Real customers, not actors

Sometimes it’s important to point out things that are false. Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon portray themselves as “vocal critics” of the administration on Iraq. As a result, their credibility on Iraq increases–if the “vocal critics” say the surge is going well, then it must be. Well, Glenn Greenwald does everyone a favor and points out just how false the “vocal critic” or “critic” appellation is for O’Hanlon (in particular).

The important thing about Greenwald’s work, of course, is that it undermines the premise of Pollack and O’Hanlon’s argument. They have just returned from Iraq, stuffed with anecdotes about energized troop morale for the brilliant leadership of General Petraeus:

>Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily “victory” but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.

Having established their credible skepticism, they launch into an anecdotal and impressionistic assessment of events on the ground:

>After the furnace-like heat, the first thing you notice when you land in Baghdad is the morale of our troops. In previous trips to Iraq we often found American troops angry and frustrated — many sensed they had the wrong strategy, were using the wrong tactics and were risking their lives in pursuit of an approach that could not work.

Really–“the moral of our troops” is second only to the heat?

>Today, morale is high. The soldiers and marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference.

>Everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services — electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation — to the people. Yet in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community. As a result, civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began — though they remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.

>In Ramadi, for example, we talked with an outstanding Marine captain whose company was living in harmony in a complex with a (largely Sunni) Iraqi police company and a (largely Shiite) Iraqi Army unit. He and his men had built an Arab-style living room, where he met with the local Sunni sheiks — all formerly allies of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups — who were now competing to secure his friendship.

In Baghdad’s Ghazaliya neighborhood, which has seen some of the worst sectarian combat, we walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers. The Sunni residents were unhappy with the nearby police checkpoint, where Shiite officers reportedly abused them, but they seemed genuinely happy with the American soldiers and a mostly Kurdish Iraqi Army company patrolling the street. The local Sunni militia even had agreed to confine itself to its compound once the Americans and Iraqi units arrived.

And so on. Juan Cole pointed out the hollowness of the “shopping evidence”: people shop even in wartime. But the rest of the piece continues in the same vein: anecdotal observations of an optimism reminiscent of administration press releases whose credible authority rests entirely on the deeply misleading (or just plain false) claim of skepticism at the beginning of the piece.

Talk the walk

Michael Gerson has a profound view of liberals:

>These messages of responsibility are often reinforced by tightknit religious communities, but they are not owned by them. Wilcox notes that American liberal elites often “talk left and walk right, living disciplined lives and expecting their children to do the same, even when they hold liberal social views.” Divorce rates among college-educated Americans, he points out, have fallen since the 1980s, as it became more evident that casual divorce did not serve the long-term interests of their children.

Well, it’s not him, but some guy he quotes.

Perhaps he ought to be reminded that some liberals–probably most–were against “abstinence-only” sex-education because it was moronically ineffective at its stated goal of reducing teen pregnancy, STDs and so forth, not, as he seems to suggest (via Wilcox) because “liberal elites” embrace consequence-free licentiousness.


In a related matter, “slippery slope” is a logical fallacy, not a kind of cogent argument. The National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez writes:

>Slippery Slope?

>Just a coincidence that this happened in Massachusetts [where gay marriage is legal–NS editors]?

>”Sherborn teen charged with bestiality”

Someone please inform the National Review.

To her credit, however, she links to this from Alabama.

And then she apologizes–but not for the silly argument.

It’s a start

This is one of the dumbest ad hominem arguments I’ve seen in a major newspaper for quite a while:

>My younger son calls the Toyota Prius a “hippie car,” and he has a point. Not that Prius drivers are hippies. Toyota says that typical buyers are 54 and have incomes of $99,800; 81 percent are college graduates. But, like hippies, they’re making a loud lifestyle statement: We’re saving the planet; what are you doing?

>This helps explain why the Prius so outsells the rival Honda Civic Hybrid. Both have similar base prices, about $22,000, and fuel economy (Prius, 60 miles per gallon city/51 highway; Civic, 49 mpg city/51 highway). But Prius sales in the first half of 2007 totaled 94,503, nearly equal to all of 2006. Civic sales were only 17,141, up 7.4 percent from 2006. The Prius’s advantage is its distinct design, which announces its owners as environmentally virtuous. It’s a fashion statement. Meanwhile, the Civic hybrid can’t be distinguished by appearance from the polluting, gas-guzzling mob.

The dumb thing is that Samuelson doesn’t even disagree with the idea of cutting greenhouse gas emissions (he’s not a George Will global warming denier). Later in the piece he argues that very drastic things ought to be done:

>But we’ve got to start somewhere, right? Okay, here’s what Congress should do: (a) gradually increase fuel economy standards for new vehicles by at least 15 miles per gallon; (b) raise the gasoline tax over the same period by $1 to $2 a gallon to strengthen the demand for fuel-efficient vehicles and curb driving; (c) eliminate tax subsidies (mainly the mortgage interest rate deduction) for housing, which push Americans toward ever-bigger homes. (Note: If you move to a home 25 percent larger and then increase energy efficiency 25 percent, you don’t save energy.)

Samuelson’s problem is that actions such as driving a Prius are not adequate by themselves to curb the accumulation of greenhouse gases. He uses his son’s hippie comment (why are people beating up on hippies now?) to impugn the motives of people who advocate measures that are partial or inadequate. They only do so because it’s fashionable. They don’t really want to curb global warming because they don’t wish for the hard things.

There doesn’t, however, seem to be any reason to think that. At least none that Samuelson offers. And it’s probably the case that no one thinks such measures (driving a Prius vs. a Honda Hybrid) are adequate in the first place. But just because such individual actions are inadequate by themselves, doesn’t mean they and the people who do them are shallow and worthless.

Argue for it

Every now and then we point out why we tend to pick on conservatives (which we do). There are lots of reasons. The main reason is not that we’re liberal (which we are); it’s not that we think any particular liberal argument is advanced by pointing out the weaknesses in corresponding conservative arguments (they’re not–but then again the liberal arguments may not fail for the sophistical refutations brought forward by conservatives, that’s different); nor is it that we think that finding fault with conservative arguments and arguers in general advances the cause of liberalism in general.

Rather, the primary reason is that conservative pundits have a marked tendency to state their views in the form of arguments. That is to say, they’ll give a series of reasons for embracing some conclusion or another. Since we like arguments, we like reading them and thinking about them, we find this approach appealing (even if we find it often lacking).

On the liberal side (i.e., among major newspaper pundits–the blogosphere is another matter entirely), on the other hand, you don’t often see the kind of energetic arguing typical of George Will or Charles Krauthammer. This is not an indictment of liberal pundits either. There are lots of ways of stating one’s case. Stating in the form of a persuasive argument is just one. We wish they did it more. But that’s a different matter.

Take E.J.Dionne’s op-ed today as an example of the difference between liberal and conservative pundits. Dionne writes about Ted Strickland, Governor of Ohio. In discussing Strickland’s success (in an otherwise red state), Dionne points out that his positions resonate with the people:

>Strickland’s political skill only partly explains Ohio’s political transformation. A state that voted narrowly for President Bush in 2000 and 2004 not only elected Strickland as governor in 2006 but also sent Sherrod Brown, an economic populist with a far-more liberal public profile, to the U.S. Senate.

>The conversion rate among Ohio voters in just two years was staggering. According to exit polling, 30 percent of Ohioans who voted for Bush in 2004 voted for Strickland in 2006; 20 percent of Bush’s 2004 voters supported Brown.

>Why the big change? Scandals involving former governor Robert Taft and former representative Bob Ney made even loyal Republicans squeamish. Strickland won a fifth of self-identified Republicans and a quarter of conservatives, while holding on to more than 90 percent of liberals and Democrats, and roughly 70 percent of moderates and independents. If national Democrats reached such numbers in 2008, they’d win the presidency decisively.

>The new economy has hit Ohio hard. Industrial cities such as Youngstown and Cleveland have suffered under the lash of globalization. Brown’s tough stand against free trade appealed in a place where the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs makes the promise of a flat, highly competitive world fall very flat indeed.

>What might Democratic presidential candidates learn from Ohio? As a matter of style, Strickland suggests they must understand that “people are desperately wanting to believe that political leaders understand them and that they are trying to deal with their day-to-day lives.” Memo to overly cautious candidates: Strickland also thinks that “the display of genuine emotion is important.”

>Substantively, Strickland says the economy matters most, although he has been a strong opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning. “The foreclosure problem is huge,” Strickland says. “The people are desperate for jobs.” He sees health care and education as central — they were the key issues in his recent budget. These questions “ought to give Democrats a leg up,” but only if they can “talk about these things in a way that gets people to believe you will do something about them.”

>There’s the rub for Democrats in 2008. Voters want government to work but aren’t sure that it can. They want government to solve problems but worry that it won’t. This creates a strategic paradox: Democrats need to discredit Bush’s government without discrediting government altogether.

All of this may be a fine explanation of Strickland’s success. But it has the air of a trade journal publication for political strategists. Why should it interest a typical voter to read an article in the newspaper about what the typical voter wants? From the point of view of political analysis, on the other hand, Strickland’s story is interesting. But you couldn’t put anything Dionne says here against the conservative pundit who will argue that the voters are wrong.

Sure they voted that way. But why should they vote that way? Whatever his many vices, and they are many, that’s the kind of question George Will would be asking.

Ad republicam

This has to be one of the funniest responses to the chickenhawk charge:

>The caller, besides his anger, raises a point that’s brought up, out against the supporters of the war a lot and that’s the argument that if you really supported the war, you’d be fighting it. And, unfortunately, that goes against the Constitution, which gives every American the right to speak their mind, regardless of their biography or regardless of what they do, so it’s an unconstitutional argument. It’s a demeaning argument to the troops in the field because it assumes that they’re somehow victims, and that they’re not there of their own free will. We have a voluntary Army and the people serving are there of their own free will.

Whatever the merits of the chickenhawk argument–and as long as tours in Iraq get extended it certainly has some–the way to respond to it is not to hide behind the Constitution. The Constitution, Matthew Continetti ought to know, governs the legal rights of American citizens, not the kinds of arguments that can be made in a public forum.

Let them eat yellow cake

Sometimes one can only laugh. Yesterday, for instance, Michael Gerson–former speech writer to George W.Bush–turns his attention to Iraq. Keep in mind that Gerson’s man, in Gerson’s words, was fantastically wrong about Iraq. But he was wrong about Iraq in the company of another man–Tony Blair, the now former British PM. This is why the following is so dumbfounding:

>One of the most infuriating problems in Iraq seems to generate precious little fury.

>In a kind of malicious chemistry experiment, hostile powers are adding accelerants to Iraq’s frothing chaos. Iran smuggles in the advanced explosive devices that kill and maim American soldiers. Syria allows the transit of suicide bombers who kill Iraqis at markets and mosques, feeding sectarian rage.

>This is not a complete explanation for the difficulties in Iraq. Poor governance and political paralysis would exist whether Iran and Syria meddled or not.

Not to mention sectarian rage. But no mind:

>But without these outside influences, Tony Blair told me recently, the situation in Iraq would be “very nearly manageable.”

Tony Blair! Those who listened to Tony Blair (and Bush, and many, many others) the first time found themselves in a bloody mess. You’d think that Gerson, architect and first person witness of the nonsense that put us there, might perhaps be sensitive to question of diminished credibility. Just a whisper perhaps.

But then again, maybe not.

Sicko Menage a Trois

I managed somehow to miss the Blitzer-Gupta-Moore festivities last week. Fortunately we live in the era of youtube, so I was able to catch up this morning. Here Here and Here And of course, Here. and here

A couple of things struck me about these performances.

1) Although I am sympathetic to the charge against the “main stream media” that Moore makes, does it have any relevance for the question of whether the representation of “Sicko” on CNN is accurate or not. The implicit argument seems to be a) CNN’s reporting on “Farenheit 9/11” was flawed, therefore its reporting on “Sicko” is likely to be flawed. To make the argument work you probably need to make it plausible that CNN will report on Michael Moore’s movies or movies of their political stripe in a consistent way. Is it ad hominem in the fallacious sense? Well, it seems at least a “fallacy of relevance.”

2) The only criticism of Moore’s use of statistics and facts that seems to have any traction occurs when Gupta tries to suggest that Moore is “cherry-picking the data” by using one estimate of the per capita expenditure on health care for the U.S. and a different source for Cuba. Moore’s response is a little weak in the video (on the website he points out that he was using the most recent data he could find). Larry King tries to get to the question of what an 18% difference matters when we are talking about numbers separated by a factor of 25-30. Moore’s argument would be better served by admitting that these numbers need not be taken as exact in order for the general points that Moore wants to make to stand.

3) Related to this: In Gupta’s original report, the intention seems to be to discredit the film’s data. Gupta argues in the original piece that Moore “fudges the facts.” The report has the pretension of the neutral “fact checker” that is holding Moore’s feet to the fire. It creates the rhetorical impression that Moore is inaccurate on a number of important facts. Moore seems right in saying that Gupta’s evidence does not support such a conclusion. Moore should have stuck to putting the burden on Gupta to defend his somewhat outrageous accusation–or better retracting it altogether.

Update: Just saw this. Looks like CNN did the decent thing.

Woodrow Wilson did it too

This is from Jonah Goldberg one long exercise in the tu quoque (among much else):

>At a candidate forum for trial lawyers in Chicago on Sunday, Hillary Rodham Clinton proclaimed that the Bush administration is “the most radical presidency we have ever had.”

>This is, quite simply, absurd. But such boob-bait for the Bush bashers is common today in Democratic circles, just as similar right-wing rhetoric about Bill Clinton was par for the course a decade ago. The culture war, it seems, has distorted how we view politics more than we realize. Trust in government is at historic lows, but faith in one’s own “team” remains remarkably durable. (President Bush’s job-approval rating among Republicans is 80 percent, according to the polling company Rasmussen Reports.)

Then he goes on to criticize Woodrow Wilson.

Nobody is defending Woodrow Wilson. And whether Bill Clinton pardoned convicted felons has nothing to do with whether Scooter Libby deserved a pardon.

Non-existent principles

This from Brooks’ column yesterday. Inspired by this.

>[H]is self-confidence survives because it flows from two sources. The first is his unconquerable faith in the rightness of his Big Idea. Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy, or as he said Friday: “It’s more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t exist.”

I missed the part in the Bible about history moving in the direction of democracy. That idea–democracy–was someone else’s. I’m also uncertain whether the dispute about Bush’s belligerent and counterproductive policies primarily concerns whether or not certain principles “exist.” Whatever the source of such foundational principles of value (divine beneficence, common agreement, or whatever), there will always remain the question of how to apply them. Claiming that they’re divine, in other words, tells us nothing about how to apply them.

Or Tolstoy is right

David Brooks writes:

>Many will doubt this, but Bush is a smart and compelling presence in person, and only the whispering voice of Leo Tolstoy holds one back.

>Tolstoy had a very different theory of history. Tolstoy believed great leaders are puffed-up popinjays. They think their public decisions shape history, but really it is the everyday experiences of millions of people which organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations — from the bottom up.

>According to this view, societies are infinitely complex. They can’t be understood or directed by a group of politicians in the White House or the Green Zone. Societies move and breathe on their own, through the jostling of mentalities and habits. Politics is a thin crust on the surface of culture. Political leaders can only play a tiny role in transforming a people, especially when the integral fabric of society has dissolved.

>If Bush’s theory of history is correct, the right security plan can lead to safety, the right political compromises to stability. But if Tolstoy is right, then the future of Iraq is beyond the reach of global summits, political benchmarks and the understanding of any chief executive.

Again, not so much a false dichotomy as false dichotomizing: considering only two very different possibilities as exhaustive without the further claim that one is evidently false or ridiculous.