Tag Archives: dishonest punditry

The System Worked

Charles Krauthammer, the most dishonest pundit at the Post next to the rest of them, today goes on a rant about Obama's failure to talk tough in the war on terrorism–which, if we know anything from the Bush administration, didn't do much of anything.  Suicidal terrorists, one can imagine, love that kind of stuff.  Anyway, to start of the New Year, and perhaps to demonstrate why Krauthammer–like George Will–is too dishonest for honest criticism, let's take a quick look at today's column.

He writes:

Janet Napolitano — former Arizona governor, now overmatched secretary of homeland security — will forever be remembered for having said of the attempt to bring down an airliner over Detroit: "The system worked." The attacker's concerned father had warned U.S. authorities about his son's jihadist tendencies. The would-be bomber paid cash and checked no luggage on a transoceanic flight. He was nonetheless allowed to fly, and would have killed 288 people in the air alone, save for a faulty detonator and quick actions by a few passengers.

That's a shame she'll be remembered that way, because that's not what she said.  Here is what she actually said:

Once this incident occurred, everything went according to clockwork, not only sharing throughout the air industry, but also sharing with state and local law enforcement. Products were going out on Christmas Day, they went out yesterday, and also to the [airline] industry to make sure that the traveling public remains safe. I would leave you with that message. The traveling public is safe. We have instituted some additional screening and security measures, in light of this incident, but, again, everyone reacted as they should. The system, once the incident occurred, the system worked.

It doesn't take a genius to see that those are completely different things.  Krauthammer has completely distorted her meaning–she wasn't talking about the events antecedent to the attack.  But Krauthammer isn't done.  He continues:

Heck of a job, Brownie.

The reason the country is uneasy about the Obama administration's response to this attack is a distinct sense of not just incompetence but incomprehension. From the very beginning, President Obama has relentlessly tried to play down and deny the nature of the terrorist threat we continue to face. Napolitano renames terrorism "man-caused disasters." Obama goes abroad and pledges to cleanse America of its post-9/11 counterterrorist sins. Hence, Guantanamo will close, CIA interrogators will face a special prosecutor, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed will bask in a civilian trial in New York — a trifecta of political correctness and image management.

This time at least he provided a link.  Which if you click, you'll find the following single mention that phrase:

The overriding and urgent mission of the United States Department of Homeland Security is contained in the name of the agency itself. To secure the homeland means to protect our nation's borders by finding and killing the roots of terrorism and to stop those who intend to hurt us; to wisely enforce the rule of law at our borders; to protect our national cyber infrastructure; and to prepare for and respond to natural and man-caused disasters with speed, skill, compassion, and effectiveness.

Here again Krauthammer's rendering of her words is not even close.  She doesn't come close to renaming terrorism anything–she uses the phrase "man-caused disasters" to highlight the fact that homeland security will be involved in the emergency services response to a terrorist act (in addition to prevention–which is also its job as the quotation makes clear—using even the word "terrorism"). 

I think you get the idea, but here's one more context distortion.  This time it's Obama:

And produces linguistic — and logical — oddities that littered Obama's public pronouncements following the Christmas Day attack. In his first statement, Obama referred to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as "an isolated extremist." This is the same president who, after the Fort Hood, Tex., shooting, warned us "against jumping to conclusions" — code for daring to associate the mass murder there with Nidal Hasan's Islamist ideology. Yet, with Abdulmutallab, Obama jumped immediately to the conclusion, against all existing evidence, that the would-be bomber acted alone.

Of course Obama didn't say that.  This is what he said:

Finally, the American people should remain vigilant, but also be confident. Those plotting against us seek not only to undermine our security, but also the open society and the values that we cherish as Americans. This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist.  

He's clearly referring to his singularity on the plane and to the actions of the people who stopped him.  He wasn't of course making a judgement about whether there was a conspiracy. 

It's a new year, I know, but I am seriously thinking of putting Krauthammer and Will in the column of people whose work is so bad and so dishonest it doesn't merit criticism.  Who does that leave? 

She blinded me with ethics

There's a certain laughable cluelessness about George Will.  One can seriously wonder whether he really knows that most of his columns advance the shakiest and silliest of arguments.  The same is not true of Charles Krauthammer, his arguments advance a fairly malicious brand of sophistry–in particular, the sophistry of wrongly or dishonestly (i.e., by distortion) claiming others guilty of sophistry.  See for instance his column on Friday (cf., the greatest non sequitur ever foisted)

Today the topic is stem cells.  Two things.  Krauthammer is not incapable of making a reasonable argument, and the stem cell issue deserves to be approached with some amount of seriousness.  Having said that, it seems that Krauthammer in his most recent column does not approach the issue very seriously.  Here's the first bit of unseriousness:

I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix. Moreover, given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science and the well-recorded human propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn. I suggested the bright line prohibiting the deliberate creation of human embryos solely for the instrumental purpose of research — a clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end.

On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of "science" and its inherent moral benevolence. How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.

The first part of the second paragraph is false in the sense that Obama does not leave the matter entirely to scientists.  But the second part is a bit of ridiculous hyberbole of the slippery slope variety: if we leave the matter entirely to scientits (who are amoral!), we will get Joseph Mengele (that's a very swift violation of Godwin's law by the way).  Here, for reference, is the relevant section of Obama's speech:

I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society. 

Moving on to the more malicious bits.  Here's Krauthammer again:

That part of the ceremony, watched from the safe distance of my office, made me uneasy. The other part — the ostentatious issuance of a memorandum on "restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making" — would have made me walk out.

Restoring? The implication, of course, is that while Obama is guided solely by science, Bush was driven by dogma, ideology and politics.

It's not a stretch to suggest that the Bush administration had a particular disdain for science and scientists who disagreed with their policy agenda.  See The Republican War on Science, 238ff, for why someone might plausibly assert such a thing about the Bush administration (so spare us the feigned shock please).  But more specifically, the "implication" (that's a logic term) is not that Obama is guided soley (you'll see what he does with this in a moment) by science.  That is an overly strong and decidedly uncharitable version of the claim Obama is making.  Continuing:  

What an outrage. Bush's nationally televised stem cell speech was the most morally serious address on medical ethics ever given by an American president. It was so scrupulous in presenting the best case for both his view and the contrary view that until the last few minutes, the listener had no idea where Bush would come out.

Obama's address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men. Such as his admonition that we must resist the "false choice between sound science and moral values." Yet, exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds later he went on to declare that he would never open the door to the "use of cloning for human reproduction."

Does he not think that a cloned human would be of extraordinary scientific interest? And yet he banned it.

Is he so obtuse as not to see that he had just made a choice of ethics over science? Yet, unlike Bush, who painstakingly explained the balance of ethical and scientific goods he was trying to achieve, Obama did not even pretend to make the case why some practices are morally permissible and others not.

This is not just intellectual laziness. It is the moral arrogance of a man who continuously dismisses his critics as ideological while he is guided exclusively by pragmatism (in economics, social policy, foreign policy) and science in medical ethics.

Science has everything to say about what is possible. Science has nothing to say about what is permissible. Obama's pretense that he will "restore science to its rightful place" and make science, not ideology, dispositive in moral debates is yet more rhetorical sleight of hand — this time to abdicate decision-making and color his own ideological preferences as authentically "scientific."

No straw man has been identified, however: Obama has argued that the choice between the two is false, so naturally he does not choose between the two! (See the quote above).  Besides, Obama obviously does not share (see quote above) Krauthammer's nihilistic conception of science, nor does he intend to allow such a science to exist or flourish on the federal dime.  Obama has made it pretty clear that he thinks Bush's restrictions, however surprisingly or drammatically delivered, to be out of sync with where we are scientifically and ethically.  Such an argument, outlined earlier in the speech, does not entail now that anything goes or that there is no moral basis for his view–that would be a falsely dichotomous understanding of ethics and a complete distortion of what Obama said.  The weirdest thing about all of this is that Krauthammer seems to agree with Obama's position.

In any case, it is obvious that the issue of stem cell research is a morally intricate one–one that deserves more serious discussion than Krauthammer would allow.