Quintessentially irrational

Someone wonders what would have happened had Al Gore been selected President in 2000 (and thus President on 9/11).  Someone else responds, saying:

So I will assume that you mean 9/11 wouldn't have happened if Gore were elected because a Gore administration would have made the federal government more competent and vigilant. This argument blends irrational partisanship with that quintessentially American belief that all tragedies — whether on the playground or elsewhere — are eminently preventable. Under this belief, stuff just doesn't "happen," and there is no horror that cannot be prevented by a manufacturer's foresight, a guardian's prudence or a government's alertness. Such anti-fatalism is the faith of our fathers (and of our plaintiffs' lawyers), and it animates our political discourse in mostly positive ways. Too much fatalism, after all, can lead to a kind of "que sera, sera" complacency.

Someone asked a specific question, and Andres Martinez (who writes some kind of column for the Post) answers two general ones about the psychology not of the questioner but of two groups of people: irrational partisans and "quintessentially American" anti-fatalists.  He has in effect turned a straight-forward counterfactual question into a complex one by giving an irrelevantly bifurcated response.  It's a reverse complex question straw man ad hominem circumstantial.  As if to say, "oh, I see what you're saying, but why are you so interested in irrational partisanship and fatalism denial?"

3 thoughts on “Quintessentially irrational”

  1. John,

    There’s a lot wrong with Martinez’s response to the note, and your assessment of it as a “reverse complex question straw man ad hominem circumstantial” is funny and I think accurate enough. 

    Though I think the strategy can also be characterized as a form of thought-policing on the base of a premise that begs the question.  Take the opening lines of his response:

    “I do think Al Gore should have become the 43rd president, but I don’t harbor your alternative-history fantasy. In fact, I find it kind of creepy. Your argument is an example of the type of irrationally exuberant partisanship so corrosive to our politics. We run the risk of becoming a country with two tribal and irreconcilable narratives — one red and one blue.”

    Martinez warns us that thinking counterfactually about elections polarizes us, and this is “creepy” and “corrosive”.   For the sake of political hygene, it seems, we should not think that someone else could have done a better job keeping us safe from terrorists and out of unnecessary wars. 

    The rest of the argument runs on a distinction between preventable and non-preventable disasters.  He’s right about the distinction, but he’s wrong about its relevance and acceptability in this circumstance.   That is, unless he’s got a separate argument that the Gore administration would be as incompetent with intelligence about terrorists and WMD’s as Bush’s.  But that’s precisely what the letter writer is denying.


  2. “anti-fatalism”? Sometimes I feel people are just making this stuff up.

  3. I’m not sure who really thinks that “stuff just happens,” especially in the realm of human agency.

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