Category Archives: False Dichotomy

I fear the Greeks

Especially when they are bearing gifts. George Will pens an approving and quote-rich column about Peter Beinert’s new book, *The Good Fight: Why Liberals — and Only Liberals — Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.* Beinert, in Will’s fawning presentation, rejects the progressive label in favor of believe it or not “liberal.” But this is liberal in a new sense: the hawkish anti-terror liberal, not the Saddam-loving, Bin Laden-excusing Michael Moore style liberal:

>But while excoriating the Bush administration for perhaps “creating exactly the condition the conservatives have long feared: An America without the will to fight,” Beinart’s most important contribution is to confront the doughface liberals who rejoice about the weakening of that will. Reading liberals who seem to think they “have no enemies more threatening, or more illiberal, than George W. Bush,” Beinart worries that Deaniac liberals are taking over the Democratic Party much as McGovernite liberals did after 1968. He discerns the “patronizing quality” of many liberals’ support for John Kerry in 2004: They “weren’t supporting Kerry because he had served in Vietnam. They were supporting him because they believed other, more hawkish, voters would support him because he had served in Vietnam.”

It’s fun to question people’s motives, but it’s impolite to confuse the motives imputed to them. So while many liberals may perhaps share the satisfaction of having been right about Iraq and Afghanistan from the very beginning, this does not mean (1) that they are gleeful over the damage that has been done to America, and more perniciously, (2) that they brought it about or desired it. The current weakening of America’s standing in the world was one of the arguments *against* silly saber rattling and thinly justified foreign misadventures, not the desired outcome. Taking them to task for having been right all along, as is the current fashion among those who were wrong all along, is like blaming mathematics for your inability to add.

One final point, the oft repeated meme that liberals disdain military service has never been borne out by the facts. A simple survey of leading democrats (vs. Republicans) who actually served their country should dispel this view.

Cut and run

Before he was swept up in a spam patrol sweep, a loyal reader of ours suggested we take a look at the Power Line Blog. He wrote:

>I would like to request that this blog focus a bit on another blog for the purpose of identifying and analyzing the methods of argumentation used there. The blog is Powerline and it is a conservative blog of some influence, although I cannot for the life of me determine why it should be so. In particular, please look over the posts of one of the site’s main contributors: Paul Mirengoff. He has been the subject of a previous post on this blog when he co-authored a Wash Post editorial. I think his posts are rife with certain techniques that debaters often use and which are used to hide some very interesting logical flaws, albeit always that easy to spot. The manner in which he consistently dismisses those with a viewpoint of which he disapproves strikes me both as unresponsive and as an ad hominem approach to argument. I’d be most appreciative of anyone’s observations here — I’ve no particular subject matter or viewpoint at stake here, but I am more than a little puzzled as to why Powerline is given so much credence in the blogosphere and elsewhere.

We’re generally not interested in blogs–it’s all we can do to read the op-eds of the major daily newspapers. As a way however of apologizing to this loyal reader, here’s a quick analysis of a brief Powerline passage:

>The fact that half of all deaths caused by terrorists last year were in Iraq is consistent with what the terrorists themselves often tell us: Iraq is the central front in the global war against Islamic terrorism. The old Andrew Sullivan would have understood that this means we should fight to win in Iraq, not cut and run.

Nevermind that Iraq hadn’t been a central front in the war on terrorism until we made it so by showing up there. The more interesting claim is the second–we should fight to win, not cut and run. “Cutting and running” has all the air of the straw man/false dichotomy. “Cutting and running” is not a strategic manuever; it is hasty, cowardly, and as a result ill-conceived. It is not a policy that any serious person advocates, or should be considered to advocate. So for that reason the powerline blogger blogs against no one. The false dichotomy consists in the implicit claim that the only alternative to “victory” (whose definition is always shifting, by the way, but that is another matter) is cowardly retreat. The alternative to victory, however, is defeat. A road that many claim we have already chosen. But that, again, is another matter.

Maxima culpa (eorum)

On the subject of straw men, the Associated Press could also have noted that the President is not alone in ridiculing his opponents–he is just less adept at it. In today’s *Washington Post*, Fareed Zakaria tears a page from the President’s play book; but befitting a professional opiniator, he does it with more subtlety.

After a string of *culpae eorum* (their, not his, faults) regarding the failures of intervention in Iraq, Zakaria asserts:

>And yet, for all my misgivings about the way the administration has handled this policy, I’ve never been able to join the antiwar crowd. Nor am I convinced that Iraq is a hopeless cause that should be abandoned.

Note that “hopeless” and “abandoned” sound a lot like “cut” and “run”–only less Texan. Nowhere in the piece does Zakaria address the reasonable (but not necessarily correct) alternatives to his strategy of staying the course–outside of, that is, the phrase “antiwar crowd.” So, one might surmise that the only other option to continuing with our increasingly disastrous (body count, political instability, etc.) intervention is the anti-war crowd. Despite his more reasoned tone then, Zakaria has used the straw man “some say” technique as the president, and as such, it is impossible for the reader to determine whether his three arguments for staying are any good.

Luckily, however, one doesn’t need to have present to mind an alternative to see just how bad these reasons are.

The first:

>So why have I not given up hope? Partly it’s because I have been to Iraq, met the people who are engaged in the struggle to build their country and cannot bring myself to abandon them.

And the oaths of TV pundits are written on water.


>there is no doubt that the costs of the invasion have far outweighed the benefits. But in the long view of history, will that always be true? If, after all this chaos, a new and different kind of Iraqi politics emerges, it will make a difference in the region.

It may or may not always be true that Iraq will be a disaster. But it’s very likely that it will be. It’s only getting worse. The possibility of it not being the case is hardly reason to stay. And it has made a difference in the region–it has emboldened Iran and served as a training ground and recruiting depot for all sorts of new terrorists.


>These sectarian power struggles can get extremely messy, and violent parties have taken advantage of every crack and cleavage. But this may be inevitable in a country coming to terms with very real divisions and disagreements. Iraq may be stumbling toward nation-building by consent, not brutality. And that is a model for the Middle East.

A “sectarian power struggle” sounds like code for bloody religious civil war where the victor is determined by brutality and force of arms (and perhaps Iranian intervention, among other such things). How this means they are stumbling toward nation-building by consent is simply a mystery. All of the evidence Zakaria cites points in the other direction.

But again, these three really bad reasons only make marginal sense in the context of an absurd alternative. Perhaps one as knowledgeable of foreign affairs as Zakaria could find the time to research some of them.

The beam in your eye

Just like one should be careful not to misspell “misspelling,” one should be certain not to call someone else’s argument “intellectually disreputable” in an intellectually disreputable way. And so George Will cluelessly claims Bush has forced the Democrats into a choice of two equally unpalatable alternatives. But, first, the alternatives are speciously dichotomous. And second, in his zeal for victory in argument, Will didn’t even wait for actual obliging democrats to make any such arguments; his intellectually disreputable democrats are hypothetical, that is to say, fictional, as in not actual. Back to the main point. Along the way to the claim about the not-yet-existent argument being intellectually disreputable, Will points out:

>Now Reid deplores the Alito nomination because it was, Reid says, done without Democratic “consultation.” But it was during such consultation that, Reid says, he warned the president not to nominate Alito. So Reid’s logic is that nothing counts as consultation unless it results in conformity with Democratic dictates.

It is not *Reid’s* logic that dictates the childishly narrow interpretation of “consultation.” It’s *Will’s*. Children do this when they want to stick it to their parents–they play on newfound subtleties of words. Here Will’s puerile Bush takes “consultation” to include any conversation on the topic of judges, without the obvious component of, say, seriously considering the objections of the consulting party.

And that’s an insult to Bush as much as it is to the Democrats whose arguments Will cannot even be bothered to wait for.

Poverty of Argument

George Will reminds us of the reason one finds so little rational discourse in his columns or the columns or cable tv or radio shoutfests of his right wing brethren. However difficult–and we have no doubt it must be very difficult–to pen a column twice or thrice weekly on any topic whatever, this is hardly an excuse for engaging in a running debate with a caricature more ludicrous than which hardly Rush Limbaugh could conceive. By “liberals” or “liberalism,” we are able at this point to surmise, Will clearly means nothing other than some sort of shallow and irrational bleeding-heart variety–the Rush Limbaugh of liberalism. As it would be a mistake to think Limbaugh represents the best of conservativism, it is equally wrong to think Will’s liberal represents the best of liberalism.

In today’s *Post* column, having warmed up with some easy targets–among them the clueless Mary Landrieu and the whole of the self-serving congressional mob–Will turns his sites on the Liberal with a capital “L”:

>The senator [Barack Obama] is called a “new kind of Democrat,” which often means one with new ways of ignoring evidence discordant with old liberal orthodoxies about using cash — much of it spent through liberalism’s “caring professions” — to cope with cultural collapse. He might, however, care to note three not-at-all recondite rules for avoiding poverty: Graduate from high school, don’t have a baby until you are married, don’t marry while you are a teenager. Among people who obey those rules, poverty is minimal.

So the classical liberal, a clueless and shallow bleeding heart big-spender unaware that the real cause of poverty is right there in front of her nose–the poor:

>Liberalism’s post-Katrina fearlessness in discovering the obvious — if an inner city is inundated, the victims will be disproportionately minorities — stopped short of indelicately noting how many of the victims were women with children but not husbands.

And certainly as people were being plucked from rooftops or as they waited in the fetid stench of the Superdome or Convention Center, or worse, it would have been wise to point out that their predicament was the result of their own poor choices. But that would be tasteless and inappropriate.

There’s an even greater mistake lurking underneath Will’s perpetual straw man–it’s not only the mistaken belief that knocking him down constitutes a victory; it is also the clueless inference that “Liberal’s” defeat implies conservativism’s victory.

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.

Political Radicals or Maladjusted Kids?

Oliver Roy, guest opiner in today’s Times treats us to a fuller exposition of a fallacy riddled argument that we have been discussing lately in his “Why do they Hate Us? Not Because of Iraq” (Source: NYT 7/22/05). This provides some occasion to look a little more carefully at some of the questions of historical causality that underlie these arguments.

These arguments have the following form:

1. Either terrorism is caused by specific events and policies, or it is caused by Islamist ideology.
2. Terrorism is not caused by specific events and policies.
3. Therefore, terrorism is caused by Islamist ideology.

There is almost certainly a false dichotomy in the first premise–though this seems to be generally implicit in all of these arguments–since the causal relations underlying terrorism are probably more complex than this dichotomy allows. Nevertheless, most of Roy’s argument is devoted to justifying #2 through a series of arguments.

First, we have the argument from chronology. This argument is based on the seemingly incontrovertible causal principle that a cause must precede its effect. This seems to imply something like the following.

A. If Y exists at a time prior to X, then X cannot be the cause of Y.


B. If Islamic terrorism (militant Islamism, etc.) exists at a time prior to the invasion of Iraq, or Afghanistan, etc., then those conflicts cannot be the cause of Islamic terrorism (militant Islamism, etc.).

>First, let’s consider the chronology. The Americans went to Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, not before. Mohamed Atta and the other pilots were not driven by Iraq or Afghanistan. Were they then driven by the plight of the Palestinians? It seems unlikely. After all, the attack was plotted well before the second intifada began in September 2000, at a time of relative optimism in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

This argument is, of course, a straw man here. No one, I think, would argue that the cause of 9/11 was our retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan, or the subsequent invasion of Iraq. But, what Roy is going to do in order to make his argument seem more convincing than it should, is switch between general and specific instances of Y in our principle above (9/11, terrorism in general, Islamist mujahdeen in Afghanistan in the 80’s, London bombings). This becomes a fallacy of equivocation and allows him to set up these straw men arguments in order to knock them down.

He shows us that the presence of troops in Saudi Arabia can not be the cause of bin Laden’s radical islamism, since the latter preceded the former.

>Another motivating factor, we are told, was the presence of “infidel” troops in Islam’s holy lands. Yes, Osama Bin Laden was reported to be upset when the Saudi royal family allowed Western troops into the kingdom before the Persian Gulf war. But Mr. bin Laden was by that time a veteran fighter committed to global jihad.

Once again, no one would argue this, I think. Instead, the argument would be that a terrorist movement gains adherents and militants to the degree that populations feel violated, oppressed, and otherwise powerless. So although these events did not cause the existence of the movement, they feed, strengthen, and radicalize these movements.

Roy’s second argument is more interesting. Here he argues that the militants and terrorists are not really concerned about what happens to Afghanis or Iraqis.

>Second, if the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine are at the core of the radicalization, why are there virtually no Afghans, Iraqis or Palestinians among the terrorists? Rather, the bombers are mostly from the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Egypt and Pakistan – or they are Western-born converts to Islam. Why would a Pakistani or a Spaniard be more angry than an Afghan about American troops in Afghanistan? It is precisely because they do not care about Afghanistan as such, but see the United States involvement there as part of a global phenomenon of cultural domination.

If it is the case that there are virtually no Iraqis, Afghans, or Palestinians, one wonders what the denotation of “terrorists” includes. The decade and more of suicide bombings in Israel and the occupied territories, the insurgency in Iraq and Afghan, all seem to be excluded now from Roy’s argument. Now it suits his purpose to focus not on the broadest phenomena of Islamic militancy, but rather on a much narrower problem which excludes anyone who would cause trouble for Roy’s argument.

>It is also interesting to note that none of the Islamic terrorists captured so far had been active in any legitimate antiwar movements or even in organized political support for the people they claim to be fighting for. They don’t distribute leaflets or collect money for hospitals and schools. They do not have a rational strategy to push for the interests of the Iraqi or Palestinian people.

So there are two reasons for his second argument: (a) the militants and terrorists are foreigners; (b) the militants and terrorists do not have political programs in mind for the populations that they are supposedly fighting for.

>Even their calls for the withdrawal of the European troops from Iraq ring false. After all, the Spanish police have foiled terrorist attempts in Madrid even since the government withdrew its forces. Western-based radicals strike where they are living, not where they are instructed to or where it will have the greatest political effect on behalf of their nominal causes.

Switching back now to the Western militants, Roy claims, quite incredibly and without argument, that the real motivation is a form of “culture shock” rather than politics.

>The Western-based Islamic terrorists are not the militant vanguard of the Muslim community; they are a lost generation, unmoored from traditional societies and cultures, frustrated by a Western society that does not meet their expectations.

The terrorists seem, on Roy’s view, to be maladjusted kids rather than political radicals. Perhaps there is some truth here, but the inadequate arguments presented above does nothing to support this view. Roy would need to spend more time presenting evidence for this curious view, and less time knocking down straw men, if we were to be obligated to take his conclusion seriously.

The motivations for terrorism are sometimes deeply perplexing, and the causes of both the multi-national Islamist movement and individual participation in terrorism for its sake are far more complicated than Roy and these argument’s recent proponents on the right can allow. Although a strong case can be made for the uncontroversial claim that Iraq and Afghanistan are not the sole cause of all acts of Islamist terrorism, the desire of these pundits seems to be exonerating the Bush administration of any causal contribution to the terrorism it is supposedly trying to combat. That argument has certainly not been made by Roy here and the growing body of argument and evidence seems to support the contrary.

Smoking or non?

We remarked some time ago that David Brooks of the *New York Times* discovered a new fallacy: the *argumentum pro homine*. It’s a fallacy of relevance akin to the ad hominem argument, though instead of attacking a person, you praise him for traits that have nothing to do with the conclusions you mean to draw about him. One might wonder, however, whether Mr. Brooks employs this sort of praise in a backhanded sort of way. In today’s op-ed, “Mr.Bush, Pick a Genius,” we can’t tell whether Brooks means to malign or praise the poor Michael McConnell, a man who strikes him as a “genius” and a terrific Supreme Court nominee.

>McConnell (whom I have never met) is an honest, judicious scholar. When writing about church and state matters, he begins with the frank admission that religion is a problem in a democracy. Religious people feel a loyalty to God and to the state, and sometimes those loyalties conflict.

To be precise–which is what honest, judicious judicial scholars do–religious people feel a loyalty to what *they* take to be their own religion’s–or better, their own demonination’s–interpretation of Divine requirements. Considering the sheer number and diversity of Christian denominations alone, these loyalties will very likely conflict. The genius, as Brooks describes him, has discovered hot water.

This is all set up for the grand argument.

>So he understands why people from Rousseau and Jefferson on down have believed there should be a wall of separation between church and state.

“Wall of separation” is a suggestive, though wholly and unfortunately imprecise phrase. It’s the kind of phrase that will have the imprecise non-geniuses among us arguing at cross-purposes. In other words, it’s the kind of phrase that cries out for argument, justification, clarification, application, interepretation. But how, one wonders:

>The problem with the Separationist view, he has argued in essays and briefs, is that it’s not *practical.* As government grows and becomes more involved in health, charity, education and culture issues, it begins pushing religion out of those spheres. The Separationist doctrine leads inevitably to discrimination against religion. The state ends up punishing people who are exercising a *constitutional right*. [emphasis added]

It seems like the problem with the separationist view is that it’s *not constitutional*, not that’s it’s not practical. But that’s not the real point. This is:

>McConnell argued that government shouldn’t be *separated* from religion, but, as Madison believed, should be *neutral* about religion. He pointed out that the fire services and the police don’t just protect stores and offices, but churches and synagogues as well. In the same way, he declared in Congressional testimony in 1995, “When speech reflecting a secular viewpoint is permitted, then speech reflecting a religious viewpoint should be permitted on the same basis.” The public square shouldn’t be walled off from religion, but open to a plurality of viewpoints, secular and religious. The state shouldn’t allow school prayer, which privileges religion, but public money should go to religious and secular service agencies alike.

The rest of the article spins out the evidence for this view in the usual fashion–cherry picking cases of misguided or confused local officials discriminating against religious people. We’ve all heard these cases, so we won’t bother going through them in order to point out that much more than these anecdotes would be needed to demonstrate systematic religious discrimination.

But back to the point, notice how “neutral” is an interpretation of “separated.” And notice also how this view is supported by one wickedly specious analogy–the fire department and police have fairly well-defined objectives–property and life. Nonetheless, the problem with McConnell’s view is that he falsely contrasts secular with religious. “Secular” is not religious, or any particular religion; it is not another religion alongside the many religions. Some might even claim that “secular” is a kind of “neutrality” with regard to religion.

. . . about History

Some time ago we let a George Will piece on the magisterium of History (over philosophy) go by without comment. We were lazy and we regret it. For certainly our decisive critical analysis would have changed the future. But there is still time. We reserve the right to write about any op-ed at any time. In that sense perhaps we too are historians.

And so as historians, we were appalled to read

What is history? The study of it — and the making of it, meaning politics — changed for the worse when, in the 19th century, history became History. When, that is, history stopped being the record of fascinating contingencies — political, intellectual, social, economic — that produced the present. History became instead a realm of necessity. The idea that History is a proper noun, denoting an autonomous process unfolding a predetermined future in accordance with laws mankind cannot amend, is called historicism. That doctrine discounts human agency, reducing even large historical figures to playthings of vast impersonal forces. McCullough knows better.

Nevermind that the making of history is more than politics (in our view there’s a little geology [e.g., tsunami] and biology [e.g., black death] and probably more). Instead, imagine for a moment the position described by Will as “Historicism.” Such a view turns history into “Historywithacapital’H'”; discounts human agency; it’s deterministic; large historical figures are subject to forces stronger than them: Who would hold such a moronic view of history?

Probably nobody. This is has to be the view of Will’s imaginary academic friend Karl–he has more imaginary friends–liberals (Ted), non-strict constructionists (Ruth), and so forth. They stick around to provide him with silly and shallow arguments. And when they’re not actually imaginary, he makes them so by lampooning their arguments. But like all things imaginary, others can’t see them as clearly as you do.

Take for instance this historicism crap. What would show that historicism is a load of bunk? Why a ripping good yarn of course:

Using narrative history to refute historicism, McCullough’s two themes in “1776” are that things could have turned out very differently and that individuals of character can change the destinies of nations. There is a thirst for both themes in this country, which is in a less-than-festive frame of mind on this birthday. It is, therefore, serendipitous that “1776,” with 1.35 million copies already in print, sits atop the New York Times best-seller list on Independence Day.

So a really good narrative–like those so often narrated by McCullough himself on PBS (which, by the way, according to Will is so very unnecessary) shows that great men can change destinies (who believes in destinies?) and things could have turned out otherwise (gee, you mean history is not a deductive science?). But a narrative doesn’t show this–it can’t. And in this case it probably doesn’t even try. Mr.McCullough has done the study of the Past too great a service–both in his writing and his work on Public Television–to receive this kind of praise from George Will.

Worth it or not

Now that some on the right have concluded the obvious–the Iraq was a mistake in its inception and in its execution–a new argument has appeared on the scene. It’s not a new argument, of course, it’s an old one dressed up to fit current circumstances. It goes something like this. For those, like John Kerry, who say the Iraq was not worth it, we have to ask what the costs of leaving Saddam in power would have been. We see a variation on this argument in Sunday’s *Washington Post.* Short of saying that the invasion was worth it, Robert Kagan revives the rhetorically effective 2004 Republican campaign strategy of citing the opinions of Clinton-era policy types as evidence that Saddam would have gotten worse if left unchecked. And that’s just the thing. For serious and responsible world leaders–some of them perhaps French–the question was never the one that was thrust on them by bifurcating American hawks:

>go to war against Saddam and remove him from power


>trust that he will no longer be an evil person and do nothing (or some variation of the status quo).

Perhaps it’s overly pedantic to point out that between these two false alternatives lies a range of possibilities. Even if the status quo was not keeping weapons out of Saddam’s hands (and it was–by the way–he didn’t have any WMDS; and he barely had an army with any will to fight, least of all invade a neighbor), there were still many options short of an Anglo-American invasion. The depressing thing about Kagan’s piece is that Bush’s silly dichotomy–something for which he has a marked tendency (cf., “you are either with us or with the terrorists”)–resurfaces in the calm light of what otherwise might seem to be careful historical analysis. But it’s not careful or historical–it’s simply regurgitated pro-invasion talking points that were no more cogent the day they were uttered than they are today.