The enemy of my friend

Richard Cohen, "liberal" columnist for the Washington Post, claims that Obama must disagree more with a person with whom he (i.e., Obama) disagrees.  To be more precise, Obama's minister at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, has praised Louis Farrakhan, violinist and noted anti-Semite.  He hasn't praised him for his anti-semitism.  Actually, he, the minister, hasn't praised him at all:

Barack Obama is a member of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. Its minister, and Obama's spiritual adviser, is the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. In 1982, the church launched Trumpet Newsmagazine; Wright's daughters serve as publisher and executive editor. Every year, the magazine makes awards in various categories. Last year, it gave the Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award to a man it said "truly epitomized greatness." That man is Louis Farrakhan.

Got that.  The good Reverend's daughters' magazine has praised Farrakhan with an award named for their father. 

Anyway, so Farrakhan, despite liking Felix Mendelsohn, is an anti-Semite.  This is a silly view, Cohen argues, because many Jews gave their lives in the cause of civil rights for African Americans.  And he supports this with many paragraphs about what an anti-Semite Farrakhan is, how he is like another famous anti-Semite named Hitler, and so forth.  He then brings his argument to a close:

I don't for a moment think that Obama shares Wright's views on Farrakhan. But the rap on Obama is that he is a fog of a man. We know little about him, and, for all my admiration of him, I wonder about his mettle. The New York Times recently reported on Obama's penchant while serving in the Illinois legislature for merely voting "present" when faced with some tough issues. Farrakhan, in a strictly political sense, may be a tough issue for him. This time, though, "present" will not do.

But, as Cohen says elsewhere in the article:

It's important to state right off that nothing in Obama's record suggests he harbors anti-Semitic views or agrees with Wright when it comes to Farrakhan. Instead, as Obama's top campaign aide, David Axelrod, points out, Obama often has said that he and his minister sometimes disagree. Farrakhan, Axelrod told me, is one of those instances.

Take that Obama.  Cohen wonders whether you have the mettle to disagree with someone with whom you disagree.


Knowing how

Stanley Fish, attempting to praise the skill of thinking critically:

Taking as an example the concept of IQ, William Haboush says that while a scientist will use it, a humanist “will ask what does it mean? Is it one thing or many? Who made up the questions used in measuring it.” This, then, is critical thinking – the analytic probing of formulas, precepts and pieces of received wisdom that too often go unexamined and unchallenged. This skill, Warren Call claims, is taught in humanities courses where students “analyze ideas, differing viewpoints, justifications, opinions and accounts” and, in the process, learn how to “construct a logical assessment . . . and defend their conclusions with facts and lucid argument.”

That certainly sounds like a skill worth having, and I agree that it can be acquired in courses where literary texts, philosophical arguments and historical evens are being scrutinized with an eye to seeing what lies beneath (or to the side of) their surfaces. But it also can be, and is, acquired elsewhere. Right now millions of TV viewers are acquiring it when they watch Chris Matthews or George Will or Cokie Roberts analyze the current political moment and say things like, “It would be wrong to draw any long run conclusion from Hilary Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire because in other states the voting population is unlikely to be 57 percent female and 97 percent white,” or “If we are to understand the immigration debate, we must go back the great waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” or “Homelessness is not a single problem, but a nest of problems that cannot be solved piecemeal."

Fish's example refutes itself.  Nevertheless, while it's probably true that one can acquire critical thinking skills by imitating critical thinkers, it would be wrong to confuse the practical aquisition of these skills with an understanding of their nature, origin, and limits.  A musician who has learned by ear may sound good, but she or he won't have the same level of mastery as one who has also studied musical theory.

Lower the bar

No surprise that Bill Kristol thinks the surge is working.  He cites the reduction in violence as well as the passing of a de-Baathification law as evidence.  First, the violence:

The Democrats were wrong in their assessments of the surge. Attacks per week on American troops are now down about 60 percent from June. Civilian deaths are down approximately 75 percent from a year ago. December 2007 saw the second-lowest number of U.S. troops killed in action since March 2003. And according to Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, last month’s overall number of deaths, which includes Iraqi security forces and civilian casualties as well as U.S. and coalition losses, may well have been the lowest since the war began.

Before he gets to the other point (the one about politics–the goal of the surge after all), he snidely asks:

Do Obama and Clinton and Reid now acknowledge that they were wrong? Are they willing to say the surge worked?

The second question has a kind of complex question flavor to it: it's not a matter of willingness to say the surge worked, rather, it's a question of whether the surge has worked.  One can hardly be surprised that Kristol takes the slimmest of evidence of success as evidence of glorious success (he thinks the invasion of Iraq ought to serve as a template for the invasion of Iran, so for him the whole experience has been awesome).  But even he ought to realize that the political goals–what were called benchmarks–were the goals of the surge, kinda like the war and violence has a political objective.  Those goals, by any honest measure, have not been met.  The one Kristol mentions:

And now Iraq’s Parliament has passed a de-Baathification law — one of the so-called benchmarks Congress established for political reconciliation.

hardly counts.

The crazies

Clark Hoyt, public editor of the New York Times, has contracted a case of the crazies.  This public editor malady consists in (a) obsessing over the nasty email they get instead of the reason for the nasty mail; (b) picking unrepresentative samples of that email to make a point about free speech or fairness.  He writes:

Of the nearly 700 messages I have received since Kristol’s selection was announced — more than half of them before he ever wrote a word for The Times — exactly one praised the choice.

Rosenthal’s mail has been particularly rough. “That rotten, traiterous [sic] piece of filth should be hung by the ankles from a lamp post and beaten by the mob rather than gaining a pulpit at ANY self-respecting news organization,” said one message. “You should be ashamed. Apparently you are only out for money and therefore an equally traiterous [sic] whore deserving the same treatment.”

Kristol would not have been my choice to join David Brooks as a second conservative voice in the mix of Times columnists, but the reaction is beyond reason. Hiring Kristol the worst idea ever? I can think of many worse. Hanging someone from a lamppost to be beaten by a mob because of his ideas? And that is from a liberal, defined by Webster as “one who is open-minded.” What have we come to?

So the issue is no longer the completely crazy choice of Bill Kristol for the Times op-ed page, but rather the nastiness of "liberal" email and the long-suffering editors of the New York Times.  I believe we have changed the subject–a nutpicking red herring.  


The tracks of my tears

We don't really do narrative analysis here–not because it's not worthwhile, quite the contrary, we're not equipped (and we're too lazy); for that, please visit the Daily Howler, Glenn Greenwald, and Digby.  I might borrow a few notions from them, however, in order to point out the completely strange way one columnist–Richard Cohen of the Washington Post–analyzes the results of Tuesday's New Hampshire Primary.  For Cohen (and many others, see the above links) the actions of Obama, Edwards, and Clinton can only be explained in a hypersexualized adolescent way:

Rick Lazio must have known what was coming. As Hillary Clinton's Senate opponent in 2000, he alarmingly strode across the stage during a debate and demanded that she sign a pledge to ban the use of soft money in their campaign. With every step, he lost more women's votes.

Now something similar has happened. I am not referring to the most famous cry since Evita's ("Don't Cry for Me, New Hampshire"), but to Barack Obama's patronizing dismissal of Clinton in the final debate of the New Hampshire campaign. After Clinton had good-naturedly responded to a question about what is sometimes called her "personality deficit" — "Well, that hurts my feelings" — she went on to concede that Obama is "very likable." Obama responded with a curt "You're likeable enough, Hillary."

Wince. Slap. A version of "nice personality" — the killer description of a girl from my high school days. It was an ugly moment that showed a side of Obama we had not seen and it might not have been characteristic. But it made for vivid TV, a High-Definition Truth, and probably more than a few women recoiled from it.

Obama could have remedied the situation — Lazio later recovered his standing with suburban women — but the Illinois senator continued to look disdainful on television and seemed to be acting for all the world as if his inauguration was a mere formality.

Was this the moment accounting for the gender gap that put Clinton over the top? Women, 57 percent of the New Hampshire electorate, went for her by 12 points. That was not the case in the Iowa caucuses, where she lost the female vote by five points. Something happened in New Hampshire, something that moved women. Obama would be a fool not to wonder where he had gone wrong.

You get the idea.  Notice that Cohen makes a couple of causal claims: Lazio lost women's votes because he approached Hillary on stage during a debate; Obama lost women's votes because he appeared to call Hillary unattractive.  Cohen, however, doesn't even bother to wonder whether these claims are true: he takes it that a change in the women's vote from one state to another must be accounted for by something that happened in the time between the two events.  That need not be the case at all.  Besides, Cohen hasn't done the minimal work necessary to establish that–nor has he shown or even referenced what might make the Lazio claim true.  More insulting–to all of us–is the idea that voters are motivated by the superficial crap that stirs the loins of pundit types like Cohen (and Chris Matthews, and the rest–again–see the other bloggers).  When I am sealed in the voting cubicle, I'm going to vote for the candidate I think will do the best job.  Until there is specific research showing otherwise, I think my fellow earthlings will be doing the same.


Must say something about William Kristol's new column in the crazy liberal New York Times (that's ironing, by the way).  By all rational accounts, Kristol is a joke.  And indeed in his column he goes about demonstrating that fact:

His campaigning in New Hampshire has been impressive. At a Friday night event at New England College in Henniker, he played bass with a local rock band, Mama Kicks. One secular New Hampshire Republican’s reaction: “Gee, he’s not some kind of crazy Christian. He’s an ordinary American.”

One particularly uninformed person saw the otherwise crazily Christian Huckabee play bass and concluded he was normal.  Kristol thinks that is a good thing. 


From these shallow and uniformed reflections on the nature of "justification" it's obvious that Stanley Fish doesn't know much about the humanities:

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, a frequent subject in courses in the humanities, had the following to say:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity- as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others- in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

Sometimes, it seems, the justification for the activity is the activity itself.  When it is, it's still a justification.