Tag Archives: John McCain

Norms of Assertion

Frans van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst have a section titled 10 Commandments of Reasonable Discussion to close their masterwork, A Systematic Theory of Argumentation.   The second and ninth are of import.

2. Discussants who advance a standpoint may not  refuse to defend his standpoint when requested to do so. (p. 191)

9. Inconclusive defenses of standpoints may not lead to maintaining those standpoints…. (p.195)

It’s a truism that if you assert that p and you’re asked to give reasons, you should.  Moreover, it seems clear that if you don’t have any reasons to hold p true, then you should (if you asserted it) retract your assertion. That’s responsible cognitive management, responsible assertion.  No evading the burden of proof if you assert, and if you can’t fulfill the requirements of the burden, stop asserting.

How epistemically demanding this norm must be is a matter of some debate.  Here are a few of the contenders:

C-Norm: S may assert that p only if S is certain that p.

K-Norm: S may assert that p only if S knows that p.

RBK-Norm: S may assert that p only if S reasonably (but possibly fallibly) believes that S knows that p.

J-Norm: S may assert that p only if S has epistemically justifying reasons for believing that p.

W-Norm: S may assert that p only if S has warrant for holding that p (but S does not have to believe it)

T-Norm: S may assert that p only if p is true.

The literature on norms of assertion are all over the place on which of these norms obtains, but with the exception of the T-norm, it’s not hard to see how these norms explain why Rules 2 and 9 above obtain.  (Those who hold the T-norm maintain that the obligation to defend is pragmatically derivable from the T-norm.)  In short, the point is to see that those who assert, by way of asserting, shoulder a burden to argue as a consequence.

Donald Trump’s tweet, assuming it’s an assertion, requires some backing.  And given the seriousness of the accusation, the urgency of his shouldering the burden of proof is pretty significant.

John McCain’s appearance on CNN’s State of the Union was an instance of someone invoking the rule.  His challenge is:

The President has one of two choices: either retract or to provide the information that the American people deserve . . . .  I have no reason to believe that the charge is true, but I also believe that the President of the United States could clear this up in a minute.  All he has to do is pick up the phone, call the director of the CIA, director of national intelligence and say, ‘OK, what happened?’

The problem is that the current President is used to asserting confidently to a roomful of his yes-men or to a group of supporters and never getting pushback.  He can say:  believe me, I’ve got information… and they do.  But now that he’s President, his assertions have wider audience and plenty of folks want the backing.

 

An Exercise in Scarequoting

Classic downplaying is the strategy of making something look less important or significant.  You can do this with euphemisms, so you can call a pay cut "salary compression," or you can call the victims of indiscriminate use of lethal force "collateral damage."  Another strategy is to employ the terms of regular use, but use scare quotes around the terms.  This method of downplaying at once both acknowledges that some use the term to describe the case, but it also registers your objection to it.  No reasons are given, but it's a clear wink to one's preferred audience, a kind of code to let them know that it's a larger cultural battle in the works. But also note that scarequoting just communicates this challenge to the naming, but not its grounds or even what the alternatives are.  It is a particularly weak and lazy form of criticism, one that effectively relies on the audience to supply their own arguments.

In the wake of the leaked Katie Couric tape, with Couric laughing at Sara Palin's kids names, Douglas MacKinnon re-opens the case that Sara Palin was treated unfairly by the media in '08.  He thinks her performances in the Gibson interview (when she couldn't define the Bush Doctrine) and Couric interview (when, she couldn't name a single news magazine) were because of the treachery of the liberals who ran the interviews.  But the real fault lays with the McCain campaign for not protecting her from these ambushes.  That's weird, as it seems that these questions were hardly surprises and could have easily been turned into cases for Palin to showcase her knowledge of politics and foreign affairs, had she done any homework.  Regardless, MacKinnon has the perfect downplayer setup for his case in his opening paragraph:

As the video popped-up this week of far-left, ultra wealthy, and privileged CBS “News” anchor Katie Couric going after then Governor Sarah Palin while mocking the names of her children, it reminded me all over again how much Palin is owed an apology from the “leadership” of the McCain campaign.

That paragraph without the scare quotes still gets the point across — McCain's campaign advisers should have known that liberals would try to take down their witless VP candidate, and they should have stayed with only Sean Hannity and Greta Van Sustren interviewing her.  But with the addition, really, of no more words but a few extra marks (eight little apostrophes), MacKinnon communicates so much more and expresses (and encourages) real hostility to his opponents.

Here, let me show you.  I'll re-write my last paragraph with the addition of scare quotes.

That paragraph without the scare quotes still gets the "point" across — McCain's campaign advisers should have known that liberals would try to take down their witless VP candidate, and they should have stayed with only Sean Hannity and Greta Van Sustren "interviewing" her.  But with the addition, really, of no more words but a few extra marks (eight little apostrophes), MacKinnon "communicates" so much more and expresses (and encourages) real hostility to his opponents.

See?  It's easy to sound much more outraged by and better informed than your opponents with just a few scare quotes.  No wonder a lazy mind like MacKinnon uses them so… liberally.

Teenage Wasteland

Media bias resists simple quantification.  First, it's not clear what "bias" means.  In the case of a contest between two political candidates, it may mean (1) a tendency to measure people by differing standards; or (2) uncritically adopting or repeating the brand identity (Maverick!) of one candidate over another; (3) deliberately ignoring negative things about one candidate; (4) accentuating negative things about one candidate; (5) purposely going negative on one candidate in order to give the appearance of balance (click that link–it's astounding); (6) uncritically assuming background realities (American is a center right nation!) which favor one candidate over another.  I suppose we could go on and on if we wanted to. But you probably get the idea.  Second, bias necessarily implies some kind of content analysis, so counting articles as "negative" or "positive" or op-ed pieces as "laudatory" or "negative" just doesn't do anything to enlighten us about media bias. 

So Debbie Howell, the bumbling Ombudsman (Oh Noes! I called her a name!), sums up the Post's "favoring" Obama in purely quantitative terms.  One simply breaks articles into two groups: negative and positive.  Then count.  She writes:

The Post provided a lot of good campaign coverage, but readers have been consistently critical of the lack of probing issues coverage and what they saw as a tilt toward Democrat Barack Obama. My surveys, which ended on Election Day, show that they are right on both counts.

Ever notice that in discussions of media bias, the accuser catches the bias, but assumes others are not so acute?  Anyway.  Now the numbers:

My assistant, Jean Hwang, and I have been examining Post coverage since Nov. 11 last year on issues, voters, fundraising, the candidates' backgrounds and horse-race stories on tactics, strategy and consultants. We also have looked at photos and Page 1 stories since Obama captured the nomination June 4. Numbers don't tell you everything, but they give you a sense of The Post's priorities.  

I would say they don't tell you anything.  Not to belabor the point, here is an example of Howell's numerological analysis:

The op-ed page ran far more laudatory opinion pieces on Obama, 32, than on Sen. John McCain, 13. There were far more negative pieces (58) about McCain than there were about Obama (32), and Obama got the editorial board's endorsement. The Post has several conservative columnists, but not all were gung-ho about McCain.

Stories and photos about Obama in the news pages outnumbered those devoted to McCain. Post reporters, photographers and editors — like most of the national news media — found the candidacy of Obama, the first African American major-party nominee, more newsworthy and historic. Journalists love the new; McCain, 25 years older than Obama, was already well known and had more scars from his longer career in politics.

The number of Obama stories since Nov. 11 was 946, compared with McCain's 786. Both had hard-fought primary campaigns, but Obama's battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton was longer, and the numbers reflect that.

McCain clinched the GOP nomination on March 4, and Obama won his on June 4. From then to Election Day, the tally was Obama, 626 stories, and McCain, 584. Obama was on the front page 176 times, McCain, 144 times; 41 stories featured both.

Our survey results are comparable to figures for the national news media from a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. It found that from June 9, when Clinton dropped out of the race, until Nov. 2, 66 percent of the campaign stories were about Obama compared with 53 percent for McCain; some stories featured both. The project also calculated that in that time, 57 percent of the stories were about the horse race and 13 percent were about issues.

Counting from June 4, Obama was in 311 Post photos and McCain in 282. Obama led in most categories. Obama led 133 to 121 in pictures more than three columns wide, 178 to 161 in smaller pictures, and 164 to 133 in color photos. In black and white photos, the nominees were about even, with McCain at 149 and Obama at 147. On Page 1, they were even at 26 each. Post photo and news editors were surprised by my first count on Aug. 3, which showed a much wider disparity, and made a more conscious effort at balance afterward.

Some readers complain that coverage is too poll-driven. They're right, but it's not going to change. The Post's polling was on the mark, and in some cases ahead of the curve, in focusing on independent voters, racial attitudes, low-wage voters, the shift of African Americans' support from Clinton to Obama and the rising importance of economic issues. The Post and its polling partner ABC News include 50 to 60 issues questions in every survey instead of just horse-race questions, so public attitudes were plumbed as well.

Ok, that was long and rather silly.  We don't know what those articles said and Powell doesn't seem to care much.  But how would one remedy such evident bias in favor of Obama?  Powell has an idea:

But Obama deserved tougher scrutiny than he got, especially of his undergraduate years, his start in Chicago and his relationship with Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who was convicted this year of influence-peddling in Chicago. The Post did nothing on Obama's acknowledged drug use as a teenager. 

There's always next time. 

Pretty woman

Practically by his own admission, Charles Krauthammer's thin case isn't worth making fun of–"he's going down with the ship" out of fears that Obama would not frighten the Beejeebus out of our terrorist enemies, like Bush does now.  Which he doesn't.  More interesting is Kathleen Parker's continued presence on the Washington Post op-ed page.  Sure she has had the stones to say that Sarah Palin doesn't belong in national office (I would add municipal to that as well), but she hasn't somehow regained rational powers.  

Today, for instance, wondering what drove John McCain to pick Sarah Palin for VP, she offers the dirty old man or viagra thesis:

But there can be no denying that McCain's selection of her over others far more qualified — and his mind-boggling lack of attention to details that matter — suggests other factors at work. His judgment may have been clouded by . . . what?

What could it be?

Science provides clues. A study in Canada, published by a British journal in 2003, found that pretty women foil men's ability to assess the future. "Discounting the future," as the condition is called, means preferring immediate, lesser rewards to greater rewards in the future. 

Right, "science."  Add other decisive clues (Parker's husband's unfortunate candor among them) and you arrive at the following mind-blowing conclusion:

It is entirely possible that no one could have beaten the political force known as Barack Obama — under any circumstances. And though it isn't over yet, it seems clear that McCain made a tragic, if familiar, error under that sycamore tree. Will he join the pantheon of men who, intoxicated by a woman's power, made the wrong call?

He probably made the wrong call–especially if he wins.  But this gets worse:

Had Antony not fallen for Cleopatra, Octavian might not have captured the Roman Empire. Had Bill resisted Monica, Al Gore may have become president, and Hillary might be today's Democratic nominee.

If McCain, rightful heir to the presidency, loses to Obama, history undoubtedly will note that he was defeated at least in part by his own besotted impulse to discount the future. If he wins, he must be credited with having correctly calculated nature's power to befuddle.

My sense was that, pretty or not, he just miscalculated the amount of BS even the American media was willing to tolerate.  And no one can blame him for that.

Race baiting

Charles Krauthammer, despite his apparent recognition of the shortcomings of the Republican ticket, can still find a way to generate outrage.  Today, for instance, he complains about those who would suggest there is a racial element to the McCain campaign.  Here's the charge: 

Let me get this straight. A couple of agitated yahoos in a rally of thousands yell something offensive and incendiary, and John McCain and Sarah Palin are not just guilty by association — with total strangers, mind you — but worse: guilty according to the New York Times of "race-baiting and xenophobia."

Unsurprisingly, he doesn't have it straight. For in the rest of the article, Krauthammer rails against Obama himself for charges the New York Times made about McCain's campaign.  He concludes:

And Obama has shown no hesitation in doing so to McCain. Weeks ago, in Springfield, Mo., and elsewhere, he warned darkly that George Bush and John McCain were going to try to frighten you by saying that, among other scary things, Obama has "a funny name" and "doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills."  

Why would he say that?

 

That's kind of a dollar bill, I suppose.  Story here.  Now of course that's not McCain's campaign, but Obama didn't say that George Bush and John McCain were going to frighten you–he said, "they."  And if they includes any Republicans, he was right more times than just once.  

Update: 

Then there's this.

What will the neighbors think?

If God isn't moved by direct prayers–oh Lord, please help me!–perhaps He will be moved by trash talking (via Washington Monthly):

Unhelpful for establishing the tone McCain sought in Davenport was the Rev. Arnold Conrad, past pastor of the Grace Evangelical Free Church. His prayer before McCain arrived at the convention center blocks from the Mississippi River appeared to dismiss faiths other than Christianity and cast the election as a referendum on God himself.

"I would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons," Conrad said.

"And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and Election Day," he said.

To me this sounds a little bit like a threat. Good thing the Reverend Wright didn't say it, otherwise we'd never hear the end of it.

UPDATE: I changed the title of the post.  And pmayo has suggested that this argument functions somewhat like an ad populum: remind the Lord of Hosts that the consequences of his inaction during the current election may include his being the subject of interreligious trash talking.  

 

In other matters, congratulations to Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize economics.

Don’t be negative

A guest op-ed in the Washington Post (by Vanderbilt Political Science Professor John G. Geer) makes the obvious point that "negative" ads are not ipso facto bad (a similar point was made more effectively I think by Jamison Foser at Media Matters, discussed by me here).  They are more likely, the author correctly argues, to provide information to the voter than "positive" ads.  This need not necessarily be the case, but it seems in fact to be the case (the author has empirical research to support this claim). 

My problem with this op-ed, however, is another.  In all of the discussion of "negative" ads, the author fails to distinguish between "attack" ads and "critical" ads.  One might make finer-grained distinctions, as I am sure someone has, but these will suffice for the moment.  Let's say a "critical" ad makes an argument against an opponent's position on some or other issue.  An "attack" ad consists argument free character style attacks.  Those, as anyone can see I think, are clearly different.

A defense of the one kind of negative ad, need not be a defense of the other.  I would argue in fact that defending critical ads entails rejecting "attack" ads as "politically informative."  So this, for instance, strikes me as a false equivalence:

And Obama's not innocent, either. While McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, blasted the Democratic nominee for his rather thin ties to a seemingly unrepentant member of the Vietnam-era Weather Underground, Obama responded with an ad reminding voters of McCain's role in the "Keating Five" savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s. Recent data from Nielsen suggest that the campaigns have aired roughly the same number of negative ads. Even Karl Rove, who knows a thing or two about attack ads, has declared that both sides have gone too negative.

The thin links between Obama and Ayers made by the McCain campaign and Fox News are dishonest and misleading.  Obama's linking McCain to the Keathing Five is another matter.  McCain was a member of the Keating Five (otherwise it would have been four), he intervened on Keating's behalf, had a tight relationship to Keating and helped, in a legislative way, Keating commit fraud.  He was in fact officially reprimanded by the Senate for that.  The Ayers and Keating allegations are not, in other words, in the same logical category.  It would be very helpful, I think, to keep them distinct.

Stay classy, Bill Kristol

William Kristol has a strategy for raising the level our national discourse as the election draws near:

That debate is important. McCain took a risk in choosing Palin. If she does poorly, it will reflect badly on his judgment. If she does well, it will be a shot in the arm for his campaign.

In the debate, Palin has to dispatch quickly any queries about herself, and confidently assert that of course she’s qualified to be vice president. She should spend her time making the case for McCain and, more important, the case against Obama. As o