A few months ago I read an article in The New Yorker about Bill O’Reilly. It treated O’Reilly not as the cyst on the derriere of our political culture but rather as an entertaining character one might see at a county fair. He’s not a character. He’s a real guy whose misinformation many people take very seriously. More recently, someone over at The New Republic wrote a somewhat similar piece about Ann Coulter. Sure she’s nuts and all that, but she’s a part of the political cultural landscape and besides sometimes she says stuff that might be kinda sorta true. Naturally, this poorly reasoned argument garnered much fierce, sound but most of all deserved criticism.

In response, Jonathan Chait of TNR writes:


>Elspeth Reeve, our extremely talented reporter-researcher, penned a clever, interesting, very well-executed defense of despicable authoritarian pundit Ann Coulter. Now, *I found her ultimate point to be highly unpersuasive,* as I imagine most people did, but this was a piece less about the destination than the journey. What made her column interesting was not *the counterintuitive shock value* but the fact that she had thought-provoking observations about Coulter’s role in the political culture, however indefensible her conclusion may have been.

>Her piece attracted the ire of Atrios, someone named Charles P. Pierce, and other partisan hysterics. That, of course, is unsurprising. *They cannot imagine the notion of measuring a piece by any criteria other than ideological correctness.* There are a lots of smart and interesting liberal writers who aren’t ideologically “surprising”–Rick Perlstein, Thomas Frank, most of the American Prospect staff, to name but a few. The Atrioses and the Pierces, on the other hand, offer their readers nothing but the certainty that they will confirm their ideological predilections. A world in which there are non-ideological criteria for judging an article–where being thought-provoking or smart matters–is a world in which they have no place.

And so the ad hominem, Bill O’Reilly style. Let’s not bother, so says Chait, with what they said about the piece (they did offer serious criticisms of the piece, follow the links above and see for yourself). Rather, let’s attack what we take to be their motivations. This silly, shallow and shameful.

But even worse than the inexcusable ad hominem (don’t they have editors?) is the assertion that simply being provocative–however wrong or dishonest–overrides editorial responsibility for truth and sound reasoning. Whatever happened to that?

George Will, Flip-flopper

In the 2004 election, the very suggestion of having changed one’s mind warranted the charge of “flip-flopping.” That was singularly dumb. Changing one’s mind about bad policies is a good idea. We won’t see this, however, from the current POTUS. We’re seeing a lot of it from the 1st armored pundit brigade of 2003 [I’ll link to material later, when I find it]. Only a few of them have had the cobbles to admit having been disasterously wrong. We still think they ought to be punished–demotion seems fair enough. Since we don’t have the power to demote, however, we can point and hoot. We can also study the brain-dead nonsense used to justify the behavior of an intellectually challenged man.

So, on that note, let’s look at the silly parsing of a slightly more hawkish George Will in March of 2003:

>It is a measure of *the intellectual vertigo* into which the United Nations has plunged “the international community” that America, which is going to war to enforce Resolution 1441, is said to be doing so “in defiance of the United Nations.” The war will be followed by a presidential election in which all candidates must answer this: “Do you believe that any use of U.S. military power lacks legitimacy unless approved by France, Russia and China?” The Republican candidate has already answered. [emphasis added]

That’s a dumb question. But let’s answer it anyway. The “legitimacy” never really was the issue, now was it. The real question–the one realized by France and Germany and all of the coalition of the unwilling–was whether the war *then* was justified for the reasons put forward by the administration. “Legitimacy” is a narrow and wrong interpretation of justification, in other words. Say it was “legitimate” in some narrow legal sense. This would have raised a second question: is it a good idea? Nope. It clearly wasn’t a good idea. For 3438 or so reasons.

Thanks for the plug George

Despite his strident ad-homineming and strawmanning and general nonsequituring for the Bush/Cheney 04 ticket, George Will finally swallows a bitter draught of stupid ugly reality. He writes:

>Immediately after the London plot was disrupted, a “senior administration official,” insisting on anonymity for his or her splenetic words, denied the obvious, that Kerry had a point. The official told The Weekly Standard:

>”The idea that the jihadists would all be peaceful, warm, lovable, God-fearing people if it weren’t for U.S. policies strikes me as not a valid idea. [Democrats] do not have the understanding or the commitment to take on these forces. It’s like John Kerry. The law enforcement approach doesn’t work.”

>This farrago of caricature and non sequitur makes the administration seem eager to repel all but the delusional. But perhaps such rhetoric reflects the intellectual contortions required to sustain the illusion that the war in Iraq is central to the war on terrorism, and that the war, unlike “the law enforcement approach,” does “work.”

Maybe Mr.Will should should tell his colleague David Brooks, who lampooned Kerry’s claim that terrorism was a law-enforcement problem.

Punditry and reality II

Today Eric Alterman complains about our stupid political discourse. He’d be hard pressed to find more agreement here–our necks hurt from nodding.

The reasons for this stupidity are many. We touched on one of them briefly on Friday when we pointed out the confusion in the minds of many pundits between talking about reality–facts, for instance–and talking about talking about reality. To be fair, liberal pundits–excluding Krugman–tend to do too much of the latter. Right wing pundits, to their credit and our continual entertainment, do a lot of the former. And good for them. At least they know that arguments matter. It’s too bad they often get it wrong.

Punditry and reality

When the opposition gives you advice, do the opposite of what he says. That ought to be a maxim. On that note, Charles Krauthammer, snarling and unapologetic hawk, has joined the chorus of those who have criticized the defeat of George Bush’s favorite Republican, Joe Lieberman, another unapologetic hawk. His argument goes like this: just as the peacenik democrats undermined their party in the Cold War after Vietnam, so it will happen again. Americans will not “trust a democrat with the presidency.”

For this crazy analogy to work–read here and here for substantial rebuttals–we must step outside reality and into punditry. Yes, reality and punditry are different.

The reality question–the one asked by Lamont, his supporters and much of the American people but ignored by Lieberman–is what we should do about the unmitigated disaster that is the war in Iraq.

The pundit question–the one Krauthammer asks–is whether our asking the reality question will cause us to be characterized by the political opposition as weak on terrorism.

They are two separate questions, however often they are conflated.

Here’s the rub: asking the pundit question in place of the reality question will not bring back the dead, it will not bring back American credibility, or strengthen our military, or help us win the war on terror. It will only bring more ugly reality, reality that just won’t go away, no matter how often we ignore it.


It’s difficult to have a discussion when your interlocutor constantly questions your motives. Motive questioning and motive analysis constitute too much commentary these days. Even someone we enjoy reading, the Daily Howler, frequently goes for the motive. It’s disappointing in his case because he has the solid analysis; he just doesn’t need to hypothesize about motives.

The most debilitating and potentially poisonous kind of motive-questioning is racism. Call someone a racist and no matter what the argument, it doesn’t matter; racists can’t make sound arguments.

In this vein, noted playwright David Mamet suggests that criticisms of Israel amount to anti-semitism:

>That the Western press consistently characterizes the Israeli actions as immoral is anti-Semitism. What state does not have the right to defend itself–it is the central tenet of statehood.

Rush Limbaugh couldn’t agree more. For him Jews who question Israel’s actions are self-hating Jews. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post has also argued this.

But it’s not the company he keeps that makes Mamet’s claim specious. In the first place, it’s false. Worse than that, he doesn’t provide any evidence for it. Second, a case can be made that, regardless of the justice of the cause, the means Israel have chosen are immoral. Of the myriad choices for responding to the kidnapping of the two soldiers (click here for some context), was it right that Israel chose invasion and bombing?

The question for Mamet, and for all of the others who make the anti-semitism claim, is whether the means in this case are justified. It should be obvious to anyone–even though sadly it is not–that questioning the means the State of Israel has chosen in this particular case does not amount to unjustified and global hatred of Jews.

Et tu quoque Al Gore

John Tierney, no friend of the global warming camp, discusses “carbon footprints” this morning in his “Times Select” column (sorry, no free access). Al Gore he says:

He advises you to change your light bulbs, insulate your home, and cut back on driving and air travel. If you must make a trip, he notes helpfully, “buses provide the cheapest and most energy-efficient transportation for long distances.”

And yet,

Fine advice, and it would be even better if he journeyed to his lectures exclusively on Greyhound. But he seems to prefer cars and planes. When you tally up his international travel to inspect melting glaciers and the domestic trips between his homes — one in Washington and another in Nashville, not to mention the family farm in rural Tennessee featured in the movie — you’re looking at a Godzilla-sized carbon footprint.

Tierney doesn’t draw the fallacious conclusion–that Al Gore’s position (we should reduce our carbon footprints) is false. Instead he seems to be suggesting the conclusion, which is not necessarily fallacious, that “Al Gore is a hypocrite.”

We should note that although this is not necessarily fallacious, it isn’t obvious that the evidence above provides good reason to believe that Al Gore is in fact a hypocrite. In fact, Al Gore–much to the chagrin of many environmentalists–has always favored various market solutions to carbon emissions:

Gore and David say they offset their energy usage by sponsoring reductions in greenhouse gases through alternative forms of power and energy conservation (like building wind farms and paying farmers to turn methane into electricity).

But, how does Tierney argue that this isn’t sufficient? By invoking the judgment of a more radical environmentalist position:

Quoting Gandhi — “Be the change you want to see in the world” — Komanoff says his fellow environmentalists should stop offering “get out of purgatory free” cards [carbon offsets] to the rich and instead insist that everyone personally reduce energy use.

So apparently, Gore’s position is not internally hypocritical, though Komanoff disagrees with it. Nonetheless, Tierney thinks that if you want to work to reduce carbon emissions you must accept Komanoff’s positions:

I’m not such a purist myself — I’d let the average person salve his conscience with a carbon indulgence. But I’d hold environmentalist preachers like Gore to higher standards, especially when they’re engaging in unnecessary energy use.

The tu quoque fallacy is an interesting one. If one is too explicit with the fallacy, it isn’t very effective. But subtle forms of it–like Tierney’s here–which assert hypocrisy and therefore suggest that the messenger and the message are somehow compromised are very effective. Most readers of Tierney’s column will probably conclude that because Al Gore is a hypocrite his arguments and prescriptions do not need to be taken seriously.