Anything’s possible

According to well documented accounts, what Michael Gerson, prose warrior, says in today’s Post op-ed is flatly wrong. Later in the day the blogosphere will be alive with links to documents which will establish that is the case (start here for factual rebuttal). If I find time today I’ll post an update. I was more intrigued by the following claim:

>Four months ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could confidently declare: “This war is lost.” Now that is an open question. A recent Zogby poll found that a majority of Americans do not believe the war is lost. And this makes Democratic policies based on the assumption of hopelessness — rigid timetables and funding cuts — strategically irresponsible and politically risky. If defeat is inevitable, it makes sense to cut our losses. If defeat is only possible, preemptively ensuring it would confirm a long-standing Democratic image of weakness.

I’m going to break that down.

>1. Harry Reid said the “war is lost.”

>2. But a Zogby poll found that Americans–a majority of them–disagree.

>3. Therefore, “funding cuts and timetables” are (a) strategically irresponsible and (b) politically risky.

Out of curiosity, both victory and defeat ought to issue in “funding cuts and timetables.” If we win, we leave; if we lose we leave. But it’s odd that 3b finds its way into Gerson’s argument. As far as I know, Americans don’t have a vote in day to day military affairs. Even if true, in other words, whether Americans think the war is lost is irrelevant.

Naturally it’s not irrelevant politically. Democrats can appear weak, but that discussion should be meaningless to anyone but political hacks. Having been right about the prospects for success in military conflict has nothing to do with actual strength and weakness.

Finally, there’s a wide gulf between the inevitable defeat and the possible victory. In addition to the confused notions of victory and defeat for whatever is going on in Iraq (what’s defeated? Us? A strategy? A goal–what was the goal, and so on and so on), some on the right (SOR) hold fast to the “one-percent doctrine.” This involves treating as inevitable that which is merely barely possible. The whole thing, of course, is a raging sophistry (if sophistries can “rage”). “Victory” may still be possible in Iraq, but that depends on the meaning of possible. The irrelevant meaning is whether victory is possible all things considered.

The relevant question is given what whether victory is likely (if so, how likely), given what we are willing to commit to attaining it.

Triumph of the appearance of will

Maybe this isn’t a new line, but it strikes me as entertaining nonetheless. Bush & co have frequently asserted that we’re sending messages by our behavior here to both the troops and the enemy, as if the enemy would cower at hearing belligerent rhetoric and the troops would actually be supported by removable magnetic bumper stickers. Now the Iraqis have joined in the game:

>Much of the violence in Iraq last year was the outward manifestation of Iraqis realizing that the United States was an increasingly irrelevant force. Since shortly after the 2003 invasion, U.S. forces demonstrated an inability to protect anyone consistently. Iraqis watched as America became divided over the war and its merits, a split that culminated in the Democrats’ congressional victories in November. It gradually became clear to Iraqis that the United States was going to leave Iraq in a shambles. Their government did not appear capable of providing security, so many Iraqis reasoned that they would have to choose sides to survive.

>Joining a militia thus became a rational choice. The sectarian fighting and the intra-Sunni and intra-Shiite violence that spiked last year occurred as various armed groups positioned themselves to take power and Iraqis scrambled to find ways to protect themselves.

It’s all the fault of Democrats failing to appear resolute:

>While debate over a war’s merits — and whether to withdraw — is a sign of a healthy democracy, Iraq unfortunately highlights many of the difficulties a democracy faces in a long-term counterinsurgency or nation-building campaign. Such debate can be detrimental to the battle for perceptions. Having linked its future to an antiwar stance, the Democratic Congress has in effect told Iraqis that they are best off joining militias, because the dissolution of Iraq is only going to accelerate.

In the face of such partisan Democracy, we can hardly blame the Bush administration’s incompetence:

>Mismanagement by the Bush administration and an unquestioning Republican Congress may have set the stage for the sectarian violence of 2006, but Democratic efforts to pull out troops, cut off support or link support to unattainable benchmarks have been equally damaging to attempts to get militias and insurgents to lay down their arms.

You see, we have to want it.


Without knowing it, Michael Gerson makes some points about believing.

>According to a recent television ad run by the Louisiana Democratic Party, the leading Republican candidate for governor, Bobby Jindal, has “insulted thousands of Louisiana Protestants” by describing their beliefs as “scandalous, depraved, selfish and heretical.” Jindal, the attack goes on, “doubts the morals and questions the beliefs of Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Pentecostals and other Protestant religions.”

>The ad is theologically ignorant — Methodism and the others are not “religions,” they are denominations. The main problem, however, is that the ad stretches the truth so phyllo-thin it can only be called a smear.

Gerson is nit-picking with the “denominations” point, for Jindal thinks the other Christian denominations are wrong, as wrong as anything non Christian, if not more. But here’s why the truth is “phyllo-thin”:

>And Jindal’s chosen tradition is a muscular Roman Catholicism. In an article published in the 1990s, he argued, “The same Catholic Church which infallibly determined the canon of the Bible must be trusted to interpret her handiwork; the alternative is to trust individual Christians, burdened with, as Calvin termed it, their ‘utterly depraved’ minds, to overcome their tendency to rationalize, their selfish desires, and other effects of original sin.” And elsewhere: “The choice is between Catholicism’s authoritative Magisterium and subjective interpretation which leads to anarchy and heresy.

It seems to me that what Jindal says is actually worse than the ad makes it sound. Not to Gerson’s ears, however:

>This is the whole basis for the Democratic attack — that Jindal holds an orthodox view of his own faith and rejects the Protestant Reformation. He has asserted, in short, that Roman Catholicism is correct — and that other religious traditions, by implication, are prone to error. This is presumably the main reason to convert to Catholicism: because it most closely approximates the truth. And speaking for a moment as a Protestant: How does it insult us that Roman Catholics believe in . . . Roman Catholicism? We had gathered that much.

Way too much fudging going on in this paragraph for my taste. Jindal has asserted that views (religious or not) are heretical and false (not “prone to error” as if they might stray but might not). Besides, heresy is more than an innocuous epistemological designation–it’s more than just ordinary wrongness. It’s outright moral condemnation for people who ought to know better and will or should pay the price for their moral epistemological failing. Speaking of Roman Catholicism, nobody said it most closely “approximates” anything: Jindal said that the alternatives involved “anarchy and heresy.” From all of this, Gerson concludes that Jindal is just being Catholic, as one would expect.

That’s probably not the case (even with the current Pope’s recent pronouncement). But that’s another matter that doesn’t concern us. For us the more interesting question is the way Gerson handles the question of “believing.” Jindal is a Catholic, as a Catholic he will, in Gerson’s world, think everyone else is wrong; the same will be true of Gerson presumably (but maybe not, that’s not the point).

Here’s how Gerson reads this:

>On the receiving end of those expectations, Jindal has given these issues considerable thought. “This would be a poorer society,” he told me, “if pluralism meant the least common denominator, if we couldn’t hold a passionate, well-articulated belief system. If you enforce a liberalism devoid of content, you end up with the very violations of freedom you were trying to prevent in the first place.”

There’s considerable ground, I’d say, between Jindal’s claim that Protestants are dumb-ass heretics and the wishy-washy caricature of “liberalism” he considers the alternative. Beyond that, perhaps people find it strange that Jindal finds it necessary to pass judgment on other people’s religious orthodoxy in light of his fairly new and obviously partial understanding the “magisterium.” And indeed, in light of the role of the magisterium, it is strange indeed that Jindal would find himself qualified to pronounce heresy in the first place.

School bells ringing

This (from Paul Krugman) strikes me as a fairly reasonable argument:

>The truth is that there’s no difference in principle between saying that every American child is entitled to an education and saying that every American child is entitled to adequate health care. It’s just a matter of historical accident that we think of access to free K-12 education as a basic right, but consider having the government pay children’s medical bills “welfare,“ with all the negative connotations that go with that term.



The following sentence struck me as odd. I can’t tell whether it is meant to be a criticism or not:

>Long before then, the words “global war on terror” will likely fade away — the sooner, the better, hopefully to be replaced by a more focused, realistic and sustainable strategy.

It would be nice indeed if the words were replaced by a strategy.


Today a minor point. One I often complain about. Op-eds are often too short for one to deal with someone’s views fairly. Quoting selectively is especially pernicious, in that it gives the impression of research, while in reality it may distort someone’s original meaning (we’re not the only ones to have noticed this strategy for what it is). George Will, a frequent practitioner of this strategy, gives us another example today. Even though Will thinks Bush has gotten us into horrible mess in Iraq, he can’t bring himself to say that a Democrat was right. His overall take is that democrats and republicans cannot face reality. Odd that he would say this, because his view seems to accord with the democrats.

But back to the quote-picking. Here’s his take on the comments of Nancy Boyda (curiously similar in editing to many war blogger pages):

>Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, House majority whip, recently said that it would be “a real big problem for us” — Democrats — if Petraeus reports substantial progress. Rep. Nancy Boyda, a Kansas Democrat, recently found reports of progress unendurable. She left a hearing of the Armed Services Committee because retired Gen. Jack Keane was saying things Boyda thinks might “further divide this country,” such as that Iraq’s “schools are open. The markets are teeming with people.” Boyda explained: “There is only so much you can take until we in fact had to leave the room for a while . . . after so much of the frustration of having to listen to what we listened to.”

The implication is that the democrats are so intolerant of reality they walk out on actual reports from the field. The impression is rather different from the full quotation:

>I was certainly hoping that General Keane would be able to be here as well. Let me say thank you very much for your testimony so much, Mr. Korb, and I just will make some statements more for the record based on what I heard mainly General Keane. As many of us, there was only so much that you could take until we, in fact, had to leave the room for a while, and so I think I am back and maybe can articulate some things that after so much of the frustration of having to listen to what we listened to.

>But let me just first say that the description of Iraq as if some way or another that it’s a place that I might take the family for a vacation, things are going so well, those kinds of comments will in fact show up in the media and further divide this country instead of saying here’s the reality of the problem and people, we have to come together and deal with the reality of this issue.

It turns out that Boyda means to criticize the delusional metrics of war supporters–it’s just like a Market in Indiana–which is, after all, Will’s point.

He or she blinded me with science

The New York Times reports on another crazy academic feud driven by politically correct orthodoxy.

>In academic feuds, as in war, there is no telling how far people will go once the shooting starts.

>Earlier this month, members of the International Academy of Sex Research, gathering for their annual meeting in Vancouver, informally discussed one of the most contentious and personal social science controversies in recent memory.

Note the phrase “social science controversies.” Here’s the story, more or less, in outline. J.Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology up the road here at Northwestern University, writes a book,The Man Who Would Be Queen, that challenges the way scientists think about the “biology of sexual orientation.” As the Times tells it, there began his troubles, because he dared to challenge some kind of p.c. orthodoxy:

>To many of Dr. Bailey’s peers, his story is a morality play about the corrosive effects of political correctness on academic freedom. Some scientists say that it has become increasingly treacherous to discuss politically sensitive issues. They point to several recent cases, like that of Helmuth Nyborg, a Danish researcher who was fired in 2006 after he caused a furor in the press by reporting a slight difference in average I.Q. test scores between the sexes.

>“What happened to Bailey is important, because the harassment was so extraordinarily bad and because it could happen to any researcher in the field,” said Alice Dreger, an ethics scholar and patients’ rights advocate at Northwestern who, after conducting a lengthy investigation of Dr. Bailey’s actions, has concluded that he is essentially blameless. “If we’re going to have research at all, then we’re going to have people saying unpopular things, and if this is what happens to them, then we’ve got problems not only for science but free expression itself.”

Odd that Dr.Dreger would claim that Dr. Bailey is blameless:

>Moreover, based on her own reading of federal regulations, Dr. Dreger, whose report can be viewed at, argued that the book did not qualify as scientific research. The federal definition describes “a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation.”

>Dr. Bailey used the people in his book as anecdotes, not as the subjects of a systematic investigation, she reported.

>“The bottom line is that they tried to ruin this guy, and they almost succeeded,” Dr. Dreger said.

Dr.Dreger seems deeply confused about the nature of the controversy. The controversy concerns (in part) whether what Dr.Bailey said was supported by the evidence. But on Dr.Dreger’s account, it doesn’t even qualify as scientific research. And she’s defending him. It’s hard to see, therefore, what sense it makes to call this a dispute about scientific research and political correctness. There’s no scientific research.


I’ve never understood the argument occasionally advanced that having moral concern for animals makes a person “anti-human.” Even considering the cases where an animal’s significant interests directly conflict with human significant interests, if one were to conclude that the animals interests trumped the human interest this would not it seems provide evidence for some diminished concern for human beings, never mind antipathy towards human beings in general. Sometimes a variation of the argument is offered that claims that concern with “animal rights” or animal interests necessarily takes away from one’s concern for human rights. I’ve never found that persuasively argued either.
We have much weaker and sillier arguments flying around the public discourse space prompted by the Michael Vick case. Here’s one of Tenessee’s representatives weighing in:

But does anyone besides me see the hypocrisy of some on the left who go nuts about Michael Vick and the whole dog fighting thing and yet are the same people who don’t care about the loss of human life caused by illegal aliens or are the same people who fight for the right to kill unborn babies?

I hear the battle cry of: “It is my body, it is my property, I can do with it what I want” from the pro aborts, but the opposite cry from the same person against a person whose property is a dog. Do they respect the life of a dog more then they respect the life of a human?

The sport’s savants weigh in as well, for example, here.

The larger point is that, as much as we’re tempted to react to the federal indictment of Vick as though it contained the most heinous accusations against a football player since O.J. Simpson’s, there’s a whole lot of hypocrisy here.

For one thing, animals are put to death on a continuous basis, as I was just telling one of my fellow pet-lovers at a neighborhood barbecue while wiping away the hamburger grease that had dripped onto my suede Pumas.

It also must be noted – and I am not defending the sick behavior of anyone whom a jury decides has committed an offense such as electrocuting a pit bull – that there are NFL players who’ve been charged with having committed deplorable crimes against actual human beings. Some of them even have been convicted, yet most of us manage to let it go when they do good things for the home team or emerge as value picks in the fantasy draft.

It’s worth considering what an argument that purports to demonstrate hypocrisy must accomplish. In the first example above the argument would have to show that “some on the left” (s.o.t.l.) are applying the same moral principle in a discriminatory way. For example, if s.o.t.l believed that what Michael Vick apparently did to dogs is wrong because killing mammals is wrong then perhaps granting that a fetus or the victims of the murderous illegal aliens are mammals, if they condone those latter deaths they are hypocrites. But there are obvious and well articulated differences between the cases being considered that s.o.t.l. can appeal to.
The second case is weirder. He seems to be suggesting that we ought to be less upset about Michael Vick because in the past people who have committed other crimes have been forgiven by the fans. Whether the moral fiber of the football fan is the appropriate test is a difficult question. But, nevertheless, even granting the premises of this argument it isn’t clear that “hypocrisy” has anything to do with it.

The accusation of hypocrisy in moral argument is often a cheap rhetorical ploy, functioning somewhere in the neighborhood of the ad hominem fallacy. By attacking the consistency of the moral critic you try to undermine the particular position they are advancing. At the same time, these sorts of arguments based on similarities between cases are theoretically central to moral argument. The burden of the argument lies with the person who claims that cases are the same or similar in the relevant morally significant ways. This would be why Peter Singer’s argument from the first chapter of Animal Liberation could be used to demonstrate hypocrisy (speciesism), while the first quote above fails to do so.

Of course, there is one point that I’ll agree with: it isn’t clear why there is a moral difference between killing an animal for entertainment and killing an animal for gustatory pleasure.

Go suck a lemon

Perhaps by way of an apology, Tom Friedman writes:

Is the surge in Iraq working? That is the question that Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will answer for us next month. I, alas, am not interested in their opinions.

It is not because I don�t hold both men in very high regard. I do. But I�m still not interested in their opinions. I�m only interested in yours. Yes, you � the person reading this column. You know more than you think.

You see, I have a simple view about both Arab-Israeli peace-making and Iraqi surge-making, and it goes like this: Any Arab-Israeli peace overture that requires a Middle East expert to explain to you is not worth considering. It�s going nowhere.

Here (again) is something even you–the people who read Tom Friedman's column–can understand:

What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um and basically saying, "Which part of this sentence don't you understand?"

You don't think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we're just gonna to let it grow?

Well, Suck. On. This.


That Charlie was what this war was about. We could've hit Saudi Arabia, it was part of that bubble. We coulda hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.

Now that makes perfect sense. I don't need a Middle East expert to explain that to me. (h/t atrios for the transcript).

Words can never hurt me

Intentions, as I think we’ve often mentioned here, are notoriously hard to judge. It’s not, however, obviously impossible. Jose Padilla, the “dirty bomber,” was just convicted for wanting to do something. Many of the same people who claim its impossible to judge psychological states (when it comes to, I don’t know, hate crimes) nonetheless celebrate Padilla’s conviction. But that’s another point really. While intention certainly matters in criminal law (mens rea), it’s a little bit different perhaps when it comes to moral judgments. Take the following for instance:

>Ignatieff like many Americans was wrong about Iraq, but while his judgment was wrong, his intentions were pure. He believed that advocacy for the war in Iraq was in the best interests of the Iraqi people and furthered important national interests. Clearly these views clouded him from seeing reality. He was not alone.

It should go without saying that Ignatieff, a professor at Harvard (at the time) should have known better–so should many many other people who supported the war. But here lies the confusion of these people and their defenders (such as the author of the above).

Ignatieff, Friedman, and everyone else who for whatever reason thought it was a good idea to invade Iraq, ought to have their arguments and their views criticized–even lampooned (in the case of Friedman). And they ought to realize that on account of the magnitude of their poor judgment–and their stature, purported knowledge of world affairs, degree of advocacy for the policy, and ability to influence the public-this criticism will appear harsh and it will, in many quarters, get personal. That shouldn’t be surprising, the policy has, after all, become very personal for the many who have had the misfortune to live through it.

Besides, in this case as in most cases, the purity of their motives isn’t being judged. They’re irrelevant. What’s at issue is their judgment, both moral and practical. To invoke the purity of their motives, at this point, is just a red herring: the motives of the 19 terrorists on 9/11 were pure too, I bet. But they were horrifically wrong.