Among the requirements for writing a paper in any of my philosophy courses, students find the following two very challenging: (1) absolutely no quoting or near verbatim paraphrasing; (2) treat the argument you object to with charity (if it’s weak, make it stronger than it is). The first rule keeps the kids from larding their papers with quotations. But it also prevents them from violating the second rule with the contextless citation: the “gotcha quote,” in other words. The “gotcha quote” is often the centerpiece of the political attack ad–“I voted for it before I voted against it.” People remembered the quote but they didn’t remember the context. The people who truck in such dishonest quote-picking out to be ashamed of themselves. Today George Will does both of those things–he lards his column with quotations maliciously selected in order to dismiss rather than seriously challenge the argument surrounding them–gotcha quotes in other words. He might as well read them aloud with that voice so often employed in the political attack ad. Here’s an example:

>The GOP, he says, courts whites “whose interests are overwhelmingly focused on tempering, if not altogether rolling back, the civil rights movement.” Please. Who favors rolling back guarantees of voting rights and equal access to public accommodations?

I don’t know George. Did Edsall give any evidence for this claim? I find it strange that you don’t offer any evidence to support your claim that no one does, especially when you cite a book about that topic. Perhaps you might have established your conclusion by demonstrating that Edsall has not offered any evidence for his claim. You could say that he tends to make wild accusations unsupported by any attempt at evidence. But you don’t say that and you don’t give any evidence that he doesn’t. Persons used to reading such books will be inclined to think that Edsall has offered evidence for his extraordinary claim. Even if they’re sympathetic to your view, they’ll realize that such things just don’t get said without reasons. Those reasons might be completely specious, but you can’t just dismiss them out of hand.

Conservative friends and fans of George Will please listen carefully. Such lazy and deceptive writing does not (1) establish the truth of the conclusions he argues for; (2) does not mean he’s wrong and (3) does not establish the truth of the opposite position (whatever that is). It only means he has wasted everyone’s time–especially yours, since you tend to agree with him and some of you look to him for supporting arguments. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we should expect better of the people who occupy the highest places in our civil discourse. You should expect better of your intellectual heroes. Juiced atheletes earn their disgrace, so should juiced writers.

9 thoughts on “Juicing”

  1. jcasey wrote: “we should expect better of the people who occupy the highest places in our civil discourse”.

    Well said.

    It made me wonder, though: is the WaPo Op-Ed page really one of the highest places of our civil discourse? (Never mind if it ought to be). When was the last time one of the columnists offered a really good argument, or an insightful, well-researched proposal? (cf. M. Anderson’s last post about not being able to find an argument yesterday). Is the percentage of those times the celeb columnists are genuinely discursive any higher than at some of the better amateur blogs?

    Isn’t THAT how these folks got their jobs — by being, above all else, good writers?

    Is Op-Ed politics really just another form of entertainment along with the Red Eye, FNC, and Limbaugh? Albeit for a different audience: an audience with pseudo-intellectual airs, who look for solidarity with their pre-established views.

  2. Nice catch. I missed that one!

    But I wonder whether a rhetorical question intends to be an argument. Perhaps Will ought to provide argument as well, but couldn’t a rhetorical question merely assert that the author finds a certain claim unlikely (statement of belief) and in need of evidence (questioning a premise)?

    Now if Edsall provides this argument and evidence for his claim in the book then the request for further evidence implicit in the rhetorical question is disingenuous. But I wouldn’t be able to judge whether Will is being disingenuous without checking the text. And I’m not sure that expressing disagreement through the rhetorical question intends to be argument.

    What if Will had written “Among all the conservatives I know, almost none hold the view that Edsall imputes to them.” That isn’t the same as “Who favors. . ..?” But it is a plausible explication of the speech act that Will puts as a rhetorical question.

  3. To Jeremy–many take the Post very seriously. Many take Will very seriously. Whether they really are serious or not is another question. I prefer to look at these things argument by argument. But, if I were grading these things as papers, they would get very low grades.

    To Canderson–I take it that the rhetorical question conveys the assertion that Edsall’s claim has no support. Not just *inadequate* support, mind you, but no support at all. My point is this: if no support is offered, then Will should say so. If the support is offered but inadequate (because false, poorly reasoned or whatever) then he should say so as well.

    But your emendation of the claim at the end of your comment improves things for Will’s argument slightly. Will would need a more serious counter to Edsall’s claim than just asserting it’s false out of hand. Besides, evidence suggests Edsall’s claim has some merit–consider the Southern Strategy, remember also where Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for President: Philadelphia, Mississippi (where the clan murdered three civil rights acitivists). And just recently several Republicans held up the renewal of the voting rights act. While these scattered facts don’t establish the kind of claim Edsall is making, they do suggest that Will’s dismissal is hasty.

  4. That seems right J.

    But note that if Will\\\’s paraphrase and quote is correct then Edsall isn\\\’t just saying that some who have an interest in rolling back civil rights are courted by the G.O.P., but, perhaps more. The G.O.P courts

    whites “whose interests are overwhelmingly focused on tempering, if not altogether rolling back, the civil rights movement.”

    The quote is ambiguous because it is unclear whether he is asserting:

    A). All white people who are courted by the G.O.P. are people whose interests are in rolling back civil rights.

    A) All x [if qx then px]


    B). All white people whose interests are in rolling back civil rights are courted by the G.O.P.

    B) All x [if px then qx]

    Where x = white person, p = has overwhelming interests in rolling back civil rights, q = G.O.P courts

    Seems like Will reads the quote as saying Brather than A. And thus his rhetorical question amounts to the claim that:

    C). Some whites courted by the G.O.P. do not have (overwhelming) interests in rolling back civil rights.

    He might grant that some whites are courted. . . ., in the rhetorical question, or deny that any are \”courted.\” It\’s underdetermined I think. He would only need to claim that

    D.) Some x not [If px then qx] (right?)

    Thus, I take him to probably mistakenly interepret Edsall\’s claim as B above and then deny it with C. It\’s a pretty sweet ambiguity, if I\’m right. But he would only be guilty of misreading if this is so. Of course, the principle of charity ought to guide Will to read the quote as the more plausible A. And so perhaps we might accuse him of a straw man here. But to do so, I would want to check the original and determine whether Edsall is clear.
    Man, I gotta look into getting logical notation on this blog. It has to be possible.

  5. Consider the gloss embedded in the rhetorical question–“who favors rolling back”–Will seems to suggest by his denial that *the GOP* does not favor rolling back voting rights (a controversial claim). The quotation suggests that the GOP is open to people whose interests are in rolling back (not that the GOP has taken that position explicitly). But that’s mixing up subject and predicate. But maybe this was your point.

    Couldn’t we get a logical notation font?

  6. The quote goes much further than merely “open”–it claims that the G.O.P. courts those who have an overwhelming interest in it.

    To which Will responds: Who are these Republicans who have an overwhelming interest in rolling back voting rights and equal access to public accomodations.

    Note also that Will takes “rolling back the civil rights movements” in the most uncharitable way, identifying the civil rights movement with two things that virtually no one wants to get rid of.

    There is an element of equivocation. Edsall asserts a claim that presumably includes under the civil rights movement affirmative action etc., Will construes it as only referring to two very particular achievements.

    And Will is probably right that only some nutters in the hills want to repeal the voting rights act or deny access to public accomodations on the basis of race.

    This doesn’t change the fact that lots of Republicans want to roll back affirmative action or other policies that presumably Edsall considers part of the “civil rights movement.”

    We would need some clarification of terms to sort this miscommunication out.

  7. That’s right–it’s more than “open”. And you’re right to point out the narrow way he construes the sentence. But he also construes as subject what was object in the quotation. Considering Reagan’s announcing his candidacy in a place sacred to the “states’ rights” movement, it’s not false to say that they’ve courted those types openly. It may be false (and here’s the equivocation) to suggest that the GOP (by which he means the national party superstructure) embraces their claims. But that wasn’t the original claim.

  8. I think that you have failed to read Will with the charity you demand from your students. For example, you write,

    Note also that Will takes “rolling back the civil rights movements” in the most uncharitable way, identifying the civil rights movement with two things that virtually no one wants to get rid of.

    But the uncharity here is not Will’s — it is Edsall’s. He was the one who first used the alarmingly vague language here.

    Second, Will’s rhetorical question has an obvious answer: Only “a few nutters in the hills” would repeal the civil rights laws you mention. Any educated reader will know this, and these readers ought to recognize, then, that Will is calling out Edsall for his improperly vague language.

  9. Jason,
    Let me clarify. I was gently defending Will from the charge of fallacious reasoning and pointing out that unless the context makes it clear that Edsall means more than the two things that Will takes him to mean, then perhaps Edsall is being vague. I don\’t own this book or have access to it, so we don\’t know whether Will is being uncharitable to Edsall or Edsall is being simplistic (I suspect Edsall has a more expansive conception of the \”civil rights movement\”–the language of \”rolling back\” suggests that there is a series of steps that comprise that movement and that he thinks some people have an interest in \”rolling back\” some of those steps. But without the text in from of me I am speculating based on the available language).

    The principle of charity says that when we are confronted with ambiguity we should take our opponents argument in the strongest and most plausible sense. If Edsall is being vague, then Will should take \”civil right\’s movement\” in a more expansive sense as it is probably intended. He doesn\’t. So I suggest that he is being uncharitable (though not fallacious).
    Again it isn\’t clear that Edsall is using \”improperly vague language\”, but obviously there is a dispute between Will and Edsall about the meaning of the phrase \”civil right\’s movement.\” I think most people would probably take it to involve not only the voting rights act and access to public accomodation but also affirmative action. Perhaps you are right, however, that most educated people would not understand it in the broader sense. We would need to settle this question to continue the dialogue or agree on definition of terms.
    Clarification of terms is always a valuable place to begin before rejecting an author\’s argument.

    Thanks for the comment.

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