Tag Archives: straw manning


Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse have a nice piece up at 3Quarks Daily about the constraints of certain argument contexts. They write:

In the real world of political talk, getting the last word is often what counts most. This is especially the case where political talk is conducted in the limited space between commercial breaks.

The limitations of time and space are also a problem for real life, but that’s another story. The time constraints (John Stewart, by the way, had a great segment on this on the Daily Show–“CNN leaves it here” or something, but it’s long gone.) In that segment, people would start conversing, then CNN would run out of time, despite having a 24-hour span of time in which to develop arguments. You’d think, but you’d be wrong, that they could develop this stuff in depth.

Anyway, back to Aikin and Talisse. They call this “spitballing” and it works like this:

The derailing strategy we have in mind may be called spitballing. At its core, spitballing works as follows: One makes multiple contributions to a discussion, often as fast as one can think them up (and certainly faster than one can think them through). Some contributions may be insightful, others less so, but all are overtly provocative. What is most important, though, is that each installment express a single, self-contained thought. Accordingly, slogans are the spitballer’s dialectical currency. As the metaphor of the spitball goes, one keeps tossing until something sticks; hence it helps if one’s slogans are tinged with something disagreeable or slightly beyond the pale. As the spitballer’s interlocutors attempt to reply to what he has said, the spitballer resolutely continues spitballing.

Here is how this plays out over time:

Consequently, the spitballer controls the discussion by derailing any attempt to scrutinize what he has said; thus, in a very real sense, he always speaks unopposed. Meanwhile, public conversation is dominated by counterfeit ideas; popular political discourse is crowded out by a mode of exchange that merely mimics dialogue; and the pressing political issues that face the nation remain undiscussed.

The spitballer trolls in real life. You can’t evaluate what the spitballer says because there is no way to fix on it. Here is another thing. The spitballer relies on the requirement of charity for us to pick out the best of the many views. But even then, he can always claim we’ve straw manned him. And he can always call upon his minions to iron man what he’s spitballed.


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.

Culpa istorum

**Quick update below I've noticed several mea-culpae about Iraq floating around lately. We talked about one of them (Ignatieff) the other day. Being wrong about such a thing as monumental as war ought probably to carry serious consequences for the credibility of the person who was wrong. In light of that obvious but completely ignored imperative, it's entertaining to watch the ones who were wrong explain themselves:

We might test judgment by asking, on the issue of Iraq, who best anticipated how events turned out. But many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. They opposed the invasion because they believed the president was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong.

So Ignatieff was wrong, but some of those who were right were right for the wrong reasons (so he claims). We might then say that they're wrong too. Because after all it's just as bad to have a true belief which is unjustified as it is to have a unjustified false belief (like Ignatieff had). Any mature person can see that Ignatieff has picked on the college socialist again–a slogan chanting and capitalistically challenged representative of the anti war left. Everyone ought to know by this point–especially a former Harvard Professor of political science–that such a lefty exists in Rush Limbaugh's mind. Pointing out that someone might have had stupid reasons for being right doesn't have anything to do with your stupid reasons for being wrong. Now to his stupid reasons:

The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action. They did not necessarily possess more knowledge than the rest of us. They labored, as everyone did, with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge of Iraq's fissured sectarian history. What they didn�t do was take wishes for reality. They didn't suppose, as President Bush did, that because they believed in the integrity of their own motives everyone else in the region would believe in it, too. They didn't suppose that a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror. They didn't suppose that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little. They didn't believe that because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo it had to be doing so in Iraq. They avoided all these mistakes.

First off, I think a good number had some knowledge of Iraq's "fissured sectarian history." It was no secret to experts in Middle East history. But the more perplexing thing (aside from its self-serving comparisons) about this mea culpa is that it puts the entire matter in terms of gambling about an uncertain future–where no one could possibly predict the outcome. And this is just the point that Ignatieff and others fail to get. A person with even a casual knowledge of the history of the region (say the recent war between Iraq and Iran) could have predicted the outcome of this war with a good deal of precision. It's not a question, as Ignatieff frames it, of being unduly critical of the motives of the administration (which one always should be in any case), it's rather a more straightforward matter of good judgment. And so this underscores the shallowness of Ignatieff's thinking about matters of life and death (which is what it was to think about invading Iraq in case that wasn't obvious). The experts he trusts don't have any knowledge of the very public and relevant facts about the history of Iraq (and the entire region). So it's not only a case of taking wishes for reality. It's simpler than that.

**Update: Here's Crooked Timber, always a worthwhile read. I'd be interested in seeing more apologiae pro errore meo if anyone knows where to find them.