O tempora o mores!

Fig. 1: Ancient Roman Historians

Raising questions about an expert’s qualifications, motivations, and possible conflicts of interest is good practice.  However, a fundamental principle of argument says  that time is short and that one must therefore dispense with the bullshit.

This principle was violated by Fox News’ religion correspondent, Lauren Green, when she spent several minutes of an interview with well-known religious scholar Reza Aslan puzzling over why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus:

“You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

This not on its face a stupid question, but that was pretty much the only question the interviewer had for the next several minutes.  Her implication was that there is something suspect or inappropriate in a non-Christian’s writing about Jesus.  This is a variation on the fallacious variety of the ad hominem circumstantial: you’re just saying what you say about Jesus because you’re a Muslim out to terrorize Christianity with scholarship and footnotes.

That’s obviously silly and does not deserve refutation.

Sadly, having watched the interview, I have no idea what the book is about or whether it is any good.

Diverting from the topic matter

Iowa Representative Steven King reminds us of an important characteristic of ad hominem arguments–viz., calling someone names is not a sufficient condition for an ad hominem.  The matter begins with the following remark concerning granting amnesty to illegal immigrants:

“Some of them are valedictorians — and their parents brought them in. It wasn’t their fault. It’s true in some cases, but they aren’t all valedictorians. They weren’t all brought in by their parents.

For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King tells Newsmax. “Those people would be legalized with the same act.” 

Naturally, people were quick to notice that this remark was “wrong” (to use the words of John Boehner, House Republican Majority Leader).  Yet, in an all too common response to criticism such as this, King attempted to turn the tables:

“You know when people attack you—in this business, when you’re in this business, you know that when people attack you, and they call you names, they’re diverting from the topic matter,” King told Breitbart. “You know they’ve lost the debate when they do that. We’ve talked about it for years. Tom Tancredo and I joked about it that that’s the pattern. When people start calling you names, that’s what confirms you’ve won the debate.”

No, that isn’t actually a rule.

This rule only works this way: Person A is wrong about policy X because Person A is an a-hole”.  But this isn’t how it went.  In the present case, we have Person A said something false so Person A is wrong.  It’s an inference to Person A’s character from Person A’s actions, deeds, or words.  This is very different.

When I was a child, I thought like a child

A young woman in Texas found a provocative way to make a point about freedom of religion–or freedom from someone else’s religion.  Here it is:

That certainly got people’s attention.  Sadly, her willingness to step into this adult debate has taught her an adult lesson.  She writes:

That’s when people started calling me a “whore.”

I’m going to be honest about what it feels like to be called that as a 14-year-old girl who has never had sex and who doesn’t plan to have sex anytime soon.

I feel disappointed.

It’s hard for me to understand why adults would be calling me this. It’s hard for me to understand why anyone would use this term for a 14-year-old girl.

It’s not anyone’s business, but as I said, I am a virgin, and I don’t plan to have sex until I am an adult.

But none of those facts make me feel any less passionate about fighting for a woman’s right to choose and the separation of church and state in my home state of Texas.

I also don’t think this makes me — or any other 14-year-old girl who agrees with me — a whore.

It simply makes us people. People who believe that abortion should be safe, legal and accessible for women. People who believe women should be in control of their bodies and should not ever have to put their lives at risk so that we don’t go backwards in women’s rights in this country.

The adult lesson here is that people act like children when children expect them to act like adults.  How I hope this brave young woman does not put away childish things.

You don’t say

 

A Picture of Obviousness

Today I want to borrow something particularly interesting from No More Mister Nice Blog.  Much of our work here, as we head into our ninth year, involves pointing out the flaws in people’s arguments.  I still think that’s an important job after all the years.  But here, thanks to NMMNB, is an instance in which David Brooks, once a favorite target of ours (and kind of an inspiration for this blog with all of his hackery) actually changes his mind on account of an argument.  Here it is:

Obama spoke about Stand Your Ground laws — and, again, I don’t think he was “sympathetic to all sides” (nor should he have been):

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

Hearing this made David Brooks reconsider his position on these laws:

And I have to say, the point on the Stand Your Ground law was actually clarifying for me. I had some sympathy for the laws because as, you know, as Americans, we should be independent, we should be able to defend ourselves, be strong. But the argument he made about, you know, do we really want all sorts of people, do we really want what happened here, people walking around with guns feeling free to shoot off without legal protections, without the normal legal process — now, that’s a compelling argument, which he put very well.

Yes, Brooks actually said he’d never quite thought about the possibility of extending Stand Your Ground to “all sorts of people.” Yes, even those sorts. When you put it that way, Stand Your Ground is kinda scary, hunh, David?
Nice work, Professor Obama.

I’m relieved that Obama was able to penetrate the fog of this guy’s mind.  That’s something, I guess.

Old man yells at cloud

NPR’s “All Things Considered” ran a program on young people who challenge common forms of gender identification.  Here’s a snippet:

ADLER: But some students are going further. At one college that Joy Ladin visited, things were so fluid you could make up a different pronoun for a different event.

LADIN: So you can be she/her at one event and then you go to lunch and you say, OK, now I am he/him. And then one charming young woman told me, oh, yes, today, I’m just using made up pronouns.

Fascinating stuff, of course.  This lead to the usual letters and such, among them was this one:

CORNISH: Amy [Redacted] North Carolina, disagrees with that last line. She writes: How about abused and neglected children? They certainly do not have the luxury of sitting at Oberlin College defining themselves as tractors or determining what gender pronoun they’re going to use at any given moment. Lawton goes on: While I believe that these people have the right to choose whatever pronoun they’d like to refer to themselves, by no means are they the most marginalized members of society. Finally, it seems like there are more pressing issues to address around here than rewriting the gender binary.

This is really terrible criticism.  Not to defend NPR, but a search for the exact string “Child Abuse” produced 400 results on the NPR web page.

Now here’s the question.  I imagine NPR had lots of choice here in selecting among the responses to their story.  Did they have to pick such a cranky and ill-informed one?  It seems like they have an obligation to select strong (that is, relevant and cogently argued) responses.  Here’s another question: is it fair to the cranky letter writer to publish his/her silly letter?  Seems not.

Common sense

Fig 1: “a uniform we all recognize”

I remember a while back, maybe three years ago, Juan Williams, now of Fox News but then of NPR, remarked that people in Muslim-looking garb on planes made him nervous.  That was a silly bit of profiling, of course.  Now in the wake of the Trayvon Martin not guilty verdict, racial profiling is all the rage, at least at the Washington Post.  Both Richard Cohen, who is allegedly a liberal columnist, and Kathleen Parker (a conservative) have penned columns justifying some sort of profiling.  Here is Parker:

This is not to justify what subsequently transpired between Zimmerman and Martin but to cast a dispassionate eye on reality. And no, just because a few black youths caused trouble doesn’t mean all black youths should be viewed suspiciously. This is so obvious a truth that it shouldn’t need saying and yet, if we are honest, we know that human nature includes the accumulation of evolved biases based on experience and survival. In the courtroom, it’s called profiling. In the real world, it’s called common sense.

Oddly, this “dispassionate eye on reality” seems to suggest that racial profilers, such as Zimmerman appears to have been, lack common sense.  For, after all, being suspicious of biases such as these is common sense, common decency, and basic intellectual skill.  Now to be fair, the rest of her piece, by the way, isn’t that bad–or at least not as bad as Richard Cohen’s horrible meditation on hoodies:

Where is the politician who will own up to the painful complexity of the problem and acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males? This does not mean that raw racism has disappeared, and some judgments are not the product of invidious stereotyping. It does mean, though, that the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime. In New York City, blacks make up a quarter of the population, yet they represent78 percent of all shooting suspects — almost all of them young men. We know them from the nightly news.

Sounds like your uncle at Thanksgiving–for excellent analysis of Cohen’s unpardonably bad piece, see Jamelle Bouie.

TL;DR: this horrible crime (I think) ought at least to provide us an opportunity to reflect on the malfunctioning operation of common sense, or racism, as some call it.

Your argument’s fine, but I don’t like your friends

Gideon Caplin, Benjamin Gourgey and Josh Goodman over at AmSpec have piece on the “lawfare” of Muslim student associations and the Councilon American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).  The issue is whether Muslim students should have permission to pray during school hours. Caplin, Gourgey, and Goodman concede that the case can be made for student-led prayer under certain conditions. But then they turn ad hominem circumstantial:

Despite the fact that student-led prayer in public schools that adheres to the above criteria can be carried out within the law, Muslim students undermine their cause by directly inviting the assistance of CAIR, an organization that has been accused of financially supporting the terrorist activities of Hamas.

The trouble is that it doesn’t matter who CAIR has given money to (or has been accused of giving money to). If the students have the right, they have the right.  It’s not clear what the implication is or how this circumstance is supposed to undermine a case.  If the implication is that CAIR gives money to Islamic exteremist groups, and this student rights group gets support from CAIR… so they must be extremists?  Or is it that their case is undermined by the fact that they lose their rights to free religious expression because they have someone standing up for their rights that also supports Hamas?  Can someone lose their First Amendment rights of free expression just because they have radicals for friends?  Can someone’s argument be worse by virtue of the company they keep?

Contested concept equivocation

I’ve been toying for a while with the thought that there’s a rhetorical device that works in the following pattern: you point to an uncontroversially positive concept and emphasize its importance, and in the process import your own controversial conception of that concept over the course of talking about its importance.

For example, we all think fairness is good and important, so it’s uncontroversially positive.  But we may have different conceptions of that concept. I may think that impartiality is sufficient for fairness, so favor blind lotteries to determine what people get. Others may think that need may determine what’s fair. You may think that equality of outcome is what’s fair.  You get the point.  So even if we all agree that fairness is good, we all have different conceptions of fairness.  And it’d be an error on my part to import my conception without acknowledging that we need to move from concept to conception.  That’s why semantics matters – anytime someone says “it’s just semantics,” they’re intellectually lazy and probably trying to prevent their own conceptions from being challenged. It’s effectively an attitude that equivocation isn’t troubling.  That’s stupid.

Now, we all agree that civic virtue is important.  And we all agree that we should encourage it.  But, not surprisingly, civic virtue is a contested concept.  Some think that individualism and independence are civic virtues – not being a burden on others and ensuring that others are not burdensome. Some think that civic virtue is about making oneself intelligible to others and ensuring that the cultural system of significance is maintained.  Some think that being informed and politically engaged are the central civic virtues. Some think that ensuring that others have sufficient means to survive and thrive are the core virtues. Some think that acknowledging diversity and reasonable disagreement (especially about contested concepts) is a core civic virtue. See? Contested concept.

Michelle Malkin’s new essay over at National Review Online commits this fallacy.  I call it contested concept equivocation.  She starts with the universally acknowledged value of civic virtue and that we are in sore need of more of it these days:

We have forsaken the observance, in any systematic and deliberate public manner, of one of our most fundamental duties: fostering civic virtue in each and every one of our citizens.

She invokes the founders noting the importance of virtue to the fledgling republic:

And Thomas Paine said it best: “When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.”

So far, not controversial.  Ah, but then the contested conception comes in:

Calvin Coolidge, profiled in Why Coolidge Matters, a terrific new book by Charles C. Johnson, echoed the Founding Fathers’ emphasis on virtue, restraint, and work ethic. “If people can’t support themselves,” he concluded, “we’ll have to give up self-government.”

Add militant identity politics, a cancerous welfare state, entitled dependence, and tens of millions of unassimilated immigrants to the heap, and you have a toxic recipe for what Damon calls “societal decadence — literally, a ‘falling away,’ from the Latin decadere.” Civilizations that disdain virtue die.

Did you see the move?  The contested conception got introduced with this notion of self-support, independence.  If that’s what civic virtue is, then of course the welfare state and all the other nanny-style stuff the government does will not only fail to encourage virtue, but positively retard it.  And so those who promote the liberal welfare state must disdain virtue.  They are terrible people, rotting civilization from the inside out.

But, you see, the move was from uncontested concept to contested conception.  And those who promote progressive taxation and the social safety net aren’t disdaining virtue; they are promoting their own conception of it.  Surely someone who values liberty should be able to acknowledge the value of that.  Unless, of course, they disdain liberty.