Category Archives: Equivocation

Kerry’s Soviet-Style World-View

By now it seems likely that David Brooks has never met a dichotomy that he didn’t like. Impressed by the difference between his weekend perambulation in the country and a drive back into the city, Brooks muses:

>I was struck again by how powerfully the physical landscape influences our view of politics and the world.

This leads Brooks to one of his standarad reflections on the differences between the rural commitment to “Goldwateresque virtues” and the urban commitment to the “Kennedyesque virtues.” No sociological subtleties, and no empirical evidence is needed. Not even any historical contextualization is needed for Brooks to conclude that there are two types of people in this country. Looking at a map with the red and blue states colored in for us, this sort of limpid generalization seems plausible. The south and the rural west we’re told are red and the northeast and coastal west, home to our biggest cities, are blue. Need we go any further?

Again at some level of generalization this seems reasonable. But we only need to start thinking about states such as Florida, Ohio, Illlinois, Wisconsin, and perhaps ultimately the majority of the states to realize that this dichotomy is far too simplistic to be either useful or interesting.

But now Brooks suspects that this same opposition might explain the debate we are having about foreign policy as well: perhaps, the physical landscape powerfully influences our views of foreign policy. However implausible this sounds at first, it will only get worse:

>the foreign policy debate between George Bush and John Kerry is really a conflict between two values: freedom and internationalism.

O.K. Once again at some level of generality there is little to quibble with here. What’s interesting is that Brooks cites an article by Adam Wolfson in the Weekly Standard which discusses the difference between the two candidates’ foreign policies. Wolfson, in fact, argues that both come from the same source, liberalism. But the dichotomy is much more to Brooks’ tastes.

>When Bush talks about the world he hopes to create, he talks first about spreading freedom. What he’s really talking about is a decentralized world. Individuals would be free to live as they chose, in their own nations, carving out their own destinies.

>When Kerry talks about the world he hopes to create, he talks first about alliances and multilateral cooperation. He’s really talking about a crowded world. People from different nations would gather to work out differences and manage problems.

One thing to note, however, is that Brooks replaces Wolfson’s distinction between the democratic and the internationalist sides of liberalism with his own opposition between internationalism and freedom. These latter are not really coordinate, however, as they compare a means with an end. Yet it serves an important rhetorical purpose: Brooks can suggest, though of course not state outright, that Kerry’s internationalism is at opposed to a commitment to freedom.

This move is important. Brooks is transforming the debate into a disagreement about values rather than policy, and simultaneously he is suggesting that Kerry values constraint more than freedom.

>Put this way, the argument we are having about international relations is the same argument we are having about domestic affairs, just on a larger scale. It’s a conflict between two value systems. One is based on a presumption of a world in which individuals and nations should be self-reliant and free to develop their own capacities – forming voluntary associations when they want – without being overly coerced by national or global elites. The other is based on the presumption of a crowded world, which emphasizes that no individual or nation can go off and do as it pleases, but should work instead within governing institutions that establish norms and provide security.

Yes, perhaps, *if* you put the debate this way, this is true. But in fact, this is not the debate we are having. Bush and Blair justify the invasion of Iraq on the basis of U.N. resolutions and on the basis of the claim that “the world is better off. . ..” Kerry and Clinton do not reject, as far as I can tell, the value of democratization–and in fact, this was a cornerstone of Clinton-era foreign policy. The question, however, has always been about the best means to attain the end of democratization. Kerry and other democrats have a certain skepticism, born from experience, about the possibility of promoting democracy with the barrel of a gun. And this probably explains to some degree the preference, at least notionally, among democrats for humanitarian interventions rather than interventions to install a government.

>Seen in these terms, this election is not just a conflict of two men, but is a comprehensive conflict of visions. Both these visions have been bloodied of late. Still, they do address the central issue confronting us: How do we conceive of an international order in the post-9/11 world? Bush, the conservative, conceives of a flexible, organic, spontaneous order. Kerry, the liberal, conceives of a more rationalist, planned and managed order.

Now we find that the problem is in fact how best to conceive internationalism and not as Brooks suggested earlier what we should be striving for as a nation in our foreign policy. Of course, this also serves a rhetorical purpose as the contrast between the two sorts of “order” suggests. By changing the terms of the disagreement, Brooks has painted Kerry into some sort of soviet style socialist foreign policy.

I have a feeling that the logic underlying these rhetorical moves could be better illuminated than I have done here. Brooks’ whole argument seems to rely on a series of equivocations, and tracking more precisely how he equivocates might be an illuminating task. Nonetheless, I will leave this commentary with one last quotation that is not interesting for its logic, but only because it is perhaps the worst last sentence in op-ed. history:

>This debate could go on for a while since both sides represent legitimate points of view, and since both sides have concrete reasons to take the positions they do.

Not only that, however, it is also strikingly disingenuous. Brooks offers himself as the “reasonable conservative”–an understanding and fair minded judge of the both parties’ policies and values. When we look carefully at the logic and rhetoric of this piece, however, his pretense to neutrality becomes absurd. The language in terms of which he chooses to describe the differences between the two candidates betrays a suggestion of cynicism in his studied neturality.

Make the pie higher

Not to be outdone by the argumentative vacuum of David Brooks’ piece, George Will offers several contributions to today’s fallacy hall of shame:

Kerry squandered his convention opportunity, incessantly telling voters only what they already knew about him — that he served in Vietnam. Then, when citizens’ groups questioned his patently questionable claims about his Vietnam service, he asked the government to construe the campaign finance laws to silence this political speech.

Two cases of suppressed evidence here. Kerry said a lot of things during his convention speech. Some of them–indeed many of them, perhaps even the greater part of what he said–had nothing to do with Vietnam. In addition to this, Kerry has made speeches throughout the country, given interviews, and written statements about substantive questions not related to his service in Vietnam. Should Will–a Pulitzer Prize winning commentator–like to engage Kerry’s position in the calm light of reason, then he should not purposely ignore the candidate’s own statements and offer nonsensical and vitriolic partisan talking points in place of rigorously executed analysis. Second, like Brooks of the New York Times, Will embraces the not only questionable but largely refuted (“refuted” here means “shown to be false”, not, as it often seems, “objected to”) claims of the Swift Boat Vets.

But this is only part of Will’s contribution to today’s logical hall of shame. When short of arguments against an opponent (which Will clearly is today), the self-confident but devious rhetorician nearly always finds away to interpret the statements of his opponent uncharitably:

Kerry insists he is not a “redistribution Democrat.” But of course he is. And Bush is a redistribution Republican. There is no “natural” distribution of social wealth. Distribution is influenced by social arrangements, from property laws to tax laws to educational arrangements, all of them political choices. Both parties have redistributionist agendas.

Will’s lack of context forces Kerry to sound like a clown. But what we have here is a fallacy of equivocation. It’s obvious that Kerry means something else by “redistribution” than does Will. But we’d never know that from Will’s simplistic semantic analysis. Whether Kerry’s policy is sensible or not, of course, is a question that Will would have to think about. No time for that, however, because Will has to turn this semantic analysis into the most pungent of red herrings:

In disavowing “redistribution,” Kerry presumably means he rejects the old liberal belief in recarving the economic pie, rather than making the pie grow, to ameliorate the condition of the poor. But he favors using government power to direct the flow of wealth to public school teachers, or to protect the flow to trial lawyers. Up-to-date liberalism defends the strong, not the poor, who are either reliable Democratic voters or nonvoters. Republicans defend their own muscular interests.

What looks like an honest attempt to evaluate Kerry’s understanding of the term “redistribution” (note the use of the word “presumably”) turns into a distracting reference (the red herring throws the dogs of the scent!) to those pointlessly litigious trial lawyers and those sickeningly wealthy public school teachers. While it is obvious that there is no flow of “wealth” to public school teachers, and trial lawyers generate their own cash by subtracting it from tortiously challenged coporations (not government handouts), this constitutes the core of Will’s conclusion that Democrats protect the “strong.” That may indeed be the case, but this silly excuse for an argument does nothing to establish it.

In all fairness, you will have noted that Will directs his considerably impoverished analysis at an equally hollow diatribe against the Republican position–it’s just not as hollow as his case against Kerry. So for a change Will offends the good sense of Republicans as well as Democrats.

One final point. Lest you think we are needlessly naughty nitpicking nabobs of negativism, then consider the following bit of Will’s own logical analysis:

This year’s political raptures are perfunctory. In Boston, Democratic delegates, who loathed the Vietnam War partly because they thought it unrelated to America’s defense, dutifully applauded John Kerry’s revisionism: “I defended this country as a young man.”

That does sound like a contradiction indeed. But Kerry didn’t contradict himself, and the delegates didn’t either–unless somesuch statement had been made at the convention (something for which no evidence is put forward here). What might make this a contradiction is some statement of Kerry’s that denies Vietnam was a defensive operation (and he’d probably find that with a little research). But what in the end would that show? Not much. Merely that Kerry can be found to have contradicted himself or that he had a sloppy choice of words. Perhaps Will might better spend his time tracking down and discussing the real issues of policy that should constitute the core of the debate in an advanced democracy such as our own instead of the pointless minutiae of partisan politics. The readers of the Washington Post might be richer for it.