Category Archives: William Safire

RIP William Safire

William Safire, former conservative columnist for the New York Times, has died.  From the obituary:

from 1973 to 2005, Mr. Safire wrote his twice-weekly “Essay” for the Op-Ed page of The Times, a forceful conservative voice in the liberal chorus. Unlike most Washington columnists who offer judgments with Olympian detachment, Mr. Safire was a pugnacious contrarian who did much of his own reporting, called people liars in print and laced his opinions with outrageous wordplay. 

I'll always remember him for his column on language.  May he rest in peace.

Safire on straw men

William Safire was one of the inspirations for this site.  No, not for his semi-erudite columns on language, but rather for the consistent sloppiness of his arguments in his op-ed columns.  He retired from op-ed writing shortly after we started this blog (almost five years ago!), so that was it for him, for us.  But he never stopped writing (so far as I can gather, I don't read it that often) his On Language column for the Sunday Magazine.

Recently he has been a go-to guy on the notion of a straw man, as if his supposed expertise on matters of language makes him a master of critical reasoning.  It obviously doesn't, as the following passage from last week's column will demonstrate:

Accepting the Democratic nomination in a huge football stadium way back in the presidential campaign of ’08, Senator Barack Obama displayed his oratorical talent by using one of his favorite tried-and-true devices in argument: “Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t defend this country!”

Who was telling him that? To be sure, his opponents were claiming that a Republican administration would be stronger on defense, but nobody was telling him or the voters that Democrats preferred abject surrender. At the time, reviewing that speech, I noted the rhetorical technique: “By escalating criticism, he knocked down a straw man, the oldest speechifying trick in the book.”

Encouraged by his reviews for eloquence, President Obama has embraced the straw man frequently (as F.D.R. liked to emphasize it, “again and again and again”) with nary a peep of criticism. Two weeks ago, the Times correspondent Helene Cooper dared to note this president’s repeated use of digs like “I know some folks in Washington and on Wall Street are saying we should just focus on their problems.” Some folks, like those who, are never named but are always wrongheaded extremists. Her “White House Memo” was headlined “Some Obama Enemies Are Made Totally of Straw”; its subhead was “Setting them up to have someone to knock down.” Cooper, as the objective reporter, gave examples of conservative politicians who speak straw-manese, although none with such fluency.

I suppose Safire doesn't read the newspaper, listen to speeches, or know how to use google.  A constant theme of Republican arguments in the last two National election cylces has been that the Democrats would not defend this country (see any speech by Dick Cheney–chances are "we'll get hit again").  On top of this, Safire even straw-mans the alleged Obama straw man: Obama said "would not defend" and Safire says "preferred abject surrender."  Those are different.

More basically, Safire doesn't really get what makes a straw man a straw man.  Just because one uses "those who" or "some" does not mean one is using a straw man.  What makes an argument a straw man is the distortion or actual arguments, the selection of really weak and unrepresentative arguments (the weak man), or the whole-cloth invention of silly arguments and non-existent arguers (the hollow man) for the sole purpose of defeating them.  "Some" and "those who" may be a sign of a straw man, but it's not a sufficient condition for one.

We’ll get hit again

William Safire must not have cable TV, internet, or newspaper delivery wherever he is spending is retirement.  He writes:

“Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t defend this country,” he cried angrily. “Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t keep us safe.” Who’s telling him that? By escalating criticism, he knocked down a straw man, the oldest speechifying trick in the book. He promised to “restore our moral standing” (shades of Jimmy Carter) “so that America is once more the last, best hope for” (Lincoln wrote of) “all who are called to the cause of freedom” (shades of George W. Bush). But does he apply that idealist “cause of freedom” to the invaded Georgians? He didn’t say.

You have absolutely got to be kidding me.  Who is telling him that?  That claim–that Democrats won't defend you–has been the cornerstone of the right's argument against the Democrats for seven years–made in various forms by nearly every one of their intellectual and political superstars.

But he's right.  It is a straw man. 

Desperately seeking Plumbers

It might almost be comical to watch pundits scramble to accuse the Kerry campaign of fear-mongering, if their arguments were not so well coordinated. William Safire (Source: NYT 10/20/04) suspiciously repeats David Brooks' accusations of fear-mongering (on social security, stem cell research, the draft, and the Mary Cheney non-issue (Safire replaces the last with a "flu crisis" argument)) (Source: NYT 10/19/04). As was said yesterday in this space: "It’s not worth it to descend into the fray on the merits of these points." And given the bar set by Dick Cheney for cynical fear-mongering this year– "If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again: that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States"–it's hard for anyone to get themselves terribly upset by the Kerry campaign's legitimate political concerns. Perhaps this is the reason that the Mary Cheney story seems to trump even these substantive issues that could be debated. The consistency between the two is at least clear. They are both parts of a concerted attempt to paint Kerry as an opportunistic and unscrupulous politician unfairly attacking the president. The fact that there are good reasons to be concerned about these four points of policy is irrelevant for Brooks and Safire: They need only caricature the arguments to draw the conclusion that they want to draw about John Kerry's motivations and character. It is an interesting argument for a number of reasons. The pundits take an articulated and reasonable concern about Bush's policy or intentions, replace it with a straw man caricature that seems so baseless and perverse that the only reasonable inference must be that Kerry is unscrupulously attacking the president. For example, Safire writes:

You a youngster? The fearmongers noticed an urban legend floating around the Internet about a "January surprise" to bring back the draft and throw you into the first wave into Falluja. Never mind that it won't happen, because the military knows that a volunteer army works best; the scare tactic is sure to whip up the old fears in the young voters.

I'm not sure how Paul Krugman feels about his columns being described as "an urban legend floating around the Internet," but the attempt to trivialize the argument by impugning its source is transparent and not worth taking seriously. Safire also offers a reason for rejecting the likelihood of the draft–that the military doesn't want it because a volunteer army works best. (Compare with Brooks' even sillier claim "Given the nature of military technology, it doesn't make sense to bring back the draft.") But clearly, the concern with the draft is not unfounded and rhetorical. Krugman offers a clear and rigorous argument for worrying about the draft. It certainly does not prove that there will be a draft, but instead argues that (a) there is a severe shortage of soldiers at present, (b) we are already "conscripting" soldiers against their will through various "backdoor" mechanisms, and (c) whether by Bush's choice or not we cannot rule out the possibility that we will need more troops during a second Bush term (Source: NYT 10/19/04). But neither Brooks nor Safire want to engage in the debate about the issue. Their interest in the point is only to represent it as a baseless argument, which allows them to bring into question Kerry's motivations (despite Brooks' denial–"I'm not trying to make a moral point here about sleazy campaigning"–a classic rhetorical move, "praeteritio" in which you mention something by stating that you are not going to mention it: "I am not going to dirty the campaign by talking about my opponent's felony conviction." This allows you both to claim the moral highground while simultaneously engaging in the negative attack). To do this, they represent the arguments underlying these policy concerns as entirely empty and trivial. This is to commit the "straw man" fallacy. I had originally intended to address Safire's editorial about Mary Cheney (Source: NYT 10/18/04) The same analysis holds for this argument, even if it is not aimed at a policy dispute. In essence, the mention of Cheney's daughter's sexual preferences is taken as a sign of the campaign's unscrupulous tactics. Safire argues that (a) the mention was calculated and deliberate, (b) it was revelatory to the public at large, (c) it's purposes were cynical and political. Even granting both (a) and (b) (which if we were concerned with evaluating the truth of these premises would give us significant pause as Safire gives little reason to be persauded of these two claims. See Media Matters for a discussion of this.), there is little to worry about until we consider the justification for (c). This is twofold:

One purpose was to drive a wedge between the Republican running mates. President Bush supports a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a union of a man and a woman; Cheney has long been on record favoring state option, but always adds that the president sets administration policy. That rare divergence of views is hardly embarrassing.

The sleazier purpose of the Kerry-Edwards spotlight on Mary Cheney is to confuse and dismay Bush supporters who believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, to suggest that Bush is as "soft on same-sex" as Kerry is, and thereby to reduce a Bush core constituency's eagerness to go to the polls. If these were the motivations, then perhaps Brooks was right yesterday to question the Kerry campaign's competency. Fortunately, Safire saves the Kerry campaign from Brooks' accusation by quoting Margaret Carlson's analysis:

[they] "realize that discussing Mary Cheney is a no-lose proposition: It highlights the hypocrisy of the Bush-Cheney position to Democrats while simultaneously alerting evangelicals to the fact that the Cheneys have an actual gay person in their household whom they apparently aren't trying to convert or cure."

This is a much more plausible explanation of their motivations: Unfortunately for Safire it isn't "sleazy" or unreasonable. It is clear, and almost uncontroversial, that part of the Republican strategy for this election has been to motivate the homophobic members of its base by foregrounding the specter of gay marriage spreading from Massachusetts into the heartland. Thus, highlighting the hypocrisy underlying this pandering is not at all unreasonable or immoral. In fact, the only way to suggest that it is immoral is to paint Mary Cheney as a victim of scurrilous attacks: Hence Lynn Cheney's aggrieved mother act. Unfortunately, Mary Cheney is an out homosexual who has worked for the campaign. She is not a poor defenseless child, but in fact a political operative. There is little reason to cast this tactic–even granting the truth of Safire's premises–as "cheap and tawdry." Certainly Safire's suggestion that this amounts to a "dirty trick" borders on the comical when we compare it with the tactics of his old boss's Plumbers.

Neither running nor hiding

Is there a logic, or perhaps an illogic to “spin”? Or, more generally, how does “spin” work? “Spin” takes accepted facts and represents them in a positive or negative way. To accuse someone of “spinning” is to accuse them of a biased representation of the facts. Bias plays an interesting role in arguments. The mere existence of bias does not by itself allow us to conclude that the conclusion drawn on the basis of the representation of the evidence is false: To do so would be to commit an *ad hominem* fallacy.

Safire begins his Monday column “How Bush Won Round 2” (NYT 10/11/04) by committing precisely this fallacy:

>When pro-Kerry commentators solemnly pronounce Debate Round 2 to have been “a draw” – you know George Bush won that round.

One, of course, knows nothing of the sort. Fortunately Safire does not rest his case on this argument. The only thing, however, that can determine who won the debate is an evaluation of it according to some accepted set of criteria That is, we need first to determine: What exactly constitutes winning a debate? Who is in a position to decide who won the debate? In the absence of such criteria, the conclusion that Safire wants to establish will escape him.

Bush’s hackneyed use of Joe Louis’ “He can run, but he can’t hide” seems curiously impressive to Safire and on the basis of this cliche, Safire seems to have confused the Louis/Conn fight in 1946 with Kerry/Bush in 2004. I could comment on the weak analogy running consistently through Safire’s column. It probably provides some persuasive force, if there is any, to Safire’s argument while concealing this as a rhetorical device. But ultimately the analogy is just silly. There was no knock-out in the eighth round. There was no strategic miscalculation in thinking Bush was tired leading to the non-existent knock-out. And Bush is surely not to debate what Joe Louis was to boxing.

Nevertheless, setting aside this attempt to transform the debate into epic, Safire rests his case on two things.

>Bush’s debate plan was to keep boring in on the Kerry record: flip-flopping this year on the war, but all too consistently liberal for 20 years on tax increases.

There was little new on the first point–though Safire has set the bar for President remarkably low by commenting:

>This not only showed that Bush knew these allies personally, but could also pronounce Kwasniewski’s name. . ..

The rest of Safire’s argument on the war is that Kerry contradicts himself on Iraq policy. These arguments have been examined before and certainly do not suggest decisive victory for Bush.

On taxes his case is even thinner amounting to two points:

1. Kerry’s channeling of Bush’s father by promising no new taxes on anyone making less than $200,000, an admittedly less impressive oedipal strategy than in his first debate quotation of Bush-41’s explanation for the foolishness of occupying Iraq.

2. A supposed “blunder” concerning Bush’s $84 of revenue from a lumber company.

This latter point is entirely misconstrued and illegitimately dismissed by Bush and Safire (see Media Matters). But, even if it were true it is very thin ground on which to base victory in the debate.

Safire’s final comments concern Bush’s attempt consistent attempts to conflate voting for a particular bill and standing on a particular issue–like in the debate about Iraq this is a conflation of questions about ends and means to those ends. Consistently, in political debates, disagreements about means are translated into disagreements about ends. So for example:

>In an anguishing moment, Kerry said he was against partial-birth abortion (as are most voters, including many pro-choice) and then explained why he voted against the ban that is now law. Countered Bush: “He was given a chance to vote and he voted no. . . . It’s clear for everybody to see. And as I said, you can run, but you can’t hide.”

Kerry, of course, voted against the bill, as he explained not because he promotes partial-birth abortion, but because the constitution as it is currently interpreted by the Supreme Court requires a provision in the law that protects the right of a woman to have even this procedure when her health is threatened. In the absence of such a provision the law is in a sense illegal.

Variations on this argument are consistently used by the Bush campaign (voting against 87 billion for the troops, not voting for the bill that capped punitive damages in medical liability cases etc..) to create a straw man against which to campaign. This is, of course, fallacious as Safire surely knows.

Undoubtedly Safire is spinning the debate. His argument is extremely selective and relies on a weak analogy between the debate and a prize fight. Undoubtedly as well, Safire has a bias towards one candidate. This bias, however, is not the reason that his argument is implausible, but only perhaps, the reason he finds such an implausible argument persuasive. Nevertheless, I cannot say whether Bush or Kerry “won” the debate, and in fact, the question is probably not of interest to anyone other than the media who would like to sell politics as another spectator sport.

Therefore, everyone is a neo-conservative

Last Thursday’s debate seemed to frustrate conservative pundits. There was little to criticize in Kerry’s answers and less to praise in Bush’s. In his editorial yesterday (Source: NYT 10/04/04), William Safire chose a third alternative, praising Kerry. According to Safire, Kerry’s foreign policy has undergone a “sea change.”

> On both military tactics and grand strategy, the newest neoconservative announced doctrines more hawkish than President Bush. . . Last week in debate, John Kerry – until recently, the antiwar candidate too eager to galvanize dovish Democrats – suddenly reversed field, and came down on the side of the military hard-liners.

So Kerry apparently has joined the ranks of the “neo-conservatives” among whom surely Safire intends the intellectuals and apparatchiks who were the masterminds behind the Iraq war. In order to judge this claim, we would first need a clear idea of what constitutes neo-conservatism. We can’t investigate this thoroughly, but perhaps a few general characteristics will help. In its recent appearance in politics, the neo-conservatives have been identified with the activist and interventionist foreign policy that led to the Iraq war. Neo-conservatives believe that “national interests” are not geographically defined and that fostering them requires the perception of and intervention on the side of our “friends” against our “enemies.” (This latter shibbolethic opposition is derived from Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and ultimately Plato’s Republic) (see Irving “grandfather of neoconservatism” Kristol’s description here.

William Safire knows that “neo-conservativism” cannot be reduced to particular strategic decisions. It is a political ideology defined by a certain understanding of the national interest and the broadest requirements for fostering that interest. But, this doesn’t stop him from caricaturing both Kerry’s position and neo-conservative ideology in order to salvage the debates as a supposed victory for Bush’s policies as voiced by Kerry.

His case rests on four claims:

> “What I want to do is change the dynamics on the ground,” Kerry volunteered. “And you have to do that by beginning to not back off of Falluja and other places and send the wrong message to terrorists. … You’ve got to show you’re serious.” Right on, John!

This, of course, confuses strategy and motivation. With 135,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground and the insurgency flowering, we might conclude that an offense is the best defense for our troops. This, of course, has little to do with ideology and much to do with strategy.

> Next, to grand strategy: Kerry was asked by Jim Lehrer, “What is your position on the whole concept of pre-emptive war?” In the past, Kerry has given a safe never-say-never response, but last week he gave a Strangelovian answer: “The president always has the right and always has had the right for pre-emptive strike.” He pledged never to cede “the right to pre-empt in any way necessary” to protect the U.S.

“Just war” theory has always allowed pre-emptive attacks based on “imminent threats.” The difference bettween Kerry and the neo-conservatives is over the question of whether a “gathering” threat or some other vaguely defined description of a supposed threat is grounds for preemption (such as “weapons program related activities”).

> On stopping North Korea’s nuclear buildup, Kerry abandoned his global-testing multilateralism; our newest neocon derided Bush’s six-nation talks and demands America go it gloriously alone.

This claim is a sort of false dichotomy: It is not the case that in order for Kerry to believe that multilateralism is generally preferable that he must eschew either bilateralism or even perhaps unilateralism. Safire assumes that if you reject unilateralism in the case of Iraq you must reject it always. This is an unreasonable assumption.

> And in embracing Wilsonian idealism to intervene in Darfur’s potential genocide, Kerry’s promise of troops outdid Pentagon liberators: “If it took American forces to some degree to coalesce the African Union, I’d be prepared to do it. …”

Once again, nothing strange in this. Being willing to assist in a multi-lateral humanitarian intervention does not make one a “neo-conservative” unless Safire is expanding the definition to include virtually every leader and politician in the world except Pat Buchanan.

Certainly there are analogies between the neo-conservative foreign policy seemingly ascendant in the Bush administration and some of Kerry’s positions. But that no more makes Kerry a “neo-conservative” than Bush’s reluctance to attack Iran would make him a convert to Gandhi’s pacifism. As Safire formulates the argument, it is laughably fallacious.

At best–and this is an act of interpretive charity that goes beyond his own expressed intentions–he might be understood to argue that Kerry has approached some neo-conservative positions. But, since Kerry was seemingly never opposed to those positions in themselves (only their inappropriateness under specific circumstances or the inept bungling of their implementation), there is nothing really interesting about these similarities.

Finally, we can note that a complete reading of the debate transcript shows that Kerry also accepts several strategic goals that are at direct odds to the policy formulated by the neo-conservatives and the Bush administration. Most importantly, he calls for the U.S. to commit itself to no long term presence in Iraq. Since part of the neo-conservative strategy has been to occupy Iraq at least in the 14 bases currently under construction, it is easy to see that for all of the similarity in Iraq policy, there is also significant dissimiliarity that Safire has conveniently ignored in order to make his case, a fallacy of “suppressed evidence.”

Counting to Four with Safire

Source (NYT 8/30/04):
Back from vacation, Safire contributes a surprisingly obtuse editorial today. Titled “Four Connected Elections” it meanders from a discussion of recent events in Najaf to Safire’s advice to the Republican party about political strategy. Lacking anything that resembles an argument or even an explanation, one feels crass to nit-pick.

The logical nits need nonetheless to be picked.

George W. Bush comes to the G.O.P convention on the heels of victory in the Najaf primary. . . Not quite an electoral “primary”–the al-Sadr forces prefer bullets to ballots–but the result was political. Nobody now doubts who is the most powerful Shiite leader. And though he cannot publicly express his gratititude to the foreign soldiers who made possible his victory over the abusers of sanctuary, the ayatollah is on the side of a general election soon.

Apparantly, according to Safire, Grand Ayatollah Sistani has joined the Republican party! Even assuming that what Safire

says bears any resemblance to the truth of what occured in Najaf last week, the claim that this represents a “Najaf primary” which endorses George W. Bush conceals, though not particularly well, fallacious reasoning.

The conclusion that Safire wants to suggest to his readers is that George Bush has been endorsed by the majority of Shiites in Iraq, via his functionary Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

He argues this through an analogy between an election and an expression of popular will. Although the restoration of the mosque was not the result of a vote, he detects in the outcome of the negotiations a “political” expression of popular will. It is as though al-Sadr was “voted” out of the mosque and Sistani was voted in.

O.K. so far the analogy seems plausible, even if it is straining a little. Arguments from analogy hold when two things are similar in a number of ways, and it is likely that therefore they also possess some further characteristic in common.

So we must ask, to what degree were the events in Najaf similar to what we consider to be an “election?” Are all political victories analogous to electoral victories? Are all expressions of popular