Category Archives: Bad Explanations

It’s not only arguments that have problems.

Sojourner Truth

E.J.Dionne writes in today's Post:

The great opportunity this year for less scrupulous Republican strategists is that Obama is both black and a Columbia-and-Harvard-educated former professor who lived in the intellectually rarified precincts of Hyde Park in Chicago, Manhattan's Upper West Side and Cambridge, Mass. They can go after him subtly on race and overtly on elitism. They can turn the facts of Obama's life into mutually reinforcing liabilities.

As if on cue, David Brooks responds:

And the root of it is probably this: Obama has been a sojourner. He opened his book “Dreams From My Father” with a quotation from Chronicles: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.”

There is a sense that because of his unique background and temperament, Obama lives apart. He put one foot in the institutions he rose through on his journey but never fully engaged. As a result, voters have trouble placing him in his context, understanding the roots and values in which he is ineluctably embedded.

Of course there is no evidence for Brooks' assertion that "voters have trouble [unsure, etc.]" other than the fact that Obama is not crushing McCain in the polls.  It seems Brooks is the one who has trouble placing Obama.  Given the vast amount of empirical data about voter preferences, Brooks would be better served seeking his explanatory story there.

But no.  Brooks would rather make observations of the very silly kind–the kind that could characterize anyone of us at any time.  For example:

And so it goes. He is a liberal, but not fully liberal. He has sometimes opposed the Chicago political establishment, but is also part of it. He spoke at a rally against the Iraq war, while distancing himself from many antiwar activists.

Isn't this the narrative that many supporters of McCain use in his favor (he bucks the party trend–he's a maverick, etc.)?  All of this to establish the point that Obama is some kind of careerist cipher, whose very success, independence, and upward mobility are signs that he doesn't really belong.  Of course Brooks has expanded the trope somewhat–by insisting that the sheer fact of living an indentifiable cariacature constitutes a virtue.

Teneo vestri vox*

One can certainly trust the Post to select op-eds on the important issues of the day.  Richard Cohen edifies his readers with this gem:

Tattoos are the emblems of our age. They bristle from the biceps of men in summer shirts, from the lower backs of women as they ascend stairs, from the shoulders of basketball players as they drive toward the basket, and from every inch of certain celebrities. The tattoo is the battle flag of today in its war with tomorrow. It is carried by sure losers. 

Losers: Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, etc.

It gets better:

I asked a college professor what she thought of tattoos, and she said that for young people, they represent permanence in an ever-changing world. But how is that possible? Anyone old enough and smart enough to get into college knows that only impermanence is permanent. Everything changes — including, sweetie, that tight tummy with its "look at me!" tattoo. Time will turn it into false advertising. 

It gets better still, for the grumpy old man tattoo diatribe was merely a set-up:

The permanence of the moment — the conviction that now is forever — explains what has happened to the American economy. We are, as a people, deeply in debt. We are, as a nation, deeply in debt. The average American household owes more than its yearly income. We save almost nothing (0.4 percent of disposable income) and spend almost everything (99.6 percent of disposable income) in the hope that tomorrow will be a lot like today. We bought homes we could not afford and took out mortgages we could not pay and whipped out the plastic on everything else. Debts would be due in the future, but, with any luck, the future would remain in the future. 

I would say that getting a tattoo may be something remotely like what happened to certain people in debt, but I think it strains credulity to say that it "explains" the economy.  (For more on that topic, there's the almost–almost I say–equally shallow economic/social/political analysis of David Brooks in today's Times). Back to tattoos:

But the tattoos of today are not minor affairs or miniatures placed on the body where only an intimate or an internist would see them. Today's are gargantuan, inevitably tacky, gauche and ugly. They bear little relationship to the skin that they're on. They don't represent an indelible experience or membership in some sort of group but an assertion that today's whim will be tomorrow's joy. After all, a tattoo cannot be easily removed. It takes a laser — and some cash.


I have decades' worth of photos of me wearing clothes that now look like costumes. My hair has been long and then longer and then short. My lapels have been wide, then wider, then narrow. I have written awful columns I once thought were brilliant and embraced ideas I now think are foolish. Nothing is forever.

Seize the day — laser tomorrow.

What about your columns, Richard?  You can't undo those.

*Teneo vestri vox doesn't mean anything, but it appears as a tattoo on Angelina Jolie in a recent movie.  See here for more.  But in the meantime, since so many have asked, here's why it means nothing.  Latin words get their grammatical significance from their endings (not, as is often the case, from their position in the sentence).  So teneo means "I hold," vestri (a possessive adjective without an antecedant) means "of yours [all])," and "vox" means "voice" or "the voice" (in the nominative case).  Put them together this way and you have nonsense: there's no grammatical object for the transitive verb, vox is nominative but is not the subject, and the possessive adjective doesn't modify anything.  You might as well string any three words together–dog yours telephone–and tattoo that on your body, that's about how much sense it makes.



Glass ones

Ruth Marcus has an idea why more women do not get involved in politics, and, surprisingly, punditry.  Considering what Hillary Clinton has had to suffer through (sometimes, someone said on CNN, it's "accurate" to call someone a 'bitch'"), Marcus' answer is surprising.  She writes:

The ambition gap also reflected an underlying, and pronounced, cockiness gap. One-third of men, but just one in five women, rated themselves "very qualified" to hold political office; twice as many women (12 percent) as men (6 percent) considered themselves "not at all qualified." Men were more likely to try for federal office, women for the local school board. Nearly half the women, but fewer than a third of the men, said they did not "have thick enough skin" to run.

Those responses resonated with my own experiences. Becoming a parent tempered my career ambitions in ways I never anticipated. There are jobs I once wanted — jobs I'd be good at, actually — that now I would not pursue.

If the gender tables were turned, would Michelle Obama leave two young daughters at home to run for president? How would voters respond if she did? Would her husband put his career on hold to manage the family?

When the governor of Alaska gave birth the other day to her fifth child, my initial, not-especially-enlightened thought was: How in the world will she manage that? I have just two kids to juggle and no state to run, and I'm dropping balls left and right.

The cockiness gap, too, has parallels in the opinion-writing business. The undeniable underrepresentation of women on op-ed pages has always struck me as more a function of limited supply (women willing to speak out) than inadequate demand (male chauvinist editors). It is intimidating to put your opinions out there, especially in an age of online, highly personal vitriol. It takes a certain unbecoming arrogance to believe you have something valuable to say — even one time, no less week after week.

Sometimes the hardest glass ceilings are the ones women impose, whether knowingly or unconsciously, on ourselves.

Women, I guess, don't like to be called names–that's deep thinking.

In Their Genes

Don't you love genetic determinism?  Michael Medved does.  He writes:

The idea of a distinctive, unifying, risk-taking American DNA might also help to explain our most persistent and painful racial divide – between the progeny of every immigrant nationality that chose to come here, and the one significant group that exercised no choice in making their journey to the U.S. Nothing in the horrific ordeal of African slaves, seized from their homes against their will, reflected a genetic predisposition to risk-taking, or any sort of self-selection based on personality traits. Among contemporary African-Americans, however, this very different historical background exerts a less decisive influence, because of vast waves of post-slavery black immigration. Some three million black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean arrived since 1980 alone and in big cities like New York, Boston and Miami close to half of the African-American population consists of immigrants, their children or grandchildren. The entrepreneurial energy of these newcomer communities indicates that their members display the same adventurous instincts associated with American DNA.

No comment necessary.

*h/t Crooks and Liars.


Perhaps Michael Gerson has suffered a twinge of guilt at his recent behavior (see previous posts).  Now has has stepped away from making an affirmative claims himself.  Instead, he puts such views in the mouths of the average American.  Such a person nearly always seems to confirm what the pundit himself or herself thinks.  The Average American finds all of punditry in re flag pan to be so revealing about Obama.  It just wasn't so much nonsense an obsessed press could not get past.  

The issue of the lapel flag pin is a good illustration. Obama's explanation for its absence — that it had become a "substitute" for "true patriotism" in the aftermath of Sept. 11 — is perfectly rational. For a professor at the University of Chicago. Members of the knowledge class generally find his stand against sartorial symbolism to be subtle, even courageous. Most Americans, I'm willing to bet, will find it incomprehensible after 20 additional explanations, which are bound to be required. A president is expected to be a patriotic symbol himself, not the arbiter of patriotic symbols. He is supposed to be the face-painted superfan at every home game; to wear red, white and blue boxers on special marital occasions; to get misty-eyed during the most obscure patriotic hymns.

The problem here is not that Obama is unpatriotic — a foolish, unfair, destructive charge — but that Obama has declared himself superior to an almost universal form of popular patriotism. And this sense of superiority, revealed in case after case, has political consequences, because the Obama narrative reinforces the Democratic narrative. It is now possible to imagine Obama at a cocktail party with Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, sharing a laugh about gun-toting, Bible-thumping, flag-pin-wearing, small-town Americans.

Now that strikes me as absolutely snobby–even if he says it's snobby, it's still snobby.  What's worse is that it doesn't make any attempt to support it's broad empirical generalizations with facts about how real Americans feel about flag pins and the President "embodying" patriotism.  Perhaps–just a suggestion without empirical basis (I'm a philosopher, I don't need facts)–real Americans have had enough of that.


In the blind squirrels and nuts category, here's Michael Gerson today:

In the past few weeks, Barack Obama has learned the political perils of condescension.

His Philadelphia speech on race was filled with it. People who don't share Obama's views were not refuted, they were explained.

Lower-income whites, he argued, "feel their dreams slipping away," and so they turn to resentment against busing and affirmative action, "anger over welfare" and "fears of crime." And Obama not only understands these angry and manipulated souls, he defends them. They should not, after all, be labeled as "misguided" or "racist."

This is the same argument, expressed more bluntly at a San Francisco fundraiser, that Obama made about bitter, small-town Americans who cling to guns and religion. He does not even admit the possibility that these folks might have actual convictions on issues such as affirmative action, welfare, crime, gun ownership or the meaning of the universe. The only thing more insulting than being attacked is being explained.

He's right about this (and we've complained about this a bunch).  And he would have been even more right had he said that his page at the Post is fully of explanations rather than arguments (rather than take a few words out of context from Obama).  But then Gerson inexplicably (hee hee) writes:

But black liberation theology takes this argument a large step further — or perhaps backward. The Rev. Wright's intellectual mentor, professor James Cone of Union Theological Seminary, retreats from the universality of Christianity. "Black theology," says Cone, "refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him." And again: "Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy." And again: "In the New Testament, Jesus is not for all, but for the oppressed, the poor and unwanted of society, and against oppressors."

This emphasis on the structural evil of white America has natural political consequences — encouraging a belief that American politics is defined by its crimes, a tendency to accept anti-government conspiracy theories about AIDS and drugs, a disturbing openness to anti-American dictators such as Castro and Gaddafi. It explains Wright's description of the Sept. 11 attacks as a "wake-up call" to "white America."

What would explain Gerson's condescending explanation of Reverend Wright?  Maybe the impulse to condescension is irresistible. 


Let’s say someone very well known for his virtue turns out to have some hidden vices–an anti-prostitution crusader himself sees prostitutes.  Few could really be surprised by that–such hypocrisy is familiar to all.  Well, maybe not to David Brooks.  Recent events have led him to ponder the depths of human failings.  He comes up with one basic answer–successful hypocrites suffer from from being nerds.  He writes

They go through the oboe practice, soccer camp, homework marathon
childhood. Their parent-teacher conferences are like mini-Hall of Fame
enshrinements as all gather to worship at the flame of their incipient
success. In high school, they enter their Alpha Geekdom. They rack up
great grades and develop that coating of arrogance that forms on those
who know that in the long run they will be more successful than the
beauties and jocks who get dates

They also stand too close to other men:

Then they go into one of those fields like law, medicine or politics,
where a person’s identity is defined by career rank. They develop the
specific social skills that are useful on the climb up the greasy pole:
the capacity to imply false intimacy; the ability to remember first
names; the subtle skills of effective deference; the willingness to
stand too close to other men while talking and touching them in a manly

Seems like the military, with actual ranks, ought to have been mentioned.  Moving on, however, I’m beginning to wonder whether this is meant to be some kind of confession on David Brooks’s part, as this has a not too subtle ring of irony to it:

And, of course, these people succeed and enjoy their success. When
Bigness descends upon them, they dominate every room they enter and
graciously share their company with those who are thrilled to meet
them. They master the patois of globaloney — the ability to declaim for
portentous minutes about the revolution in world affairs brought about
by technological change/environmental degradation/the fundamental
decline in moral values.

Still More confessional:

But then, gradually, some cruel cosmic joke gets played on them. They
realize in middle age that their grandeur is not enough and that they
are lonely
. The ordinariness of their intimate lives is made more
painful by the exhilaration of their public success. If they were used
to limits in public life, maybe it would be easier to accept the
everydayness of middle-aged passion. But, of course, they are not.

And he’s not really trying with the evidence here yet.  Here’s the evidence (as best as I can surmise).  First, such people are inelegant when drunk–David Brooks has seen it!

I don’t know if you’ve seen a successful politician or business tycoon
get drunk and make a pass at a woman. It’s like watching a St. Bernard
try to French kiss. It’s all overbearing, slobbering, desperate
wanting. There’s no self-control, no dignity.

Add to that a semi-oblique reference to some recent embarrassments:

So when they decide that they do in fact have an inner soul and it’s
time to take it out for a romp … . Well, let’s just say they’ve just
bought a ticket on the self-immolation express. Some desperate lunge
toward intimacy is sure to follow, some sad attempt at bonding. Welcome
to the land of the wide stance.

Finally, they have pictures of themselves on their walls!

I once visited a home in which the host had photos of himself
delivering commencement addresses lining the stairway wall. I’ve heard
countless presidential candidates
say they are running on behalf of
their families even though their entire lives have been spent on the
campaign trail away from their families.

I doubt the "countless" there.  Brooks has only been alive so long.  In any case, we all love explanations for cinematic hypocrisy.  But there are good explanations (the ones that refer to stuff that’s real) and bad ones (the ones that just are pulled out of one’s hat).  This one–so it seems–belongs to the latter category. 

Primary race

Puzzling words from the New York Times political team:

Mr. Obama has resisted any effort to suggest that the presidential primaries were breaking along racial lines.

“There are not a lot of African-Americans in Nebraska the last time I checked, or in Utah or in Idaho, areas where I probably won some of my biggest margins,” he said Sunday in an NPR interview.

“There’s no doubt that I’m getting more African-American votes,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that the race is dividing along racial lines. You know, in places like Washington State we won across the board, from men, from women, from African-Americans, from whites and from Asians.”

A Rhetorical Tightrope

David Axelrod, the chief strategist of the Obama campaign, said in an interview that although he and Mr. Obama did not map out a detailed strategy for dealing with race when plotting a presidential run, they were well aware it would weigh on his campaign.

As a consultant to several black elected officials, Mr. Axelrod has been steeped in racially charged elections. And he said Mr. Obama had faced the challenges of racial politics in the campaign that propelled him to the Senate, where he is only the third black elected since Reconstruction.

Mr. Axelrod said he had learned there was “a certain physics” to winning votes across racial lines. Previous campaigns by African-Americans — the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton — had overwhelmingly relied on black support that wound up defining, and confining, their candidacies.

By contrast, from the moment Mr. Obama stepped onto the national political stage, he has paid as much attention — or more, some aides said — to a far broader audience. “He believes you can have the support of the black community, appealing to the pride they feel in his candidacy, and still win support among whites,” Mr. Axelrod said.

While Obama resists efforts "to suggest," he is powerless against the very suggestive authors of this article (notice later: "Mr. Axelrod has been steeped in racially charged elections"–oh so suspicious, isn't it?).  I would add that the more proper way of characterizing Obama's position would be this: "The facts do not bear out that this primary race is a racially charged one."  After all, that's basically what Obama said.

Perhaps instead of framing Obama's position as a strategic denial, they could do some investigating, you know, research, and see if perhaps the racial issue warrants very suggestive front page coverage. 

The Lights are On, But No One’s Home

Last week we spoke about  MSM-types resorting to specious attributions of motive to "argue" against viewpoints they find reprehensible. After all, it's a lot more creative to divine the reason someone said something than it is to discuss their reasons (note that the two are different) for saying it, right? While Maureen Dowd seems possessed of this view, we beg to differ. And yet she insists: 

Better the devil you know than the diffident debutante you don’t. Better to go with the Clintons, with all their dysfunction and chaos — the same kind that fueled the Republican hate machine — than to risk the chance that Obama would be mauled like a chew toy in the general election. Better to blow off all the inspiration and the young voters, the independents and the Republicans that Obama is attracting than to take a chance on something as ephemeral as hope. Now that’s Cheney-level paranoia.

Bill is propelled by Cheneyesque paranoia, as well. His visceral reaction to Obama — from the “fairy tale” line to the inappropriate Jesse Jackson comparison — is rooted less in his need to see his wife elected than in his need to see Obama lose, so that Bill’s legacy is protected. If Obama wins, he’ll be seen as the closest thing to J. F. K. since J. F. K. And J. F. K. is Bill’s hero

In the midst of this stunning array of ad hominem attacks, we again witness the pedantic urge of the punditocracy to explain to we, the huddled masses, yearning to be informed, why, exactly, a politician says what she said. As usual, it has nothing to with her reasons for saying it, but with some superadded, ethereal psychoanalytic gibberish. 

The tracks of my tears

We don't really do narrative analysis here–not because it's not worthwhile, quite the contrary, we're not equipped (and we're too lazy); for that, please visit the Daily Howler, Glenn Greenwald, and Digby.  I might borrow a few notions from them, however, in order to point out the completely strange way one columnist–Richard Cohen of the Washington Post–analyzes the results of Tuesday's New Hampshire Primary.  For Cohen (and many others, see the above links) the actions of Obama, Edwards, and Clinton can only be explained in a hypersexualized adolescent way:

Rick Lazio must have known what was coming. As Hillary Clinton's Senate opponent in 2000, he alarmingly strode across the stage during a debate and demanded that she sign a pledge to ban the use of soft money in their campaign. With every step, he lost more women's votes.

Now something similar has happened. I am not referring to the most famous cry since Evita's ("Don't Cry for Me, New Hampshire"), but to Barack Obama's patronizing dismissal of Clinton in the final debate of the New Hampshire campaign. After Clinton had good-naturedly responded to a question about what is sometimes called her "personality deficit" — "Well, that hurts my feelings" — she went on to concede that Obama is "very likable." Obama responded with a curt "You're likeable enough, Hillary."

Wince. Slap. A version of "nice personality" — the killer description of a girl from my high school days. It was an ugly moment that showed a side of Obama we had not seen and it might not have been characteristic. But it made for vivid TV, a High-Definition Truth, and probably more than a few women recoiled from it.

Obama could have remedied the situation — Lazio later recovered his standing with suburban women — but the Illinois senator continued to look disdainful on television and seemed to be acting for all the world as if his inauguration was a mere formality.

Was this the moment accounting for the gender gap that put Clinton over the top? Women, 57 percent of the New Hampshire electorate, went for her by 12 points. That was not the case in the Iowa caucuses, where she lost the female vote by five points. Something happened in New Hampshire, something that moved women. Obama would be a fool not to wonder where he had gone wrong.

You get the idea.  Notice that Cohen makes a couple of causal claims: Lazio lost women's votes because he approached Hillary on stage during a debate; Obama lost women's votes because he appeared to call Hillary unattractive.  Cohen, however, doesn't even bother to wonder whether these claims are true: he takes it that a change in the women's vote from one state to another must be accounted for by something that happened in the time between the two events.  That need not be the case at all.  Besides, Cohen hasn't done the minimal work necessary to establish that–nor has he shown or even referenced what might make the Lazio claim true.  More insulting–to all of us–is the idea that voters are motivated by the superficial crap that stirs the loins of pundit types like Cohen (and Chris Matthews, and the rest–again–see the other bloggers).  When I am sealed in the voting cubicle, I'm going to vote for the candidate I think will do the best job.  Until there is specific research showing otherwise, I think my fellow earthlings will be doing the same.