Write trash

It's hard to have a conversation when some people don't follow the rules.  If your conversation is about, say, which things ought a rational person assent to, then indeed there are certain rules.  One can disagree about these rules, but the rules say you have to state the grounds for the disagreement and those grounds have to be good grounds.

Here's one rule.  If you offer up a point of view in a public forum, you should expect criticism.  Some of this is probably going to be dumb and uninformed, some of it relevant.  There's a rule that says you have to focus on the relevant criticism.  Pretending that the only criticism you get is of the former variety breaks a rule.  Here's Amity Shlaes, a kind of conservative author, talking about George Will:

So Michele Bachmann’s version of history is “from another planet.” Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, is “chronically stupid.” And Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second-ranking Republican in the House, is “busy lying constantly.”

That at least is according to posts on three left-leaning blogs.

Writers who are not pro-Barack Obama are suffering character assassination as well. George Will of the Washington Post, the nation’s senior conservative columnist, has been so assaulted by bloggers that his editor, Fred Hiatt, recently wrote, “I would think folks would be eager to engage in the debate, given how sure they are of their case, rather than trying to shut him down.”

The disconcerting thing isn’t that the bloggers or their guests did this slamming. We’re used to such vitriol in campaign time. What is surprising is that the attacks are continuing after an election.

In the past, politicians and policy thinkers tended to be magnanimous in victory. They and their friends focused, post- victory, on policy and strategy — not on trashing individuals.

I didn't know the nation had a "senior conservative columnist."  But anyway, George Will has been criticized for the inadequacy of his ideas (see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here)–and a person of Shlaes's very expensive education ought to know that.  She at least ought to be able to distinguish between "trashing" and saying, "hey, that conclusion doesn't follow!" (even if she doesn't think that conclusion doesn't follow).  If she isn't aware of this criticism (use the Google!) she ought not write about it, if she doesn't know the difference between "trashing" and "argument analysis" she ought to return to ask for her college tuition back, and finally if she does know the difference (and I suspect she does) but this is how she plays the game, then I say she's not playing by the rules.  That's not fair.

It's not fair because the discussion is about a topic, someone has offered up a view of that topic, and rather than discuss that view, we have to spend all of our time explaining how challenging someone's view in a public forum does not amount to trashing that person.  And when we do that, we don't get to have a discussion.

White whine

White men can't catch a break these days.  First, the white guy lost the Presidential election, now the winner gets to appoint someone to the Supreme Court.  Though Obama has so far said nothing, this hasn't stopped speculation of the weirdest variety:


That's a stock image of an average white guy in a tie (from istockphoto.com), not, as one might have imagined, some shunned potential Supreme Court nominee.  Now Richard Cohen–liberal columnist in the Washington Post–expresses his deep concern over the fate of white men under the impossible burden of affirmative action.  He writes:

As the time approaches for President Obama to choose a successor to Justice David Souter, the term "litmus test" will be heard throughout the land. The White House will deny applying any such thing, but the nominee will undoubtedly be chosen according to where she stands on abortion, unions and other issues beloved by liberals. This is fine with me, but what I want to know is where she stands on Frank Ricci. He's a firefighter.  

What follows is a detailed description of Ricci's case (recently argued before the Supreme Court)–how he's been discriminated against on account of his being white, and so forth.  That may be, and by Cohen's very sorry description of the case, it looks absurd.  But as a general rule absurd arguments do not make it all the way to the Supreme Court, so one might wonder.  But that's not the point anyway.  Cohen seems to take this particularly absurd case as representative for how affirmative action needs to end, since, of course, racism is over and so forth (because "For most Americans, race has become supremely irrelevant. Everyone knows this. Every poll shows this.").

It's worse than this, however, because affirmative action (as demonstrated by Cohen's extreme example) is profoundly unfair in principle (like trying to "square a circle."):

Liberalism, a movement in which I hold a conditional membership, would be wise to get wise to what has happened. Blatant affirmative action always entailed a disturbing and ex post facto changing of the rules — oops, you're white. Sorry, not what we wanted. As a consequence, it was not racists who were punished but all whites. There is no need to cling to such a remedy anymore. There is, though, every need to retain and strengthen anti-discrimination laws, especially in areas such as fire departments, where racial discrimination was once endemic. Sufficient progress has been made to revert to treating individuals as individuals. After all, it is not some amorphous entity called "whites" who will suffer: It is un-lieutenant Ricci.

Bill Clinton tried to square the circle of affirmative action in his "Mend It, Don't End It" speech of 1995. It was a moving and eloquent address in which he recounted his region's history, reminding us of the depth and ferocity of racism in the South and elsewhere. Trouble is, the New Haven case proves that affirmative action was not mended at all. It remains noble in its ends and atrocious in its means, and it now provides Obama the chance to use his own family's history — indeed his own history — to show why it ought to conclude.

Affirmative action was never meant to "punish" racists by excluding them from employment.  This underscores Cohen's failure to grasp both the concept of affirmative and the facts of the case he discusses (his only reference is an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by two conservative think-tankers).  One can found more background on the relevant legal questions here.  Without the necessary and obvious context, Cohen's ranting sounds a bit like this.

The comfy chair*

This is an argument from definition:

Bob is a bachelor, then ipso facto Bob is unmarried–and male.  

This is not:

Q: Is waterboarding torture?

RICE: The president instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations, legal obligations under the Convention Against Torture. So that’s — And by the way, I didn’t authorize anything. I conveyed the authorization of the administration to the agency, that they had policy authorization, subject to the Justice Department’s clearance. That’s what I did.

Q: Okay. Is waterboarding torture in your opinion?

RICE: I just said, the United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. And so by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.

Bob, by the way, might not in fact be unmarried (and therefore not a bachelor) but it is certainly the case that if he were unmarried than by golly the definition of an umarried male is a bachelor.  Now unless the Convention Against Torture includes the provision that anything authorized by a President is not by definition torture, then the President probably has no power under it–logical or otherwise–to make it not torture (or maybe even, in a bizzaro soft pillows way to declare something torture which isn't).  Here, by the way, is the definition of torture in the 1985 United Nations Convention Against Torture:

For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.  

*=click here.

Diminished mental capacity

Kathleen Parker concern trolls on behalf of homophobic Christian ministers:

When whites lynched blacks with the tacit approval of the state, the entire African American community was terrorized. No one can pretend otherwise. It is this immeasurable horror that hate-crimes laws attempt to address by adding another layer of punishment to the primary crime.

What fair-minded person could object? On the other hand, how do we read the minds of our worst actors? Is it possible to say conclusively that these killers were motivated by hate to the exclusion of other potentially confounding factors?

These are legitimate questions that deserve rational debate without the dueling rants of hyperbole and outrage. Ultimately, that debate leads to free-speech issues — especially religious speech — and the real crux of the opposition.

Some conservative groups worry that hate-crimes laws might lead to restrictions on churches or other religious organizations' freedom to quote Scripture that might be deemed hateful toward gays. Might a passionate preacher's invocation of, say, Leviticus 20:13, which condemns homosexual behavior, be interpreted as conspiracy to commit a hate crime?

In fact, the legislation applies when a physical assault or attempted murder takes place. And, so far, the First Amendment still protects the rights of even the Rev. Fred Phelps to take his "God Hates Fags" show on the road.

But in a country where eating Twinkies can be a defense for murder — and a Miss USA contestant can be publicly denounced as a "dumb bitch" for saying that marriage should be between a man and a woman — stranger things are sure to happen.

As an operating principle, meanwhile, it seems wiser to hear and see the haters rather than criminalize their thoughts and banish them to the underground where their demons can fester and where no law can breach their purpose

There's a neat collection of straightforward fallacies here.  In the first place, there is the oft-repeated objection that bias crimes involve an impossible form of "mind reading."  That is just dumb.  "Intentional murder" involves mind reading.  

Second, that the existence of hate crimes laws will ultimately (that's the word that indicates the bottom of the slippery slope–here a fallacious one) inhibit religious speech is just crazy.  Hate crimes laws, as the very name makes clear, involve crimes.  Click here for the FBI page on hate crimes.

That–the alleged slope–completes the red herring–the bait and switch.  For the initial point of the piece regarded including crimes against homosexuals (and others) in hate crimes laws.  Including them seems perfectly reasonable.  It has nothing to do, as Parker even seems to admit without realizing it, with people's "thoughts" (taken by themselves).  Non-existent restrictions on free speech, in other words, are not the issue at all.  On account of that obvious fact, we don't need to worry about "criminalizing" anyone's thoughts.  

Finally, it's ludicrous (and just plain baffling) to group the (not actually real) "Twinkie defense" (supposedly used to justify the murder of Harvey Milk and George Moscone in San Francisco) and the completely reasonable negative public reaction to a beauty contest's lame and ignorant defense of opposite marriage.  She made a contentious point about what rights certain people should have–many have objected to her reasoning.  She's a public figure and ought to expect that.  

One more thing, however, about the murderer of Harvey Milk.  The jury, reading the defendents mind, found him unable to have engaged in premeditated murder on account of diminished mental capacity. 

Enhanced justification techniques

Charles Krauthammer joins the torture discussion.  Torture is evil, he remarks, but then he poses two extensive exceptions.  The first is the "24" scenario:

Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances. The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy. Even John McCain, the most admirable and estimable torture opponent, says openly that in such circumstances, "You do what you have to do." And then take the responsibility. 

Let's call this the pornographic scenario, as it is, um, very very unlikely to work out so cinematically.  Besides, how do you know the terrorist–I mean the suicidal super criminal–will not have included the revealing of that information in the whole evil plot?  It writes itself, I mean, really: suicide terrorist plans to get tortured to reveal more false information in order to deflect from the real original plot which wasn't real because the second one was, but it wasn't that because he was a deep cover agent pretending to be tortured in order to uncover the real terrorist mole torturer, etc. 

The second justification relies on the first:

he second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. (One of the "torture memos" noted that the CIA had warned that terrorist "chatter" had reached pre-9/11 levels.) We know we must act but have no idea where or how — and we can't know that until we have information. Catch-22.

It's the same thing–only more of a miniseries than a movie.  Both of these justifications, if you can call them that, amount to claiming that torture is only wrong if you don't need to do it "to save lives."  But I think this mischaracterizes the objections to torture rather seriously in that it presumes the objection to torture is analogous to the pacifist objection to war.  He says as much:

Some people, however, believe you never torture. Ever. They are akin to conscientious objectors who will never fight in any war under any circumstances, and for whom we correctly show respect by exempting them from war duty. But we would never make one of them Centcom commander. Private principles are fine, but you don't entrust such a person with the military decisions upon which hinges the safety of the nation. It is similarly imprudent to have a person who would abjure torture in all circumstances making national security decisions upon which depends the protection of 300 million countrymen. 

Whether that is a straw man or a false dichotomy I do not know at the moment.  I'm inclined to say straw dichotomy, as he pretends the only opposition to his "real world" scenario is principled pacifism.  It isn't. Here however is the real silly part of this piece:

Under those circumstances, you do what you have to do. And that includes waterboarding. (To call some of the other "enhanced interrogation" techniques — face slap, sleep interruption, a caterpillar in a small space — torture is to empty the word of any meaning.)

"Sleep interruption" is a fancy word for "sleep deprivation."  Not to call these "torture," but rather some other well chosen bureaucratic euphemism, empties words of meaning.  Or maybe I'm wrong–it's just an "enhanced signification technique" and Krauthammer's arguments aren't silly and fallacious, they're "enhanced justification techniques" which you can only use when you need to make a fallacious argument whose principle aim is to justify the unjustifiable, in order, of course, to save lives.

UPDATE: for a more thorough take on this piece of enhanced logical technique, read the Post's own Dan Froomkin's point by point analysis.