend and a member of the family. Even though we strongly disagree with the contents of Pat's latest book, Mika and I believe those differences should have been debated in public. An open dialogue with Morning Joe regulars like Al Sharpton and Harold Ford, Jr. could have developed into an important debate on the future of race relations in America.

Because we believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant, Mika and I strongly disagree with this outcome. We understand that the parting was amicable. Still, we will miss Pat." 

Sunlight hasn't disinfected anything, obviously.  It was time for an amputation.

Anomalous regularity

There are a couple of people I now consider it completely safe to ignore: George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Gerson, and of course, David Brooks.  These are the guys who inspired this whole project.  Every now and then, however, it's fun to go back and see what's up with them.  Via Alex Parene at Salon, here's a gem from David Brooks:

Jeremy Lin is anomalous in all sorts of ways. He’s a Harvard grad in the N.B.A., an Asian-American man in professional sports. But we shouldn’t neglect the biggest anomaly. He’s a religious person in professional sports.

We’ve become accustomed to the faith-driven athlete and coach, from Billy Sunday to Tim Tebow. But we shouldn’t forget how problematic this is. The moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

We have grown accustomed to this anamoly.  You'd think an editor would have gotten that. 

Made me think of this headline from the Onion: NFL Star Thanks Jesus after Successful Double Homicide.