Sweet Charity

Charity is a basic principle of rational and civilized discourse. We’ve talked about it here many times. Failing to be charitable to an opponent’s argument is playing dirty, playing dirty is a form of cheating, cheating is a form of deliberate dishonesty–i.e., lying. So being uncharitable is a kind of lying. How is one uncharitable? There are many ways. The most typical form is to characterize an opponent’s argument in an unfavorable light. Another more greviously dishonest form–one we see today from George Will–is to pick out only a small part of that argument and claim you’ve fairly or accurately represented the whole (when you haven’t). Arguments are not like sports matches: while you can’t (unfortunately) get disqualified for cheating, you can’t ever win by dishonest means either.

That said, let’s compare Feinstein’s argument with Will’s characterization of it. First, Will:

>Dianne Feinstein’s thoughts on the nomination of John Roberts as chief justice of the United States should be read with a soulful violin solo playing, or perhaps accompanied by the theme song of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Those thoughts are about pinning one’s heart on one’s sleeve, sharing one’s feelings and letting one’s inner Oprah come out for a stroll.

Here is how Feinstein’s speech began:

There is no question that Judge Roberts is an extraordinary person. I think there is no question that he has many stellar qualities, certainly a brilliant legal mind and a love and abiding respect for the law, and I think a sense of its scope and complexity as well.

But before taking the momentous step of agreeing that a nominee serve as the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court, for what in this case could be over 30 years, I wanted to have a reasonable sense of confidence that he would uphold certain essential legal rights and protections that Americans rely on, and rights that reflect the values and ideals that make our country so great.

I don’t ask for certainty.

I don’t ask for promises – especially as to how a nominee would rule in any case in the future – even one as important as Roe v. Wade.

But I ask for some ability to find a commitment to broad legal principles that form the basis of our fundamental rights:

* Equal protection under the law, and the ability to remedy discrimination.

* A basic right to privacy that extends from the beginning of life to the end of life.

* The ability of the American public to elect representatives that have the constitutional power and authority to protect and respond to America’s safety, social, and environmental needs; and

* A view of Executive Power that extends deference – but within the law.

It’s important to know that a Justice will be willing to at least start with these fundamental rights.

In making the judgment as to how Judge Roberts evaluates these fundamental rights, I must start with his record.

This hardly seems like the episode of *Oprah* Will suggests that it is (besides, what’s wrong with Oprah?). But how is it that Will makes it seem so vapid? For the sake of brevity–we’ve seen too much of this tripe from Will in the past–we’ll give two examples from Will’s argument. First, by way of response to some remarks about the (so-called) right to privacy, Will rhetorically questions:

>But what would make such a right a “general” right? Do Americans have, say, a constitutional privacy right to use heroin in the privacy of their homes? No. To sell prostitution services in the privacy of their homes? No again.

One would hardly think that criminal activity is covered by a “general” right; we have a general right to freedom of speech, but that does not include yelling fire in a crowded theater or inciting riots. No one other than a mind as nimble as Will’s would think that such things would follow from the assertion of a general right of privacy (or for that matter, would think that someone else thinks so). But for the sake of clarity and completeness, to draw such conclusions would be to commit the fallacy of accident–the clueless misapplication of a general rule.

But in a more general sense (this is our second example), Will woefully invents Feinstein’s main argument (the thesis of which we quoted above):

But the crux of Feinstein’s case against Roberts concerns not the adjective “general” but his general deficiency of empathy. Specifically, she faults his failure to talk to her “as a son, a husband, a father,” and to understand “the importance of reaching out.”

Exploring Roberts’s “temperament and values,” Feinstein asked him about “end of life” decisions, urging him to talk to her “as a son, a husband, a father.” Instead, she says disapprovingly, he “gave a very detached response.”

It’s difficult to look this stuff up (see the above link), so we were able to see if Will accurately quoted Feinstein. Nope, here is what she actually said:

Then when I couldn’t get a sense of his judicial philosophy, I attempted to get a sense of his temperament and values. And I asked him about end of life decisions – clearly, decisions that are gut-wrenching, difficult, and extremely personal.

Rather than talking to me as a son, a husband, a father – which I specifically requested that he do. He gave a very detached response.

The reader will notice what’s missing from Will’s selective quotation. Feinstein specifically asked that Roberts respond to that question because he failed to respond (to Feinstein’s satisfaction) to other more relevant questions about his judicial philosophy. In the end, Feinstein may have a terrible argument, perhaps George Will should direct his efforts at that. Then again, why bother? The confirmation of Judge Roberts is a forgone conclusion. Picking on Feinstein at this point is almost like a late hit in a football game.

Poverty of Argument

George Will reminds us of the reason one finds so little rational discourse in his columns or the columns or cable tv or radio shoutfests of his right wing brethren. However difficult–and we have no doubt it must be very difficult–to pen a column twice or thrice weekly on any topic whatever, this is hardly an excuse for engaging in a running debate with a caricature more ludicrous than which hardly Rush Limbaugh could conceive. By “liberals” or “liberalism,” we are able at this point to surmise, Will clearly means nothing other than some sort of shallow and irrational bleeding-heart variety–the Rush Limbaugh of liberalism. As it would be a mistake to think Limbaugh represents the best of conservativism, it is equally wrong to think Will’s liberal represents the best of liberalism.

In today’s *Post* column, having warmed up with some easy targets–among them the clueless Mary Landrieu and the whole of the self-serving congressional mob–Will turns his sites on the Liberal with a capital “L”:

>The senator [Barack Obama] is called a “new kind of Democrat,” which often means one with new ways of ignoring evidence discordant with old liberal orthodoxies about using cash — much of it spent through liberalism’s “caring professions” — to cope with cultural collapse. He might, however, care to note three not-at-all recondite rules for avoiding poverty: Graduate from high school, don’t have a baby until you are married, don’t marry while you are a teenager. Among people who obey those rules, poverty is minimal.

So the classical liberal, a clueless and shallow bleeding heart big-spender unaware that the real cause of poverty is right there in front of her nose–the poor:

>Liberalism’s post-Katrina fearlessness in discovering the obvious — if an inner city is inundated, the victims will be disproportionately minorities — stopped short of indelicately noting how many of the victims were women with children but not husbands.

And certainly as people were being plucked from rooftops or as they waited in the fetid stench of the Superdome or Convention Center, or worse, it would have been wise to point out that their predicament was the result of their own poor choices. But that would be tasteless and inappropriate.

There’s an even greater mistake lurking underneath Will’s perpetual straw man–it’s not only the mistaken belief that knocking him down constitutes a victory; it is also the clueless inference that “Liberal’s” defeat implies conservativism’s victory.

Post hack ergo propter hack

The main reason so much of partisan punditry of any stripe doesn’t qualify as rational discourse–that is to say, the kind of discourse a rational person should have and expect of others in an enlightened democracy such as our own–is that so often the partisan pundit refuses to entertain the idea that his opponents are rational. Since her opponent isn’t rational, she makes only the most ludicrous arguments, and has only a tenuous and self-interested grasp on the facts. In the end, of course, it doesn’t take much to defeat such nincompoops in argument. Easy victories, however, are not worth winning, as Charles Krauthammer’s triumph over the inane illustrates for us today:

>In less enlightened times there was no catastrophe independent of human agency. When the plague or some other natural disaster struck, witches were burned, Jews were massacred and all felt better (except the witches and Jews).

Pat Robertson knows something of this claim (cf. feminism and 9/11), but naturally Krauthammer has someone else in mind:

>A few centuries later, our progressive thinkers have progressed not an inch. No fall of a sparrow on this planet is not attributed to sin and human perfidy. The three current favorites are: (1) global warming, (2) the war in Iraq and (3) tax cuts. Katrina hits and the unholy trinity is immediately invoked to damn sinner-in-chief George W. Bush.

As readers of *The Nonsequitur* know, some variation of the causal fallacy is being invoked here (to be nitpicky: the analogy with the witches and Jews only holds insofar as some group or individual is held responsible for *causing* the event–only global warming could possibly qualify as a cause in that sense). Krauthammer in fact goes on to challenge the causal efficacy of each of the above:

>this kind of stupidity merits no attention whatsoever, but I’ll give it a paragraph. There is no relationship between global warming and the frequency and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes. Period. The problem with the evacuation of New Orleans is not that National Guardsmen in Iraq could not get to New Orleans but that National Guardsmen in Louisiana did not get to New Orleans. As for the Bush tax cuts, administration budget requests for New Orleans flood control during the five Bush years exceed those of the five preceding Clinton years. The notion that the allegedly missing revenue would have been spent wisely by Congress, targeted precisely to the levees of New Orleans, and that the reconstruction would have been completed in time, is a threefold fallacy. The argument ends when you realize that, as The Post noted, “the levees that failed were already completed projects.”

Excellent points all of them. Whether or not they are true–and we have no reason to doubt them–is someone else’s domain. We might also add that Krauthammer goes to list those he considers responsible (in descending order: Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, FEMA, President Bush, Congress, the American People). Such a complex event as the ongoing disaster along the Gulf coast hardly bears reduction to the three items Krauthammer mentions. So for this reason we couldn’t agree more with the first sentence quoted above–this kind of stupidity does not merit our attention. We know of many other well-reasoned and well-supported arguments that do deserve careful scrutiny. Perhaps Krauthammer can talk about them.

More on Law

The other day George Will raised his lance and charged at full gallop at the straw effigy of Charles Schumer, ranking Democrat on the Senate judiciary committee. Mind you, this committee, the one that gets to hold hearings on John Roberts, the President’s nominee for the position of Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, like every other committee in the House of Representatives or the Senate, is dominated by *Republicans*. Will’s rhetorical questioning of the minority representative Schumer about *his* legal philosophy, with its consequent lampooning of the actions of Congress, ridiculous snippets from some of the “liberal” Justice’s opinions, and series of “questions” about non-literalist legal hermeneutics is prima facie moronic: Schumer is not on trial here; Schumer doesn’t sit on the Supreme Court; Schumer didn’t write the opinions of the Justices Will lampoons; Schumer isn’t even in the majority party. If Will means to question Schumer’s competence as a Supreme Court candidate, then perhaps he should wait until such time as he is nominated; if Will means to question the competence of a public official, then perhaps he can do so in a less undergraduate way–Schumer might very well have good answers to Will’s inane questions–motivated as they are by the selective and therefore untenable constitutional literalism favored (when it suits them) the Justices Will admires–but never are Schumer’s actual pronouncements presented. That said, Schumer might actually be incompetent (though that would still not disqualify him to sit next to Orrin Hatch), it’s just that on Will’s argument, we’ll never know.