Tag Archives: hollow man

More on straw men

A commenter points to this February Wall Street Journal piece by Karl Rove on straw men.  I know.  The very idea of that person criticizing anyone for slimy rhetorical devices is beyond ridiculous.  But in the interest of fairness, let's discuss it anyway.

I should say first of all (I should repeat actually) that it's not much of an achievement to find "straw men" in anyone's "political advocacy" discourse.  There is after all a rather significant difference between a pundit, writing in the calm, reflective light of reason, and a politician, advocating for this or that policy or action.  While pundits represent ideological points of view, they do so on the assumption (I believe, at least) that the best arguments have compelled them.  Politicians must be content, however, to achieve their policy objectives by moving people to action.  This motivational discourse involves different rules.  A politician, I think, of any variety, can be allowed to paint in broad strokes, especially when it comes to his opposition, without suffering the accusation of using a straw man.  

This genre confusion, I think, is what drives Rove's inane piece.  He confuses the broad strokes of a politician, in particular the use of "some," for straw man arguments.  "Some" may signal a straw man, but it need not.  Rove writes:

President Barack Obama reveres Abraham Lincoln. But among the glaring differences between the two men is that Lincoln offered careful, rigorous, sustained arguments to advance his aims and, when disagreeing with political opponents, rarely relied on the lazy rhetorical device of "straw men." Mr. Obama, on the other hand, routinely ascribes to others views they don't espouse and says opposition to his policies is grounded in views no one really advocates.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Obama told Congress and the nation, "I reject the view that . . . says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity." Who exactly has that view? Certainly not congressional Republicans, who believe that through reasonable tax cuts, fiscal restraint, and prudent monetary policies government contributes to prosperity.

Mr. Obama also said that America's economic difficulties resulted when "regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market." Who gutted which regulations?

Not naming one's rhetorical opponent in a political speech is not the same thing as a straw man.  And besides, these and the rest of Rove's examples are not straw men, in that there are people, Republican people, who make arguments that the government never ever created one single job, and so forth (see chairman of the GOP, Michael Steele).  Obama's not naming them does not entail he's making them up.

So, I would say, Obama (and Bush, etc.) deserve some leeway in the identification of their opponent, especially in the context of major political speeches.  Does this free them from the responsibility of fairly characterizing their opponents?  Obviously not.  The boundaries of fair play are just somewhat broader.

New York Times tries Critical Thinking 101 and then fails it

I was out of town for the weekend when Helene Cooper's abysmal analysis piece (On Obama's "straw men") appeared in the New York Times, so I'll pretty much just point everyone to discussions of it elsewhere.  It seems to have been largely written by Fred Barnes, a conservative columnist who has long been griping about Obama's alleged tendency to attack straw men.  Perhaps we ought to remember that the 2008 Presidential campaign pitted Obama against a set of candidates for whom the term "straw man" described their owns positions on most issues.  Nonetheless, Cooper writes:

WASHINGTON — Democrats often complained about President George W. Bush’s frequent use of a rhetorical device as old as rhetoric itself: creating the illusion of refuting an opponent’s argument by mischaracterizing it and then knocking down that mischaracterization.

There was much outrage in 2006, for example, when Mr. Bush said that when it came to battling terrorists, “I need members of Congress who understand that you can’t negotiate with these folks,” implying that Democrats backed talks with Al Qaeda. That assertion was promptly, and angrily, disputed by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Now that there is a new team at the White House, guess who is knocking down straw men left and right? To listen to President Obama, a veritable army of naysayers has invaded Washington, urging him to sit on his hands at the White House and do nothing to address any of the economic or national security problems facing the country.

There are those who say these plans are too ambitious, that we should be trying to do less, not more,” Mr. Obama told a town-hall-style meeting in Costa Mesa, Calif., on March 18. “Well, I say our challenges are too large to ignore.”

In order for an argument to be a straw man (speaking generally), it has to be (1) actually advanced as stated by no serious party in the current discussion and (2) a silly view no one would hold anyway (there are variations on this–the weak man and the hollow man).  As the following link will show, Cooper's article doesn't establish that either of the two requirements (and both are necessary, but not independently sufficient) have been met.  The press, for instance, spoke endlessly about whether Obama was "doing too much."  Two seconds of googling will give you tons of examples.  For more, see here.

When I say this stuff is not hard, I'm serious.  It's not.


In honor of Lincoln's birthday, a discussion of logic.  The other day on the Political Animal blog of the Washington Monthly, one of my favorite liberal blogs (it's a good blog, and it features a real philosopher), I encountered the following:

THE GOP MAINSTREAM…. Given the attention of late on the Republican all-tax-cut plans on the Hill, I thought it was pretty obvious what constitutes the GOP "agenda" when it comes to economic stimulus. And yet, John Cole flags this interesting complaint from Real Clear Politics' Jay Cost.

Who's arguing that "tax cuts alone" will solve this problem? Even if some are, is this the median position on the Republican side? Is this the position of the more moderate members of the GOP Senate caucus like Lugar, Voinovich, and Murkowski? How about moderate House Republicans like Kirk, LoBiondo, and Castle? We might count it as bipartisanship if Obama had picked up a few of them, but he didn't.

Cost was referring to a comment President Obama made during his press conference the other night, when he said, "[T]ax cuts alone can't solve all of our economic problems." To Cost, this was a straw-man argument, since it doesn't reflect "the median position on the Republican side."

I guess it depends on the meaning of "median."

In the House, 95% of the Republican caucus — 168 out of 178 — supported an all-tax-cut alternative to a stimulus plan that included spending and tax cuts. In the Senate, 90% of the Republican caucus — 36 out of 40 (with one abstention) — did the exact same thing. We can quibble about where the "median" is, exactly, but with these ratios, there are only so many ways to stretch the definition of the word.

Indeed, Cost's post identified six GOP lawmakers who, he thought, would be likely to reject such an all-tax-cut proposal. Of the six "more moderate members," half voted with their party in support of a plan that wouldn't spend a dime, and would rely exclusively on tax cuts.

What I find especially interesting, though, is that Cost not only wasn't aware of this, but he assumed that even if some Republicans supported this approach, it must be unfair to suggest that such an idea was part of the Republican Party mainstream.

In other words, Republican lawmakers have gone so far around the bend, they're surprising their own supporters.

This raises an interesting question about how one can honestly and fairly represent one's "opponent."  One annoying thing about some op-ed writers and many bloggers is a tendency to use a very general term to refer to their opponent.  "Conservatives," they'll say, "believe x, y, and z."  X, y and z will often turn out to be silly, but perhaps true, of someone who fits in that group.  I find such employment of general terms (they're not generalizations–those involve inferences from the particular to the general) very often inaccurate and for that reason dishonest.  This is especially true of blogging, when one can provide all sorts of evidence about the beliefs of one's opponents.  I think it is also especially true of op-eds, where the bar should be set much higher in that newspapers have editors.  For this reason, I bristle when I read this kind of thing (from none other than George Will):

Certitude of one flavor or another is never entirely out of fashion in Washington. Thirty years ago, some conservatives were certain that their tax cuts would be so stimulative that they would be completely self-financing. Today, some liberals are certain that the spending they favor — on green jobs, infrastructure and everything else — will completely pay for itself. For liberals, "stimulus spending" is a classification that no longer classifies: All spending is, they are certain, necessarily stimulative. 

And some paragraphs later:

Today, again, we are told that "politics" has no place in the debate about the tripartite stimulus legislation, which is partly a stimulus, partly liberalism's agenda of social engineering and partly the beginning of "remaking" the economy. 

Surely a man with an Ivy League education can find it in him to name one representative person who asserts this.

It turns out that such characterizations are straw men–or rather, to be precise, hollow men.  They are hollow because they are so very general.  In the second of the passages above, some liberals might be guilty of wanting to engage in social engineering, but so does everyone, including the author of Statecraft as Soulcraft

There has to be a name for this kind of move.  Its generality suggests straw man, so does it's role in criticism, but I think it might deserve its own special name.  Any suggestion?

The hollow man

In general, one commits the straw man fallacy in a situation of criticism–when one challenges someone else's argument in anything other than its true and charitable form, one is in danger of committing the straw man fallacy.  Let me give an Al Gore example.

  • Al Gore argues that curbing carbon emissions is critical to reducing the impact of climate change.  He points to numbers and charts and data and stuff like that.  I see what he's saying, he saying we should get rid of all of our cars!  

The claim after "I see what he's saying" obviously bears little resemblance to what Al Gore is saying.  It's funny, in fact, how often that claim–oh, I see what you're saying!–precedes a straw man.  It's like a straw man warning.  

Anyway, back to what I was saying.   The straw man fallacy admits of a couple of variations.  You might call the most common variation the "misrepresentation" form.  It consists in the distortion of an opponent's actual position.  Take the above example.  Al Gore argues for more sensible carbon policies, but he does not advocate the rapid elimination of the automobile.  Another form, recently discussed by Bob Talisse and Scott Aikin, involves selecting the worst of an opponent's argument for attack.  This one lacks the outright stupidity or dishonesty of the misrepresentation form, although it involves the false claim that the weak argument is the strongest one.  Talisse and Aikin call this "the weak man" argument. One other common form of the straw man, the one I see today in the work of a dear friend of the NonSequitur dot com, involves completely inventing an opponent and an opponent's argument, and then attacking that and claiming victory.  Call this the hollow man argument.

This is just what George Will does today.  He writes:

Reactionary liberalism, the ideology of many Democrats, holds that inconvenient rights, such as secret ballots in unionization elections, should be repealed; that existing failures, such as GM, should be preserved; and, with special perversity, that repealed mistakes, such as the "fairness doctrine," should be repeated. That Orwellian name was designed to disguise the doctrine's use as the government's instrument for preventing fair competition in the broadcasting of political commentary.

Because liberals have been even less successful in competing with conservatives on talk radio than Detroit has been in competing with its rivals, liberals are seeking intellectual protectionism in the form of regulations that suppress ideological rivals. If liberals advertise their illiberalism by reimposing the fairness doctrine, the Supreme Court might revisit its 1969 ruling that the fairness doctrine is constitutional. The court probably would dismay reactionary liberals by reversing that decision on the ground that the world has changed vastly, pertinently and for the better.

The only problem is that, as has been pointed out all over the place, no one advocates the fairness doctrine.  Will doesn't even name one person who supports the fairness doctrine in his article.  Yet he concludes:

If reactionary liberals, unsatisfied with dominating the mainstream media, academia and Hollywood, were competitive on talk radio, they would be uninterested in reviving the fairness doctrine. Having so sullied liberalism's name that they have taken to calling themselves progressives, liberals are now ruining the reputation of reactionaries, which really is unfair. 

This is really appalling, even for Will.  Normally he can muster at least a straw man.  But I wonder whether his inability to find someone to slime is a step forward or a step backward.