Category Archives: Formal Fallacies

Liberal Fascism

This book refutes itself. But, while we’re at it:


Image courtesy of Sadly, No! as well.  Anyway, that’s something like the fallacy of the excluded middle–a formal fallacy, a rare thing, by the way, for the Non Sequitur.  It goes like this:

1.  Some Nazis were vegetarians

2.  Some liberals are vegetarians

3.  Ergo, etc.  

Now, purely for the sake of repeating another funny Sadly, No! item (in case that strikes you as utterly incomprehensible, this site will explain it): 



Sanitation technician

Today David Brooks tries to erase any subtlety from the immigration question. The real conflict is between educated globe-trotting elites and local Nascar types. In case you thought that’s the usual silly dichotomy, you’d be right. This time, however, he finds a way to contradict himself and patronize both groups of the dichotomy.

>The conventional view is that an angry band of conservative activists driven by nativism and economic insecurity is killing immigration reform. But this view is wrong in almost every respect.

Three paragraphs of general assertions lead to the following conclusion:

>What’s shaping the immigration debate is something altogether deeper and more interesting. And if you want to understand what it is, start with education. Between 1960 and 1980, the share of Americans enrolled in higher education exploded. The U.S. became the first nation in history with a mass educated class. The members of this class differed from each other in a thousand ways, but they tended to share a cosmopolitan approach to the world. They celebrated cultural diversity and saw ethnocentrism as a sign of backwardness.

No attempt is made to support that claim with any research. Broad, unsupported generalizations–even in the context of a 750 word column–don’t deserve anyone’s serious consideration. If you can’t even point to the right kind of source for that evidence, you probably shouldn’t write it in a newspaper.

Here’s the dichotomy. First, the smart, elite types:

>Liberal members of the educated class celebrated the cultural individualism of the 1960s. Conservative members celebrated the economic individualism of the 1980s. But they all celebrated individualism. They all valued diversity and embraced a sense of national identity that rested on openness and global integration.

Now the yokels:

>This cultural offensive created a silent backlash among people who were not so enamored of rampant individualism, and who were worried that all this diversity would destroy the ancient ties of community and social solidarity. Members of this class came to feel that America’s identity and culture were under threat from people who didn’t understand what made America united and distinct.

But they’re not driven by nativism–they only feel that the ancient ties of solidarity and community of their native culture is under threat from outsiders.

Brooks on Gore III

Lots to choose from today: Sam Brownback’s evolution confusion or George Will’s “Case for Conservatism” (which is, as one would suspect, the case against his cartoonish liberal with the subsequently unjustified claim that this makes the case for his view–which it doesn’t). But David Brooks’ column the other day still offers some final ignorant tidbits. So far, the reader may remember, Brooks has accused Gore of favoring some kind of vulcan-like existence because he wants people to argue with facts and logic.

The final paragraphs of Brooks piece descend into nonsense. He writes:

> This, in turn, grows out of a bizarre view of human nature. Gore seems to have come up with a theory that the upper, logical mind sits on top of, and should master, the primitive and more emotional mind below. He thinks this can be done through a technical process that minimizes information flow to the lower brain and maximizes information flow to the higher brain.

Now the mind is identical to the brain? Doesn’t that make Brooks a determinist?

>The reality, of course, is that there is no neat distinction between the “higher” and “lower” parts of the brain. There are no neat distinctions between the “rational” mind and the “visceral” body. The mind is a much more complex network of feedback loops than accounted for in Gore’s simplistic pseudoscience.

>Without emotions like fear, the “logical” mind can’t reach conclusions. On the other hand, many of the most vicious, genocidal acts are committed by people who are emotionally numb, not passionately out of control.

Now we’ve veered far from the discussion of civil discourse, into simplistic (ironically it seems) pseudo-science about the nature of reasoning and consciousness and their relation to brain processes.

>Some great philosopher should write a book about people — and there are many of them — who flee from discussions of substance and try to turn them into discussions of process. Utterly at a loss when asked to talk about virtue and justice, they try to shift attention to technology and methods of communication. They imagine that by altering machines they can alter the fundamentals of behavior, or at least avoid the dark thickets of human nature.

>If a philosopher did write such a book, it would help us understand Al Gore, and it would, as he would say, in fact, evoke a meaningful response.

I don’t think any philosopher would write a book of that sort, as it rests on a confusion between argument and explanation. Brooks can’t bring himself to consider Al Gore’s argument, so he distorts it, and then asks what would explain such a distorted view. Ironically, even Gore’s distorted view is superior, on Brooks’ own grounds, to Brooks’ brain state analysis of human nature.

Perhaps Gore can include Brooks unreasoning response as an appendix in a subsequent edition of his book about the assault on rational discourse.

David Brooks rethinks

David Brooks once called John Kerry "a fraud with a manly bearing." He made fun of him for correctly understanding the nature of terrorism–that it wasn’t a question of armies and generals and nation states, but rather a matter of politics, and of course, law and order. Now this:

The war on terror has shredded the reputation of the Bush administration. It’s destroyed the reputation of Tony Blair’s government in Britain, Ehud Olmert’s government in Israel and Nuri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq. And here’s a prediction: It will destroy future American administrations, and future Israeli, European and world governments as well.

That’s because setbacks in the war on terror don’t only flow from the mistakes of individual leaders and generals. They’re structural. Thanks to a series of organizational technological innovations, guerrilla insurgencies are increasingly able to take on and defeat nation-states.

So he was wrong. But it turns out that it wasn’t anyone’s fault after all. Not so. The mistakes in Iraq–and in Afghanistan–flow from one single source–the commander guy. Had he not envisioned the whole thing–wrongly–as an epic battle between good and evil, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. And it seems wrong therefore to call all insurgency, as Brooks does, "war on terror." If you take what he says seriously, that’s the problem.

Fish on religion and liberalism

I think Stanley Fish doesn’t understand either liberalism or religion. He writes (behind the Times firewall):

>First of all, I stipulate to the usefulness of teaching the bible as an aid to the study of literature and history. I’m just saying that when you do that you are teaching religion as a pedagogical resource, not as a distinctive discourse the truth or falsehood of which is a matter of salvation for its adherents. One can of course teach that too; one can, that is, get students to understand that at least some believers hold to their faith in a way that is absolute and exclusionary; in their view nonbelievers have not merely made a mistake – as one might be mistaken about the causes of global warming – they have condemned themselves to eternal perdition. (“I am the way.”) What one cannot do – at least under the liberal democratic dispensation – is teach that assertion of an exclusive and absolute truth as anything but someone’s opinion; and in many classes that opinion will be rehearsed with at best a sympathetic condescension (“let’s hope they grow out of it”) and at worst a condemning ridicule (“even in this day and age, there are benighted people”).

In the first place (as we noted in an earlier post), there’s nothing incoherent about studying the body of propositions that compose any particular religious doctrine without embracing their truth. For instance, Fish has made the doctrine and the seriousness with which its adherents believe it without making us affirm it. If what he said about religion were true–you cannot teach it–then he couldn’t talk about why you can’t. Since you can–he has–then what he says is false.

Second, the Rawlsian liberal will point out that there is no absolute truth when it comes to matters of foundational questions of justice and political structure. This is quite a different claim from that which says there is no absolute truth at all. Liberals are not relativists, as Fish seems to think. There is of course plenty of absolute truth possible in matters empirical. These may inform, but do not form the basis of, our conception of justice. So in the end, no controversial system of value can serve as the basis of a political structure.

Equal rights

There’s a lot to complain about in this confused George Will op-ed. One could point out the limbaughesque caricature of “liberals”:

>Liberals, dolled up in love beads and bell-bottom trousers, have had another bright idea, one as fresh as other 1970s fads. Sens. Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer and Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, high-octane liberals all, have asked Congress to improve the Constitution by adding the Women’s Equality Amendment, which, like the Equal Rights Amendment before it, says: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

But I’d rather focus my attention on the following blaring confusion. Since Will can never be bothered to examine any of his opponents’ actual reasons for their views, he just makes them up. So he wonders why someone would need an equal rights amendment when the courts–you heard that right–found them to be a consequence of the 14th Amendment:

>March 1972 was a year after the Supreme Court cited the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment when invalidating a law that involved discrimination on the basis of sex. And March 1972 was 10 months before the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade.

I’ve lost count of how many columns Will has written undermining that very principle of constitutional interpretation. And he finds the very principle of such litigation–i.e., the kind of litigation that clarifies the proper interpretation of the laws–odious:

>If Kennedy and like-minded legislators think that the condition of American women needs improvements, they should try to legislate them. Instead, they prefer to hope that liberal judges will regard the ERA’s language as a license to legislate. But, then, support for the amendment testifies to the supporters’ lack of confidence in their ability to persuade people to support such policies.

And someone might point out that a constitutional amendment is a form of legislation.

The new literalism

And you thought the old literalism was bad (courtesy of Crooks and Liars):

>Specter: Now wait a minute, wait a minute. The Constitution says you can’t take it [habeas corpus] away except in the case of invasion or rebellion. Doesn’t that mean you have the right of habeas corpus?

>Gonzales: I meant by that comment that the Constitution doesn’t say that every individual in the United States or every citizen has or is assured the right of habeas corpus. It doesn’t say that. It simply says that the right of habeas corpus shall not be suspended.

On that reading of the Constitution, they’re are no rights that are not positively expressed: You might have thought you had a right to free speech, for instance:

>Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

But on Gonzales’s interpretation, you don’t have a right to these things. Congress just can’t “abridge” them.

Success is success

A while ago we linked to an Associated Press story that said Bush often uses straw man arguments to advance his views. Since Bush doesn’t read “the filter” he never got the memo. But we think it would be nice if Bush reasoned or spoke coherently enough to commit discernable fallacies. Take a look at the following exchange from yesterday’s press conference:

>Q Quick follow-up. A lot of the consequences you mentioned for pulling out seem like maybe they never would have been there if we hadn’t gone in. How do you square all of that?

>THE PRESIDENT: I square it because, imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein who had the capacity to make a weapon of mass destruction, who was paying suiciders to kill innocent life, who would — who had relations with Zarqawi. Imagine what the world would be like with him in power. The idea is to try to help change the Middle East.

>Now, look, part of the reason we went into Iraq was — the main reason we went into Iraq at the time was we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. It turns out he didn’t, but he had the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction. But I also talked about the human suffering in Iraq, and I also talked the need to advance a freedom agenda. And so my question — my answer to your question is, is that, imagine a world in which Saddam Hussein was there, stirring up even more trouble in a part of the world that had so much resentment and so much hatred that people came and killed 3,000 of our citizens.

>You know, I’ve heard this theory about everything was just fine until we arrived, and kind of “we’re going to stir up the hornet’s nest” theory. It just doesn’t hold water, as far as I’m concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East.

Idiot or not, this is laughably incoherent–especially the last remark. First he makes the “some say” move–“you’ve heard the theory.” But he doesn’t even bother to knock it down. Rather, he turns to his favorite subject–September 11. 9/11 happened even without the inspiration we have provided them in Iraq. That’s true, but it has nothing to do with the question asked. Neither does the hornet’s nest theory (which was, in a sense, Cheney’s theory during the Gulf War I). But nobody had really argued that anyway.

But the question asker–the one with the seersucker suit–kept at it (direclty following):

>Q What did Iraq have to do with that?

>THE PRESIDENT: What did Iraq have to do with what?

>Q The attack on the World Trade Center?

>THE PRESIDENT: Nothing, except for it’s part of — and nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a — the lesson of September the 11th is, take threats before they fully materialize, Ken. Nobody has ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq. I have suggested, however, that resentment and the lack of hope create the breeding grounds for terrorists who are willing to use suiciders to kill to achieve an objective. I have made that case.

>And one way to defeat that — defeat resentment is with hope. And the best way to do hope is through a form of government. Now, I said going into Iraq that we’ve got to take these threats seriously before they fully materialize. I saw a threat. I fully believe it was the right decision to remove Saddam Hussein, and I fully believe the world is better off without him. Now, the question is how do we succeed in Iraq? And you don’t succeed by leaving before the mission is complete, like some in this political process are suggesting.

Sadly, there is much the logic professor could comment on. But again take a look at the last remark. Bush repeats something of the one-percent doctrine (see below). But he seems to have forgotten there was no threat to us from Iraq (and that Iraq has made the world less safe). We’ll leave to one side the “better off without Saddam” remark and its implicit false dichotomy.

The last remark, “you don’t succeed before the mission is complete” is questionbeggingly tautologous. Completing the mission defines success in Iraq for Bush, but the question is whether success can be achieved in this way, not, as Bush seems to think, whether success is success.

War is no place for logic

I find this claim very strange, even for Krauthammer:

>But no matter. Logic has little place here. The court has decreed: There is no war — or we will pretend so — and henceforth it shall be conducted by the court. God save the United States. (This honorable court can fend for itself.) [emphasis added]

Here is the reason I find it strange:

>They declared illegal President Bush’s military tribunals for the likes of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver and bodyguard. First, because they were not established in accordance with congressional authority. And, second, because they violated the Geneva Conventions.

Is it a war or not?

Here’s the answer–yes and no. Yes when Krauthammer wants it to be, no when he doesn’t. But you can’t have it both ways. In this case, it’s a contradiction.

If it’s a war, then the Geneva conventions apply. If it’s a war, then people we capture are “prisoners of war” and should be treated accordingly (if unlike the crazy John Yoo we want to abide by the Geneva Conventions). Also if it’s a war, then Congress declares it.

If it’s not a war, then the people we capture are prisoners of another kind.

These are not the same thing.


Contrary to his usual flair for linguistico-historical constitutional originalism on the Scalia model, George Will seems to have taken a step towards coming to terms with the sorts of difficult and at times insoluble interpretative questions responsible readers of texts and traditions face. He writes
>Historians continue to deepen our understanding of how varied and occasionally contradictory were the intentions of the framers and ratifiers. History always informs constitutional deliberations; it rarely is dispositive.

No kidding. But appearances are deceiving. Near the end of a column agreeably rich in such descriptions of the shortcomings of the purely historical and originalist attempts to eliminate liberal discretion (i.e., legislating from the bench) from judging, Will writes,

>In Federalist 78, Alexander Hamilton said that courts have a duty “to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void.” So one of the Constitution’s most distinguished framers thought judges’ discretion must extend to measuring governmental acts against their sense of the document’s “manifest tenor.” The inexpugnable role of judicial discretion demands of judges the virtue Wilkinson calls “modesty.” That is a modest man’s synonym for judiciousness.

And how does one determine which acts are contrary to the “manifest tenor”? Well, judicial discretion demands modesty, which is another word for “judiciousness”. Judicial discretion then demands judiciousness. But what, we are left to wonder, does “judiciousness” demand? My guess is modesty.