Category Archives: Straw Man

Desperately seeking Plumbers

It might almost be comical to watch pundits scramble to accuse the Kerry campaign of fear-mongering, if their arguments were not so well coordinated. William Safire (Source: NYT 10/20/04) suspiciously repeats David Brooks' accusations of fear-mongering (on social security, stem cell research, the draft, and the Mary Cheney non-issue (Safire replaces the last with a "flu crisis" argument)) (Source: NYT 10/19/04). As was said yesterday in this space: "It’s not worth it to descend into the fray on the merits of these points." And given the bar set by Dick Cheney for cynical fear-mongering this year– "If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again: that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States"–it's hard for anyone to get themselves terribly upset by the Kerry campaign's legitimate political concerns. Perhaps this is the reason that the Mary Cheney story seems to trump even these substantive issues that could be debated. The consistency between the two is at least clear. They are both parts of a concerted attempt to paint Kerry as an opportunistic and unscrupulous politician unfairly attacking the president. The fact that there are good reasons to be concerned about these four points of policy is irrelevant for Brooks and Safire: They need only caricature the arguments to draw the conclusion that they want to draw about John Kerry's motivations and character. It is an interesting argument for a number of reasons. The pundits take an articulated and reasonable concern about Bush's policy or intentions, replace it with a straw man caricature that seems so baseless and perverse that the only reasonable inference must be that Kerry is unscrupulously attacking the president. For example, Safire writes:

You a youngster? The fearmongers noticed an urban legend floating around the Internet about a "January surprise" to bring back the draft and throw you into the first wave into Falluja. Never mind that it won't happen, because the military knows that a volunteer army works best; the scare tactic is sure to whip up the old fears in the young voters.

I'm not sure how Paul Krugman feels about his columns being described as "an urban legend floating around the Internet," but the attempt to trivialize the argument by impugning its source is transparent and not worth taking seriously. Safire also offers a reason for rejecting the likelihood of the draft–that the military doesn't want it because a volunteer army works best. (Compare with Brooks' even sillier claim "Given the nature of military technology, it doesn't make sense to bring back the draft.") But clearly, the concern with the draft is not unfounded and rhetorical. Krugman offers a clear and rigorous argument for worrying about the draft. It certainly does not prove that there will be a draft, but instead argues that (a) there is a severe shortage of soldiers at present, (b) we are already "conscripting" soldiers against their will through various "backdoor" mechanisms, and (c) whether by Bush's choice or not we cannot rule out the possibility that we will need more troops during a second Bush term (Source: NYT 10/19/04). But neither Brooks nor Safire want to engage in the debate about the issue. Their interest in the point is only to represent it as a baseless argument, which allows them to bring into question Kerry's motivations (despite Brooks' denial–"I'm not trying to make a moral point here about sleazy campaigning"–a classic rhetorical move, "praeteritio" in which you mention something by stating that you are not going to mention it: "I am not going to dirty the campaign by talking about my opponent's felony conviction." This allows you both to claim the moral highground while simultaneously engaging in the negative attack). To do this, they represent the arguments underlying these policy concerns as entirely empty and trivial. This is to commit the "straw man" fallacy. I had originally intended to address Safire's editorial about Mary Cheney (Source: NYT 10/18/04) The same analysis holds for this argument, even if it is not aimed at a policy dispute. In essence, the mention of Cheney's daughter's sexual preferences is taken as a sign of the campaign's unscrupulous tactics. Safire argues that (a) the mention was calculated and deliberate, (b) it was revelatory to the public at large, (c) it's purposes were cynical and political. Even granting both (a) and (b) (which if we were concerned with evaluating the truth of these premises would give us significant pause as Safire gives little reason to be persauded of these two claims. See Media Matters for a discussion of this.), there is little to worry about until we consider the justification for (c). This is twofold:

One purpose was to drive a wedge between the Republican running mates. President Bush supports a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a union of a man and a woman; Cheney has long been on record favoring state option, but always adds that the president sets administration policy. That rare divergence of views is hardly embarrassing.

The sleazier purpose of the Kerry-Edwards spotlight on Mary Cheney is to confuse and dismay Bush supporters who believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, to suggest that Bush is as "soft on same-sex" as Kerry is, and thereby to reduce a Bush core constituency's eagerness to go to the polls. If these were the motivations, then perhaps Brooks was right yesterday to question the Kerry campaign's competency. Fortunately, Safire saves the Kerry campaign from Brooks' accusation by quoting Margaret Carlson's analysis:

[they] "realize that discussing Mary Cheney is a no-lose proposition: It highlights the hypocrisy of the Bush-Cheney position to Democrats while simultaneously alerting evangelicals to the fact that the Cheneys have an actual gay person in their household whom they apparently aren't trying to convert or cure."

This is a much more plausible explanation of their motivations: Unfortunately for Safire it isn't "sleazy" or unreasonable. It is clear, and almost uncontroversial, that part of the Republican strategy for this election has been to motivate the homophobic members of its base by foregrounding the specter of gay marriage spreading from Massachusetts into the heartland. Thus, highlighting the hypocrisy underlying this pandering is not at all unreasonable or immoral. In fact, the only way to suggest that it is immoral is to paint Mary Cheney as a victim of scurrilous attacks: Hence Lynn Cheney's aggrieved mother act. Unfortunately, Mary Cheney is an out homosexual who has worked for the campaign. She is not a poor defenseless child, but in fact a political operative. There is little reason to cast this tactic–even granting the truth of Safire's premises–as "cheap and tawdry." Certainly Safire's suggestion that this amounts to a "dirty trick" borders on the comical when we compare it with the tactics of his old boss's Plumbers.

Neither running nor hiding

Is there a logic, or perhaps an illogic to “spin”? Or, more generally, how does “spin” work? “Spin” takes accepted facts and represents them in a positive or negative way. To accuse someone of “spinning” is to accuse them of a biased representation of the facts. Bias plays an interesting role in arguments. The mere existence of bias does not by itself allow us to conclude that the conclusion drawn on the basis of the representation of the evidence is false: To do so would be to commit an *ad hominem* fallacy.

Safire begins his Monday column “How Bush Won Round 2” (NYT 10/11/04) by committing precisely this fallacy:

>When pro-Kerry commentators solemnly pronounce Debate Round 2 to have been “a draw” – you know George Bush won that round.

One, of course, knows nothing of the sort. Fortunately Safire does not rest his case on this argument. The only thing, however, that can determine who won the debate is an evaluation of it according to some accepted set of criteria That is, we need first to determine: What exactly constitutes winning a debate? Who is in a position to decide who won the debate? In the absence of such criteria, the conclusion that Safire wants to establish will escape him.

Bush’s hackneyed use of Joe Louis’ “He can run, but he can’t hide” seems curiously impressive to Safire and on the basis of this cliche, Safire seems to have confused the Louis/Conn fight in 1946 with Kerry/Bush in 2004. I could comment on the weak analogy running consistently through Safire’s column. It probably provides some persuasive force, if there is any, to Safire’s argument while concealing this as a rhetorical device. But ultimately the analogy is just silly. There was no knock-out in the eighth round. There was no strategic miscalculation in thinking Bush was tired leading to the non-existent knock-out. And Bush is surely not to debate what Joe Louis was to boxing.

Nevertheless, setting aside this attempt to transform the debate into epic, Safire rests his case on two things.

>Bush’s debate plan was to keep boring in on the Kerry record: flip-flopping this year on the war, but all too consistently liberal for 20 years on tax increases.

There was little new on the first point–though Safire has set the bar for President remarkably low by commenting:

>This not only showed that Bush knew these allies personally, but could also pronounce Kwasniewski’s name. . ..

The rest of Safire’s argument on the war is that Kerry contradicts himself on Iraq policy. These arguments have been examined before and certainly do not suggest decisive victory for Bush.

On taxes his case is even thinner amounting to two points:

1. Kerry’s channeling of Bush’s father by promising no new taxes on anyone making less than $200,000, an admittedly less impressive oedipal strategy than in his first debate quotation of Bush-41’s explanation for the foolishness of occupying Iraq.

2. A supposed “blunder” concerning Bush’s $84 of revenue from a lumber company.

This latter point is entirely misconstrued and illegitimately dismissed by Bush and Safire (see Media Matters). But, even if it were true it is very thin ground on which to base victory in the debate.

Safire’s final comments concern Bush’s attempt consistent attempts to conflate voting for a particular bill and standing on a particular issue–like in the debate about Iraq this is a conflation of questions about ends and means to those ends. Consistently, in political debates, disagreements about means are translated into disagreements about ends. So for example:

>In an anguishing moment, Kerry said he was against partial-birth abortion (as are most voters, including many pro-choice) and then explained why he voted against the ban that is now law. Countered Bush: “He was given a chance to vote and he voted no. . . . It’s clear for everybody to see. And as I said, you can run, but you can’t hide.”

Kerry, of course, voted against the bill, as he explained not because he promotes partial-birth abortion, but because the constitution as it is currently interpreted by the Supreme Court requires a provision in the law that protects the right of a woman to have even this procedure when her health is threatened. In the absence of such a provision the law is in a sense illegal.

Variations on this argument are consistently used by the Bush campaign (voting against 87 billion for the troops, not voting for the bill that capped punitive damages in medical liability cases etc..) to create a straw man against which to campaign. This is, of course, fallacious as Safire surely knows.

Undoubtedly Safire is spinning the debate. His argument is extremely selective and relies on a weak analogy between the debate and a prize fight. Undoubtedly as well, Safire has a bias towards one candidate. This bias, however, is not the reason that his argument is implausible, but only perhaps, the reason he finds such an implausible argument persuasive. Nevertheless, I cannot say whether Bush or Kerry “won” the debate, and in fact, the question is probably not of interest to anyone other than the media who would like to sell politics as another spectator sport.

Will to compare

Among the hundreds of thousands of student victims of the whims of the all powerful teachers’ union, all students of Logic 101 have been subjected to the following counterintuitive stipulation: “some” is a quantifier; it tells you how many. But how many does “some” mean? Well, and here’s the counterintuitive part, it means *at least one*–not necessarily more than just one. Those same students, those victims of the powerful agents of a government-sponsored Democratic political lobby, also know that “some” is infinitely distant from “all.” So when some use some it may mean only some, that is, one.

That said, in today’s *Washington Post* George Will
attempts to “understand some of the Democratic rage about the specter of a second term for George W. Bush.” In turns out that the “some” here refers not to an unspecified number of Democrats, but rather to an undetermined quantum of their motivation for fearing a second term of George Bush. In case you thought that this undetermined quantum of rage was directed at profound or even superficial concerns over the domestic policies of the current administration, you’d be sorely disappointed. For Will’s analysis concerns the political survival of the Democratic party as an entity, not, as it might seem, the agenda of the Democratic party; if Bush gets reelected, Will muses, then his policies might produce fewer Democrats.

Now of course on the other hand we are only talking about *some* of the rage. So that’s a pretty low bar to hurdle. But the unspecified quantum of rage doesn’t constitute the worst feature of Will’s argument today. It’s the fact that he pits *some* of the motivation for the “rage” of *some* Democrats against the policies of the current administration (not a “some,” but an “all”); this specious comparison juxtaposes the selfish and shortsighted Democratic motivations with principled Republican stands on policy. *Some* of the Democrats’ rage results from the gutting of their base that would happen under the policies of a new Bush administration. Take the worst of the selfish and shortsighted Democratic base (and the one which for completely selfish reasons is closest to our heart) for example, the teachers’ union:

The public education lobby — one in 10 delegates to the Democratic convention was a member of a teachers union — wants government to keep impediments in the way of competition. That means not empowering parents with school choice, including the choice of private schools, which have significantly lower per-pupil costs.

Here–and throughout the rest of the piece–Will compares the ruinous and obtusely self-serving motives of the Democratic base with the reasoned stands of the Republican party. The Democrats, of course, want only to continue to exist and further their own self-interest. The Republican platform, on the other hand, is characterized here by the apparent soundness of its policy and the purity of its motivations. One more example:

Welfare reform, the largest legislative achievement of the 1990s, diminished the Democratic Party’s dependency-bureaucracy complex. That complex consists of wards of government and their government supervisors. And Bush’s “ownership society” is another step in the plan to reduce the supply of government by reducing the demand for it.

That felicitous formulation, from Jonathan Rauch’s masterful analysis of Bush’s domestic ambitions (National Journal, July 26, 2003), follows from two axioms of which conservatives are fond: Give a person a fish and you give the person a meal; teach the person to fish and you give a livelihood. And: No one washes a rental car. Meaning people behave most responsibly about what they own. Hence Bush’s menu of incentives for private retirement, health, education and savings accounts.

Here again the policies of the Bush administration clash with the entirely political motivations of Democratic operatives. But, as we have argued here before, for comparisons to work, the items compared must be of the same category. So Will should either compare the selfish motives of the Republican party with the selfish motives of the Democratic party, or the policies of the one with the policies of the other. Now of course in the end just because there might in fact be *some* Democrats who fit Will’s description doesn’t make his comparison any less specious.


The imaginative arguer can intuit connections between otherwise distinct facts or events; she can identify the proper analogates with a certain amount of precision and shed light on otherwise obscure phenomena. And she knows that analogies, like other arguments in inductive or informal logic, are tricky creatures. Their conclusive force depends on the degree to which the analogates can be reasonably compared. When the analogates cannot be reasonably compared, then the analogy is a false one. But determining whether an analogy is strong or weak requires more of the critical reasoner than most other kinds of inductive arguments. For she must have a command over the facts relevant to the strength of the analogy. Such an analysis of the facts takes time and effort, things which most newspaper readers–even careful ones–have in short supply.

Fortunately for us, David Brooks relieves his readers of the painstaking work of researching the analogy that constitutes the core argument in his op-ed today (NYT 09/28/04). After expending more than three quarters of the space allotted for his twice-weekly column working up an analogy between the situation in El Salvador in the 1980s with Iraq *and* Afghanistan today, Brooks points out that

“[o]f course the situation in El Salvador is not easily comparable to the situations in Afghanistan or Iraq.”

So the reader need not expend any energy pointing out that El Salvador had not been invaded by a foreign power (like Afghanistan and Iraq); that the insurgents in El Salvador had a clearly articulated “positive” agenda; that this positive agenda consisted in part in the advocacy of the very democracy Brooks claims they challenged; that Afghanistan and Iraq have in common primarily the fact that they have been invaded by us; that the insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq is aimed primarily at ousting or humiliating a foreign occupier. Pointing out such things is tedious and Brooks’ admission that such a comparison is not easy saves us a lot of time that we could have otherwise spent on puzzling over his conclusion:

It’s simply astounding that in the United States, the home of the greatest and most effective democratic revolution, so many people have come to regard democracy as a luxury-brand vehicle, suited only for the culturally upscale, when it’s really a sturdy truck, effective in conditions both rough and smooth.

Certainly the snobs who claim that only the “culturally upscale” are suited to democracy have taken quite a licking here. But one might wonder whether any such people exist, or whether they exist in such numbers, strength and influence to be considered worthy of mention. But perhaps, as is more likely the case, the reader is supposed to attribute this shallow, snobby view to those who are concerned that the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan makes the holding of elections difficult, dangerous, or impossible. But more to the point, the claim that democracy may flourish in “*conditions* rough and smooth” (here contrasted with “luxury” and “cultural upscaleness”) ignores legitimate questions of economic and political stability (such as, for example, voting) so often considered to be the minimal requirements for the existence of truly democratic institutions.

If it walks like a duck

Today I’d like briefly to add a few more wrinkles to my colleague’s very clear and perhaps overly charitable analysis of Charles Krauthammer’s abominable and wildly fallacious op-ed of last Friday. In particular, I would like to discuss Krauthammer’s rather devious attempt to identify John Kerry with the terrorists in virtue of the fact that they can be construed to share vaguely similar objectives. While such a strategy often results in the more obviously fallacious ad hominem argument, the frequency of its employment in recent political discourse, and its outrageously erroneous logical structure, warrants a separate discussion.

How does Krauthammer go about this? First he needs to find common ground for Kerry and the terrorists. To this end, after pointing out that two recent terrorist attacks aimed at allies of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (specifically Australia and Spain) seemed geared toward undermining support among coalition members, Krauthammer makes the following startling observation:

That [Abandon America and buy your safety] is what the terrorists are saying. Why is the Kerry campaign saying the same thing? “John Kerry’s campaign has warned Australians that the Howard Government’s support for the US in Iraq has made them a bigger target for international terrorists.” So reports the Weekend Australian (Sept. 18).

Americans Overseas for Kerry is the Kerry operation for winning the crucial votes of Americans living abroad (remember the Florida recount?), including more than 100,000 who live in Australia. Its leader was interviewed Sept. 16 by The Australian’s Washington correspondent, Roy Eccleston. Asked if she believed the terrorist threat to Australians was now greater because of the support for President Bush, she replied: “I would have to say that,” noting that “[t]he most recent attack was on the Australian embassy in Jakarta.”

She said this of her country (and of the war that Australia is helping us with in Iraq): “[W]e are endangering the Australians now by this wanton disregard for international law and multilateral channels.” Mark Latham could not have said it better. Nor could Jemaah Islamiah, the al Qaeda affiliate that killed nine people in the Jakarta bombing.

First of all, the conclusion (which appears in the first paragraph), “the Kerry campaign is saying the same thing,” raises logical eyebrows of its own. For just what is “the same thing”? If it means that the U.S. has erred in invading Iraq, then lots of people (many of them not terrorists) are saying that. If he means that countries who continue to support U.S. policy in Iraq are more likely targets for terrorists, then, again, lots of non-terrorists are saying that. In addition, that is an observation well supported by the evidence (take Jakarta and Madrid, for instance), and not, as Krauthammer might be taken to suggest, a threat on Kerry’s part (for more on that see Friday’s post). So the Kerry campaign, on the analysis of this particular op-ed, is alleging (and correctly too, if we are to take Krauthammer’s own claims about the Madrid and Jakarta bombings as true) that the invasion of Iraq has done more to foment terrorism than end it.

But whether or not Kerry is or is not saying the same (or a substantially similar) thing as the terrorists is beside the point. Why don’t we, for the sake of argument, suppose that to be the case. If we do, we can unveil the more subtle (for Krauthammer avoids directly stating it) but nonetheless devious identification of the Kerry campaign and the terrorists. This identification occurs in two different places in the passage just quoted.

First, there is the obvious “the Kerry campaign is saying the same thing.” And second, we have the less overt, but more pernicious, “Mark Latham [and Jemaah Islamiah] could not have said it better.” In the second instance, the real terrorists may be offended that “disregard for international law and multilateral channels” is being attributed to them as a justification for their terrorism. But never mind that terrorists rarely if ever have such legalistic motives, for Krauthammer’s obvious intention here is to identify the Kerry campaign in some rhetorically underhanded way with terrorists; after all, they both say the same thing. Aside from being just plain false (or too vague), this claim depends on an absolutely specious inference from accidental property to substantial identity.

Let’s illustrate this distinction with a counterexample. Both Bush and Bin Laden consider Saddam Hussein to be their enemy. And let’s say that they even say similar things about him. We should hardly be justified in concluding that their agreement on Saddam is anything more than purely coincidental (they dislike Hussein for radically different reasons). If this is not the case, then, in Krauthammer’s eyes, Bush has a lot of explaining to do.

Charity is such a lonely word

Everyone is so unfair. And this fairly well captures the problem with David Brooks’ op-ed in today’s New York Times.

But there are lots of ways of being unfair. One of them is to interpret the statements of your opponent very narrowly, or play on the ambiguities of the English language, in order to claim that she is guilty of some gross absurdity or logical fallacy. One of the more common ways of achieving this result–especially common with David Brooks–consists in forcing your opponent into a specious either/or type of choice. Some types of either/or choice are exclusive: “you can have either soup or salad,” for instance, “but not both.” But many types of either/or choices are not exclusive: “dinner or a movie?” There is no reason in this case one can’t do both–dinner then a movie, a movie then a dinner, dinner while watching a movie, a movie while eating dinner. Recognizing the difference in ordinary English between these two senses of “or” requires a fair bit of skill and confounding them is often part of a rather devious rhetorical strategy. And this is just the strategy that David Brooks employs in today’s op-ed.

Take the following for example:

The crucial passage in the speech was this one: “The principles that should guide American policy in Iraq now and in the future are clear: we must make Iraq the world’s responsibility, because the world has a stake in the outcome and others should share the burden.” From a U.S. responsibility, Iraq will become the world’s responsibility.

Kerry said the United Nations must play a central role in supervising elections. He said other nations should come in to protect U.N. officials. He called for an international summit meeting this week in New York, where other nations could commit troops and money to Iraq. He said NATO should open training centers for new Iraqi soldiers.

He talked about what other nations could do to help address the situation in Iraq. He did not say what the U.S. should do to defeat the insurgents and stabilize and rebuild Iraq, beyond what Bush is already doing. He did not say the U.S. could fight the insurgents more effectively. He did not have any ideas on how to tame Falluja or handle Moktada al-Sadr. He did not offer any strategy for victory.

The weird thing about the last paragraph is that it depends on an absurdly narrow construal of the quotation from Kerry’s speech (as well as, by the way, speech: as a whole). This interpretation rests on taking the phrase “the world’s responsibility” in exclusive opposition to “the U.S.’s responsibility.” Having established this silly dichotomy, he concludes that Kerry has nothing to say about what the United States can do to resolve the various problems that plague Iraq, other than what the Bush administration has already argued.

Now this line of reasoning suffers from two problems. First, for reasons having to do with the simple relationship of sets, the United States is a subset of the world (and therefore not necessarily in opposition to it). Second, Kerry has not drawn a distinction between the United States and the World that would challenge this otherwise obvious fact of set membership. On the contrary, he insists that the U.S.’s job at this point is to enlist the more effective participation of the other nations of the world because the problem of Iraq is now a global problem, involving the vital interests of every nation in the world, including, of course, the United States as a subset. So, unless the United States is not a part of the world, or the United Nations, then Kerry has offered something of a plan for the United States’s continued engagement in Iraq.

Brooks’ second argument also depends on this fundamentally flawed argumentative strategy:

The president’s case is that the world is safer with Saddam out of power, and that we should stay as long as it takes to help Iraqis move to democracy. Kerry’s case is that the world would be safer if we’d left Saddam; his emphasis is on untangling the United States from Iraq and shifting attention to more serious threats.


The editors of promise a more detailed analysis of this particular argument in tomorrow’s post. But for the time being, we might note that the claim that “the world is safer with (or without) Saddam in power” is an instance of what logicians call a “relational predicate.” Another term for a relational predicate is “incomplete predicate.” This is to say that the meaning of “safer” depends on some such phrase as “than it would have been otherwise” or “than it would be today.” Without specifying the “than what?,” the “safer” claim carries quite a lot of rhetorical force, but no logical force. While it appears to force Kerry into a dichotomy of the soup or salad variety, in actual fact it does not, for Brooks has done nothing to establish the exclusivity of the choice.

But again, more on that tomorrow.

Finally, not content with what he has (failed) to establish so far, Brooks concludes with a rapid-fire series of fallacious arguments:

Substantively, of course, Kerry’s speech is completely irresponsible. In the first place, there is a 99 percent chance that other nations will not contribute enough troops to significantly decrease the U.S. burden in Iraq. In that case, John Kerry has no Iraq policy. The promise to bring some troops home by summer will be exposed as a Disneyesque fantasy.

The conclusion–that Kerry’s speech is “irresponsible”–does not follow from the claim that there is a great likelihood that the world will not contribute enough troops to reduce our presence in Iraq. At worst, if it turns out to be the case that the other nations of the world do not participate, then Kerry will have to revise his policy in light of this fact. It certainly does not follow that he has or would have no Iraq policy. And once again this argument depends on the reader drawing the inference that the either the “world” or the U.S. deal with Iraq (but not both). Since the world will not do it, on Brooks’ calculation, then Kerry has no policy.

But Brooks isn’t finished with the silly dichotomy he set up earlier in his piece:

More to the point, Kerry is trying to use multilateralism as a gloss for retreat. If “the world” is going to be responsible for defeating Moktada al-Sadr and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then no one will be responsible for defeating them. The consequences for the people of Iraq and the region will be horrific.

The only way Brooks can draw the conclusion that “no one will be responsible for defeating [Moktada al-Sadr and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi]” is if he makes something like the following argument. Either the “world” or the “U.S.” is responsible for defeating them, but the “world” won’t and Kerry will retreat, so no one will defeat them. The problem with this argument, like the other arguments in this piece, concerns the force of the “or.” Brooks takes the “or” to be the exclusive variety–either but not both–when Kerry obviously means it to be the inclusive variety–one, the other, or both (but preferably both). Certainly the consequences of Brooks’ misleading dichotomy (the U.S. or the World) would be disastrous. Considering the extreme nature of the conclusion, a fair-minded reader should expect that Brooks do more to establish that Kerry intends the “or” in this exclusive sense.

Finally–apologies for having nattered on–in the grand tradition of the junior league football pile-on, Brooks winds up his piece with the following argumentative coda:

Finally, if the whole war is a mistake, shouldn’t we stop fighting tomorrow? What do you say to the last man to die for a “profound diversion”?

Much like the rest of today’s piece, this claim relies on an absurdly narrow misreading of Kerry’s argument. It may have been a mistake to have gone to war the way we did, as Kerry claims, and indeed the whole adventure might be a mistake, but it does not follow that the contradictory is necessarily true. While it certainly seems right to conclude that the opposite of a mistake is correct, that inference relies very much on ignoring the myriad facts that (God forgive the nuance) color and qualify the employment of such a term as “mistake.” Perhaps, for instance, it was a mistake to have invaded Iraq, but it would be a bigger mistake simply to up and leave. The proper logical contradictory of “mistake” in this case–un-invading in March 2003–is in any event not available.

Bring Out Your Dead

(Washington Post 09/16/04): George Will’s diagnosis of a lethal “capitol plague” that afflicts northeastern Senators is a bit premature. The 2004 election has not taken place, so it’s a little early to bring out the dead, unless, of course, you try to club them to death first. Will attempts this self-confirming diagnosis of Kerry’s candidacy in a variety of unrelated ways. Among these the most noteworthy for our purposes–and the only ones we’ll take the time to comment on–are the following: a shallow analysis of two of Kerry’s stump speeches and a hopelessly misdirected discussion of two of Kerry’s votes as a Senator.

First the stump speeches:

“And the Northeastern senator at least went to the border region, to the banks of the Ohio River, for yet another “major” speech clarifying his position(s) on Iraq. John Kerry chose the Cincinnati venue where in October 2002 President Bush made his case for using against Iraq the force that Kerry voted to authorize. In Cincinnati, Kerry complained there was ‘$200 billion for Iraq, but they tell us we can’t afford after-school programs.’”

What the Weekly Standard and Monday Night Football commentators achieve with the rhetorically effective but semantically empty “flip-flop” talking point, Will achieves with a typographical innuendo (“position(s)”) and a subordinate clause (“[which] Kerry voted to authorize”). But amid these grammatical insinuations lies an even more clever and sinister device: the imputed false dilemma (and hence straw man). To underline the ridiculousness of Kerry’s remark (in this context-free formulation of it), Will imagines a response from Bush in which the former Governor from the Southwest logically outmaneuvers the Senator from the Northeast:

“‘Oh, so that is the problem. Why didn’t you say so sooner? In the interest of wartime unity, I will support adding to the current $1 billion spent on after-school programs an additional $1.5 billion — the amount you liberals say is needed. Now, senator, will you flip back to where you were 13 months ago when, talking about funding for the war, you said, we should ‘increase it’ and ‘by whatever number of billions of dollars it takes to win'”?”

This would be devastating to Kerry’s silly dilemma–it’s either 200 billion for Iraq (n.b., Kerry’s claim is actually false) or 1.5 billion for after-school programs–if only it were something approaching a fair reading of Kerry’s position. The quotation Will cites doesn’t suggest anything along the lines of the false dilemma he and the imaginary Bush are defeating. On a more honest and charitable reading, it suggests rather that Kerry believes the priorities of the Bush administration to be worthy of criticism.

But there’s more rhetorical trickery here. Will observes:

“Kerry might then have, as liberals are wont to do, upped the ante. While the nation was reeling from the horrors of Beslan and Baghdad, he promised a North Carolina audience that as president he would create a “Department of Wellness” to deal with problems such as house mold.”

The odd Mooresque juxtaposition (cf. “Now watch this drive”) of these three things asks us to conclude that Kerry is primarily concerned with matters wholly peripheral to the grave tasks that face the President of the United States. But we can hardly believe that Kerry’s response to the horrors of Beslan and the chaos of Iraq was to combat household mold. Will’s editing of the intellectual footage of the campaign trail would make Michael Moore’s head spin.

Turning his attention from the hustings to the Senate, Will indirectly claims that Kerry’s motivation for two key Senate votes has nothing to do with reasons or arguments:

“Better to talk about that menace [i.e., the mold] than about those two votes he cast that seem to have been equally insincere. One authorized the use of force against Iraq. The second opposed $87 billion to fund coping with the consequences of force having been used. Kerry can say nothing in defense of the first vote that does not offend the intense Democratic activists who are disgusted by it. And he can say nothing in defense of the second vote — his genuflection to those activists, made when Howard Dean was their pinup — without offending an American majority.”

Couched in the language of metapolitical analysis (“better to talk”), we can isolate the fairly obvious ad hominem attack on Kerry’s political motivations for his votes. No doubt there are political motivations for Kerry’s votes, as there are political motivations for anyone’s votes, whether this means the reasons given for the votes are insincere is another matter entirely, and one which, by the way, is very difficult to establish. Charity might suggest believing the reasons offered in the absence of countervailing evidence (of which we have nothing of the sort here). At the very least, Will might consider Kerry’s reasons for voting the way he did. For in the end, they may not be good reasons at all, and Will might have a stronger argument.

Make the pie higher

Not to be outdone by the argumentative vacuum of David Brooks’ piece, George Will offers several contributions to today’s fallacy hall of shame:

Kerry squandered his convention opportunity, incessantly telling voters only what they already knew about him — that he served in Vietnam. Then, when citizens’ groups questioned his patently questionable claims about his Vietnam service, he asked the government to construe the campaign finance laws to silence this political speech.

Two cases of suppressed evidence here. Kerry said a lot of things during his convention speech. Some of them–indeed many of them, perhaps even the greater part of what he said–had nothing to do with Vietnam. In addition to this, Kerry has made speeches throughout the country, given interviews, and written statements about substantive questions not related to his service in Vietnam. Should Will–a Pulitzer Prize winning commentator–like to engage Kerry’s position in the calm light of reason, then he should not purposely ignore the candidate’s own statements and offer nonsensical and vitriolic partisan talking points in place of rigorously executed analysis. Second, like Brooks of the New York Times, Will embraces the not only questionable but largely refuted (“refuted” here means “shown to be false”, not, as it often seems, “objected to”) claims of the Swift Boat Vets.

But this is only part of Will’s contribution to today’s logical hall of shame. When short of arguments against an opponent (which Will clearly is today), the self-confident but devious rhetorician nearly always finds away to interpret the statements of his opponent uncharitably:

Kerry insists he is not a “redistribution Democrat.” But of course he is. And Bush is a redistribution Republican. There is no “natural” distribution of social wealth. Distribution is influenced by social arrangements, from property laws to tax laws to educational arrangements, all of them political choices. Both parties have redistributionist agendas.

Will’s lack of context forces Kerry to sound like a clown. But what we have here is a fallacy of equivocation. It’s obvious that Kerry means something else by “redistribution” than does Will. But we’d never know that from Will’s simplistic semantic analysis. Whether Kerry’s policy is sensible or not, of course, is a question that Will would have to think about. No time for that, however, because Will has to turn this semantic analysis into the most pungent of red herrings:

In disavowing “redistribution,” Kerry presumably means he rejects the old liberal belief in recarving the economic pie, rather than making the pie grow, to ameliorate the condition of the poor. But he favors using government power to direct the flow of wealth to public school teachers, or to protect the flow to trial lawyers. Up-to-date liberalism defends the strong, not the poor, who are either reliable Democratic voters or nonvoters. Republicans defend their own muscular interests.

What looks like an honest attempt to evaluate Kerry’s understanding of the term “redistribution” (note the use of the word “presumably”) turns into a distracting reference (the red herring throws the dogs of the scent!) to those pointlessly litigious trial lawyers and those sickeningly wealthy public school teachers. While it is obvious that there is no flow of “wealth” to public school teachers, and trial lawyers generate their own cash by subtracting it from tortiously challenged coporations (not government handouts), this constitutes the core of Will’s conclusion that Democrats protect the “strong.” That may indeed be the case, but this silly excuse for an argument does nothing to establish it.

In all fairness, you will have noted that Will directs his considerably impoverished analysis at an equally hollow diatribe against the Republican position–it’s just not as hollow as his case against Kerry. So for a change Will offends the good sense of Republicans as well as Democrats.

One final point. Lest you think we are needlessly naughty nitpicking nabobs of negativism, then consider the following bit of Will’s own logical analysis:

This year’s political raptures are perfunctory. In Boston, Democratic delegates, who loathed the Vietnam War partly because they thought it unrelated to America’s defense, dutifully applauded John Kerry’s revisionism: “I defended this country as a young man.”

That does sound like a contradiction indeed. But Kerry didn’t contradict himself, and the delegates didn’t either–unless somesuch statement had been made at the convention (something for which no evidence is put forward here). What might make this a contradiction is some statement of Kerry’s that denies Vietnam was a defensive operation (and he’d probably find that with a little research). But what in the end would that show? Not much. Merely that Kerry can be found to have contradicted himself or that he had a sloppy choice of words. Perhaps Will might better spend his time tracking down and discussing the real issues of policy that should constitute the core of the debate in an advanced democracy such as our own instead of the pointless minutiae of partisan politics. The readers of the Washington Post might be richer for it.