Tag Archives: George Will

Reductio mad libitum

Mad Libs is a kids game, where a familiar story has a number of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and proper names taken out, and players provide their own without knowing the story.  It makes for great game time, and when you allow the kids liberal use of some naughty terms, things get pretty hilarious.  (Pro tip: ‘diaper’ and ‘butt’ are always an excellent nouns to use if you’re in a pinch. But only one per story, else you’ve overplayed your hand.)

Folks use a Mad Libs strategy sometimes when making an argument by analogy.  And so when one criticizes someone for saying something that sounds racist, you might say, “Replace all those times you said ‘Romanian’ with ‘blacks,’ and see how that sounds…”

The crucial thing for all the cases, of course, is that the replacement instances are of roughly the same type.  That’s why it’s an argument by analogy — if the two things aren’t analogous, then the exercise is pointless.

George Will’s new column at NRO is a defense of the Trump plan to gut and/or eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.  Will does make a few sensible points along the way — especially that the NEA is a regressive wealth distributor (most of the folks who get the support are already with money).  And, of course he leads with the old kulturkampf line about the government shouldn’t be using taxpayer money to fund things like the Piss Christ, Mapelthorpe’s photos, and other objectionable messes.  These, of course, are more arguments against how the NEA has been run, and less arguments against the NEA.  He closes, after conceding that art, for the most part, is a good thing, with the following:

Distilled to its essence, the argument for the NEA is: Art is a Good Thing, therefore a government subsidy for it is a Good Deed. To appreciate the non sequitur, substitute “macaroni and cheese” for “art.”

Holy moly!  OK.  I’ll limit myself to three things.

#1:  The argument overyields.  Now replace “art” with “national defense” or “law enforcement.”  Once the line is put that way, NO government program is defensible.  (Don’t tell small government Republicans!)

#2: We do have government subsidies for macaroni and cheese.  It’s called  the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  So many boxes of mac’n’cheese have been purchased with government help.  (Moreover, don’t forget the government support for the farming and manufacturing sectors that produced it!)

#3:  I smell some straw on that opponent.  With ‘GOOD DEED’, Will has conflated a good thing to do with a thing that is good for the populace, or is in the interest of the state.  Contributing to the common good, even if it is indirectly, is what this is about.  Calling it a ‘good deed’ is a mis- description of what the supporters of the NEH see the agency out to do.  This is not a distillation of essence, but rather a snifter of nonsense.

Play their game

Fig. 1: Scientist

From Eric Alterman at the Nation:

A week before his 2009 inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama chose as his first high-profile social engagement a dinner party at George Will’s house, where he was joined by William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks. Obama no doubt intended to demonstrate his desire to reach across the ideological divide and engage his neoconservative critics in a healthy debate. Conservatives saw a president they could roll.

I remember that meeting distinctly.  A few paragraphs later:

The primary difference between liberalism and conservatism, at least in theory, is that the latter is an ideology and the former isn’t. Conservatism, as Milton Friedman argued, posits that “freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.” Liberalism, however, as Lionel Trilling observed, “is a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine.” And while John Kenneth Galbraith helpfully pointed out that only those programs and policies that honor “the emancipation of belief” are worthy of the term, liberalism, at bottom, is pragmatism. Conservatives desire low taxes and small government because this is how they define freedom. They like to pretend that liberals prefer the opposite in both cases, but the truth is that liberals are OK with whatever works.

Though I’m not a fan of these dinner-party distinctions between liberals and conservatives, my own contribution would be this: the conservatives here described (the ones who met Obama in 2008) engage in a type of discourse liberals do not engage in.  I used to think that liberals should learn how to play their game.  Now I’m not so sure.

 

Anyway, just for fun, here’s Alterman’s reductio of George Will:

Will, undoubtedly America’s most prominent conservative intellectual, thinks that rape victims enjoy their “privileges,” that Ebola can be spread through the air, and that global warming is a hoax. Faced with the fact that 97 percent of climatologists have formed a scientific consensus about man-made climate change, he responded, “Where did that figure come from? They pluck these things from the ether”—as if his own purposeful ignorance were a counter to empirical data.

Like I say, I’m not so sure one should learn how to play that game.

Climate science with the Gorgias

Gorgias

George Will, the world’s worst climate scientist, reminds us of a passage from Plato’s Gorgias as he once again ventures into climate science.  At least this time he isn’t confusing a work of actual fiction with actual non-fiction science.   You can read whatever he says at the link.  Here is relevant passage of the Gorgias:

Soc. Let me tell you then, Gorgias, what surprises me in your words; though I dare say that you may be right, and I may have understood your meaning. You say that you can make any man, who will learn of you, a rhetorician?

Gor. Yes.

Soc. Do you mean that you will teach him to gain the ears of the multitude on any subject, and this not by instruction but by persuasion?

Gor. Quite so.

Soc. You were saying, in fact, that the rhetorician will have, greater powers of persuasion than the physician even in a matter of health?

Gor. Yes, with the multitude-that is.

Soc. You mean to say, with the ignorant; for with those who know he cannot be supposed to have greater powers of persuasion.

Gor. Very true.

Soc. But if he is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?

Gor. Certainly.

Soc. Although he is not a physician:-is he?

Gor. No.

Soc. And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows.

Gor. Clearly.

Soc. Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge?-is not that the inference?

Gor. In the case supposed:-Yes.

Soc. And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?

Gor. Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?-not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them?

Soc. Whether the rhetorician is or not inferior on this account is a question which we will hereafter examine if the enquiry is likely to be of any service to us; but I would rather begin by asking, whether he is as ignorant of the just and unjust, base and honourable, good and evil, as he is of medicine and the other arts; I mean to say, does he really know anything of what is good and evil, base or honourable, just or unjust in them; or has he only a way with the ignorant of persuading them that he not knowing is to be esteemed to know more about these things than some. one else who knows? Or must the pupil know these things and come to you knowing them before he can acquire the art of rhetoric? If he is ignorant, you who are the teacher of rhetoric will not teach him-it is not your business; but you will make him seem to the multitude to know them, when he does not know them; and seem to be a good man, when he is not. Or will you be unable to teach him rhetoric at all, unless he knows the truth of these things first? What is to be said about all this? By heavens, Gorgias, I wish that you would reveal to me the power of rhetoric, as you were saying that you would.

Can someone please send Mr.Will a copy of this book?

via Thinkprogress (where you can find a thorough discussion of just how bad Will’s piece was).

Do you think this is a game?

Outsourcing most of the work to another blog here, so apologies.  Here is George Will on the Republican Party’s alleged war on women (from Digby’s blog):

One of the wonders of this political moment is feminist contentment about the infantilization of women in the name of progressive politics. Government, encouraging academic administrations to micromanage campus sexual interactions, now assumes that, absent a script, women cannot cope. And the Democrats’ trope about the Republicans’ “war on women” clearly assumes that women are civic illiterates.

Access to contraception has been a constitutional right for 49 years (Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965). The judiciary has controlled abortion policy for 41 years (Roe v. Wade, 1973). Yet the Democratic Party thinks women can be panicked into voting about mythical menaces to these things.

Digby then cites the usual litany of Republican types inveighing against abortion rights, access to birth control, and so forth.   To this extent (the extent which matters most I suppose), what Will says is patently ludicrous.  Will himself frequently complains about the “judicial activism” which recognized these rights.

In any case, this is a nice example of the red herring tactic: the complaint isn’t that these things are not currently rights in some narrow legal sense, it’s that they’re under threat of elimination as rights from all sorts of key Republican officeholders and opinion types.

This is sadly very uninteresting.  What is interesting is that Will fails to see the obvious objections to his claim:

Actually, Gardner favors over-the-counter sales of oral contraceptives. In addition to being common sense, Gardner’s proposal is his way of making amends for formerly advocating a state constitutional “personhood” amendment (it is again on the ballot this year and will be decisively rejected for a third time) and for endorsing similar federal legislation that has zero chance of passage. By defining personhood as beginning at conception, these measures might preclude birth control technologies that prevent implantation in the uterus of a fertilized egg. On this slender reed, Udall leans his overheated accusations that Gardner is bent on “trampling on women’s rights,” is on a “crusade” for “eliminating” reproductive freedoms and would “outlaw birth control.”

Indeed, the fact that such an amendment exists (and has the consequence of making certain kinds of birth control illegal) is the whole point of fearing attacks on reproductive rights.   I imagine that Will doesn’t think we should take such things seriously.   Good to know, I guess.

When people on your team, then, advocate crazy stuff that makes you look stupid, blame the people who believe they’re serious.

jus post argumentum

There exist times when arguments have winners and losers–well, winners in a practical or legal sense.  This distinction is important, because the vanquished will continue, at least some of them, to resent the victors, to continue to believe in the righteousness of their cause, and so on.  Take, for instance, the more recent of the Arizona Civil Rights issues: the attempt to forge a religious freedom law allowing businesses not to have to serve unclean women (isn’t that what they meant?). Speaking of the foolishness of such laws, George Will (half credit where due here), said the following on Fox News Sunday:

Chris Wallace: George, I think it’s fair to say that there are deeply felt positions on both sides of this debate. Religious freedom versus gay rights. We asked all of you for questions and we got this on Facebook from Dan Pletcher:

Dan Pletcher: With as many taxes as businesses have to pay, how does this government think they have any justification to tell a business who they will and won’t serve?

How, George, do you answer Dan? And more generally, how do you come down on this issue of religious freedom versus gay rights? George Will: Free exercise of religion against…a clash of rights and here is how I answer Dan. Fifty years ago this year, in one of surely the great legislative achievements in American history, we passed the Public Accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act saying, “if you open your doors to business in the United States, you open it to everybody.” That’s a settled issue and the prestige of that law, the just prestige of that law obtains and I think that’s where the American people come down. That said, this too must be said: It’s a funny kind of sore winner in the gay rights movement that would say, “A photographer doesn’t want to photograph my wedding and I’ve got lots of other photographers I could go to, but I’m going to use the hammer of government to force them to do this.” It’s not neighborly and it’s not nice. The gay rights movement is winning. They should be, as I say, not sore winners. Chris Wallace: But having said that, and I understand your point, but you do say that if a gay couple wants to go into a bakery and have a wedding cake, the bakery should have to make the cake. Will: Bake the cake Wallace: Bake the cake.

The appeal to the victors is interesting and a little troubling.  It’s also somewhat of a theme among conservative pundits (is there some kind of memo), for here’s Ross Douthat in the New York Times:

But it’s still important for the winning side to recognize its power. We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation. Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.

I’m unaware of any discussions of this topic in argumentation literature; in any case, as my Google search demonstrates, no one has used the phrase “jus post argumentum” before.  So I wonder, I think there are rules for entering into arguments (just as there are rules for going to war), there obviously are rules for conduct in argument, hell, that’s what most of this stuff is about, so it seems, to pursue the just war argument a little further, there ought to be rules for when the argument is over. What would those be?  Well, aside from treating non-combatants with compassion, which Douthat and Will justly appeal to,  you’d think the victors have a right to demand certain conditions from the vanquished; they’ve earned that much by their victory.  Beyond this, victories entail a certain settling of accounts, including the punishing of the aggressors, reparations, and so on.  Not all arguments are just, after all, either in their declaration or in their prosecution.  It only makes sense that the losers suffer the consequences.

The Godwinator

Fig.1: Obamacare analogy

George Will, whose pseudo-logical musings at the Washington Post inspired our work here so many years ago, has moved from ABC to Fox News.  In keeping with the tone of his new employer, he waxes historical about the legality of Obamacare (via Talking Points Memo):

In an interview with NPR’s “Morning Edition,” host Steve Inskeep asked Will about President Barack Obama’s argument that Republicans are short-circuiting the system by using government funding and the debt ceiling as leverage to dismantle Obamacare, rather than repealing the law outright.

“How does this short-circuit the system?” Will said. “I hear Democrats say, ‘The Affordable Care Act is the law,’ as though we’re supposed to genuflect at that sunburst of insight and move on. Well, the Fugitive Slave Act was the law, separate but equal was the law, lots of things are the law and then we change them.”

Many here are familiar with Godwin’s law, where as a discussion grows longer, the probability of a Hitler analogy approaches 1.  We might now offer two variations on that.  Given any possible disagreement, the probability of a completely inept Hitler is initially 1.  The second variation is implied in the first: Hitler is a mere stylistic choice: the invoker can select any other moral abomination according to need.

One further rule: some iron-manner will come to the defense of the Godwinator:

I generally agree with TPM, but this headline is an outrageous distortion of what GW said.

His view is that Obamacare law is wrong, which is a legitimate view (not  mine).  He then points out that we have rescinded laws that we all regard as wrong.  He was speaking to the process, not the content.

Nah.  That isn’t his view and this ignores the inappropriate analogy.  Looking past these kinds of rhetorical outrages keeps them alive.

Pump up the jam, pump it up

Fig.1: Pump it up.

Timorous airline passenger and Fox News alleged liberal Juan Williams has admitted to making one of his weekly columns an undergraduate copy paste job.  According to Salon‘s Alex Seitz-Wald:

In a case of apparent plagiarism, Fox News pundit Juan Williams lifted — sometimes word for word — from a Center for American Progress report, without ever attributing the information, for a column he wrote last month for the Hill newspaper.

Almost two weeks after publication, the column was quietly revised online, with many of the sections rewritten or put in quotation marks, and this time citing the CAP report. It also included an editor’s note that read: “This column was revised on March 2, 2013, to include previously-omitted attribution to the Center for American Progress.”

But that editor’s note mentions only the attribution problem, and not the nearly identical wording that was also fixed.

The really strange thing about this case is what it reveals about the writing and thinking process of the two-million dollar a year Fox News pundit:

In a phone interview Thursday evening, Williams pinned the blame on a researcher who he described as a “young man.”

“I was writing a column about the immigration debate and had my researcher look around to see what data existed to pump up this argument and he sent back what I thought were his words and summaries of the data,” Williams told Salon. “I had never seen the CAP report myself, so I didn’t know that the young man had in fact not summarized the data but had taken some of the language from the CAP report.”

Two things.  First, he has an assistant?  I’ve always suspected assistants were behind the obscure factoids and misleading statistics in George Will’s work (full disclosure–someone, I’ll find out later who, made this very same quip, I’m borrowing), but Williams’ defense makes that clear.  Second, and more importantly, Williams confesses to his hacktackular thought process.  He has an idea, then sends someone else out to provide data that “pumps it up.”  It’s almost as if he had reached a conclusion, then dispatched a lackey to find him some premises.  He’s the master chef of ideas, some underpaid assistant can chop up the ideas and cook the facts.

Reduce, reuse, recyle

Fig.1: Conservativism

Here is a post for those who think that pointing out the inconsistency between a party’s name and its alleged position on an issue constitutes a decisive refutation of their view.  That “conservatives” fail to “conserve” or “preserve” or anything else along those lines does not mean they embody some kind of contradiction.  George Will has used this line on “progressives,” or his army of hollow men in years pastHere he is the other day:

Progressives are remarkably uninterested in progress. Social Security is 78 years old, and myriad social improvements have added 17 years to life expectancy since 1935, yet progressives insist the program remain frozen, like a fly in amber. Medicare is 48 years old, and the competence and role of medicine have been transformed since 1965, yet progressives cling to Medicare “as we know it.” And they say that the Voting Rights Act, another 48-year-old, must remain unchanged, despite dramatic improvements in race relations.

What kind of move is this?  I think it’s an equivocation–a rather textbook variety.  Clearly “progressive” means something different to “Progressives” (the name a half-hearted attempt at rebranding “liberal,” by the way).  Will’s thought goes something like this:

your name implies you like progress, but here is progress which you don’t like, so you’re not “progressive.”  Your self-understanding therefore is laughably contradictory.

The problem with this is that “progress” (1)–things getting better, more just, etc–and “progress” (2)–things changing–mean different things to alleged “progressives”.  Besides, what is at issue with voting rights is an empirical question: has progress been made on voting rights?  Progressives say, pointing to the recent election, no; (some) conservatives say yes.

*minor edit for clarity.

At least it’s an ethos

The other day George Will countered the claim that high voter turnout is a sign of civic health by reminding everyone that Nazis came to power as a result of high voter turnout.  An observant commenter at Media Matters noted correctly that Hitler’s party lost the 1932 Presidential election 53-36.  More telling, however, is how the Nazis won a majority of seats in the March 1933 election:

Six days before the scheduled election date, the German parliament building was set alight in the Reichstag fire, allegedly by the Dutch Communist Marinus van der Lubbe. This event reduced the popularity of the KPD, and enabled Hitler to persuade President Hindenburg to pass the Reichstag Fire Decree as an emergency decree according to Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. This emergency law removed many civil liberties and allowed the arrest of Ernst Thälmann and 4,000 leaders and members of the KPD[4] shortly before the election, suppressing the Communist vote and consolidating the position of the Nazis. The KPD was “effectively outlawed from 28 February 1933”, although it was not completely banned until the day after the election.[5] While at that time not as heavily oppressed as the Communists, the Social Democrats were also restricted in their actions, as the party’s leadership had already fled to Prague and many members were acting only from the underground. Hence, the fire is widely believed to have had a major effect on the outcome of the election. As replacement, and for 10 years to come, the new parliament used the Kroll Opera House for its meetings.

They won, in other words, by voter suppression (more on that later).  Anyway, an even more silly part of Will’s argument comes earlier:

The poet Carl Sandburg supposedly was asked by a young playwright to attend a rehearsal. Sandburg did but fell asleep. The playwright exclaimed, “How could you sleep when you knew I wanted your opinion?” Sandburg replied, “Sleep is an opinion.”

So is nonvoting. Remember this as the Obama administration mounts a drive to federalize voter registration, a step toward making voting mandatory.

What to call this move?  On the one hand, it’s a slippery slope: “a step toward making voting mandatory.”  But that is silly, as having an election is a step toward making voting mandatory.  A step toward making voting mandatory as such would be something like this: The Obama administration will now require proof of voting in order to qualify for a gay marriage.  Since obviously gay marriage will be required of everyone who shows proof of firearm non-ownership, and proof of firearm non-ownership will be required of everyone, ipso facto, you get the idea.

Aside from the slippery slope, Will is attacking a hollow man: no one has advocated making voting mandatory.  So why does he say this?  Here’s his justification:

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of Holder’s civil rights division, rightly says that voting too often is “an endurance contest” involving a long wait in line, frequently because of questions about voters’ registrations. But the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spa­kovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission, says:

“One of the reasons that state voter registration rolls are in such poor shape today — with large numbers of voters who are dead, have moved or are noncitizens — is because of the restrictive standards imposed by the federal government in 1993 by the National Voter Registration Act. That law made it very difficult to remove ineligible voters. Local jurisdictions were sued so often by the Justice Department when they tried to remove ineligible voters, many stopped trying to clean up their lists at all. That is why there are many places around the country where the number of registered voters is greater than the Census says there are individuals of voting age.”

Notice the perverse dialectic by which Washington aggrandizes its power: It promises to ameliorate problems exacerbated by its supposedly ameliorative policies. Notice, too, the logic of Perez’s thesis that “our democracy is stronger when more people have a say in electing their leaders.” Therefore the public good would be served by penalizing nonvoting, as Australia, Belgium and at least 10 other countries do. Liberals love mandates (e.g., health insurance). Why not mandatory voting?

No, that is not the logic of Perez’s thesis, that’s Will’s distortion of his logic.  But look at the claim about the insurance mandate.  For Pete’s sake, the health insurance mandate originated with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and it was implemented by Mitt Romney, when he was Republican Governor of Massachusetts.  This is evidence that liberals love mandates.   Worse, and returning to the theme of voter suppression, Will’s authority that the voting system is a wreck is the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky: the very fraud responsible for the myth of voter fraud.

You know who also voted in high numbers? Nazis, that’s who.

Here is George Will on why the Obama administration’s attempt to make voting easier (i.e., to remove various local impediments to voting) is not desirable:

In 1960, 62.8 percent of age-eligible citizens voted. In the 13 subsequent presidential elections, lower turnouts than this have coincided with the removal of impediments to voting (poll taxes, literacy tests, burdensome registration and residency requirements). Turnout has not increased as the electorate has become more educated and affluent and as government has become more involved in Americans’ lives. There are four obvious reasons for nonvoting.

One is contentment. Americans are voluble complainers but are mostly comfortable.

Second, the stakes of politics are agreeably low because constitutional rights and other essential elements of happiness are not menaced by elections. Those who think high voter turnout indicates civic health should note that in three German elections, 1932-33, turnout averaged more than 86 percent, reflecting the terrible stakes: The elections decided which mobs would rule the streets and who would inhabit concentration camps.

Third, the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes in 48 states — an excellent idea, for many reasons — means that many state races are without suspense. (After their conventions, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigned in just eight and 10 battleground states, respectively.)

Fourth, gerrymandered federal and state legislative districts reduce competitive races.

Even if you disregard the Godwinism (which you really shouldn’t, by the way), the idea that high voter turnout correlates with lack of civic health doesn’t square with the facts.  Check out Sweden, or just about any other advanced democracy; their turnout is largely higher than ours.  I know what you’re going to say: but Sweden is in Europe, and didn’t Hitler come from Europe?

via Balloon Juice.

See also Alex Pareene, on the Washington Post’s op-ed page.  Here’s a taste:

When George Will isn’t being dishonest, he’s usually being wrong. He lies about climate change. He claims that anti-voter suppression efforts are actually about mandatory voting, something few liberals and no elected Democratic leaders support. George Will decided that college football is “liberal” because he doesn’t like football and he doesn’t like liberal things, so things he doesn’t like must be liberal. George Will said that if Obama won it would be because he was lucky enough to be black, and Americans didn’t want to look racist by voting against him. That was another entry in his long history of worrying that America was being too nice to black people. Will also predicted Romney would win 321 electoral votes and that Minnesota’s marriage amendment would swing the state Republican.

Read the whole thing.