All posts by Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

Equivocations, False Analogies, and Racist Stereotypes, Hooray!

Pat Buchanan hits the fallacy jackpot over at Human Events.  Here's his article in a nutshell: we should reconsider the utopian dream of educational equality, because educational ability across races is not equal.  He starts with the familiar argument from athletics.  In the NFL, blacks outnumber whites and all other races:

In this profession, white males, a third of the population, retain a third of the jobs. But black males, 6.5 percent of the U.S. population, have 67 percent of the coveted positions — 10 times their fair share. . . .  Yet no one objects that women are not permitted to compete in the NFL. Nor do many object to the paucity of Asian and Mexicans, or the over-representation of blacks, even as white males dominate the National Hockey League and the PGA.   When it comes to sports — high school, collegiate or professional — Americans are intolerant of lectures about diversity and inclusiveness. They want the best . . .

When it comes to athletic ability, we have very different native capacities, and so it should follow for educational abilities, too. 

Why, then, cannot our elites accept that, be it by nature, nurture, attitude or aptitude, we are not all equal in academic ability?

Buchanan's evidence for this difference in ability between the races is what he sees as the permanent achievement gap in the New York math and language achievement tests.  Whites and Asians generally outperform Hispanics and blacks, even after a good deal of work has been poured into the system to even the numbers.

Since 1965, America has invested trillions in education with a primary goal of equalizing test scores among the races and genders. Measured by U.S. test scores, it has been a waste — an immense transfer of wealth from private citizens to an education industry that has grown bloated while failing us again and again.  Perhaps it is time to abandon the goal of educational equality as utopian — i.e., unattainable — and to focus, as we do in sports and art, on excellence.

Oh, in case you didn't get the point, Buchanan is telling us to re-calibrate our academic expectations for people who are brown:

For an indeterminate future, Mexican kids are not going to match Asian kids in math.

Fallacy checklist:  Equivocation on 'equality'?  Check!  Inequality in ability (even in native abilities) does not mean that one deserves less.   False analogy between sports and athletics?  Check! If you can't throw a curveball, no biggie.  Can't read, well… Vicious use of racial stereotypes? Check!  Seriously, this guy ran for president and almost won the Republican nomination in '96.

Stop calling us stupid bigots, you arrogant leftist elitists!

Ah, nothing warms my heart like someone pointing out fallacies.  But pointing out ad hominem abusive is, really, just a little too easy.  And people, especially because they often take criticism of their views to also be criticism of them personally, over-report instances of this fallacy.  (Easy way to see this: imagine someone's just told you, in the midst of an argument, "think about it" — what's the implication but that you've not thought about it yet?)

The Professional Right has been put off by how often what they've seen as the ad hominem abusive gets used against them.  Ann Coulter, if you'll remember, had a whole book cataloging all the names conservatives have been called.  Carol Platt Liebau (over at TownHall.com) has weighed in on the issue, and she's against being called a stupid bigot.  And so with the (ahem) Ground Zero Mosque debate:

The recent debate about an imam’s plans to locate a large mosque at Ground Zero has highlighted, as never before, the liberal elite’s utter contempt for the sensibilities of regular Americans. From the President on down, those in favor of the mosque’s construction at Ground Zero have characterized the opponents as ruled only by emotion – especially animus toward all Muslims.

And on the recent California gay marriage case:

Recently, an unelected federal judge struck down a state constitutional amendment passed by a solid majority of Californians – and supported by a majority of Americans generally – that defined marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman. He did so by concluding that there was no rational basis for the measure he had overturned; its only conceivable purpose, according to the judge, was to “enshrine in the California Constitution” an assertion that “opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.” In other words, Judge Vaughn Walker characterized every single American who has reservations about changing the age-old institution of marriage as irrational bigots.

She sees these liberal types as taking the argumentative situation as one with utter dopes and fools:

Given that the President, Vaughn Walker, and much of the commentariat in favor of the Ground Zero mosque are part of the supposed intellectual and cultural “elite” in this country, the arrogance – and paucity of their moral imagination – is breathtaking. In their formulation, stupidity, ignorance and bigotry are the only conceivable reasons for opposition to anything they deem moral or just.

I am very much sympathetic to Liebau's point — it's best to have as one's defaults that one's argumentative opponents are reasonable, moral humans.  That not only prevents escalation, but it also will likely make it so that both sides will actually work together on finding an acceptable solution to the disagreement.  (I've actually got some research with Robert Talisse  in the works on what we call the "no reasonable alternatives" mindset that all too often takes over when one enters into clear argumentative contexts — more later on that.)  One of the ways to keep from feeding argumentative escalation is to keep the ad hominem temptation down — just because they're wrong about some matter of moral significance needn't mean that they are benighted, stupid, or evil.  It just means they're wrong.  And so now Liebau is going to show us how to do disagreement respectfully? Right? …  Right?

Their intellectual and personal disrespect for those who disagree with them is breathtaking – and it is unleavened by even the slightest dash of humility. . . . The irony, of course, is that in its eagerness to denounce the intolerance and shortsightedness of the masses, the liberal elite reveals itself to be shortsighted and intolerant. . . .  Increasingly, that kind of contempt emanates from those who consider themselves the meritocracy’s crowning glory.  To put it in terms they can understand, it’s hypocritical to claim solidarity with “the common man” while despising everything he holds dear.

Oh well.  Glad to see that someone's good at least good at recognizing abusive language in others.  It's a start.  Of sorts.

I will politicize free will!

Another addition to the evaluation of rock and roll argumentation.  Last time, Jem suggested a discussion of Rush's "Free Will."  Here goes. (Lyrics here)

I remember back in high school when someone told me that Rush was 'thinking man's music.'  I heard some of the songs, and I wasn't really sure what what my friend was getting at.  In fact, it was "Free Will" that he played for me, and my opinion now is pretty much the same.  Geddy Lee/Neil Peart are just confused about the whole metaphysical issue, and this confusion leads them to some pretty harsh judgments of the downtrodden. 

In a nutshell, "Free Will" is the following set of commitments. #1: If you are committed to fatalism or determinism, you are looking to lay the responsibility for your life's failings on anyone or anything but yourself. (Fate, the gods, and perhaps social conditions).  #2. Laying the responsibility for one's life (and its failings) outside oneself leads one to inaction.  #3. If you are committed to free will, you hold yourself responsible for your life.  #4. If you hold yourself responsible for your life, you are more active in that life.

The first two commitments are the ones that get the most attention, and so the majority of the song is out to cast the poor as people who rationalize their poverty as a consequence of fate, when it actually is because of their own inaction.

There are those who think that they were dealt a losing hand,
The cards were stacked against them; they weren't born in Lotusland.

The implication of 'Lotusland' is that the only benefits that some people appreciate are those of sloth.  Alternately, the case for #3 and #4 is made but briefly:

I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose freewill.

In a way, the Rush strategy is akin to the old pragmatist reconstructions of metaphysical views.  In this case, determinism/fatalism is pragmatically a form of passivity and irresponsibility, and libertarianism is a form of activity and responsibility.  So choosing a metaphysics is equivalent to choosing what kind of person you will be (and  the consequences of being that person). 

The implication is that if you help others (especially because you see them as mere victims of fate), you consequently encourage their further dependence. 

You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill

The conclusions (suppressed of course) are that: C1: One ought to choose the active and responsible life. C2: So one should choose free will as a metaphysics.  C3: Those who live the passive and irresponsible life (and suffer the poverty and ills that come with it) are nevertheless responsible for that life, because "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice".  (And so: the poor have, really, chosen to be that way!)  Finally, because treating the poor as though they are victims of fate promotes their conception of themselves as passive and not responsible for their lives, C4: We ought not even help the poor (as, again, that would be "kindness that can kill").

I will limit myself to three criticisms.  First, the fact of moral luck seems perfectly obvious.  No matter how active a farmer you are, you can't use  your free will to choose that your crops not be eaten by locusts or withered by a drought.  Your choosing free will has no impact on whether you are part of your company's downsizing, that you get brain cancer, or develop a psychosis.  (This song will set you straight on that.) No matter how free will-ist you are, if you're born to a family with little money, no interest in education or social improvement, and a proclivity to violence, it doesn't take much figuring to lay odds on your coming life.  So sometimes it's a reasonable attitude to blame the fates.

Second, there is nothing in the argument that shows that it is true that there is free will, only that believing that you have free will makes you more active.  So far, a Hellenistic fatalist could accept that.  In fact, the old fatalists like Euripides had a term for the thought that their fates were in their own hands — hubris.    Unless it is false that the gods control the world, Rush's suggestions here put his listeners in danger of one of the greatest errors mortals could make, that is, taking themselves to be like gods.  I presume that Rush has taken it for granted that the gods aren't in control, but that makes their whole argument from consequences superfluous.  In fact, it makes the whole song (as an argument) beg the question.

Third, and finally, the two rhetorically most powerful moments in the song key on the fact that one has "chosen" one of the options between freedom and fatalism/determinism.  The first is that if you go with fatalism, "you still have made a choice," and the second is that Geddy/Neil "will choose free will."   But the free will – determinism issue can be recast to  bear on whether the choice in either of these cases is determined.  So the determinist maybe could say: Sure, you choose free will.  That's exactly the kind of person you are — you're a stridently independent, anti-authoritarian, rock and roller.  That's what they all choose.  The fact that you choose free will just goes to show how determined you are.   As a consequence, this choice business, despite the fact that it's the rhetorical peak of the song, is an utter argumentative failure.

Oh, and the guitar solo is a noodly mess, too.

Why aren’t conservatives for equal protection?

There is a old but reliable theme in political discussion: the gulf between the rights of individuals and the objectives of the state.  Liberal democracies are posited on the premise that the objectives of the state must be in the service of individuals and are constrained by their antecedent rights.  That's why constitutions bind modern democracies.  They are ground rules (among other things) for ensuring individual liberties are protected.

The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment is an extension of the moral rule of equity; namely, that one must judge all morally similar cases similarly.  The motivating conditions for the 14th Amendment was racial discrimination.  And so, the race of an accuser or the accused is a morally insignificant fact. Consequently, accusations and and cases must be adjudged independently of the race of the people in question.  The basic thought is that we have a right for the rule of equity to govern our legal standing, too.  Laws must equally apply, and the protections from interference by the state must follow these rules.

The thought with equal protection, then, is that (regardless of the fact that the Amendment was occasioned by race) we should follow the rule of respecting individual rights.  Any government must meet a very high standard of scrutiny if it is to interfere with one group's rights, but not another's.  Prohibitions against gay marriage don't meet that standard. Neither did anti-miscegenation laws.  (Same 14th Amendment equal protection clause invoked in both rulings.) California's Proposition 8 is a case of a state interfering with individuals on the basis of a morally irrelevant difference. 

Now, Mark Trapp, at the American Spectator, says that the recent decision to overturn to Proposition 8 is a case of federal  judges "imposing their personal policy preferences, the will of the people notwithstanding."   This is a pretty serious charge, one implies that the decision (and perhaps all judical review) is undemocratic. But if the people willed to take all the rich people's money and cars, that'd be rightly stopped.  If the people voted to prevent all left-handed people from driving, then that'd be rightly stopped, too.  That might be "imposing" a policy preference, but it'd be one guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. 

Trapp seems to think that judicial overturning of a legislative decision is an Federal imposition on a state's sovereignty, and ultimately, individual sovereignty:

Rather than determine for themselves such fundamental issues as abortion and same-sex marriage, many seem resigned or even content to having such momentous public policy decisions made by judges — for whom they do not vote and against whom they have no recourse. 

My question is how can one be in this case a person committed to States' Rights and the organizing value of the Constitution's protection of individual rights on this issue?  If it turns out that California's Proposition 8 runs afoul of the 14th Amendment, then California does not have the right (regardless of the vote count, 52% to 98%) to discriminate. 

You know, one of the few things I find appealing about conservativism is the individualism at its core.  That seems right to me.  But how does States' Right fit in that equation?  Why does a Federal decision over a State's decision matter to someone who cares about individual rights?  If the state is in the wrong and has run afoul of equal protection, isn't it a good thing to have a Federal Government to protect those rights?  I mean, what kind of individualist rationalizes oppression by saying "it's morally irrelevant unequal treatment, but it's the way we do it here." ?  How is the fact that it is here a morally relevant category?

The payoff for informal logic is that I think that some tu quoque arguments can reveal cases of bias and double standards.  Trapp's argument is that protecting the individual liberties of homosexuals with the 14th Amendment contravenes the individual liberties of those in the majority who want to discriminate against homosexuals.  And that's undemocratic and unjust.  You see, Trapp loves liberty so much…

Now, that’s a strawman!

Jonah Goldberg has a piece defending Lindsey Graham's recent proposal for a Constitutional Amendment (one that would revise the 14th Amendment's citizenship clause so that children born of illegal aliens are not citizens).  More importantly, Goldberg is out to defend our responsibility to revise and interpret the Constitution as the cases demand.  Now, this should come as a surprise to all the conservatives who take themselves to be strict "Constitutionists" — this sounds all too much like the old 'living document' take on the Constitution conservatives hate so much.  Goldberg anticipates this:

...this "living document" argument is a straw man. Of course justices must read the document in the context of an ever-changing world. What else could they do? Ask plaintiffs to wear period garb, talk in 18th-century lingo and only bring cases involving paper money and runaway slaves?

Goldberg's a little confused about straw men, as straw-manning depends on how you portray your opposition, not how obvious your views are.  But his point is reasonable enough — if the options are, on the one hand, seeing the world and the Constitution's relevance through the lenses of 18th Century Yankees and, on the other hand, looking at the world with the judgment of 21st Century Yankees, we should take the 21st Century perspective… given that we're out to deal with 21st Century problems.  So Jonah Goldberg has made a nice point and also has highlighted a straw man argument.  Oh, but then he steps right back into the straw man mode, himself:

When discussing the Constitution on college campuses, students and even professors will object that without a "living constitution," blacks would still be slaves and women wouldn't be allowed to vote. Nonsense. Those indispensable changes to the Constitution came not from judges reading new rights into the document but from Americans lawfully amending it.

Even professors?  Really?  Even professors?  Goldberg owes us at least one name for this charge.  But he provides no documentation, no names, no nothing, just vague allegations of intellectual incompetence.  Nobody said that living document interpretation of the Constitution was the solution to those things — we had Constitutional Amendments to solve those problems.  Only utter morons would say those were cases of living document work.  But how about, say, Brown v. Board, or pretty much every privacy rights case?  Or, maybe Gregg v. Georgia, with the notion of an evolving standards of decency in punishment?  Those are all cases of reading the document of the Constitution in a way that keeps its core commitments but also extends them to the cases that the framers did not anticipate.  Ignoring these cases (and actual discussions of them on academic campuses) not only distorts what the "living document" interpretation is, but it makes it impossible to make sense of what Goldberg's own views on the Constitution are.  For someone out to prevent straw manning about Constitutional interpretation, Jonah Goldberg is an expert at constructing and knocking the stuffing out of them.

Wittgenstein and Speaking Lions

This is the 1,001st post at the NonSequitur.  I failed to note the 1,000th posting, the last one.  I was more excited about the post.  Regardless, Colin and John have done a great job with the blog, and I'm really pleased to have been brought in.  And in honor of the event of passing the 1000 post mark, I want to pose the question: can a joke work as a counter-example?  Here's a test-case.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher, one that did his most influential later work in the aphoristic style.  Asking questions, putting things in a cute way, and so on.  He made many of his points, really, with lines that could pass for jokes. One of the core commitments of Wittgenstein's system was that to speak a language, you have to share a form of life with others who speak the same language. To illustrate this commitment, he has the enigmatic-oracular line:

If a lion could speak, we could not understand him (PI: p.223)

Again, the thought seems to be that since a lion doesn't share our form of life, its language would be inaccessible to us. 

Now, I'm not so sure about Wittgenstein's point, simply on the reason that if we're able to recognize that the lion is speaking a language, then we must be capable of having at least a decent grasp of what he's talking about.  That is, a necessary condition for attributing to X the capacity to speak a language is that you've some evidence that the sounds X is uttering are semantically contentful and also what those contents are.  (Or at least that you know that they are contentful and you could find out what those contents are.)

But I want to play Wittgenstein's game of making points instead of with straight argument, but with aphoristic style.  And so, here's my proposed counter-example (in the form of a joke):

So a lion walks into a bar…  He sidles up to the juke box and selects a Led Zepppelin song.  He then plays a round of darts.  Then he goes up to the bar, and he says to the bartender: "Wittgenstein wouldn't get this joke."

Should someone committed to Wittgenstein's philosophy of language be troubled by this joke?  Is it funny, regardless?  What are the consequences?

Embrace the Ad Hitlerum

Ad Hitlerum arguments are arguments by analogy — you criticize your opponent's views or proposals on the basis of their similarities either to those of Nazi Germany or Hitler himself.  And so: Vegetarianism? No way — many Nazis were vegetarians.  Or: The Nazis favored euthanasia, so it must be wrong.  The crucial thing for these arguments is that Nazis or Hitler favoring X means that X is morally unacceptable.  But this is a pretty unreliable method of detecting immorality, as the Nazis also were avid promoters of physical fitness, environmentalism, and classical music.  So ad Hitlerum arguments regularly suffer from problems of relevance.  But that failing of the argument hardly ever prevents folks from using it. Regularly.

Godwin's law, one of the oldest of the eponymous Laws of the Internet, runs that: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."   Given that the argumentative strategy has regular relevance problems, there's a widely recognized corollary to the law, which is that whoever makes use of the argumentative strategy has thereby lost the argument.  It's in the same boat with appeals to the subjectivity of an issue, after having had a heated argument about it.  It is an argument that is a last-ditch grasp at straws.

So far, none of this is news.

Here's the news: Hal Colebatch, in  his post "Don't Be Scared of Goodwin's So-Called Law" at the American Spectator, is urging conservatives not to be deterred by the charge of "Goodwin's Law."  The law of the internet, instead of being used as a tool for improving discourse, has hampered good argument. He writes:

Try mentioning to a euthanasia advocate that the Nazi extermination program started off as an exercise in medical euthanasia. And as for suggesting that Jews and Israel are in danger of a second holocaust if Muslim extremists have their way, just wait for: "Godwin's Law!" "Godwin's law!" repeated with a kind of witless assumption of superiority reminiscent of school playground chants.

The first question is: with whom has Colebatch been arguing?  Nobody, at least nobody serious, in any of these debates does that chanting stuff. (I smell weak-manning here.) The second question is why would anyone serious about the issues even be bothered by this response?  His article urges people not to be "afraid" of Goodwin's law — who is afraid of people arguing like that?

Colebatch, first, seems to think that the counter-argument is in the chanting.  Or maybe in the thought that someone's lost the argument.  But the real point of noting Godwin's law in a discussion with someone who's just made an Ad Hitlerum move is to challenge the aptness of the analogy.  So take Colebatch's own example — wouldn't the point of bringing up Godwin's Law there be to say something like: euthanasia programs aren't out to do anything more than allow some people to die with dignity.  It's not a cover for something else, and there are oversight programs to ensure that it doesn't turn into something else.  Unless it's shown that there are other plans for euthanasia, there's no relevance to the analogy.

So Colebatch is not being silenced or intimidated when someone says "Godwin's Law" to him — he's on the receiving end of a rebuttal.  But he can't recognize that:

Personally, I don't intend to be intimidated by chants of "Godwin's Law" or any other infantile slogan, used to smother debate in a way reminiscent of something from George Orwell or, if you'll excuse me saying so, a Nuremberg Rally. I have come up against echoes of Nazi thought-patterns and arguments many times and not only am I not going to be bullied into keeping silent about this, I believe every civilized person has a positive duty to speak up about it whenever appropriate.

But Godwin's Law isn't smothering debate at all.  It's a move to point out a fallacy.  Or at least a challenge to demonstrate relevance.  Since when is criticism of an analogy a form of intimidation or something infantile?  That's what good debate is about!

Some arguments by analogy are like paint by numbers

How often is it that the following three analogies are used in discussions of legalizing gay marriage? 

#1: Laws against gay marriage are analogous to anti-miscegenation laws. Therefore, they are unjust.

#2: Laws against gay marriage are analogous to prohibitions against polygamy.  Therefore, they are just.

#3: Laws against gay marriage are analogous to outlawing bestiality (or marrying one's dog).  Therefore, they are just.

The answer to my rhetorical question is that the use of these analogies is innumerable.  Most of the talking heads debating on TV race each other to the punch — whoever gets one of these analogies out first is the one who's framed the debate properly and thereby has the rhetorical upper hand.  Now, I'm all for rhetorical competitions, but c'mon — you'd think that once the analogies are out there, somebody might… you know… address how apt these analogies are.

Enter Steve Chapman, writing for conservative opinion page, Townhall.com.  Importantly, Chapman supports gay marriage, but doesn't want the courts to impose it on the citizenry.  (One of the first questions that comes to my mind when I hear this sort of talk is what's better (again assuming he supports gay marriage): having a just conclusion imposed on a citizenry that does not want it, or an unjust law imposed on a smaller section of that citizenry… that does not want it either!  If you don't see the point of this question, you don't see the point of judicial review.)  Regardless, Chapman runs the gamut of the analogies, and makes it all worse.  Especially when addressing #2:

Gays argue, correctly, that they can't be expected to change their inborn sexual orientation to get married.  But polygamists can assert that monogamy is impossible for them — and, judging from the prevalence of sexual infidelity, for most people.  Nor does the polygamy ban solve any problems.  Men can already have sex with multiple females, produce offspring with them and furnish them with financial support.  Former NFL running back Travis Henry has nine children by nine different women.  Prohibiting polygamy does nothing to prevent such conduct.  It just keeps people who want to do it responsibly from operating within an established legal framework.  That's why I would legalize polygamy as well as same sex marriage.

Seriously, that is the dumbest defense of gay marriage against the analogy with polygamy I have ever seen.  I could not have even made up a more dunderheaded version.  In no way should the argument be that: well, lots of people are going to have multiple partners, and prohibiting polygamy doesn't prevent that, so we should legalize polygamy so they can do it responsibly.  By analogy, Chapman's reasoning would be: gay marriage bans don't reduce homosexual sex and cohabitation.  But that's not what those bans are out to prevent.  Anti-sodomy laws were supposed to do that, and see how they fared constitutionally?  The same fate would befall anti-multiple-baby-daddy laws.

The best way to defend gay marriage is to break the analogies between gay marriage and polygamy and gay sex and bestiality.  The first is a simple moral difference: there is no established frame of injustice associated with gay marriages.  They are, like modern heterosexual marriages, a relationship between equals.  Polygamous marriages have structural inequalities, and the traditional forms of them have them in spades: younger wives are to play the role of child-rearer, clothes-washer, and concubine.  Once they've borne children, they move up the ladder…  Legalizing institutions that have these legacies is akin to legalizing a form of household slavery.  My good friend Thom Brooks has an excellent survey of polygamy and its problems here.

The disanalogy between gay sex and besitality is simply with consent.  Adult humans can give consent, dogs (or what have you) can't.  End of discussion.

So why are people still wrestling with these analogies?  Part of the answer is because columnists like Steve Chapman, despite being on the right side of the issue, can't put together a non-crazy response to them.

An Exercise in Scarequoting

Classic downplaying is the strategy of making something look less important or significant.  You can do this with euphemisms, so you can call a pay cut "salary compression," or you can call the victims of indiscriminate use of lethal force "collateral damage."  Another strategy is to employ the terms of regular use, but use scare quotes around the terms.  This method of downplaying at once both acknowledges that some use the term to describe the case, but it also registers your objection to it.  No reasons are given, but it's a clear wink to one's preferred audience, a kind of code to let them know that it's a larger cultural battle in the works. But also note that scarequoting just communicates this challenge to the naming, but not its grounds or even what the alternatives are.  It is a particularly weak and lazy form of criticism, one that effectively relies on the audience to supply their own arguments.

In the wake of the leaked Katie Couric tape, with Couric laughing at Sara Palin's kids names, Douglas MacKinnon re-opens the case that Sara Palin was treated unfairly by the media in '08.  He thinks her performances in the Gibson interview (when she couldn't define the Bush Doctrine) and Couric interview (when, she couldn't name a single news magazine) were because of the treachery of the liberals who ran the interviews.  But the real fault lays with the McCain campaign for not protecting her from these ambushes.  That's weird, as it seems that these questions were hardly surprises and could have easily been turned into cases for Palin to showcase her knowledge of politics and foreign affairs, had she done any homework.  Regardless, MacKinnon has the perfect downplayer setup for his case in his opening paragraph:

As the video popped-up this week of far-left, ultra wealthy, and privileged CBS “News” anchor Katie Couric going after then Governor Sarah Palin while mocking the names of her children, it reminded me all over again how much Palin is owed an apology from the “leadership” of the McCain campaign.

That paragraph without the scare quotes still gets the point across — McCain's campaign advisers should have known that liberals would try to take down their witless VP candidate, and they should have stayed with only Sean Hannity and Greta Van Sustren interviewing her.  But with the addition, really, of no more words but a few extra marks (eight little apostrophes), MacKinnon communicates so much more and expresses (and encourages) real hostility to his opponents.

Here, let me show you.  I'll re-write my last paragraph with the addition of scare quotes.

That paragraph without the scare quotes still gets the "point" across — McCain's campaign advisers should have known that liberals would try to take down their witless VP candidate, and they should have stayed with only Sean Hannity and Greta Van Sustren "interviewing" her.  But with the addition, really, of no more words but a few extra marks (eight little apostrophes), MacKinnon "communicates" so much more and expresses (and encourages) real hostility to his opponents.

See?  It's easy to sound much more outraged by and better informed than your opponents with just a few scare quotes.  No wonder a lazy mind like MacKinnon uses them so… liberally.

Tool Quoque

The Non Sequitur is supposed to be a blog about political media, I know.  But I can't let this pass.  I was converting some old CD's to MP3 format this evening, and I set about to listening to an old Tool album, Aenima.  I'd forgotten how brooding they were and that the lyrics were intermittently profound and stupid.  And then I came to "Hooker with a Penis."  Here are the lyrics, if you need to read along, but here is the core of the song: it's an argument that you can't blame Tool for being sellouts.  The background story is that Maynard, the lead singer, is approached by some kid who accuses him of being a sellout with the latest album, and that the earlier stuff is more authentic:

And in between sips of Coke
He told me that he thought
We were sellin' out
Layin' down
Suckin' up
To the man.

Maynard responds with two separate arguments.  The first is simple garbage talk: that he, Maynard, is actually THE MAN.  So he can't sell out to the man, because he's already the man.  And furthermore, since that's the case, our accuser is ALSO the man.  
Before you point your finger
You should know that
I'm the man
If I'm the man,
Then you're the man
And He's the man as well
So you can
Point that fuckin' finger up your ass.
I suppose that this is a fine argument for people who are heavy-duty Tool-heads, since a good deal of Tool stuff is mystical mumbo-jumbo.  But, for sure, by this sort of reasoning, then Maynard is the accuser, too.  And then, consequently, he ends up telling HIMSELF to point that finger up his OWN ass.  (Logic hint: identity is a transitive relation.)  Not much of a defense, in the end.  The lesson of the first argument: mystical nonsense may be really impressive to badly dressed kids in soda shops, but it makes for crazily bad arguments. 
 
The second argument is a little more interesting, and given our recent spate of discussions about tu quoque arguments, it caught my eye.  The argument has two prongs. The first is basically that Tool had already sold out before their first record, and so the accuser has no legitimate basis to say that the later album is a sellout compared to the first album. The first album was a sellout album, too!   The second line of argument is that the accuser, regardless of the accusations, nevertheless BOUGHT THE RECORDS!

All you know about me is what I've sold you,
Dumb fuck
I sold out long before you ever even heard my name.
I sold my soul to make a record,
Dip shit
And then you bought one.

I see both lines of the second argument out to show that the accuser, regardless of the issue of whether Tool have sold out, actually likes sellout music.  The first line is that since Tool sold out before the first record, and the accuser likes the first record, the accuser likes sellout music.  The second line is that since the accuser BUYS records he admittedly sees as sellout music, he must thereby like sellout music.  Therefore, he has no standing to accuse Tool of being sellouts.
 
Again, I'm sympathetic with many tu quoque arguments, as I think they can show double standards, dishonesty in criticism, and even sometimes actually show that some cases are likely true.  But I'm not sympathetic here.  The first problem is that even if Tool sold out before the first album, that doesn't mean that their second (or later) albums are of the same quality.  Here might be a reasonable response from the accuser: Sure, you may have sold out before the first record, but it didn't start really showing until the second.  I thought you had some shred of dignity and integrity, but I suppose I was wrong about that.  Thanks for setting me straight about the fact that you've always been a sellout.
 
The second problem with the line of argument is the fact that the accuser bought the album hardly means that he has no standing to complain about its quality.  I have many, many CD's collecting dust in the basement  that stink.  The only way to find out if they stink, back then, was to buy them and listen to them.   It was $15 to find out that, for example, Queensryche peaked with Operation Mindcrime.  Or consider any other commodity — if I say that the Big Mac is a terrible hamburger, I'd have had to have tried it.  Which means I'd have had to have bought one.  Would my standing to criticize a Big Mac be undermined by the fact that I bought one?  What would be the only way to sample them, then, without this charge?  Steal them?
 
The third problem with the argument is that even if Maynard has shown the accuser to like sellout music, and even if Maynard has shown that the accuser, THE MAN, and Maynard are all the same, it has not yet mounted much of a defense for sellout music.  If there's something wrong with "sucking up to THE MAN," then showing that we're all THE MAN or that some people like sucking up to the man doesn't do much in the way of defense. 
 
Toolheads, I remember, took this song pretty seriously.  They still do, if you peruse the comments under the YouTube videos for the song. They thought that it showed Maynard at his best, defending himself and his music.  It may show Maynard at his best, but it's hardly a defense.  You know, when you shout a bad argument, even with distorted guitars and heavy base in the background, it doesn't get any better.