Godwin’s Lawyer

This op-ed in the Washington Post by Walter Reich, of George Washington University, has to be one of the more baffling things I've read in a while–and I'm in the middle of grading papers.  The argument, in a nutshell, seems to go like this: While some anti-Semites used to deny the reality of the Holocaust, some of them now admit it, only now they use it to describe either (1) what ought to happen to the State of Israel; or (2) what the State of Israel is perpetrating upon the Palestinians.  While perhaps hyperbolic, (2) is not necessarily anti-Semitic, as it is motivated perhaps by genuine concern and frustration over the plight of the Palestinian civilians.  Here's what he says:

Are all those who have accused Israel of being a Nazi state anti-Semites? Hardly. There's genuine anger in the Muslim world, as well as in Europe and elsewhere, about Israel's actions in Gaza. The suffering is terrible. So are the images of devastation Israel left behind. And there are also plenty of people who are angry at Israel because it stands for the reviled United States.

But the reality is that much of the vitriol directed at Israel has indeed been spouted by anti-Semites. Not only have they hurled the Nazi canard at Israel, they've expressed clear anti-Semitism — some of it openly violent or even eliminationist. The pro-Israel but reliable Middle East Media and Research Institute has been documenting anti-Semitism on Palestinian television for years, including calls for the murder of Jews. It reports that, the day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, one Egyptian cleric admitted on an Islamist TV channel that the Holocaust had happened — and added that he hoped that one day Muslims would do to the Jews what the Germans had done to them. To demonstrate what he had in mind, according to the institute, he showed footage of heaps of Jewish corpses being bulldozed into pits.

So the real issue is not the Holocaust denial or hyperbolic invocation, it's the violent eliminationist anti-Semitism, which uses the Holocaust, among other things, as an example of what to do.  Yet, while admitting that such comparisons are not anti-Semitic or even wrong, Reich still insists:

In designating an International Holocaust Remembrance Day back in 2005, the U.N. General Assembly acted with noble intentions, even if parts of the world body still aim to delegitimize Israel. Such commemorations help the world understand that the goal of the Holocaust was the annihilation of an entire people — and help them appreciate the vast differences between that event and, for example, the war in Gaza. But even as the Holocaust has been increasingly acknowledged and explained, it also has been increasingly used as a cudgel to beat Jews and the Jewish state. 

If Reich had wanted to make that last point–that the Holocaust is some kind of illegitimate cudgel, to crazy or hyperbolic to be anything but anti-Semitism–then he'd have to make an entirely different argument.  His beef here is with eliminationist anti-Semites, not Godwin's law breakers

For Some

Michael Gerson, Evangelical Christian who does not care even to mention the predictable and extensive collateral damage in Gaza, bravely faces down a straw man argument, and loses.  He writes:

While Israel's military operations didn't accomplish everything, they also didn't accomplish nothing. But the "force doesn't solve anything" argument runs so deep for some that real-world outcomes matter little. Military action by Israel is always counterproductive, because Israel must eventually negotiate with its most bitter enemies. The sooner the better.

Call it the Fallacy of the Eventual Answer. It is true that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is two states living side by side in peace. But it is false to say that the fight against terrorists and the security of Israel have no part in achieving that goal.

Yes, of course there are pacifists, and of course there are SOME who never advocate military action, and of course military action sometimes achieves things which peaceful negotiation cannot (assignment: name three).  The question at hand, however, SOME would say, is whether this particular military action, with its costs in civilian casualties in Gaza and so forth, has strengthened Israel's ultimate position, increased its security, laid the groundwork for a durable peace, and so forth.  Maybe it has, maybe it hasn't.  But that's rather another discussion than the one Gerson wants to have here. 

But more fundamentally–and this is the loss to the straw man part–the straw man suggests a military action may not be the answer, but that does not entail that Israel (1) not fight terrorists; or (2) have no security.  It's military action, not security, that's at issue. 

Foul deeds and words

Rod Blagojevich, the embattled Illinois Governor whose name everyone now knows how to pronounce incorrectly, has been seen on some 20 or so talk shows lately.  This is odd in the first place because his name is hard to pronounce, but in the second place he's undergoing impeachment right now.  Well, maybe it's not really odd.  It seems to me he has given up on any chance of not being impeached, so he's concentrating his efforts on the forthcoming criminal trial.  Whatever his purpose or strategy, he has never been convicted of any crime.  Someone should tell David Broder, punditorum praefectus, who cannot believe his colleagues would talk to a person such as Blagojevich.  He writes:

But even as Blagojevich has abandoned any pretense of mounting a legal defense of his actions, he has launched a full-scale public relations campaign, hitting the morning talk-show circuit to parade his impudence under the guise of proclaiming his innocence.

It's as if there were no bill of particulars filed against him and approved almost unanimously by the members of the Illinois House of Representatives, who have endured six years of his misgovernment.

By simply asserting the claim that the state Senate trial on those charges is a "witch hunt," Blagojevich has tried to duck responsibility for his foul words and deeds while cloaking himself in phony martyrdom.

When Blagojevich was interviewed on TV and cable networks, the first — and maybe only — question should have been: "Why the hell are you here in our studio instead of where you belong: testifying under oath in the Senate trial in Springfield?"

Instead, he was allowed to charge, falsely, that the rules of the trial prevented him from calling defense witnesses or making his own case.

To my chagrin, the PR offensive seems to be working, not only with TV talkers who often confuse celebrity with more serious attributes, but with journalists who ought to know better.

Pardon my being direct, but what a numbskull–Broder I mean. (1) Blagojevich is going to proclaim his innocence (guilty people sometimes do); (2) they will pretend there are no credible charges against them; (3) they will claim the trial is politically motivated; (4) they have a right not to incriminate themselves so they don't have to testify or even show up; (4) people are allowed to lie constantly on TV (cf. ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, MSNBC, CNN, CNBC, ESPN); (5) the blame for believing Blagojevich falls on those who believe him, if he's lying.

Most of all, however, Blagojevich has been accused of foul deeds, despite David Broder's prudishness, it's not illegal to use foul words.

 

Argumentum ad Obamam

Today Michael Gerson argues that Obama's new politics is all hogwash because, get this because I'm not making this up, some anonymous and unnamed bloggers celebrated the earlier than expected firing of a political appointee.  He writes:

But one major personnel error was made from malice. And it calls into question the depth and duration of President Obama's "new politics."

Interesting remark there at the end.  More on that in a moment.  But here's the evidence for the strikingly general claim that one should now question Obama's "new politics."

Then, the day after the inauguration, Dybul received a call asking him to submit his resignation and to leave by the end of the day. There was no chance to reassure demoralized staffers, or PEPFAR teams abroad, or the confused health ministers of other nations. The only people who seemed pleased were a few blogging extremists, one declaring, "Dybul Out: Thank you, Hillary!!!" 

And following directly:

As in most political hit-and-run attacks, the perpetrator was not anxious to take credit. It seems unlikely to be Hillary Clinton herself — Dybul's ultimate boss at the State Department — who had not even been confirmed when Dybul received his call. But someone at State or the White House determined that sacrificing Dybul would appease a few vocal, liberal interest groups. One high-ranking Obama official admitted that the decision was "political."

It may be the case–but Gerson's evidence for the fairly strong claim that this was an "attack" made from "malice" and is completely non existent.  He doesn't even try to argue that this had anything to do with Obama or any key Obama operative.  

I think we might have stumbled upon a new fallacy–call it argumentum ad Obamam.  Here's how it goes.  Start from the premise that Obama is better than Jesus, then argue that any negative thing remotely linkable to him shows that he is not in fact the real Jesus after all–as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent he would have stopped it!–and that maybe there is no Jesus, and that those who believed in Jesus were gullible fools, because all there exists there is evil.

Well, that's a load of crap, of course.  Not because Obama is Jesus, but because only a nitwit like Gerson would expect him to be (disingenuously–I mean, Jesus, this guy worked for Bush for six solid years, anyone remember Iraq?  Abu Ghraib?) in order to show that silly expectation no one would seriously have to be unfounded.

Cordon Bleu

There is an argument about torture floating around the punditsphere, Richard Cohen's variation goes something like this: After 9/11, an event unlike any other in the history of any civilized nation (not true), Americans strongly supported President Bush in his aggressive pursuit of the terrorist evildoers.  Some leading American legal minds, such as Jonathan Alter and Alan Dershowitz (I'm not making this up) openly mused about using torture of one form or another on certain terrorist suspects.  In addition, it is logically possible that someone tell the truth while under torture–a fact no one can deny (or has denied, by the way, because it's not the point).  On top of this, the people in their love of the TV show "24" and their high approval rating of Bush wanted torture, so it would therefore be wrong to prosecute or punish the people who waterboarded or otherwise tortured terrorist suspects or just suspects. 

I don't think I'm being uncharitable.  Here's his conclusion:

That, though, was the other country called the Past. In the country called the Present, certain people are demanding that the torturers and their enablers be dragged across the time border and brought to justice. There are many practical difficulties involved, but the impetus is understandable: A nation that once posed to the world as lawful and civil turned out to be brutish and indifferent to international law. We tortured. So says the incoming attorney general, Eric Holder. We tortured. So says the person in charge of deciding such matters at Guantanamo. That question has been answered. Now comes another: What are we going to do about it?

President Obama's inclination, it seems, is to not do anything much. "I don't believe anybody is above the law," he recently said. "On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards."

This is a nifty formulation that ignores reality; to look forward, you need to know where you've been. In other words, if we do not find out precisely how our government came to waterboard at least three suspects and abuse others, we will not know how to ensure that the future doesn't wind up looking much like the past.

At the same time, we have to be respectful of those who were in that Sept. 11 frame of mind, who thought they were saving lives — and maybe were — and who, in any case, were doing what the nation and its leaders wanted. It is imperative that our intelligence agents not have to fear that a sincere effort will result in their being hauled before some congressional committee or a grand jury. We want the finest people in these jobs — not time-stampers who take no chances.

The best suggestion for how to proceed comes from David Cole of Georgetown Law School. Writing in the Jan. 15 New York Review of Books, he proposed that either the president or Congress appoint a blue-ribbon commission, arm it with subpoena power, and turn it loose to find out what went wrong, what (if anything) went right and to report not only to Congress but to us. We were the ones, remember, who just wanted to be kept safe. So, it is important, as well as fair, not to punish those who did what we wanted done — back when we lived, scared to death, in a place called the Past.

I think this argument blows for at least three reasons.  First, not everyone wanted these things to be done.  Second, the feeling of support (however great) for patently illegal, immoral, and impractical activities such as torture does not make them any less illegal, immoral, or impractical.  Third, whether or not the will of the people had clearly expressed the specialness of the circumstances in their choice of TV show or Alan Dershowitz (how do you measure that anyway?), there still remain the more fundamental expressions of the will of the people–the constitution, our history of prosecuting people for waterboarding, the treaties and conventions practiced by our team–not to mention the more recent (and contradictory) expressions of our government's view on torture–such as, the arguments used against Saddam Hussein at his trial and before the execution of the war in Iraq, the arguments against the Taliban, and so forth–that stand as evidence that we do not and did not consider torture a legitimate legal practice.  Finally, a fourth reason, people in positions of authority ought to know better than to erect legal sophistries to justify practices which are obviously illegal, immoral and impractical.  They are elected and sworn to uphold the constitution for this purpose.

I’m not an economist

Since I'm not an economist, I can't easily judge the content of the Krugman's arguments against anti-stimulus arguments. But what makes Krugman stand head and shoulders above the rest of his fellow pundits, is that he makes arguments.

Next, write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

The point is that nobody really believes that a dollar of tax cuts is always better than a dollar of public spending. Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts — and therefore costs less per job created (see the previous fraudulent argument) — because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

This suggests that public spending rather than tax cuts should be the core of any stimulus plan. But rather than accept that implication, conservatives take refuge in a nonsensical argument against public spending in general.

Now to be fair, we can criticize the argument in a couple of ways–first, air traffic control involves a task of coordination and it isn't clear that priming the economic pump does in the same way. It isn't just that centralized air traffic control is more efficient than a "free market" equivalent. So we might ask whether the analogy holds.

Second, we might ask whether the claim that "taxpayer are the best judges of how to spend their money" (see last paragraph here) implies that all public spending should be replaced with private spending. A more moderate position might be to argue that when it comes to something like economic stimulus this principle holds true. However, Krugman is arguing against some of the simplistic and fallacious dismissals of stimulus spending, and so aims to free the discussion for substantive arguments from economists and policy makers rather than from the ideological hacks.

By the way, what is the fallacy in the argument he is attacking? Is it a fallacy? Accident, perhaps? Seems to involve the universalization of a principle that probably holds true in many cases (better to let me choose whether to spend my money on a Squeezebox Duet rather than a Sonos System, than have the government choose for me. Maybe something like "When there's no compelling public need, it is preferable to allow citizens to choose how to spend their money than have government choose." What counts as a compelling need is a political question–in the case of the stimulus plan Krugman makes the case that the public need is stimulating the economy and government spending is just much more effective than private spending in doing that.

The "fallacy" seems to work by arguing:

1. We accept principle x.

2. Principle x entails we should not do y.

3. Therefore we should not do y.

However, principle x is either a) not accepted as stated or b) when qualified does not apply to case y.

1. It is wrong to kill.

2. If it is wrong to kill then we should not use lethal force to defend ourselves.

3. Therefore we should not use lethal force to defend ourselves.

 But, either a) it is not wrong (always to kill) or b) it is only wrong to kill without justification.

The fallacy seems to arise when the principle is taken to be persuasive because on the surface it seems true.

A last column

A puzzling reflection from William Kristol's last column in the New York Times:

We don’t really know how Barack Obama will govern. What we have so far, mainly, is an Inaugural Address, and it suggests that he may have learned more from Reagan than he has sometimes let on. Obama’s speech was unabashedly pro-American and implicitly conservative.

"Unabashedly pro-American"–that's deep thinking.  "Implicitly conservative," well, that's obviously just wrong.  I wonder who they'll hire to replace him.  Perhaps Ben Stein.

Childish Things

Michael Gerson, George W. Bush's former speechwriter, reflects on the meaning of the inauguration.  First, he sees a double standard in comparing the hypothetical (liberal!!) media coverage of John McCain and George W.Bush versus the actual media coverage of Barack Obama.

This inaugural week included a massive achievement in American racial history, an outpouring of civic participation and a gracious executive transition on both sides. But amid the celebration one could detect double standards all around.

If the outcome had been different in November, would John McCain's inaugural coverage have been quite as worshipful as President Obama's — during which the "shiver" up the leg of journalists finally became full-fledged convulsions? Why were the biblical references in Obama's inaugural speech not considered a coded assault on the Constitution, as George W. Bush's were sometimes viewed? And I can only imagine the cascades of hilarity and derision that would have come had Bush messed up the inaugural oath, no matter the cause.

But a sense of victimhood is not attractive from any political perspective. And so, in honor of the "era of responsibility," I put aside such childish things.

The comparison is absolute crap, to put it mildly.  Gerson ought to go back to the coverage of most of Bush's tenure in office for a nauseatingly sycophantic and incurious media, eager to repeat the lamest of his lines, to faun over his heroic landing on an aircraft carrier, his plain-spoken, I-want-to-have-a-beer-with-him (but not that effete, fat, ambitious exaggerator Al Gore) qualities. 

It would have been far less childish of Gerson had he simply not mentioned this things at all.

Now on to Gerson's other childishness.

Any American with a sense of history should feel that sense of awe. Minorities of every background must feel it most deeply. As the father of multiracial children, I feel it deeply enough.

But there was a second, less sympathetic, Obama enthusiasm at work. In a Newsweek essay, Michael Hirsh mentioned Obama's racial achievement. But he went on to say that "there's something else that I'm even happier about — positively giddy. . . . What Obama's election means, above all, is that brains are back." Hirsh declared that the Obama era means the defeat of "yahooism" and "jingoism" and "flag-pin shallowness" and "religious zealotry" and "anti-intellectualism." Obama is a "guy who keeps religion in its proper place — in the pew."

I only wish what Hirsch said were true!  The "flag-pin shallowness" and the other things, however, are in part at least media-driven narratives that won't go away anytime soon.  But aside from that Gerson cannot possibly be serious, the candidate for Vice President on the Republican side openly questioned whether Obama, with his effete university pedigree and tenuous association with a former domestic terrorist (and radical African American preacher), loved America, or was from "real America."  Notice that this wasn't the fringe crazies on Fox News, or Rush Limbaugh, it was the candidate whom Obama defeated in the Presidential election. 

Anyway, Gerson will have forgotten this, because he'll seize upon the remark about religion and accuse Hirsch of arrogance.   

There is much to unpack here. Can it be that Hirsh is "even happier" about the advance of liberal arrogance than he is about the advance of racial justice? And would the civil rights movement have come at all if African American religion had stayed "in the pew"? But suffice it to say that some wish to interpret the Obama victory as a big push in the culture war — as an opportunity to attack their intellectual and cultural "inferiors."

Cheering that the era of Joe the Plumber, John McCain's ignorant and confused campaign prop does not make one guilty of "liberal arrogance."  Nor does cheering the arrival of a President with the pedigree of an intellectual.  Most of all, however, rejoicing at the political marginalization of the narrow-minded Christian zealots does not have anything to do with the civil rights movement.  To be against, in other words, one particularly virulent and ignorant brand of Christian fundamentalism having a role in shaping government policy does not mean one is against religion having any role at all in the private and public lives of citizens.  Those are really different claims–and "in the pew" is obviously a metaphor only the lack of charity or ignorant yahooism would interpret literally (and then radically misapply).  

This line, given the either-orness of the last administration is the kicker:

Most of us have witnessed this attitude, usually in college. The kids who employed contempt instead of argument, who shouted down speakers they didn't agree with, who thought anyone who contradicted them had a lower IQ, who talked of "reason" while exhibiting little of it. They were often not the brightest of bulbs. Most people recover from this childish affliction. Some do not.

You have got to be kidding me.  The People who employ contempt instead of argument and shout down people they don't agree with–or openly question their sanity, patriotism, honesty, sexuality, faith, and so forth–are not obviously the same people who praise the arrival of an intellectual President, who only nights before his inauguration sits down for a discussion with the opposition's leading "intellectuals."