Tag Archives: Charles Krauthammer

He’s a decent family man and citizen*

Shorter Charles Krauthammer: only liberals are bigotted enough to use ad hominem arguments. 

Todays' piece is a gold mine of fallacious reasoning.  One hardly knows where to begin (or where to end).  Now hold on objector, I'm going to prove that charge, just give me a minute.  The article begins by, on a very charitable interpretation, weak-manning the "liberal" position:

— Resistance to the vast expansion of government power, intrusiveness and debt, as represented by the Tea Party movement? Why, racist resentment toward a black president.

— Disgust and alarm with the federal government's unwillingness to curb illegal immigration, as crystallized in the Arizona law? Nativism.

— Opposition to the most radical redefinition of marriage in human history, as expressed in Proposition 8 in California? Homophobia.

— Opposition to a 15-story Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero? Islamophobia.

A sort-of caveat.  Columnists (given the absurd and arbitrary limitations on space which is as much their fault as anyone else's) have broad latitude to characterize their opponents' arguments in general terms.  But one can do this–I think at least–without sacrificing clarity, precision, and honesty.  (This one fails on all of those grounds). 

The weak man has it that in some forms someone in the opposition holds the view as described.  And indeed I bet I can find lots of people who fit the caricature Krauthammer draws.  Funny thing, however, without disgracing himself and engaging in obvious nutpicking, Krauthammer can't.  He doesn't name a single person or reference a single argument made by an actual person.  Moreover, the only things he attributes to a person are without meaningful context.

On all of the topics listed above, serious arguments have been made.  Just to take one for example because it's all anyone talks about anymore: Richard Cohen, Krauthammer's Post colleague (and frequent object of criticism here) had a piece up earlier this week about the Park51 Islamic Community Center project (which, by the way, IS NOT A MOSQUE NEAR GROUND ZERO).  Now he points out, correctly I think, that no small measure of opposition to the project is driven by old-fashioned bigotry against Islam.  Hell, a too-large percentage of Americans don't think a Muslim ought to be legally allowed to be President (and a number of Americans think the current President is a Muslim). 

But he also mounts an argument against the clearly non-bigotted:

This is not a complicated matter. If you believe that an entire religion of upward of a billion followers attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, then it is understandable that locating a mosque near the fallen World Trade Center might be upsetting. But the facts are otherwise. Islam was not in on the attack — just a sliver of believers. That being the case, those people with legitimate hurt feelings are mistaken. They need our understanding, not our indulgence.     

I think Cohen happens to be right.  But you'll at least have to admit that he doesn't resort to the bigotry charge.  Then again, maybe Krauthammer doesn't consider him part of the intelligentsia. 

Whatever the merits of Cohens argument, however, we have at least one easily found example of someone making a freedom of religion case for not disallowing the Park 51 project.  Sure it accuses people of ignorance.  But hey, that's what happens when you're wrong.   

*On the title: cf. John McCain's response to the 2008 accusation that Obama was an "Arab."


Liberal Intelligentsia

You have to hand it to Charles Krauthammer, at least he makes an effort to mount an argument.  Sadly, however, his effort too often confuses fallacious forms of argument with valid ones.  Today's topic: the "Ground Zero" "Mosque."  I put "Mosque" and "Ground Zero" in quotes because IT"S NOT A "MOSQUE."  People should not call it that.  And it's not AT "ground zero," so people should stop saying that also.  He at least gets this part half correct.  The rest is all hollow-manning, weak-manning, straw-manning, and ad-homineming: he begins:

It's hard to be an Obama sycophant these days. Your hero delivers a Ramadan speech roundly supporting the building of a mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York. Your heart swells and you're moved to declare this President Obama's finest hour, his act of greatest courage.

It is inexcusable nowadays in the world of links not to put a bunch of links to quote-worthy people who hold that view of Obama.  No such luck, as this is just the set up.  But that tone of moral and logical condescension (sycophant? please) is pure Krauthammer–he's going to show you whose belief is foolish now.  Continuing directly:

Alas, the next day, at a remove of 800 miles, Obama explains that he was only talking about the legality of the thing and not the wisdom — upon which he does not make, and will not make, any judgment.

You're left looking like a fool because now Obama has said exactly nothing: No one disputes the right to build; the whole debate is about the propriety, the decency of doing so.

It takes no courage whatsoever to bask in the applause of a Muslim audience as you promise to stand stoutly for their right to build a mosque, giving the unmistakable impression that you endorse the idea. What takes courage is to then respectfully ask that audience to reflect upon the wisdom of the project and to consider whether the imam's alleged goal of interfaith understanding might not be better achieved by accepting the New York governor's offer to help find another site.

What's hilarious is that Krauthammer's evidence of no one disputing the right to build is another Krauthammer piece.  I will at least have the decency to send you to someone else–and you can follow their links.  What Krauthammer says is false.  Ok, a quote:

Limbaugh: "[T]he Constitution does not guarantee you can put your church anywhere you want it." On his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh stated: "If you're going to bring the First Amendment into it, that's where your argument's going to fall apart. There are 23 mosques in New York. The government — the Constitution does not guarantee you can put your church anywhere you want it. It just says you cannot be denied the practice of worship."

Regretably, That guy is a leading conservative figure.  But you can see that he disputes the legal right to build.  Moving on:

Where the president flagged, however, the liberal intelligentsia stepped in with gusto, penning dozens of pro-mosque articles characterized by a frenzied unanimity, little resort to argument and a singular difficulty dealing with analogies.

Read closely, "dozens" of articles were written, but there was "little resort to argument" and a "singular difficulty with analogies."  And he comes up with two examples: Richard Cohen and Michael Kinsley.  God help us.

The Atlantic's Michael Kinsley was typical in arguing that the only possible grounds for opposing the Ground Zero mosque are bigotry or demagoguery. Well then, what about Pope John Paul II's ordering the closing of the Carmelite convent just outside Auschwitz? (Surely there can be no one more innocent of that crime than those devout nuns.) How does Kinsley explain this remarkable demonstration of sensitivity, this order to pray — but not there? He doesn't even feign analysis. He simply asserts that the decision is something "I confess that I never did understand."

That's his Q.E.D.? Is he stumped or is he inviting us to choose between his moral authority and that of one of the towering moral figures of the 20th century?

At least Richard Cohen of The Post tries to grapple with the issue of sanctity and sensitivity. The results, however, are not pretty. He concedes that putting up a Japanese cultural center at Pearl Harbor would be offensive but then dismisses the analogy to Ground Zero because 9/11 was merely "a rogue act, committed by 20 or so crazed samurai."

Any reference to Richard Cohen is by definition weak-manning.  But Kinsley's argument–which you can read at the link if you click it–is rather stronger than Krauthammer suggests.  In fact, he addresses precisely the point about analogies Krauthammer mentions (in addition to naming Krauthammer specifically).  Kinsley writes:

Opponents of the mosque have their own analogies. What about a theme park near the Civil War battlefield at Manassas? What about a Japanese cultural center at Pearl Harbor? What about a convent full of nuns praying at Auschwitz (a project Pope John Paul II shut down). I confess that I never did understand what was wrong with nuns devoting their lives to praying at the site of a Nazi death camp. As for the other what-abouts: the difference is that our constitution does not guarantee freedom of theme parks, or freedom of national (as opposed to religious) cultural centers. It guarantees freedom of religion, which (to make the banal but necessary point) is one of the major disagreements we have with Osama bin Laden.

I think Kinsley's point is that the nun analogy is not obviously decisive.  I think he's correct about this, as the nuns had occupied a building actually used in the Auschwitz complex (where the Nazis stored Zyklon-B), and their sole purpose was to pray for the dead at Auschwitz.  They didn't occupy a building in the nearby town that had nothing to do with the Holocaust (like a Burlington Coat Factory, for instance, or a strip club).  Agree or not, it's obvious Kinsley doesn't see the aptness of the analogy.  You can't challenge him by insisting that it's super apt.  That just begs the question.  And he's certainly not obliged to question the towering Moral authority of the Pope (which Krauthammer–in his drumbeat for war war war—did more than he).  And besides, I think the Pope's decision was a pragmatic one–he was avoiding a fight.  Finally, the organized structure of the Catholic Church is not analogous to anything in Islam. 

Anyway, Krauthammer has not only not discussed the dozens of other possible arguments (are we supposed to take his word for it that they're bad?) for the Cordoba Initiative, he has also missed the point of at least one of the articles that he does discuss.  If you're going to weak man, at least do it right. 

I wanted to make history

Here's an entertaining misuse of an argument schema (or topic as they were once called):

KRAUTHAMMER: It’s only nine times the length of the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln was answering an easier question, the higher purpose of the union and soldiers who fell in battle. The president had an easy answer. He could have said I wanted to make history with health care and to do it I have to raise your taxes. … End of answer.

He's talking about Obama's response to a question about health care and taxes–a response that went 17 minutes.  Aside from the fact that Krauthammer's argument just blows, as the Gettsyburg address wasn't a response to a specific question about policy, the form of this argument is ludicrous.  Imagine–every policy matter less important than the preservation of the Union (or the tyranny of Northern aggression, depending on your viewpoint) must be discussed for a time commensurate with its relationship to the Gettsyburg Address.

Straw Obama

Here is an entertaining item from a Washington Post Editorial:

THERE IS, it seems evident, more than enough blame to go around in the botched handling of the botched Christmas bombing. Not for some Republicans. With former vice president Richard B. Cheney in the lead, they have embarked on an ugly course to use the incident to inflict maximum political damage on President Obama. That's bad enough, but their scurrilous line of attack is even worse. The claim that the incident shows the president's fecklessness in the war on terror is unfounded — no matter how often it is repeated.

These critics have set up a straw Obama, a weak and naive leader who allegedly takes terrorism lightly, thinks that playing nicely with terrorists will make them stop, and fails to understand the threat that the United States faces from violent extremists. Mr. Cheney said that the incident had made "clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war." Likewise, Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) called on Mr. Obama to "recognize that we are at war with a murderous enemy who will not relent because we heed political correctness, acquiesce to international calls for deference or close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay." Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano "and the rest of the Obama administration view their role as law enforcement, first responders dealing with the aftermath of an attack. And we believe in a forward-looking approach to stopping these attacks before they happen."

That's an improvement in our public discourse.  They go on to argue, however, that Obama does view the war on terror mainly, though more pragmatically, through the lens of war and violence:

Words first. "Evil does exist in the world," Mr. Obama said in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. "Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms." In his weekly radio speech Saturday, he disposed of the war-vs.-law-enforcement canard, pointing out that in his inaugural address he made it clear that "0ur nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred and that we will do whatever it takes to defeat them and defend our country, even as we uphold the values that have always distinguished America among nations." "

Damning with faint praise.  It's gets more silly, because the Post now praises itself for its tough approach to the Obama administration in the wake of the knickerbomber:

It is possible to disagree with the administration's decision to bring criminal charges against the suspect in the failed airplane bombing, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, although we think that was the proper course. It is possible to fault, as we have, some of the administration's public statements in the immediate aftermath of the attack. And as the president has acknowledged, the incident revealed failures in intelligence and in security screening that must be urgently identified and corrected. The country would benefit from a serious and bipartisan effort in Congress to ensure that the lessons of the Christmas attack are learned. A groundless campaign to portray Mr. Obama as soft on terror can only detract from that effort.

Wondering what statements those are?  Follow that link and you get this:

Finally, it is hardly reassuring to argue, as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano did on ABC's "This Week," that "once the incident occurred, the system worked." The attack was averted because of the luck of a faulty detonator and the quick response of alert passengers. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president has ordered a review into "did the government do everything that it could have with the information that they had?" The answer to that question seems obvious.

Try to appreciate the sheer inanity of that observation–reaffirmed again a week later: Napolitano argued that <BOLD>ONCE</BOLD> the attack happened, the "system worked."  She did not argue (that's not an argument anyway, that's a statement), that the system for preventing attacks of that nature worked.  The Post, unlike Krauthammer the other day, actually quoted Napolitano correctly.  I don't know what their excuse could be.

The System Worked

Charles Krauthammer, the most dishonest pundit at the Post next to the rest of them, today goes on a rant about Obama's failure to talk tough in the war on terrorism–which, if we know anything from the Bush administration, didn't do much of anything.  Suicidal terrorists, one can imagine, love that kind of stuff.  Anyway, to start of the New Year, and perhaps to demonstrate why Krauthammer–like George Will–is too dishonest for honest criticism, let's take a quick look at today's column.

He writes:

Janet Napolitano — former Arizona governor, now overmatched secretary of homeland security — will forever be remembered for having said of the attempt to bring down an airliner over Detroit: "The system worked." The attacker's concerned father had warned U.S. authorities about his son's jihadist tendencies. The would-be bomber paid cash and checked no luggage on a transoceanic flight. He was nonetheless allowed to fly, and would have killed 288 people in the air alone, save for a faulty detonator and quick actions by a few passengers.

That's a shame she'll be remembered that way, because that's not what she said.  Here is what she actually said:

Once this incident occurred, everything went according to clockwork, not only sharing throughout the air industry, but also sharing with state and local law enforcement. Products were going out on Christmas Day, they went out yesterday, and also to the [airline] industry to make sure that the traveling public remains safe. I would leave you with that message. The traveling public is safe. We have instituted some additional screening and security measures, in light of this incident, but, again, everyone reacted as they should. The system, once the incident occurred, the system worked.

It doesn't take a genius to see that those are completely different things.  Krauthammer has completely distorted her meaning–she wasn't talking about the events antecedent to the attack.  But Krauthammer isn't done.  He continues:

Heck of a job, Brownie.

The reason the country is uneasy about the Obama administration's response to this attack is a distinct sense of not just incompetence but incomprehension. From the very beginning, President Obama has relentlessly tried to play down and deny the nature of the terrorist threat we continue to face. Napolitano renames terrorism "man-caused disasters." Obama goes abroad and pledges to cleanse America of its post-9/11 counterterrorist sins. Hence, Guantanamo will close, CIA interrogators will face a special prosecutor, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed will bask in a civilian trial in New York — a trifecta of political correctness and image management.

This time at least he provided a link.  Which if you click, you'll find the following single mention that phrase:

The overriding and urgent mission of the United States Department of Homeland Security is contained in the name of the agency itself. To secure the homeland means to protect our nation's borders by finding and killing the roots of terrorism and to stop those who intend to hurt us; to wisely enforce the rule of law at our borders; to protect our national cyber infrastructure; and to prepare for and respond to natural and man-caused disasters with speed, skill, compassion, and effectiveness.

Here again Krauthammer's rendering of her words is not even close.  She doesn't come close to renaming terrorism anything–she uses the phrase "man-caused disasters" to highlight the fact that homeland security will be involved in the emergency services response to a terrorist act (in addition to prevention–which is also its job as the quotation makes clear—using even the word "terrorism"). 

I think you get the idea, but here's one more context distortion.  This time it's Obama:

And produces linguistic — and logical — oddities that littered Obama's public pronouncements following the Christmas Day attack. In his first statement, Obama referred to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as "an isolated extremist." This is the same president who, after the Fort Hood, Tex., shooting, warned us "against jumping to conclusions" — code for daring to associate the mass murder there with Nidal Hasan's Islamist ideology. Yet, with Abdulmutallab, Obama jumped immediately to the conclusion, against all existing evidence, that the would-be bomber acted alone.

Of course Obama didn't say that.  This is what he said:

Finally, the American people should remain vigilant, but also be confident. Those plotting against us seek not only to undermine our security, but also the open society and the values that we cherish as Americans. This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist.  

He's clearly referring to his singularity on the plane and to the actions of the people who stopped him.  He wasn't of course making a judgement about whether there was a conspiracy. 

It's a new year, I know, but I am seriously thinking of putting Krauthammer and Will in the column of people whose work is so bad and so dishonest it doesn't merit criticism.  Who does that leave? 

More enhanced logical techniques

Ethics is full of thought experiments.  The Trolley problem, for instance.  Such thought experiments allow one to articulate one's moral principles.  They do not serve, however, as definitions of morally permissible conduct.  The ticking time bomb scenario, a favorite among consumers of torture pornography, might be a useful way to think about "what we would do if. . . " But it's sheer unlikelihood makes it unhelpful as an everyday guide.  Just because it can happen, and perhaps has happened, does not mean that we structure our moral thinking around it.  This hasn't stopped Charles Krauthammer from thinking long and hard about the ticking time bomb scenario.  He writes:

This month, I wrote a column outlining two exceptions to the no-torture rule: the ticking time bomb scenario and its less extreme variant in which a high-value terrorist refuses to divulge crucial information that could save innocent lives. The column elicited protest and opposition that were, shall we say, spirited.

And occasionally stupid. Dan Froomkin, writing for washingtonpost.com and echoing a common meme among my critics, asserted that "the ticking time bomb scenario only exists in two places: On TV and in the dark fantasies of power-crazed and morally deficient authoritarians." (He later helpfully suggested that my moral deficiencies derived from "watching TV and fantasizing about being Jack Bauer.")

On Oct. 9, 1994, Israeli Cpl. Nachshon Waxman was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. The Israelis captured the driver of the car. He was interrogated with methods so brutal that they violated Israel's existing 1987 interrogation guidelines, which themselves were revoked in 1999 by the Israeli Supreme Court as unconscionably harsh. The Israeli prime minister who ordered this enhanced interrogation (as we now say) explained without apology: "If we'd been so careful to follow the [1987] Landau Commission [guidelines], we would never have found out where Waxman was being held."

Who was that prime minister? Yitzhak Rabin, Nobel Peace laureate. The fact that Waxman died in the rescue raid compounds the tragedy but changes nothing of Rabin's moral calculus.

That moral calculus is important. Even John McCain says that in ticking time bomb scenarios you "do what you have to do." The no-torture principle is not inviolable. One therefore has to think about what kind of transgressive interrogation might be permissible in the less pristine circumstance of the high-value terrorist who knows about less imminent attacks. (By the way, I've never seen five seconds of "24.")

That is not the point.  No one has denied the empirical possibility or even the actuality of the ticking time bomb scenario.  Not even Froomkin obviously.  Besides, to counter that Krauthammer offers up something that doesn't include a bomb or lives in imminent danger, but rather a straightforward hostage situation (in which the rescue attempt killed the hostage–negotiation anyone?).  Those terrorists in Krauthammer's example do not take hostages to kill them–they take them to trade them for stuff.

In the second place, as someone else has noted, Krauthammer had a month to come up with an example which would overcome Froomkin's objection.  And this non-ticking-time-bomb scenario from 1994 is all he could find. 

More importantly, he ought to measure the one time when torture provides the precise code and location of the ticking bomb versus the mountains of disinformation torture usually yields.  How many examples of that can we find?

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. 

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.

Credibility Problem

I should keep up on these things, but April 22nd was the sixth anniversary of the following remark by one of our favorite commentators, Charles Krauthammer:

Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven’t found any, we will have a credibility problem.

That was 2003 (Thanks Crooked Timber).  At that same event, Krauthammer also said:

I want to talk about the meaning not just of the war in Iraq, but of the war on terrorism. There was a book written about 40 years ago by a man called Joseph Jones, who was in the State Department in 1947. He wrote a book called "15 Weeks." It was the 15 weeks between the day on which the cable arrived from London saying that the British had given up on Turkey and Greece and were pulling out and the announcement that the Harvard commencement by George Marshall of the Marshall Plan.

Those 15 weeks, in 1947, redefined the world, redefined American foreign policy, began the policy of containment, and stand as one of the great sort of intellectual revolutions in modern diplomacy.

I would argue that we have now lived through the 19 months, which stand on an equal plain in their audacity, success and revolutionary nature. The 19 months, of course, are from September 11th, 2001, to April 9th, 2003, a period which, in responding to an attack out of the blue, this administration has redefined the world, reoriented American foreign policy, and put in place a profound new approach which I think will stand with the 15 weeks in history as one of the more remarkable achievements, both intellectually, militarily and diplomatically, and done by a foreign policy team, national security team, which I believe is the most successful and the most impressive since the Truman-Atchison-Marshall team and the others of the late 1940s.

The war in Iraq is simply a battle in this larger campaign and then this larger conceptual structural, and it was characterized by the immediate understanding by the administration in 2001, after 9/11, that the successor to the great ideological wars of the 20th century had presented itself to us, that just as communism was the successor to fascism, in terms of the Cold War being a successor to the second World War, the war on terrorism was now the successor to those great ideological struggles that the 10-year period of the hiatus, the dream sleep that we had in the 1990s had evaporated, and we were in a new world.

And it correctly understood that the struggle was against terrorism in the context of weapons of mass destruction, that the war on terrorism had been entirely misconceived as a war on individuals, a war involving law enforcement, that it was seen as a matter of policing, and trials.

What was understood was the war on terrorism is a real war, and the war had to be taken to the enemy, and it was a war that involved states, that terrorism can only live among states, can only be supported by states and that the distinction had to be made between states which were supporting terrorism, which would inherently be our enemies and states which were not. The war in Afghanistan followed. The war in Iraq has followed.

It's new to me that wars have "successors" in anything but an accidental historical sense (one event or period following another).  Here's the more basic point.  We can all be wrong about predictions.  I've been wrong on occasion–this is going to be the best taco ever! (I've learned to withhold judgment on taquerias).  But Krauthammer is still employed by the Post.  If there going to continue to employ him–seems they will as pundit tenure is better than actual academic tenure–perhaps they (he if he were honest) ought to remind readers of his record as a prognosticator.  


Again via Crooked Timber, here is a very worthwhile site: http://wrongtomorrow.com/

She blinded me with ethics

There's a certain laughable cluelessness about George Will.  One can seriously wonder whether he really knows that most of his columns advance the shakiest and silliest of arguments.  The same is not true of Charles Krauthammer, his arguments advance a fairly malicious brand of sophistry–in particular, the sophistry of wrongly or dishonestly (i.e., by distortion) claiming others guilty of sophistry.  See for instance his column on Friday (cf., the greatest non sequitur ever foisted)

Today the topic is stem cells.  Two things.  Krauthammer is not incapable of making a reasonable argument, and the stem cell issue deserves to be approached with some amount of seriousness.  Having said that, it seems that Krauthammer in his most recent column does not approach the issue very seriously.  Here's the first bit of unseriousness:

I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix. Moreover, given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science and the well-recorded human propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn. I suggested the bright line prohibiting the deliberate creation of human embryos solely for the instrumental purpose of research — a clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end.

On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of "science" and its inherent moral benevolence. How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.

The first part of the second paragraph is false in the sense that Obama does not leave the matter entirely to scientists.  But the second part is a bit of ridiculous hyberbole of the slippery slope variety: if we leave the matter entirely to scientits (who are amoral!), we will get Joseph Mengele (that's a very swift violation of Godwin's law by the way).  Here, for reference, is the relevant section of Obama's speech:

I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society. 

Moving on to the more malicious bits.  Here's Krauthammer again:

That part of the ceremony, watched from the safe distance of my office, made me uneasy. The other part — the ostentatious issuance of a memorandum on "restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making" — would have made me walk out.

Restoring? The implication, of course, is that while Obama is guided solely by science, Bush was driven by dogma, ideology and politics.

It's not a stretch to suggest that the Bush administration had a particular disdain for science and scientists who disagreed with their policy agenda.  See The Republican War on Science, 238ff, for why someone might plausibly assert such a thing about the Bush administration (so spare us the feigned shock please).  But more specifically, the "implication" (that's a logic term) is not that Obama is guided soley (you'll see what he does with this in a moment) by science.  That is an overly strong and decidedly uncharitable version of the claim Obama is making.  Continuing:  

What an outrage. Bush's nationally televised stem cell speech was the most morally serious address on medical ethics ever given by an American president. It was so scrupulous in presenting the best case for both his view and the contrary view that until the last few minutes, the listener had no idea where Bush would come out.

Obama's address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men. Such as his admonition that we must resist the "false choice between sound science and moral values." Yet, exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds later he went on to declare that he would never open the door to the "use of cloning for human reproduction."

Does he not think that a cloned human would be of extraordinary scientific interest? And yet he banned it.

Is he so obtuse as not to see that he had just made a choice of ethics over science? Yet, unlike Bush, who painstakingly explained the balance of ethical and scientific goods he was trying to achieve, Obama did not even pretend to make the case why some practices are morally permissible and others not.

This is not just intellectual laziness. It is the moral arrogance of a man who continuously dismisses his critics as ideological while he is guided exclusively by pragmatism (in economics, social policy, foreign policy) and science in medical ethics.

Science has everything to say about what is possible. Science has nothing to say about what is permissible. Obama's pretense that he will "restore science to its rightful place" and make science, not ideology, dispositive in moral debates is yet more rhetorical sleight of hand — this time to abdicate decision-making and color his own ideological preferences as authentically "scientific."

No straw man has been identified, however: Obama has argued that the choice between the two is false, so naturally he does not choose between the two! (See the quote above).  Besides, Obama obviously does not share (see quote above) Krauthammer's nihilistic conception of science, nor does he intend to allow such a science to exist or flourish on the federal dime.  Obama has made it pretty clear that he thinks Bush's restrictions, however surprisingly or drammatically delivered, to be out of sync with where we are scientifically and ethically.  Such an argument, outlined earlier in the speech, does not entail now that anything goes or that there is no moral basis for his view–that would be a falsely dichotomous understanding of ethics and a complete distortion of what Obama said.  The weirdest thing about all of this is that Krauthammer seems to agree with Obama's position.

In any case, it is obvious that the issue of stem cell research is a morally intricate one–one that deserves more serious discussion than Krauthammer would allow.