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.

Augusto PinochetDick Cheney

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.

Said Cheney,

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.


15 thoughts on “PinoCheney

  1. Response to Naomi regarding John C. Eastman and her disparagement of The Claremont Institute. This is only a portion of Dr. Eastman’s bio:

    Dr. John C. Eastman is the Dean, Henry Salvatori Professor of Law & Community Service, and Donald P. Kennedy Chair in Law at Chapman University School of Law, specializing in Constitutional Law and Legal History.

    He is also the founding Director of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, a public interest law firm affiliated with the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He has a Ph.D. in Government from the Claremont Graduate School and a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School.

    Prior to joining the Chapman law faculty, Dr. Eastman served as a law clerk to the Honorable Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States, and to the Honorable J. Michael Luttig, Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. He practiced law with the national law firm of Kirkland & Ellis, representing major corporate clients in federal and state courts and with respect to State Attorneys General investigations, in complex commercial contract litigation, and in consumer litigation. Dr. Eastman has also represented various pro bono clients in matters involving property rights, economic opportunity, and first amendment freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of religion issues. On behalf of the Claremont Institute Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, he has participated as amicus curiae before the Supreme Court of the United States in several cases of constitutional significance, including Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, United States v. Morrison, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (the Ohio School Voucher case), Grutter v. Bollinger (the Michigan affirmative action case), Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (the Pledge of Allegiance case), Van Orden v. Perry (the Ten Commandments case), and Kelo v. New London, Connecticut (eminent domain abuse).

  2. Now only a short reply to metaphors:
    The way of creation, invent metaphors:

    (1) He creats the metaphor with intention, bad or good thats not the question (in this first point, why we see it below)

    (2) He creats the metaphor like a poem, he wants only to be fresh, wants to say whats absolutly new, withut any intention in the sense of adequate or morality or non.

    (3) He says something with or without intention, because he has something in mind wihtout clarity, but he must say it

    Whats happend then? We read it and think about it, we are angry, enthused, disappointed, we are laughing, disgusted and so one. But all this is a reaction of the interpretatíonal indivual. If a metaphor survivals or not, thats is not in the force of (1) -(3), but only in the interpretational community for (1) or (2) oor (3) or all in one. When a metphor violates or not;: the problem is not by the creator but only by the community which intreprete the metaphor

    Thierry Moulin in short answer

    1. With regard to (2), I think, yes, there is a sense of whether the metaphor is adequate. The adequacy of the word to the idea is crucial to the writer. The idea may not be precise, but it is clear, a seeming incompatibility that provides the openness, the indeterminacy of meaning of the metaphor, in contrast to the analogy, which must be precise, or lose its value.

  3. My comment is more philosophical than political. When we think about analogy in the way of this essay we have something like Wittgenstein criticised like sedredearth: there are no things or people or meanings with the psychological background which are the same, there are every time differents. The analogy is , by the way logical impossible in a draconic way. But this: only by the way.
    I think what the most people have in mind when they formed an analogy argument are metaphors. They functioning like analogy, but they transported more or less than analogy. And than the critic must be a different one, because metaphors are not arguments! They try to demonstrate similarities in a sense of jokes, to cultivate intimacy or to disperate partys. But they are not arguments or who want to say that a joke is an argument for or against something!?
    This is not an counterargument against the PinoCheney-Essay, only a proposal for that: Politics is – I believe – more metaphorical than argumentativ. Where their are more danger? In the first or the latter? This i do not want to answer yet. But we can not speak about falsity in the metaphors, because metaphors cannot be false, they can only be not adequate.
    thierry Mouliln

    1. I quite agree with you. My position would be that many people supporting a political argument with proposed analogies are mistaking metaphor for argument. The emotional content of the “analogy” that I referred to is in the resonance of the metaphor. “Another Vietnam” radiates meaning – unending, futile, misguided, deceptive, wasted life – without exploring all of the particularities of context. It seems the metaphor might be inappropriate, as you say, in two ways: that it is not adequate to its object and that it is mistaken for logical argument. As your comment arrived I was reading another blog on which commenters were expressing critical opinions similar to my own about the political writing of Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, and other “theorists.” Working out of varied literary-critical and psychoanalytic traditions, their writing traffics in extraordinary levels of metaphor – mixed with and in the form of theoretical terminology – that pretends to rigorous referentiality to the world. An example I offer in the classroom of the dangers of metaphor in theoretical-political writing is from Paulo Freire. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed he states, “Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence.” We understand that Freire wishes to impress upon us the seriousness of the intellectual negation he addresses; the metaphor may even offer a satisfying degree of correspondence: an attack on the mind compared to an attack on the body. But in political life the metaphor is often lost. Correspondences become identicalities, and, I ask students, how do people often behave when they believe violence has been committed against them?

  4. I’m having the pop-up malfunction investigated (while respecting all applicable law). Meanwhile, please do feel free to try again by entering your comment at the bottom of the individual post’s page, as I”ve just done.

  5. AJA

    I’ll forgo my usual praise for your prose, for it should be clear to all readers by now, and may even come across as a bit of brown nosing… In the context of what you write regarding Cheyne’s point of view, that the Executive can (and should) break any laws it deems necessary to prevent (fill in the blank), it is remarkable that the irony of such decisions is actually lost on this man. The idea that we should work to prevent ‘evil’ (allowing for the moment that anything not Of Us is evil) by actively pursuing it ourselves as a matter of righteous policy boggles the senses. It brings to mind something Rachel Maddow pointed to on her show the other night as I.O.K.O.W.R.D.I (or something close), with regards to passing legislation using budget reconciliation = It’s Only O.K. When Republicans Do It. It is OK for the US Government to pursue, as a matter of national security policy, if not moral obligation, a course of action that in and of itself has been used by those we are purportedly trying to stop. The end run justification for the war in Iraq, necessary once the ‘fake’ WMD reason was thoroughly debunked, is that Saddam Hussein was an Evil Tyrant who gassed, tortured and illegally imprisoned his people and needed to be stopped. And now it appears that these Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (sic Torture) so ardently (with Pinochet-like zeal) defended by PinoCheney, could easily have come from Saddam Hussein’s very own playbook. Truly remarkable. I think therefore on the point-by-point analogy of Cheney to Pinochet you are indeed vindicated.

  6. AJA

    Still processing the article. Will comment on content in short order.

    What I do want to say right quick is this: take good cheer in the criticism from Claremont Institute disciples: (in case you are unaware) this is the group that honored Rush Limbaugh with their Statesmanship Award. This information happily on display on your friend Andrew Breitbart’s website,,, So, way to go!!!

  7. You devote 5 lengthy paragraphs to explaining your view why political analogies are inappropriate, and then go ahead and do it anyway – both with words and side-by-side photos (supposedly for those too dull or bored to read the entire article to get your message.)

    Adding insult to wordiness, you state the no one alive in this country has been educated regarding the theory of a strong unitary executive. Not so. As a matter of fact, your assertion displays your ignorance nf the subject you chose to write about.

    Since the Watergate era, conservative thinkers have often expressed concerns that the legislative branch was usurping presidential authority. In more recent times, the same concerns have been expressed regarding the judiciary, particularly with regard to the Court’s interence with the gathering of foreign intelligence due to the passage of FISA and Roe v Wade.

    Anyone with even a passing familiarity with The Federalist Papers understands that our Constitution’s framers were preoccupied with the separation of powers and would have been horrified at the notion of Congress as co-Executives and co-Commanders in Chief.

    John C. Eastman, in “The Principled Vice President Cheney” written in 2002, makes the point the FDR (acting as a unitary executive) negotiated the Lend-Lease Agreement to aid Great Britain at a time when the US was neither ready nor willing to engage in what became WW II. He wrote, “Had the negotiations and consultations been made public, it is very likely that the crucial agreement would have been scuttled before it ever got off the ground, and President Roosevelt’s ability to carry out his constitutional duties as commander-in-chief and fulfill his constitutional obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed would have been severely, perhaps permanently, undermined.

    Roosevelt was able to act because the authors of our Constitution gave him constitutional powers independent of the Congress. The office of the President was specifically designed so that it could operate with the secrecy and dispatch necessary in circumstances such as those Roosevelt faced. Article II of the Constitution authorizes the President to obtain written advice from his cabinet officers, and the only clause addressing whether that advice, or indeed any executive branch deliberation, had to be provided in public is the clause requiring the President to provide to Congress “from time to time” information on the state of the Union. Quite obviously, the principle at stake — the ability of the chief executive to perform his constitutional obligations without obstructive interference from another branch — is of the utmost importance. Had it not been followed in 1940, the result would in all likelihood have been disastrous.”

    1. Ms. Fetkovich, if you read as well as you revile, you would have noted that I did not write that political analogies are inappropriate; I wrote that almost all of them are false – false because they pretend to totality in the comparison of the things analogized. I explained that I believe they can elucidate when made with regard to very specific points of comparison. I then deliberately clarified that I was not making a total comparison between Cheney and Pinochet, or Videla, and proceeded to identify the specific points on which I was comparing them. Odd, then, that you found me wordy, since you apparently missed so many of the words.

      Among the words you missed was the adjective “strong” preceding unitary executive, a modifier designating an extreme end of a range of views on the unitary executive theory, an extreme end with which I suspect you are familiar. In the case of Cheney, this would entail the proposition, as he has agreed to it, that whatever a President does during wartime is legal by virtue of his being President. Wartime now being, as Cheney conceives it, a rather amorphous state, the proposition is even more sweeping in its application. This is the conception of American government in which I stated not anyone in the country has been educated, and here I am brought to realize by another of your misunderstandings that I was not as clear as I might have been. I meant the general education about the nation, its history, its government, and its ideals that is received by the citizenry. Obviously, in addition to students of political philosophy, it is a notion in which its developers have been educated. Along with their acolytes.

      Finally, I have to thank you for demonstrating yet another logically fallacy, that of the straw man. You spend the major part of your comment arguing not against my position on prosecutions for torture and other violations of law, but against some other argument I never made about executive power, or the lack of it – such as “the notion of Congress as co-Executives and co-Commanders in Chief.” In so doing, you completely missed my point, unless, of course, your point is that Cheney and others should not be subject to such prosecution because you agree with Cheney that nothing a president does can be illegal. If so, you are welcome to explicitly state so.

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