Category Archives: Appeal to the People

Argumentum ad populum in all its varities–including appeals to snobbery, direct and indirect appeals to the people.

Same sex marriage and begging the question

This is a bit of a departure from our usual analysis of particular arguments in the media, but because these arguments are fairly common and because we've been hashing these issues out in the comments to the earlier post "5,000 Years," I thought I'd try to synthesize the analysis of the argument as I see it.

Is there a non-question begging (secular) argument for the following claim?

C: Same-sex relationships cannot be considered "marriage."

Setting aside certain circular arguments about tradition (like Rick Warren's which was originally being commented on), the best argument seems to rest on the premise:

P: A necessary condition of marriage is the biological possibility of procreation.

Here biological possibility has to be understood as satisfying the counter-factual condition:

BP: If the functional organs of procreation are working in a species typical way, procreation would be biologically possible.

This condition is meant to include infertile and older couples within the scope of the condition, while still excluding same sex couples. I am not, of course, endorsing this exclusion: the question is whether a good argument can be constructed for C, as a matter of logic, that could justify arguments against same-sex marriage. I am tempted to claim that there cannot be any such argument after considering the various arguments.

Because the argument is trading in essences and definitions it would seem to be deductive: That is, it argues for the impossibility of same-sex marriage by appeal to a definition/essence. It has the form of:

1. X is a necessary condition of Y.

2. Necessarily, Z does not have X.

3. Therefore, necessarily, Z is not Y.

Triangles must have straight sides. Necessarily, Circles do not have straight sides. Therefore, necessarily, circles are not Triangles. Or, Nougaty filling is a necessary condition of being a Three Musketeers bar. Necessarily, Toffee does not have a nougaty filling. Therefore, necessarily, toffee is not a Three Musketeer's bar.

As such this looks like a valid deductive argument. But, a critic might wonder whether P understood in the light of BP really says anything more the following implicit premise.

IP: Only heterosexual couples can be married.

If this is so, then the argument might reasonably be accused of begging the question. But determining when the question is begged needs to be handled carefully, since a begged question can always be resolved by appealing to some further argument that independently justifies the problematic premise.

So, the question then becomes, what independent reason can be provided for P/BP? What sort of "warrant" can be given to claim that marriage has an essential link to the biological possibility of procreation?

In the comments, we identified two distinct strategies:

a) Appeal to tradition/Generalization from past practices–this can range from some sort of descriptive anthropological claim, to some sort of generalization to a normative claim, or a most often a simple stipulation on the basis of past stipulation.

b) Appeal to social function of marriage as defining its essence (coupled with an argument that marriage is the best means for attaining the relevant goals).

It seems to me that (a) either begs the question if it appeals to tradition, or, fails to attain the universality that seems to be needed to underwrite P/BP (at most the generalization can show is that marriage has been understood to have an essential connection to the possibility of procreation, not that this is essential for it. And counter-examples are too many to make the universalization possible (old people getting married, infertile couples etc. And it's no good saying that marriage has just been socially constructed this way, since we are aiming for an essential connection.)

The appeal to tradition seems to me to beg the question insofar as it takes the following form: 

1.  Marriage has been understood (in the past) to require P/BP.

2. Therefore, P/BP

[I probably don't have the logic right here. I'm realizing as I write that I'm not quite clear on how "appeals to tradition" really work, though I think that they are typically bad arguments. I guess they're a sort of temporally dispersed ad populum.]

Even if we can avoid begging the question here, the problem with this argument is that insofar as it appeals to people's opinions about marriage, it relies on a convention, which doesn't seem to be able to underwrite a claim about essence. At most it underwrites a sort of stipulation which isn't adequate to the purposes of this argument.

The strategy of (b) fails for slightly different reasons. The argument seems to run something like this:

1. Marriages provide for stable procreative units.

2. Society has an interest in stable procreative units.

3. Therefore, Society has an interest in recognizing marriages that are means to stable procreative unit


4. Therefore, Society does not have an interest in recognizing relationships as marriages that are not means to stable procreative units.

This is a fine argument as it stands, but it doesn't get close to showing that there is some sort of essential incoherence in the notion of a marriage for some other purpose (adoptive child-rearing for example). It needs to conclude something much stronger than this, something that would suggest that recognizing same-sex marriages is incoherent, since it aims at establishing P/BP. At most it has shown that from the perspective of society, whether there are same-sex marriages or not is a matter of ambivalence. I think typically the argument seems to succeed because it trades the elision of biological function and social function. A little dose of evolution seems to suggest that this necessity is somehow a species necessity, but I think those arguments are pretty empty. (That is, I don't think we can deduce the "right" social institutions from biology, though I certainly grant that there are lots of ways in which biological truths affect which institutions are desirable and which not). 

I'm not at all sure about much of this, and I'm sure there are strategies that I've missed. And certainly it is always open to the arguer to appeal to the Bible or personal communications with God to justify P/BP. But, as far as I can see, I cannot find a viable strategy to make the argument non-question begging. The problem is that the opponent of same-sex marriage must offer a very very strong argument that concludes impossibility if they want to trade on an putative "essence" of marriage. But, the arguments that would establish this putative "essence" of marriage seem to be either too weak to do so, or end up begging the question. The problem is that the "tradition" of heterosexual marriage might have arisen because it was socially useful (and perhaps still is) for managing procreation and the family, but that does not enail the necessary link between marriage and procreation. If this is so, then the whole strategy needs to be rethought, as it is doomed to failure. But, maybe I'm missing something obvious.

Friday afternoon fun

Slashdot linked to this article by the President of the Czech Republic (corrected 6-16). It’s a treat for the connoisseur of bad argument. First a nice straw man argument.

We are living in strange times. One exceptionally warm winter is enough – irrespective of the fact that in the course of the 20th century the global temperature increased only by 0.6 per cent – for the environmentalists and their followers to suggest radical measures to do something about the weather, and to do it right now.

Not sure what to make of this paragraph. The last sentence seems to hang on a sort of ambiguity–in one sense environmentalists want a sort of “central planning.” But not, it seems, to me in the same sense as communism. Whatever it is, it’s a pretty cheap trick, I think.

As someone who lived under communism for most of his life, I feel obliged to say that I see the biggest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity now in ambitious environmentalism, not in communism. This ideology wants to replace the free and spontaneous evolution of mankind by a sort of central (now global) planning.

This paragraph is interesting.

The environmentalists ask for immediate political action because they do not believe in the long-term positive impact of economic growth and ignore both the technological progress that future generations will undoubtedly enjoy, and the proven fact that the higher the wealth of society, the higher is the quality of the environment. They are Malthusian pessimists.

Not sure I see the relevance of the “proven fact,” which, nonetheless, seems plausible to me as a simple generalization, for the problem of global warming. Does this imply that we can simply assume that global warming is not a threat, if it is caused by higher standard of living?

How about this? Perhaps an ignoratio elenchi?

The scientists should help us and take into consideration the political effects of their scientific opinions. They have an obligation to declare their political and value assumptions and how much they have affected their selection and interpretation of scientific evidence.

Should scientists qua scientists really take into consideration the political effects of their scientific opinions (qua scientific opinions)? Even if that’s so, the last sentence is just nutty. But since it has no obvious logical connection to the first sentence (does it follow from the previous one? explain? is it a case of “loosely connected statements?”), we have either, if we take it as an argument, a sort of ignoratio elenchi or red herring, perhaps.

He closes with a series of suggestions that. . .well, my description can’t do them justice. (My favorites are 4 and 5).

  • Small climate changes do not demand far-reaching restrictive measures
  • Any suppression of freedom and democracy should be avoidedc
  • Instead of organising people from above, let us allow everyone to live as he wants
  • Let us resist the politicisation of science and oppose the term “scientific consensus”, which is always achieved only by a loud minority, never by a silent majority
  • Instead of speaking about “the environment”, let us be attentive to it in our personal behaviour
  • Let us be humble but confident in the spontaneous evolution of human society. Let us trust its rationality and not try to slow it down or divert it in any direction
  • Let us not scare ourselves with catastrophic forecasts, or use them to defend and promote irrational interventions
    in human lives.

A man with a fraudulent bearing

Today we’ll continue the Brooks theme in celebration of our renewed free access to the opinion pages of the New York Times (I’m still asking myself why I was supposed to pay for this). Yesterday he wrote:

>Say what you will about President Bush, when he thinks a policy is right, like the surge, he supports it, even if it’s going to be unpopular. The Democratic leaders, accustomed to the irresponsibility of opposition, show no such guts.

This remark is confused on many levels. In the first place, Bush has obtusely adhered to failed policies, and, more damningly, neglected to question whether those policies were justified in the first place. Sometimes supporting something unpopular is just plain dumb. It’s moronic to suggest that such obtuseness constitutes courage. Besides, to do so is to commit a variant of the ad populum fallacy in that you take the lack of popular support for your position as a measure in favor of your position.

At a more basic level, however, this is a variation of the “manliness” meme so thoroughly discussed by Glenn Greenwald. Brooks has remarked on this before with Bush–even claiming that John Kerry, a man who actually voluntarily served his country in combat, was a “fraud with a manly bearing.” He wrote:

>The coming weeks will be so tough because the essential contest – of which the Swift boat stuff was only a start – will be over who really has courage, who really has resolve, and who is just a fraud with a manly bearing.

Never mind, of course, the courage to say that you blew it big time.

Sometimes appealing to the people isn’t fallacious

For once in his life, Jonah Goldberg is confused. He doesn’t see how sometimes you can be for something, and sometimes against something like that thing. So it’s inconstent, he charges, that Democrats favored multilateralism on Iraq and criticized Bush for unilateralism, but on North Korea, they seem to favor the opposite. Never mind that Bush isn’t consistent (and the justification of that inconsistency is Goldberg’s point). Somewhere along the way to making that claim he makes the following attempt to identify the ad populum fallacy (or the appeal to the people):

>Initially, Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) chief complaint against the Iraq war was that President Bush didn’t build a giant multinational coalition like his dad did, as if the argument for war depended on whether Belize and Burkina Faso agreed with us.

>If it was right to topple Saddam Hussein, it was right even if no one else agreed. And if it was wrong, then it was wrong even if the world was on our side. Lynch mobs aren’t right because they have numbers on their side, and men who stand up to them aren’t wrong because they stand alone.

Goldberg isn’t guilty of the fallacy–he just falsely accuses someone else of it. First, Kerry’s complaint was not with the justification for war (as Goldberg wrongly alleges) but with the means of going about it. For Kerry to be guilty of the ad populum fallacy here, he would have to say the truth of the charges (or the cogency of the justification) relied on the collective assent of the “mob.”

Second, one central tenet of just war theory is “reasonable probability of success.” Even though I can’t remember anyone arguing this, our go-it-nearly-alone strategy (as well as the sheer incompetence of our leadership) weakened the justification for going to war. So it’s just wrong to say that “it’s right to topple Saddam even if no one agreed.” It’s right to try to topple Saddam when you can topple Saddam (and besides–what was the war all about anyway? Toppling Saddam wasn’t the only justification or goal of the war, or so I seem to remember. . . ) with reasonable probability of not making things worse. Going it alone increased the chances of making things worse than Saddam. And to that extent, the collective assent of the mob matters.

Contra populum

One final post on George Will’s spectacularly dumb piece on global warming (later we will discuss the recurring Will canard that contractual benefits constitute “welfare”).

We should remind the reader that the whole point of Will’s essay is to challenge *the truth* of the claim of those white-coated types–also known as scientists–that the earth’s atmosphere is warming. We stress “truth” because as evidence *against* this claim, Will points out that many people *believe* it to be true:

>Eighty-five percent of Americans say warming is probably happening, and 62 percent say it threatens them personally. The National Academy of Sciences says the rise in the Earth’s surface temperature has been about one degree Fahrenheit in the past century. Did 85 percent of Americans notice? Of course not. They got their anxiety from journalism calculated to produce it.

Clearly the best explanation for why many Americans believe a claim to be true is that it’s false! Aside from that stunning non-sequitur, this is the flipside of another fallacy: the argumentum ad populum. Under normally fallacious circumstances, the devious and dishonest arguer will suggest that the sheer number of people who hold a belief is evidence of that’ belief’s truth (or moral goodness, or whatever), when that truth does not depend on a vote. Global warming is obviously a question for experts (so the number of non-experts who believe it or not doesn’t constitute evidence for or against it).

Will’s claim has a kind of tinfoil hat quality to it: if a lot of people believe something, then not only is it false, but it’s the product of a mass conspiracy:

>About the mystery that vexes ABC — Why have Americans been slow to get in lock step concerning global warming? — perhaps the “problem” is not big oil or big coal, both of which have discovered there is big money to be made from tax breaks and other subsidies justified in the name of combating carbon.

>Perhaps the problem is big crusading journalism.

The weird thing about this conspiracy, however, is that it’s stunningly effective and ineffective. Just compare the two passages (from the beginning and end of the piece): Americans have been slow to recognize the threat of global warming because of the success of journalism calculated to produce recognition of such threats, so therefore the problem is journalism. For once in my life I’m confused.

Give me that old time religion

Over the year we’ve been in business we’ve seen plenty of ironic fallacies–these are the fallacies people commit by accusing others of committing fallacies. During the election the favorite was the reverse ad hominem–accuse someone else of attacking (thereby ignoring their justified attack and attacking them in turn). Here’s another variation on that theme–the reverse ad populum:

>These things come in waves, of course, but waves need to be resisted, even if the exercise leaves you feeling like King Canute. The new wave is fashionable doubt. Doubt is in. Certainty is out.

So Charles Krauthammer (famous for his use of the reverse ad hominem) would have us believe that since doubt is fashionable, people who believe it must do so simply because others do, not because perhaps they have a reason to doubt. This is a nice way of abdicating your responsibility for an argument against their view. That doesn’t make it right. And worse, I’m not sure if Krauthhammer knows this, but just because your belief is deeply held or profoundly felt doesn’t mean it’s *true.*

Of course, Krauthammer’s jeremiad (he used that word) on belief is really just a set up for his main argument.

>The Op-Ed pages are filled with jeremiads about believers–principally evangelical Christians and traditional Catholics–bent on turning the U.S. into a theocracy. Now I am not much of a believer, but there is something deeply wrong–indeed, deeply un-American–about fearing people simply because they believe. *It seems perfectly O.K. for secularists to impose their secular views on America, such as, say, legalized abortion or gay marriage. But when someone takes the contrary view, all of a sudden he is trying to impose his view on you.* And if that contrary view happens to be rooted in Scripture or some kind of religious belief system, the very public advocacy of that view becomes a violation of the U.S. constitutional order.

Now let’s look at this a little more closely. Embedded in the usual tripe about anti-religious feeling in the liberal media, is a familiar argumentative trope: religious [think Christian Evangelical not Muslim] versus secular. These two things do not rightly belong in the same category (at least in the way Krauthammer arranges them), so any attempt to compare them is bound to mislead. Besides, *legalized* abortion is not imposed on anyone the law recognizes; gay marriage (wherever it is legal) is not imposed on anyone either (barring probably unlikely shotgun weddings). These are activities, not views. Views cannot be imposed on anyone; activities can, but these activities can’t–unless your parents force the gay lifestyle on you; or force you to get an abortion. To avoid gay marriage, don’t go to gay weddings, or don’t be gay; to avoid abortion, give birth to any children you conceive.

When an opinion is just an opinion.

When we envisioned this project and then began to work on it, we expected to spend our time roughly equally on editorial writers from all political orientations. It is, of course, readily apparent that our focus has primarily rested on four writers–David Brooks, George Will, William Safire, and Charles Krauthammer. These four are, of course, the most conservative of the opinion page writers of the country's two major dailies–The New York Times and The Washington Post. For the last two and half months, we have, therefore, spent most of our efforts criticizing conservative arguments. This probably gives the appearance of a certain "partisanship." This is not, however, our intention. Nonetheless, having read probably several hundred opinion pieces in the last two and half months from political opinion magazines as diverse as Pat Buchanan's *The American Conservative,* *The Nation* (the largest and oldest opinion weekly in the country), middle america weeklies likes *Time* and *Newsweek*, and newspapers from the flagships mentioned above to the *The Boston Globe,* *Chicago Sun Times,* and the *Cleveland Plain Dealer,* we are in a position to reflect on this appearance of partisanship. To do that, I think we need to address the question of the purpose of I have come to think of Maureen Dowd as the "purest" opinion writer around because her columns rarely involve explicit inference or argument. Instead, she largely describes her own reactions to the world, spicing it up a little with a few one-liners or cheap shots. This means that there is little in her columns for us to analyze, and also explains the impression that they are generally "fluffy" (leaving aside her hatchet jobs on Clinton and Monica from the 90's). There is, of course, implicit inference and the logic underlying her one-liners, but for the most part her columns remain somewhat impressionistic. At some point I will return to this and try to demonstrate it more rigorously. The first half of Brooks' column today (Source: NYT 11/02/04) is pure opinion. Brooks treats us to his reflections on the course of the campaign and his mild uncertainty whether his support of the Bush administration is wise or justified. >As I look back over the course of this campaign, I should confess I've gone through several periods convinced I should vote against President Bush. I know I'm not the only conservative to think this way. I look at my favorite conservative bloggers and see many coming out for John Kerry. I talk to my friends at conservative think tanks and magazines and notice that they are deeply ambivalent about the administration, even those who would never vote for a Democrat. This is part of Brooks' persona as the reasonable conservative who is more concerned with the merits of the various positions than with maintaining a strict party line–a persona that his columns over the last two and half months have given pleny of reason to doubt. Nonetheless, as his confession continues and he reveals his doubts about the Bush administration, we find nothing to analyze. Reporting the autobiographical facts about his personal beliefs does not involve argument or inference. For example to say as Brooks does: >I'm frustrated that Bush didn't build the governing majority that was there for the taking. is merely to report a psychological and biographical fact, which for the purposes of our analysis we assume to be true. Certainly Brooks wants to *explain* his frustration, but he does not need to *prove* it to us. Insofar as he remains at the level of his opinions and the explanation of his opinions there is generally little for logical analysis. But it is an entirely different matter to say as Brooks does later: > Then other considerations come into play. The first is Kerry. He's been attacked for being a flip-flopper, but his core trait is that he is monumentally selfish. Since joining the Senate, he has never attached himself to an idea or movement larger than his own career advancement. >It's not for nothing that people in Massachusetts joked that his initials stand for Just For Kerry. Or that people spoke of him as the guy who refuses to wait in lines at restaurants because he thinks he's above everybody else. Here he does more than report his belief that Kerry is "monumentally selfish." He attempts to provide the evidence that provides *reason* to believe that he is selfish. We have moved from reporting his opinions to attempting to establish the truth of an objective claim. It is at this point that our analysis is required. Does Brooks have good reason to believe that Kerry is "monumentally selfish?" Or more importantly, are the reasons that he advances sufficient to establish either the likelihood or the truth of that claim? He appeals here to two pieces of evidence: 1) "He has never attached himself to an idea or movement larger than his own career advancement." 2) People have the impression that he is selfish. We must now evaluate the strength of the inference from these two claims to the conclusion that "Kerry is monumentally selfish." As they stand they both suggest significant logical fallacies. In the first case, the fallacy of suppressed evidence, and in the second, appeal to unqualified authority (perhaps), or a sort of appeal to the people. Without thinking very long or spending any time with Lexis/Nexis, the first claim seems simply implausible, and certainly lacks any actual evidence to support it. It is, however, part of the attempt to portray Kerry (or Gore, or Clinton, or . . ..) as a cynical self-aggrandizing politician. This is common trope in political discourse and Brooks of course is willing to stoop to it. The second claim is an equally bad argument for his conclusion but a little harder to analyze. He seems to be arguing that "people" have the impression that he's the kind of guy who "refuses to wait in lines at restaurants." His only attempt to bolster this impression is to assert that "it is not for nothing that people . . ." have this impression. The fact that people believe something is not evidence that it is true, and not reason that we should believe it to be true. Of course, there may be reason to believe this, but Brooks does not provide that and so does not provide any reason to believe that "Kerry is monumentally selfish." Again we can see quite clearly that Brooks stumbles when he attempts to provide an argument for his beliefs. His arguments are consistently bad. His opinions may be true or may be false, just as they may be interesting or not. But when he remains within the domain of reporting his own opinions, we will find ourselves with much less to criticize–if he doesn't make arguments, then he can't make bad arguments. I will leave Brooks' editorial aside now, and end by briefly returning to the original question. But before I do that, I want to distinguish one other sort of opinion piece that we find more often I think being penned by the liberal or centrist commentators of the two major dailies. An example of this is today found from a right wing commentator, George Will. Rather than an "opinion editorial" in the pure sense delineated above, this might be referred to as a "reporting editorial." An example from the left-center occupants of the editorial pages might be Nicholas Kristof's recent reporting editorials from Afghanistan. Like pure opinion editorials these are concerned first of all with the reporting of facts rather than with argument and inference. George Will begins his piece today with a quick tour through the electoral almanac: >If, for the fourth consecutive election, neither candidate wins a popular vote majority, relax. There were four consecutive such elections from 1880 to 1892. In 1876 a candidate (Samuel Tilden) got 51 percent — and lost (to Rutherford Hayes). Six elections since World War II produced plurality presidents — 1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, 2000. Woodrow Wilson was consequential although he won his first term with just 41.8 percent and his second with 49.2 percent. Once again, there is nothing to contest as a matter of logic here–we assume that his facts are correct. The first half of the editorial continues in this vein, relating interesting parallels between past elections and possible outcomes today. The latter half of the editorial departs from this concern and highlights a number of things that Will wants us to "watch" such as Nevada and Maine's 2nd congressional district. Here he explains the reasons that these might be interesting without attempting to prove anything in particular. Here we move back in the direction of a "pure opinion" piece since in essence Will is saying "I think Nevada will be interesting to watch because. . .." It has been our impression over the last two and a half months that the these quartet of op-ed writers on which we have focused tend to spend more time arguing than opining. In contrast writers such as Dowd or Kristof *tend* to spend less time arguing than opining. Since the arguments offered by our quartet of writers are so often fallacious we are immediately attracted to analyze them. This is not to say that we do not have partisan tendencies or that we are not blinded to some fallacious reasoning by any number of psychological factors or beliefs. Nonetheless, our focus on this quartet is not a simple reflection of these things, but we believe a reflection of the failures of their arguments.


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,, 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.

40,000 Frenchmen can’t be wrong

Under the heading of politicians today we have the following classic non sequitur from former Bush 41 aide Les Csorba:

From that emotional instant, Bush rose to the occasion, what he poignantly called the “middle hour of our grief.” The American people looked in that mirror that day and saw a picture of themselves: a grown man, burdened with the grief at the loss. At that moment, almost 80 percent of the American people said that they could trust the president

Now aside from the exploitation of the sense of grief and outrage in the days following September 11th, 2001, Csorba is guilty of the even more appalling crime of a leap in logic. Even granting that 80 percent of the people actually did find the President trustworthy, it certainly does not follow that he is. It merely follows that 80 percent of the people find (or rather found) him trustworthy. Whether the President–or anyone for that matter–actually is trustworthy depends on whether he tells the truth, acts responsibly and judiciously and so forth. Some, perhaps on the internet, have alleged that this is not the case.

The Thrill is Gone

A champion debater–always a red flag in the logic world–at the University of Chicago, David Brooks illustrates for us today the distinction between rhetoric and real argument:

Kerry’s speeches in the 1990’s read nothing like that 1971 testimony. The passion is gone. The pompous prevaricator is in. You read them and you see a man so cautiously calculating not to put a foot wrong that he envelops himself in a fog of caveats and equivocations. You see a man losing the ability to think like a normal human being and starting instead to think like an embassy.

Here we have two if not more basic logical howlers. First, and most obviously, Brooks attacks Kerry the person rather than his arguments. He heaps abuse on the Senator from Massachussets (“the pompous prevaricator”) for not taking clear and unnuanced positions (as do “normal human beings”) on complicated matters of policy. Second, in executing this attack, Brooks suggests that the only responsible way for to go is passionately to embrace one or another position (apparently it matters not what that position is as long as it is held passionately). We find it perplexing in the extreme that one would suggest embracing false dichotomies as a habit of thought.

Later in the same piece, Brooks continues his rhetorical charge:

Most people take a certain pride in their own opinions. They feel attached to them as part of who they are. But Kerry can be coldly detached from his views, willing to use, flip or hide them depending on the exigencies of the moment.

Here we have the appeal to the people–the argumentum ad populum–the last refuge of the op-ed writer. If I can’t make an argument for my position, then perhaps I can directly appeal to the good sense of “most people.” Unfortunately, just because most people “take pride in their opinions” does not mean that they should. If recent history has shown us anything, most people can be wrong, terrifyingly wrong (please fill in your own examples). The intellectual virtue of detachment–of seeing the limits of one’s own beliefs and revising them–becomes a vice in Brooks’ intellectual landscape. And of course when one changes one’s views, it’s not because of any honest reflection–a possibility Brooks wholly ignores–but because of the “exigencies” (that is to say the circumstances) of the moment.

So that’s at least four for Brooks today–ad hominem (abusive variety), false dichotomy, ad populum, and ad hominem (circumstantial variety). And this is only a cursory reading. Should you like to find more, here is the link.

And this brings us back to our original point. What Brooks says sounds very convincing, and he harnesses all of his considerable rhetorical training to make his case. Unfortunately, what results is nothing but so much hot air, so much nonsense. In the examples here cited, he does nothing to demonstrate, to support, or to argue for his position–whereby “argue” we mean state reasons that lead with significant probability to his conclusion.