Tag Archives: Red Herring

Do you like your herring red or blue?

Matt Purple’s got a great change of subject for Republicans concerned about election futures (HERE).  When there are laments about how shallow the Republican bench for 2016 is beyond Christie and Rubio, he’s got a new topic of conversation:

Let’s step onto the 2016 chessboard, no matter how premature it might seem. Republicans certainly have their problems. But focusing obsessively on them obscures the woeful state of affairs on the other side of the aisle.

Or better, focusing on the woeful state on the other side of the aisle obscures the Republican problems.

My views are underappreciated by those who disagree with my views

There is a natural tendency to iron man one's own arguments; that's why self-assessment is not an accurate measure of a position's cogency. It also often turns out that such self-ironmanning comes along with underestimating the strength of positions opposed to one's own. For, perhaps if one's arguments aren't so strong, the alternatives a super weak. Key to this strategy is keeping oneself from exposure to the alternatives. Ergo, Fox News. The arguments, whatever their merits, for the alternatives to whatever it is that Fox supports don't get heard there (at least now that Alan Colmes is gone). The other strategy is constantly to complain about how one's arguments don't get treated fairly. Thus, "liberal media." Thus again, Fox News. The diehard Fox News person knows in advance of the critique, so can't be swayed by it.

On this same theme, here is Paul Ryan via Paul Krugman:

“Just last week, the president told a crowd in North Carolina that Republicans are in favor of, quote, ‘dirtier air, dirtier water and less people with health insurance,’ ” Mr. Ryan said at a gathering at The Heritage Foundation on Oct. 26. “Can you think of a pettier way to describe sincere disagreements between the two parties on regulation and health care?”

He makes some good points.  But here is Paul Ryan himself:

Do you remember what he said? He said that what’s stopped us from meeting our nation’s greatest challenges is, quote, “the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics – the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.”

I couldn’t agree more.

And yet, nearly three years into his presidency, look at where we are now:

Petty and trivial? Just last week, the President told a crowd in North Carolina that Republicans are in favor of, quote, “dirtier air, dirtier water, and less people with health insurance.” Can you think of a pettier way to describe sincere disagreements between the two parties on regulation and health care? Chronic avoidance of tough decisions? The President still has not put forward a credible plan to tackle the threat of ever-rising spending and debt, and it’s been over 900 days since his party passed a budget in the Senate. A preference for scoring cheap political points instead of consensus-building? This is the same President who is currently campaigning against a do-nothing Congress, when in fact, the House of Representatives has passed over a dozen bills to help get the economy moving and deal with the debt, only to see the President’s party kill those bills in the do-nothing Senate.

"TL:DR: The President has harsh words for our positions on the problem of health insurance and the environment, but what about the problem of red herring?  (or why isn't he worklng on the economy?) " Ryan does not in fact challenge the accuracy of the accuracy of the statement about the environment and he barely addresses the health insurance question (other than to repeat that tax cuts will solve the problem). That has not proven to be a solution, except to those whose brains have been occupied by Wall Street.

The funny thing, I think, about the tendency to make one's case entirely in the form of a complaint that one doesn't get to make one's case–which is effectively what Ryan does here–is that one never makes one's case.  Whatever its merits, the Democrats did something about the health insurance problem, somethinng like what Mitt Romney advocated as governor of Massachussets.

The natural response here of course will be that pointing this out is itself unfair, etc.  I don't believe that tax cuts will solve all problems because I'm opposed to it and I underestimate the strength of the arguments for it.  I do this probably because I am petty. 

Don’t pay the ferryman

As a young boy, I watched the car ferries depart Michigan for Wisconsin, so there is a certain amount of nostalgia for them and their giant plumes of coal smoke.  As one might imagine, however, the coal ash creates a problem for the delicate ecosystem of Lake Michigan and so is sensibly regulated by the EPA.  The owners of the last coal-burning vessel on the Lake, however, won't go quietly.  They have recourse to a creature threatened by their business activitiy, the Red Herring.  The Chicago Tribune reports:

In documents obtained by the Tribune, the car ferry's owners plead for the National Park Service to grant the Badger special protection from the EPA, which in 2008 gave them four years to find a solution to the ship's pollution problems.

"This designation could play a critical role in the survival of this one-of-a-kind historical asset," Bob Manglitz, president and chief executive of the Lake Michigan Car Ferry Service, the Badger's owner, wrote in a letter to the Park Service. Landmark status, Manglitz wrote, would be "invaluable" during negotiations with the EPA about a new Clean Water Act permit for the ship.

In their application for landmark status, the Badger's owners say the ship's "historic propulsion system" is "under threat" by the EPA.

It describes the Badger as "the final stage of development of the Great Lakes rail and auto passenger ferry," making it worthy for protection as an example of once-innovative technology to move goods across the nation. Its massive coal-fired boilers were the last of their kind built for U.S. ships, according to documents filed with the Park Service.

Converting the ship from coal to oil "would destroy part of the historic coal-delivery system and significantly increase operating costs," the application states. Adding diesel engines would leave "the historic machinery intact but unused."

Now as an old man, or rather someone who feels like an old man, I get my drinking water from the very same lake.  So what's the problem with coal ash?

Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxic metals. The pollutant drew national attention in 2008 after a coal ash holding pond ruptured at a Kingston, Tenn., power plant and fouled an Ohio River tributary. On Oct. 31, a bluff collapsed next to another power plant south of Milwaukee and sent a torrent of mud and coal ash into Lake Michigan.

It would be more honest if the disingenuous owners argued that these historic pollutants–arsenic, lead, and mercury–are under assault by the EPA.

No, not a red herring

Whatever else you might call it, abortion is a form of birth control.  Not however, according to Americans United for Life President Charmain Yoest.  Here she is (via Think Progress):

HOST: Is your organization in favor of helping women have more access to birth control and helping women have their birth control paid for by insurance?

YOEST: That’s actually not an issue that we address. We on life issues, on biotheics, on abortion, on end of life, on rights of conscience, but we do not address that issue because there are differences of opinion on that. [...]

HOST: But I’m just curios, why not approach birth control as an issue if the goal is to reduce abortions, to make abortion unnecessary, birth control does that. Wouldn’t that be an interesting addition to your legal pallet?

YOEST: Well, as I said, there is an awful lot of issues that can be addressed and we stay really focused to this question of abortion itself. It’s really a red herring that the abortion lobby likes to bring up, conflating abortion and birth control and that’s why we try to stay very clear on differentiating between the two. Because frankly that would be carrying water on the other side.

It's hard to know how to respond to this, other than to say this person has little interest in reality and ought therefore to be laughed at.  Abortion, for the people who support its availability, is, in the most objectionable cases (for Yoest), a form of birth control.  There are other, less murderous (in her mind) forms of birth control, so it would seem that supporting them, rather than not supporting them, would not be unreasonable.

This would not be unreasonable, unless of course your real interest lies in objecting to all forms of birth control–which seems the only reasonable way to interpret her.  At least that way she' s not inconsistent, or dumb.  It's really after all a question of charity.

Because why not

I wrote yesterday about the Wisconsin GOP's response to UW Madison Professor William Cronon's criticism of them: they requested his emails in an open records request.  One naturally wonders why anyone would be interested in his emails when he has been very upfront about his criticism.  Thankfully, the Wisconsin GOP has provided a reason:

"Like anyone else who makes an open records request in Wisconsin, the Republican Party of Wisconsin does not have to give a reason for doing so.

"I have never seen such a concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government.

"Further, it is chilling to see that so many members of the media would take up the cause of a professor who seeks to quash a lawful open records request. Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public officials are conducting themselves in an ethical manner. The Left is far more aggressive in this state than the Right in its use of open records requests, yet these rights do extend beyond the liberal left and members of the media.

"Finally, I find it appalling that Professor Cronin seems to have plenty of time to round up reporters from around the nation to push the Republican Party of Wisconsin into explaining its motives behind a lawful open records request, but has apparently not found time to provide any of the requested information.

"We look forward to the University's prompt response to our request and hope those who seek to intimidate us from making such requests will reconsider their actions."

The only explanation I can think of for requesting Professor Cronon's (yes, they misspelled his name) emails is to make him and others think twice before criticizing the GOP in Wisconsin.  Intimidation, in other words.  I think this first because Cronon is not exactly a "public official" in any ordinary sense.  He's a public employee doing his job as a historian.  Second, even though the GOP isn't (so far as I know) legally required to offer a justification, given Cronon's status as a critic of GOP ideas, one naturally thinks that the GOP has a moral obligation to offer a justification for changing the subject from ideas to persons.  Finally, the GOP spokesperson here, in responding to obvious and justified queries about their behavior, goes for the full red herring in wondering why we aren't talking about the very intimidating and non-compliant Cronon.  That's the tell.    

Just saying

Today, I think we have a pretty straightforward case of "red herring."  This fallacy is classically described as occurring when one changes the subject of argument in order to derail criticism.  The red herring is another instance of the "no-inference-being-explicitly-drawn" kind of fallacy.  I think that's the trick that works on the mind of the red herring monger and the red herring.  The red herring monger isn't drawing any kind of illegitimate inference, "he's just saying." Let's take a look:

It began with the release of the Justice Department memos — a move opposed by CIA Director Leon Panetta along with four previous directors. Then, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. did not rule out Justice Department cooperation with foreign lawsuits against American intelligence operatives. Then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the CIA of lying to her in 2002 about waterboarding, which she admitted learning about five months later anyway but did nothing to oppose because her real job was to "change the leadership in Congress and in the White House."

To stanch the CIA's bleeding morale, Democrats have tried reassurance. President Obama, speaking at CIA headquarters, took the Fred Rogers approach: "Don't be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we've made some mistakes. That's how we learn." Yes, children, hypocritical congressional investigations and foreign kangaroo courts are really our friends. House intelligence committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes sent a sympathy note to Langley: "In recent days, as the public debate regarding CIA's interrogation practices has raged, you have been very much in my thoughts." There should be a section at Hallmark for intelligence operatives unfairly accused of war crimes.

That's the very Christian Michael Gerson, former Bush Speechwriter, who is beginning to sound like the very spiteful Charles Krauthammer.  Some Democrats (and some Republicans–no mention of them here) have leveled criticism of CIA methods and practices.  That's democracy, I think.  The question now is whether that criticism is deserved or not.  Did the CIA participate in war crimes?  I would like to know the answer to that question.  Did the CIA mislead the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States of America?  That would be good to know.  But alas.  No such luck.  Michael Gerson is not interested in those questions at all, actually.

For he's worried about the effect on CIA morale that such criticism might have.  He is also concerned as to why Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, didn't say anything (she couldn't) about the secret briefing at the time. 

Those are all great concerns, I think, but they aren't really what we're talking about.  Did the CIA, under orders from someone, commit war crimes?  No amount of what-did-Nancy Pelosi-know-and-when-did-she-know-it ought to distract us from that very simple question. 

Diminished mental capacity

Kathleen Parker concern trolls on behalf of homophobic Christian ministers:

When whites lynched blacks with the tacit approval of the state, the entire African American community was terrorized. No one can pretend otherwise. It is this immeasurable horror that hate-crimes laws attempt to address by adding another layer of punishment to the primary crime.

What fair-minded person could object? On the other hand, how do we read the minds of our worst actors? Is it possible to say conclusively that these killers were motivated by hate to the exclusion of other potentially confounding factors?

These are legitimate questions that deserve rational debate without the dueling rants of hyperbole and outrage. Ultimately, that debate leads to free-speech issues — especially religious speech — and the real crux of the opposition.

Some conservative groups worry that hate-crimes laws might lead to restrictions on churches or other religious organizations' freedom to quote Scripture that might be deemed hateful toward gays. Might a passionate preacher's invocation of, say, Leviticus 20:13, which condemns homosexual behavior, be interpreted as conspiracy to commit a hate crime?

In fact, the legislation applies when a physical assault or attempted murder takes place. And, so far, the First Amendment still protects the rights of even the Rev. Fred Phelps to take his "God Hates Fags" show on the road.

But in a country where eating Twinkies can be a defense for murder — and a Miss USA contestant can be publicly denounced as a "dumb bitch" for saying that marriage should be between a man and a woman — stranger things are sure to happen.

As an operating principle, meanwhile, it seems wiser to hear and see the haters rather than criminalize their thoughts and banish them to the underground where their demons can fester and where no law can breach their purpose

There's a neat collection of straightforward fallacies here.  In the first place, there is the oft-repeated objection that bias crimes involve an impossible form of "mind reading."  That is just dumb.  "Intentional murder" involves mind reading.  

Second, that the existence of hate crimes laws will ultimately (that's the word that indicates the bottom of the slippery slope–here a fallacious one) inhibit religious speech is just crazy.  Hate crimes laws, as the very name makes clear, involve crimes.  Click here for the FBI page on hate crimes.

That–the alleged slope–completes the red herring–the bait and switch.  For the initial point of the piece regarded including crimes against homosexuals (and others) in hate crimes laws.  Including them seems perfectly reasonable.  It has nothing to do, as Parker even seems to admit without realizing it, with people's "thoughts" (taken by themselves).  Non-existent restrictions on free speech, in other words, are not the issue at all.  On account of that obvious fact, we don't need to worry about "criminalizing" anyone's thoughts.  

Finally, it's ludicrous (and just plain baffling) to group the (not actually real) "Twinkie defense" (supposedly used to justify the murder of Harvey Milk and George Moscone in San Francisco) and the completely reasonable negative public reaction to a beauty contest's lame and ignorant defense of opposite marriage.  She made a contentious point about what rights certain people should have–many have objected to her reasoning.  She's a public figure and ought to expect that.  

One more thing, however, about the murderer of Harvey Milk.  The jury, reading the defendents mind, found him unable to have engaged in premeditated murder on account of diminished mental capacity. 

On the pier

Some military types together penned an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing against gays in the military.  Some of their arguments are manifestly absurd–like this one:

And the damage would not stop there. Legislation introduced to repeal Section 654 (H.R. 1283) would impose on commanders a radical policy that mandates "nondiscrimination" against "homosexuality, or bisexuality, whether the orientation is real or perceived." Mandatory training classes and judicial proceedings would consume valuable time defining that language. Team cohesion and concentration on missions would suffer if our troops had to live in close quarters with others who could be sexually attracted to them.

We don't need a study commission to know that tensions are inevitable in conditions offering little or no privacy, increasing the stress of daily military life. "Zero tolerance" of dissent would become official intolerance of anyone who disagrees with this policy, forcing additional thousands to leave the service by denying them promotions or punishing them in other ways. Many more will be dissuaded from ever enlisting. There is no compelling national security reason for running these risks to our armed forces. Discharges for homosexual conduct have been few compared with separations for other reasons, such as pregnancy/family hardship or weight-standard violations. There are better ways to remedy shortages in some military specialties than imposing social policies that would escalate losses of experienced personnel who are not easily replaced.

"Nondiscrimation" (in quotes!) sounds odd, to say the least, in the context of an argument arguing for systematic and legalized discrimination against homosexuals.  Aside from its grade C sophistry, this argument repeats the claim uttered by many that their civil rights would be infringed upon if homosexual marriages are legally recognized–a claim made in a recent commercial against gay marriage.  See here for entertaining commentary on that particular advertisement.

On the other merits of the piece, the authors argue many–too many–would leave the military (in a time when we need them all).  The primary cause would seem to be the "forced intimacy" required by military life: 

Section 654 recognizes that the military is a "specialized society" that is "fundamentally different from civilian life." It requires a unique code of personal conduct and demands "extraordinary sacrifices, including the ultimate sacrifice, in order to provide for the common defense." The law appreciates military personnel who, unlike civilians who go home after work, must accept living conditions that are often "characterized by forced intimacy with little or no privacy." 

Not having been in the military, I can't really attest to that (anyone?).  But one can easily imagine it.  What might be a counter example to this–perhaps the only comprehensible worry on behalf of those afraid of homosexuals, at least the only one the authors mention–might be some other military which allows gays to serve openly.  And indeed there is one, or two or more.  The authors write:

Some suggest that the United States must emulate Denmark, the Netherlands and Canada, which have incorporated homosexuals into their forces. But none of these countries has the institutional culture or worldwide responsibilities of our military. America's armed forces are models for our allies' militaries and the envy of our adversaries — not the other way around. 

They might have just added: those countries, however, serve red herring, a nutritionally deficient form of sustenance, in their MREs.  The question is whether allowing gays in the military–especially in Canada, a country very much like ours, with troops committed overseas in various operations–has affected military service in Canada.  Did mass amounts of people leave the military?  The fact that our military might be the envy of our adversaries is immaterial and irrelevant–unless, of course, they "envy" it's not gayness. 

Argumentum ad Farkam

If you haven't seen Fark.com, you should take a look.  It's a kind of one-line news aggregator with one-word commentary: e.g., dumbass: Man insures his honeybees.  Often the observations on the events are hilarious.  But you wouldn't or shouldn't at least consider them serious news commentary.  But when it comes to the stimulus bill, worth something like a trillion dollars, this is the kind of discourse one is treated to.  Thus, Charles Krauthammer:

It's not just pages and pages of special-interest tax breaks, giveaways and protections, one of which would set off a ruinous Smoot-Hawley trade war. It's not just the waste, such as the $88.6 million for new construction for Milwaukee Public Schools, which, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, have shrinking enrollment, 15 vacant schools and, quite logically, no plans for new construction.

It's the essential fraud of rushing through a bill in which the normal rules (committee hearings, finding revenue to pay for the programs) are suspended on the grounds that a national emergency requires an immediate job-creating stimulus — and then throwing into it hundreds of billions that have nothing to do with stimulus, that Congress's own budget office says won't be spent until 2011 and beyond, and that are little more than the back-scratching, special-interest, lobby-driven parochialism that Obama came to Washington to abolish. He said.

Not just to abolish but to create something new — a new politics where the moneyed pork-barreling and corrupt logrolling of the past would give way to a bottom-up, grass-roots participatory democracy. That is what made Obama so dazzling and new. Turns out the "fierce urgency of now" includes $150 million for livestock (and honeybee and farm-raised fish) insurance.

Most of Krauthammer's piece is an argumentum ad Obamam–anything short of Jesus spells failure for the politics of hope, etc.  But the evidence for the old-school hope-crushing ways of Obama (with respect to the stimulus) from (a now suspicious of a fear-mongering government) Krauthammer is a couple of miniscule farkish examples: Honeybee insurance!  

It seems self-evident that there are philosophical differences between the two parties on the nature of the stimulus package–after all, ipse dixit!–and perhaps the readers of the Post could be favored with a discussion of those differences, rather than a series of childish and context-free examples of government waste and feigned disappointment at Obama's not being Jesus.  

Know your enemy

Don't know what to call your enemy?  Try al Qaeda.  Note how Michael Gerson twists and turns in order to make all of the fronts in Iraq a "central" front in the war on, yes, al Qaeda.  He writes [our intrusions in brackets and italics--sorry about that, but I couldn't find another way to point out all of the fudging here]:

It is a central argument of the Bush administration that the outcome in Iraq is essential to the broader war on terrorism — which is plainly true. When it comes to Sunni radicalism, the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are a single struggle. Al-Qaeda [is it the case that Sunni radicalism is the same as al Qaeda?] has latched on to local grievances, tribal conflicts and general chaos in all three nations to extend its influence [what does this influence consist in?].

But this argument, used to justify U.S. efforts in Iraq ["used to justify" has a nice passive ring to it--sounds like it doesn't actually justify], cuts another way as well. Is America taking all three related insurgencies with sufficient seriousness?[odd, that wasn't the way I was thinking]

Iraq, while consuming greater sacrifice, is now producing the most encouraging results. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is reeling. U.S. Special Forces in Mosul — a largely Sunni city north of Baghdad — are conducting [conducting--why not "succeeding at"] about eight to 12 missions against al-Qaeda each night [what makes them sure it's "al Qaeda?"  And is "al Qaeda in Iraq" the same as "al Qaeda"?]. In Baghdad, the surge strategy of securing civilians has dramatically reduced sectarian violence [This is really a different issue]. And in Basra — located in the Shiite south — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has finally shown some fight against radical militias [what kind of "radical militias"?].  [What about general anti-American insurgency?]

Hurray for all of those things.  Maybe.  But let's not exaggerate.  These are all different things.  It's obvious from the most superficial news watching that Iraq has numerous sectarian struggles going on plus an anti-American insurgency.  The most obvious one of these sectarian struggles–that between Shiites and Sunnis–has the Sunni radicals on the losing end–as they are the religious minority in Iraq (and Iran–remember them–they're Shiites aren't they?).  That means the sectarian war does not intrinsically benefit Sunni radicalism, i.e., al Qaeda, as Gerson suggests.

But that can't be true, one might say.  The only way, I think, it could be true is if we consider "al Qaeda not to be a specific terrorist group, as it is, but rather a stand-in for all the forces of evil.  Why?  because al Qaeda is a force of evil and disorder.  Any disorder and evil is a victory for the terrorists.  And all terrorists are al Qaeda.  Well at least all terrorists share the evil aims of al Qaeda, which is the same thing. 

Except when it isn't.  

If Gerson's strategy of making al Qaeda the mother of all red herrings has done anything, it's given al Qaeda legitimacy as a global superpower.