Category Archives: Inexplicable

He who denied it supplied it

I have a kind of a general rule here I stick by most of the time: the people worthy of criticism are people who can plausibly be said to have some effect on the opinions of a non-ideological set of people.  However right wing George Will is, many people (except Kramer) find him "intelligent"; so his arguments and factual assertions to them are well grounded and worth considering.  In a similar fashion, many conservative or moderate readers, will think Thomas Friedman and Richard Cohen represent decisive liberal voices.  So, when those two jokers come out in favor of the latest Mid-East policy disaster, then people who oppose it must be really crazy.  

I generally avoid (not always however!) ridiculously ideological venues such as the Wall Street Journal or the National Revue, I mean "Review."  I'm sure they have some role in the debate, but they get picked apart by other more competent people than me, and their arguments are mostly directed at inflaming the passions of the converted.

Just for fun, however, let's examine the following bit of ridiculousness from Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal.  A propos of Obama's "socialism" he writes:

Don't expect "Capitalism" to make the White House theater.

The movie is largely a paean to plaintiffs lawyers and unions, who alas depend on evil capitalism for their incomes. Still, it's been noted that "Capitalism" slams Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd for being one of the unseemliest friends of Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide Financial, the famous subprime toxic waste site.

In fact, Mr. Moore holds up to ridicule a Who's Who of notable Democrats for selling out to the bankers: Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin. At this point in Mr. Moore's narrative, all hope is lost, sinking beneath satanic capitalism.

But something happened, the movie says, that no one saw coming. "Change is what's happening." We are introduced to the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama (whose post-election supervisory link to the unseemly Geithner and Summers goes unremarked).

Of all the issues raised in the two-year campaign, Mr. Moore picks one, the famous charge that will not die: "Obama is a socialist."

Unlike the president, Mr. Moore doesn't duck. "The more they called Obama a socialist," he says, "the more he rose in the polls."

Michael Moore is a progressive saint. If he believes Barack Obama is a socialist camouflaged inside a Brioni suit, so must many of his fellow progressives.

This matters because the president's confused ideological identity has become an impediment to passing his agenda.

He says his health-care bill is not a Trojan horse for a Canadian-style single-payer system, but then feels forced to appear on five Sunday talk shows to prove otherwise; or he plants white-coated docs like plastic flamingos on the White House lawn.

On the first September anniversary of the end of Wall Street as we know it, Mr. Obama stood in the Federal Hall on Wall Street to say, "I've always been a strong believer in the power of the free market." Only a therapist could explain why some people say, "I've always been . . ."

You get a little of the ad hominem tu quoque in their at the opening (with a bit of false dichotomy–either capitalism or socialism are the only apparent choices), and some strange Michael Moore says "socialist" so ergo ipso fatso it must be true that many Obama supporters think he is (therefore Obama must be. . .).  The real silliness of this argument, however, consists in the claim that answering straw men attacks on your position means they are true.

That's a kind of double sophistry: you call someone a name, and then claim you're justified if the person bothers to tell you that you're calling her a name.  Why would she respond if it weren't true?

Personal pronouns

George Will has written some pretty jerky things in the time we've been reading him–usually straw men or just plain lies.  This time he gets really personal with Obama.  Here's a taste:

Both Obamas gave heartfelt speeches about . . . themselves. Although the working of the committee's mind is murky, it could reasonably have rejected Chicago's bid for the 2016 Games on aesthetic grounds — unless narcissism has suddenly become an Olympic sport.

In the 41 sentences of her remarks, Michelle Obama used some form of the personal pronouns "I" or "me" 44 times. Her husband was, comparatively, a shrinking violet, using those pronouns only 26 times in 48 sentences. Still, 70 times in 89 sentences conveyed the message that somehow their fascinating selves were what made, or should have made, Chicago's case compelling.

I actually found myself downtown for the announcement: lots of emblematic scenes of Chicago 2016 signs on the ground or in the trash.  Then of course the strange cheering from people that the Olympics were not awarded to Chicago–such is their dislike of Obama.

Imagine for a moment "Crawford Texas 2016."  I think you'd hear a little autobiography from our former President–even though he didn't grow up there and he doesn't live there anymore.  So Chicago, my adopted home town, is a great place, even if I still root for the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings. 

The President, who still lives here, sort of, and the First Lady, is was born and raised here, are naturally going to make a personal pitch.  I don't think, considering their relationship to this place, there was really any other choice.

The ____r is now the ____d

Richard Cohen watches too many movies.  For the basis of his op-ed on torture is the ticking time bomb scenario:

Call him Ishmael.

Call him a terrorist or a suicide bomber or anything else you want, but understand that he is willing — no, anxious — to give his life for his cause. Call him also a captive, and know that he works with others as part of a team, like the Sept. 11 hijackers, all of whom died, willingly. Ishmael is someone I invented, but he is not a far-fetched creation. You and I know he exists, has existed and will exist again. He is the enemy.

Now he is in American custody. What will happen? How do we get him to reveal his group's plans and the names of his colleagues? It will be hard. It will, in fact, be harder than it used to be. He can no longer be waterboarded. He knows this. He cannot be deprived of more than a set amount of sleep. He cannot be beaten or thrown up against even a soft wall. He cannot be threatened with shooting or even frightened by the prospect of an electric drill. Nothing really can be threatened against his relatives — that they will be killed or sexually abused.

He knows the new restrictions. He knows the new limits. He may even suggest to his interrogators that their jobs are on the line — that the Justice Department is looking over their shoulders. The tape is running. Everything is being recorded. He is willing to give up his life. Are his interrogators willing to give up their careers? He laughs.

This is really beginning to sound like a joke: the uber terrorist (played, believably, by Maori actor, Cliff Curtis), who knows our legal system and its "rights" so that his sneering makes Cohen's blood run cold.  What about that guy, he wonders, what about that guy?  

Well, I'll tell you what about that guy.  He is the basis of Cohen's "hard case" moral lesson.  A "hard case" should you wonder is a notion used by philosophers of law to think about the limits of general rules and such.  But it also sounds like the title of a legal-themed adult movie, which is closer to Cohen's point anyway.  Here's the moral lesson:

This business of what constitutes torture is a complicated matter. It is further complicated by questions about its efficacy: Does it sometimes work? Does it never work? Is it always immoral? What about torture that saves lives? What if it saves many lives? What if one of those lives is your child's?

Deep thinking.  What if blowing up a planet deep in space with creatures uniquely able to suffer pain infinitely saved your child?  Would you do it?  Well, would you?

In case you weren't shocked by your own willingness to torture people to save "many lives" or "your baby," maybe you'll be impressed by a little bit of absurd moral equivalence:

Attorney General Eric Holder has named a special prosecutor to see whether any of the CIA's interrogators broke the law. Special prosecutors are often themselves like interrogators — they don't know when to stop. They go on and on because, well, they can go on and on. One of them managed to put Judith Miller of The New York Times in jail — a wee bit of torture right there. No CIA interrogator can feel safe. The interrogators are about to be interrogated. 

No seriously, I didn't alter that at all.  He really wrote that.  We have reached new levels of badness here.  Skipping to the end:

The questions of what constitutes torture and what to do with those who, maybe innocently, applied what we now define as torture have to be removed from the political sphere. They cannot be the subject of an ideological tug of war, both sides taking extreme and illogical positions — torture never works, torture always works, torture is always immoral, torture is moral if it saves lives. Torture always is ugly. So, though, is the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood.  

First you get a little bit of the "who's to say. . . in this complex modern world of ours" argument–call it the self-serving pseudo skeptical argument.  Then Cohen converts it into a full-tilt "both sides" are wrong, there must be some middle ground.  Top this off with an almost full tilt ever since 9/11 I've been enraged by Chappaquiddick

Slippery McCoy

The very idea of hate crimes laws drives some people deeply into the forest of confusion, where they forget that speech and belief is punished all of the time, and that doing so is not some kind of violation of one's constitutional rights.  One's constitutional rights have some common sense limits: I cannot shout "fire" in a crowded theater, I cannot say (as someone once said to me–seriously) "I'm going to put a cap in your ass."  Unable to countenance such distinctions, Richard Cohen, some kind of liberal columnist for the Washington Post, writes an extremely confused op-ed wherein he rejects the entire idea of hate crimes legislation.  The whole piece hinges on the following snippet in the Senate discussion of hate crimes laws:

 "A prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim . . . but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected."

Let's do some googling before we read Cohen.  And when we do, we find that the passage he cites is not the definition of a hate crime, but rather a "finding."  Here is the definition:

the term “hate crime” has the meaning given such term in section 280003(a) of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (28 U.S.C. 994 note).

Ok, so now more googling:

(a) DEFINITION- In this section, `hate crime' means a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person.

Cohen ignores that–but refers instead to the "findings" of the new 2009 bill, and attacks that as if it were the very definition and sole motivation for their being hate crimes legislation.  That makes the rest of the argument a hollow man–in that he attacks an argument no actually makes.  He writes,

He [James von Brunn] also proves the stupidity of hate-crime laws. A prime justification for such laws is that some crimes really affect a class of people. The hate-crimes bill recently passed by the Senate puts it this way: "A prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim . . . but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected." No doubt. But how is this crime different from most other crimes? 

How is "pre-meditated murder" different from "unpremeditated murder"?  How is killing a police officer in the line of duty different from killing a rival mafioso?  Why is it especially heinous to commit offenses against children and the elderly?  Not all murders are the same, sometimes they have special conditions (premeditation), sometimes they have special victims (police, children, politicians).  None of this is unusual or strange.  

Cohen's argument stinks in other ways.  He alleges a slippery slope without attempting to establish it.

The real purpose of hate-crime laws is to reassure politically significant groups — blacks, Hispanics, Jews, gays, etc. — that someone cares about them and takes their fears seriously. That's nice. It does not change the fact, though, that what's being punished is thought or speech. Johns is dead no matter what von Brunn believes. The penalty for murder is severe, so it's not as if the crime is not being punished. The added "late hit" of a hate crime is without any real consequence, except as a precedent for the punishment of belief or speech. Slippery slopes are supposedly all around us, I know, but this one is the real McCoy. 

Criminal acts of speech, thought, expression (and even religion) get punished all of the time.  It's not that hard to draw relevant distinctions (there will certainly be hard cases, but that's what the judiciary is for).

This op-ed is too full of confusion for one post, so I'll stop with the following:

I doubt that any group of drunken toughs is going to hesitate in their pummeling of a gay individual or an African American or a Jew on account of it being a hate crime.

Um–I really doubt this, but it also seems irrelevant.  



This point from Harold Meyerson is where the health care debate ought to start:

Every other nation with an advanced economy long ago secured universal health care for its citizens — an achievement that the United States alone finds beyond the capacities of mortal man.

One might also add that health outcomes in those countries are generally superior to ours for sometimes half the money.  Notice also that the plans that these other countries have implemented are far to the "left," as it were, of anything being considered today.  In light of that, Michael Gerson's endorsement of centrism merely because it is centrism is baffling:  

Some may accuse such moderates of lacking in boldness or ambition. It is better than lacking in responsibility and good judgment.

I suppose I should mention that Gerson hasn't done anything (in the rest of the piece) to establish that moderates have exhibited anything like good judgment.  He has simply assumed that the moderate position is superior to the one advocated by "liberal interest groups."  Yet, as Meyerson points out, the fiscally responsible good judgment seems to be far to the left of anything being proposed.  Few also could deny that the current system has been a striking success for anyone not in the insurance business.  In light of the reality we face, and the possibilities actually realized in every other nation with an advanced economy, one wonders what the virtues of the moderate position, because it is the moderate position, must be.   

Use mention torture

If one consumes enough news and commentary, one begins to notice the same (crappy) arguments over and over in certain circles.  This of course can happen anywhere–on the right, or on the left.  The left, however, in my unscientific opinion, just doesn't have the discipline or organization or perhaps heart to carry it off very well.  Few, I think, will repeat Richard Cohen's latest ideas.  That's not a virtue, however.  It kind of reminds in fact of the old paradox of moral weakness: vice plus moral weakness equals virtue.  Not having the stamina to be evil, I end up doing the right thing.

Back to the point.  There's an argument that's been rolling around the world of torture justifying commentary lately. It goes something like this:

MILLER: And I’m going to move beyond that and say the pertinent question to me is, is it necessary. Where do you stand on this?

KRAUTHAMMER: You know, I’m in the midst of writing a column for this week, which is exactly on that point. Some people on the right have faulted me because in that column that you cite I conceded that waterboarding is torture. Actually, I personally don’t think it is cause it’s an absurdity to have to say the United States of America has tortured over 10,000 of its own soldiers because its, you know, it’s had them waterboarded as a part of their training. That’s an absurd sentence. So, I personally don’t think it is but I was willing to concede it in the column without argument exactly as you say to get away from the semantic argument, which is a waste of time and to simply say call it whatever you want. We know what it is. We know what actually happened. Should it have been done and did it work? Those are the only important questions.

Never mind the fact that Krauthammer writes stuff he doesn't believe (without saying so).  He reasserts the manifestly absurd argument that anything done in the SERE program (Survive Evade Resist Extract) cannot be torture, as that would mean we have been torturing our own people.  The SERE program however trains people to resist the kinds of illegal torture used by our illustrious enemies.  Part of the training involves a little taste.  (Someone who went through this training tells me in his final paper for one of my spring courses (true story) that even that little taste can give you raging nightmares).

Not content with that line, Krauthammer, who fancies himself some kind of logician, pats himself on the back for having avoided the "semantic argument."  The semantic argument, in this case I suppose, is whether you call something torture or not.  That's important.  Because if it is torture, then it broke the law, and if it broke the law, then there ought to be prosecutions.  That's the problem with legal semantics.  In the end someone goes to jail.

But that's just what's so absurd about this line of reasoning.  Krauthammer makes a semantic claim–we cannot by definition torture our own people ("it's absurd!")–in order to claim that waterboarding isn't "torture."  But that's just to confuse "use" and "mention."  What's "use" and "mention"?  Well, if I pretend torture my own guy to show him what to expect, I am "mentioning" torture.  I don't really do it, I just kind of do it.  This is kind of like acting.  The actors don't really say the things they say ("I'm going to kill you"), they mention them.  Using torture, on the other hand, is illegal. 

All Cretans are liars

A former Bush speechwriter attempts to put our minds at ease about torture.  He tells us that tortured prisoners do not lie, because the lying deceitful terrorists (whom we should never believe) have told us under torture that they don't:

Critics claim that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that, "as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship." In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can — and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that "Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable." The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely. 

Besides, it's their religious duty not to lie under torture–and we ought to take that at face value.

Choose your own facts

Everyone has heard the expression, "you can choose your own something or other, but not your own facts."  Well, in a way, no.  Here's the way, according to Washington Post's Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander:

Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren't free to distort them.

The question of whether that happened is at the core of an uproar over a recent George F. Will column and The Post's fact-checking process.

That sounds wrong to me.  Two quick reasons.  First, there seems to be a question of scale.  If we have three facts that support a claim, and 97 which don't, an opinion columnist at the post is free to argue talk about the three to the exclusion of the 97.  Let's say, for instance, that one tiny piece of evidence (of dubious origin) holds that a certain person is guilty of a crime, yet a pile of evidence shows the opposite.  The Post's Ombudsman thinks it would be fine to mention the one piece, and not the others, creating the impression that the preponderance evidence leans the other way.

Second, we have a question of context.  Facts have a context in which they are true.  In George Will's recent column (which after all is the occasion for this piece), he alleges–and this is the foundation for his argument–that there was a global cooling hysteria in the 1970s.  This may be true of the popular media, but it wasn't true of scientists (who argued that the climate was warming).  There's a fact, sort of I guess, with no context producing a rather misleading inference.  This is especially true if the audience does not have a very clear grasp of the background information (which information makes Will's columns appear ridiculous). 

Choosing your own facts, in other words, can be a method of distortion, and, in this case it was.

Evidence versus inference

The following line from the Columbia Journalism Review strikes me as an extremely odd position to take.   

But his point about the wiggly, lawyerly language is especially germane because this is a classic case of evidence versus inference. The Post can argue that, technically, all of the evidence Will presents passed fact-checking; and Will can then infer what he wants about that evidence—even if his inferences differ drastically from those of the scientists who collected the evidence—without journalistic foul.

If I read this correctly, CJR is asserting that the only commitment journalists have is to the facts in the narrowest possible sense of the term.  As an op-ed writer, I can assert any two facts, and, so long as they are true, I can draw any inference I want between them.  I think this is kind of dumb for a number of reasons.

One, it's the job of an Opinion-editorial writer to make inferences between facts; they're not journalists.

Two, inferences are evidence.  Will used those inferences between facts as evidence for the claim that global warming hysteria is sweeping the nation.

Three, inferences vary in type and degree.  Some of them are objectively bad, some objectively good, and some are objectively in the middle. 

Four, it does not violate anyone's freedom of conscience to deny their inferences a public forum.  Holocaust deniers, racists, and the rest make their cases with inferences between things that are facts.  The problem often lies with the inferences they draw from the available facts.  Holocaust deniers will fix on the absence of some one particular kind of evidence in order to infer–got that, INFER–that the Holocaust is a sham.  George Will has fixed on two isolated facts (which weren't as he said they were, but any, for the sake of argument) and drawn a similarly ridiculous conclusion.

Five, for the above reasons, I infer (1) that the Post ought to do a better job of editing, and more importantly (2) the smart guys at CJR ought to take a basic critical reasoning course. 

Don’t try this at home

Apropos of the difference between errors of fact and errors of reasoning, Carl Zimmer (blogger at Discover Magazine) asked Bill Chapman, a University of Illinois climate scientist, about George Will's recent bungling of Chapman's data as well as the Washington Post's defense of Will.  Chapman said:

Since their statements were based on the end of the previous year, and more importantly the end of 1979, the statement ‘global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979′ just didn’t make sense any more. We have received 80-100 emails from confused people who had read George’s column and looked up the graphs on the Cryosphere Today [one of the center’s web pages] and said they came to a different conclusion, or, could we point them to the report that said that Feb 1979 and Feb 2009 sea ice area was nearly the same. We had to post the current and corresponding 1979 values to avoid the inconsistency that readers were noting. After doing some googling, it appears that Daily Tech article got repeated on a lot of blogs, so it’s not surprising George Will came across it at some point. Still it was sloppy for them to not double check with the original source and it really points out the danger of making any conclusions on climate change based on any two days in history. I really wish they would have contacted us at some point to avoid this.

Our goal is to present the data in as concise and useful format as possible for interested users. Whether the Washington Post decides to publish a correction is up to them.

Here's what Will wrote:

As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

What Chapman points out is important.  It's not only the misrepresentation and the laziness of it all (Will didn't bother to inquire with them, while Zimmer and others have), it's the fact that he made some kind of spectacularly giant inference on the strength of two isolated facts.  Even if those facts had been true in the sense he alleged, there is no way he should have been allowed to make that inferential claim without relying substantially on the common sense of the relevant experts–who, by the way, nearly unanimously disagree with him.  

It does not advance the public understanding if scientists must continue to debate intellectual children who (1) have no basis for disagreeing with them (2) don't accurately represent the views of the scientists in question and (3) accuse everyone else of being hysterical.  That's more or less what the Post considers meaningful public discourse–worthy of publication in their paper and syndicated across the country.