Prize Fighting

You are scheduled for a championship bout with Mike Tyson. But you’re too lazy to do the hard work of catching live chickens, punching sides of beef, and drinking raw eggs. Instead you find a hundred-pound weakling named “Mike Tyson” and you beat the daylights out of him.

But you haven’t beaten the real Mike Tyson. And that’s more or less the logic of the straw man argument. Such as the one Charles Krauthammer battles today.

Even a cursory reader of the news should know that many have advanced arguments against the war in Iraq; among these, the still perplexingly hawkish can only seem to focus on the weakest or the least representative of them (first Cindy Sheehan’s many and various “cluelessly idealist” pronouncements, now Brent Scowcroft’s “cynical realism”). First, neither of these represents the strongest or more reasonable anti-war positions made consistently in print and elsewhere since September 2001 (and before). Second, even these are consistently portrayed (as they are in today’s column) in the least favorable light (see previous posts here on Cindy Sheehan). And finally, the completely fallacious inference is perpetually drawn that their defeat implies the victory of neo-con position.

All wrong. The pages of the *Washington Post* ought to be reserved for prize-fighting, not pseudonymous sucker-punching.

Conservative as Him

Again on the subject of terms. George Will argues that those who advocate the benching of Harriet Miers betray the conservative cause. He writes:

>Other arguments betray a gross misunderstanding of conservatism on the part of persons masquerading as its defenders.

Sounds like we’re heading towards the bright light of conceptual analysis of “conservative”. Or so one would hope. The closest we get is this:

>In their unseemly eagerness to assure Miers’s conservative detractors that she will reach the “right” results, her advocates betray complete incomprehension of this: Thoughtful conservatives’ highest aim is not to achieve this or that particular outcome concerning this or that controversy. Rather, their aim for the Supreme Court is to replace semi-legislative reasoning with *genuine constitutional reasoning about the Constitution’s meaning as derived from close consideration of its text and structure.* Such conservatives understand that how you get to a result is as important as the result. Indeed, in an important sense, the path that the Supreme Court takes to the result often is the result. [italics added]

Genuine constitutional reasoning sounds very impressive and very desirable, but that hardly seems an adequate (non-question begging) definition of “conservative.” There are 8 justices who would all (one hopes) claim to be doing *genuine* constitutional reasoning in light of close considerations of text and structure (some of them *not* conservatives). Some do it with old editions of the dictionary, others in light of different, but equally well justified, tools of textual interpretation. More fundamentally, since such obtuse originalism constitutes the true “conservative” hermeneutics, Miers might seem to be supremely well qualified: she apparently has a mind that is so blissfully uncluttered with legal theories or constitutional concepts that she can go directly to the original meaning of the text.


Subtle but uncharitable shifts in the verbal characterization of an opponent’s position violate basic principles of rational discourse. Wholesale terminological substitutions meant to achieve a similar result are simply dishonest. And so today George Will writes:

>GM has been forced to allow product development, pricing and other decisions to be driven by the need to keep sufficient revenue flowing in so it can flow out in fulfillment of GM’s function as a *welfare state*.

One has to wonder whether “welfare state” is the proper term for characterizing contractual obligations to employees. But Will uses it three times, so he certainly thinks it is appropriate. Here it is again:

>Herb Stein, the University of Chicago economist who served as chairman of President Richard Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers, famously said: If something cannot go on forever, it won’t. Delphi’s resort to bankruptcy and GM’s attempt, with the cooperation of the UAW, to avoid, for now, doing that, suggest that America’s welfare state — its private sector as well as its public-sector components — is reaching its Herb Stein Moment.

It might also be observed by some that the benefits afforded by those lucky enough to have a GM job far exceed those available to “welfare” recipients, so the term is not only inappropriate (as it suggests that the typical GM worker does nothing to earn these literal (not social) contractual benefits) but inaccurate (the benefits are more extensive). A titillating use of the term “welfare,” perhaps, but question-begging to anyone with a conservative view of language.