Category Archives: Straw Man

Do as we do not as we say

Recently George Will has spilled a lot of ink on the Supreme Court. The other day it was a shallow and snarky analysis of the takings clause, today
the same for the establishment clause. This time we have a Scalian excursus on original intent. Rather than consulting a dictionary contemporary to the founding fathers for the meaning of the word “wall” in “wall of separation,” Will consults their behavior. According to the author Will cites–and we have no reason to doubt him–the founding fathers’ notion of “wall of separation” did not include religioius services in a government building, among many other things. On the strength of the founding father’s behavior, and some rather shallow lampooning of the very real problems of constitutional interpretation, Will concludes that 25 years of constitutional “hair-splitting” have been a waste.

In response it should be said that some of what the founding fathers thought and did was deplorable. Some of this (to our everlasting shame) they even enshrined in the Constitution. So it’s certainly not the case that their behavior should serve necessarily as a guide for our own. And though it might remain an open question as to whether some of their behavior should serve as a guide for our own, we would need some way to tell which behavior to emulate and which to eschew. Once we do this, we’re back to what George Will calls hairsplitting and what the student of constitutional law might call “reasoning.”

Argumentum pro homine

Just about everyone who has had Intro to Logic knows about the fallacy of the attack against the person, or ad hominem. It's a question of relevance, they are told, in that the negative features of a person's character have nothing to do with the argument she is making. That's why it's called an "attack" or "against" or in Latin, "ad." Even George Bush, Michael Moore, or why not, even Paul Wolfowitz deserves to have his argument assessed on its own merits. Rarely if ever, however, does one hear of the negative counterpart, the obverse, of the argumentum ad hominem, the argumentum pro homine. Despite its rarity and notwithstanding the absence of cruel or mean-spirited irrelevance, it's fallacious for the same reasons. And we have a fine example of this in David Brooks March 8, 2005 opinion piece in The New York Times. Take a look at this:

Let us look again at the man who's been vilified by Michael Moore and the rest of the infantile left, who's been condescended to by the people who consider themselves foreign policy grown-ups, and who has become the focus of much anti-Semitism in the world today – the center of a zillion Zionist conspiracy theories, and a hundred zillion clever-Jew-behind-the-scenes calumnies.

It's not necessary to absolve Wolfowitz of all sin or to neglect the postwar screw-ups in Iraq. Historians will figure out who was responsible for what, and Wolfowitz will probably come in for his share of the blame. But with political earthquakes now shaking the Arab world, it's time to step back and observe that over the course of his long career – in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in Central and Eastern Europe, and now in the Middle East – Wolfowitz has always been an ardent champion of freedom. And he has usually played a useful supporting role in making sure that pragmatic, democracy-promoting policies were put in place.

If the trends of the last few months continue, Wolfowitz will be the subject of fascinating biographies decades from now, while many of his smuggest critics will be forgotten. Those biographies will mention not only his intellectual commitment but also his personal commitment, his years spent learning the languages of the places that concerned him, and the thousands of hours spent listening deferentially to the local heroes who led the causes he supported.

To praise Wolfowitz is not triumphalism. The difficulties ahead are obvious. It's simple justice. It's a recognition that amid all the legitimate criticism, this guy has been the subject of a vicious piling-on campaign by people who know less than nothing about what is actually going on in the government, while he, in the core belief that has energized his work, may turn out to be right.

The occasion for the reconsideration of Paul Wolfowitz's character is the irresponsible–and to judge by the headline of the March 8, 2005 New York Times–incorrect belief that the "political earthquakes now shaking the Arab world" are unremittingly positive. More Lebanese have descended into the streets in favor of Syria than those who a week earlier showed up against it.  And besides, even those who came out against Syria wanted to be rid of a foreign occupier (never mind, as everyone hask the reasons for the occupation) as we Americans ourselves happen to be (in Iraq, another Arab country).

My colleague at the Thenonsequitur.com has been closely following these arguments as they appear in various op-ed pages and has promised to discuss them soon. The problem with Brooks' argument lies elsewhere. In particular, it consists in his logically clueless response-in-kind to perceived attacks on Paul Wolfowitz the person. We've discussed this sort of argument, the reverse ad hominem before.

In logical strategy it very much resembles the straw man: falsely accuse your opponent of not making an argument but of attacking the person, and in so doing you attack her rather than her argument (since you've accused her of not having an argument). This time, however, in addition to attacking the attacker (note the rhetorical juxtaposition of the "the infantile left" with the lunatic antisemitism on the order of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), Brooks responds to those attacks by pointing out what a patient listener and marvelous student of foreign languages Wolfowitz is, among other achievements and personal virtues.

No question Wolfowitz has all sorts of personal virtues and has accomplished something in his life. That's not the issue, however, in the serious critiques of his political positions and arguments. And besides that, and more to the point actually, Wolfowitz may be motivated by the purest desire to improve the lot of humankind in general, but many serious questions have been raised about the means he has chosen to these ends. Some have argued, so we have heard, that those means have been disastrous for those asked to carry them out in reality, as well as those who never asked Wolfowitz for his help.

Ad Feminam

Only just recently George Will argued that Michael Crichton’s appendixed and footnoted science-fiction thriller about global warming–sorry, climate change–merited unironic juxtaposition with the body of unthrilling and nonfictional scientific research from the majority of the world’s qualified scientists. Now this past week in The Washington Post
he argues that Larry Summers’ off the cuff and argumentless remarks about the genetic basis of gender differences in cognitive ability warrant the same kind of careful attention and consideration. The failure of academia to take them seriously, and its quick, negative reaction to them constitutes to Will’s mind evidence of academia’s not so latent hypocrisy:

>Forgive Larry Summers. He did not know where he was.

>Addressing a conference on the supposedly insufficient numbers of women in tenured positions in university science departments, he suggested that perhaps part of the explanation might be innate — genetically based — gender differences in cognition. He thought he was speaking in a place that encourages uncircumscribed intellectual explorations. He was not. He was on a university campus.

Continue reading Ad Feminam

Illicit contrariness

The debate concerning the “value’s vote” in the election will probably continue for some time. Many pundits have weighed in already, arguing that there was no “value’s vote,” or that the “value’s vote” was misguided, etc. John Leo in the last issue of the U.S. News and World Report (Source: USNWR 11/29/04), seeks to defend the value’s vote from its critics.

>I am struggling to understand the “don’t impose your values” argument. According to this popular belief, it is wrong, and perhaps dangerous, to vote your moral convictions unless everybody else already shares them.

It’s hard to know what argument Leo is unable to understand–the ascription of this view to “popular belief” makes it seem unlikely that he has a particular advocate in mind and so does not feel the need to consider what exactly the argument might involve. Presumably, Leo is trying to capture a sense of the “secular liberal” who adheres to a strict understanding of the separation of church and state and sees religiously motivated “value’s argument” to be as potentially insidious as the installation of the Taliban. But, in the absence of anyone who would actually advance this argument it is hard to take it seriously or Leo’s refutation of it as particularly significant. This is a sort of “straw man fallacy”–the argument that he is actually concerned with is the argument against the place of religious values in political debate, or the rationality of choosing to vote on values rather than economic self-interest.

>Nobody ever explains exactly what constitutes an offense in voting one’s values, but the complaints appear to be aimed almost solely at conservative Christians, who are viewed as divisive when they try to “force their religious opinions on us.”

So Leo seems to be confusing two distinct issues:

1 The argument that a significant number of voters chose to vote on “values” rather than for example economic self-interest etc.
2 The argument that the parochial values of religious sects should not be the grounds for government.

The former is a matter for sociology and political science (and has been discussed in Thomas Franks’ *What’s the Matter with Kansas?*): The latter is a matter of constitutional theory respecting the “establishment clause” of the first amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). But Leo wants to argue against a caricature of #1 in order to suggest that we have grounds for rejecting #2 (which he does not in fact give) and therefore demostrating the contrary of #2:

2a Parochial values of religious sects should or can be the grounds for government.

What he wants to do is refute claim that “values should never enter into politics” in order to justify the inclusion of religious values in politics. But of course the negation of the first does not imply the contrary of the second since the two are not strict contradictories.

The logical form of this argument:

1 Either no values have a place in government or some do.
2 It is not the case that values *do not* have a place in goverment.
3 Therefore, *all* (including religious) values have a place in government.

So in fact, there are two fallacies here: The straw man in #1 and the equivocation on the notion of values that enables him to conclude that religious values have a place in government even though he has only shown that some values have a place in government.

Strictly speaking, however, this is a formal fallacy based on the difference between contrary and contradictory statements. Contradictory statements possess opposite truth values (one is false, the other true): Contrary statements, however, can both be false.

a No S is P. —- a1) All S is P.
b No S is P. —- b1) Some S is P.

In the first case we have contraries–both can be false (when “Some S is P”). In the second we have contradictories since whatever the truth value of one, the other is opposite. (So we can infer from the falsity of “No S is P” that “Some S is P” is true.) Leo seems to commit the formal fallacy of “illicit contrary” here.

> If the “don’t impose” people wish to mount a serious argument, they will have to attack “imposers” on both sides of the issues they discuss–not just their opponents. They will also have to explain why arguments that come from religious beliefs are less worthy than similar arguments that come from secular principles or simply from hunches or personal feelings.

The first of these two claims is eminently reasonable: Logic here demands consisitency, and so the argument–if there ever has been such a one–that values must be entirely excluded from politics would, of course, have to apply to *all values*–assuming, however, that all “values” are on a par in this case.

But of course there is good reason to exclude certain sorts of religious arguments from political debate in a nation that adheres to the “separation of church and state”–these arguments *are* “less worthy than similar arguments that come from secular principles or simply from hunches or personal feelings” in the context with which we are concerned.

To conclude the column, Leo spends some time looking at several cases where the supposedly “anti-values” people will need to argue against their customary positions as a consequence of the logical virtue of consistency. But the massing of examples does not hide the fact that all he can argue is:

1 If you hold the belief that “imposing values is always wrong,” then you must be opposed to the imposition of values in case x.

Certainly.

But this argument is far too weak for Leo’s purposes. What he in fact wants to conclude is:

>No arguments are privileged because they come from secular people, and none are somehow out of bounds because they come from people of faith. Religious arguments have no special authority in the public arena, but the attempt to label those arguments as illegitimate because of their origin is simply a fashionable form of prejudice. Dropping the “don’t impose” argument would be a step toward improving the political climate.

Leo seems to think that he has established that “religious arguments” are legitimate grounds for political decisions. But, the fact that *some* values are legitimate in public discourse does not of course imply that *all* are.

In fact, as an example, when the Colorado Supreme Court was examining Amendment 2 denying “special consideration” to homosexuals, one of the central issues was whether the moral motivation of the amendment was necessarily founded in a particular religion. Conservative advocates argued that the Ancient Greeks had a non-religious disapprobation of homosexuality.

Thus, at least as far as I understand the underlying issue–not of course being a constitutional lawyer–a *merely* religious argument is in fact “illegitimate” in this case precisely because of its orgin. That is, if a particular law or policy is simply designed to enshrine or impose the moral or religious beliefs of an individual sect on the country as a whole, the arguments in its favor are illegitimate.

And this is not, as Leo wants it, a matter of “prejudice.” For the same reason that the biblical calculation of *pi* can be excluded from mathematics textbooks, so moral beliefs based solely in religious principles are not necessarily legitimate for the purpose of policy and political argument.

After exposing these fallacies and the illegitimate conclusion draws from them, let me make one last comment. I think Leo is in fact right that the debate surrounding stem cell research etc. is a debate about “values”–but the rules of this debate are set among other things by the principles contained within constitution and its tradition of interpretation. Presumably to the chagrin of Leo and others, these rules do in fact exclude certain arguments without the exclusion being a matter of “prejudice.”

One last complication to consider. Surely in a democracy it is legitimate to vote on the basis of one’s values–no one, despite Leo’s suggestion, argues that one should not do so. But these values or the intentions and policies of the candidate who reflects these values are not on that basis legitimate as a matter of public policy. In fact, this was precisely what the founding fathers wanted to avoid: The possibility of the local prejudices of various religions from being imposed on all citizens.

There and here

“Moral values” played an important role in the recent election, at least in the minds of many conservative pundits and pollsters. To them, red state concern over the erosion of moral values in blue states, universities, and Hollywood delivered a resounding Bush mandate. Despite, or perhaps on account of, such a colossal victory, the red-state of mind continues to harp on the erosion of the nostalgic red state values of moral courage, sexual purity, the distinction between good and evil, and the existence or nature of the “soul”–things which blue state universities (how dare they) subject to rigorous intellectual analysis. And so David Brooks approvingly cites (or distorts–we haven’t read the novel) Tom Wolfe’s description of red state/blue state moral conflict in his *I am Charlotte Simmons*:

>His latest, “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” is about a young woman who leaves Sparta, a small town in North Carolina, and enters an elite university. She finds all the rules of life there are dissolved: the rules of courtship, the rules of decorum and polite conversation.

Young Charlotte “finds *all* the rules of life” to be “dissolved”, and here is the important part, “*there*”. What are the “rules of life”? Well, they do not involve honesty, charity, generosity, magnanimity, equanimity, or anything of that sort, rather they involve polite southern belle sexual behavior: the “rules” of courtship, decorum, and “polite” conversation. The “there” (as in not “here” in deep red Sparta, North Carolina) underscores the Brooksian dichotomy, and, considering the sheer variety of rules of courtship, decorum, and polite conversation, across the red and the blue, it’s a false one.

But there’s more.

>The social rules have dissolved because the morality that used to undergird them dissolved long ago. Wolfe sprinkles his book with observations about how the word “immoral” now seems obsolete, about how sophisticated people now reject the idea of absolute evil, about a hypermaterialistic neuroscience professor who can use the word “soul” only when it is in quotation marks.

As academics, we can guarantee you that it doesn’t take a “hypermaterialistic neuroscience professor” to be skeptical about the existence or nature of the soul, or a relativist to question the proper use of the word “immoral,” or a “sophisticated” person to wonder about “absolute evil.” After all, since the first fragmentary origins of Western Thought, philosophers have wondered whether there is such a thing as the soul (distinct from the body, brain or heart), whether there is a knowable basis of morality, and finally, whether absolute evil is conceivable. On this last point, not even St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas thought that absolute evil “existed.” Since creation was good, they argued, there could not *be* any such thing. Now of course, perhaps there exist unreflective dogmatists who hold such positions. But they are as empty-headed and clueless as their ideological obverse. To pick on them, as Brooks has here done, is to undergird your false dichotomy (here or there) with a straw man.

Now where we come from, we worry about the erosion of the intellectual and therefore moral virtues that undergird rigorous, critical, honest and fair discourse.

Nuisance

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.

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.

Analogies

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.