Category Archives: David Brooks

Ignorantia juris

Sometimes we run across arguments so incoherent that they are nearly impossible to categorize. For this reason, some time ago we added the category “plain bad arguments” alongside the list of commonly known logical fallacies. David Brooks most recent column (4/21/05) in the *New York Times* is a perfect example of the need for this new category.

In a very general sense, the argument is a causal one. Brooks argues that the cause of the current vitriolic atmosphere in the Senate is *Roe v. Wade* and therefore the only way to save the Senate is to “overturn *Roe v. Wade*.” But to point out–as we will in a moment–the ridiculousness of this claim would not do this awful piece justice. For in making the basic causal argument, Brooks interweaves so many other dubious, misleading and fallacious arguments that we fear not being able to capture them all. What follows is our attempt to make sense of what has to be one of the worst arguments to appear in the pages of the *New York Times* in recent months.

Continue reading Ignorantia juris

Dichotomies are not always fallacious

Continuing the examination of “good arguments,” I thought I’d consider David Brook’s recent seeming attempt to provide reasons in favor of John Bolton’s nomination, “Loudly, with a Big Stick (Source: NYT 04/14/05).

What is refreshing in Brooks’ column, is that he at least attempts to present an argument for his conclusion that does not depend on the simple fallacies that we spend our time identifying. This doesn’t mean, of course, that his conclusion is true. But at least he is playing the game of arguing for his conclusion. He is at least offering hsi readers an attempt at justifying his opinion.

Brooks begins by his usual dichotomous clarification:

> The Bolton controversy isn’t about whether we believe in the U.N. mission. It’s about which U.N. mission we believe in.

>From the start, the U.N. has had two rival missions. Some people saw it as a place where sovereign nations could work together to solve problems. But other people saw it as the beginnings of a world government.

Continue reading Dichotomies are not always fallacious

Middle-Age Caution and the Death of Environmentalism

Last Saturday we saw in the New York Times two columns addressing the question of caution: One decrying it in favor of some sort of confusion of middle-aged excess with courage and decisiveness, and the other fretting over the absence of caution in recommending caution among environmentalists. First we will deal with the trivial instance. I am still puzzling over what could possibly have motivated David Brooks to write his "Saturday Night Lite"(Source: NYT 03/12/05). In his column he flails around–in search of self-deprecating humor among other things–while trying to blame facetiously his middle-age caution on anyone but himself. >And yet we live in the age of the lily-livered, in which fretting over things like excessive caffeination is built into the cultural code. Continue reading Middle-Age Caution and the Death of Environmentalism

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

Argumentum pro homine

Just about everyone who has had Intro to Logic knows about the fallacy of the attack against the person, or ad hominem. It's a question of relevance, they are told, in that the negative features of a person's character have nothing to do with the argument she is making. That's why it's called an "attack" or "against" or in Latin, "ad." Even George Bush, Michael Moore, or why not, even Paul Wolfowitz deserves to have his argument assessed on its own merits. Rarely if ever, however, does one hear of the negative counterpart, the obverse, of the argumentum ad hominem, the argumentum pro homine. Despite its rarity and notwithstanding the absence of cruel or mean-spirited irrelevance, it's fallacious for the same reasons. And we have a fine example of this in David Brooks March 8, 2005 opinion piece in The New York Times. Take a look at this:

Let us look again at the man who's been vilified by Michael Moore and the rest of the infantile left, who's been condescended to by the people who consider themselves foreign policy grown-ups, and who has become the focus of much anti-Semitism in the world today – the center of a zillion Zionist conspiracy theories, and a hundred zillion clever-Jew-behind-the-scenes calumnies.

It's not necessary to absolve Wolfowitz of all sin or to neglect the postwar screw-ups in Iraq. Historians will figure out who was responsible for what, and Wolfowitz will probably come in for his share of the blame. But with political earthquakes now shaking the Arab world, it's time to step back and observe that over the course of his long career – in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in Central and Eastern Europe, and now in the Middle East – Wolfowitz has always been an ardent champion of freedom. And he has usually played a useful supporting role in making sure that pragmatic, democracy-promoting policies were put in place.

If the trends of the last few months continue, Wolfowitz will be the subject of fascinating biographies decades from now, while many of his smuggest critics will be forgotten. Those biographies will mention not only his intellectual commitment but also his personal commitment, his years spent learning the languages of the places that concerned him, and the thousands of hours spent listening deferentially to the local heroes who led the causes he supported.

To praise Wolfowitz is not triumphalism. The difficulties ahead are obvious. It's simple justice. It's a recognition that amid all the legitimate criticism, this guy has been the subject of a vicious piling-on campaign by people who know less than nothing about what is actually going on in the government, while he, in the core belief that has energized his work, may turn out to be right.

The occasion for the reconsideration of Paul Wolfowitz's character is the irresponsible–and to judge by the headline of the March 8, 2005 New York Times–incorrect belief that the "political earthquakes now shaking the Arab world" are unremittingly positive. More Lebanese have descended into the streets in favor of Syria than those who a week earlier showed up against it.  And besides, even those who came out against Syria wanted to be rid of a foreign occupier (never mind, as everyone hask the reasons for the occupation) as we Americans ourselves happen to be (in Iraq, another Arab country).

My colleague at the has been closely following these arguments as they appear in various op-ed pages and has promised to discuss them soon. The problem with Brooks' argument lies elsewhere. In particular, it consists in his logically clueless response-in-kind to perceived attacks on Paul Wolfowitz the person. We've discussed this sort of argument, the reverse ad hominem before.

In logical strategy it very much resembles the straw man: falsely accuse your opponent of not making an argument but of attacking the person, and in so doing you attack her rather than her argument (since you've accused her of not having an argument). This time, however, in addition to attacking the attacker (note the rhetorical juxtaposition of the "the infantile left" with the lunatic antisemitism on the order of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), Brooks responds to those attacks by pointing out what a patient listener and marvelous student of foreign languages Wolfowitz is, among other achievements and personal virtues.

No question Wolfowitz has all sorts of personal virtues and has accomplished something in his life. That's not the issue, however, in the serious critiques of his political positions and arguments. And besides that, and more to the point actually, Wolfowitz may be motivated by the purest desire to improve the lot of humankind in general, but many serious questions have been raised about the means he has chosen to these ends. Some have argued, so we have heard, that those means have been disastrous for those asked to carry them out in reality, as well as those who never asked Wolfowitz for his help.

There and here

“Moral values” played an important role in the recent election, at least in the minds of many conservative pundits and pollsters. To them, red state concern over the erosion of moral values in blue states, universities, and Hollywood delivered a resounding Bush mandate. Despite, or perhaps on account of, such a colossal victory, the red-state of mind continues to harp on the erosion of the nostalgic red state values of moral courage, sexual purity, the distinction between good and evil, and the existence or nature of the “soul”–things which blue state universities (how dare they) subject to rigorous intellectual analysis. And so David Brooks approvingly cites (or distorts–we haven’t read the novel) Tom Wolfe’s description of red state/blue state moral conflict in his *I am Charlotte Simmons*:

>His latest, “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” is about a young woman who leaves Sparta, a small town in North Carolina, and enters an elite university. She finds all the rules of life there are dissolved: the rules of courtship, the rules of decorum and polite conversation.

Young Charlotte “finds *all* the rules of life” to be “dissolved”, and here is the important part, “*there*”. What are the “rules of life”? Well, they do not involve honesty, charity, generosity, magnanimity, equanimity, or anything of that sort, rather they involve polite southern belle sexual behavior: the “rules” of courtship, decorum, and “polite” conversation. The “there” (as in not “here” in deep red Sparta, North Carolina) underscores the Brooksian dichotomy, and, considering the sheer variety of rules of courtship, decorum, and polite conversation, across the red and the blue, it’s a false one.

But there’s more.

>The social rules have dissolved because the morality that used to undergird them dissolved long ago. Wolfe sprinkles his book with observations about how the word “immoral” now seems obsolete, about how sophisticated people now reject the idea of absolute evil, about a hypermaterialistic neuroscience professor who can use the word “soul” only when it is in quotation marks.

As academics, we can guarantee you that it doesn’t take a “hypermaterialistic neuroscience professor” to be skeptical about the existence or nature of the soul, or a relativist to question the proper use of the word “immoral,” or a “sophisticated” person to wonder about “absolute evil.” After all, since the first fragmentary origins of Western Thought, philosophers have wondered whether there is such a thing as the soul (distinct from the body, brain or heart), whether there is a knowable basis of morality, and finally, whether absolute evil is conceivable. On this last point, not even St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas thought that absolute evil “existed.” Since creation was good, they argued, there could not *be* any such thing. Now of course, perhaps there exist unreflective dogmatists who hold such positions. But they are as empty-headed and clueless as their ideological obverse. To pick on them, as Brooks has here done, is to undergird your false dichotomy (here or there) with a straw man.

Now where we come from, we worry about the erosion of the intellectual and therefore moral virtues that undergird rigorous, critical, honest and fair discourse.

When an opinion is just an opinion.

When we envisioned this project and then began to work on it, we expected to spend our time roughly equally on editorial writers from all political orientations. It is, of course, readily apparent that our focus has primarily rested on four writers–David Brooks, George Will, William Safire, and Charles Krauthammer. These four are, of course, the most conservative of the opinion page writers of the country's two major dailies–The New York Times and The Washington Post. For the last two and half months, we have, therefore, spent most of our efforts criticizing conservative arguments. This probably gives the appearance of a certain "partisanship." This is not, however, our intention. Nonetheless, having read probably several hundred opinion pieces in the last two and half months from political opinion magazines as diverse as Pat Buchanan's *The American Conservative,* *The Nation* (the largest and oldest opinion weekly in the country), middle america weeklies likes *Time* and *Newsweek*, and newspapers from the flagships mentioned above to the *The Boston Globe,* *Chicago Sun Times,* and the *Cleveland Plain Dealer,* we are in a position to reflect on this appearance of partisanship. To do that, I think we need to address the question of the purpose of I have come to think of Maureen Dowd as the "purest" opinion writer around because her columns rarely involve explicit inference or argument. Instead, she largely describes her own reactions to the world, spicing it up a little with a few one-liners or cheap shots. This means that there is little in her columns for us to analyze, and also explains the impression that they are generally "fluffy" (leaving aside her hatchet jobs on Clinton and Monica from the 90's). There is, of course, implicit inference and the logic underlying her one-liners, but for the most part her columns remain somewhat impressionistic. At some point I will return to this and try to demonstrate it more rigorously. The first half of Brooks' column today (Source: NYT 11/02/04) is pure opinion. Brooks treats us to his reflections on the course of the campaign and his mild uncertainty whether his support of the Bush administration is wise or justified. >As I look back over the course of this campaign, I should confess I've gone through several periods convinced I should vote against President Bush. I know I'm not the only conservative to think this way. I look at my favorite conservative bloggers and see many coming out for John Kerry. I talk to my friends at conservative think tanks and magazines and notice that they are deeply ambivalent about the administration, even those who would never vote for a Democrat. This is part of Brooks' persona as the reasonable conservative who is more concerned with the merits of the various positions than with maintaining a strict party line–a persona that his columns over the last two and half months have given pleny of reason to doubt. Nonetheless, as his confession continues and he reveals his doubts about the Bush administration, we find nothing to analyze. Reporting the autobiographical facts about his personal beliefs does not involve argument or inference. For example to say as Brooks does: >I'm frustrated that Bush didn't build the governing majority that was there for the taking. is merely to report a psychological and biographical fact, which for the purposes of our analysis we assume to be true. Certainly Brooks wants to *explain* his frustration, but he does not need to *prove* it to us. Insofar as he remains at the level of his opinions and the explanation of his opinions there is generally little for logical analysis. But it is an entirely different matter to say as Brooks does later: > Then other considerations come into play. The first is Kerry. He's been attacked for being a flip-flopper, but his core trait is that he is monumentally selfish. Since joining the Senate, he has never attached himself to an idea or movement larger than his own career advancement. >It's not for nothing that people in Massachusetts joked that his initials stand for Just For Kerry. Or that people spoke of him as the guy who refuses to wait in lines at restaurants because he thinks he's above everybody else. Here he does more than report his belief that Kerry is "monumentally selfish." He attempts to provide the evidence that provides *reason* to believe that he is selfish. We have moved from reporting his opinions to attempting to establish the truth of an objective claim. It is at this point that our analysis is required. Does Brooks have good reason to believe that Kerry is "monumentally selfish?" Or more importantly, are the reasons that he advances sufficient to establish either the likelihood or the truth of that claim? He appeals here to two pieces of evidence: 1) "He has never attached himself to an idea or movement larger than his own career advancement." 2) People have the impression that he is selfish. We must now evaluate the strength of the inference from these two claims to the conclusion that "Kerry is monumentally selfish." As they stand they both suggest significant logical fallacies. In the first case, the fallacy of suppressed evidence, and in the second, appeal to unqualified authority (perhaps), or a sort of appeal to the people. Without thinking very long or spending any time with Lexis/Nexis, the first claim seems simply implausible, and certainly lacks any actual evidence to support it. It is, however, part of the attempt to portray Kerry (or Gore, or Clinton, or . . ..) as a cynical self-aggrandizing politician. This is common trope in political discourse and Brooks of course is willing to stoop to it. The second claim is an equally bad argument for his conclusion but a little harder to analyze. He seems to be arguing that "people" have the impression that he's the kind of guy who "refuses to wait in lines at restaurants." His only attempt to bolster this impression is to assert that "it is not for nothing that people . . ." have this impression. The fact that people believe something is not evidence that it is true, and not reason that we should believe it to be true. Of course, there may be reason to believe this, but Brooks does not provide that and so does not provide any reason to believe that "Kerry is monumentally selfish." Again we can see quite clearly that Brooks stumbles when he attempts to provide an argument for his beliefs. His arguments are consistently bad. His opinions may be true or may be false, just as they may be interesting or not. But when he remains within the domain of reporting his own opinions, we will find ourselves with much less to criticize–if he doesn't make arguments, then he can't make bad arguments. I will leave Brooks' editorial aside now, and end by briefly returning to the original question. But before I do that, I want to distinguish one other sort of opinion piece that we find more often I think being penned by the liberal or centrist commentators of the two major dailies. An example of this is today found from a right wing commentator, George Will. Rather than an "opinion editorial" in the pure sense delineated above, this might be referred to as a "reporting editorial." An example from the left-center occupants of the editorial pages might be Nicholas Kristof's recent reporting editorials from Afghanistan. Like pure opinion editorials these are concerned first of all with the reporting of facts rather than with argument and inference. George Will begins his piece today with a quick tour through the electoral almanac: >If, for the fourth consecutive election, neither candidate wins a popular vote majority, relax. There were four consecutive such elections from 1880 to 1892. In 1876 a candidate (Samuel Tilden) got 51 percent — and lost (to Rutherford Hayes). Six elections since World War II produced plurality presidents — 1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, 2000. Woodrow Wilson was consequential although he won his first term with just 41.8 percent and his second with 49.2 percent. Once again, there is nothing to contest as a matter of logic here–we assume that his facts are correct. The first half of the editorial continues in this vein, relating interesting parallels between past elections and possible outcomes today. The latter half of the editorial departs from this concern and highlights a number of things that Will wants us to "watch" such as Nevada and Maine's 2nd congressional district. Here he explains the reasons that these might be interesting without attempting to prove anything in particular. Here we move back in the direction of a "pure opinion" piece since in essence Will is saying "I think Nevada will be interesting to watch because. . .." It has been our impression over the last two and a half months that the these quartet of op-ed writers on which we have focused tend to spend more time arguing than opining. In contrast writers such as Dowd or Kristof *tend* to spend less time arguing than opining. Since the arguments offered by our quartet of writers are so often fallacious we are immediately attracted to analyze them. This is not to say that we do not have partisan tendencies or that we are not blinded to some fallacious reasoning by any number of psychological factors or beliefs. Nonetheless, our focus on this quartet is not a simple reflection of these things, but we believe a reflection of the failures of their arguments.


Though facts constitute one of the two essential features of any argument, we the editors of *The Non Sequitur* do not normally pronounce on questions of fact. We lack the resources to engage in the kind of rigorous fact-checking one finds at, for example,, and besides, we have made it our objective to focus narrowly on the way op-ed writers, politicians, and assorted others weave facts into inferences. In testing the strength or validity of inferences, we generally assume the facts to be as the writer alleges. For whatever the facts may be, they oftentimes cannot hide the howling non sequiturs a disconcerting number of these writers attempt to pass off as sound reasoning. Some non sequiturs, however, rely on shameless and obvious factual distortions or fabrications, so sometimes it is impossible for us to exclude the factual
concerns from our analysis of the logic of the inferences. The straw man argument, for instance, relies on a misleadingly weak version of an opponent’s argument, and uncovering this fallacy obviously requires that the critical reader to have some knowledge of the argument being attacked.
We find a string of such straw man arguments in Saturday’s *New York Times*.
David Brooks insults the Gray Lady’s honor and reputation by distorting the words of one of her own reporters in the assembly of one of the most rickety straw men we have seen in recent months. But, as we shall see presently, the straw man is only the first in a series of equally egregious fallacies.
First, the straw man.

The nuisance is back!

Remember when John Kerry told Matt Bai of The Times Magazine that he wanted to reduce the terrorists to a nuisance? Kerry vowed to mitigate the problem of terrorism until it became another regrettable and tolerable fact of life, like gambling, organized crime and prostitution.

That was the interview in which he said Sept. 11 “didn’t change me much at all.” He said it confirmed in him a sense of urgency, “of doing the things we thought we needed to be doing.”

We remember that too, and like all those gifted with high-speed–nay any speed–internet, we are also capable of checking to see whether Brooks *charitably* or *accurately* represents the Democratic candidate’s words. For there are various degrees of straw man argument. Some rely on factually correct, but unfair or uncharitable, interpretations of an opponent’s words or meaning; others depend on simple distortion or outright fabrication. The more common version of the fallacy, and the hardest to detect, is the first. But Brooks commits the second. In original *Times* article, Kerry had quite a bit to say about terrorists and terrorism, and on any reading, he does not come across as anything remotely like the detached and effete intellectual of Brooks’ portrayal who was unaffected by 9/11, who wants to “mitigate” the problem of terrorism rather than obliterate terrorists, and worst of all, who claims that *Bin Laden* is a nuisance.
First, let’s look at the claim that 9/11 didn’t change Kerry much at all since, as a matter of fact, this comes first in the article. This otherwise trivial fact about the order of Kerry’s statements underscores Brooks’ context-free selective quotation of them. For the sake of charity, completeness, and honesty, we will provide ample context.

This is the Republican line on Kerry — that he lacks guts. Kerry’s often wobbly attempt to be both like and unlike Bush in his approach to terrorism and the war in Iraq enabled the Bush team, by the time Kerry and I spoke in August, to portray him, devastatingly, as a ”flip-flopper” who careens from one position to another. In our conversation, Kerry seemed unusually sensitive to these allegations, to the point where he seemed unwilling to admit to having evolved or grown in the way that politicians — or human beings, for that matter — generally do. When I asked Kerry how Sept. 11 had changed him, either personally or politically, he seemed to freeze for a moment.

”It accelerated — ” He paused. ”I mean, it didn’t change me much at all. It just sort of accelerated, confirmed in me, the urgency of doing the things I thought we needed to be doing. I mean, to me, it wasn’t as transformational as it was a kind of anger, a frustration and an urgency that we weren’t doing the kinds of things necessary to prevent it and to deal with it.”

As you can see, the entire passage relates quite a different picture. Rather than a man who is unaffected by 9/11, we find one with *anger*, a *sense of urgency*, and *frustration* at the failure to address the problem of terrorism. Brooks omits these terms from his analysis and so presents a man blithely unperturbed by an event of which he himself was a witness, and perhaps, a target.

Now for the question of “mitigation.” Brooks takes this to mean Kerry is weak and uncommitted to the fight against terrorism. We should note that the word “mitigation” appears *nowhere* in the article, and even a cursory reading of it will show that it does not fairly characterize Kerry’s position with regard to the war on terrorism. First, a little context of our own. When asked whether the war on terrorism is really a war, Kerry said:

”There’s a danger in it,” Kerry said, nodding. ”But it’s real,” he went on, meaning the war itself. ”You know, when your buildings are bombed and 3,000 people get killed, and airplanes are hijacked, and a nation is terrorized the way we were, and people continue to plot to do you injury, that’s an act of war, and it’s serious business. But it’s a different kind of war. You have to understand that this is not the sands of Iwo Jima. This is a completely new, different kind of war from any we’ve fought previously.”

Kerry told me he would stop terrorists by going after them ruthlessly with the military, and he faulted Bush, as he often does, for choosing to use Afghan militias, instead of American troops, to pursue Osama bin Laden into the mountains of Tora Bora, where he disappeared. ”I’m certainly, you know, not going to take second seat to anybody, to nobody, in my willingness to seek justice and set America on a course — to make America safe,” Kerry told me. ”And that requires destroying terrorists. And I’m committed to doing that. But I think I have a better way of doing it. I can do it more effectively.”[emphasis added]

In the article that Brooks cites as evidence that Kerry wants to “mitigate” the terrorist problem, Kerry says quite clearly that he is committed to “destroying terrorists.” He says nothing to the effect that he wants to deal softly with actual terrorists. Finally, let’s see whether Kerry called Bin Laden a nuisance.

But when you listen carefully to what Bush and Kerry say, it becomes clear that the differences between them are more profound than the matter of who can be more effective in achieving the same ends. Bush casts the war on terror as a vast struggle that is likely to go on indefinitely, or at least as long as radical Islam commands fealty in regions of the world. In a rare moment of either candor or carelessness, or perhaps both, Bush told Matt Lauer on the ”Today” show in August that he didn’t think the United States could actually triumph in the war on terror in the foreseeable future. ”I don’t think you can win it,” he said — a statement that he and his aides tried to disown but that had the ring of sincerity to it. He and other members of his administration have said that Americans should expect to be attacked again, and that the constant shadow of danger that hangs over major cities like New York and Washington is the cost of freedom. In his rhetoric, Bush suggests that terrorism for this generation of Americans is and should be an overwhelming and frightening reality.

When I asked Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. ”We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance,” Kerry said. ”As a former law-enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”

The nuisance remark not only clearly refers to the ultimate objective of the war on terrorism (not its actual present day state), but appears in fact to be more optimistic than the President’s own claim that the war on terrorism cannot be won. A rigorous application of Brooks’ interpretive strategy necessitates and equally brutal interpretation of the President’s remark. He might say, for instance, with regard to Bin Laden’s recent video release, “there goes that Bin Laden again, the guy who has defeated us (since we cannot win) in the war on terrorism.” And that remark wouldn’t even take that much–or any–distortion. If we cannot win the war on terrorism, then the uncaptured Bin Laden is the victor. While such a remark would be patently uncharitable, and for that reason simply unacceptable in serious debate, it would not rest on a fabrication of Bush’s comments. Since it is obvious that none of Brooks’ characterization of Kerry actually applies to him, the conclusion he draws simply does not follow:

Well, the Osama bin Laden we saw last night was not a problem that needs to be mitigated. He was not the leader of a movement that can be reduced to a nuisance.

Few people would disagree with that, least of all John Kerry. Even Cornel West–no right wing intellectual he–the other night called Bin Laden a “gangster” who needed to be–note the phrase–“brought to justice.” But there’s more to Brooks’ argument. His completely dishonest rendering of Kerry’s position on terrorism constitutes one half of a Brooksian false dichotomy:

One of the crucial issues of this election is, Which candidate fundamentally gets the evil represented by this man? Which of these two guys understands it deep in his gut – not just in his brain or in his policy statements, but who feels it so deep in his soul that it consumes him?

Given Brooks’ silly caricature of John Kerry, he probably means Bush (and not, by the way, the Bush who “isn’t all that concerned with Bin Laden”). Nevertheless, it’s certainly possible, and, discounting the many distorted, selectively quoted, or just plain fabricated statements on the matter, very likely that Kerry both understands the problem of terrorism as a policy issue *and* “deep in his gut”.
This false dichotomy aside, we still might wonder how we know that Bush is the right man for the war on terrorism. Is it because he has demonstrated unrivaled acumen in prosecuting the war? Because he has enlisted–not alienated–the world’s support in it? Because he has actually captured the individual who plotted and financed 9/11? Because he demonstrated unwavering support and cooperation with the 9/11 commission in an effort to understand the causes of 9/11? Because he selflessly refused to exploit 9/11 for short term partisan political gain? Because he courageously took on those countries responsible for the actual financing of al Qaeda? Or is it perhaps because the Gallup poll indicates that people *think* that he is? If you chose the last one, you’d have been right:

It’s quite clear from the polls that most Americans fundamentally think Bush does get this. Last March, Americans preferred Bush over Kerry in fighting terrorism by 60 percent to 33 percent, according to the Gallup Poll. Now, after a furious campaign and months of criticism, that number is unchanged. Bush is untouched on this issue.

Need we bother to mention that just because people believe that Bush is better that he actually *is* better at it? While it may be true that most Americans think the affirmative of whatever the Gallup question actually was, this demonstrates only that they think that. If that sounded pointlessly circular, and it was meant to be that way. Whether Bush actually is the right man for the job, whether his gut feeling and his policies are more effective is a question that must be settled on an appeal to the relevant evidence, and the people’s impression, positive or negative, is not relevant evidence.
We could continue, but time and space constraints force us to stop here. Allow us dear reader to close with the following observation. We had cause to wonder in recent days whether Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, a fake news program on Comedy Central, was right when he said partisan hacks were hurting America. They seem indeed to go beyond being a simple nuisance. Given a public forum for rational, informed, and honest discussion of matters fundamental to the existence and flourishing of our democratic institutions, they all too often opt to repeat shallow and dishonest partisan talking points. While it may not be hurting America, it certainly doesn’t help.

Damned if you do

In the category of just plain bad arguments, David Brooks, never one to let down the logical analyst, argues that the Kerry campaign has been “incompetent, crude and over-the-top” in this the final phase of the campaign. Brooks offers the following four points as evidence for this claim: Bush will cut social security benefits; Bush will reinstate the draft; The Mary Cheney remark; and finally, Christopher Reeve would have walked again.

It’s not worth it to descend into the fray on the merits of these points. For, first of all, they have been hopelessly deprived of context, and every reader of Brooks knows just how much context Kerry tends to give his points (and how bad that fact usually is). Second, and more importantly, the Bush campaign probably has a better response to them than the ones Brooks provides. In each case, Brooks has Bush simply assert the opposite or claim its ridiculous. Unless the Bush campaign simply asserts its own unique and unverifiable version of reality, they have to have a better response than this. That response, along with Kerry’s real contextualized comments, deserves more fair consideration than Brooks pretends to offer here. Third, Brooks himself says *his* aim is not to discuss the morality of facts and arguments in political campaigns but rather what the incompetence of these charges as *campaigning* says about the *campaigner* and his *campaign*. The problem is not in other words the supposedly baseless and false charges (the truth), it’s the competence of the baseless and false charges (the lie). The problem with Kerry lately then, is that some other baseless and false charges would have been more *effective* as *lies*.

And Brooks does not hesitate to suggest which strategy would be more efficacious:

Bush’s key vulnerability is that people fear he is in over his head. By lashing out wildly, Kerry muddles all that. Instead his blunderbuss approach suggests a candidate devoid of perspective, driven by unattractive and naked ambition.

Aside from telling incompetent falsehoods, Kerry has failed to narrow those same incompetent falsehoods in on a single theme: Bush’s intellectual incompetence. Kerry’s strategy instead reveals him as an incompetent distorter of facts; his “blunderbuss” approach to distortion fails to mask his “unattractive and naked ambition.” Let’s put aside for a moment the morally repugnant claim that Kerry be a better and more effective liar, and focus on the notion that Kerry should hone his message to focus on the single theme of Bush’s intellectual incompetence.

By way of explaining the reasons Kerry has chosen the blunderbuss route, Brooks claims:

Why is he doing this? First, because in the insular Democratic world, George Bush is presumed to be guilty of everything, so the more vicious you can be about him, the better everybody feels.

This is truly mystifying. Brooks has just claimed that “Bush’s key vulnerability is that he is in over his head.” It seems to us that his being “guilty of everything” is a consequence of his being in over his head, and attacking Bush the person for being in over his head is the very advice Brooks has just given. The accusation of being “in over your head,” after all, constitutes a personal attack. So Brooks has argued that the Democrats are incompetent prevaricators, and if they want to win they should attack Bush on a single theme (his incompetence). But attacking Bush for his incompetence (perhaps by giving arguments or distortions to the effect that the consequences of his being in over his head will be a disaster for the solvency of social security, draft age young men and perhaps women, the rights of homosexuals, and finally the progress of scientific research) is vicious.

There is simply no way that Kerry can come out ahead in Brooks’s argument. For if he does not attack Bush for his intellectual failings, he’s incompetent; and if he attack him on these grounds, he’s vicious, and incompetent. So the result of Brooks’s argument is that if Kerry does not want to be incompetent, he must be incompetent. Whatever the virtues or vices of Kerry’s campaign, there is no doubt that this analysis of it is fundamentally contradictory. And anything that is fundamentally contradictory really is incompetent.

Missing the point

The Duelfer report states conclusively that two of the primary rationales for going to war in Iraq were seriously wrong. Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and he had no ties to al Qaeda. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped David Brooks and George Bush from claiming that the report somehow justifies the war in Iraq. What is interesting is that each of them offers the same round-peg-square-hole kind of argument. To be more precise, each of them commits the fallacy of *ignoratio elenchi*, which is Latin for “missing the point,” in such a textbook way that it’s worth looking at their arguments together.

In short, the fallacy of missing the point occurs most often in cases of drawing extreme conclusions when the evidence would more properly suggest a more moderate conclusion.

First, let’s look at David Brooks. After a reciting litany of reasons the sanctions regime was not only faltering but that it had also strengthened Saddam Hussein’s grip on power, Brooks concludes:

But we know where things were headed. Sanctions would have been lifted. Saddam, rich, triumphant and unbalanced, would have reconstituted his W.M.D. Perhaps he would have joined a nuclear arms race with Iran. Perhaps he would have left it all to his pathological heir Qusay.

We can argue about what would have been the best way to depose Saddam, but this report makes it crystal clear that this insatiable tyrant needed to be deposed. He was the menace, and, as the world dithered, he was winning his struggle. He was on the verge of greatness. We would all now be living in his nightmare.

Note that from the uncertainty of the “perhaps” of the first paragraph here cited Brooks derives the certainty of Saddam’s return to greatness, his need to be deposed, and that we would *now* be living in his nightmare. Never mind the practical impossibilities of Saddam reconstituting anything with an inspections regime that had not only been effective, but that was still in place at the start of the war. The real problem with Brooks’ argument is that when the evidence suggests corruption in the U.N. oil for food program, and Saddam’s uncanny ability to play it to his advantage (none of which actually produced weapons of mass destruction or ties with al Qaeda), Brooks concludes that the whole thing was a failure and needed to be scrapped. Considering the aims and successes of the sanctions and inspections, one would more reasonably conclude that the system only needed to be fixed. So the evidence does not suggest anything like the extreme measure of invading Iraq, deposing Saddam, and occupying Iraq.

So much for Brooks. We have another version of this same fallacy from last Friday’s Presidential debate. When asked whether despite the absence of WMDs the invasion of Iraq was still justified, Bush had this to say:

And I saw a unique threat in Saddam Hussein – as did my opponent – because we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. And the unique threat was that he could give weapons of mass destruction to an organization like Al Qaeda, and the harm they inflicted on us with airplanes would be multiplied greatly by weapons of mass destruction. And that was a serious, serious threat. So I tried diplomacy, went to the United Nations. But as we learned in the same report I quoted, Saddam Hussein was gaming the oil-for-food program to get rid of sanctions. He was trying to get rid of sanctions for a reason. He wanted to restart his weapons programs.

The attempt to get rid of sanctions, “game” the oil-for-food program, and the intent to get weapons of mass destruction do not constitute an actual imminent threat. At worst, they show the various U.N. programs to have been successful. At most, they might justify a revision, but not a wholesale rejection, of them. Furthermore, granting the increase in the perceived threat of the Hussein regime after 9/11, this rejection was not an actual live option. To suggest that letting Hussein go free and unhindered is to compound the fallacy of missing the point with a false dilemma: there were many other options between ineffective sanctions and war.