Category Archives: Charles Krauthammer

At the movies

With so much going wrong for the results of real world arguments of his Republican fans (Iraq, Katrina, Scooter, DeLay, Cheney’s aim, illegal spying, and so on), Charles Krauthammer has turned to the art of fictional film criticism. His piece takes aim at *Syriana* in particular (though he also mentions *Paradise Now*, a foreign film about suicide bombers, as well as Spielberg’s *Munich*). Reading his piece we were reminded of the subtle work of another newspaper blowhard–Richard Roeper. Roeper’s frequent complaint about films is that he “doesn’t buy it.” Poor Roger Ebert must then remind him that it’s a fictional film, so it’s not true, and there’s nothing “to buy.”

Sure, films like that can level criticism, but one way *not* to read it is this:

>The most pernicious element in the movie is the character at the moral heart of the film: the beautiful, modest, caring, generous Pakistani who becomes a beautiful, modest, caring, generous . . . suicide bomber. In his final act, the Pure One, dressed in the purest white robes, takes his explosives-laden little motorboat headfirst into his target.

For Krauthammer, anything short of spitting condemnation of terrorism constitutes self-loathing anti-americanism. The film’s failure to condemn the bomber constitutes an endorsement to Krauthammer’s woefully shallow dichotomous mind. For our part, the youth’s falling in with radical Islamic terrorism was a tragedy in the real sense of the term. His generosity and spirituality were exploited to nefarious ends. And, as is the case with all tragedies, he was the agent of self-destruction. The view identifies to some extent with him (but not his aims) because that is what fictional tragedies are all about. So, at the very least, Krauthammer is guilty of genre confusion: fictional tragedies must be assessed in different ways than actual documentaries.

At the moment, there are too many real world problems caused by views akin to those of Krauthammer and his Republican friends for him to be trying to unearth evidence of Hollywood anti-americanism. Perhaps he should turn his attention to those and save the aisle seat for Roger Ebert.

Argumentum ad Statuam

If Charles Krauthammer is to be believed, the proliferation of statues of various foreign *liberators* (Ireland, India, Uruguay, Ukraine, Bolivia, among others) not only makes Washington unique as a capitol (the only negative comparison he mentions is–hold on to your hats–France) from the rest of the capitols of the world, but it also shows “America’s devotion to liberty. Liberty not just here but everywhere. Indeed, liberty for its own sake.”

That we love liberty for its own sake–whatever that means–can hardly be demonstrated by statues of specific individuals littering our nation’s capital. As we have seen with our own eyes, other nations decorate the plazas, streets, and parks of their capitals with similar statues (but they’re not devoted to liberty–since they’re not Americans). Besides, the mere fact that the figures mentioned were “liberators” hardly means that they loved American style *liberty* (whatever one means by that).

The weird thing about this argument is that since real deeds of real American leaders have posed rhetorical challenges greater than which Krauthammer can conceive, he hopes patriotic sentiment generated by a Lee Greenwood (“I’m proud to be an American) guided tour of monumental Washington (and New York) demonstrates the purity of our intentions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But don’t just listen to the statues, listen to the “the overwhelming majority of Americans” who “refuse to believe” that our motives are anything but pure and [w]hatever their misgivings about the cost and wisdom of these wars, they know how deep and authentic is the American devotion to liberty.”

We do love liberty, but many find our devotion to it deeply mysterious. To them our intentions demonstrate nothing–they see only what we do. Perhaps rather than insisting on the goodness of our intentions, we should wonder about the wisdom of our actions.

Prize Fighting

You are scheduled for a championship bout with Mike Tyson. But you’re too lazy to do the hard work of catching live chickens, punching sides of beef, and drinking raw eggs. Instead you find a hundred-pound weakling named “Mike Tyson” and you beat the daylights out of him.

But you haven’t beaten the real Mike Tyson. And that’s more or less the logic of the straw man argument. Such as the one Charles Krauthammer battles today.

Even a cursory reader of the news should know that many have advanced arguments against the war in Iraq; among these, the still perplexingly hawkish can only seem to focus on the weakest or the least representative of them (first Cindy Sheehan’s many and various “cluelessly idealist” pronouncements, now Brent Scowcroft’s “cynical realism”). First, neither of these represents the strongest or more reasonable anti-war positions made consistently in print and elsewhere since September 2001 (and before). Second, even these are consistently portrayed (as they are in today’s column) in the least favorable light (see previous posts here on Cindy Sheehan). And finally, the completely fallacious inference is perpetually drawn that their defeat implies the victory of neo-con position.

All wrong. The pages of the *Washington Post* ought to be reserved for prize-fighting, not pseudonymous sucker-punching.

Post hack ergo propter hack

The main reason so much of partisan punditry of any stripe doesn’t qualify as rational discourse–that is to say, the kind of discourse a rational person should have and expect of others in an enlightened democracy such as our own–is that so often the partisan pundit refuses to entertain the idea that his opponents are rational. Since her opponent isn’t rational, she makes only the most ludicrous arguments, and has only a tenuous and self-interested grasp on the facts. In the end, of course, it doesn’t take much to defeat such nincompoops in argument. Easy victories, however, are not worth winning, as Charles Krauthammer’s triumph over the inane illustrates for us today:

>In less enlightened times there was no catastrophe independent of human agency. When the plague or some other natural disaster struck, witches were burned, Jews were massacred and all felt better (except the witches and Jews).

Pat Robertson knows something of this claim (cf. feminism and 9/11), but naturally Krauthammer has someone else in mind:

>A few centuries later, our progressive thinkers have progressed not an inch. No fall of a sparrow on this planet is not attributed to sin and human perfidy. The three current favorites are: (1) global warming, (2) the war in Iraq and (3) tax cuts. Katrina hits and the unholy trinity is immediately invoked to damn sinner-in-chief George W. Bush.

As readers of *The Nonsequitur* know, some variation of the causal fallacy is being invoked here (to be nitpicky: the analogy with the witches and Jews only holds insofar as some group or individual is held responsible for *causing* the event–only global warming could possibly qualify as a cause in that sense). Krauthammer in fact goes on to challenge the causal efficacy of each of the above:

>this kind of stupidity merits no attention whatsoever, but I’ll give it a paragraph. There is no relationship between global warming and the frequency and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes. Period. The problem with the evacuation of New Orleans is not that National Guardsmen in Iraq could not get to New Orleans but that National Guardsmen in Louisiana did not get to New Orleans. As for the Bush tax cuts, administration budget requests for New Orleans flood control during the five Bush years exceed those of the five preceding Clinton years. The notion that the allegedly missing revenue would have been spent wisely by Congress, targeted precisely to the levees of New Orleans, and that the reconstruction would have been completed in time, is a threefold fallacy. The argument ends when you realize that, as The Post noted, “the levees that failed were already completed projects.”

Excellent points all of them. Whether or not they are true–and we have no reason to doubt them–is someone else’s domain. We might also add that Krauthammer goes to list those he considers responsible (in descending order: Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, FEMA, President Bush, Congress, the American People). Such a complex event as the ongoing disaster along the Gulf coast hardly bears reduction to the three items Krauthammer mentions. So for this reason we couldn’t agree more with the first sentence quoted above–this kind of stupidity does not merit our attention. We know of many other well-reasoned and well-supported arguments that do deserve careful scrutiny. Perhaps Krauthammer can talk about them.

The White Choice

Charles Krauthammer of the *Washington Post* and David Brooks of the *New York Times* must have been mind-melding just after the nomination of John Roberts for the recently opened Supreme Court vacancy. They each make the same preposterous claim about Roberts’ ethnicity. Brooks (sorry we cannot link the article) writes,

President Bush consulted widely, moved beyond the tokenism of identity politics and selected a nominee based on substance, brains, careful judgment and good character.

The next day,
Charles Krauthammer
follows him:

And there were two kinds of history available to him — ethnic or ideological: nominating the first Hispanic, which is a history of sorts, or nominating a young judge who would move the court to the right for the next 25 years. President Bush eschewed the more superficial option and went for the real thing.

Each of these claims rests on the fallaciously dichotomous, however tacit, assumption that the choice Bush faced was one between qualified and male white or unqualified but “ethnic” or perhaps “someone with a racial identity”. In Brooks’ case, the very choice of a white man constitutes “moving beyond the tokenism of identity politics.” “Anglo-white” and “conservative catholic” do not for some reason constitute an identity for Brooks. In a similar fashion, Krauthammer does not wonder whether a non-white candidate could have “moved the court to the right”; the choice was for him, as it was for Brooks, between two exclusive categories of thing: a qualified white-male candidate, or a superficial or politically motivated choice of a non-white candidate. Perhaps before making such a ludicrous claim, Brooks and Krauthammer might establish, which they do not, that no non-white male was qualified for the job.

Give me that old time religion

Over the year we’ve been in business we’ve seen plenty of ironic fallacies–these are the fallacies people commit by accusing others of committing fallacies. During the election the favorite was the reverse ad hominem–accuse someone else of attacking (thereby ignoring their justified attack and attacking them in turn). Here’s another variation on that theme–the reverse ad populum:

>These things come in waves, of course, but waves need to be resisted, even if the exercise leaves you feeling like King Canute. The new wave is fashionable doubt. Doubt is in. Certainty is out.

So Charles Krauthammer (famous for his use of the reverse ad hominem) would have us believe that since doubt is fashionable, people who believe it must do so simply because others do, not because perhaps they have a reason to doubt. This is a nice way of abdicating your responsibility for an argument against their view. That doesn’t make it right. And worse, I’m not sure if Krauthhammer knows this, but just because your belief is deeply held or profoundly felt doesn’t mean it’s *true.*

Of course, Krauthammer’s jeremiad (he used that word) on belief is really just a set up for his main argument.

>The Op-Ed pages are filled with jeremiads about believers–principally evangelical Christians and traditional Catholics–bent on turning the U.S. into a theocracy. Now I am not much of a believer, but there is something deeply wrong–indeed, deeply un-American–about fearing people simply because they believe. *It seems perfectly O.K. for secularists to impose their secular views on America, such as, say, legalized abortion or gay marriage. But when someone takes the contrary view, all of a sudden he is trying to impose his view on you.* And if that contrary view happens to be rooted in Scripture or some kind of religious belief system, the very public advocacy of that view becomes a violation of the U.S. constitutional order.

Now let’s look at this a little more closely. Embedded in the usual tripe about anti-religious feeling in the liberal media, is a familiar argumentative trope: religious [think Christian Evangelical not Muslim] versus secular. These two things do not rightly belong in the same category (at least in the way Krauthammer arranges them), so any attempt to compare them is bound to mislead. Besides, *legalized* abortion is not imposed on anyone the law recognizes; gay marriage (wherever it is legal) is not imposed on anyone either (barring probably unlikely shotgun weddings). These are activities, not views. Views cannot be imposed on anyone; activities can, but these activities can’t–unless your parents force the gay lifestyle on you; or force you to get an abortion. To avoid gay marriage, don’t go to gay weddings, or don’t be gay; to avoid abortion, give birth to any children you conceive.

Neo-Con Abstractions and Sleight of Hand

We have heard a fairly consistent chorus, since September 11th, castigating the Islamic world for their supposed failure to denounce Islamic extremists. Unable to blame all muslims directly for terrorism, some find it plausible to blame all muslims for complacency, and an ever-present suggestion of complicity as well, with terrorism. This enables those thinkers who are so disposed to conceive the world in abstractions and to pose its problems in terms of wars among and within “civilizations.”

Krauthammer has a particular love of this neo-con trope. Today he again draws on it to help explain Europe’s problem with terrorism (Source: NYT 7/15/05). For Krauthammer the phenomenon that needs to be explained is that the terrorists in London (and the murderer of van Gogh in Netherlands) are “native-born Muslims.” (Of course, the terrorist acts in Madrid are the unmentioned exception here.)

>The fact that native-born Muslim Europeans are committing terrorist acts in their own countries shows that this Islamist malignancy long predates Iraq, long predates Afghanistan and long predates Sept. 11, 2001. What Europe had incubated is an enemy within, a threat that for decades Europe simply refused to face.

This is an extremely interesting rhetorical move. It rests on a certain ambiguity in the author’s intention. If he aims to show that there was a radical Islamic movement advocating violence prior to the last 5 years, then one wonders who doubts such a thing. That claim seems uncontroversially true and does not need additional evidence. This makes the argument look very strong. But Krauthammer’s intention is more devious. He wants to suggest that these acts would have been committed even without, and perhaps more likely without, America’s war on terrorism. The fact that radical Islamic movements pre-exist the last five years, of course, does nothing to show what Krauthammer wants to suggest. It is only the difference between a proximate cause and a more remote cause. Though there would be good reason to suggest this if we limited ourselves to the Dutch case–though that is not probably a case of terrorism even if it was violence committed by a muslim with fundamentalist beliefs.

This is a complicated fallacious argument. This seems to be something like a ignoratio elenchi (the fallacy of missing the point) with the conclusion unstated but suggested by the context. His choice of the three American events (9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq) suggests that the relationship between these events and the continued terrorism is Krauthammer’s real though not explicitly stated concern.

a) native-born Europeans are committing terrorism
shows b) that Islamist malignancy pre-dated 9/11 etc.
c) (implicitly) therefore the “war on terrorism” is not the cause of these acts.

Granting that (a) provides evidence for (b) (unnecessarily of course), it is hard to see that (a) or (b) provides any reason to hold (c). It might provide reason to believe (d) the “war on terror” is not the *sole* cause of these acts (even if it might be the precipitating cause). But that last claim is also uncontroversial I would think.

But setting aside this deceptive argument, Krauthammer wants to use this to explain Europe being “weak” on terrorism.

>One of the reasons Westerners were so unprepared for this wave of Islamist terrorism, not just militarily but psychologically, is sheer disbelief. It shockingly contradicts Western notions of progress.

>Our first response was, therefore, to simply sweep this contradiction under the rug. Put the first World Trade Center bombers on trial and think it will solve the problem. Even today there are many Americans and even more Europeans who believe that after Sept. 11 the United States should just have done Afghanistan — depose the Taliban and destroy al Qaeda’s sanctuary — and gone no further, thinking that would solve the problem.

Again Krauthammer suggests something that he does not actually assert–that the war in Iraq was and is a necessary part of the response to terrorism–and which his argument does nothing to show. Like above, this is a sort of sleight of hand, whereby an argument that might support a particular conclusion is actually being used to suggest the truth of a much stronger conclusion. This is combined in an interesting way with a version of the straw man argument. Presumably very few thought that we should *only* go after Afghanistan and do absolutely nothing else to combat or prevent terrorism. The question has always been whether our intervention in Iraq is contributing to terrorism.

>But the problem is far deeper. It is essentially a civil war within a rival civilization in which the most primitive elements are seeking to gain the upper hand. Sept. 11 forced us to intervene massively in this civil war, which is why we are in Iraq. There, as in Afghanistan, we have enlisted millions of Muslims on the anti-Islamist side.

>But what about the vast majority of European Muslims, the 99 percent who are peace-loving and not engaged in terror? They must also join the fight. They must actively denounce not just — what is obvious — the terrorist attacks, but their source: Islamist ideology and its practitioners.

And here we get the Neo-Con’s penchant for abstractions revealed. Rather than a historically determined political phenomenon, we are treated to a child’s tale of conflicts within and among civilizations. And one wonders whether, in Kruathammer’s mind, all Christians and Jews must denounce not just Christian and Jewish extremist terrorist acts, but the Christian and Jewish fundamentalist ideologies and their practitioners as well.

Hermeneutics for a Columnist

Krauthammer tries his hand at O’Connor bashing today in “Philosophy for a Judge” (Source: WaPo 5/9/05). O’Connor’s fault is that she lacks a “judicial philosophy:”

>stable ideas about constitutional interpretation. Her idea of jurisprudence was to decide whether legislation produced social “systems” that either worked or did not.

But, as Krauthammer reminds us, judging social policy is a matter for the legislature and not the courts: The court is only to decide whether the laws that the legislatures passes comform to the constitution. Instead, O’Connor entered into the “empirical world” and sullied the purity of constitutional interpretation with facts.

>That is what made O’Connor so unpredictable. Sure, she was headed for what she judged to be socially a stable settlement. But you could never know what empirical judgments she would make to get there. Would she decide that the long-term stability introduced by returning abortion to the elected branches of government would outweigh the short-term instability it would produce? You could not be sure. What you could be sure of was that she would come up with some ad hoc constitutional principle to justify her empirical judgment.

Continue reading Hermeneutics for a Columnist

Of Historians’ Fallacies and Regional Revolutions

I have spent much of my semester reading and thinking about the logic and epistemology of historiographic explanation for a class I am teaching. The very nature of historigraphy–its purposes, evidence, and methodology–seems to dispose it to fairly particular logical fallacies. For example, whether we are investigating Herodotus’ Histories or contemporary “academic historiography,” the historian seems easily tempted to draw inferences about general tendencies or even necessities on the basis of particular events in the past. We do not, of course, need to mention the problems of inductive inferences in general to notice that inductive predictions or generalizations need to begin from an adequate body of evidence from the past. Even as plausible an inductive generalization such as Herodotus’ “great empires fall and small nations will become great” is radically underdetermined by the body of inductive evidence whether in Herodotus’ time or our own.
This can constitute a fallacy of hasty generalization.

If professional historians for the most part try to avoid committing the sort of fallacies that all undergraduates are taught to recognize and criticize, the same does not seem to be the case when we turn to the professional pundit, as we have had occasion to show in the past: In the service of ideology, there are few fallacies that do not appear to some pundits as legitimate arguments.

As the administration has scrambled to find justification for an increasingly unpopular and stalled or even backsliding military occupation, it has pinned its hopes on the justification of future history. Now the task occupying the administration and the pundits alike is to demonstrate that the invasion of Iraq has opened the possiblity of radical change in the mid-east. It is troubling, of course, that their argument is being swallowed so easily by the unquestioning and seemingly historically ignorant press, especially since the argument rests on such easily recognized and impugned fallacies. We can take as examples of this argument, two recents columns marked by their exuberance at recent events in the mid-east. First, was David Brooks’ “Why not here?” (NYT 02/26/05 no link). More recently Krauthammer chimed in with “The Road to Damascus” (WaPo 03/04/05).

The argument in all of its forms rests on the claims that

  1. The political changes in Lebanon, Egypt, and the occupied territories are part of a regional democratizing “thaw.”
  2. The vision of the election in Iraq either caused or at least enabled these political changes.
  3. These democratizing changes are good and so good in fact that they justify the costs of the invasion of Iraq even in absence of W.M.D., the reluctance of the Iraqi population to celebrate our arrival etc.

Continue reading Of Historians’ Fallacies and Regional Revolutions

Stopping President Bartlett

The last week there has been a lot of talk about fear-mongering. The conservative punditry, almost phalanx-like, exercised a concerted attack on Kerry designed to caricature a number of his arguments as manipulative appeals to fear. The appeal to fear can be a form of fallacious argument, though it is not always enumerated in canonical lists (Douglas Walton has a good discussion of this in *Scare Tactics*). It has a structure similar to the structure of argument *ad baculum* (the appeal to force). By producing in the listener fear of some consequence, the arguer is able to persuade the listener of some unjustified claim. Perhaps we could schematize it as follows:

1. If you do X, then Y will occur.
2. Y is very bad.
3. Y is such as to produce legitimate fear for you.
4. Therefore, you should not do X.

Not all arguments with this form will be fallacious. In fact, as it stands this is can be a perfectly legitimate argument (premise 3 is unnecessary and we need to add a premise that Y is more undesirable than X).

Nevertheless, there are specific dangers concealed within the appeal to fear that we need to watch for. Appeals to fear have a tendency to involve a false dichotomy because of the first premise. This is why they often take the form of a proffered choice: Abstinence or Death! The connection between X and Y becomes a necessary and exclusive connection. In logical terms this is an inference from “If X then Y” to “X or Y.” Unfortunately, these two sentences have different truth conditions and so are not logically equivalent.

To evaluate arguments that appeal to fear we need to ask at least two questions:

1. Is the fear of Y reasonable?
2. And is the connection between the act and the result necessary?

Such complicated analysis is probably unnecessary to diagnose the fallacies in Krauthammer’s “Sacrificing Israel” (Source: NYT 10/22/04). In a nutshell, Krauthammer argues, if Kerry is elected, Israel will be destroyed.

Before turning to the argument such as it is, we might wonder whether Krauthammer has confused Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett with John Kerry, since in the season premiere of the *West Wing* we find the president seeking peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis as a response to a terrorist attack on U.S. officials. Perhaps this is the origin of this almost bizarre argument today.

>The centerpiece of John Kerry’s foreign policy is to rebuild our alliances so the world will come to our aid, especially in Iraq. He repeats this endlessly because it is the only foreign policy idea he has to offer. The problem for Kerry is that he cannot explain just how he proposes to do this.

Since he has not explained how he will do this, Krauthammer argues:

>In what currency, therefore, would we pay the rest of the world in exchange for their support in places such as Iraq? The answer is obvious: giving in to them on Israel.

So the argument takes the form:

1. If elected, Kerry will seek international cooperation on Iraq.
2. The only way to achieve this is to sacrifice Israel’s interests.
3. Sacrificing Israel’s interests is really bad.
4. The reader (should be) is afraid of this.
5. Therefore, we should not elect John Kerry.

Now the problematic premises are 2 and 4. The questions are thus whether the only way to achieve international cooperation is by sacrificing Israel’s interests, and whether it is reasonable that someone fears that this will come about as a result of Kerry’s election.

In order to justify his 2, Krauthammer argues that international cooperation will come at the price of re-engaging in the peace process.

>”Re-engage in the peace process” is precisely what the Europeans, the Russians and the United Nations have been pressuring the United States to do for years. Do you believe any of them have Israel’s safety at heart? They would sell out Israel in an instant, and they are pressuring America to do precisely that.

For Krauthammer the “peace process” is not in Israel’s interests, and so engaging in it is selling out Israel. Why?

>Do not be fooled by the euphemism “peace process.” We know what “peace process” meant during the [Clinton Administration] –a White House to which Yasser Arafat was invited more often than any other leader on the planet. It meant believing Arafat’s deceptions about peace while letting him get away with the most virulent incitement to and unrelenting support of terrorism. It meant constant pressure on Israel to make one territorial concession after another — in return for nothing. Worse than nothing: Arafat ultimately launched a vicious terror war that killed a thousand Israeli innocents.

I don’t want to contest Krauthammer’s claim about the number of visits Arafat made to the White House, but in the absence of evidence it seems a little implausible. More importantly, this is a wild caricature of the efforts of the Clinton administration and one that cannot be taken seriously. We must, at least, remember that Barak (no moderate on Israeli security) found the process congenial, while the Palestinians found it ultimately dangerous to their interests (primarily through concerns of Bantutisation of the West Bank).

There is little reason to believe that engaging in the peace process is equivalent to sacrificing Israel. The false dichotomy implicit raises its head most clearly right here. In effect, Krauthammer is arguing:

A. “either engage in the peace process, or protect Israeli interests.”

But this is simply a false dichotomy. Israel engaged in the peace process *and* was protecting its interests during the Clinton era and there is good reason to believe that not only are the two disjuncts compatible, but that ultimately the only way of attaining the latter is to engage in the former.

Krauthammer can advance such an obviously fallacious argument for two reasons: First, he is appealing to the fear of certain constituencies; Second, he collapses the distinction between means and ends. The goal of peace is desirable, some means to peace (i.e., surrender) are not desirable. The question is always how to attain the desirable end through acceptable means. This is politics.

Worse than the logical confusion is Krauthammer’s manipulation of the fears of some readers. It is only on this basis that Krauthammer can make his strikingly fallacious argument appear even slightly reasonable.