Tag Archives: Anne Applebaum

Unnecessarily fallacious

Whether a non-deductive argument is strong, weak, or fallacious oftentimes if not always depends heavily on who the arguer is, what the context of the argument is, what the state of play of the debate is, and so forth.  All of these factors render the identification of good and bad reasoning an at times frustrating enterprise.  One common cause of debatable fallacy accusation is a failure to take seriously the careful identification of the arguer, context, and state of play.

Here's an example of an unnecessarily weak argument from Anne Applebaum:

Only two presidents in recent memory have not had vacation homes of their own: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Not coincidentally, it is their vacation choices that have been most heavily criticized. When he was down in Crawford, George W. Bush surrounded himself with like-minded friends and admirers. Away from the cameras, he had a break from constant public surveillance and the Washington rat race. But when Clinton went to Martha's Vineyard to surround himself with likeminded friends and admirers (and to enjoy a break from constant public surveillance and the Washington rat race), he was damned as an elitist. So was Obama, who went there last summer for exactly the same reasons.

Why, exactly, is borrowing or renting someone's house more elitist than owning one? Why is Martha's Vineyard snobbier than Kennebunkport, Hyannis Port or even a private Texas ranch? I don't know, but that's what everyone said, and thus were the Clintons forced to take a pretend "vacation" in Jackson Hole, Wyo. During this "vacation," they had to provide photo opportunities to the press to prove that they really were normal Americans — which, of course, they were not. Once elected, no president is ever a normal American again.

The same fate has now befallen Obama, whose lack of a permanent country residence has also made him inexplicably appear more elitist. Having done the Martha's Vineyard thing last year, and been duly criticized, he has made up for it with visits to Maine, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and North Carolina, all places where "average" Americans like to go.  

Anyone can tell that Applebaum is in the critical mode here, she's evaluating someone else's reasons.  The question, of course, is: Who argues this?  She doesn't say who exactly (save for "the American people"). 

Applebaum is engaging in the completely useless but time-honored practice of weak-kneed newspaper pundits by not naming the object of her criticism.  This leaves it to the reader to fill in for herself.  I remember Cokie Roberts inexplicably arguing that Obama ought not to vacation in Hawaii, as it is  "exotic."   But in fact, if you check your map, it is a state in the United States, and, by coincidence, it is also the place where Obama was born (sorry birthers).  Now her point, however absolutely outrageously and unforgiveably dumb, is that Hawaii is "unAmerican" and "exotic" so Obama shouldn't go there, it only highlights the oddity of his name and er, ethnicity.  So she's not talking about Roberts–though she ought to be.  

I can't think of anyone in particular (in part because I just got back from vacation–three days and renting–myself).  So Applebaum would do be a great favor is she just said who thinks such stuff.

But maybe this is Applebaum doesn't in fact know, and this is her general sense of the buzz about Obama's (and Clinton's) vacations.  So her crticism is a composite sketch of several distinct possible suspects.  If so, I find this particularly unhelpful.  There are real people making specifically dumb arguments and raising ridiculous questions about Obama's vacation.  We can all learn from their dumbness.  Turning an opportunity for dumbness identification into an occasion for hollow-manning is a waste.

When criticism is not specific, like punishment, it's useless.  It always leaves open the door for the person with the weak argument to escape. 

They’re just nihilists

The Washington Post has given tenured spots on its page to a serial climate change denier (George Will), a conspiracy theorist (Charles Krauthammer), and they have offered up guest spots to the likes of Sarah Palin and other alleged global warming skeptics.  Today, finally, a little bit of balance.  Eugene Robinson goes after Palin's latest op-ed, and Anne Applebaum reaffirms the obvious and well-known facts about global warming. However, as if a part of some weird conspiracy to exacerbate the problem of the doubters, their arguments blow. 

Robinson's entire piece is directed at the alleged change in Palin's position.  As governor of Alaska, Robinson points out, Palin seemed to affirm the reality of climate change, but now she denies it.  But that's not what Robinson says:

In her administrative order, Palin instructed the sub-Cabinet group to develop recommendations on "the opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Alaska sources, including the expanded use of alternative fuels, energy conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy, land use management, and transportation planning." She also instructed the group to look into "carbon-trading markets."

But in her op-ed last week, Palin — while acknowledging "natural, cyclical environmental trends" and the possibility that human activity might be contributing to warming – states flatly that "any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs." What she once called "carbon-trading markets" she now denounces as "the Democrats' cap-and-tax proposal."

Is there nobody at the Post who can point out that this is not a contradiction.  She instructed a group to "look into" not to "endorse" carbon trade proposals.  She's clearly unhappy with the ones offered.  Robinson is so gleeful in the discovery of his alleged contradiction that he doesn't realize he hasn't found it.  Besides, what does it matter?  She can change her mind if she wants.  Further, who cares what she thinks?  She is neither a scientist nor an elected official of any consequence. 

By contrast, Anne Applebaum has found the real culprit in the whole climate change debate: scattered crazy enivronmentalists.  And she goes in the for the full weak man.  She begins, ominously enough:

There is no nihilism like the nihilism of a 9-year-old. "Why should I bother," one of them recently demanded of me, when he was presented with the usual arguments in favor of doing homework: "By the time I'm grown up, the polar ice caps will have melted and everyone will have drowned."

When I was a kid it was nuclear war.  Anyway, what lesson does she draw from this.  No, not that for many kids this will be a reality.  Rather, people who point this out are a big bringdown:

Watching the news from Copenhagen last weekend, it wasn't hard to understand where he got that idea. Among the tens of thousands demonstrating outside the climate change summit, some were carrying giant clocks set at 10 minutes to midnight, indicating the imminent end of the world. Elsewhere, others staged a "resuscitation" of planet Earth, symbolically represented by a large collapsing balloon. Near the conference center, an installation of skeletons standing knee-deep in water made a similar point, as did numerous melting ice sculptures and a melodramatic "die-in" staged by protesters wearing white, ghost-like jumpsuits.

Danish police arrested about a thousand people on Saturday for smashing windows and burning cars, and on Sunday arrested 200 more (they were carrying gas masks and seem to have been planning to shut down the city harbor). Nevertheless, in the long run it is those peaceful demonstrators, the ones who say the end is nigh, who have the capacity to do the most psychological damage.

The second group of people have nothing to do with negative messaging.  She goes on and on with examples of nutty environmentalists who just make you feel bad with all of their blaming and hyperbole (the veracity of which she doesn't question).  All of this, however, is a silly distraction.  The law of probability has it that global warming will attract no small number of people who say crazy things (if in fact they're guilty of that).  Can you really blame them, however, when you have well-paid people on the staff of the Post–not sign-carrying nutters in the streets–who deny well-established facts. 

Who is the real nihilist?  The one who says we're doomed if we do nothing?  Or the one who alleges it's all a big communist lie?  

 

Nazi Analogies

Anyone who has taken an ethics class is familiar with the Nazi analogy: "but on your view, a Nazi could be authentically happy. . ." therefore, etc.  In philosophy classes, as in real life, Nazi is short for every kind of evil person, activity or thing.  While this has a lot to do with history (Nazis were very bad indeed), it has probably less to do with actual Nazis (there were lots of different kinds of Nazis–none probably embodying every vice–thus the very justified criticism of liberal fascism).  Similar to the ethics class Nazi is the internet Nazi.  Godwin's law, or rather a corollary of Godwin's law, holds that invoking a Nazi analogy ends the discussion in a loss for the invoker.  There probably ought to a similar heuristic for politics, but there isn't.

Recently there's been a lot of incompetent talk about "appeasement."  Such talk, however, has little to do with actual appeasement–which involves, if I'm not mistaken, giving in to an aggressor in order to avoid conflict.  It's been used, however, to characterize any diplomatic interaction, which is obviously false.  Or maybe such is the fear of words and arguments–or so evil is our enemy–that his words will lull us into a kind of stupor, forcing us to agree to his demands.  But probably not.  I think such appeasement talk is just a handy way to keep the Nazis ever present in our national narrative.  

Yesterday Anne Applebaum, writing for the Post, complained about this.  She writes:

True, it seems that Nazi analogies can be used with almost infinite flexibility. Bush — in what was widely interpreted as an attack on Barack Obama last week — was making a point about politicians who talk to "terrorists and radicals," comparing them to those who appeased Hitler in the 1930s. Putin, in what was widely interpreted as an attack on the Bush administration last year, was comparing the Nazis to contemporary regimes with "contempt for human life" and "claims of exceptionality and diktat in the world" — in other words, the United States.

But the Nazis have been invoked in arguments over many other causes, too. In a speech explaining what "this Kosovo thing is all about," Bill Clinton once justified his decision to bomb Serbia by asking,"What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?" His secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was also fond of telling reporters that "Munich is my mindset," referring to Europe's decision to appease Hitler at Munich in 1938. In 2006, a British group opposed to national identity cards designed an advertisement showing Tony Blair as Hitler, except with a bar code in place of a moustache. Last spring, American feminist Naomi Wolf compared Hitler's brownshirts, the thugs who smashed Jewish shops and murdered old men, with the "groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and trousers," who "menaced poll workers counting the votes in Florida in 2000." On Sunday, Al Gore told college seniors that fighting global warming was comparable to fighting fascism. And, of course, Saddam Hussein has been compared to Hitler many times, by many people of many different political views.

Bush's Nazi analogy was just wrong–it wasn't an analogy to anything.  Even Bush's surrogates were ignorant of the origin of the "appeasement" line.  In the second paragraph above, however, the analogies are at least of the right type.  The comparisons may be (may be) extreme, but at most that's hyperbole–politics is full of it.  One can challenge the hyperbole for its exaggeration–which is a question not of factual basis (like the first) but of degree.  

I'm not endorsing the use of the analogies in the second instances, but if we're going to engage in ambidomal poxism (a pox on both your houses–anyone have a better name?) then we ought to make sure it's the same strain of pox.