Middle of the road

I find this sort of attitude baffling.  In a review of Richard Thompson Ford's The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, William Grimes, the New York Times reviewer writes:

When he bears down, however, Mr. Ford is bracing. He clears away a lot of clutter, nonsense and bad faith. Best of all, he argues his humane, centrist position without apology or hesitation. Sticking to the middle of the road, after all, can be the fastest way to get where you’re going.

Mr. Ford wants to move beyond name calling and emotional point scoring. Let’s reserve the word racist, he suggests, for clear-cut instances of bigotry, and address more subtle problems of racial prejudice as we do air pollution, instead of rape or murder.

Two things.  One, I would hardly call the "middle of the road" remark axiomatic.  Whether it really is the fastest way to get where you're going depends on whether the road runs by George Allen's house.

This leads to a second point.  I can't think of anyone who would say: "I don't want to move beyond name calling and point scoring.  I'm happy with that."  That's about as empty a pronouncement as "let's move beyond false beliefs." And reserving the word "racist" for "clear-cut" instances of racism just begs the questions against those who level the accusation.  They, after all, think they have reasons.  What constitutes a clear-cut instance of racism, indeed, is just the issue.  What are those clear-cut instances?  I can't really say for sure, because, as is the case with false beliefs, they never seem to be racist to those involved.

Maledetti Toscani

Augustinus docet:

"This," I said, "has become what they call a Tuscan argument: for this is the name they gave to an argument when instead of answering a difficulty, a man proposes another.  It was this that our poet. . . in his Ecologues judged fairly to be rustic and downright countryish: when one asks the other, where the heavens are no more than three ells broad, the other replies:

In what land do flowers grow engraved with the names of kings?" 

Against the Academics (O'Meara trans).  Or, if you prefer:

[3.4.9] Hoc est, inquam, Tuscum illud iurgium, quod dici solet, cum quaestioni intentatae non eius solutio, sed alterius obiectio uidetur mederi. Quod etiam poeta noster — ut me aliquantum Licentii auribus dedam — decenter in Bucolico carmine hoc rusticanum et plane pastoricium esse iudicauit, cum alter alterum interrogat, ubi caeli spatium non amplius quam tres ulnas pateat, ille autem "quibus in terris inscripti nomina regum nascantur flores".

Diagnosis: Evil

To most people, elections are complicated.  Not so to some pundits.  Enter Gerson:

By the summer of 2007, the Republican presidential candidate most closely identified with the war, John McCain, was in serious trouble. Moderates and independents no longer seemed impressed by the fierce, lonely advocate of what many called "escalation." Political observers argued that McCain's money troubles and staff resignations and firings — he went from 120 campaign workers to 50 — were "another nail in Mr. McCain's campaign coffin," showing that "the wheels came off," and leading to "a death spiral that is almost never survived."

If cliches could kill, McCain would have been embalmed and buried.

Yet the Republican candidate most closely identified with the war and the surge performs well in head-to-head polls against the Democrats. The revival of McCain's campaign was possible for one reason: the revival of American fortunes in Iraq. Most categories of violence in Iraq are now down by more than 60 percent, and sectarian attacks in Baghdad have fallen by 90 percent. Sunni tribal leaders are conducting the first large-scale revolt of Arabs against al-Qaeda thuggery — which includes, we learned last week, strapping explosives to a mentally disabled woman and setting off a blast in a market.

McCain seems well suited to deal with this kind of evil — precisely because he would diagnose it as evil.

Every Republican save Ron Paul embraced the most energetic and belligerent of Bush's policies.  How McCain alone is helped by this seems a bit of a mystery.  Besides, someone might even say that the surge hasn't worked (because it has exhausted its own ability to continue without achieving any of its stated goals), but I guess that person would, as Gerson earlier says, would "embrace retreat at any cost."  But Gerson's claim about McCain's surging success is just run of the mill causal fallacy stuff–a little post hoc ergo propter hoc or perhaps some oversimplified cause.  The real travesty is the remark after the dash.  

There is another theologian in this race.  If diagnosing something as evil constitutes a qualification, then why isn't Gerson supporting Mike Huckabee?

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. 


David Brooks, famous dichotomist, meditates on the health care proposal Hillary Clinton.  This is to say that he uses the anecdotes of a political opponent some 15 years ago to describe her as "icy" (three times in 700 some words) and nameless sources to describe her "evil look."  The column is an abomination for other reasons as well, not the least of which is the fact that Brooks accuses Clinton–Hillary Clinton I say–of being "Manichean."  Up until recently for David Brooks, being Manichean about matters of right and wrong was a virtue.  No longer:

Moreover, the debate Clinton is having with Barack Obama echoes the debate she had with Cooper 15 years ago. The issue, once again, is over whether to use government to coerce people into getting coverage. The Clintonites argue that without coercion, there will be free-riders on the system.

They’ve got a point. But there are serious health care economists on both sides of the issue. And in the heat of battle, Clinton has turned the debate between universal coverage and universal access into a sort of philosophical holy grail, with a party of righteousness and a party of error. She’s imposed Manichaean categories on a technical issue, just as she did a decade and half ago. And she’s done it even though she hasn’t answered legitimate questions about how she would enforce her universal coverage mandate.

Gee.  If Ms. Clinton has a point about mandates, then why doesn't David Brooks talk about it?  After all, that would be the foundation, so it seems (since she has a point) of Hillary Clinton's position.  Instead of a policy discussion (which, agree or disagree, you will have with Paul Krugman), Brooks treats his readers to, ironically, a little "politics of personal destruction."   

The Wouldsman

It's time again to play the Sesame Street game: "which one of these things is not like the other? with Nicholas Kristof.  In Yesterday's column he writes:

At a New York or Los Angeles cocktail party, few would dare make a pejorative comment about Barack Obama’s race or Hillary Clinton’s sex. Yet it would be easy to get away with deriding Mike Huckabee’s religious faith.

Oh the intolerant liberals!  This is what you would hear (not what he did hear).  It gets worse:

Liberals believe deeply in tolerance and over the last century have led the battles against prejudices of all kinds, but we have a blind spot about Christian evangelicals. They constitute one of the few minorities that, on the American coasts or university campuses, it remains fashionable to mock.

Stunning tu quoque: how hypocritical are the liberals for making fun of a guy–oops, for being the type of people who would make fun of a guy (1) who wants to amend the Constitution to be in line with God's standards; (2) claimed that had Jesus been against the death penalty he would have said something about it on the cross; (3) doesn't believe the theory of evolution explains the organization of diversity of life; (4) compares non-heterosexual partnerships to bestiality, and much more.  I can't believe someone would make light of those beliefs.  Oddly, the rest of the article goes on to point out that many evangelicals do not have the laughably ridiculous beliefs of, say, Mike Huckabee:

Look, I don’t agree with evangelicals on theology or on their typically conservative views on taxes, health care or Iraq. Self-righteous zealots like Pat Robertson have been a plague upon our country, and their initial smugness about AIDS (which Jerry Falwell described as “God’s judgment against promiscuity”) constituted far grosser immorality than anything that ever happened in a bathhouse. Moralizing blowhards showed more compassion for embryonic stem cells than for the poor or the sick, and as recently as the 1990s, evangelicals were mostly a constituency against foreign aid.

So let's get this straight.  Liberals are intolerant for opposing the views of intolerant people because some other less intolerant people aren't as  intolerant as those intolerant people liberals make fun of. 

One final point.  Barack Obama's race and Hilary Clinton's sex don't entail that non-females and non-blacks have done something wrong or ought to be punished for their difference.  Race, sex and faith are not members of the same category.


Here's a somewhat open-ended question, borrowed again from Bob Somerby, the Daily Howler:

First, a fairly simple question: With intellectual giants like Nozick and Rawls defining the world of “political philosophy,” how can it be that our daily political discourse seems to be drawn from the world’s largest sandbox? If giants like these have been striding the earth, consuming themselves with political theory, how can it be that the world’s dimmest, most childish, most unbalanced minds define our public discussion?

Here's my sense of this question.  Very few academics participate in political discussion for the reason Somerby mentions.  To elaborate: Engaging with a type like Goldberg or Will or Chris Matthews seems like picking on a child.  It's too easy to knock holes in shallw punditry, because, after all, it's shallow punditry.  Academics know that serious scholarship of the confidence-inducing kind involves a lot of hours of boring, hard work, and ever-so-subtle distinctions.  I can't think of one political show (even Charlie Rose's hour long program) that would have the patience for the kind of necessary parsing that academics engage in as a matter of course.  Besides, I'm not sure if a Rawls could get TV's greatest intellectuals to see the difference between a policy argument and a personal attack.  


I’m only saying this because

Today I want to steal from the Daily Howler, Bob Somerby, because yet again he demonstrates the critical acumen of ten male persons.  He writes:

MADDOW MIND-READS MOTIVE: Quick disclaimer: We have an extremely low opinion of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a “progressive woman” who was willing to pander to Chris Matthews to land a key media spot. Disclaimer offered, let us say this: Appearing on Olbermann’s post-debate show, Maddow gave us an excellent look at the role of “motive journalism.”

Simply put: Pundits typically attribute “motive” to candidates whom they disfavor. [emphasis nonseq.]

At issue was Obama and Clinton’s discussion of the way illegal immigration affects working-class wages, specifically for African-Americans. (This issue was specifically raised by a question. Sorry: Transcripts aren’t available yet.) To simplify things a bit (but not much), Obama said that illegal immigrants don’t harm working-class blacks all that much. Clinton said she disagreed, and she said that all such groups will gain from comprehensive reform.

Why did the solons state these views? Let’s start with an obvious possibility; it may be that they stated these views because they actually believe them.  [bolded emphasis nonseq.] (As far as we know, academic research is a mixed bag on such questions.) But when Maddow was asked to share her views, she quickly began to trash Clinton’s motives, using extremely unpleasant code language. Clinton had been deliberately “driving a wedge,” she informed us, over and over. That’s right, Rachel—and Chris Matthews may well be the most brilliant man in the world.

Let’s understand how this works.

A mind-reader could have attributed “motive” to either Clinton or Obama. You could say that Obama was kissing up to Hispanic voters, for example, or that Clinton was courting African-Americans. But in the world of people like Maddow, “motive” is typically dumped on the head on the candidate who is disfavored. In saying that Clinton was driving a “wedge,” Maddow engaged in some ugly race-baiting—and she said that Clinton had a motive for her remarks. Obama’s “motives” were never considered, as was completely appropriate. [bold nonseq].

By the way: It’s widely held that Clinton needs major support from Hispanic voters next Tuesday. Why would she want to “drive a wedge” in a way which might offend these voters? To us, Maddow’s “analysis” didn’t even make sense. But so what? Typically, pundits like Maddow will mind-read and trash the “motives” of those they disfavor.

Sometimes a disagreement is just a disagreement. In assessing a disagreement like this, decent people will typically start with the thought that candidates may simply believe what they’ve said. But Rachel Maddow adores Chris Matthews—and she repeatedly, nastily said that Clinton was driving a wedge.

Two things.  First, this is what makes so much political reporting absolutely unreadable or unwatchable.  Candidates say things, they make arguments, stake out positions, and so forth, and between them and us stands a group of specialized interpreters who tell us what the candidates trying to say, or how people will take what they're trying to say, or, what is worse, why they're saying it.  The most basic question–whether what the candidate says is true or plausible or possible or sensible is a completely different question.  

Second, I think Somerby is on to something when he says we ascribe motive to people we disagree with–although I think pundits of the Chris Matthews variety ascribe it to everyone–that's their job, such as they think it is.  But Somerby's more basic point is that people who agree with you have reasons for their positions–they agree with you because you're right.  All of your beliefs are true, of course, as are all of mine.  But people who disagree with you fall into another category–the explanatory category.  This is different from the justificatory category into which you fall.  People who have false beliefs–obviously false ones because they're not like yours–should be accounted for and explained.  They believe those things because they "want to drive a wedge" or "want to appear" or "because they were raised that way" or "because of their experiences."  Try doing the opposite–give justifications for views you don't agree with and explanations for those beliefs you hold.

I only give this advice because I'm a logic teacher.

The weak man

The Philosophers' Playground and a commenter point us to an article in Scientific American Mind by two Philosophers (Robert Talisse and Yvonne Raley) on two related logical fallacies–the straw man and, get this, the weak man.  Everyone is familiar with the straw man.  It's what I (perhaps unhappily) tend to call a fallacy of criticism.  In order to defeat an opponent one caricatures the opponent's view, defeats that caricature, and then claims victory over the opponent's real argument.  As the authors correctly point out, it's fairly common.  We have (on our very unscientific survey) identified 109 instances of it.  If we push the fight and defeat analogy a little bit, we might say that the straw man is the equivalent of pummeling someone named "Mike Tyson" (but not the one who is a boxer) and claiming that you beat up the real Mike Tyson.  That's about how relevant your victory will be (even to the Nevada Boxing Commission).  

The weak man works in a related fashion.  Only this time instead of caricaturing an opponent's view, one picks on the weakest of an opponent's arguments, easily defeats it, and claims victory over the opponent's real view.  Here's what the authors of the article say:

In what Talisse dubs a weak man argument, a person sets up the opposition’s weakest (or one of its weakest) arguments or proponents for attack, as opposed to misstating a rival’s position as the straw man argument does.

So rather than fight a fully rested Mike Tyson, you drug him, get him to "agree" to a fight, then beat him up.  There, you beat up Mike Tyson, but it's not a victory to be proud of. 

It seems to me there are two ways to look at this (at least).  In one sense, it's not a fallacy unless you claim that you've defeated a stronger argument than you have.  Defeating a weak argument someone actually makes isn't a crime.  Lots of real arguments offered by real people are bad. 

In another sense, however, the fallacy seems to consist in exchanging the weak argument for the strong argument.  And that seems to be to be just what the straw man does.  The straw man, after all, consists in the switch at the end–you exchange the defeat of a weak argument for the defeat of the strong one.  The only difference is that the opponent in the weak man case gives you the weak version of his argument. 

Perhaps there is another difference I'm overlooking.  Anyone?  A more formal paper (co-authored by Talisse) on the subject can be read here.