The story goes something like this.Â In the remark shown on the screen, Paul Krugman cautioned that he is not calling someone a name (via a Monty Python reference lost on the speaker), but rather questioning the evidence for his view.Â The stunningly clueless commentator remarks that this is “classic Krugman” for “going after a person,”Â which is greeted with all sorts of agreement from the assembled panel brainless commentators.Â She thenÂ refers toÂ Niall Ferguson, who in his turn says Paul Krugman uses ad hominem arguments because heÂ must have been abused as a child.Â That, of course, is an actual ad hominem;Â Krugman’s is not.Â You just cannot be this dumb.
Mallard Fillmore’s got a nice way to capture the civility problem — with a straw man followed by aÂ tu quoque!
If President Obama charged the Republicans with wanting to kill the elderly and starve the poor, I don’t remember it.Â In fact, the only kill the elderly lines I remember were the old ‘death panel’ charges a few years back. (This, then, is more likely a hollow man.) So a hyperbolic line of argument to begin, but doubling down with the fallacies is… well… uncivil?
A few months back Rob Talisse and I took a shot at making the case that civility wasn’t a matter of being nice and calm, but a matter of having well-run argument.Â That sometimes requires goodwill, but more importantly civility is a matter of being able to argue appropriately when everyone in the conversation hates everyone else.
Matt Purple has diagnosed the Republican Party with a case of Stockholm Syndrome.Â They identify with their oppressors, now.Â Specifically, liberal Democrats.
Turn on MSNBC these days and youâ€™ll see a non-stop metronome of post-Romney Republican flogging. You want this to stop?! Then pander to Hispanics! Give up on entitlements! Itâ€™s enough to send you thumbing through the Geneva Conventions.
Yes, he just made a torture analogy.Â Ignore that.Â Here’s the meat of the argument.Â The fact that you lose an election, argues Purple, isn’t evidence that you’re wrong.Â In fact, it’s evidence that you’re just principled.Â The electorate is just… well… you know…Â citizens of a democracy, and so stupid. [Here’s an old post on what I’m starting to call The Plato Principle, without fail invoked by losing parties of elections.]Â Here’s Purple, again, on why electoral results aren’t reasons to change any policy planks in the Republican platform.
Certain conservative quarters are starting to sound like political strategy shops, fretting over which principles to jettison so they can win an election and make the abuse stop. Forget the Resurrection or American Founding or French Revolution. For these commentators, the formative historical moment for conservatives is now the 2012 election.. . . . This is such spectacularly bad logic that itâ€™s tough to know where to begin.
The fact that Purple invoked logic (particularly, of theÂ “spectacularly bad” kind) is what caught my eye.Â Here’s the first line of argument, again, on the Plato Principle: what wins elections is only what appeals to the stupid and easily moved by their debased self-interest, so is likely wrong.Â So the fact that 2012 went against the Republicans is good news.Â The degenerate idiots don’t like them.
The second line of argument is that the torturers have a hidden agenda with their criticisms.
Letâ€™s start with the fact that the rightâ€™s Democrat tormentors donâ€™t want a legitimate opposition party. They want a single Democratic Party, in agreement so it can pass its agenda. . . . Entitlements. Spending. Taxes. The debt. Regulatory policy. Healthcare. Abortion. Gun control.Â Everything.
This is the next line, which is that one shouldn’t take critical input from those who you disagree with, as they are not only wrong, but also are out to make you change your mind.
Once we’ve gotten to the point where finding reasons to agree with others on anything is taken as a form of fallacious reasoning (again, I’m thinking that Purple’s main line of criticism is that in democracies, ad populum is rampant), we’ve hit the point where fallacy-hunting itself is a meta-form of fallacy. [N.B., John’s got a really great post on meta-fallacies from a few years back HERE].
My hypothesis is this: given any opponent OÂ to your view p, your first reaction is to claim that O is inconsistent with regard to p.Â So, take Obama, whose first initial happens to be O.Â He’s against arming school teachers and janitors.Â The National Rifle Association naturally finds this absurd, and, of course, hypocritical.Â In a recent commerical, which you can see at this link, they argue:
â€œAre the presidentâ€™s kids more important than yours?â€ the narrator of the groupâ€™s 35-second video asks. â€œThen why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but heâ€™s
just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.â€
Is the President a hypocrite because his family has armed security?
Obviously not.Â First, the President’s security is provided by the (hated) government; each of the gun-carrying individuals surrounding the President and his children (etc.) is of the very well-regulatedÂ militia type: trained and retrained, background tested, sworn to uphold the constitution, serve and protect, and so forth.Â Second, the President (and members ofÂ Congress, etc.)Â exist in a gun-free zone, except for the police.
Unsurprisingly,Â I don’t haveÂ my 2nd amendment rights at theÂ Capitol building, among the NRA’s biggestÂ legislative boosters.Â Does that not make them hypocrites?Â Not really.
Daniel Foster at National Review Online has a well-timed piece on political culture and bullshit. For the most part, it's a quick essay glossing Harry Frankfurt's views in his classic "On Bullshit". He's got a few examples that aren't quite right, as his Marylin Monroe case is just one of lying, not bullshitting. What's interesting, though, is Foster's extension of the bullshit point to what he calls "the politics of identity." Now, this itself isn't new, as Frankfurt even ends his essay with the observation that "authenticity is bullshit." But Foster's examples are worth a look.
The first is Elizabeth Warren and her claims to be a Native American. What Foster objects to is not the politics from the identity but the case made for her identity.
Exhibit A is Elizabeth Warren, who has been able to withstand a barrage of documentary evidence casting doubt on her claim to be part American Indian by anchoring that claim not in genealogical fact but in family lore — in other words, by answering the charge that her Cherokee identification is probably false with the tacit admission that it is definitely bulls**t.
In this case, what's weird is not that this is identity politics, but the evidential conditions for claiming identity. I think he's right about the fact that the Warren case is pretty pathetic, but I'd hardly call it identity politics. Next up is the President himself:
Exhibit B is President Obama, who did us the favor of admitting up front that his 1995 autobiography is, at least in part, bulls**t, but who has managed to escape focused interrogation on this point eight years into his public life and three-plus years into his tenure as leader of the free world.
Again, this is likely right — that the book is trumped up. But how's that identity politics? Is this a dogwhistle for the right? Sometimes, I feel, when reading stuff at NRO or on Newsmax, that there are words that mean more than I think they mean. You know… welfare=brown people, crime=brown people, poverty=brown people, undereducated=brown people. Is this another case of conservatives using a normal word as code for something else? Does it mean something different from what most people think that it means, roughly, people mobilizing political power for the interest of preserving or promoting an identity they share (racial, cultural, sexual, religious, or other)? Now Foster is right when he says that
That identity politics is as festooned with bulls**t as a cow pasture in the full ardor of spring wouldn’t be so bad if identity politics weren’t also a powerful currency.
But I'm at a loss as to what he's saying to the readers at NRO, given his examples. Is calling bullshit in some cases another case of bullshit? Really, that's my sense of it here. The "bullshit" charge was so powerfully wielded against the Bushies earlier in the 2000's, and the conservatives are looking to co-opt the charge as a weapon. But this looks exactly like a cooption, not a lesson.
I don't see the relation between "unarmed black teenager is shot under puzzling and racially charged circumstances" and "black people shoot each other all of the time," but apparently it's become quite a thing. George Will has even jumped on the bandwagon (via Crooks and Liars):
WILL: Well, precisely. I mean, this is why we have what's called due process. We have institutions that are juries and grand juries and prosecutors who are supposed to look at the evidence and come up with the answer.
The root fact is, though, Mr. Jones, that about 150 black men are killed every week in this country. And 94 percent of them by other black men.
And this is — this episode has been forced into a particular narrative to make it a white-on-black when "The New York Times" rather infamously now decided that Mr. Zimmerman was a white Hispanic, a locution (ph) that was not — was rare until then, and I think they abandoned by Friday.
The funny thing is that Will's researchers must have looked up that little factoid. It certainly does not clarify the puzzling circumstances around this case: namely, the fact that someone stalked a skittle-bearing teenager on his way home , described him as suspicious, shot him, and walked away claiming, among other things, that he stood his ever moving and stalking ground. I don't know what happened, it seems odd.
But I suppose the implication is that one is inconsistent if one isn't shrieking with rage over the other murders. Which people are, anyway.
Here's a question. If one hasn't remarked on the 150 or so black men who die every week violently, is one enjoined from being outraged by the Trayvon Martin slaying?
I happened across two related items on the Atlantic Wire, a blog of the Atlantic Monthly. One reports that liberal filmmaker Michael Moore has a very nice vacation home on the shores of Torch Lake, near Traverse City, MI. The other wonders whether George Will should disclose his political consultant wife's clients.
The Moore item carries the water of ubertroll Andrew Breitbart, who alleges that Moore is a hypocrite for being rich and criticizing the rich:
No one begrudges Moore his wealth, but it is deceitful for him to claim poverty while encouraging class warfare among other Americans. It is also purely narcissistic and selfish for Moore to back radical and destructive socialist policies that would deny other Americans the opportunity to become as rich as he is.
Torch Lake is a nice lake, Michael Moore is a rich guy. How rich? It does not matter. Has he made his money on Wall Street. No. Boo to the Atlantic for running this kind of intellectual garbage.
The other item on George Will is almost as dumb.
But it does seem that in all his words written about the Republican field so far, and particularly in the broadside against Romney, there might have been room for Will to note that he's related to someone who is actively working with some of the very campaigns he covers. Then, this is an improvement over earlier election cycles, when Will played both sides of the journalistic line, all by himself.
George Will is not a journalist. He is a pundit, a professional arguer guy, he's paid to have opinions about stuff. You can look through the archives here for what we think of his opinions (not much).
In what's good for the gander news, NRO's Jonah Goldberg thinks that President Obama's rhetoric has turned ugly. He's using patriotism against Republicans.
According to his new stump speech, if you oppose his agenda, then you don’t care about America as much as he does.
Well, let's see the line that Goldberg thinks crosses the line.
What is needed is action on the part of Congress, a willingness to put the partisan games aside and say we’re going to do what’s right for the country, not what we think is going to score some political points for the next election. . . . There is nothing that we’re facing that we can’t solve with some spirit of ‘America first.'
Goldberg objects that the 'America First' spirit is supposed to "separate the patriotic from the petty." But surely this is mild compared to, say, Michele Bachmann saying liberals are unAmerican or even the rest of Goldberg's article, which makes hay about how the President is going on vacation (and so thereby must not be patriotic, either!).
The point, however, isn't to make the hypocrisy charge here. The point is to say that Goldberg doesn't defend those charged with pettiness. He only cries foul at their being called petty. But surely if there is a group of legislators that are out only to save their hides for the next election rather than making hard choices or getting on with the work of governing, then they need to be called out. Moreover, it's not the charge of being unpatriotic that I saw in the Obama speech, but the charge of political cynicism. And it's easy to be a political cynic and be really patriotic. In fact, those all too often go hand in hand, don't they?
Newt Gingrich replied to Chris Wallace (Fox's only real news reporter), when Wallace asked about Gingrich's staff resigning, alleging that he lacked seriousness or the will to win, (or really the political judgment relevant to governing) as follows:
Well, let me say first of all, Chris, that I took seriously Bret’s injunction to put aside the talking points. And I wish you would put aside the gotcha questions … I’d love to see the rest of tonight’s debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead, instead of playing Mickey Mouse games. (video here)
But why is this a 'gotcha' question? The campaign staff thought Gingrich wasn't serious about the campaign. If Newt cared about the ideas (he is an ideas man), then he'd stick it out for their sake, instead of taking the cruise, wouldn't he? Wouldn't that be leadership?
The informal logic point: aren't some tu quoque arguments appropriate? That is, don't they show that if some person S is inconsistent in supporting view p, even in cases where it is clearly in S's interest, then isn't S insincere?
Mallard Fillmore's recent take on the President's rhetorical strategies:
This is an argument about arguments — namely, that scare tactics are bad, but it's worse to be a hypocrite about using them. So the score tally goes: Republicans -1 for using scare tactics, Obama +1 for chastising them for using the tactic. Obama -1 for using scare tactics, and -1 for being a hypocrite about using them. (And +1 for Fillmore for pointing out the scare tactic, and +1 for pointing out the hypocrisy.)
Now, a question. Surely arguing that policy X will have bad consequences (or not following policy X will have the bad consequences) appeals to people's fears, but (a) so long as those things are bad and worth fearing, and (b) X is a crucial element in either avoiding or bringing about those consequences, aren't arguments from fear also good arguments from prudence? The scare tactic is not composed of simply pointing out that something bad will happen if we don't do something — it's comprised in shutting down discussion about what is the best way to avoid the bad consequences. Take for example the insurance salesman who says something like: people your age often can get sick and die with no warning — that's why you need St. Bartholomew Insurance to take care of your family if that happens. The fact of the sudden death may mean that you should get insurance, but it certainly doesn't mean that you should get St. Bartholomew Ins. We don't get why the Republicans or Obama are using scare tactics here, but it is a real question for us when we're being scared to accept a conclusion that doesn't follow.