Tag Archives: Michael Gerson

Just saying

Today, I think we have a pretty straightforward case of "red herring."  This fallacy is classically described as occurring when one changes the subject of argument in order to derail criticism.  The red herring is another instance of the "no-inference-being-explicitly-drawn" kind of fallacy.  I think that's the trick that works on the mind of the red herring monger and the red herring.  The red herring monger isn't drawing any kind of illegitimate inference, "he's just saying." Let's take a look:

It began with the release of the Justice Department memos — a move opposed by CIA Director Leon Panetta along with four previous directors. Then, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. did not rule out Justice Department cooperation with foreign lawsuits against American intelligence operatives. Then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the CIA of lying to her in 2002 about waterboarding, which she admitted learning about five months later anyway but did nothing to oppose because her real job was to "change the leadership in Congress and in the White House."

To stanch the CIA's bleeding morale, Democrats have tried reassurance. President Obama, speaking at CIA headquarters, took the Fred Rogers approach: "Don't be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we've made some mistakes. That's how we learn." Yes, children, hypocritical congressional investigations and foreign kangaroo courts are really our friends. House intelligence committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes sent a sympathy note to Langley: "In recent days, as the public debate regarding CIA's interrogation practices has raged, you have been very much in my thoughts." There should be a section at Hallmark for intelligence operatives unfairly accused of war crimes.

That's the very Christian Michael Gerson, former Bush Speechwriter, who is beginning to sound like the very spiteful Charles Krauthammer.  Some Democrats (and some Republicans–no mention of them here) have leveled criticism of CIA methods and practices.  That's democracy, I think.  The question now is whether that criticism is deserved or not.  Did the CIA participate in war crimes?  I would like to know the answer to that question.  Did the CIA mislead the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States of America?  That would be good to know.  But alas.  No such luck.  Michael Gerson is not interested in those questions at all, actually.

For he's worried about the effect on CIA morale that such criticism might have.  He is also concerned as to why Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, didn't say anything (she couldn't) about the secret briefing at the time. 

Those are all great concerns, I think, but they aren't really what we're talking about.  Did the CIA, under orders from someone, commit war crimes?  No amount of what-did-Nancy Pelosi-know-and-when-did-she-know-it ought to distract us from that very simple question. 

Viginti quattuor

Michael Gerson confuses sophistical pseudo-skeptical hand wringing with actual moral deliberation.    

The Justice Department memos raise a question: Can coercive interrogation ever be justified? Few Americans would object to the slapping of a terrorist during questioning, for example, if this yielded important intelligence. The coercion would be minimal; the goal of saving lives, overriding. Few Americans, on the other hand, would support pressuring a terrorist by torturing his child. Such a heinous act could not be justified in pursuit of an inherently uncertain outcome — securing information that may or may not prevent greater loss of life.

So the use of coercion in interrogations lies on a continuum of ethics and risk. Lines must somehow be drawn on the slippery slope — the difficult task that Justice Department lawyers were given. On which side of the line should waterboarding lie? It is the hardest case. The practice remains deeply troubling to me, and it was discontinued by the CIA in 2003 after being used on three terrorists. But some members of Congress, it is now apparent, knew of the technique and funded it. The decision was not easy or obvious for them. It was just as difficult for intelligence and Justice Department officials in the months of uncertainty following Sept. 11.

And, skipping a paragraph:

Some have dismissed this argument as "moral relativism" or the assertion that the ends justify the means. But this betrays a misunderstanding of ethics itself. The most difficult moral decisions in government are required when two moral goods come into conflict. Most of us believe in the dignity of the human person, a principle that covers even those who commit grave evils. Most of us believe in the responsibility of government to protect the innocent from death and harm. Government officials pursue both moral goods in a complicated world. In retrospect, they may sometimes get the balance wrong. But national security decisions are not made in retrospect.

I suspect that most Americans, in considering these matters, would come to certain conclusions: There should be a broad presumption against harsh interrogations by our government. An atmosphere of permission can result in discrediting crimes such as Abu Ghraib. But perhaps in the most extreme cases — when the threat of a terrorist attack is clear and serious — American officials may need to employ harsh questioning, while protecting terrorists from permanent injury. In broad outlines, this approach is consistent with the Justice Department memos.

Moral deliberation would seem at least to involve knowing what is minimally acceptable conduct.  Luckily, sometimes what is acceptable is just obvious, there is, for instance, no right time and right place and right woman and right way to commit adultery, so says the Stagirite at least (Nicomachean Ethics II.6, 1107a8-12).  On that analogy, water boarding, and various other techniques considered torture by the US military and the FBI (to name a few relevant organizations) is torture.  Redefining the words (now it's "harsh interrogation") and feigning skepticism (on which side should water torture, ahem, waterboarding lie?) about their meaning and application because of worries about a TV show scenario shocks the conscience.

Coercion and Complicity

I'm not quite sure that I understand the complicity argument that has sprung up among some of those who lost the election and who are upset at Obama's policies. Gerson gave a particularly virulent formulation of it today:

There is a common thread running through President Obama's pro-choice agenda: the coercion of those who disagree with it.

. . . .

Now, taxpayers are likely to fund not only research on the "spare" embryos from in vitro fertilization but also on human lives produced and ended for the sole purpose of scientific exploitation. Biotechnicians have been freed from the vulgar moralism of the masses, so they can operate according to the vulgar utilitarianism of their own social clique — the belief that some human lives can be planted, plucked and processed for the benefit of others. It is the incurable itch of pro-choice activists to compel everyone's complicity in their agenda. Somehow, getting "politics out of science" translates into taxpayer funding for embryo experimentation. "Choice" becomes a demand on doctors and nurses to violate their deepest beliefs or face discrimination.

The argument seems to be that the fact that some people of conscience disagree with a certain policy on moral grounds presumptively legitimates the conclusion that the policy should not be enacted. The argument seems to be

1. People of conscience are free to have their own moral beliefs.

2. Freedom of moral belief entails (requires) that one is not "forced" to act counter to one's moral belief.

3. Therefore a policy that "forces" you to act indirectly against your moral belief is wrong.

4. Paying taxes to support an activity that runs counter to your moral beliefs is being "forced" to act counter to your moral beliefs.

5. [Therefore the government is wrong to spend money on activities that run counter to some people's moral belief.]

Gerson, being the moral relativist that he is, relativizes the difference in moral views to "social cliques" and then suggests that the government has no business intervening in this matter of taste–non disputandum gustibus I guess. Gerson makes that Nietzschean mistake of confusing sneering at those who disagree with you with argument against their position.Gerson and others can, of course, take the route many others of serious moral conscience have gone before. But, I can't see how it follows that a government cannot make any law legitimately that would be conscientiously objected to by a "social clique" even if we drink the radical relativist kool-aid with Gerson.

But, it seems to me that there is ultimatley something worrisome about Gerson's notions of "coercion" and "complicity" here. This argument may not seem fallacious as such. He is, of cousre, entitled to define coercion this broadly. But it overloads his premises, and, because he does not make explicit the real claim that he is making here, it seems to come close to begging the question. He is at least using emotionally loaded terms in order to persuade the reader without adequate justification of the wrongness of Obama's order. (Begging the question seems too strong here, better would be a fallacy of loading the key term of the argument.)

I'm really fascinated by the concept of complicity, though I can't say that I understand what the conditions for complicity would be. At the same time I don't think we can do without a fairly robust notion, at least, in our moral thinking. But, the sort of argument that Gerson is trotting out here, seems to be the argument of the defeated: No longer able to argue against fairly overwhelming democratic and popular support for the policy, no longer able to enforce their view by fiat, they claim that any policy is the result of an "incurable itch of [pro-choice] activists to compel everyone's complicity in their agenda."

A pro-choice Catholic and a Rabbi walk into a bar

Two columns in the Post.  One from the newly reborn Kathleen Parker, who argues, not that fallaciously, that perhaps lifting the stem cell ban was otiose, as researchers had already found a way around the central moral problem (for some), i.e., the creation of embryonic stem cells from embryos.  Or is it the destruction?  I'm not sure, because she unfortunately characterizes the moral problem in these two distinct ways.  This seems important because some people object to using (therefore destroying) stem cells, others object to creating embryos solely for the purposes of research, which seems, in some sense, much worse.  Nonetheless, other cells, she alleges, work just as well, so lifting the ban on whatever it was that was happening doesn't amount to much.  I have a feeling something in there is false or confused, but this doesn't strike me as a fallacious argument.  So good for Parker, at least we stayed on topic.

Same topic, different writer.  Michael Gerson makes the following very puzzling assertion:

It is probably not a coincidence that Obama has chosen a Roman Catholic — Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius — to implement many of these policies as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Obama has every right to a pro-choice Cabinet. But this appointment seems designed to provide religious cover. It also smacks of religious humiliation — like asking a rabbi to serve the pork roast or an atheist to bless the meal.

Sebelius, though strongly pro-choice, was capable of occasional compromise. But she consistently fought against the serious enforcement of Kansas's late-term abortion restrictions. Kansas became a magnet for late-term abortions.

Still, Sebelius insists that "my Catholic faith teaches me that all life is sacred." This puts her in the same category as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Biden — Catholics who assert the sanctity of life while defending legal abortion. It has also earned Sebelius a firm rebuke from her archbishop.

No, it's not like the Rabbi thing at all: Sebelius is strongly pro-choice, one might presume the rabbi in the joke or the atheist is not "pro pork" or "pro God."  There is much else about this column that would warrant criticism, such as the claim that pro life people's rights are being trampled upon when they lose arguments:

There is a common thread running through President Obama's pro-choice agenda: the coercion of those who disagree with it.

Indeed, laws are coercive.  Elections, someone said, have consequences.  Pointing that out doesn't mean those consequences (i.e., laws which are "coercive"!) are wrong.

Economic Creationism

When the leader of the Republican party insists that government jobs are not really jobs, but something else for which there is no word, and that as a matter of definition only a private employer can "create" a "job," you know you're not going to have a very informative discussion on the relative merits of government spending, not to mention the relative merits of particular spending programs and priorities.  You will spend all of your time instead trying to explain how moronic that distinction is and how irrelevant it is to the matter at hand.  Such inane distractions, however, may constitute a strategy for poisoning the well.  We can't have a serious discussion when the children are running around screaming.

Since I don't know anything about economics, I wonder about the merits of government spending.  Since I wonder about the effectiveness of government, I wonder whether some kinds of spending will be a complete waste.  Lots of economists, however, say that spending is a good idea–and they, real economists, not people with undergraduate degrees in English–claim that spending is appropriate in a time such as this.  Fair enough.  I wonder now what would be a serious rebuttal to this claim.  It is certainly not going to be this set of assertions from the Washington Post's Michael Gerson:

But that creed has now been tested in two areas. First, the new president deferred almost entirely to the Democratic congressional leadership on the initial shape of the stimulus package — which, in turn, was shaped by pent-up Democratic spending appetites instead of by an explainable economic theory. Senate modifications made the legislation marginally more responsible. But Obama's pragmatism, in this case, was a void of creativity, filled by the most aggressively ideological branch of government. And this managed to revive Republican ideological objections to federal overreach. In the new age of pragmatism, all the ideologues seem to be encouraged.

The spending, whatever its particular merits, is the theory.  And saying there is no "explainable economic theory" when (a) there is, and (b) that is the core claim of your argument just begs the question in the most obvious way.  That's what is at issue.

I know a lot of things about which program is better seem to be a matter of taste, not informed or justified opinion, and these sort of assertions just do not help change that impression.  There is, after all, a serious discussion worth having about the economy.  It would be nice if the Washington Post cared enough about its readers to insist that their columnists play along.  Hey Michael, an editor might say, say why there is no explainable economic theory–that's the key issue, after all, and no one can seriously just take your word for it, as you were the former President's speechwriter.

For Some

Michael Gerson, Evangelical Christian who does not care even to mention the predictable and extensive collateral damage in Gaza, bravely faces down a straw man argument, and loses.  He writes:

While Israel's military operations didn't accomplish everything, they also didn't accomplish nothing. But the "force doesn't solve anything" argument runs so deep for some that real-world outcomes matter little. Military action by Israel is always counterproductive, because Israel must eventually negotiate with its most bitter enemies. The sooner the better.

Call it the Fallacy of the Eventual Answer. It is true that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is two states living side by side in peace. But it is false to say that the fight against terrorists and the security of Israel have no part in achieving that goal.

Yes, of course there are pacifists, and of course there are SOME who never advocate military action, and of course military action sometimes achieves things which peaceful negotiation cannot (assignment: name three).  The question at hand, however, SOME would say, is whether this particular military action, with its costs in civilian casualties in Gaza and so forth, has strengthened Israel's ultimate position, increased its security, laid the groundwork for a durable peace, and so forth.  Maybe it has, maybe it hasn't.  But that's rather another discussion than the one Gerson wants to have here. 

But more fundamentally–and this is the loss to the straw man part–the straw man suggests a military action may not be the answer, but that does not entail that Israel (1) not fight terrorists; or (2) have no security.  It's military action, not security, that's at issue. 

Argumentum ad Obamam

Today Michael Gerson argues that Obama's new politics is all hogwash because, get this because I'm not making this up, some anonymous and unnamed bloggers celebrated the earlier than expected firing of a political appointee.  He writes:

But one major personnel error was made from malice. And it calls into question the depth and duration of President Obama's "new politics."

Interesting remark there at the end.  More on that in a moment.  But here's the evidence for the strikingly general claim that one should now question Obama's "new politics."

Then, the day after the inauguration, Dybul received a call asking him to submit his resignation and to leave by the end of the day. There was no chance to reassure demoralized staffers, or PEPFAR teams abroad, or the confused health ministers of other nations. The only people who seemed pleased were a few blogging extremists, one declaring, "Dybul Out: Thank you, Hillary!!!" 

And following directly:

As in most political hit-and-run attacks, the perpetrator was not anxious to take credit. It seems unlikely to be Hillary Clinton herself — Dybul's ultimate boss at the State Department — who had not even been confirmed when Dybul received his call. But someone at State or the White House determined that sacrificing Dybul would appease a few vocal, liberal interest groups. One high-ranking Obama official admitted that the decision was "political."

It may be the case–but Gerson's evidence for the fairly strong claim that this was an "attack" made from "malice" and is completely non existent.  He doesn't even try to argue that this had anything to do with Obama or any key Obama operative.  

I think we might have stumbled upon a new fallacy–call it argumentum ad Obamam.  Here's how it goes.  Start from the premise that Obama is better than Jesus, then argue that any negative thing remotely linkable to him shows that he is not in fact the real Jesus after all–as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent he would have stopped it!–and that maybe there is no Jesus, and that those who believed in Jesus were gullible fools, because all there exists there is evil.

Well, that's a load of crap, of course.  Not because Obama is Jesus, but because only a nitwit like Gerson would expect him to be (disingenuously–I mean, Jesus, this guy worked for Bush for six solid years, anyone remember Iraq?  Abu Ghraib?) in order to show that silly expectation no one would seriously have to be unfounded.

Slipsliding away

Slippery slope style arguments tend to be fallacious.  In one sense, they suggest non-existent causal chains as reasons not to engage in some or other activity.  An example: If we allow gay marriage in California, then we will have to allow polyandry, polyzoology, poly-whatever-you-wish, because the door will have been opened, the foot will be in it, and the slope will be greased and increasing its degree of descent.  Downward, indeed, we will go if we allow gay marriage.  That of course is not so much an argument against gay marriage as it is an argument against the things that would follow gay marriage.  Perhaps it's an implicit admission that one has no argument at all against gay marriage.  This causal chain, of course, starts at straight marriage.  Seems like if we allow that, then we will have to allow marriage between to "straight" Christians, and then therefore etc., as they used to say.  This of course points to the other variety of slippery slope fallacy–the relevance variety.  Man-turtle marriage really isn't what one was talking about when one advocated gay marriage.  Man-turtle marriage is irrelevant.  It's not like man-man or woman-woman marriage at all.  In the first place, turtles can't contract.  So there's that.

Sometimes however slippery slopes are not fallacious.  No, these are not the slippery slope arguments that I use–because, as we all know, I can never be guilty of a fallacy.  Rather, these are slippery slopes that aren't causal, but rather analogical.  If we make a law, for instance, which benefits company A, call it, I don't know, GM, then, by analogy, we must also make a law which benefits company B, which finds itself in the same circumstances.  That's not really a slippery slope in the fallacious sense, as it's more of an argument by analogy anyway.

I make this point because I encountered this surprising instance of a non-fallacious argument in Michael Gerson's piece today.  Speaking of a government bailout of General Motors, he writes:

But wouldn't government intervention be a slippery slope? Why bail out GM and not Circuit City? Well, perhaps because the closing of Circuit City leaves an empty place at the mall, while the collapse of the American auto industry would leave entire regions of the country in crisis. It is the job of a president — on issues from military intervention to economic policy — to keep his footing on unavoidably slippery slopes.

Maybe there is also a kind of implicit false dichotomy here as well–one can either help everyone or no one.  There is no middle ground.  We cannot afford to help everyone.  So we must therefore help no one.  Or maybe perhaps there's a kind of fallacy of accident–the misapplied general rule: if the rule states we help companies who are in dire straits, then we must help all companies regardless, etc.  That's what the rule states, after all.

So Gerson is of course right that is not a slippery slope.  But he's wrong as to why.  The reason why it isn't is because not all slippery slopes are fallacious.  One sometimes hears complaints in the fallacy literature to the effect that some alleged fallacies are not fallacies at all.  My answer to that is a resounding "maybe" or "sometimes."  Sometimes they're not.  Sometimes they are.  When they are, they're fallacious.   

They make dessert and call it peas

Today Michael Gerson writes of the "Decency of George W. Bush."  The other day, in a similar vein, some jackass argued that George Bush's approval rating of the nation ought to be taken into account–the nation, the American people, have failed Bush.  It wasn't Bush after all who lost an election in the popular vote and declared and acted as if he had a mandate, who stocked his cabinet with incompetent cronies, who ignored intelligence that could have prevented 9/11, who squandered the good will of the world on belligerent unilateralism, who invaded a country that had not attacked us with no plan for managing the war's inevitable aftermath, who ate cake with John McCain while New Orleans filled with water.  No–all of that must have been the fault of the American people.  Worse than that, all of these things must be the fault of Democrats:

Earlier this year, 12,000 people in San Francisco signed a petition in support of a proposition on a local ballot to rename an Oceanside sewage plant after George W. Bush. The proposition is only one example of the classless disrespect many Americans have shown the president.

[Commentary] AP

According to recent Gallup polls, the president's average approval rating is below 30% — down from his 90% approval in the wake of 9/11. Mr. Bush has endured relentless attacks from the left while facing abandonment from the right.

This is the price Mr. Bush is paying for trying to work with both Democrats and Republicans. During his 2004 victory speech, the president reached out to voters who supported his opponent, John Kerry, and said, "Today, I want to speak to every person who voted for my opponent. To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support, and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust."

Not to put too fine of a point on it, but I can't get over how dumb that is.  That is, I couldn't get over it until I read something even dumber.  Here's Gerson:

Election Day 2008 must have been filled with rueful paradoxes for the sitting president. Iraq — the issue that dominated George W. Bush's presidency for 5 1/2 bitter, controversial years — is on the verge of a miraculous peace. And yet this accomplishment did little to revive Bush's political standing — or to prevent his party from relegating him to a silent role.

The achievement is historic. In 2006, Iraq had descended into a sectarian killing spree that seemed likely to stop only when the supply of victims was exhausted. Showing Truman-like stubbornness, Bush pushed to escalate a war that most Americans — and some at the Pentagon — had already mentally abandoned.

Perhaps Gerson has forgotten–after all, he was just the speechwriter for Bush before and during the Iraq war–that Bush waged the unnecessary (in the sense that all of the justifications offered have turned out not to have been legitimate) war of choice which thrust Iraq into the situation it is now.  It's Bush's mess.  One he will leave to his successor, President Barack Obama.

The new FDR

According to the sycophantic Michael Gerson, Bush is the new FDR:

Usually, just the opposite is the case. A sitting president normally must accept the boring constraints of real-world choices. Campaigns can inhabit the utopia of their own ambitions.

But it is President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, by proposing the massive government purchase of bad debt, who have assumed the mantle of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is John McCain and Barack Obama who are playing the role of Roosevelt's more timid, forgotten foils, "Martin, Barton and Fish." Having last week criticized the role of the Federal Reserve in bailouts — demonstrating a tin ear of elephantine proportions — McCain now calls for a bipartisan oversight board to review the government's rescue attempt.

Bush's idea may be bold and "new" (in the quantity of its generosity), but as of this writing, it seems enormously dumb and completely in line with his notion of the imperial presidency.  It invests unchecked and unregulated power in the hands of one person for the direct benefit of a handful of extremely wealthy and irresponsible people and the theoretical good of maybe the American people (not a guarantee).  It was thrown at Congress, painted as the only alternative that must be passed without study or examination. 

This argument is a very bad example of what one might call aestheticism, the tendency to confuse how an idea appears (new, bold, imaginative) with whether it is wise.  Bush has indeed in his eight years had a lot of new and bold ideas, some of them, like this one, quite awful.