One of the most misused and abused forms of argument is that by analogy. One thing is compared to another, the first intended to be understood in terms of the other as a way of facilitating understanding. The reason for arguing by analogy is that understanding complex subjects and arguments is hard: the analogy, like the example or illustration, is intended to ease the way by helping readers or listeners approach the new via the old, with which they already have some familiarity.
It is very difficult to make a worthy argument through analogy. The things of this world are complex. There are tens, scores, hundreds of points at which, all depending on the things and the situation, they might be compared. Say John is just like Joe and you may find remarkable similarity. Anticipate John’s behavior on your knowledge of Joe, and you are bound to be often surprised. John is a whole other human being, a kind of thing, and the things of this world are complex.
People love to argue politics by way of analogy. It’s easy and it readily prejudices the mind, burdens it unhappily, with all of the baggage carried by the basis of the analogy. “Another Vietnam”? Get me out. “Another Munich”? Call up the army. “Another Hitler”? Death to tyrants!
Or as a number of comedians have wonderfully observed in recent weeks, in response to town hall meeting analogies of Obama and Nazism: “Yeah, that’s just what Hitler was known for – his health care policy!”
Almost all political analogies are false analogies. Rather than compare a point of A to a similar point of B, with the hope of elucidating one element of a larger, more complicated subject, political analogies are almost always analogies in total. But things are not totally the same. Everything is different from everything else. That’s why living is so hard.
I am not making a total analogy here, not even remotely. Dick Cheney did not participate in a coup. He did not overthrow the democratic government of the United States and wage a “dirty war” against American citizens in which thousands were murdered by the U.S. military and other security forces. I am not saying he is no different or no better than Augusto Pinochet, the one time dictator of Chile or Jorge Rafael Videla, the onetime junta leader of Argentina.
I am, instead, making three closely related, analogical points, about how Cheney undermined the rule of law, and thus American democracy, how he believes he did right, not wrong, and how those acts and that belief are like those of others before him who have been found guilty of crimes.
Cheney, as he and his supporters and allies in the Bush administration and out made amply clear, believes in a strong “unitary executive” theory of the presidency. This is a perspective that in national security matters (which, of course, can be very widely understood) and in many others – especially with the aid of casuistic argumentation, toward which we saw Bush administration Justice Department lawyers were quite led and drawn – advocates at the very least, quasi-dictatorial power for the office of president. It is not a conception of American government in which anyone alive in this country was educated.
Cheney has argued repeatedly – and continues to do so – that the torture policies he advocated were necessary for the defense of the nation. Many of his supporters, even those not on Fox News or at the New Republic Online, make this argument regularly themselves. He argues that the practices that both he and the (ahem) Nazis referred to as “enhanced interrogation” were legal, as various Justice Department memos – since judged by that department to have been poorly grounded in law and poorly reasoned – maintained. Now, however, he has gone even further: even interrogations that exceed approved “legal” guidelines are acceptable to him. In sum, national security, at the very least (perhaps more; who knows?) justifies disregard for the rule of law, not simply by the President, but even by any simple (so to speak) CIA, military, or privately-contracted interrogator.
Argentina’s Videla, immediately after he was pardoned by then President Menem in 1990 (a pardon roundly condemned, after which, just last year, Videla was returned to prison on different charges) wrote a letter to the Argentine military justifying himself as having done what was necessary to defend the nation, against subversion. Said Chile’s Pinochet,
Everything I did, all my actions, all of the problems I had I dedicate to God and to Chile, because I kept Chile from becoming Communist.
These were all measures we took that we felt were essential to defeat Al-Qaeda, to head off the next attack, and to defend the nation.
Now, of course, it is the job, the responsibility, they duty of national leaders to defend their country. The relevant question for a democracy, under questionable circumstances, is how they have defended the nation, whether they have done so in accordance with democratic principle and within the rule of law or they have subverted those principles and laws – and seek to justify anything they have done, all they have done, by claiming to have “defended the nation.”
And they will always make this claim. Videla. Pinochet. Cheney. They defended the nation.
Beyond this claim, and the defense these men believe they offer by it, there is another consideration – that the claim is sincerely made. They are all genuine in their belief that what they did they did for the good of their country. Many people are quick – because it is easy and, in a manner, comforting – to demonize political opponents, even extreme opponents. Many on the left, even as they mocked George W. Bush’s clumsy locutions about “evildoers,” and his conceptions thereof, readily, themselves, construed him as evil. We see today how the vile and witless right does the same to Barack Obama. Like conspiracy theories, ready demonization of opponents simplifies the world, renders it in immemorial hues of dark and light, so that it is more easily apprehended and one’s place in it more comfortably determined. And there are, indeed, narcissists and sociopaths effortlessly characterized (if not understood) as evil: Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Stalin. More often, though, bad is done by people who believe they are good. What is wrong is conceived of as right. Like the difference within sameness, the bad contained in good intentions is part of the challenge of living.
But while good intentions may mitigate the originating and concluding circumstances of illegal conduct, they do not determine the legality. Those who raise the argument of “defense of the nation” in responding to charges against Cheney make an irrelevant argument as to the legality of his actions.
Unfortunately, poor argument – sophomorically poor argument – is a mainstay of public discourse. The televised mouths and the prattlers in print – the B.A.s or M.A.s in journalism or public policy or international relations who get fast-tracked into publishing and institute affiliations and media punditry – never met a logical fallacy they didn’t fancy. In addition, then to the false (because facile and superficial) analogies and the irrelevant reasoning we get ad hominem attacks. I don’t mean the usual ad hominem – the name calling, though this is common. I don’t mean the “guilt by association” variety of which I would, in fact, be guilty were I to merely point out certain similarities between Cheney, Videla, and Pinochet and leave it at that unattractive association, without actually countering their arguments. I refer here to what is called ad hominem-circumstantial.
In the circumstantial fallacy, one argues that there should be no prosecutions for violations of law under the Bush administration – for torture, for violations of the civil liberties of citizens – because the people calling for such prosecutions are political enemies of those they want prosecuted, and are therefore making the call for political purposes. In other words, the argument for prosecutions is refuted by the circumstance (the motivation) of those making the argument. But the circumstance is independent of the validity of the argument. First, the fact that someone arguing for prosecutions is of a different political persuasion does not mean that the argument is not sincerely offered. However, as we already know, the sincerity of the argument is irrelevant in determining its validity. And so is the insincerity.
Even if many of those arguing for prosecutions do so out of political animus, that circumstance does not refute the reasons offered in argument. If Cheney and others broke the law, they should be held accountable – independent of whether there are those who will rub their hands in glee at the prospect. I am pleased as matters of principle and of animus by the prosecution of serial killers; that pleasure does not argue against the prosecutions.
Finally, there is the “practical” argument offered as much by certain journalists and other media lights, because they are part of the same system, as some politicos – that the partisan and culturally disruptive nature of prosecutions would be politically disruptive too. Government would cease to function. Already visible scars would be deepened. The nation would suffer. This is a more difficult argument to counter, not because it is a better argument, but because there is emotion embedded in it – the desire that we all get along – and the seductive appeal that we forgive and forget so that the nation can continue to function. There is so much work to be done, no? Health care. Health care and all the rest. How will we ever get anything done if we are preoccupied for years by rage and resentment of prosecutions?
About which to ask there is this: is the United States not as good, as developed a nation of democratic principle and laws as Argentina? As Chile? As South Africa? Each of them – in some cases quickly, in others intermittently and over many years – confronted their dark hours or pasts, and continued to function, too, as they did so. And if efficiency of function is the summum bonum of the American republic, then maybe some few of its founding documents need to be reconsidered, and the American people reconsider who they are and wish to be.
We all have reason to know. There are and will be no excuses.
More here: Torture and a Time of Reckoning. And here: Tortured Argument.