Swinging seventies

It's Holy Week, so here's a post about religion–Catholicism in particular.  The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has been busy campaigning against Health Insurance Reform, dishonestly claiming that somehow despite severe restrictions, abortions might be covered.  Reason enough to trash the whole thing. 

Now comes of course another scandal, brought about no doubt by liberals attempting to destroy the Catholic Church.  Not only have liberals been circling like buzzards above the latest priest-abuse (that's now an adjective, like "school shooting") scandal, they also, you see, had a hand in producing it.  That's how ingenious this whole thing is. 

Here's Ross Douthat, op-ed columnist for the New York Times:

This hasn’t prevented both sides in the Catholic culture war from claiming that the scandal vindicates their respective vision of the church. Liberal Catholics, echoed by the secular press, insist that the whole problem can be traced to clerical celibacy. Conservatives blame the moral relativism that swept the church in the upheavals of the 1970s, when the worst abuses and cover-ups took place.

In the first place, conservatives don't blame "moral relativism," they blame (wrongly) homosexuals (and the phenomenon of homosexuality).  One might raise serious questions about the rate of the abuse among Catholic clergy (versus say other faiths), but no one can doubt that the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as an institution sought to deny and cover up its crimes.  Denying and covering up your crimes isn't what a moral relativist does.  A moral relativist admits they happened, but denies that they are crimes.  No one is alleging that.  

Fun with new fallacies–The ab homine

Here is an interesting item from John Holbo at Crooked Timber:

No, I don’t mean: arguing fair. I think it should be ab homine. A moving (irrationally) away from the man. It’s a fallacy.

Here’s the context. Matthew Yglesias and Jonathan Chait have a diavlog in the course of which Chait takes the scrupulous high-road position that, when it comes to charges of racism, you really have to be slow to accuse. He rolls out the standard fair-play-in-debate considerations: if the person is saying something wrong, but not explicitly racist, you can just point out the wrongness, without speculating, additionally, that they said the wrong thing out of racism. There is, he implies, no real loss in not being able to delve into dark motive.

But here’s the problem with that. In an environment in which creative and speculative accusations of bad motives are, otherwise, flying back and forth in free and easy style, a social norm against accusing people of one sin in particular is actively misleading. It inevitably generates the strong impression that this bad motive – out of the whole colorful range of diseases and infirmities of the mind and spirit – is an especially unlikely motive. Which, in the sorts of cases Chait and Yglesias happened to be discussing, is not true. So, contra Chait, an inconsistent semi-norm against ad hominem arguments encourages an ab homine error that may be less angry (that’s not nothing) but is significantly more confused tha[n] what excessive – but even-handedly excessive! – hermeneutics of suspicion would produce.

I seem to remember talking about something like this before.  I'd call this an error of excessive scrupulousity.  Philosopher types fall prey to this one out of an overabundance of charity: Sure this argument really blows, but maybe there really is a good one in here somewhere.  (Sometimes, I think, philosopher types do not want to trouble their beautiful minds with silly arguments, so they just deny their existence or refuse to discuss them).

Nonetheless, I still think one ought to be especially careful in attributing motives, including racist ones, to other arguers.  In the first place, those motives are hard to know (and therefore easily disputed); second, they are hard to define (and therefore easily disputed); third, and most importantly (and tragically) they are come across as illegitimate ad hominems (and are therefore easily disputed).  The ease of dispute of imputation of racism places a heavy practical burden on the accuser.  Does one really want, in other words, to go through the necessary evidence in order to make a point likely to be only tangentially related to the discussion at hand (even if true)?

So this is mostly a pragmatic objection to Holbo's point.  Unfortunately, what makes these sorts of accusations difficult (even if true and relevant) is the deeply entrenched presence of the fallacy fallacy.  This is the view that the very criticizing of someone else–especially in accusing them of fallacies–is itself a kind of fallacy.  The rules of our dumb discourse prevent legitimate criticism.  The only thing that counts, I still maintain this week, is consistency.  This is why Pat Buchanan, despite his Hitler apologetics, is constantly on TV.  He's consistent.


Too much of our critical political discourse depends on one single virtue: consistency.  This is why Pat Buchanan, a man who writes articles (I am not exaggerating) in praise of Hitler–is a kind of pundit saint.  Since consistency matters, and consistency depends on memory–or rather, detecting someone's inconsistency depends on remembering what she's said in the past, let's have some fun with our favorite son on an economist, Robert Samuelson.  Samuelson, is like the captain bringdown of the Post editorial page.  He's got a droopy mustache, a dour expression, and he poo-poos just about everyone who tries to do something about something–environmentalists are dumb and self-indulgent for buying Priuses!. 

For a while–for those who remember–Samuelson been poo-pooing Obama's "self-indulgence" on health insurance reform.  A more competent rhetorical analyst, by the way, might have fun with the way he always goes ad hominem on Obama–treating his own impoverished and uncharitable image of Obama rather than Obama's stated positions (he even admitted once that this was his own problem).  But it's worthwhile to poke fun at Samuelson's priorities.  Way back before we spent 700 plus billion dollars in Iraq, chasing what turned out to be an easily uncovered deception, here is what Samuelon wrote:

A possible war with Iraq raises many unknowns, but "can we afford it?" is not one of them. People inevitably ask that question, forgetting that the United States has become so wealthy it can wage war almost with pocket change. A war with Iraq would probably cost less than 1 percent of national income (gross domestic product). Americans have grown accustomed to fighting with little economic upset and sacrifice.

Pocket change.  In reflecting on this piece (called "A War We Can Afford") Samuelson wrote:

Yes, that column made big mistakes. The war has cost far more than I (or almost anyone) anticipated. Still, I defend the column's central thesis, which remains relevant today: Budget costs should not shape our Iraq policy. Frankly, I don't know what we should do now. But in considering the various proposals — President Bush's "surge," fewer troops or redeployment of those already there — the costs should be a footnote. We ought to focus mostly on what's best for America's security.

When it comes things that are actually real, on the other hand, Samuelson is skeptical:

When historians recount the momentous events of recent weeks, they will note a curious coincidence. On March 15, Moody's Investors Service — the bond rating agency — published a paper warning that the exploding U.S. government debt could cause a downgrade of Treasury bonds. Just six days later, the House of Representatives passed President Obama's health-care legislation costing $900 billion or so over a decade and worsening an already-bleak budget outlook.

900 billion?  That figure is almost exactly what we've spent in seven years of war.  Weird.  But this time cost is all that matters. 

It’s not sporting

Lately I've been in a kind of why-bother mood.  Has the world of political discourse been particularly foul lately?  It's hard to say.  It's certainly true that the imminent (maybe today!) health-care legislation has driven many around the bend.  For too many people who ought to know better, this corporate-friendly legislation is basically communism.  Pointing out that such people have constructed hollow men seems really ineffective.  Not because they don't get it, but rather because they know exactly what they're doing, and they know that our current discourse rules reward them for doing so.  Why's that?  

We'll all agree it's wrong to break the rules.  The rules in this circumstance (tv and print political discourse) include the following:

(1) being accurate and truthful;

(2) being decorous (not being a name calling arse);

(3) managing your facts well–i.e., drawing the appropriate connections, etc. (not blaming things on voodoo for instance);

(4) being consistent in your positions (goose and gandering).     

These are the ones I can think of at the moment.  Fallaciously reasoning or behaving covers all of these or some of these depending on the infraction.  Hollow-manning, for instance, is a failure of all four of these, but particularly the first two.  When one hollowmans, one isn't being accurate and one isn't be decorous. 

I think we all know that.  The problem, however, seems to be in pointing this out.  The hollow manner (and by extension the fallacy-employer) has an advantage.  He can break the rules, claim not to, and then claim, as they often do, that pointing out violations of the rules is a violation of the rules.  So therefore:

(5) accusing someone of a violation of the rules is a violation of the rules.

This makes the whole rule-bound enterprise very odd.  If I suggest someone has made sh*t up, I'm going to open myself to the accusation of not being decorous.  It's not sporting, in other words, to accuse people of cheating.  Or at least one–a devious one–will be allowed to make that accusation–so now you're the d**che for pointing out the dishonesty, and now the discussion regards your violation of the rules, rather than the initial one.   

I'd suggest that this is one reason at least we see so little explicit fallacy-identification in our political discourse.  Put another way, this is why people–such as those who frequently appear here–get away with arguing the way they do.  That's the way the rules of discourse have been allowed to work. 

Now if anyone has an explicit example of what I'm talking about here I'd appreciate it.  I've seen it a gazillion times, but it's Sunday morning, and though I've been gone for a week so, I'm now on vacation.

Cornell, ever heard of it?

Thankfully Cornell University's very excellent philosophy program is off the hook for the following travesty:

What follows is a series of ad hominem tu quoques.  For instance:

One could argue that, but one would be wrong.  Perhaps she should have taken a logic class as well.

Courtesy of the guys at Sadly, No!

Can I finish?

It's a been a while since I've rapped at ya', but things have been busy in my neighborhood. 

This–click here–Daily Show interview with Marc Thiessen, torture apologist, sophist, and for that reason Washington Post columnist is well worth watching.  Not only does this fellow advance a bunch of silly arguments (which Stewart shoots down) he whines relentlessly about not being able to talk.  He got to talk just fine, it's just that he got called on his silliness.

Stewart's case I think is an interesting one.  We might all agree that Thiessen's argument fail miserably on logic and facts.  For instance:

Would most Americans want to know if the Justice Department had hired a bunch of mob lawyers and put them in charge of mob cases? Or a group of drug cartel lawyers and put them in charge of drug cases? Would they want their elected representatives to find out who these lawyers were, which mob bosses and drug lords they had worked for, and what roles they were now playing at the Justice Department? Of course they would — and rightly so.

That analogy completely blows, to use a technical term.  For starters, the lawyers worked pro bono, unlike Tom Hagen.  Second, being someone's lawyer doesn't entail you endorse their alleged criminality.  Third, everyone is entitled to a lawyer.  Fourth, we have a nation of laws, allegedly.

But how one points this out most effectively is another matter.  Arguments, for too many people in our silly televised and printed discourses, are  just monologues: there is no common purpose, no shared goal, and no commonly agreed-upon rules to which we can refer to resolve our disagreements.  It's nice to see someone successfully knock one of these monologues off the tracks.

Update.  Media Matters beat me to the Tom Hagen reference.  Drats.

Their reasoning is a non sequitur

George Will should not use the phrase "non sequitur."  He writes:

Some liberals argue that the Constitution is unconstitutional. Their reasoning is a non sequitur: The Constitution empowers each chamber to "determine the rules of its proceedings." It requires five supermajorities (for ratifying treaties, endorsing constitutional amendments, overriding vetoes, expelling members and impeachment convictions). Therefore it does not permit requiring a sixth, to end filibusters.

No one I know of argues that–and Will doesn't try to cite anyone.  It's a dumb argument, after all.  So he's right about that.  He ought to know, of course, because that is precisly Will's argument against everything else about government he doesn't like.  Since the Constitution doesn't expressly provide for it, it doesn't exist.  There is no right to x, because the Constitution doesn't say so. 

Now since no one argues for this silly view (other than Will), it's a perfect example of the hollow man.  Note the use of "some."    

Thanks to Aaron at the Stopped Clock for the hat tip, the pointer, and for generally reading this blog. 

Welcome to Washington

For anyone who has had the impression that the major news networks treat the goings on in Washington like items in the gossip column in a high school newspaper, consider the following from Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly:

QUOTE OF THE DAY…. ABC's "This Week" held its usual roundtable discussion this morning, with Elizabeth Vargas hosting a panel of Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, George Will, and Paul Krugman.

The last topic of conversation was introduced by Vargas this way:

"[O]f course, this weekend, we have a brand-new White House social secretary appointed to replace Desiree Rogers, a close friend of the Obamas who is exiting after a bumpy tenure, I would say. Cokie, you spoke with her. She — she was highly criticized after the Obamas' first state dinner in which she arrived, looking absolutely gorgeous, but in what some people later said was far too fancy a dress, but most importantly, that was the state dinner that was crashed by the Salahis, who walked in without an invitation when the social secretary's office didn't have people manning the security sites."

This led to a surprisingly long chat about Desiree Rogers.

Krugman sat silently while the discussion went on (and on), before eventually interjecting:

"Can I say that 20 million Americans unemployed, the fact that we're worrying about the status of the White House social secretary….

Donaldson responded, "Paul, welcome to Washington."