Chance of precipitation

Yesterday the Washington Post hosted one of those "pro and con" sets of op-eds.  The issue, "ending" the "war" in "Iraq."  Sorry about the quotes, but the disagreement about the issue was the issue.  Arguing for the "pro" (end the war in Iraq) was Carter administration National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski.  He maintains that a precipitous and irresponsible withdrawal is just what America needs right now.  Well, that’s what Max Boot, the con in this scenario, maintains. 

And this amounts to a classic waste of time.  Boot actually addresses Brzezinski’s claims–or what Boot claims are Brzezinski’s claims–so the Post editors ought to have intervened.  Here’s what Zbigniew Brzezinski said:

Terminating U.S. combat operations will take more than a military
decision. It will require arrangements with Iraqi leaders for a
continued, residual U.S. capacity to provide emergency assistance in
the event of an external threat (e.g., from Iran); it will also mean
finding ways to provide continued U.S. support for the Iraqi armed
forces as they cope with the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The decision to militarily disengage will also have to be accompanied
by political and regional initiatives designed to guard against
potential risks. We should fully discuss our decisions with Iraqi
leaders, including those not residing in Baghdad’s Green Zone, and we should hold talks on regional stability with all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran.

Take it or leave it.  As usual we’re agnostic about that position.  We’d like to point out, however, that Brzezinski isn’t advocating "precipitous" withdrawal from Iraq, which, as you can see from the following, Boot thinks he does.  Boot writes:

The consequences of withdrawal and defeat in Iraq are likely to be even
more serious, because it is located in a more volatile and
strategically important region.


It warned: "If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly … we judge
that the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] would be unlikely to survive as a
non-sectarian national institution; neighboring countries — invited by
Iraqi factions or unilaterally — might intervene openly in the
conflict; massive civilian casualties and forced population
displacement would be probable; AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] would attempt to
use parts of the country — particularly al-Anbar province — to plan
increased attacks in and outside of Iraq; and spiraling violence and
political disarray in Iraq… could prompt Turkey to launch a military


. . . nothing would be more calculated to aggravate other countries than a precipitous pullout.


 An early American departure is the last thing that most Iraqis or their elected representatives want.


An even more important sign of progress is the willingness of hundreds
of thousands of Iraqis to take up arms to fight Sunni and Shiite
terrorists alongside American troops. Imagine their fate if we suddenly
. I, for one, hope that we do not betray our allies in Iraq as we
did in Southeast Asia.

So according to Boot, Brzezinski advocates a sudden, early, rapid, precipitous, withdrawal and defeat in Iraq.  Of course that’s silly, as Brzezinski didn’t use any of the weaselly temporal qualifiers Boot imputes to him.  And so there is a classic straw man.  Can’t the editors at the Post point that out?

It really ought to be beneath grown up discourse to engage in this kind of adolescent distortion.  There’s more that could be said about Boot’s abysmal piece–such as dubious analogies with Vietnam.  Maybe tomorrow. 

For today it ought to be said that gainsaying isn’t argument.



Write No More Forever

We normally try to keep current around here, but amidst the revelry and excess of our Spring Break, we missed something.  Okay, we missed a few things, but George Will’s performance of March 16, on ABC’s "This Week with George Stephanopolous," is worth back-tracking a bit.  Will is holding forth on matters of race and politics and then this happens:

If you want to know what America would look like, if liberals really had their way in running it, look at what they’re doing in their own nominating process on two counts. First, they cannot get to a majority because they have exquisitely refined rococo rules about how to achieve fairness. Secondly, they have worked for 20, 30, 40 years to make us all exquisitely sensitive to slights real or imagined, so that you run a 3 AM ad and someone says there’s not enough black people in it or where’s the Hispanics and it must be a racist ad. Hillary Clinton says something absolutely unexceptionable which is it took Lyndon Johnson also to pass the civil rights act. Denounced as racist. The Democrats are reaping what they have sown.

Fairness?! Equality?! Sensitivity?! Heaven forfend!

Ye gods. This logic is going to make Bright Eyes cry.

First, the primary process is to liberal governance as our making a mean Guinness stew is to operating a restaurant. Sure, it’s part of the process, but just as our Guinness stew prowess doesn’t indicate our ability to take over for Vongerichten, neither does the Democratic primary process indicate the inability of either Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton–or any other liberal politician, for that matter–to properly govern the country.

Second, snide attacks and smug elitism are no argument. Will’s tritely insulting claim about sensitivity treats as a disadvantage an awareness that has, at least in part, helped us to advance from a country where blatant displays of racism and sexism and the genocide of indigenous persons are the norm, to a country where no matter what happens, the Democratic nominee for president of the United States will be either a woman or an African American man.  Without specific attempts to make people aware of the deep race and gender divides in this country, we never get to the place where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are the nominees for President. Yet Will dismisses these effects with a wave of the hand, instead twisting liberal social policies in service of an undergraduate view of liberalism and democratic process.


In yet another variation of his standard line, today George Will argues that when it comes to charity, liberal people and places lag behind conservatives and so "liberals" are little more than disingenuous bleeding hearts.  This combines Will’s love of the ad hominem tu quoque–the irrelevant charge of hypocrisy–with his love of the straw man–the purposeful distortion of his opponent’s view in order to knock it down (look here for a description of these particular logical errors).  His argument goes like this:

  • Liberals, judging by their bumper stickers in Austin, Texas are self-described bleeding hearts (they are motivated by pity and pity alone).
  • Self-described conservatives are more charitable than self-described liberals.
  • By their own self-description, liberals ought to be more charitable (on account of their bleeding hearts), so liberals are either:
  • (a) hypocrites for being all hat and no cattle (this is Texas we’re talking about); or (b) dumb to wait around for government to do the work that can be done by charity right now.

This argument sounds vaguely familiar.  Megan McCardle, a "liberatarian" blogger for the Atlantic Monthly, has made similar charges (discussed here and here on Crooked Timber).  She argues that if liberals want the government to tax so much, then why don’t they just give extra money voluntarily.  They don’t.  So there.  It also sounds like any similar charge of hypocrisy–if you cared so much about it, then why don’t you do something (for it, to stop it, etc.)? 

But that’s not really the point.  By any measure, liberalism is a broad political view about the just structure of government and the just distribution of goods.  Liberals will differ about the meaning of either of those things (They’ll differ to the same extent that conservatives will differ about the proper role of government).

More importantly, liberals will also differ about the reasons for their "liberalism."  Indeed, some liberals–some–might qualify as the "bleeding heart type" who fit Will’s perpetual caricature.  They whine about injustice, but they really don’t care.  Pointing out their hypocrisy might be entertaining, but it’s basically worthless.  They don’t represent all that is the liberal position.  Nor does their hypocrisy demonstrate anything about their broader political view. 

One can be liberal for reasons that have nothing to do with bleeding hearts, pity, or care.  And the strength (if it has any) of the liberal position has nothing do with the feelings and action of individual liberals–any more, at least, than the weakness of conservatism is demonstrated by the appallingly bad arguments of a pundit for the Washington Post.

“Post modern”

Neal Gabler’s NYTimes piece about John McCain’s success with the media is entertaining.  Here’s snippet:

Seeming to view himself and the whole political process with a mix of
amusement and bemusement, Mr. McCain is an ironist wooing a group of
individuals who regard ironic detachment more highly than sincerity or
seriousness. He may be the first real postmodernist candidate for the
the first to turn his press relations into the basis of
his candidacy

He’s right about McCain’s easy treatment in the media.  Just look at how often reporters attach McCain’s own branded adjectives to him–"maverick" or "straight-talker."  See Gabler’s piece for more.

I don’t think the post-modern part is true, however.  Candidates for office have been in the post-modern mode for a long time now.  I remember even Steve Forbes remarking on his "message," as if he were himself a political commentator describing the success of his own candidacy, rather than the candidate actually making his own pitch.  

But the post-modern mode, one might call it, infects much more than just political reporting.  One can find it all over liberal punditry–never making an argument, merely remarking on arguments made. 

Taxi driver

If we have learned anything from the war on terror, it’s that individual Middle eastern taxi, livery, and car service drivers have no special insight into world affairs.  Someone on the web has kept track of how often Tom Friedman used that kind of anecdotal evidence to characterize the opinions and feelings of the entire Middle East.  Now it’s time for Richard Cohen, liberal pundit of the Washington Post.  He writes:

In the end, the photos taken at Abu Ghraib produced an explosion of
outrage. When I visited Jordan in 2005, my driver — Bassam was his
name — brought it up himself
. Just as the military’s interrogators
knew the intense shame Muslim men feel when stripped naked and viewed
by women, or when forced to wear women’s underwear on their heads, so
did Bassam deeply feel that shame himself. "We are Muslims," he said.

No offense to Bassam, but what makes Cohen think this guy represents anything more than his own view?  There is little question, by the way, that Cohen is right–he’s just not right on account of the testimony of this or of every conveyance driver he meets. 

Socrates is mortal

Check out this entertaining trope from William Kristol’s op-ed today in the New York Times.  He gives three arguments that have the form of the enthymeme–the argument missing a conclusion or premise–but none of the validity necessary to make such arguments effective.   He writes:

But orators often ask themselves the convenient questions, not the difficult ones. And Barack Obama is an accomplished orator.


After all, politicians sometimes indulge in ridiculous and unfair
comparisons to make a point. And Barack Obama is an able politician.


But ambitious men sometimes do a disservice to the best in their own communities. And Barack Obama is an ambitious man.

As you can see, these have the form of a categorical syllogism–a two-premised deductive argument consisting of categorical statements.  Here’s a more famous example:

  • All men are mortal, and Socrates is a man.

Same form, save for the first premise.  For Kristol’s arguments here to be valid deductive ones (and perhaps sound ones as well), he needs to drop the qualifier (the "often" or "sometimes").  For his arguments might as well say:

  • Sometimes men are mortal, and indeed Socrates is a man.

Is Socrates mortal?  Can’t really tell by that argument.  Does Barack Obama do the things in the arguments above?  Can’t really tell.  He might or he might not.  But it doesn’t follow from the fact that he is a politician that he will engage in "ridiculous and unfair comparisons to make a point." 

Well, ok.  If we stretch the principle of charity to the breaking point, we might read the first premise another way:

  • All orators often ask themselves convenient questions. . . .
  • All politicians sometimes indulge. . . .
  • All ambitious men sometimes. . . .

That would make Kristol’s enthymemes valid, but ridiculously unsound.  Besides, that’s not what he means. 

On the merits

We’re back from Spring Break.  Opening up today’s Washington Post, we noticed that George Will holding forth on the judiciary.  For those who don’t know, George Will has one thing to say about the judiciary: it shouldn’t be in the business of making social policy.  Of course that’s a silly view, because it purposely ignores the questions the courts must resolve: what is the law?  What does it mean to "bear arms"?  What does "free speech" mean?  What is "equal protection"?  These are unavoidable social policy questions.

Today he animates his usual complaint with the following statistic:

The denial of annual increases, Roberts wrote, "has left federal trial
judges — the backbone of our system of justice — earning about the
same as (and in some cases less than) first-year lawyers
at firms in major cities, where many of the judges are located." The
cost of rectifying this would be less than .004 percent of the federal
budget. The cost of not doing so will be a decrease in the quality of
an increasingly important judiciary — and a change in its perspective.
Fifty years ago, about 65 percent of the federal judiciary came from
the private sector — from the practicing bar — and 35 percent from
the public sector. Today 60 percent come from government jobs, less
than 40 percent from private practice. This tends to produce a
judiciary that is not only more important than ever but also is more of
an extension of the bureaucracy than a check on it.

I wonder what "government job" means in this instance.  Could it mean they were judges?  That’s a government job.  And I’d hardly call that particular government job "an extension of the bureaucracy" (since, after all, the judiciary is a branch of the government).  

But what silly conclusion does Will draw from this?

Upon what meat hath our judiciary fed in growing so great? The meat of
modern liberalism
, the animating doctrine of the regulatory and
redistributionist state. Courts have been pulled where politics,
emancipated from constitutional constraints, has taken the law — into
every facet of life.

Even though the "government job" set-up is silly, this is even sillier.  But it’s the typical Will complaint about the courts.  Courts, Will complains, have been pulled around by politics, etc. etc.  That’s a silly objection.  Here’s why: the courts decide political issues.   They have to.  It’s their job.  When they decide these questions, they give arguments, called "opinions."  These contain what they consider the legal rationale for the position they take.  If Will doesn’t like this legal rationale, then he owes the courts an argument, as they say in legal circles, "on the merits."  To ignore this obvious fact, as Will does, is what one might call "begging the question." 

For the one or maybe two conservatives who may stumble upon this, I’m not arguing that the opposite of Will’s view (whatever that might be) is correct.  I’m merely suggesting that his complaint about the judiciary is hollow.  There probably are some pretty good conservative positions on the judiciary.  It’s a shame that shallow whining of the Will variety has achieved such prominence. 

Spring Break 08

Sorry if you thought that title meant something–perhaps a play on "spring" or "break" or something like that.  Perhaps you also expected it to followed by commentary on some crazy op-ed article very few people even read let alone take seriously.  Nope.  While we’re gone, comments will continue to be appreciated, though not monitored or responded to (by me at least).  Have a good week everyone, especially you, op-ed writers of America.    


Let’s say someone very well known for his virtue turns out to have some hidden vices–an anti-prostitution crusader himself sees prostitutes.  Few could really be surprised by that–such hypocrisy is familiar to all.  Well, maybe not to David Brooks.  Recent events have led him to ponder the depths of human failings.  He comes up with one basic answer–successful hypocrites suffer from from being nerds.  He writes

They go through the oboe practice, soccer camp, homework marathon
childhood. Their parent-teacher conferences are like mini-Hall of Fame
enshrinements as all gather to worship at the flame of their incipient
success. In high school, they enter their Alpha Geekdom. They rack up
great grades and develop that coating of arrogance that forms on those
who know that in the long run they will be more successful than the
beauties and jocks who get dates

They also stand too close to other men:

Then they go into one of those fields like law, medicine or politics,
where a person’s identity is defined by career rank. They develop the
specific social skills that are useful on the climb up the greasy pole:
the capacity to imply false intimacy; the ability to remember first
names; the subtle skills of effective deference; the willingness to
stand too close to other men while talking and touching them in a manly

Seems like the military, with actual ranks, ought to have been mentioned.  Moving on, however, I’m beginning to wonder whether this is meant to be some kind of confession on David Brooks’s part, as this has a not too subtle ring of irony to it:

And, of course, these people succeed and enjoy their success. When
Bigness descends upon them, they dominate every room they enter and
graciously share their company with those who are thrilled to meet
them. They master the patois of globaloney — the ability to declaim for
portentous minutes about the revolution in world affairs brought about
by technological change/environmental degradation/the fundamental
decline in moral values.

Still More confessional:

But then, gradually, some cruel cosmic joke gets played on them. They
realize in middle age that their grandeur is not enough and that they
are lonely
. The ordinariness of their intimate lives is made more
painful by the exhilaration of their public success. If they were used
to limits in public life, maybe it would be easier to accept the
everydayness of middle-aged passion. But, of course, they are not.

And he’s not really trying with the evidence here yet.  Here’s the evidence (as best as I can surmise).  First, such people are inelegant when drunk–David Brooks has seen it!

I don’t know if you’ve seen a successful politician or business tycoon
get drunk and make a pass at a woman. It’s like watching a St. Bernard
try to French kiss. It’s all overbearing, slobbering, desperate
wanting. There’s no self-control, no dignity.

Add to that a semi-oblique reference to some recent embarrassments:

So when they decide that they do in fact have an inner soul and it’s
time to take it out for a romp … . Well, let’s just say they’ve just
bought a ticket on the self-immolation express. Some desperate lunge
toward intimacy is sure to follow, some sad attempt at bonding. Welcome
to the land of the wide stance.

Finally, they have pictures of themselves on their walls!

I once visited a home in which the host had photos of himself
delivering commencement addresses lining the stairway wall. I’ve heard
countless presidential candidates
say they are running on behalf of
their families even though their entire lives have been spent on the
campaign trail away from their families.

I doubt the "countless" there.  Brooks has only been alive so long.  In any case, we all love explanations for cinematic hypocrisy.  But there are good explanations (the ones that refer to stuff that’s real) and bad ones (the ones that just are pulled out of one’s hat).  This one–so it seems–belongs to the latter category. 

King of the Faeries

Sometimes it gets rather tiresome sorting through the nuanced yet sloppy reasoning of the typical national newspaper pundit, so let's just gaze with wonder at how bad things could be.  Enter Pastor John Hagee, unrepudiated and unrejected friend and supporter of John McCain, maverick:

HAGEE: All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are — were recipients of the judgment of God for that. The newspaper carried the story in our local area that was not carried nationally that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades. So I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know that there are people who demur from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment. And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.

Let's say it was.  Now the parade might have been canceled, but lots of non-gay people had their lives and homes destroyed.  I suppose they were just collateral damage. 

UPDATE 4/26/2008

Pastor Hagee has retracted this claim.