Tag Archives: liberals

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.

Friendly fire

One major purpose of critical argument analysis is evaluating other arguers: other arguers’ arguments are bad and they should feel bad.  There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, it’s helpful to us to have this kind of information.  Arguing is a skill, you can do it well or you can do it badly.  If you do it badly enough, then maybe we should ignore you.

Straw manning shortcuts this process by loading the deck against the person being evaluated: people who make such arguments are fools/liars/inconsistent, etc.  Armed with this information, we can safely ignore them.  Beyond this, we need not consider their reasons anymore as reasons to be engaged and evaluated, but rather as pathologies to be explained.

Naturally, this kind of move is productive in bucking up the troops, but ineffective as a method of rational engagement with another arguer.  I ran across a very good example of this form this afternoon on the American Prospect.  Here, first, is the conclusion:

This, in the end, is the essence of conservative thought on these issues. Better a child should go hungry than get a free lunch. Better a poor person should have no health insurance at all than get insurance from the government. Their suffering may multiply, but they’ll still have their dignity. If only you could eat it.

I’m fairly certain no conservative would agree with that formulation of the essence of their view (not that this is what would make it wrong).  This interpretation relies on the following argument:

The souls of the wealthy, on the other hand, are apparently so healthy and strong they can withstand the indignity of government help. Special tax treatment for investment income? The mortgage interest deduction? Cuts to upper-income tax rates? The rich are truly blessed with souls so resilient that they remain intact even in the face of such injuries of government largesse.

As almost any conservative would tell you (I imagine, not being one), there’s a difference between giving someone something they don’t have and not taking away what they currently have.  They argue the taxation is unjust (or immoral, or inefficient, or whatever their view is) and that a system of government benefits is ineffective at its purpose of lifting the poor out of poverty.  I think it’s pretty obvious this isn’t the obvious inconsistency we’re supposed to think it is.  I imagine they’ll also argue that there is difference between our obligations to people with nothing and our obligations to people with something.  The rich, in other words, can ruin their lives on their own dime; they hurt only themselves.

On the version of the argument presented, however, I don’t get any of this, nonetheless, I’m invited to conclude the conservatives are foolishly inconsistent and heartless to boot.  Should I believe the author here, the argument with the conservative on these scores is closed.

Of course, it isn’t; in fact, I’ve probably just made my ideological compatriots just a little dumber and my conservative opponents just a little more annoyed.  And I suppose the former is an under-stressed effect of the straw man: while it’s usually deployed to undermine an opponent, the damage is really to ourselves: we’ve cut ourselves off from the actual arguments being made, we’ve misinformed our friends, and made ourselves appear just that much duller to our opponent.

F**k logic, get votes

In a recent interview, George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant, highlights (again) his well-known disregard for “logic.”

To liberals, a lot of conservative thinking seems like a failure of logic: why would a conservative be against equal rights for women and yet despise the poor, when to liberate women into the world of work would create more wealth, meaning less poverty? And yet we instinctively understand those as features of the conservative worldview, and rightly so.

The nurturant-family model is the progressive view: in it, the ideals are empathy, interdependence, co-operation, communication, authority that is legitimate and proves its legitimacy with its openness to interrogation. “The world that the nurturant parent seeks to create has exactly the opposite properties,” Lakoff writes in Moral Politics. As progressives identify failures of logic in the conservative position, so it works the other way round (one of Lakoff’s examples: “How can liberals support federal funding for Aids research and treatment, while promoting the spread of Aids by sanctioning sexual behaviour that leads to Aids?”).

Lakoff seems to be arguing that logic is not essential to political disagreement because each side thinks the other to have failed at logic in some way.  What you need to do is highlight the strengths of your position:

 It’s about time progressives got out there and said what’s true about themselves, as well as what’s true of the other side. If you have a strong position, let’s hear it.

Point taken (maybe) about the adopting an exclusively critical position, but, I wonder, what sorts of things make your position “strong”?  Could it be that your position accords with reality, overcomes relevant objections, etc.?  It’s “logical” in other words?

If I’m not mistaken, Why We Argue has a chapter on this very issue (featuring Lakoff!).

Cast across the Rubicon

Juan Cole, a guy who knows a lot about the Arab world, makes a case for military intervention in Libya.  This is not particularly surprising, as he also supported the invasion of Iraq.  I don't mean to question his authority by mentioning this, I just want to point out that the issue here is not hypocrisy.  (Had I more energy, I'd do a post on the inevitable tu quoques of the you-didn't/did-support-Iraq-variety–maybe someone else can do that one.).

I do, however, want to express a little annoyance with the way his case gets made.  He writes:

The arguments against international intervention are not trivial, but they all did have the implication that it was all right with the world community if Qaddafi deployed tanks against innocent civilian crowds just exercising their right to peaceful assembly and to petition their government. (It simply is not true that very many of the protesters took up arms early on, though some were later forced into it by Qaddafi’s aggressive military campaign against them. There still are no trained troops to speak of on the rebel side).

To be clear, those might be arguments against international military intervention.  Perhaps more effort could have been made at an international intervention of the non-military variety.  I don't remember anyone claiming that this route had been thoroughly exhausted.  I do remember, in fact, the almost immediate insistence on threats of military force.  Once those threats are made–I think–the die is cast across the Rubicon, especially with dictators such as Qaddafi.  Now if someone has convincing evidence that all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted, I'll withdraw my claim.

My more serious annoyance with Cole's argument is in the way he handles objections to military intervention.  He writes:

Among reasons given by critics for rejecting the intervention are:

1. Absolute pacifism (the use of force is always wrong)

2. Absolute anti-imperialism (all interventions in world affairs by outsiders are wrong).

3. Anti-military pragmatism: a belief that no social problems can ever usefully be resolved by use of military force.

Absolute pacifists are rare, and I will just acknowledge them and move on. I personally favor an option for peace in world policy-making, where it should be the default initial position. But the peace option is trumped in my mind by the opportunity to stop a major war crime.

Leftists are not always isolationists. In the US, progressive people actually went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, forming the Lincoln Brigade. That was a foreign intervention. Leftists were happy about Churchill’s and then Roosevelt’s intervention against the Axis. To make ‘anti-imperialism’ trump all other values in a mindless way leads to frankly absurd positions. I can’t tell you how annoyed I am by the fringe left adulation for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the grounds that he is ‘anti-imperialist,’ and with an assumption that he is somehow on the Left. As the pillar of a repressive Theocratic order that puts down workers, he is a man of the far Right, and that he doesn’t like the US and Western Europe doesn’t ennoble him.

The proposition that social problems can never be resolved by military force alone may be true. But there are some problems that can’t be solved unless there is a military intervention first, since its absence would allow the destruction of the progressive forces. Those arguing that “Libyans” should settle the issue themselves are willfully ignoring the overwhelming repressive advantage given Qaddafi by his jets, helicopter gunships, and tanks; the ‘Libyans’ were being crushed inexorably. Such crushing can be effective for decades thereafter. 

These, I would suggest, border on weak men (though there are dirty f***ing hippies who argue for them).  Notice that they're addressed at the very general principle of employing military force.  If Cole is serious about considering objections to military force, he might consider something along these lines:

Humanitarian military intervention is sometimes justified, sometimes not.  It's justified when (1) there is a clear, achievable objective; (2) this objective cannot be achieved but by military force; (3) the chances of success are great.  An argument could be made that none of these conditions have been satisfied.

I don't know if this argument could ultimately prevail, but it's disappointing that Cole doesn't seem to think anyone capable of making it.  This is how he closes:

I would like to urge the Left to learn to chew gum and walk at the same time. It is possible to reason our way through, on a case-by-case basis, to an ethical progressive position that supports the ordinary folk in their travails in places like Libya. If we just don’t care if the people of Benghazi are subjected to murder and repression on a vast scale, we aren’t people of the Left. We should avoid making ‘foreign intervention’ an absolute taboo the way the Right makes abortion an absolute taboo if doing so makes us heartless (inflexible a priori positions often lead to heartlessness).

Thus my "weak man" allegation–the "left" is too mentally incompetent, unsophisticated, or ideologically rigid to participate in this discussion.  Contra Cole,  I think people can do this, they can see the limits of principle, they just might not, in this case, see that the basic just war conditions have been satisfied.  Whatever the case may ultimately be, knocking down unserious positions or suggesting that it's either intervene militarily or endorse the slaughter (where have I heard that before) don't make good arguments.


New study shows: liberals don’t have conservative economic views

Ron Ross, at The American Spectator, reports that a Zogby International survey "confirms what (he's) long suspected — when it comes to economics, liberals are clueless."  The survey asks respondents to identify themselves on a spectrum from very liberal to very conservative, and then eight questions come.  Ross notes: 

On the basis of eight economic questions, wrong answers correlated consistently with ideology.  Progressive/very liberal respondents got four times more wrong answers than libertarians.

Ross concludes that the survey results "demonstrate a strong connection between economic ignorance and interventionist enthusiasm.  Those who are most determined to interfere with the economy know the least about it."

Well, golly, if there really is a connection between not knowing economics and being a liberal, that'd be a bad thing.  Especially for liberals and their views about economics.  So let's look at all the economics that liberals are so ignorant about.  Here are two of the most telling questions:

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.  (Unenlightened Answer: Disagree)

6. Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited. (Unenlightened Answer: Agree)

The rest of the questions are the usual libertarian talking points (minimum wage laws increase unemployment, licensing professional services causes the price for those services to be raised).  The crazy thing is that question 1 is so vaguely stated that anyone with any sense would ask for clarification: Are the restrictions with regard to where the houses will be built, what kind of houses, or whether they must meet safety codes, and so on? In some cases, those restrictions will drive prices up, and other times, down.  Of course, the survey has the right answer that they do.  Why? Because that's what libertarians believe.

With question 6, I don't see this as a matter of having knowledge of basic economics or any such thing, but more a question of having ethical judgment about what counts as exploitation.  Again, because the right answers are being determined by people who casually use the term "leftist," as a term for anyone who's not a member of the John Birch Society, the right answers will likely be different from, say, any morally developed adult.

None of this would be surprising or irritating if the survey and report did not use terms like "unenlightened" and "wrong" for the answers here.  Now, if the survey were about, say, basic economic knowledge, where there is no reasonable disagreement, then we'd have no problem.  But here we have the simple strategy of polling one's opponents in a disagreement, noting how they have views you reject, casting them as being wrong, and then reporting how often those with whom you disagree are wrong about things that matter.  But, even if liberals are in error, these are not the simple errors that Ross portrays them to be.  These are controversial matters in economics, ones about which intelligent people disagree.  To portray this as a matter of ignorance, as Ross does, is not just a distortion of the debate, it's simple lying.  But Ross is all too happy to run up the score when the deck is stacked:

What we're seeing all too often is "the arrogance of ignorance." Both arrogance and ignorance do enormous damage in the world, but together they are a toxic brew.

Ross's gerrymandered study really only shows that opinions about economics track political self-identification.  That's not news, and certainly not something to make the hay Ross does of it.  There's another toxic brew, in addition to Ross's arrogance and ignorance: it's willful deception and self-righteous indignation.

**Hello Everyone–Welcome Scott Aikin, our newest contributor


Team players

I pick on "conservative" columnists a lot here.  I've noted elsewhere (click here) why this is so.  Now I am not the only one making this observation. From County Fair:

Last week, I noted that the numerical advantage conservatives have on the nation's op-ed pages doesn't tell the whole story:

There's a huge qualitative difference between the conservatives given newspaper columns and their progressive counterparts as well. The conservatives tend to be more partisan, more aggressive, and more reliable advocates for their "team."

The Washington Post employs as a columnist Bill Kristol, a hyperpartisan neocon Republican strategist who has been a key player in GOP efforts to block health care and start unnecessary wars. Who is supposed to be Kristol's counterpart? Richard Cohen, who opposes affirmative action, supports torture, and attacked liberals who opposed Kristol's war in Iraq?

Now, here's what you see if you turn to the op-ed page of today's Washington Post:

Former Bush speechwriter and current Post columnist Michael Gerson on "The Democrats' Assault on the CIA."

Conservative Post columnist Kathleen Parker on chaos in the GOP.

Former Bush aide Ed Gillespie, misleading readers about his party's historical reaction to Supreme Court nominees by Democratic presidents.

Centrist Post columnist David Ignatius on President Obama's approach to Israel

Liberal Post columnist Ruth Marcus writing about her new puppy.

So that's three conservatives, including two former Bush aides, a centrist, and a progressive. One conservative attacking Democrats, one conservative misleading readers about the Supreme Court and attacking Democrats, one conservative noting disarray in the GOP, and a liberal writing about her dog.

I invite those who hunger for balance on this page to produce the party-line liberal columnists in national newspapers.