Clever ignoramus

It's hard to believe George Will wrote these words:

The day after the Supreme Court ruled that detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo are entitled to seek habeas corpus hearings, John McCain called it "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country." Well.

Does it rank with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which concocted a constitutional right, unmentioned in the document, to own slaves and held that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect? With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the constitutionality of legally enforced racial segregation? With Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the wartime right to sweep American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps?

Did McCain's extravagant condemnation of the court's habeas ruling result from his reading the 126 pages of opinions and dissents? More likely, some clever ignoramus convinced him that this decision could make the Supreme Court — meaning, which candidate would select the best judicial nominees — a campaign issue.

The decision, however, was 5 to 4. The nine justices are of varying quality, but there are not five fools or knaves. The question of the detainees' — and the government's — rights is a matter about which intelligent people of good will can differ.

Hard to believe because he normally treats people who disagree with his faux constitutional originalism as clueless college socialists bent on remaking American society through the courts.  

Here at least the ignoramus is "clever."  But besides, even though he falls on (what I would consider) the right side of the issue of habeas corpus (i.e., habeas corpus good! not habeas corpus bad!), his technique for making his point, save a few conciliatory words, remains essentially the same: opponent is fool with no knowledge or good sense.  Since the arguments against the High Court's ruling have little to do, obviously, with any legal knowledge about the court, the notion of habeas corpus, or the Constitution, this time Will is right.   

We will be interested to see if in the future "intelligent people of good will can differ." 

Something old

These odd reflections from Peggy Noonan seem to make the coming election a battle between Barack Obama and the Andy Griffith Show:

Mr. McCain is the Old America, of course; Mr. Obama the New.

* * *

Roughly, broadly:

In the Old America, love of country was natural. You breathed it in. You either loved it or knew you should.

In the New America, love of country is a decision. It's one you make after weighing the pros and cons. What you breathe in is skepticism and a heightened appreciation of the global view.

Old America: Tradition is a guide in human affairs. New America: Tradition is a challenge, a barrier, or a lovely antique.

The Old America had big families. You married and had children. Life happened to you. You didn't decide, it decided. Now it's all on you. Old America, when life didn't work out: "Luck of the draw!" New America when life doesn't work: "I made bad choices!" Old America: "I had faith, and trust." New America: "You had limited autonomy!"

Old America: "We've been here three generations." New America: "You're still here?"

Old America: We have to have a government, but that doesn't mean I have to love it. New America: We have to have a government and I am desperate to love it. Old America: Politics is a duty. New America: Politics is life.

The Old America: Religion is good. The New America: Religion is problematic. The Old: Smoke 'em if you got 'em. The New: I'll sue.

Mr. McCain is the old world of concepts like "personal honor," of a manliness that was a style of being, of an attachment to the fact of higher principles.

Mr. Obama is the new world, which is marked in part by doubt as to the excellence of the old. It prizes ambivalence as proof of thoughtfulness, as evidence of a textured seriousness.

Both Old and New America honor sacrifice, but in the Old America it was more essential, more needed for survival both personally (don't buy today, save for tomorrow) and in larger ways.

The Old and New define sacrifice differently. An Old America opinion: Abjuring a life as a corporate lawyer and choosing instead community organizing, a job that does not pay you in money but will, if you have political ambitions, provide a base and help you win office, is not precisely a sacrifice. Political office will pay you in power and fame, which will be followed in time by money (see Clinton, Bill). This has more to do with timing than sacrifice. In fact, it's less a sacrifice than a strategy.

A New America answer: He didn't become a rich lawyer like everyone else—and that was a sacrifice! Old America: Five years in a cage—that's a sacrifice!

In the Old America, high value was put on education, but character trumped it. That's how Lincoln got elected: Honest Abe had no formal schooling. In Mr. McCain's world, a Harvard Ph.D. is a very good thing, but it won't help you endure five years in Vietnam. It may be a comfort or an inspiration, but it won't see you through. Only character, and faith, can do that. And they are very Old America.

Old America: candidates for office wear ties. New America: Not if they're women. Old America: There's a place for formality, even the Beatles wore jackets!

Which does Noonan favor, the old or the new?

I weigh this in favor of the Old America. Hard not to, for I remember it, and its sterling virtues.

Queue Andy Griffith music.

(Thanks to Dagon for the suggestion.)


Today Paul Krugman writes:

Thus, when mad cow disease was detected in the U.S. in 2003, the Department of Agriculture was headed by Ann M. Veneman, a former food-industry lobbyist. And the department’s response to the crisis — which amounted to consistently downplaying the threat and rejecting calls for more extensive testing — seemed driven by the industry’s agenda.

One amazing decision came in 2004, when a Kansas producer asked for permission to test its own cows, so that it could resume exports to Japan. You might have expected the Bush administration to applaud this example of self-regulation. But permission was denied, because other beef producers feared consumer demands that they follow suit.

When push comes to shove, it seems, the imperatives of crony capitalism trump professed faith in free markets.

This would show at best that the people (like Bush or Veneman) who profess belief in free markets don't have it.  It wouldn't however show that free markets are a failure at such regulation (which is what Krugman intends to show).  In fact, it seems to me, it would make the point that regulation of the free market produces problems such as the one Krugman describes.   


Stirring the pot

I don't get this:

In his March 18 remarks in Philadelphia, Mr. Obama eloquently called for a national discussion on race. But in a speech lauded for its honesty, this plea was unconvincing. Having benefited from the nation’s quieter tone, Mr. Obama must avoid stirring the racial pot, unnerving white voters for whom his race requires a leap of faith.

Why wasn't the speech "convincing"?  What is "stirring the racial pot"?  If somehow our public discourse has moved beyond Obama's race, I haven't seen it.


Courtesy of Brian Leiter.  Here's noted historian of ancient philosophy (and much else) Jonathan Barnes on Contintental Philosophy:

[M]ost philosophers who belong to the so-called analytical tradition are pretty poor philosophers. (Most academics who do anything are pretty poor at doing it; and philosophy, or so it seems to me, is a subject in which it is peculiarly difficult to do decent stuff. A modestly competent historian may produce a modestly good history book; a modestly competent philosopher has no reason to publish his modest thoughts.)   But there's a big difference between the analyticals and the continentals: what distinguishes the continental tradition is that all its members are pretty hopeless at philosophy. Myself, I've read scarcely a hundred continental pages. I can't see how any rational being could bear to read more; and the only question which the continental tradition raises is sociological or psychological: How are so many apparently intelligent young people charmed into taking the twaddle seriously?

Why bother indeed with straw men, they take so much time to construct, just to knock down in the end.


Ad hominem arguments

Here's a link to an article in Scientfic American mind about various kinds of ad hominem arguments.  Yvonne Raley, the author, writes:

Although ad hominem arguments have long been considered errors in reasoning, a recent analysis suggests that this is not always the case. In his new book, Media Argumentation: Dialectic, Persuasion, and Rhetoric, University of Winnipeg philosopher Douglas Walton proposes that fallacies such as the ad hominem are better understood as perversions or corruptions of perfectly good arguments. Regarding the ad hominem, Walton contends that although such attacks are usually fallacious, they can be legitimate when a character critique is directly or indirect­ly related to the point being articulated.

If Walton is right, distinguishing clearly between these cases is important to evaluating the validity of statements people make to us about others. Good or fair uses of ad hominem critiques should, in fact, persuade us, whereas unwarranted uses should not.

I'd say indeed.  But this seems to me somewhat obvious–and the distinction between good and bad character attacks–a central feature of any notion of a fallacy.  All fallacies, I'd argue at least, seem like good pieces of reasoning–and have, as a result, close non-fallacious cousins.  Some analogies are good, some are bad.  The ones that are particularly bad we might call "weak analogies of the fallacious variety."  Some personal attacks are obviously legitimate–when character is an issue (as it often is).  Some are not.  The ones that aren't we might call "ad hominem."  The others we might call something else.

Lay bare the structure

Discussions of bias seem to take on a similar pattern.  Aside from the groundless hurling of the "you're biased" accusation, someone will quickly make the claim that "bias" is inevitable and that we all have our own unjustified biases, so why bother.  Here is yet another way, the Stanley Fish way, to deal with questions of bias:

I agree that it is important to have a position on such questions of truth, but the classroom is not the place to work that position out; the classroom is, however, the place to consider the efforts of men and women to work it out in the course of centuries. Steven Brence may or may not be right when he announces that an “untenable” Hobbesian notion of individualism is responsible for “much of contemporary conservative thought.” But “untenable” is not a judgment he should render, although he should make an historical argument about conservative thought’s indebtedness to Hobbes. Save “untenable” for the soapbox.

Sarah asks, what good does academic conversation “do us if it does not put us in a better position to assess current theories and thoughts?” It depends what you mean by assess. If you mean analyze, lay bare the structure of, trace the antecedents of, then well and good. But if it means pronouncing on the great issues of the day — yes we should export democracy to the rest of the world or no we shouldn’t — then what she calls assessing I call preaching.

Sarah touches on what is perhaps the most urgent question one could put to the enterprise of liberal education. What, after all, justifies it? The demand for justification, as I have said in other places, always come from those outside the enterprise. Those inside the enterprise should resist it, because to justify something is to diminish it by implying that its value lies elsewhere. If the question What justifies what you do? won’t go away, the best answer to give is “nothing.”

Now I hate to be the guy who draws the facile conclusion, but isn't "laying bear the structure of" a kind of "pronouncing on"?  I mean, if I say, "this argument has the structure (and say content) of an equivocation," aren't I pronouncing on it?  Or should I not teach logic, because it's biased?

Racial interpretations

Kathleen Parker–yes, the one of blut und boden–wonders:

Can we critique the issues—and the man—without resorting to racial interpretations and recriminations? If McCain wins, can his victory simply be a loss for Democrats—and not a loss specifically for African-Americans?

The answers to those questions will be the measure of whether we have really progressed to the point we claim.

This is not directed at herself of course.  For the other day she wondered whether Obama had enough generational equity to be truly American.  His family had not poured enough into the soil.  She wrote:

It's about blood equity, heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots.

Some run deeper than others and therein lies the truth of Fry's political sense. In a country that is rapidly changing demographically—and where new neighbors may have arrived last year, not last century—there is a very real sense that once-upon-a-time America is getting lost in the dash to diversity.

We love to boast that we are a nation of immigrants. But there's a different sense of America among those who trace their bloodlines back through generations of sacrifice.

Contributing to the growing unease among yesterday's Americans is the failure of the federal government to deal with illegal Immigration. It isn't necessarily racist or nativist to worry about what these new demographics mean to the larger American story

I can't really see the "issue" in that.

This is because this remark is directed at Democrats.  Can, in other words, Kathleen Parker and her friends say racist things without fear of being called racists. 

This, she thinks, is progress. 

logical correctness

There's a difference between using a word and "mentioning" it–I mean, mentioning it without the quotes.  Mentioning it means you refer to the word qua word, not what the word means.  This is in effect what you do when you refer to someone else's words–he said "you're a jerk"–doesn't call you a jerk.  Reporters do this sort of thing all of the time when they refer to someone's words or accusations or whatever in their stories.  One not unfair criticism of the press is that this is all they do (i.e., the stenography objection).

But that objection concerns when they note they're mentioning someone else's words: "Obama said that McCain was xyz."  McCain responded, "Obama is abc."  Sometimes, however, you don't really know whether the journalist is using or mentioning.  Here's an example from today's New York Times business section:

Indeed, Wal-Mart has gone so far on some initiatives, like the environmental programs, that it has started to draw scattered attacks from the right, particularly from a group called the National Legal and Policy Center that has accused the company of giving in to political correctness.

While it's clear the author is talking about someone's accusation, it's not clear that "political correctness" has meaning independent of that accusation.  Since there's no gloss on what that accusation might mean, one might suppose it's being used, not mentioned, that the author, in other words, thinks that phrase is the proper description of the union's activity.

Besides, wasn't it once the case that "political correctness" referred to restrictions on representational content–one could not, say, use sexist or racist language in a public museum.  When did it become the case that conservationist environmental policies qualify? 


I don't know what Tony Blair's actual views are (He used to be Prime Minister of Britain.  But he isn't any more.  He has converted to Catholicism–something he waited to do until he left office, for to avoid breaking the law), but he inadvisedly let Michael Gerson explain them.  Gerson writes:

But Blair is also critical of an "aggressive secularization," which, he told me, makes it easier to "forget a higher calling than the fulfillment of our own desires." Religious faith, at its best, not only encourages idealism, it provides an explanation and foundation for human rights and dignity, "an inalienable principle, rising above relativism and expediency." This does not "eliminate the painful compromises of political existence," Blair recognizes. But it does mean that "not everything can be considered in a utilitarian way." Blair defends a pluralism without relativism, a tolerance consistent with a belief in religious and moral truth — indeed, a tolerance that arises from within those convictions.

That view–that religious faith "provides an explanation and foundation for human rights" seems to be slightly self-refuting–it suggests that atheists (or for that matter people whose religious views differ from Blair's and Gerson's) cannot explain human rights.  It rejects pluralism at the same time that it purports to embrace it.  We embrace pluralism, one who affirms this view might say, it's just that you're an amoral or an immoral relativist–which has no place in our pluralistic view.

He might say, of course, certain religious doctrines or faiths are not inconsistent with political and moral and religious pluralism.  And that pluralism of the political, moral, and religious variety is not the sole property of any one member of the plural.  He might.  But he didn't.