Though facts constitute one of the two essential features of any argument, we the editors of *The Non Sequitur* do not normally pronounce on questions of fact. We lack the resources to engage in the kind of rigorous fact-checking one finds at, for example, www.factcheck.org, and besides, we have made it our objective to focus narrowly on the way op-ed writers, politicians, and assorted others weave facts into inferences. In testing the strength or validity of inferences, we generally assume the facts to be as the writer alleges. For whatever the facts may be, they oftentimes cannot hide the howling non sequiturs a disconcerting number of these writers attempt to pass off as sound reasoning. Some non sequiturs, however, rely on shameless and obvious factual distortions or fabrications, so sometimes it is impossible for us to exclude the factual
concerns from our analysis of the logic of the inferences. The straw man argument, for instance, relies on a misleadingly weak version of an opponent’s argument, and uncovering this fallacy obviously requires that the critical reader to have some knowledge of the argument being attacked.
We find a string of such straw man arguments in Saturday’s *New York Times*.
David Brooks insults the Gray Lady’s honor and reputation by distorting the words of one of her own reporters in the assembly of one of the most rickety straw men we have seen in recent months. But, as we shall see presently, the straw man is only the first in a series of equally egregious fallacies.
First, the straw man.
The nuisance is back!
Remember when John Kerry told Matt Bai of The Times Magazine that he wanted to reduce the terrorists to a nuisance? Kerry vowed to mitigate the problem of terrorism until it became another regrettable and tolerable fact of life, like gambling, organized crime and prostitution.
That was the interview in which he said Sept. 11 “didn’t change me much at all.” He said it confirmed in him a sense of urgency, “of doing the things we thought we needed to be doing.”
We remember that too, and like all those gifted with high-speed–nay any speed–internet, we are also capable of checking to see whether Brooks *charitably* or *accurately* represents the Democratic candidate’s words. For there are various degrees of straw man argument. Some rely on factually correct, but unfair or uncharitable, interpretations of an opponent’s words or meaning; others depend on simple distortion or outright fabrication. The more common version of the fallacy, and the hardest to detect, is the first. But Brooks commits the second. In original *Times* article, Kerry had quite a bit to say about terrorists and terrorism, and on any reading, he does not come across as anything remotely like the detached and effete intellectual of Brooks’ portrayal who was unaffected by 9/11, who wants to “mitigate” the problem of terrorism rather than obliterate terrorists, and worst of all, who claims that *Bin Laden* is a nuisance.
First, let’s look at the claim that 9/11 didn’t change Kerry much at all since, as a matter of fact, this comes first in the article. This otherwise trivial fact about the order of Kerry’s statements underscores Brooks’ context-free selective quotation of them. For the sake of charity, completeness, and honesty, we will provide ample context.
This is the Republican line on Kerry — that he lacks guts. Kerry’s often wobbly attempt to be both like and unlike Bush in his approach to terrorism and the war in Iraq enabled the Bush team, by the time Kerry and I spoke in August, to portray him, devastatingly, as a ”flip-flopper” who careens from one position to another. In our conversation, Kerry seemed unusually sensitive to these allegations, to the point where he seemed unwilling to admit to having evolved or grown in the way that politicians — or human beings, for that matter — generally do. When I asked Kerry how Sept. 11 had changed him, either personally or politically, he seemed to freeze for a moment.
”It accelerated — ” He paused. ”I mean, it didn’t change me much at all. It just sort of accelerated, confirmed in me, the urgency of doing the things I thought we needed to be doing. I mean, to me, it wasn’t as transformational as it was a kind of anger, a frustration and an urgency that we weren’t doing the kinds of things necessary to prevent it and to deal with it.”
As you can see, the entire passage relates quite a different picture. Rather than a man who is unaffected by 9/11, we find one with *anger*, a *sense of urgency*, and *frustration* at the failure to address the problem of terrorism. Brooks omits these terms from his analysis and so presents a man blithely unperturbed by an event of which he himself was a witness, and perhaps, a target.
Now for the question of “mitigation.” Brooks takes this to mean Kerry is weak and uncommitted to the fight against terrorism. We should note that the word “mitigation” appears *nowhere* in the article, and even a cursory reading of it will show that it does not fairly characterize Kerry’s position with regard to the war on terrorism. First, a little context of our own. When asked whether the war on terrorism is really a war, Kerry said:
”There’s a danger in it,” Kerry said, nodding. ”But it’s real,” he went on, meaning the war itself. ”You know, when your buildings are bombed and 3,000 people get killed, and airplanes are hijacked, and a nation is terrorized the way we were, and people continue to plot to do you injury, that’s an act of war, and it’s serious business. But it’s a different kind of war. You have to understand that this is not the sands of Iwo Jima. This is a completely new, different kind of war from any we’ve fought previously.”
Kerry told me he would stop terrorists by going after them ruthlessly with the military, and he faulted Bush, as he often does, for choosing to use Afghan militias, instead of American troops, to pursue Osama bin Laden into the mountains of Tora Bora, where he disappeared. ”I’m certainly, you know, not going to take second seat to anybody, to nobody, in my willingness to seek justice and set America on a course — to make America safe,” Kerry told me. ”And that requires destroying terrorists. And I’m committed to doing that. But I think I have a better way of doing it. I can do it more effectively.”[emphasis added]
In the article that Brooks cites as evidence that Kerry wants to “mitigate” the terrorist problem, Kerry says quite clearly that he is committed to “destroying terrorists.” He says nothing to the effect that he wants to deal softly with actual terrorists. Finally, let’s see whether Kerry called Bin Laden a nuisance.
But when you listen carefully to what Bush and Kerry say, it becomes clear that the differences between them are more profound than the matter of who can be more effective in achieving the same ends. Bush casts the war on terror as a vast struggle that is likely to go on indefinitely, or at least as long as radical Islam commands fealty in regions of the world. In a rare moment of either candor or carelessness, or perhaps both, Bush told Matt Lauer on the ”Today” show in August that he didn’t think the United States could actually triumph in the war on terror in the foreseeable future. ”I don’t think you can win it,” he said — a statement that he and his aides tried to disown but that had the ring of sincerity to it. He and other members of his administration have said that Americans should expect to be attacked again, and that the constant shadow of danger that hangs over major cities like New York and Washington is the cost of freedom. In his rhetoric, Bush suggests that terrorism for this generation of Americans is and should be an overwhelming and frightening reality.
When I asked Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. ”We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance,” Kerry said. ”As a former law-enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”
The nuisance remark not only clearly refers to the ultimate objective of the war on terrorism (not its actual present day state), but appears in fact to be more optimistic than the President’s own claim that the war on terrorism cannot be won. A rigorous application of Brooks’ interpretive strategy necessitates and equally brutal interpretation of the President’s remark. He might say, for instance, with regard to Bin Laden’s recent video release, “there goes that Bin Laden again, the guy who has defeated us (since we cannot win) in the war on terrorism.” And that remark wouldn’t even take that much–or any–distortion. If we cannot win the war on terrorism, then the uncaptured Bin Laden is the victor. While such a remark would be patently uncharitable, and for that reason simply unacceptable in serious debate, it would not rest on a fabrication of Bush’s comments. Since it is obvious that none of Brooks’ characterization of Kerry actually applies to him, the conclusion he draws simply does not follow:
Well, the Osama bin Laden we saw last night was not a problem that needs to be mitigated. He was not the leader of a movement that can be reduced to a nuisance.
Few people would disagree with that, least of all John Kerry. Even Cornel West–no right wing intellectual he–the other night called Bin Laden a “gangster” who needed to be–note the phrase–“brought to justice.” But there’s more to Brooks’ argument. His completely dishonest rendering of Kerry’s position on terrorism constitutes one half of a Brooksian false dichotomy:
One of the crucial issues of this election is, Which candidate fundamentally gets the evil represented by this man? Which of these two guys understands it deep in his gut – not just in his brain or in his policy statements, but who feels it so deep in his soul that it consumes him?
Given Brooks’ silly caricature of John Kerry, he probably means Bush (and not, by the way, the Bush who “isn’t all that concerned with Bin Laden”). Nevertheless, it’s certainly possible, and, discounting the many distorted, selectively quoted, or just plain fabricated statements on the matter, very likely that Kerry both understands the problem of terrorism as a policy issue *and* “deep in his gut”.
This false dichotomy aside, we still might wonder how we know that Bush is the right man for the war on terrorism. Is it because he has demonstrated unrivaled acumen in prosecuting the war? Because he has enlisted–not alienated–the world’s support in it? Because he has actually captured the individual who plotted and financed 9/11? Because he demonstrated unwavering support and cooperation with the 9/11 commission in an effort to understand the causes of 9/11? Because he selflessly refused to exploit 9/11 for short term partisan political gain? Because he courageously took on those countries responsible for the actual financing of al Qaeda? Or is it perhaps because the Gallup poll indicates that people *think* that he is? If you chose the last one, you’d have been right:
It’s quite clear from the polls that most Americans fundamentally think Bush does get this. Last March, Americans preferred Bush over Kerry in fighting terrorism by 60 percent to 33 percent, according to the Gallup Poll. Now, after a furious campaign and months of criticism, that number is unchanged. Bush is untouched on this issue.
Need we bother to mention that just because people believe that Bush is better that he actually *is* better at it? While it may be true that most Americans think the affirmative of whatever the Gallup question actually was, this demonstrates only that they think that. If that sounded pointlessly circular, and it was meant to be that way. Whether Bush actually is the right man for the job, whether his gut feeling and his policies are more effective is a question that must be settled on an appeal to the relevant evidence, and the people’s impression, positive or negative, is not relevant evidence.
We could continue, but time and space constraints force us to stop here. Allow us dear reader to close with the following observation. We had cause to wonder in recent days whether Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, a fake news program on Comedy Central, was right when he said partisan hacks were hurting America. They seem indeed to go beyond being a simple nuisance. Given a public forum for rational, informed, and honest discussion of matters fundamental to the existence and flourishing of our democratic institutions, they all too often opt to repeat shallow and dishonest partisan talking points. While it may not be hurting America, it certainly doesn’t help.