But he tried

Some talk of a kind of welfare for rich people.  Despite enormous advantages, standards for them really are lower than for the rest of us.  Some talk of a kind of welfare for conservative ideologues.  Few believe their ideas, so goes the claim, but they achieve national prominence anyway.  That may be the case.  Michael Gerson might be an example of the latter–he's a conservative ideologue, he was the President's speech writer for Pete's sake, and now he has a position in a national newspaper, where he can argue that the standards for Bush, a privileged prep school kid, ought to be lower: 

My goal is a humbler assessment: Did President Bush, in the course of seven years, cast aside compassion and become the "same kind of Republican"?

The answer is no. Proposals such as No Child Left Behind, the AIDS and malaria initiatives, and the addition of a prescription drug benefit to Medicare would simply not have come from a traditional conservative politician. They became the agenda of a Republican administration precisely because of Bush's persistent, passionate advocacy. To put it bluntly, these would not have been the priorities of a Cheney administration.

This leaves critics of the Bush administration with a "besides" problem. Bush is a heartless and callous conservative, "besides" the 1.4 million men, women and children who are alive because of treatment received through his AIDS initiative . . . "besides" the unquestioned gains of African American and Hispanic students in math and reading . . . "besides" 32 million seniors getting help to afford prescription drugs, including 10 million low-income seniors who get their medicine pretty much free. Iraq may have overshadowed these achievements; it does not eliminate them.

Many have convincingly argued that these programs have been rhetorical successes–like, for instance, the term "compassionate conservatism"–and not much else.  One could and no doubt one will examine the evidence of the success and actual earnestness of these programs, against the ones that were vetoed or the problems that were ignored or the federal agencies staffed with incompetent cronies, and so forth.  But Gerson's invocation of Dick Cheney has some kind of meaningful comparison in compassion really makes that point on its own.

Routine mendacity

Bill Clinton said some dumb things, so it's now up to everyone to pile on the scripted indignation, everyone including the usually very indignant George Will (Yes, that one).

The week before South Carolina voted was the week when, at last, even some Democrats noticed. Noticed, that is, the distinctive cloud of coarseness that hovers over the Clintons, seeping acid rain.

That cloud has been a constant accouterment of their careers and has been influencing the nation's political weather for 16 years. But by the time Bill Clinton brought the Democratic Party in from the wilderness in 1992, the party had lost five of the previous six, and seven of the previous 10, presidential elections. Democrats were so grateful to him, and so determined not to resume wandering in the wilderness, that they averted their gazes to avoid seeing, and hummed show tunes to avoid hearing, the Clintons' routine mendacities.

Then, last week, came the radio ad that even South Carolinians, who are not squeamish about bite-and-gouge politics, thought was one brick over a load, and that the Clintons withdrew. It was the one that said Obama endorsed Republican ideas (because he said Republicans had some ideas). The Clinton campaign also accused Obama of praising Ronald Reagan (because Obama noted the stark fact that Reagan had changed the country's trajectory more than some other recent presidents — hello, Bill — had).

This was a garden-variety dishonesty, the manufacture of which does not cause a Clinton in midseason form to break a sweat. And it was no worse than — actually, not as gross as — St. John of Arizona's crooked-talk claim in Florida that Mitt Romney wanted to "surrender and wave a white flag, like Senator Clinton wants to do" in Iraq because Romney "wanted to set a date for withdrawal that would have meant disaster."

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, the Clintons should bask in the glow of John McCain's Clintonian gloss on this fact: Ten months ago, Romney said that President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should discuss, privately, "a series of timetables and milestones." That unremarkable thought was twisted by McCain, whose distortions are notably clumsy, as when Romney said, accurately, that he alone among the candidates has had extensive experience in private-sector business.

That truth was subjected to McCain's sophistry, and he charged that Romney had said "you haven't had a real job" if you had a military career. If, this autumn, voters must choose between Clinton and McCain, they will face, at least stylistically, an echo, not a choice.

I'm all for the honesty and sophistry test.  But let's start with the people who count–I mean, have counted for the past 7 years, and still count now.  For the Clinton mendacity narrative, and all of the craziness surrounding them, start here.


The Goldberg variation

It seems to me that affirmative action need not be derived from essentialist claims about racial identity.  But's its convenient that some do, because then people who oppose affirmative action programs can claim their opponents are the real racists, because essentialism is a variety of racism (they claim).  One might call that the Goldberg variation, as you turn–speciously–the accusation of racism (or fascism, or whatever) around. That said, the following claim seems to me to be a Goldberg variation:

The conventions that govern America's racial discourse derive from the odious "one drop" rule. According to it, anyone with any admixture of black ancestry — one drop of black "blood" — is black. So, Connerly is an African American. One of his grandparents was of African descent, one was Irish, a third was Irish and American Indian, and the fourth was French Canadian. Two of the grandchildren of Connerly and his Irish wife have a Vietnamese mother. Are these grandchildren African Americans?

Will the superstitions surrounding race ever fade away? Not before governance is cleansed of the sort of race-based policies opposed by Connerly, who intimately knows the increasing absurdity of racial classifications and the folly of government preferences based on them.

In addition to the Goldberg element (and really, I think Goldberg's schtick is strongly reminiscent of George Will's), you have a kind of feigned and convenient skepticism: who's to say what race is anyway?  Who really counts as Black?  And any answer to that question will invite charges of racism.  See–if you answer Will's question, you're a racist.  But not him.  He's colorblind.


Had occasion to revisit this George Will piece arguing for the election of George Bush this morning.  Poor Jonah, he can't even build a weaker straw hominem than George Will:

THE CASE for electing George W. Bush begins with a mundane matter: A president fills several thousand policy-shaping positions in the executive branch. The two parties have very different talent pools from which the next administration will be staffed.

The Democratic pool swarms with people who share Al Gore's bossiness, his regulatory itch and his hubristic belief that clever people like them can wield government as creatively as Rodin did his chisel. The Republican pool is disposed to regard government as a blunt instrument. Which is to say, a Gore administration would have the mentality of Washington's Northwest quadrant; a Bush administration would have a West Texas attitude.

Congress's drunken sailor approach to the surplus makes the political case for Bush's tax cut: Leave the money in Washington, it will disappear like water into sand. The economic case for the cut is that Bush's advisers, who fortunately include some people capable of bearish thoughts, think the economy may need energizing sooner than many people think.


Simply saying

Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee shows the world that the WMD fiasco can remain a never-ending source of hilarity.  He first alleged that the weapons were spirited out to Jordan (our ally), when asked (by Fox News of all organizations) whether he has any evidence of that, he replies:

I don’t have any evidence. [Saddam] was the one who announced openly he had weapons of mass destruction. He’s the one who had used similar weapons in the past. Let’s remember that both Democrats and Republicans and our intelligence agencies believed that he had them.

My point was that, no, we didn’t find them. Did they get into Syria? Did they get into some remote area of Jordan? Did they go some other place? We don’t know. They may not have existed. But simply saying — we didn’t find them so therefore they didn’t exist — is a bit of an overreach.

Not quite.  It's not a matter of simply saying, but rather simply scouring the country, then re-examining the evidence for simply saying they had WMD,then, and only then finally simply saying, gee, oops, I suppose we were wrong about that.  Boy is our face red.

Fun with fallacies

This from James W. Benham and Thomas J.Marlowe is hilarious.  Can anyone think of any others?

  • Ad hominem arguments are the tools of scoundrels and blackguards. Therefore, they are invalid.
  • If you had any consideration for my feelings, you wouldn't argue from an appeal to pity.
  • What would your mother say if you argued from an appeal to sentiment?
  • I don't understand how anyone could argue from an appeal to incredulity.
  • If you argue from an appeal to force, I'll have to beat you up.
  • You are far too intelligent to accept an argument based on an appeal to vanity.
  • Everyone knows that an argument from appeal to popular opinion is invalid.
  • Circular reasoning means assuming what you're trying to prove. This form of argument is invalid becuase it's circular.
  • As Aristotle said, arguments from an appeal to authority are invalid.
  • Post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments often precede false conclusions. Hence, this type of argument is invalid.
  • Using the Argumentum ad Consequentiam makes for unpleasant discussions. Hence, it must be a logical fallacy.
  • The argumentum ad nauseam is invalid. The argumentum ad nauseam is invalid. The argumentum ad nauseam is invalid. If three repetitions of this principle haven't convinced you, I'll just have to say it again: the argumentun ad nauseam is invalid.
  • Ancient wisdom teaches that the argumentum ad antiquitatem is invalid.
  • An argument is emotional and no substitute for reasoned discussion. But proof by equivocation is a kind of argument. Thus, a proof by equivocation is no substitute for a valid proof.
  • If we accept slippery slope arguments, we may have to accept other forms of weak arguments. Eventually, we won't be able to reason at all. Hence, we must reject slippery slope arguments as invalid.
  • A real logician would never make an argument based on the "No true Scotsman" fallacy. If anyone who claims to be logical and makes arguments based on this fallacy, you may rest assured that s/he is not a real logician.
  • An argument based on a logical fallacy often leads to a false conclusion. Affirming the consequent often leads to a false conclusion. Therefore, affirming the consequent is a fallacy.
  • The fallacy of the undistributed middle is often used by politicians, and they often try to mislead people, so undistributed middles are obviously misleading.
  • Reasoning by analogy is like giving a starving man a cookbook.
  • Non sequitur is a Latin term, so that's a fallacy too.
  • And I bet the gambler's fallacy is also invalid – I seem to be on a roll!

If so, post them in comments and I'll send them to the author.

By way of update, I'm not happy with the use of "valid" here nor would I consider all of these to be fallacious.  But you get the idea.

de Causis

There's another new book out about how God doesn't exist, this time by a mathematician (where are the philosophers?). It got panned in a quotation-rich review in the New York Times.  If the quotations are representative, then no wonder:

In his opening chapters Mr. Paulos uses simple logic to point up the gaping holes in the so-called first-cause argument. “Either everything has a cause, or there’s something that doesn’t,” he writes. “The first-cause argument collapses into this hole whichever tack we take. If everything has a cause, then God does, too, and there is no first cause. And if something doesn’t have a cause, it may as well be the physical world.”

What’s more, he notes, “the uncaused first cause needn’t have any traditional God-like qualities. It’s simply first, and as we know from other realms, being first doesn’t mean being best. No one brags about still using the first personal computers to come on the market. Even if the first cause existed, it might simply be a brute fact — or even worse, an actual brute.”

Doesn't seem the author has much familiarity with first-cause arguments.  They typically make the distinction between the idea of a first cause and the idea of an uncaused cause.  A first cause comes first in a series; an uncaused cause may not be a member of a series.  As any student of intro to philosophy of religion knows, these represent entirely different arguments and one can't just lump them together. I might wonder about the author of the book, but I'm rather more perplexed by the review.

If I might whine a little bit here.  The reviewer doesn't seem aware that there's an entire specialty that concerns itself with this kind of business.  It's been at it for maybe 2500 years.  While it's astounding that a non-specialist could simply thrust himself into this discussion completely unaware of its manifold iterations, it's depressing that the reviewer of the book doesn't bother to point out that simple fact.  



It's Bill Kristol's day again.  Not that he has to write on anything in particular, but it is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  And Kristol writes about the anti-modern paragon of moral virtue, John McCain.  One might however find Kristol's sense of "modernity" intriguing:

The young Henley had written this following the amputation of his foot because of tubercular infection. He lived until age 53, apparently unbow’d and unafraid, a productive poet, critic and editor. (The one-legged [eds.: shouldn't this be "one-footed"?] Henley also served as an inspiration for his close friend Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” character Long John Silver.)

One can see why “Invictus” might have appealed to the young McCain. One can see why snatches of it might have stuck in his mind while a prisoner of war, and after. But his allusion to its coda reminds us of what’s so distinctive about McCain as a contemporary political figure: He’s not thoroughly modern.

In this he differs from his competitors. Mitt Romney is the very model of a modern venture capitalist. Mike Huckabee is the very model of a modern evangelical. Rudy Giuliani is the very model of a modern can-do executive. They are impressive modern men all. But John McCain is a not-so-modern type. One might call him a neo-Victorian — rigid, self-righteous and moralizing, but (or rather and) manly, courageous and principled.

Others can point out the strange and ever-shifting principles of the "Straight Talk Express" (a brand name, which, unsurprisingly, has beguiled even the <sarcasm> uber-liberals </sarcasm> of NPR.  I'd just be curious to know how those traits are "Victorian" in anything but a self-refutingly ironic sense.  But I suppose I wonder that because I'm modern.


Five thumbs up

If you look at the website for Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, you'll find a lot of email from alienated college students, praising the bold and cogent thesis of the book, and commending its author for the way he handled himself on A Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  You'll also find its author responding to negative reviews:

It's something of a cliché to complain that a poor book review says more about the reviewer than it does about the book. Sometimes this is clearly just a defense mechanism offered by authors who've written bad books. Other times it happens to be true. Matt Yglesias' “serious” review of my book is one of those times.

And he goes on to attack the reviewer:

In short, his review is a piece of theater used to disguise his own cognitive dissonance. Nothing to see here folks, no need to read this book, no need to do any heavy thinking whatsoever. Indeed, thinking is the last thing Matt or his friends on the left want to do when it comes to my book. That is why the default response in those quarters has been to call me stupid or partisan (or both — or worse). No reason to rethink your basic premises if a book can be dismissed as mere partisan hackery.

That's not the only time.  Goldberg can't seem to address any negative criticism of his argument without maligning the motives or the seriousness of the reviewer.  Ok, one last example:

On Thursday, I said that David Neiwert’s review of my book, Liberal Fascism, in The American Prospect was the sort of “shallow, cliché ridden, attack-the-messenger stuff that I would expect Ezra to find so persuasive.” But it turned out I’d misquoted Neiwert, for which I apologized. I also said I was bleary from the slog of promoting the book and maybe I was too harsh. Well, now — as they used to say of Nixon — I’m tanned, rested and ready (minus the tan). So with fresh eyes let me say that Neiwert’s review is the sort of shallow, cliché ridden, attack-the-messenger stuff that I would expect Ezra to find so persuasive.

I love the phrase, "attack-the-messenger" as it is here quite inappropriate.  One attacks the messenger who is merely bringing bad news–you attack the journalist who reports on bad news.  This book isn't a work of journalism, and Goldberg isn't a messenger. 


Dux nobis

If a prize were given for sophistry, Jonah Goldberg would win, not because he's good at it, but because he earnestly believes his own nonsense.  The entire thesis of his recent book, Liberal Fascism, rests (judging by his frequent descriptions of it) on the following hodgepodge of fallacies: the formal fallacy of the undistributed middle; equivocation on the word "socialist"; ignorance of the origins and meaning of the term "fascist"; and various straw persons of "progressive positions" (to name the most obvious).  By the way, if you haven't seen his interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, go see it.  It's hilarious.

Just for fun, and because it bears repeating how this fellow has no business writing books on fascism or any subject for that matter, take the following explanation of why Mussolini is called a fascist:

To sort of start the story, the reason why we see fascism as a thing of the right is because fascism was originally a form of right-wing socialism. Mussolini was born a socialist, he died a socialist, he never abandoned his love of socialism, he was one of the most important socialist intellectuals in Europe and was one of the most important socialist activists in Italy, and the only reason he got dubbed a fascist and therefore a right-winger is because he supported World War I.

Not so much.  Maybe it's because Mussolini founded the doctrine of fascism.  Here's a taste of Mussolini's own description of his view: 

In the Fascist conception of history, man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process to which he contributes as a member of the family, the social group, the nation, and in function of history to which all nations bring their contribution. Hence the great value of tradition in records, in language, in customs, in the rules of social life (8). Outside history man is a nonentity. Fascism is therefore opposed to all individualistic abstractions based on eighteenth century materialism; and it is opposed to all Jacobinistic utopias and innovations. It does not believe in the possibility of "happiness" on earth as conceived by the economistic literature of the XVIIIth century, and it therefore rejects the theological notion that at some future time the human family will secure a final settlement of all its difficulties. This notion runs counter to experience which teaches that life is in continual flux and in process of evolution. In politics Fascism aims at realism; in practice it desires to deal only with those problems which are the spontaneous product of historic conditions and which find or suggest their own solutions (9). Only by entering in to the process of reality and taking possession of the forces at work within it, can man act on man and on nature (10)

And he continues:

Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal, will of man as a historic entity (11). It is opposed to classical liberalism which arose as a reaction to absolutism and exhausted its historical function when the State became the expression of the conscience and will of the people. Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts The rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual (12). And if liberty is to he the attribute of living men and not of abstract dummies invented by individualistic liberalism, then Fascism stands for liberty, and for the only liberty worth having, the liberty of the State and of the individual within the State (13). The Fascist conception of the State is all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism, is totalitarian, and the Fascist State a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values – interprets, develops, and potentates the whole life of a people (14).  No individuals or groups (political parties, cultural associations, economic unions, social classes) outside the State (15). Fascism is therefore opposed to Socialism to which unity within the State (which amalgamates classes into a single economic and ethical reality) is unknown, and which sees in history nothing but the class struggle. Fascism is likewise opposed to trade unionism as a class weapon. But when brought within the orbit of the State, Fascism recognizes the real needs which gave rise to socialism and trade unionism, giving them due weight in the guild or corporative system in which divergent interests are coordinated and harmonized in the unity of the State (16).

Yet, despite these well known documents, that Mussolini never thought himself a fascist and that he was really a socialist is somehow the basis of this silly book.

How not to respond to criticism

Here is a journalist with 20 years experience illustrating how not to respond to criticism.  The email is so bad that one might think he was either drunk or it was written by an impostor.  Here's the story.  Greenwald wrote a post on his blog, Unclaimed Territory, about the fawning tone of CNN correspondent John King's interview of John McCain.  You can read that here (it's short), but here's a sample question:

* KING: As you know, one of the issues you have had here in South Carolina in the past is either people don't understand your social conservative record or they're not willing to concede your social conservative record. There's a mailing that hit South Carolina homes yesterday. It's a picture of you and Cindy on the front. It says "Always pro-life, 24-year record." Why do you think you still, after all this time, have to convince these people, "I have been with you from the beginning"?

I'm sure you get the idea.  Not exactly critical journalism (follow Greenwald's links for more).  Here below is John King's response.  For the sake of clarity, I'll insert comments in brackets (courtesy of Glenn Greenwald)

From: King, John C

To: GGreenwald@salon.com

Sent: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 5:40 PM

Subject: excuse me? [a more neutral subject heading–e.g., response to your blogpost]

I don't read biased uninformed drivel so I'm a little late to the game. [this is somewhat self-contradictory: either the post was not "biased uninformed drivel" (and so not worthy of the charge) or he does read bias uniformed drivel.  In either case, that's a pretty serious compound charge–biased and uninformed.  One is sufficient for dismissal.

But a friend who understands how my business works and knows a little something about my 20 plus years in it sent me the link to your ramblings. [Now they're "ramblings"–biased uninformed drivel ramblings–that's four insults]

Since the site suggests you have law training, maybe you forgot that good lawyers to a little research before they spit out words. [The site says Greenwald is a lawyer]

Did you think to ask me or anyone who works with me whether that was the entire interview? No. (It was not; just a portion used by one of the many CNN programs.) [Notice how King responds to his own rhetorical question.  Aside from that, it's irrelevant to the criticism.  Besides, it suggests that King agrees with Greenwald about the fawning tone of the questions and suggests that CNN edited it to appear that way].

Did you reach out to ask the purpose of that specific interview? No. [More extra-textual irrelevance].

Or how it might have fit in with other questions being asked of other candidates that day? No. [He now seems to be conceding the point.  Besides, fawning questions to the other candidates would only reinforce the point that they're not real questions.  Asking fake questions to other candidates doesn't make them any less fake].

Or anything that might have put facts or context or fairness into your critique. No. [So he definitely agrees, but thinks Greenwald has been unfair–there's a context that explains it].

McCain, for better or worse, is a very accessible candidate. If you did a little research (there he goes with that word again) you would find I have had my share of contentious moments with him over the years. [So these are not contentious questions.  But King, an ad hominizer, sees others as he sees himself–attacking the person.  His having asked "contentious" questions in the past doesn't make, however, the questions of the other day any less silly].

But because of that accessibility, you don't have to go into every interview asking him about the time he cheated on his sixth grade math test. [Now he really misunderstands the nature of the criticism.  And again it's ad hominem: He suggests Greenwald wants him to ask mean, irrelevant questions about McCain's childhood.  If that is King's sense of a real journalistic question, then it's worse than Greenwald suggests].

The interview was mainly to get a couple of questions to him on his thoughts on the role of government when the economy is teetering on the edge of recession, in conjunction with similar questions being put to several of the other candidates. [Like in comedy, it's not funny if you have to explain it–unless you make the explanation funny–which this isn't.  I think.].

The portion you cited was aired by one of our programs — so by all means it is fair game for whatever "analysis" you care to apply to it using your right of free speech and your lack of any journalistic standards or fact checking or just plain basic curiosity. [It's always nice to have someone point out your rights.  I find it difficult, however, to follow King's point.  He agrees (or seems to agree) that questions he asked were soft balls, and that they were made a public document, but he charges that because Greenwald did not examine the non-public aspects of the interview (including the journalist's personal history of skepticism regarding McCain), that the analysis is wrong.  That seems really messed up, to put it bluntly.  CNN hires journalists, pays them to ask questions, and then airs the segment.  But we the viewing public are supposed to consider all of the things in the interview that were not aired before we draw any conclusions.  That just seems to undermine the whole point of airing the interview in the first place.] 

You clearly know very little about journalism. But credibility matters. It is what allows you to cover six presidential campaigns and be viewed as fair and respectful, while perhaps a little cranky, but Democrats and Republicans alike. When I am writing something that calls someone's credibility into question, I pick up the phone and give them a chance to give their side, or perspective. [Another irrelevant ad hominem coupled with an auto-pro-homine: an "I'm awesome and you're jerk."]

That way, even on days that I don't consider my best, or anywhere close, I can look myself in the mirror and know I tried to be fair and didn't call into question someone's credibility just for sport, or because I like seeing my name on a website or my face on TV. [Ah yes.  You're just saying that because–the ad hominem circumstantial.  You don't have reasons for what you say, you just say that to get noticed!]

The truly silly thing about this response is that King never challenges any one of Greenwald's points.  He concedes them in fact,  repeatedly, and from several different angles, but he alleges that Greenwald is a jerk for not knowing that no one is supposed to take King's work seriously.  This reminds me of something Krusty the Clown said when he was running for Congress: when you react like that (to his racist jokes) it means he was kidding.