Tag Archives: straw man argument

The fake straw man

Typically, a straw man argument is some kind of misrepresentation (by selection, by distortion, or by invention) in order to conclude that some alternative position is stronger by comparison. We often think that last part–that some alternative position is stronger–is the key move. You use a straw man to go somewhere else with the argument.

So, for instance, “the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) is communism,” distorts the ACA in favor of a more sensible, non-communist version.

This morning I was struck by an account of a strategic use of distortion that skips the last, crucial step in straw manning: the sensible alternative. Here it is:

For context, this self-retweet is meant to characterize President Trump’s approach to revisions (rather, alleged revisions) to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The argument runs: NAFTA is bad (for exaggerated reasons), engage in a lengthy back-and-forth, NAFTA is fixed (when it’s the same).

You can see from the example that the distortion is almost entirely self-enclosed. In the first stage, it presents a distorted account of the current realty. So far, that’s very straw manny. But, rather than offering an allegedly more sensible alternative, it offers a second distortion, which takes us back to a non-distorted version of the status quo.

This version–I don’t know what to call it–retains all of the puffery of the standard versions: look at how dumb my opponents are! And it doubles that puffery by turning the exchange entirely into a show about how awesome you are.  You’re not as awesome if you have to share the credit with someone else.

Perhaps the more precise account is this: you distort an interlocutor’s position so that you can occupy the non-distorted version. So, the alternative position is strong enough as it is. The only problem is who is occupying it–not you. You have to steal it. To do that, you have to trick your opponent into leaving it.

There are some natural advantages to this. It’s easier to occupy an already constructed position than to make up a new one. Just ask the Great Horned Owl.  There’s got to be a real estate version of this scam. The closest I can find is the real estate practice of blockbusting, where unscrupulous developers scarred white people out of their homes in order to resell them at much higher prices to black families.

The System Worked

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

He writes:

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

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

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

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

Heck of a job, Brownie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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