Tag Archives: False Dichotomy

Better off

Now perhaps that the answer is likely to be "sadly, no," George Will no longer wants to hear the question: "are you better off than you were four years ago?"  In all fairness, his problem is McCain's use of this very Reaganite phrase.  When Reagan used it, of course, it made sense:

The nation considered the answer obvious. Reeling from oil shocks worse than today's, with 52 U.S. hostages in Tehran and with the Soviet Union rampant in Afghanistan, voters resoundingly said no. Today we know that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan hastened the collapse of the Evil Empire, so some things that seem to make us worse off are not unmixed curses.

Take heart America, look on the bright side.  In Will's defense, there are any number of reasons to reject this particular political device.  I might say in the first place that McCain looks like a fool asking it, considering his the Republican candidate for President.  As Will points out, it's a fairly vague question, but I would say that's its rhetorical, not logical, appeal.  Here is, however, one reason not to reject it:

The people asking and those answering the "better off" question seem to assume that the only facts that matter are those that can be expressed as economic statistics. Statistics are fine as far as they go, but they do not go very far in measuring life as actually lived.

No one really assumes that economic facts are the only relevant ones.  And it also would be supremely  disingenuous to suggest the question ought to consider the accumulation of good memories:

Suppose in those years you read "Middlemarch," rediscovered Fred Astaire's movies, took up fly-fishing, saw Chartres and acquired grandchildren. Even if the value of your stock portfolio is down since 2004 (the Dow actually is up), are you not decidedly better off?

Sheez.  Most people hearing that question would assume its non of the asker's business whether they've had a good time in their personal life these past four years.  But what looked initially like straw man in its misrepresentation of the question, now turns into an excursus on the meaning of life, David Brooks style:

We do, unfortunately, live, as Edmund Burke lamented, in an age of "economists and calculators" who are eager to reduce all things to the dust of numeracy, neglecting what Burke called "the decent drapery of life." In this supposedly rational and scientific age, the thirst for simple metrics seduces people into a preoccupation with things that lend themselves to quantification.

Self-consciously "modern" people have an urge to reduce assessments of their lives to things that can be presented in tables, charts and graphs — personal and national economic statistics. This sharpens their minds by narrowing them. Such people might as well measure out their lives in coffee spoons.

So now if you care to consider your economic status now versus four years ago, you measure your life in coffee spoons?  Now it's a false dichotomy: you either consider your reading of Middlemarch, your grandchildren, and baseball fandom have made your life better (despite your home foreclosure and costs of medication), or you are an economic reductionist.  

Or against us

The following strikes me as a fairly clear instance of a false dichotomy:

For those who see no moral principle underlying American foreign
policy, the Holocaust Declaration is no business of ours. But for those
who believe that America stands for something in the world — that the
nation that has liberated more peoples than any other has even the most
minimal moral vocation — there can be no more pressing cause than
preventing the nuclear annihilation of an allied democracy, the last
refuge and hope of an ancient people openly threatened with the final
Final Solution.

So, to recap: you either (1) have no moral principles; or (2) agree with Charles’ Krauthammer’s "Holocaust Declaration": here’s the Holocaust Declaration:

"It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear attack
upon Israel by Iran, or originating in Iran, as an attack by Iran on
the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon Iran."

There are many reasons to regard such a policy is foolish and immoral.  That simple fact alone means Krauthammer cannot claim that even the most "minimal moral vocation" means we must adopt it.  Even granting (which we shouldn’t, by the way) that some form of deterrence (of Iran’s as of yet non-existent nuclear capability) is the only available option, there many different ways to achieve that goal than by apocalyptic threats.  Adopting those approaches does not mean that one abandons the (dubious to some) claim that America stands for something in the world.