Tag Archives: iron man

Seriously but not literally

A while back a writer at the Atlantic introduced the Trumpian heuristic, “take him seriously but not literally.” This was then quickly adopted by Trump surrogates as a way of responding the  Trump’s frequent exaggerations and errors of fact (this Jonah Goldberg piece covers that end of it–never thought I’d cite him approvingly, by the way).

Let’s try to understand this thought. We can start by going back to the original piece. Here’s the money quote:

The best way, he says, is to provide good education and good jobs in these areas. “Fifty-eight percent of black youth cannot get a job, cannot work,” he says. “Fifty-eight percent. If you are not going to bring jobs back, it is just going to continue to get worse and worse.”

It’s a claim that drives fact-checkers to distraction. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the unemployment rate for blacks between the ages of 16 and 24 at 20.6 percent. Trump prefers to use its employment-population ratio, a figure that shows only 41.5 percent of blacks in that age bracket are working. But that means he includes full time high-school and college students among the jobless.

It’s a familiar split. When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

When I presented that thought to him, he paused again, “Now that’s interesting.”

I wonder by the way  what the etiquette is for including self-congratulatory lines in the course of your own writing–“now that’s an interesting thought,” you might think. Anyway, it’s probably clear by now that Trump takes himself literally and seriously, and so do his supporters. If this weren’t the case, they wouldn’t work so hard and constructing an alternative set of facts to match Trump’s assertions (watch the video linked above).

It’s a curious thought nonetheless, one that cuts right to the heart of dialectical argument. If I’m going to engage you, I have to have a representation of your view. Usually, the question is whether my representation of your view is accurate, or, if not accurate, charitable.

It is true, however, that we pepper our arguments with all sorts of things not-to-be-taken literally. I’d venture to guess that if we really thought hard, we’d find that we’d think this about many of our arguments themselves. Think how often in a casual conversation you might make some kind of hasty generalization. You don’t mean the argument to be taken literally.

But you’re not President of the United States. And there’s a difference between casual conversation and semi-formal argument. So, let’s take the Atlantic writer seriously and literally. How do we take someone seriously, but not literally? Do we simply substitute our own version of the correct factual assertion? “Sure, Trump said 50 percent unemployment, but he’s not wrong because there’s lots of unemployment.” Would that I got iron-manned like this!

One last question. What’s the clue that we need to interpret someone seriously but not literally? Is it when they’re very often wildly wrong?

A golden age of iron manning

Donald Trump has, somewhat ironically, ushered in a golden age of iron manning.  Here’s how it goes: Candidate Trump says something false, crazy, racist, etc., and Trump surrogate  appears somewhere to recast what he said as totally reasonable. This is now a daily occurrence, so you can fill in your own examples (here’s one).

The iron man works best when the person who’s getting iron-manned plays along. Oddly, this doesn’t always work with Trump. He often seems unaware that he needs help. Here is Trump supporter Hugh Hewitt trying (and failing) to iron man him:

I’ve got two more questions. Last night, you said the President was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.

DT: No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.

HH: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.

DT: I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?

HH: Well, that, you know, I have a saying, Donald Trump, the mnemonic device I use is Every Liberal Really Seems So, So Sad. E is for Egypt, L is for Libya, S is for Syria, R is for Russia reset. They screwed everything up. You don’t get any argument from me. But by using the term founder, they’re hitting with you on this again. Mistake?

DT: No, it’s no mistake. Everyone’s liking it. I think they’re liking it. I give him the most valuable player award. And I give it to him, and I give it to, I gave the co-founder to Hillary. I don’t know if you heard that.

I’m informed now that Trump finally gotten the picture. Turns out it was sarcasm. Yeah, like’s that’s good defense.

The mistaken racist

Here is a pretty sorry attempt at iron-manning Trump:

JOHN HEILEMANN (HOST): Let’s just say this first of all, when Trump does what he did in that Tapper interview, and he did it over and over again, he kept calling Curiel a Mexican, right? It is not even dog whistle politics. It is just pure racial politics. 

MARK HALPERIN (HOST): No, it’s not racial.

HEILEMANN: It’s racial politics. It is.

HALPERIN: Mexico isn’t a race.

HEILEMANN: It doesn’t matter whether Mexico is a race, it’s stirring up racial animus about people who don’t like Hispanics, and illegal immigrants coming across the border. That’s what he’s doing. He’s ringing the bell for them every time he does it. He’s not Mexican. He was born in Indiana. And eventually you can get Trump to acknowledge that he’s Mexican-American, it’s his heritage that’s what he’s doing here right? Then on top of that he is a potential president of the United States who has issued, over the course of the last week, vague threats, saying that the judge should be investigated. It is wildly inappropriate and yes, of course there are no political benefits to this and I’m sure that his team is beating it’s head against tables as they watch him blow news cycles behaving in this way that is again, I think racially tinged and also really wildly inappropriate things to say about a federal judge by someone who could be president of the United States.

HALPERIN: It’s certainly racially tinged. I just want to make the point that Mexico is not – Mexican is not a race. 

HEILEMANN:  I am fully aware that Mexico is not a race, but you can invoke things like that to stir up racial animus regardless of whether or not Mexico is a race or not. 

It’s no defense, by the way, of Trump that “Mexico is not a race.” I think it’s sufficient for one to be a racist, or racist-like, if they treat non-races, like Mexico, as if they were races.  These are going to be interesting times, unfortunately.


What a feeling

“Race? It is a feeling, not a reality. Ninety-five per cent, at least. Nothing will ever make me believe that biologically pure races can be shown to exist today.”

That was Benito Mussolini in 1932.    I suppose that the idea that some races are superior to others has never gone away.  Just today, for instance, the New York Times seems to have hired a science columnist who thinks such a proposition worth pursuing.  Here’s Gawker’s take:

Khan’s writing elsewhere hardly rejects the doctrines on which these outlets are based. He merely treats what white racists taken for granted—that non-whites, and especially blacks, are intellectually inferior—as an open question worth exploring in the name of scientific inquiry. Still, Khan is careful with his actual words; he never says black people are less intelligent. But his willingness to treat black intelligence as a matter of debate has not hampered his career in the slightest. He’s written for Slate, The Daily Telegraph, and The Guardian. Indeed, he’s already placed twoop-eds, about the evolution of cats and abortion politics, in The New York Times.

The accusation here is that Khan iron mans racist science: it’s worth looking into whether these (historically inferior) “races” are inferior because inquiry, or science.

I guess I thought we were beyond this (in part for the reasons Mussolini mentions), but then again, I’ve had more than one student who basically affirms old-fashioned racial theory.

Inoculation vacation

I find this discussion of a recent book on vaccination (at Gawker, of all places) fascinating.  I mean the comment string actually, where the author is given a chance to answer direct questions from the readers.

To my mind, the author is far too light on the anti-vax crowd (and the readers let her know that).  She’s uncomfortable with them being labeled as stupid, as the anti-vax crowd speaks from a multitude of different perspectives.  A longish quote:

Well, first of all, what we’re calling the anti-vax position is actually a very diverse set of ideologies – thinking of it as one homogenous position is already robbing it of some of its complexity. One of the things that I’ve observed in my own thinking and in the thinking of other people who are vaccine hesitant is a tendency toward wide and sometimes loose association. For instance, we know a lot about the troubled history of paternalism in medicine and the ways in which the medical system has oppressed women – we associate the powerlessness we feel around vaccination with the powerlessness that has been forced on us historically. Or, we observe real and troubling problems in our current medical system, or in our system of government, or in our capitalist system, and we feel concern that those problems may bleed over into vaccination – may corrupt or pollute our vaccines. I think these concerns are legitimate – we have real, pressing problems with our medical system and with our government and with our economy. Do I think the best way to address those problems is to refuse vaccination? No, but I do think we (meaning those of us who care about the public health implications of vaccine refusal) need to be aware that significant social critiques are being made in the form of vaccine refusal. And if we want to enact change, rather than just self-righteously rant, we may even have to address the root problems of medical care, governance, and finance that are troubling some of the people who are refusing vaccination.

I appreciate the pragmatic impulse of the author (let’s worry about the public health issue, not the poor argument and misinformation). I think someone might write something significant about that notion, in fact.  Nonetheless, this strikes me as a bit of an iron man: there’s obviously an implicit social critique (as there is whenever anyone does anything against prevailing norms), but that social critique might be (and is in this case) lame, ill-informed, held by very few people, and dangerous.  It’s also probably not the point.  The point is the science.  And the objectors have, as the author believes, gotten that completely wrong.


We’ve all been very busy around here doing whatever it is that we do, so apologies again for the dearth of posting.

While writing something else and looking for distraction, I ran across a tweet of interest.  Here’s the tweet: (courtesy of Media Matters).

You can imagine the context, but here it is (again, MM):

And I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.

Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. And because the costs associated with military action are so high, you should expect every civilian leader – and especially your Commander-in-Chief – to be clear about how that awesome power should be used.

In a very narrow sense, Hayes is correct to accuse Obama of strawmanning–especially with the “only” modifier.   I’m sure in Hayes’s world many problems cannot be solved by military action (e.g., a famine or natural disaster).  And indeed it certainly sounds like Obama is making the general claim that this is all and only what certain pundits think about.

Fair enough, but I think it’s fairly obvious that the “only” in this case shouldn’t be read so strictly.  In the first place,  given the context of the speech (West Point), that Obama is talking about diplomatic crises involving possible (or suggested) military force.  Second, it’s a speech, and Presidents don’t generally name their critics or get specific.

And here is where Hayes’ accusation of straw manning is coupled with self-iron manning.   On any fair reading, Obama is referring to the many pundits  and members of the political opposition who complain that his failure to make military moves during diplomatic crises is a sign of weakness.  Here, for instance, is the allegedly straw manned Hayes (same link as above):

HAYES: [If] we had said when Russia first invaded Crimea, if we had sent troops, hopefully more than 150, to our NATO allies at that time, it would have suggested that the president was resolute, that he was determined not to let Russia push our allies around. Instead what he did was dither for weeks and weeks and weeks on end. And now he does it almost grudgingly and because is he being badgered in part by members of Congress suggesting is he not doing enough, that he sends something that everybody recognizes. The United States, the Obama administration basically has to concede, members of Congress are calling him out on this. Our allies are saying this is just a symbol. This is basically just a symbol.

Funny, this is just the kind of thing Obama is talking about.  Hayes’s accusation of straw man is itself an iron man of his own view.  Here’s another:

HAYES: I think the overriding objective for the Obama administration on a number of different fronts, whether you’re talking ability Iran, Syria, or Russia, is to avoid military confrontation. We can all understand why he wants to avoid it. Everybody would like to avoid it. But there comes a time where that can’t be your leading objective. When you have one of the world’s great powers invading other countries or annexing other sovereign states, you have to take that seriously.

Gee, and this is just the kind of thing Hayes complains has happened to him.   But more to the point, and in the interest of charity, the question is whether “seriously” means “military something.”  I think that’s what Hayes means by it.  Thus Obama’s criticism.

Das Eisernes Kreuz

There’s a strategy to going ad hitlerum–at least I imagine there is (but I’m not sure I hope there is).

It’s difficult to break through the enormous media clutter without bringing in the rhetorical heavies.  The subtleties of tax policy or gun control are lost on most people, so you may think; if you want to contribute to a discussion, you have to go big.  Once you do, you’re assured of a prime place on Talking Points Memo, the Huffington Post, and so forth.  Here’s from yesterday’s Talking Points Memo:

The billionaire founder of Home Depot just pulled a Tom Perkins.

Ken Langone, a major GOP donor, was among “the denizens of Wall Street and wealthy precincts around the nation” who spoke to Politico for a piece published Tuesday and titled “The rich strike back.”

“I hope it’s not working,” Langone told Politico, referring to populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Politico noted that Langone’s comments would inevitably “draw ire from those who find such comparisons to Nazi Germany insensitive” and that he “showed no hesitancy” in invoking the Nazis.

The last part’s the hilarious part–even Politico has noticed the cravenness of the strategy.

Naturally, your Nazi analogy is absurd, and hopefully you know it.  This requires you “to apologize.”  Here again, Talking Points Memo:

The billionaire founder of Home Depot apologized late Tuesday for taking a page from the Tom Perkins playbook in comparing the fight against income inequality to Nazi Germany.

“My remarks were intended to discourage pitting one group against another group in a society,” Ken Langone said in a statement obtained by the New York Daily News. “If my choice of words was inappropriate — and they well may have been that — I extend my profound apologies to anyone and everyone who I may have offended.”

Langone had told Politico that populist political appeals currently en vogue parallel the rhetoric Hitler used in Nazi Germany, albeit in “different words.”

It’s the words you see–not the thought.  What we have here is a kind of self-iron manning: I say we call it the “Iron Cross” in honor of the Nazis who dominate the form.

Here’s how it works:

Step one: go ad hitlerum to get attention: modest adjustments in tax reform are just like the populism that carried Hitler to power!  Wait one day while news organizations report on your absurd analogy.

Step two:  “apologize” for the “words” you’ve used, but caution that the thought–though much altered to exclude the Nazi part–stands.  Wait one day while news organizations report on your apology.

Step three: reap the rewards of a discussion turned your way.  Though you began with a manifestly absurd move that ought to have earned you STFU points, it doesn’t, because you come back with the apology.  Your opponent–the critic–in other words, has to waste a move (and you only get so many) pointing out how wrong you are.

I wonder, short of ignoring the likes of Iron Crossers such as Langone, etc., is there any move open here to the critic?

Don’t strawman me… I was strawmanning, myself

(Former) Governor Mike Huckabee has been criticized for the things he’s said about women and birth control.  Here’s the line folks are focusing on:

They cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government

The reply is that the Governor did say those words, but the quote is “taken out of context”. As it turns out, the context is that of attributing this view to Democrats.  Here’s Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller clarifying the situation:

If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because [DEMOCRATS BELIEVE] they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it.

The context of the quote, I think, is correct in terms of the Daily Caller’s clarification. The video HERE.  Huckabee isn’t stating his own view, he’s making it clear what he thinks that Democrats think about women and birth control.  So to criticize him for holding this view is a form of straw manning.

That’s better, but not dialecticaly.  The defense is that the view in question is not one he takes himself, but one he attributes to his opponents on birth control.  (He follows these sentences with a call for further debate on the issue, clearly calling attention to the fact that he sees his opponents as having a wildly indefensible view.)  Note that the address was not to a mixed audience wherein a liberal might say back: that’s not our view, Governor.  The issue isn’t about controlling libido, but having the right to manage when and by whom one has a child.  Isn’t that an important issue?  Ever notice how straw-manning is easier when your opponent isn’t in the room?

So in defending himself against being strawmanned, Huckabee reveals himself  the straw-manner.

To use the full taxonomic vocabulary: My hypothesis is that Huckabee was hollow-manning (nobody on the Democrat side has had a thought like that, right?), and the defense is a form of iron-manning.

Replace and defend

Deep Insights

A follow up on David Brooks’ piece on the inadvisability of marijuana legalization.  Perhaps you’ll recall that Brooks told a very personal tale of his own adolescent adventure with marijuana.  TL;DR: marijuana should remain illegal (also because of nature and the arts). A charitable reading of this argument would go thusly: Brooks himself continues to pull tubes, with the consequence being that his arguments are terrible, so don’t legalize marijuana, lest you end up a bumbling fool like David Brooks.  He kind of says as much:

I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Stoned people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I smoked one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class. I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser. It is still one of those embarrassing memories that pop up unbidden at 4 in the morning.

I’m still embarrassed for him.  In any case, rushing to his defense is the allegedly unstoned Reihan Salam, of the National Review (via Lawyers, Guns, and Money).  His argument is the perfect iron man.

The column has prompted an ungenerous and largely uncomprehending response from people who are attacking David as a hypocrite, and worse. But you’ll notice, if you know how to read, that Brooks isn’t endorsing draconian legal penalties for marijuana use. Rather, he is suggesting that legalization as such might not be the best way forward. Though I imagine I don’t agree with Brooks in every respect on this issue, I think his bottom line is correct. The goal of marijuana regulation, and the goal of alcohol regulation and casino regulation and the regulation various other vices, ought to be striking a balance between protecting individual freedom while also protecting vulnerable people from making choices that can irreparably damage their lives and the lives of those closest to them.

This fellow has just made up an entirely different argument: Brooks did not argue for regulation of marijuana.  Nor, in fact, does his column even suggest this.  Nor would any sane (non stoned libertarian) argue for unregulated legalization.  Just for reference, here’s how the obviously stoned David Brooks characterizes legalization:

We now have a couple states — Colorado and Washington — that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use. By making weed legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Colorado and Washington, in other words, are producing more users.

Yet, according to Salam, Brooks is not arguing against legalization.  So this is a beautiful example of argument defense by complete replacement: when the argument you need to defend really sucks, no matter: replace it with a completely different argument, then accuse your opponents of straw manning.  It’s a double fallacy.

Question for the readership then: must the iron man always involve a straw man?  Seems like it might.  In strengthening an argument beyond what it deserves, I distort the critics’ view of the argument as weak.

Over arguing

Arguments in the real world involve the expenditure of finite resources: time, attention, good will, among other things.  This is one reason people are reluctant to get into them.  It’s not worth arguing with Uncle Dewey at Thanksgiving, because nothing will be achieved. Sure, this runs counter to our Millian intuitions–that every crappy view, (even uncle Dewey’s unrepeatably racist theory about Detroit) deserves a hearing, if only so we can strengthen our views against it–but time is short here on earth, and we need to get stuff done.

For these reasons, I find it puzzling that Andrew Sullivan, British expat blogger famous in years past for suggesting the moderate American left would mount a fifth column (he has since repented, I think), labored to point out, in substantial detail, that Rush Limbaugh doesn’t know anything about Christianity.  I think the saddest thing about this, is that it gives way too much credit to Limbaugh.  Sullivan writes:

And in the Church of Limbaugh, market capitalism is an unqualified, eternal good. It is the ever-lasting truth about human beings. It is inextricable from any concept of human freedom.

Maybe Limbaugh might have said something along these lines once, but it’s giving too much credit to this guy to attribute a doctrine (or anything similar) to him.

Who, I wonder, is traversing Sullivan’s site in need of such a rebuttal in the first place?  If Uncle Dewey doesn’t drop by for Thanksgiving, you don’t need to take his place.