I couldn’t help but think

People may have seen Hillary Clinton’s now much lampooned television advertisement.  She answers the phone at 3 AM, all ready for dealing with some  world crisis.  Some have seen a cause for concern.  Among them Harvard sociology Professor Orlando Patterson.  His op-ed contribution leaves much to be desired in the logic category.  We couldn’t help but think of two points.

First, the phrase "I couldn’t help but think of x" probably ought to be retired.  I don’t know when one can help but think of stuff.  The stuff I think of is mostly involuntary.  Well, here’s the phrase:

I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and
slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent
sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of
mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t
help but think of
D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist
movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of
black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger
implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering
the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to
protect us from this threat.

Pointing out that you couldn’t help but think of something seems like an odd way to separate yourself from your thoughts (he does it twice in this piece).  I can’t help but think of a lot of things.  But I can help but write them.

Here’s the second point (this point has, by the way, already been made across the blogosphere.  See the Daily Howler for particularly acute analysis). I think Patterson’s reading of this advert is way of the mark, particularly when it comes to the empirical questions.  He writes, later:

Did the message get through? Well, consider this: people who voted
early went overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama; those who made up their minds
during the three days after the ad was broadcast voted heavily for Mrs.

Don’t know about the implication there.  Seems like there are many obvious countervailing factors that need to be considered before one can buy the inference that the racist ad–actually, not just the ad, the racism of the ad–seriously changed people’s minds.  There’s more:

It is significant that the Clinton campaign used its telephone ad in
Texas, where a Fox poll conducted Feb. 26 to 28 showed that whites
favored Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton 47 percent to 44 percent, and not
in Ohio, where she held a comfortable 16-point lead among whites. Exit
polls on March 4 showed the ad’s effect in Texas: a 12-point swing to
56 percent of white votes toward Mrs. Clinton. It is striking, too,
that during the same weekend the ad was broadcast, Mrs. Clinton refused
to state unambiguously that Mr. Obama is a Christian and has never been
a Muslim.

That last claim, I think, is dubious.  The poll reading, without question, leaves much to be desired.  I couldn’t help but think of that. 

Fish hook

Stanley Fish laments:

The difference between making arguments and analyzing them is not
always recognized, and when it is missed, readers get outraged about
things I never said.

Denying such subtle philosophical distinctions–obvious to all–is what Stanley Fish often does in his columns.  I don’t mean this as an argumentum ad hominem tu quoque–you’re wrong Stanley because you do it  too–because, after all, he’s right, after all, about this.  Such distinctions ought to be a little more frequent in his columns (and radio "appearances"), especially when he critiques the arguments of others.  Here’s an example from today’s column:

He proceeds to write:

This distinction between tribal identity politics and policy or
interest identity politics could of course be challenged (as it was by
many posters), but the challenge would be to its cogency or adequacy,
not to its agenda, because it has none. The distinction is descriptive,
not normative
. In offering it, I do not say, “practice identity
I only say that those who do take identity into
consideration either by voting for someone on the basis of an identity
affiliation or choosing a candidate because he or she is perceived to
be friendly to identity interests are not doing something patently

Get that–he doesn’t say "practice identity politics," he says "it’s not wrong to practice identity politics."  For those who practice identity politics, "it’s not wrong to practice identity politics" is the same as "keep practicing identity politics–it’s ok really"  He’s making a distinction that regards what one ought to do (or ought not to do). 

But more to the point, Fish’s distinction in this passage regards–and I think we wrote about this a bit ago–the kind of non-distinction drawing about "identity politics" he complains about in others.  Fish asserts that any interest voting is "identity" politics.  That seems fine, but it has the air of a truism.  Besides, that’s not the kind of "identity politics" that people are talking about.  So calling every interest "identity" does nothing to address the issue that most people have with identity politics.  It’s like saying "everything is political."  May be true, but it’s uninformative.


It’s not often that one finds someone who embodies an odd philosophical position.  Nobody really is a solipsist (although I think I knew someone once who was).  I’m beginning to think, however, that E.J. Dionne, liberal columnist for the Washington Post, might be an epiphenomenalist, that is, someone who believes the mind has no causal influence on the body, but is merely a byproduct of the brain’s workings.  The epiphenomenalist can merely observe the body doing the things it does, he cannot will the body to do as he wants.  The body does what it wants, then the mind makes up a story explaining why that was what it wanted to do.  In a similar fashion, Dionne observes political changes and viewpoints (even his own) without really intervening.  Here he is yesterday:

The era of the religious right is over. Even absent the rise of urgent
new problems, Americans had already reached a point of exhaustion with
a religious style of politics that was dogmatic, partisan and

That style reflected a spirit far too certain of itself and far too
insistent on the moral depravity of its political adversaries. It had
the perverse effect of narrowing the range of issues on which religious
traditions would speak out and thinning our moral discourse. Precisely
because I believe in a strong public role for faith
, I would insist
that it is a great sellout of those traditions to assert that religion
has much to say about abortion and same-sex marriage but little to
teach us about war and peace, social justice and the environment.

I’d have two things to say about that last paragraph.  First, where someone else might say why faith ought to have a strong public role, Dionne uses his believe in faith (odd as that may see) as the explanans–the thing that explains–his position.  This is pure Dionne, of course, where an argument is necessary, he brings an explanation.  Thus his argumentative epiphenomenalism: no one in his world has reasons for her positions, there are in fact only personal or psychological explanations.  These may be in some sense accurate and helpful, but they really belong to something other than political argument.  

Here’s the second point.  People whose faith differs from Dionne’s have a lot to say about war and peace, social justice, and the environment.  It’s just a little different.  Ok it’s a lot different.  It involves Armageddon, dominion, and so forth.  Dionne seems to think it’s wrong.  Perhaps in another column he can argue for that claim.  After all, they argue for theirs. 

New fallacies

Courtesy of George Will, here’s a new fallacy (one he doesn’t commit, by the way):

U.S. policy toward Cuba should, however, be conditioned, and perhaps haunted, by U.S. policy toward China.
That policy was supposed to result in steady, slow-motion regime change
through candid subversion in broad daylight. The premise has been that
the cure for communism is commerce with the capitalist world. The
assumption is that capitalism brings, because it requires, an ethic of
trust and the rule of law in the form of promise-keeping (contracts).
Also, the protection of private property gives individuals a sphere of
sovereignty and whets their appetites for a politics of popular

This has been called "the Starbucks
(see James Mann’s book "The China Fantasy"): When people
become accustomed to many choices of coffee, they will demand many
political choices. This doctrine may be being refuted by the emergence
of a China that has become wealthier without becoming less

In addition to this self-effacing tidbit, the rest of his op-ed today seemed a model of reasonableness.  It’s not so hard to do, really.



What’s a non sequitur?

A non sequitur is another general cover all term for logical fallacy.  It’s not true that every instance of failed reasoning (of premises that fail to reach their conclusion) is a non sequitur.  Sometimes the premises are false (which happens to me all of the time, by the way).  Sometimes the premises simply aren’t strong enough to support the conclusion–they’re not false, but they’re aren’t enough of them.  When the premises are absurdly weak, or when their completely irrelevant, or otherwise contorted, then you have what logicians call a "non sequitur."  To call something a non sequitur is a fairly serious charge.  To level it means you think a person guilty of deception–either on account of ignorance or dishonesty.  Now of course we do this all of the time, the name of this site, after all, is "TheNonSequitur" (someone owned the other domain).  For the very large part, people we accuse of "non sequiturs" (for what that means for us precisely see here) fall into the latter category.  They ought to know better.  Many of them have had the best educations money can buy.  Most of them have somehow been granted positions of prominence in national or even international publications.  

So after all of that throat clearing, let’s get to today’s point.  Charles Krauthammer, the man who thinks "slippery slope" is a bonafide form of reasoning, accuses someone (I’m not sure who) of one of "the great non sequiturs of modern American politics."  Funny isn’t it.  Because of course that accusation turns out itself to be a non sequitur.  Here it is:

How did Obama pull that off? By riding one of the great non sequiturs of modern American politics.

goes like this
. Because Obama transcends race, it is therefore assumed
that he will transcend everything else — divisions of region, class,
party, generation and ideology.

The premise here is true — Obama
does transcend race; he has not run as a candidate of minority
grievance; his vision of America is unmistakably post-racial — but the
conclusion does not necessarily follow. It is merely suggested in
Obama’s rhetorically brilliant celebration of American unity: "young
and old, rich and poor, black and white, Latino and Asian — who are
tired of a politics that divides us." Hence "the choice in this
election is not between regions or religions or genders. It’s not about
rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus
white. It’s about the past versus the future."

The effect of such
sweeping invocations of unity is electric, particularly because race is
the deepest and most tragic of all American divisions, and this
invocation is being delivered by a man who takes us powerfully beyond
it. The implication is that he is therefore uniquely qualified to
transcend all our other divisions.

It is not an idle suggestion.
It could be true. The problem is that Obama’s own history suggests
that, in his case at least, it is not. Indeed, his Senate record belies
the implication.

I love the passive "it is assumed" as it suggests such grave intellectual irresponsibility–especially because of the issue of Obama’s race that precedes it.  As even the partially informed voter can tell you, no one makes that argument.  And Krauthammer doesn’t even bother to pin it on anyone.  That’s what you call a "straw man."  This happens when you either (1) pick the weakest form of an argument, knock it down, and claim to have knocked down the stronger version; or (2) you make up out of whole cloth (I always wanted to use that phrase) an absurdly weak argument for some position x, proceed to knock it down, and claim to have defeated any argument for position x.  Krauthammer here is guilty of the second variety (unless he wants to scour the globe for the person who holds the "racial" view).

In all fairness, someone at the Post ought to stop him from doing this–he seems incapable on his own.  Really.  After all, he seems like an educated person, he’s got to know that you can’t go about making stuff up.  It’s not so hard really.  When he says "argument x is a huge non sequitur" he ought to ask himself "who makes it?"  If the answer is "no one," then it’s not really anyone’s non sequitur (certainly not the greatest in American politics!).


The theme this week has been the shallow narrative pundit types construct to account for phenomena too complex for the few lines or the few moments they have.  These narratives are amazing both in the staying power (hey–people like stories, especially ones they can remember or those that appeal to their sense of something or other) and in their vacuousness (no way to verify them–we need the medium of the pundit to relate them to us).   Over the past two days we have discussed "liberal" columnists.  Now let’s take a look at David Brooks–grand narrativator.  Today he spins a tale about Obama.  This one, like the narratives that began to circulate in the past couple of weeks, centers on the idea that Obama is all pleasantries.  Brooks writes (my intrusions in brackets):

Barack Obama had a theory [did he?]. It was that the voters are tired of the
partisan paralysis of the past 20 years [that wasn’t his theory]. The theory was that if Obama
could inspire a grass-roots movement with a new kind of leadership, he
could ride it to the White House and end gridlock in Washington [this sounds a lot like Bush’s theory in 2000–a new kind of politics someone said once].

Obama has built his entire campaign on this theory. He’s run
against negativity and cheap-shot campaigning. He’s claimed that
there’s an “awakening” in this country — people “hungry for a different
kind of politics.” [the contextless quotations give this paragraph an air of authority]

This message has made him the front-runner [he’s the front-runner (barely)–but we can’t really say if this is why he is]. It has brought millions
of new voters into politics [evidence for this claim?]. It has given him grounds to fend off
attacks. In debate after debate, he has accused Hillary Clinton and
others of practicing the old kind of politics.
When he was under
assault in South Carolina, he rose above the barrage and made the
Clintons look sleazy [how clever of him].

Yet at different times during this election, he’s been told to get
off the white horse and start fighting. In the current issue of Time
magazine, Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs report on a meeting that took
place in Chicago last Labor Day. All of Obama’s experienced advisers
told him: “You gotta get down, get dirty, get tough.”

Obama refused. He argued that if he did that, the entire basis for
his campaign would evaporate. “If I gotta kneecap her,” he said, “I’m
not gonna go there.” 

The thesis of this abysmal piece is this:  Obama’s campaign is based, according to Brooks, entirely on the specious claim that a new kind of politics (i.e., being nice) will captivate people, he’s right (because it has–according to Brooks), but in order to beat the sleazy Hillary Clinton, he will have to practice the old kind of politics, and in so doing, he will become a sleaze like Hillary, and thus his message will have been contradicted and shown to be what it is, shallow tripe (so I suppose we can go back to shallow Manichean moralizing like in 2004).  

This message, I think, is a phantom of Brooks’ imagination.  Obama, like Clinton and McCain, has more to offer–he claims–than inspiration.  His words have meaning.  Besides, Obama seems to have been a rather able debater up until this point, as Brooks even acknowledges.  After all, he did make Hillary look like a sleaze, didn’t he?

While the narrative on Obama is that he’s an ingenue–Clinton is, in Brooks’ narrative, a clumsy, unappealing sleaze who will do anything to win:

Clinton can’t compete on personality, but a knife fight is her only real hope of victory

Naturally this sorry piece of writing can’t rightly be evaluated by the tools of the critical reasoner.  It makes assertions without evidence and draws  apparently contradictory conclusions.  But Brooks has to know this; I hope at least for his sake he does.  I wonder then, what’s it for?

Mind numbing

I’m out of my territory here a little bit, but yesterday’s excursion into press narratives (although only to make a kind of side point) inspired me to read a little more of it.  With that in mind I stumbled across Gail Collins’ column in the New York Times.  She is another card-carrying (remember that phrase anyone?) of the liberal media.  Let’s read:

It’s all up to Pennsylvania!

Yes folks, over the next seven
weeks — the amount of time it takes a normal country to conduct an
entire national election — we will be obsessing about the critical
upcoming Pennsylvania primary. Harrisburg! Altoona! The Poconos! Did
you know that in the Poconos, some hotels have bathtubs shaped like
hearts or Champagne glasses? We actually plan on bringing that up a lot.

That’s really how the article begins.  I think it’s pastiche of the kind of irrelevance we will be subjected to in the coming days.  The kind of irrelevance the following paragraphs provide: 

Of all the things that went right for Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, the
Ohio primary win was most impressive. Although Ohioans politely tiptoed
out of Hillary’s more boring round-table discussions
, they came to
she could be a president who would fix things, no matter how
complicated or frustrating. The mere fact that she had the staying
power to keep her eyes open, they felt, was a good sign.

response, the Obama campaign has reportedly decided to do far fewer
exciting rallies and lots more mind-numbing round-table discussions in
Pennsylvania. I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say we are all
really looking forward to that.

Collins’ fact-free insight and vast power of generalizing amazes me.  Notice two things.  First, she knows what Ohioans are thinking, believing and feeling–in detail "no matter how complicated or frustrating."  Was that a poll question?  I doubt it.  Beyond that, she’s intolerant of meaningful discussions of policy–they’re boring!  Mind-numbing!  And on that point–who is the "we" who is not looking forward to these discussions?  Maybe it’s Collins, who wants to talk about the Poconos.

Maybe I’m just impatient with this stuff, and I miss the larger points Collins is making.  I guess I’m a conservative that way.  I like my assertions supported by evidence.  

Keep in mind, of course, that while the liberal media over here at the New York Times can’t even bother to discuss matters of policy, George Will, conservative luminary, is busy eviscerating such leftist heroes as Oliver Stone, Norman Mailer, and Jean Paul Sartre, for their admiration of Fidel Castro, or Cuba (or something).  What’s wrong with them?  Well, Cuba has basically sentenced people to jail after one-day secret trials.  I know, I know.  That sounds awful to be stuck in Cuba in some kind of extra-legal limbo and convicted after a Stalinesque one-day secret trial.

Compatible Concepts

Has Hillary Clinton been subjected to more "scrutiny" on account of her gender?  All signs point yes.  A cursory examination of the media coverage will find Clinton having to contend with questions directed at gender in a way that, say, John McCain won’t.  Here’s just one of countless examples.  Enter Maureen Dowd (courtesy of Media Matters):


After saying she found her
"voice" in New Hampshire,
she has turned into Sybil. We’ve had
Experienced Hillary, Soft Hillary, Hard Hillary, Misty Hillary, Sarcastic
Hillary, Joined-at-the-Hip-to-Bill Hillary, Her-Own-Person-Who-Just-Happens-to-Be-Married-to-a-Former-President Hillary,
It’s-My-Turn Hillary, Cuddly Hillary,
Let’s-Get-Down-in-the-Dirt-and-Fight-Like-Dogs Hillary.

Just as in the White House, when her cascading images and
hairstyles became dizzying and unsettling, suggesting that the first lady woke
up every day struggling to create a persona, now she seems to think there is a
political solution to her problem.
If she can only change this or that
about her persona, or tear down this or that about Obama’s. But the
whirlwind of changes and charges gets wearing.

And Maureen Dowd, by the way, is supposed to be a liberal.  But, like we’ve been saying, the liberal op-eds disappoint.  In the face of such evidence, Ruth Marcus argues that Clinton cannot claim to be "hampered" by her gender.  Marcus’s claim (isn’t she supposed to be a liberal too?) has what we professionals call a ring of falsity to it.  But she also makes a conceptual claim to support the false empirical claim:


The candidate of inevitability and the victim of the uneven playing field aren’t compatible concepts.

The candidate of inevitability is an empty concept.  There might have been a presumption among media types like Marcus that Clinton was the candidate of inevitability, but there hadn’t been an election yet.   Besides, being a candidate for a job, as I can attest from personal experience, doesn’t mean you’ll get the job–or that you even have a chance of getting the job. 

Post Game

Maybe you’re not like me, but I open the op-ed page for directives from the liberal media.  Most of the time, however, the liberal media disappoints.  I get instead a kind of post game breakdown of the sort you’d find in the most technical of sports sections.  There’s an election going on, as some of you may know, and the candidates (in particular the Democrats) are out there making their case–"vote for me because of I am a better fit for the job–my judgment, record, etc., make me so."  So, liberal media, who is better?  Let’s ask E.J.Dionne:

To be sure, just about everyone anticipated that when the field
narrowed, Clinton would be one of the contenders left standing. She had
won allies from her work for her husband and in the Senate, was helped
by the residual affection for Bill Clinton in many parts of the party, and created a support base among women.

But the scenario-builders pondering this contest two years ago imagined
a showdown between Clinton and — let’s be honest — a white guy. It
was thought that a moderate Democrat (popular choices included Mark Warner of Virginia and Evan Bayh of Indiana) would cast himself as the "electable" alternative to the "divisive" Clinton.

Alternatively, John Edwards
had the chance to go at Clinton from her left (he’d run against
"Clintonomics" as the pro-labor, mill-town-born populist) and from her
right (he was, after all, a Southern white man).

Obama upended all these calculations. Warner and Bayh understood how
much the race had changed and decided not to run. Obama bested Edwards
in Iowa, effectively blocking Edwards’s only path to contention.

He doesn’t care.  While his conservative colleagues stake out clear positions and defend them–urging others to believe as they do–Dionne can’t bother do anything other than, er, color commentary:

Against anyone but Obama, Clinton could have counted on strong support from African Americans. Against an Adlai StevensonGary HartPaul TsongasBill Bradley
sort of reformer, she would have assembled the "regular" Democratic
coalition: blue-collar whites allied with black voters. This is, more
or less, how Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton and Al Gore
prevailed in the primaries. Against a centrist, Clinton would have won
the liberals. Her strength among women would have provided her with
additional ballast.

Obama not only created an alliance between African Americans and
upscale reform voters, but he also changed the composition of the
Democratic electorate by drawing in hundreds of thousands of voters
under age 30.

To me this is just baffling.  I can see how this would be interesting from the perspective of political operatives or political scientists.  But most of us are rather interested in who is a better fit for the job.  Dionne assumes however we are like him.  We’re interested in who runs the better campaign organization rather than who, for Pete’s sake, is better for the job.  It’s a little early, in other words, for an explanation.

Because the Clinton campaign failed to anticipate the imperatives of a
race against Obama, it was only in the past two weeks that she managed
to move to offense. Her campaign has gone back to its basic argument
that, love her or not, Clinton is the experienced fighter who can be
trusted to deal with a nasty world and a decaying economy. She’s trying
to turn Obama’s newness into inexperience, his eloquence into slickness
and his conciliatory nature into a form of softness. It is no accident
that her "red phone" ad about her readiness to be president was created
by a veteran of Mondale’s campaign who made a similar ad against Gary
Hart in 1984.

And to conclude:

This is not the campaign Clinton had hoped to run, but it’s the one
approach she has left, and it’s had the effect of forcing Obama to
respond to her. You wonder what would have happened if she had adjusted

That’s not really what I’m wondering.  I wonder if anyone can explain what this article was about.

Nattering nabob

The death of conservative icon William F. Buckley led someone, I don't remember who, to eulogize that "he loved his own ideas more than he hated theirs."  He wasn't, in other words, one of those "liberals are fascists" or "party of death" types that dominate conservative thought these days.  I can't really say for certain whether that's true.  My suspicion, however, is that it isn't.  Helping me along with this suspicion is William Kristol.  Writing in today's New York Times, he says:

In my high school yearbook (Collegiate School, class of 1970), there’s a photo of me wearing a political button. (Everyone did in those days. I wasn’t that much dorkier than everyone else.) The button said, “Don’t let THEM immanentize the Eschaton.”

There you see an example of the influence of Bill Buckley, who died last week at age 82. For it was Buckley who had promulgated this slogan, as an amusing distillation of the thinking of the very difficult historian of political philosophy Eric Voegelin. I’d of course not read Voegelin then (there’s a lot of him I still haven’t read, to tell the truth). But the basic thought was: Don’t let ideologues try to create heaven on earth, because they’ll deprive us of freedom and make things a lot worse.

To read Buckley growing up in the 1960s was bracing. Buckley and his colleagues — some merrily, some mordantly —  mercilessly eviscerated the idiocies of the New Left. They also exposed the flaccidity of the older liberalism. If, like me, you already had a sense from listening to most of your peers and some of your elders that a lot of what they believed was silly (or worse), you couldn’t help but be attracted to Buckley.

That doesn't paint a rosy picture.  Aside from the obsession with the worst caricature of the opposition (with the ever present but equally silly idea that their idiocy guarantees the legitimacy of your view–it doesn't), Buckley's slogan has a kind of ironic ring to it.  Conservatives have now embraced those people who literally want to bring about the Eschaton.  Just ask John Hagee.

*minor edit for sense above–"loved his ideas more than he hated THEIRS"–apologies–I posted too damn early in the morning. 

**minor edit in "minor edit"–thanks Jem.