Category Archives: Straw Man

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.

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 www.thenonsequitur.com 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.