Category Archives: David Ignatius

False trichotomy

I'm puzzled by the point of this David Ignatius piece about the Haitian earthquake.  He rightly condemns Pat Robertson (see here) for having a poor explanation for the earthquake's striking Haiti, but then he does the old columnist trick of finding people with an opposing viewpoint who assert something equally dumb.   They must teach this move in columnist school, because they all at one point or another will do it.  He writes:

An extreme example of this desire to "explain" tragedy was the Rev. Pat Robertson's statement a day after the quake. He said that Haiti had been "cursed" by God because its people "swore a pact to the devil" two centuries ago through voodoo rites.

There are secular versions of this same desire to interpret horrifying events. Looking at the devastation, some observers have seen the effects of Haiti's class system, with poor people suffering disproportionately, as reported by The Post's William Booth ["Haiti's elite spared from much of the devastation," news story, Jan. 18]. Richard Kim blamed harsh international loan policies for Haiti's chronic poverty in a Jan. 15 post on the Nation's Web site.

Other commentators have drawn different lessons. David Brooks faults Haitian culture. "Some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them," he wrote in the New York Times. Anne Applebaum argued in The Post that this was "a man-made disaster" and that the earthquake's impact "was multiplied many, many times by the weakness of civil society and the absence of the rule of law."

There's some truth in all of the secular explanations. But they leave out the most painful and perplexing factor we encounter whenever terrible things happen: bad luck. The same problem arises when catastrophic events befall people we love — a life-threatening disease, say. We look for a rational explanation of why this person got cancer, but his neighbor, who has all the same risk factors, didn't. Often, the most honest answer is: It just happened.

I think the Reverend Robertson meant to point out the cause of the earthquake.  The fellows in the second paragraph highlight things which exacerabated the misfortune of the earthquake.  They don't allege, as the last paragraph asserts, that bad luck played no role in the occurence of the earthquake.  I don't see how they could.

Not even Ignatius, however, believes his own silly but-one-the-other-handing.  For he concludes (after a trip back to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755) by affirming the very same lessons he rejects:

The hero of the Lisbon tale was the man who led the relief efforts, the marquis of Pombal, who served as prime minister under King Joseph I of Portugal. Pombal had no use for the anguishing debate. He famously said: "What now? We bury the dead and feed the living." And he did just that, rapidly disposing of the corpses, seizing stocks of grain to feed the hungry and ordering the militia to halt looting and piracy. Within a year, the city was being restored.

I will think of Pombal as I watch the reconstruction of Haiti. His response to imponderable devastation was to rebuild, boldly and confidently, making sure the new buildings could withstand a future quake.

"Nature has no meaning; its events are not signs," concludes Neiman. Earthquakes are not evil; evil requires intent; it is what human beings do. The response to inexplicable events is not debate but action.

Good for Pombal–he recognizes that the human element (poverty, inequality, corruption, etc.) makes such misfortunes worse–which is nearly exactly what the secular types were saying.

Anyhoo.  I think this is a fairly common form of argument.  It consists in creating an unrepresentative dichotomy (not a false one in the classical fallacy sense), in order to make the case for a third, more reasonable option.  In that sense it does represent a kind of false trichotomy, where strawmanly false extremes imply a kind of third non-extreme way. 

You’re living in the past

This blog–I used to hate calling it that, but, as you can see, I've gotten over it–has a very simple purpose: we read the papers, we find some misbegotten inferences, and we point that out.  Sometimes, we do other, related things, like discuss general "logical" issues.  It doesn't take a whole lot of smarts.  As a matter of fact, that's the message.  Our intuition some four years ago was that the nature of public argument–especially that of the op-ed pages–was in a very sorry state.  The few people who actually engage in it–the ones listed in the categories here on the page–too frequently do it badly.  Even accounting for the natural limitations of the genre of the op-ed, there doesn't seem to be any excuse for this.  Most of these people have received the best educations (at the highest levels) money can buy.  And so they ought to know when they say stuff that's misleading, unfair, wrong, or just plain nonsense.

Having said that, by way of reminder I suppose, take a gander at David Ignatius.  Last week he was uncertain of Obama, he's gotten over it.  His critical faculty is now directed at Hillary Clinton.  He writes:

The experience issue will dominate the final weeks of the Democratic primary campaign. Hillary Clinton's only remaining trump card is that she has been in the White House before and will be ready, as she repeats so tirelessly, from Day One.

Notice the weaselly adverbial phrase.  This paints a picture of a droning, redundant and repetitive tedium to Clinton's argument.  But Ignatius, true to form, doesn't give us any reasons for thinking that.  Whatever her virtues and vices, Mrs. Clinton has a lot to say on a lot of issues and she differs significantly from Obama in a number of important, and to many voters, attractive ways.  More fundamentally, why would "the experience issue" dominate the final weeks of the campaign?  There is no justification for that claim–the central premise of this piece.  Before we say some words about that, let's see how this paragraph finishes:

But ready for what? For a recapitulation of the people and policies that guided the country in the past? That's an attractive proposition only if you think that the world of the 1990s — or '80s, or '70s — can be re-created.

Ignatius answers his own rhetorical question–"ready for what?" with another rhetorical question.  I suppose that means he's being both rude to himself and clueless about his own rhetorical strategy at the same time.  On top of that, this is just a silly inference.  Having experience, on any reasonable interpretation of that claim, does not obviously entail some kind of intellectual stasis or desire to repeat things over and over redundantly.

Maybe consistency is overrated, but this is what Ignatius said about Obama:

Obama's inexperience is not a fatal flaw, but it's a real issue.

This week he says that Clinton's experience is not a real issue, but it's a fatal flaw.

. . . Or maybe you’ve changed

To be a pundit you have to be supremely confident that your views are somehow worth printing and worth reading.  Perhaps a consequence of that is that you see your opinions as also remarkably true.  This supreme confidence, however, may lead to your confusing your opinion of how reality is with, get this, how reality is.  Take a look today at David Ignatius, op-ed writer for the Washington Post.  I thought this morning it would be fun to go through the entire piece.  Follow along if you have the patience.  He writes (my intrusions in bold):

"Why is the press going so easy on Barack Obama?" asks a prominent Democratic Party strategist, echoing a criticism frequently made by the Clinton campaign. It's a fair question [it's actually a complex question–is the press easy on Barack Obama, and, if so, what would account for this?], and now that Obama appears to be the front-runner in terms of his delegate count, he deserves a closer look, especially from people like me [people like me–how are people like you?] who have written [I see, writers] positively about him.

The reason to look closely now, quite simply, is to avoid buyer's remorse later [Actually, you don't need to justify looking closely at any candidate's policy or record–that's what you should have been doing before, but apparently didn't, perhaps you should write an essay (for your supervisor) on why you weren't a more diligent and critical pundit].

Obama is a phenomenon in American politics — a candidate who has ignited an enthusiasm among young people that I haven't seen in decades. He promises a nation in which, as his supporters chant, "race doesn't matter." And for a world that is dangerously alienated from American leadership, he offers a new face that could dispel negative assumptions about America — and in that sense boost the nation's standing and security. [This is the set-up–get ready, wait for it]

But these are symbolic qualities. What Obama would actually do as president remains a mystery in too many areas. Before he completes what increasingly looks like a march to the Democratic nomination, Obama needs to clarify more clearly what lies behind the beguiling banner marked "change." [Perhaps again the author could do a little more research before he starts posing problems–Obama has made thousands of speeches during the course of the campaign, he has made numerous specific policy proposals, and he has made all of this available to anyone who bothers.  Ignatius gives the idea that he has decidedly avoided doing this–and that this is some kind of problem]

Let's start with Obama's economic policies. Like all the major candidates, he has a Web site brimming with plans and proposals [sounds boring, but Ignatius ought to read these first before he suggests their absence as the occasion for his op-ed]. But it has been hard to tell how these different strands come together. Is Obama a "New Democrat," in the tradition of Bill Clinton, who would look skeptically at traditional welfare programs? Is he a neopopulist, in the style of his former rival John Edwards, who would make job protection and tax equity his top domestic priorities? Or is he a technocrat, whose economic answers wouldn't be all that different from those of Hillary Clinton? [Does Ignatius mean it's hard to attach a loaded adjective to Obama?  Is it perhaps hard to do that because of the poverty of his categories?]

Time for a breather.  You have probably noticed that the subject of this article is not Obama, but Ignatius's attempts to understand Obama.  Of course, Ignatius presumes his puzzlement is somehow meaningful for Obama, for if David Ignatius, newspaper pundit, can't get it, then, well, you see where that's going.  He continues.

I'm still puzzled about where to locate Obama on this policy map. [Try harder, or reconsider your efforts]  Until the past few weeks, I would have put him somewhere between "New Democrat" and "technocrat." But as he reaches for votes in big industrial states, Obama has been sounding more like Edwards. He proposed a middle-class tax cut a few months ago that would provide a credit of up to $1,000 per family. That's a big policy change that deserves real debate. [More pundit adjectival failure.  But notice, the first part of the paragraph makes that point that Ignatius would have assigned one particular adjective, but then Obama says something different from what Ignatius thought, and Ignatius concludes the change was on Obama's part–not that he perhaps was wrong about Obama–a fact that he ought to consider, in light of the fact that he seems to have viewed him uncritically (and thus the premise of this piece)].

Obama added more Edwardsian flourishes in a speech Wednesday at an auto plant in Wisconsin. He called for a $150 billion program to develop "green collar" jobs and new energy sources. Meanwhile, to fix all the highways and bridges of our automotive society, he proposed a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that would spend $60 billion over 10 years. Obama should be pressed on whether these big programs are affordable for an economy that appears to be in a tailspin. [Now Edwards gets his own adjective.  Again, however, we're left to wonder why these proposals can't be Obama's as well–he is, after all, a Democrat.  And again this rests on the silly premise of this article–that Obama is indeed just like Ignatius's shallow understanding of him, and as Ignatius's understanding or knowledge grows, so actually does the object of his knowledge–Obama.  It's not Ignatius learning, it's Obama changing!]

Foreign policy is the area on which Obama has been longest on rhetoric and shortest on details. I've always liked his line about Iraq, that "we have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in." And when I asked Obama last summer what this might mean in practice, he talked about the need for a residual force in and around Iraq and for a gradual, measured pace of troop withdrawals. But in recent months, his tone has suggested a speedier and more decisive departure from Iraq. I fear that Obama is creating public expectations for a quick solution in Iraq that cannot responsibly be achieved. [None of those things Ignatius mentions suggest Obama advocates the very strawmanny "quick solution"–he said Obama said speedier and more decisive–but this doesn't amount to precipitous and irresponsible abandonment.  But as I have read this piece of Ignatius', I'm left to wonder whether he really has much of a grip on what Obama is saying anyway.  His case rests (even the flattering parts he likes) on phrases and quips deprived of context].

Another breather.  I'm wondering at this point why this particularly ill informed individual fancies his ill informed opinions representative of the problem with Obama, rather than with his own lack of journalistic due diligence.  Let's bring this to a close.  

With any candidate, there's always a question about the quality of his advisers. Hillary comes prepackaged as Clinton II, with a retinue of aides-in-waiting that is at once her strength and disadvantage [I'm concerned about the passive voice there with "prepackaged"–I naturally wonder, "prepackaged" by whom?]. Obama's advisers are a mixed group, but I hear some complaints from policy analysts.  [OMG complaints from analysts!–which ones?  Why not say what their complaints are?  Some say only jerks make these kinds of unattributed accusations.]  One of his leading foreign policy gurus, Anthony Lake, was widely criticized as national security adviser in the first Clinton administration [more passive voice–and in the past tense, and vague, criticized by whom and for what?]. His role does not reassure people who wonder what substance lies behind the "change" mantra. [Why? Because he's not sufficiently changeworthy?  Because he's been there before?]

To understand why Obama needs tougher scrutiny now [it seems to me that everyone but Ignatius understands the need for scrutiny now without the specious analogies.  As a matter of fact, the absence of scrutiny is only all too apparent to most of us–he's sitting in the White House.  The object of an overabundance of nitpicking, dishonest  and uninformed scrutiny–Al Gore–isn't], we need only recall his political avatar, President John F. Kennedy. Like Obama, JFK had served a relatively short time in the Senate without compiling a significant legislative record. He was young and charismatic, but uncertain in his foreign and domestic policies, and during his first 18 months JFK was often rebuffed at home and abroad. The CIA suckered him into a half-baked invasion of Cuba. And Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev concluded after an initial meeting that Kennedy was so weak and uncertain that he could be pushed around — a judgment that led to the Cuban missile crisis. [That was more silly than I thought it would be–and more oblivious to the more obvious analogies].

Obama's inexperience is not a fatal flaw, but it's a real issue. He should use the rest of this campaign to give voters a clearer picture of how he would govern — not in style but in substance. [Perhaps Ignatius could pay more close attention to what Obama says rather than what Ignatius hears].

There you have it.  If anything, this demonstrates to me that pundits such as Ignatius have a particularly thin grasp on the subjects they write about–yet they take that thin grasp as representative not of their own ignorance, but of some kind of quality of the thing they're supposed to know.  You see, it's not that Ignatius doesn't pay attention to anything but context-free quips, it's that Obama offers nothing else.