Category Archives: Ad hominem circumstantial

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."   

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.

Five thumbs up

If you look at the website for Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, you'll find a lot of email from alienated college students, praising the bold and cogent thesis of the book, and commending its author for the way he handled himself on A Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  You'll also find its author responding to negative reviews:

It's something of a cliché to complain that a poor book review says more about the reviewer than it does about the book. Sometimes this is clearly just a defense mechanism offered by authors who've written bad books. Other times it happens to be true. Matt Yglesias' “serious” review of my book is one of those times.

And he goes on to attack the reviewer:

In short, his review is a piece of theater used to disguise his own cognitive dissonance. Nothing to see here folks, no need to read this book, no need to do any heavy thinking whatsoever. Indeed, thinking is the last thing Matt or his friends on the left want to do when it comes to my book. That is why the default response in those quarters has been to call me stupid or partisan (or both — or worse). No reason to rethink your basic premises if a book can be dismissed as mere partisan hackery.

That's not the only time.  Goldberg can't seem to address any negative criticism of his argument without maligning the motives or the seriousness of the reviewer.  Ok, one last example:

On Thursday, I said that David Neiwert’s review of my book, Liberal Fascism, in The American Prospect was the sort of “shallow, cliché ridden, attack-the-messenger stuff that I would expect Ezra to find so persuasive.” But it turned out I’d misquoted Neiwert, for which I apologized. I also said I was bleary from the slog of promoting the book and maybe I was too harsh. Well, now — as they used to say of Nixon — I’m tanned, rested and ready (minus the tan). So with fresh eyes let me say that Neiwert’s review is the sort of shallow, cliché ridden, attack-the-messenger stuff that I would expect Ezra to find so persuasive.

I love the phrase, "attack-the-messenger" as it is here quite inappropriate.  One attacks the messenger who is merely bringing bad news–you attack the journalist who reports on bad news.  This book isn't a work of journalism, and Goldberg isn't a messenger. 


How not to respond to criticism

Here is a journalist with 20 years experience illustrating how not to respond to criticism.  The email is so bad that one might think he was either drunk or it was written by an impostor.  Here's the story.  Greenwald wrote a post on his blog, Unclaimed Territory, about the fawning tone of CNN correspondent John King's interview of John McCain.  You can read that here (it's short), but here's a sample question:

* KING: As you know, one of the issues you have had here in South Carolina in the past is either people don't understand your social conservative record or they're not willing to concede your social conservative record. There's a mailing that hit South Carolina homes yesterday. It's a picture of you and Cindy on the front. It says "Always pro-life, 24-year record." Why do you think you still, after all this time, have to convince these people, "I have been with you from the beginning"?

I'm sure you get the idea.  Not exactly critical journalism (follow Greenwald's links for more).  Here below is John King's response.  For the sake of clarity, I'll insert comments in brackets (courtesy of Glenn Greenwald)

From: King, John C


Sent: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 5:40 PM

Subject: excuse me? [a more neutral subject heading–e.g., response to your blogpost]

I don't read biased uninformed drivel so I'm a little late to the game. [this is somewhat self-contradictory: either the post was not "biased uninformed drivel" (and so not worthy of the charge) or he does read bias uniformed drivel.  In either case, that's a pretty serious compound charge–biased and uninformed.  One is sufficient for dismissal.

But a friend who understands how my business works and knows a little something about my 20 plus years in it sent me the link to your ramblings. [Now they're "ramblings"–biased uninformed drivel ramblings–that's four insults]

Since the site suggests you have law training, maybe you forgot that good lawyers to a little research before they spit out words. [The site says Greenwald is a lawyer]

Did you think to ask me or anyone who works with me whether that was the entire interview? No. (It was not; just a portion used by one of the many CNN programs.) [Notice how King responds to his own rhetorical question.  Aside from that, it's irrelevant to the criticism.  Besides, it suggests that King agrees with Greenwald about the fawning tone of the questions and suggests that CNN edited it to appear that way].

Did you reach out to ask the purpose of that specific interview? No. [More extra-textual irrelevance].

Or how it might have fit in with other questions being asked of other candidates that day? No. [He now seems to be conceding the point.  Besides, fawning questions to the other candidates would only reinforce the point that they're not real questions.  Asking fake questions to other candidates doesn't make them any less fake].

Or anything that might have put facts or context or fairness into your critique. No. [So he definitely agrees, but thinks Greenwald has been unfair–there's a context that explains it].

McCain, for better or worse, is a very accessible candidate. If you did a little research (there he goes with that word again) you would find I have had my share of contentious moments with him over the years. [So these are not contentious questions.  But King, an ad hominizer, sees others as he sees himself–attacking the person.  His having asked "contentious" questions in the past doesn't make, however, the questions of the other day any less silly].

But because of that accessibility, you don't have to go into every interview asking him about the time he cheated on his sixth grade math test. [Now he really misunderstands the nature of the criticism.  And again it's ad hominem: He suggests Greenwald wants him to ask mean, irrelevant questions about McCain's childhood.  If that is King's sense of a real journalistic question, then it's worse than Greenwald suggests].

The interview was mainly to get a couple of questions to him on his thoughts on the role of government when the economy is teetering on the edge of recession, in conjunction with similar questions being put to several of the other candidates. [Like in comedy, it's not funny if you have to explain it–unless you make the explanation funny–which this isn't.  I think.].

The portion you cited was aired by one of our programs — so by all means it is fair game for whatever "analysis" you care to apply to it using your right of free speech and your lack of any journalistic standards or fact checking or just plain basic curiosity. [It's always nice to have someone point out your rights.  I find it difficult, however, to follow King's point.  He agrees (or seems to agree) that questions he asked were soft balls, and that they were made a public document, but he charges that because Greenwald did not examine the non-public aspects of the interview (including the journalist's personal history of skepticism regarding McCain), that the analysis is wrong.  That seems really messed up, to put it bluntly.  CNN hires journalists, pays them to ask questions, and then airs the segment.  But we the viewing public are supposed to consider all of the things in the interview that were not aired before we draw any conclusions.  That just seems to undermine the whole point of airing the interview in the first place.] 

You clearly know very little about journalism. But credibility matters. It is what allows you to cover six presidential campaigns and be viewed as fair and respectful, while perhaps a little cranky, but Democrats and Republicans alike. When I am writing something that calls someone's credibility into question, I pick up the phone and give them a chance to give their side, or perspective. [Another irrelevant ad hominem coupled with an auto-pro-homine: an "I'm awesome and you're jerk."]

That way, even on days that I don't consider my best, or anywhere close, I can look myself in the mirror and know I tried to be fair and didn't call into question someone's credibility just for sport, or because I like seeing my name on a website or my face on TV. [Ah yes.  You're just saying that because–the ad hominem circumstantial.  You don't have reasons for what you say, you just say that to get noticed!]

The truly silly thing about this response is that King never challenges any one of Greenwald's points.  He concedes them in fact,  repeatedly, and from several different angles, but he alleges that Greenwald is a jerk for not knowing that no one is supposed to take King's work seriously.  This reminds me of something Krusty the Clown said when he was running for Congress: when you react like that (to his racist jokes) it means he was kidding.


More on bias in academia

The New York Times and the Washington Post must be under some kind of obligation to run an “academia is biased to the left” piece once or twice a year (excluding, of course, the regular appearance of this theme in the columns of David Brooks and George Will, to give two examples). And yesterday’s Outlook section in the Washington Post has another one.

According to the formula, it begins with an unverifiable anecdote:

>A sociologist I know recalls that his decision to become a registered Republican caused “a sensation” at his university. “It was as if I had become a child molester,” he said. He eventually quit academia to join a think tank because “you don’t want to be in a department where everyone hates your guts.”

>I think my political views hurt my career some years back when I was interviewing for a job at a prestigious research university. Everything seemed to be going well until I mentioned, in a casual conversation with department members over dinner, that I planned to vote Republican in the upcoming presidential election. Conversation came to a halt, and someone quickly changed the subject. The next day, I thought my final interview went fairly well. But the department ended up hiring someone who had published far less, but apparently “fit” better than I did. At least that’s what I was told when I called a month later to learn the outcome of the job search, having never received any further communication from the school. (A friend at the same university later told me he didn’t believe that particular department would ever hire a Republican.)

>Now there is more data backing up experiences like mine. Recently, my Villanova colleague Richard Redding and my longtime collaborator Frederick Hess commissioned a set of studies to ascertain how rare conservative professors really are, and why. We wanted real scholars to use real data to study whether academia really has a PC problem. While our work was funded by the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, we (and our funders) have been very clear about our intention to go wherever the data would take us.

For those of you who don’t know what it’s like to look for a job in academia, the experience he mentions is completely common. Having been on both sides of hiring committees, “fit” considerations (not merely publications) can play a very central role. Besides, how can the author tell that he was rejected because he said he would vote Republican? He can’t read the minds of that committee, and no amount of research of the AEI is going to vindicate him. That anecdote, in other words, illustrates nothing other than the lazy way this guy reaches conclusions.

Of course, I’m just saying that because I’m biased.

There’s a better discussion of this piece (and this type of piece) at LGM.

It’s a start

This is one of the dumbest ad hominem arguments I’ve seen in a major newspaper for quite a while:

>My younger son calls the Toyota Prius a “hippie car,” and he has a point. Not that Prius drivers are hippies. Toyota says that typical buyers are 54 and have incomes of $99,800; 81 percent are college graduates. But, like hippies, they’re making a loud lifestyle statement: We’re saving the planet; what are you doing?

>This helps explain why the Prius so outsells the rival Honda Civic Hybrid. Both have similar base prices, about $22,000, and fuel economy (Prius, 60 miles per gallon city/51 highway; Civic, 49 mpg city/51 highway). But Prius sales in the first half of 2007 totaled 94,503, nearly equal to all of 2006. Civic sales were only 17,141, up 7.4 percent from 2006. The Prius’s advantage is its distinct design, which announces its owners as environmentally virtuous. It’s a fashion statement. Meanwhile, the Civic hybrid can’t be distinguished by appearance from the polluting, gas-guzzling mob.

The dumb thing is that Samuelson doesn’t even disagree with the idea of cutting greenhouse gas emissions (he’s not a George Will global warming denier). Later in the piece he argues that very drastic things ought to be done:

>But we’ve got to start somewhere, right? Okay, here’s what Congress should do: (a) gradually increase fuel economy standards for new vehicles by at least 15 miles per gallon; (b) raise the gasoline tax over the same period by $1 to $2 a gallon to strengthen the demand for fuel-efficient vehicles and curb driving; (c) eliminate tax subsidies (mainly the mortgage interest rate deduction) for housing, which push Americans toward ever-bigger homes. (Note: If you move to a home 25 percent larger and then increase energy efficiency 25 percent, you don’t save energy.)

Samuelson’s problem is that actions such as driving a Prius are not adequate by themselves to curb the accumulation of greenhouse gases. He uses his son’s hippie comment (why are people beating up on hippies now?) to impugn the motives of people who advocate measures that are partial or inadequate. They only do so because it’s fashionable. They don’t really want to curb global warming because they don’t wish for the hard things.

There doesn’t, however, seem to be any reason to think that. At least none that Samuelson offers. And it’s probably the case that no one thinks such measures (driving a Prius vs. a Honda Hybrid) are adequate in the first place. But just because such individual actions are inadequate by themselves, doesn’t mean they and the people who do them are shallow and worthless.

Let’s get cynical

V.D.Hanson sees right through your pro-immigration stance, university perseffers:

>Most cynical of all, however, are the moralistic pundits, academics and journalists who deplore the “nativism” of Americans they consider to be less-educated yokels. Yet their own jobs of writing, commenting, reporting and teaching are rarely threatened by cheaper illegal workers.

>Few of these well-paid and highly educated people live in communities altered by huge influxes of illegal aliens. In general, such elites don’t use emergency rooms in the inner cities and rural counties overcrowded by illegal aliens. They don’t drive on country roads frequented by those without licenses, registration and insurance. And their children don’t struggle with school curricula altered to the needs of students who speak only Spanish.

Teaching. Cynical.

But perhaps Hanson is on to something, not eve the jobs of the California Republican Party are safe from foreigners.

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.

Little things

Earlier this week Paul Krugman wrote about the rhetorical effectiveness of spreading little falsehoods. These little lies, as he called them, get repeated over and over again first by the irresponsible media (Drudge, talk radio, Hannity, and so on), then they work their way up to Howard Kurtz and various other mainstream outlets, who take them or their authors seriously. It’s not of course only a right wing thing–just ask Bob Somerby or Glenn Greenwald. These little falsehoods take various forms. The most obvious is the malicious fabrication (e.g., recent inventions about Nancy Pelosi). Less obvious is the subtle or not so subtle distortion of views you don’t agree with. Those are the little lies George Will tells. Today, for instance, he returns to the theme of global warming (which he insists on calling climate change, despite the propangandistic origin of this phrase). The article is a Summa of all of Will’s recent climatic confusions, so it might take a while. So for today we’ll just comment on this:

>In a campaign without peacetime precedent, the media-entertainment-environmental complex is warning about global warming. Never, other than during the two world wars, has there been such a concerted effort by opinion-forming institutions to indoctrinate Americans, 83 percent of whom now call global warming a ” serious problem.” Indoctrination is supposed to be a predicate for action commensurate with professions of seriousness.

What are “opinion-forming institutions”? Are they the kind–like right wing talk radio or the Post editorial page–that endeavor to produce loud and sometimes false opinions about political questions? Or are they the ones (like universities) that produce what sometimes get called, true opinions with a logos–i.e., knowledge–about the world around us? Not all opinion-forming institutions, in other words, are the same; if so, parents can save a lot of money by sending their kids to Rush Limbaugh University. Aside from the sneering stupidity of the remark about the “entertainment-environmental complex” (this from a man, mind you, who takes a science-fiction novel (by a Hollywood producer) about global warming to be scientific evidence on par with the consensus of credentialed climatologists), we’d also wonder what “indoctrinate” (used twice here) means. One usually uses such terms in order to stress the value-laden character of the views being taught. Rarely would one use it to describe the process of informing someone of some other other fact about the world. Some call that “teaching.”