Category Archives: category mistake

I define the terms here

Ross Kaminsky holds that the popular appellation “libertarian populist” (see Ross Douthat’s recent column) is a contradiction in terms.  In short, because ‘libertarian’ is about freedom, and populism has “nothing to do with freedom”.  Now, first, that’s not yet a contradiction.  So when I say that Bill has a brown dog, it’s not an oxymoron, even though being a dog doesn’t have anything to do with being brown.

But Kaminsky’s argument is more for contradiction than for irrelevance.  First, he opens by defining ‘populist’ from the dictionary.

A standard definition of “populist” includes supporting ordinary people over the elites.

So far, that’s perfectly consistent with libertarianism.  In fact, very much consistent with the commitments of libertarians – these elites think they know better than the average Joe, and coerce him this way or that.  So Kaminsky shouldn’t have a problem with the populist brand of libertarian, right?  Wrong.  That’s because Kaminsky means something different by ‘populist’:

Getting away from the dictionary, I have always understood “populist” to mean “demagogue” or to be a synonym for various adjectives modifying the word it’s connected to. Adjectives such as “ersatz” or “-lite” or “but not fully adhering to its principles” or “shrill.”

Whuh? Look, I’m no great fan of the dictionary for definitions of controversial terms, but the more controversial term is ‘libertarian,’ not ‘populist.’  Not respecting common usage is the first sign of Humpty-Dumpty Semantics.  Moreover, I still don’t yet see why this new stipulated defintion is inconsistent with libertarianism, either.  How is demagoguery inconsistent with the exercise of freedom?  Isn’t that exactly what demagogues invoke when they talk to folks (especially here in the States)… how we love our freedom? Moreover, why is being an ‘ersatz’ X inconsistent with being an X?  Or how is ‘ersatz X’ an oxymoron?  And, by the way, does he really mean ‘popularizer’?  Seriously, it’s pretty sad when you can’t even stipulate your way to a contradiction.

How not not to be a cynic

Inside Higher Education ran an advice post for newly hired academics in the StratEDgy blog section.  They then posted the high points on the front page last week.  Most advice was just fine, ranging from get tenure quickly, before they take that away to focus on the teaching and find ways to enjoy it.  Then there was this gem:

Avoid cynicism by recognizing early that academe is just as fraught with petty squabbles, mean-spirited colleagues, and irrational rules as any other area of endeavor – but no more so than any other.

As far as I can take it, this advice is that one avoids cynicism by being a cynic.  That’s simply not how you avoid being a cynic.  I suppose the more charitable reading is that one can avoid the disappointment of realizing the truth of the cynical worldview (especially in the vaunted halls of academe) if one is antecedently cynical.  But that’s a different thing, and, by the way, not very effective — expecting others to be small-minded and mean doesn’t decrease decrease disappointment when they invariably are so.

Politics and bullshit

Daniel Foster at National Review Online has a well-timed piece on political culture and bullshit.  For the most part, it's a quick essay glossing Harry Frankfurt's views in his classic "On Bullshit".  He's got a few examples that aren't quite right, as his Marylin Monroe case is just one of lying, not bullshitting.  What's interesting, though, is Foster's extension of the bullshit point to what he calls "the politics of identity."  Now, this itself isn't new, as Frankfurt even ends his essay with the observation that "authenticity is bullshit."  But Foster's examples are worth a look. 

The first is Elizabeth Warren and her claims to be a Native American.  What Foster objects to is not the politics from the identity but the case made for her identity. 

Exhibit A is Elizabeth Warren, who has been able to withstand a barrage of documentary evidence casting doubt on her claim to be part American Indian by anchoring that claim not in genealogical fact but in family lore — in other words, by answering the charge that her Cherokee identification is probably false with the tacit admission that it is definitely bulls**t.

In this case, what's weird is not that this is identity politics, but the evidential conditions for claiming identity.  I think he's right about the fact that the Warren case is pretty pathetic, but I'd hardly call it identity politics.  Next up is the President himself:

Exhibit B is President Obama, who did us the favor of admitting up front that his 1995 autobiography is, at least in part, bulls**t, but who has managed to escape focused interrogation on this point eight years into his public life and three-plus years into his tenure as leader of the free world.

Again, this is likely right — that the book is trumped up. But how's that identity politics?  Is this a dogwhistle for the right? Sometimes, I feel, when reading stuff at NRO or on Newsmax, that there are words that mean more than I think they mean.  You know… welfare=brown people, crime=brown people, poverty=brown people, undereducated=brown people. Is this another case of conservatives using a normal word as code for something else?  Does it mean something different from what most people think that it means, roughly, people mobilizing political power for the interest of preserving or promoting an identity they share (racial, cultural, sexual, religious, or other)?  Now Foster is right when he says that

That identity politics is as festooned with bulls**t as a cow pasture in the full ardor of spring wouldn’t be so bad if identity politics weren’t also a powerful currency.

But I'm at a loss as to what he's saying to the readers at NRO, given his examples.  Is calling bullshit in some cases another case of bullshit?  Really, that's my sense of it here.  The "bullshit" charge was so powerfully wielded against the Bushies earlier in the 2000's, and the conservatives are looking to co-opt the charge as a weapon. But this looks exactly like a cooption, not a lesson. 

The sleep of the just

Over at Fox News, Chris Wallace is complaining about liberal bias.  He does so in a way that reminds one of Steve Colbert's allegation that "reality has a well-known liberal bias."  Here's how Talking Points Memo reports it:

Chris Wallace appeared on Friday's Fox and Friends and assailed NBC's Brian Williams over his question to Rick Perry about whether he ever struggled to sleep at night over the potential innocence of one of his many executed inmates, calling it an example of a "liberal bias."

"Would you ask a liberal politician about sleeping at night if they favored abortion or choice? " Wallace argued. "It is so built into the drinking water, if you will, in some of these liberal outlets that they don't even understand it happens."

To be fair, Wallace was merely agreeing with the even more clownish Bernie Goldberg on the idea of persistent liberal bias in the media; and the video at the link makes this claim even more obviously silly.  The difference, in case you don't just grasp it out of hand, concerned whether Perry worried about the actual non-guitiness of anyone convicted of the death penalty in his death-penalty granting state.  Up or down innocence of an actual convicted criminal can be determined in a rather different manner than whether the fetus has moral personhood.  While the latter might be a true or false question, one must at least admit that it is not super obvious how one might determine that–i.e., in a way strictly analogous to whether someone committed a crime.

Had, of course, Williams asked Perry about whether the death penalty was just, that would have been different.  But he didn't.

Theory of negativity

Jamison Foser at Media Matters notices some very stunning idiocy and responds accordingly.  He writes:

The Wisconsin Advertising Project looked at a single week's worth of ads in determining that 56 percent of McCain ads and 77 percent of Obama ads were "negative." Aside from the dangers in drawing conclusions from such a small sample of campaign ads, the findings are of limited value given that the project made no effort to assess the veracity or fairness of the ads in question. In fact, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the study counted any ad that so much as mentioned the opponent's name as "negative."

I suppose it might be mildly interesting to know that 56 percent of John McCain's ads mention Barack Obama, or that 77 percent of Obama's ads mention McCain. But it doesn't really tell us anything useful. How did they mention each other? Did the ads criticize policy positions or personality? Were they honest? The answers to those questions are essential to any meaningful assessment of the candidates' campaign tactics. (If you do find the project's findings compelling, you should keep in mind that in July, based on a much larger sample, the project found that more of McCain's ads were negative.)

Despite the study's failure to even attempt to assess the validity of the ads it declared "negative," several news organizations hyped the findings. Worse, some suggested the finding that more of Obama's ads have been negative undermines the recent conclusions of many impartial observers that the McCain campaign ads have been more dishonest than those of the Obama campaign.

The New York Post, for example, reported that the results of the study "clash with recent media coverage accusing McCain of distorting Obama's record in ads." Nonsense. That's like saying that the fact that this is September clashes with the fact that it is Friday.

Foser is right.  This is what one would call a "category mistake."  Also, I think I speak from experience that many people wrongly call anything critical an "attack" and assume that anything "negative" is wrong.  Foser's whole piece is well worth reading, as always.

It’s not a lie

Another chapter in our dumb national discourse.  The New York Times sent Zev Chafets to interview Rush Limbaugh.  By all accounts, the lengthy New York Times magazine piece lacked a critical perspective entirely.  For a piece on such a divisive figure such as Rush Limbaugh that’s inexcusable.  In defending his work, the author made the following puzzling remarks:

CHAFETS: Well, do you have an example of that? I’m not an apologist for Rush Limbaugh, but I’m a little bit defensive because I think that the liberal media takes such an unfair view of him.

I hear people being vilified on the radio on all sorts of radio stations by all sorts of people all day long. And Limbaugh is not worse than many of the ones I hear, even on NPR. He just has a different point of view.

GARFIELD: The NAACP should have a riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies?

CHAFETS: Not my sense of humor, but it’s not a lie.

GARFIELD: Did Limbaugh not say that Abu Ghraib was no worse than a Skull and Bones initiation?

CHAFETS: Yeah, he did. It’s his opinion.

The liberal media, oh please.  But besides, how does Limbaugh’s claim not being a lie somehow excuse it?  Those kinds of remarks aren’t the kinds of remarks that can be lies anyway–the problem most people have with gutter characters such as Limbaugh is that they and their ilk actually believe the things they say.  So the problem isn’t whether it’s a lie, it’s whether it’s justified.  And that’s a different story.  Way to go liberal media!  


Jonah Goldberg is determined to outdo himself in the category of dumb:

I find Darwin fish offensive. First, there’s the smugness. The
undeniable message: Those Jesus fish people are less evolved, less
sophisticated than we Darwin fishers.

The hypocrisy is even more glaring. Darwin fish are often stuck next to
bumper stickers promoting tolerance or admonishing that "hate is not a
family value." But the whole point of the Darwin fish is intolerance;
similar mockery of a cherished symbol would rightly be condemned as
bigoted if aimed at blacks or women or, yes, Muslims.

He’s right about the undeniable message.  But I don’t think it’s saying what he thinks it is.  For evolutionists, the fish represents the connection between life in the sea and mammalian life.  According to their story, God ordered the fish to rise up from the sea and walk on earth, so that, eventually, the fish would become man (without the God part).  This is an alternative to the literal creationism of some Christians which has a couple of different stories each involving a sea.  I would even venture to guess that many Darwin fish cars are owned by Christians–many of whom are dedicated evolutionists. 

The ridiculous thing about Goldberg’s remark is the charge of hypocrisy.  The point, obviously, of the Darwin fish is to insist on scientific evidence over the unsupported factual assertions of a religious text.  The evolutionists, in other words, challenge fact with fact–the literal creation story (which for some reason very many Christians believe isn’t true at all).  Many Christians do believe this story, however.  They believe it with such a vengeance they think it ought to be taught as fact in science classes in place of or at least alongside of the evolution "story."  In some places, they have even succeeded in undermining the teaching of evolution on the grounds that it’s just a "theory."  That view, of course, is absolutely preposterous–and ignorant and intolerant of basic scientific knowledge. 

Here’s the really dumb thing. To believe in the literal truth of Genesis in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence is not the same as being black, female or Muslim–unless being those things involves embracing obviously false assertions about reality.  To believe in the literal truth of Genesis (and the sometimes consequent belief in the immorality and falsity of evolution) is not even the same thing as being Christian.    


Compatible Concepts

Has Hillary Clinton been subjected to more "scrutiny" on account of her gender?  All signs point yes.  A cursory examination of the media coverage will find Clinton having to contend with questions directed at gender in a way that, say, John McCain won’t.  Here’s just one of countless examples.  Enter Maureen Dowd (courtesy of Media Matters):


After saying she found her
"voice" in New Hampshire,
she has turned into Sybil. We’ve had
Experienced Hillary, Soft Hillary, Hard Hillary, Misty Hillary, Sarcastic
Hillary, Joined-at-the-Hip-to-Bill Hillary, Her-Own-Person-Who-Just-Happens-to-Be-Married-to-a-Former-President Hillary,
It’s-My-Turn Hillary, Cuddly Hillary,
Let’s-Get-Down-in-the-Dirt-and-Fight-Like-Dogs Hillary.

Just as in the White House, when her cascading images and
hairstyles became dizzying and unsettling, suggesting that the first lady woke
up every day struggling to create a persona, now she seems to think there is a
political solution to her problem.
If she can only change this or that
about her persona, or tear down this or that about Obama’s. But the
whirlwind of changes and charges gets wearing.

And Maureen Dowd, by the way, is supposed to be a liberal.  But, like we’ve been saying, the liberal op-eds disappoint.  In the face of such evidence, Ruth Marcus argues that Clinton cannot claim to be "hampered" by her gender.  Marcus’s claim (isn’t she supposed to be a liberal too?) has what we professionals call a ring of falsity to it.  But she also makes a conceptual claim to support the false empirical claim:


The candidate of inevitability and the victim of the uneven playing field aren’t compatible concepts.

The candidate of inevitability is an empty concept.  There might have been a presumption among media types like Marcus that Clinton was the candidate of inevitability, but there hadn’t been an election yet.   Besides, being a candidate for a job, as I can attest from personal experience, doesn’t mean you’ll get the job–or that you even have a chance of getting the job. 

Qual pium al vento

Mysterious words from someone in the Washington Post.  And apropos of the woman voter, she writes:

Penn was right about the importance of the women’s vote. About 57
percent of the voters in the Democratic primaries so far have been
women. As of Feb. 12, Clinton had a lead of about seven percentage
points over Obama among them (24 points among white women). But the
Obama campaign reached out to the fair sex, following Clinton’s
announcement of women-oriented programs with similar ones within a
matter of weeks. I can imagine the strategists for the senator from Illinois thinking, "What’s that song in Verdi‘s ‘Rigoletto’?" Women are fickle.

Turns out it’s true.

Why’s that, you wonder?  

From the moment the primary season began, the group "women" divided
along racial lines. Black women have backed Obama by more than 78
percent. But even after subtracting that group, white women (including
Hispanics) are still the single largest demographic in the party, at 44
percent. If they voted as a bloc, it would take only a little help from
any other bloc to elect the female candidate. White women favor
Clinton. So why is she trailing as the contest heads to Ohio and Texas?

I know this is supposed to be funny–what with the hilarious reference from Rigoletto–but aside from being representative of Cokie Roberts style Monday morning identity politics breakdown, it’s just silly.  Women would only be fickle if, as an identical group, they changed their minds–qual pium al vento.  The quick references to the polls hardly establish that. 

The more likely conclusion is that the author of this silly thoughts is muta d’accento e di pensiero

Captivating rhetoric

To many pundits the challenge of the Obama campaign consists in the separation of "lofty rhetoric" from substance (by the way, the search string "'lofty rhetoric' + Obama" yielded 6,880 hits on Google, go figure).  Such a task, however, seems an odd challenge for people whose job description ought to presume an ability to separate real arguments from their window dressing.  A pundit ought to be able to leap a speech in a single bound.  But no.  For some of them, well three of them so far this week, Obama seems a powerful intoxicant.  Today it's Robert Samuelson's turn.  He begins his "Obama is a mirage" discussion with the now canonical admission that he too was beguiled by his honeyed words:

It's hard not to be dazzled by Barack Obama. At the 2004 Democratic convention, he visited with Newsweek reporters and editors, including me. I came away deeply impressed by his intelligence, his forceful language and his apparent willingness to take positions that seemed to rise above narrow partisanship. Obama has become the Democratic presidential front-runner precisely because countless millions have formed a similar opinion. It is, I now think, mistaken.

There is something about Obama that drives these guys to autobiography:

As a journalist, I harbor serious doubt about each of the most likely nominees. But with Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain, I feel that I'm dealing with known quantities. They've been in the public arena for years; their views, values and temperaments have received enormous scrutiny. By contrast, newcomer Obama is largely a stage presence defined mostly by his powerful rhetoric. The trouble, at least for me, is the huge and deceptive gap between his captivating oratory and his actual views.

Whatever you might call him, Samuelson is not a journalist.  He writes on the opinion page, which makes him a pundit, a completely different activity from journalism.  Besides, the following paragraph smacks not of journalism–which would involve an impersonal and objective analysis of facts–but of self-centered opinion offering.  On top of that, how does being a journalist somehow imply "serious doubts" about each of the candidates?    

Besides that, Samuelson offers up the rather strange charge that a "huge and deceptive gap" separates Obama's "captivating oratory" from his "actual views."  Let's sit here for a second and try to figure out what that means.  

It could mean that (1) Obama is a liar, because what he says differs from his actual beliefs.  His beliefs, in other words, are other than what he says they are. 

Or perhaps it means that (2) Obama's captivating rhetoric does not match his views, because his views are not captivating–they're perhaps a little boring or ordinary.  Worse than this, Obama somehow knows this and he works to cover it up.  That's an odd charge.  Actual views are likely not to be "captivating."  Being "captivating" is an attribute rather of rhetoric or art.  The ideas may be plausible or sound or true or some other such thing.  But captivating?  Nope.

So which is it?  I can't really tell.  Because Samuelson's point is too confused to evaluate.   He writes:

The subtext of Obama's campaign is that his own life narrative — to become the first African American president, a huge milestone in the nation's journey from slavery — can serve as a metaphor for other political stalemates. Great impasses can be broken with sufficient goodwill, intelligence and energy. "It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white," he says. Along with millions of others, I find this a powerful appeal.

But on inspection, the metaphor is a mirage. Repudiating racism is not a magic cure-all for the nation's ills. The task requires independent ideas, and Obama has few. If you examine his agenda, it is completely ordinary, highly partisan, not candid and mostly unresponsive to many pressing national problems.

Samuelson's reading of the "Obama subtext" is baffling.  In the first place, the subtext is an aesthetic category used by critics in their evaluation of literary (or other) works–it isn't a position Obama is actually advocating.  Besides, the remark following that isn't even about race.  All of this is followed by the even more bizarre claim that the "metaphor is a mirage."  It's a mirage, because it turns out, because Samuelson doesn't find Obama's ideas compelling.

That's different.  If Obama's ideas aren't compelling, then perhaps Samuelson could write an article about how they're not.  Taking Obama to task because his ideas do not match the various adjectives Samuelson and other equally vacuous pundits use to describe them doesn't establish anything other than they have the wrong method of evaluation.

And by the way–by all means.  Let's have the discussion of Obama's ideas without the tiresome preamble about how much you had a crush on him.  That's your fault.

Now to be fair, Samuelson goes on to point out his problems with Obama's views.  But he concludes:

The contrast between his broad rhetoric and his narrow agenda is stark, and yet the media — preoccupied with the political "horse race" — have treated his invocation of "change" as a serious idea rather than a shallow campaign slogan. He seems to have hypnotized much of the media and the public with his eloquence and the symbolism of his life story. The result is a mass delusion that Obama is forthrightly engaging the nation's major problems when, so far, he isn't.

Again with the categories.  Stick with the agenda.  Obama has been forthright enough for you to discover his "real" positions on things.  It's not so hard.  After all, you're a "journalist."