The Political Animal

Discrediting Arguments on the Iran Deal

Argument and persuasion are not the same thing. An argument is a series of statements, or premises, arranged and propounded to entail a conclusion – to support a claim. Persuasion is the attempt to influence and change minds. Ideally, the former plays the major role in the latter, but in politics and policy, as in life, this is not always so. Armed robbery is an act of persuasion. The barrel of a gun makes a weak argument that its holder is entitled to your wallet, but it makes strong case that you should hand it over. At the point of a gun, one is persuaded to give up the goods.

Negotiations are persuasion, not argument. Around the negotiating table, people may seem endlessly to argue, in order to prove the justness or necessity of their positions: people need to justify themselves and they sometimes play to a public. What negotiators really do is attempt to develop in the minds of their opponents the conviction that failure to accede to demands will produce in the opponents the state of being sorry. When a negotiated settlement is reached, both sides will have, to a degree, formed this conviction with regard to the other side’s demands, traded off against their own. In this conviction, and to justify their efforts and the end result, they will present the agreement to their constituencies in just this way. No negotiating team returns to those it represents with the report that a better deal was possible, but that the team decided to settle for less.

Sometimes constituencies accept this claim, sometimes they do not. Negotiated agreements are sometimes rejected, both for good and for ill. The proof is in the further pressure applied to the other side, succumbed to in time or not, and what is lost in the process.

A negotiating team needs to persuade its voting constituency to accept the deal. It makes an argument for the agreement it reached with the other side. This argument may, and should, consist of propositions regarding the detailed substance of the agreement and how it reasonably meets the demands and needs addressed in the negotiations, all things considered. To the degree that the constituency is satisfied with the agreement, and arguments in support, on its face, there will be need for little more.

Opposition to the agreement changes everything. In the real world, opposition degrades argument. It may degrade argument in two senses, both of them manners of discrediting the argument. In one sense, argument is literally degraded in quality, as the various vested interests turn from argument proper to naked persuasion. Common to this persuasion is the effort to discredit the argument by discrediting the opponent. Poisoning the well and ad hominem attack are both fallacious forms of argument that pretend to discredit the position by attempting deceptively to discredit the person instead. There can be legitimate arguments to the person, and we see them in the debate over the Iran deal when the expertise and authority of individuals to evaluate various technical areas of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is challenged. However, mere argument to expertise is superficial, and ultimate authority is to be found in the intellectual substance of the argument.

The basest attempts to discredit the person in the arguments over the Iran deal can be seen in charges that President Obama is an appeaser or even, most vilely, antisemitc. The President and those supporting the JCPOA have been no less base in tarring opponents as war mongers, neocons, or dual-loyalist Jews. Just as supporters of President Bush, in advance of the invasion of Iraq, challenged the patriotism of those who opposed the war, supporters of President Obama, in putting forth the JCPOA, are attacking opponents’ honesty and patriotism.

Currently, New York Senator Chuck Schumer is being subjected to the lowest kinds of disreputable sliming, including from the most well-known voices for President Obama. An even lower example actually appeared in Foreign Policy, penned by Jeffrey Lewis, resorting to attacks on Schumer’s dignity as a human being.

There is another, legitimate way to discredit an argument – the actual argument, and not those offering it – and that is to discredit a fundamental premise of the argument. Next, I will attempt to discredit the single most prominent defense of the Iran deal, made by every supporter of it.


Israel The Political Animal

Reflections on the Spirit of Resistance


Paul Newman’s 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, the apex of journeyman Stuart Rosenberg’s directorial career, imbued popular culture with many iconic scenes and memorable lines. (“What we have here – is failure to communicate.” “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”) Among the famous scenes is that of the prison camp boxing match between George Kennedy’s alpha prisoner (the role that won him an Oscar and made him famous) and Newman’s smaller Luke.

As expected, Kennedy’s “Dragline” beats Luke good. But Luke will not stay down. He is woozily staggering with every blow, even knocked down by some of the head shots, but each time, against cries from his fellow prisoners and advice from Dragline finally to stay down and put an end to his whupping, the unconquerably recalcitrant Luke keeps rising up for more. Finally, Dragline just walks away, defeated in victory, and Luke has earned the heroic worship of all.

In addition to its inherent quality as a film and the quintessential, natural, non-hipster cool of its leading man, Cool Hand Luke was a film for its time. In an age of defining cultural rebellion, the film exalted the spirit of resistance against crushing, inhuman authority – in the film itself, the sadistic authority of a chain gang, for the culture that received it, any presiding force that would quash individual autonomy and personality.

The valorization of resistance as a human attribute is longstanding. From the slave rebellion of Spartacus and Masada to democracy creating revolutions and the Warsaw uprisings, the human spirit is stirred and encouraged to persist by the spirit of resistance. Most commonly since the Enlightenment, we see an ultimate expression of human nature in the natural uprising against oppressive forces.

In the United States, on Thanksgiving, we celebrate a story of resistance. That is not how most people think of the day, but that is one perspective on the story. We say we honor some congenial meal in which surviving Pilgrims of the Plymouth colony feasted with Massasoit and his men. But celebrations of survival, too, are testaments to resistance – resistance to the elements, to the forces of nature and circumstance, to those who may be aligned against us. We resist defeat in many ways.

Native America has a different perspective on the Thanksgiving holiday. That attendee of the first Thanksgiving Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag, engaged in his own resistance. He resisted over his lifetime as best he could the encroachment of the colonists on Wampanoag land and attempts to convert the Wampanoag to Christianity. Massasoit and all those who came after him lost in their resistance.

A lesson in this is that resistance, for all we exalt its spirit, neither endows any instance of it with justice, nor ennobles the goal in the service of which it stands its ground and refuses to bend. Neither victory nor loss are determinants of justice. The spirit may be willing, but the cause is weak. In the United States, the Mafia has resisted American law and its enforcement. In Mexico, drug cartels resist even the government’s militarized effort to stamp them out. During the Iraq War, there was an Iraqi insurgency – a resistance movement – and those even who claim to promote social justice who supported it and cheered the idea of it.

In the world today, many of the values of the international regime of laws, of human rights evaluation and critique, and of ideological sympathy are misguided by just such a disjunction between the spirit and the flesh – the actual substance of justice. The rules of a legal and human rights superstructure – the products of millennia of moral development – are abstracted from their substantial existence in the free, democratic nations that haltingly advance them and, in reality, often used as weapons against these very embodiments of the spirit.

Even honesty in itself is an empty shade if it is not in the service of a good. Shall we honestly express every critical and even accurate opinion of every potentially hurtful kind to those around us whom we love?

Resistance in itself is nothing. In the name of what – what ideas, what dream of human relationship – do we resist? Against what do we resist?

No honest consideration of ongoing conflict between Hamas controlled Gaza and Israel, between any anti-Semitic or Islamist culture and Israel, can take place without addressing these questions.

An anecdote:

Just over ten years ago, I was present at a large show and party at my wife Julia’s relatively new gallery – before, after that night, we both understood that security would always be necessary. I was alerted midway through the evening that a man none of our friends knew had been obnoxious to several women. None of the women had complained or made a scene, however, and there seemed no overt basis on which to take any action.

At the end of the evening, while saying goodbye near the door to some last visitors, I was told by a good friend that back in Julia’s office, where a few close friends were gathered privately, this man was present and refusing to leave. I went back to speak to him. He was beside Julia. I politely, regretfully advised him that the show was over and that we needed visitors to leave. He ignored me, asked a personal question of Julia, who uncomfortably declined to answer it, and when I saw that, though I was standing right in front of him, the man would not even look at me, I told him, at the point that he reached for Julia’s arm, that if he did not leave, I would have to call the police.

“How fast can you get to the phone?” the man replied, and lunged at me.

Taken by surprise, I was backed against a wall, where I began to struggle with the man. Two male friends quickly jumped in and the four of us tumbled to the floor in a heap of grappling bodies.

We have probably all seen video of men apparently very high on a drug who display extraordinary strength and require multiple police officers after very great effort and struggle, to restrain them. This man was such a man. He seemed high and irrational. One person who vaguely knew him thought, on the contrary, that he might actually be off his meds. Regardless, though all four of us were of roughly equal size, it took all the effort that three of us could muster to gain control of the man and restrain him on the floor, where he never ceased his resistance. Any let up by any one of us saw the serious attempt by the man to throw that person off him. Any one of us would have been beaten by him. Even two of us would not have been able to control him.

Others present called the police. In the meantime, for the twenty minutes it took the police to arrive, there was no let up for the three of us in exerting ourselves to retain control. We told the man many times that if he calmed down, we would ease up on him. He only fought back harder in response. Sometimes one of us might feel exceptionally angered by the man’s ferocity and exert himself, arguably, too forcefully, and the other two would check him. The man all this time, whenever his face was positioned to do it, would spit on us, until we had to expend ourselves to assert even more control and hold his face pressed to the ground so that he could no longer reach us with his spit.

More naturally violent people than we, of whom there are many, would not have been satisfied with controlling the man’s violence and would have brutally ended the conflict with what would necessarily have been a very violent beating. Indeed, were there no police to come to the rescue, there would have been no alternative to that violent beating, and there would have been much bodily and other physical damage all around.

When the police finally did arrive, the scene they found was one of four bodies so entwined on the ground that in taking control of the situation they had actually to touch arms and legs and ask to whom each one belonged. Certainly, the entangled circumstance into which they walked told no obvious story, though it would have been easy to conclude that three men had ganged up on a fourth.

Everyone present confirmed the same account, however, and our troubled gallery goer was escorted to a cell.

That’s my account anyway, the only one you have. You have to believe me, and if you think you have some reason to mistrust me, perhaps some ideological dispute, you may think I have slanted or even entirely misrepresented elements of the story. I think I am a fairly swell guy, but wouldn’t you know that there are people out there who, on the basis of things I have written, have had some not very nice things to say to me?

Of course, there are some events and histories that have considerably greater public and evidentiary records than my wrestling match just off the boardwalk at Venice Beach. Oddly, for some people, that does not make a difference.

People resist the truth, too.


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Not So Random Questions, Facts, & Observations about Gaza & Israel


If forces in Mexico – drug cartels, for instance – were firing rockets and missiles into an area roughly covering 25% of the United States this is what it would look like.

If the U.S. equivalent of one million Israelis were under threat of this bombardment on a daily basis, running for cover, hiding in bomb shelters, suffering damage to their homes, roughly 45 million Americans would be victims of this terror.

Imagine the reaction of the American people. Imagine the political and national defense requirements of the U.S. government in response, even if no one had yet been killed.

The United Nations categorizes 48 nations, with a population of 832 million – nearly 1 in 8 people on the planet – as “least developed countries.” Neither the West Bank nor Gaza, since they are not countries, is on this list. However, according the CIA World Factbook ranking of the percentage of national populations living in poverty, in which Gaza is included, Gaza ranks 46th, with 38% of its population living below the poverty line. That is, 45 nations of the world have higher percentages of their people living in poverty. The list of these nations, including a very large number of African Nations, is close to identical to those on the U.N. list, but not quite. Among those nations not categorized by the U.N. as least developed nations, but with higher percentages of their populations living below the poverty line than Gaza are Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Bolivia, South Africa, Kenya, Nicaragua, and Belize.

Unlike with Hamas in Gaza, Israel is not now engaged in armed conflict with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Why is that?

If the armaments directed by Islamists in Gaza against Israel are, in fact, incapable of inflicting significant damage to military purpose – if they are so ineffectual to any practical material end – why do the extremists fire them? What is their immediate goal? What is their ultimate desire?

If, in return, Gaza periodically – now, a fourth year cycle – sustains physical destruction and casualties from Israel far beyond what Islamists inflict, why do they persist? What did they materially gain the last time? What prospect of material gain is there this time? Why (to choose a phrase) in the name of humanity do they do it?

Bibi Netanyahu is said by his critics not to be truly committed to negotiations and two states. Let us accept this for present purposes as true. It is true, too, that after more than sixty years (which is not to discount centuries) of mind-bendingly complex conflict and historical entanglement, simply affirming a commitment to anything and mouthing a willingness to negotiate are clearly not in themselves representative of a true or impending path to resolution of the conflict. This is what, in fact, Bibi Netanyahu has done, and his critics discount it. They simply do not believe him. Whatever creative thinking, diplomacy, and policy initiative might be required to break open the uncrackable nut of this problem, they have not issued from the brain trust, the intellectual think tank of the Netanyahu government. Okay. Agreed.

It is also true that there is no easier, so slicker, no more tendentious form of argument than to ground one’s arguments on the indemonstrable inner beliefs and passions of participants to the argument. Disputing arguments to the unseen is like attempting to prove a negative.

Has the pronounced position of the Benjamin Netanyahu government, every day of its administration, been that it is willing to negotiate unconditionally? I will answer that question.


Has it been the pronounced position of the Palestinian Authority on any day of Benjamin Netanyahu leadership of Israel that it is willing to negotiate unconditionally?


Has Benjamin Netanyahu publically declared his willingness to seek a two-state solution?


Is Hamas willing to commit to a two-state solution?

No. (Hamas wishes, rather, to kill all Jews. Or simply rule them in the culminating world caliphate. Theologians, robed and unrobed, dispute this.)

Those who claim that if only Benjamin Netanyahu were Ehud Olmert, or Ehud Barak (good Ehud Barak, before he was bad Ehud Barak), or even Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres, there would be a chance for peace need to point to anything ultimately accomplished by any of these Israeli leaders – in the face of Palestinian rejectionism – that substantiates that belief.

More Americans died after the United States went to war against Imperial Japan subsequent to the Pearl Harbor attack than were killed before. Does that mean the U.S. was wrong or even simply mistaken to engage the conflict? Maybe it should simply have accepted the damage thus far and not made things worse? And Germany had not even attacked the United States. Was the U.S. declaration of war against Germany, then, aggression?

Did the allies during World War Two worry, in bringing the war to Japan, that they were creating more Kamikazes? Did they consider that if perhaps they simply ceased their aggressive defense, the Japanese would alter their own aggressive designs?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not remotely comparable to the Irish Troubles. This common analogy is a weak, warm brew (or one dunk only of a Lipton’s tea bag – take your pick).

Protestant Irish are the lineal or political descendants of invaders, with no original claim to the land of Ireland.

Both Palestinian Arabs and Jews are original inhabitants of Israel-Palestine.

Nonetheless, most observers and people of good will were of the belief in the twentieth century that the Protestant Irish had long since roots in Ireland deep enough to warrant certain political claims, among which claims, considering Catholic-Protestant enmity, was autonomy (in Union with Great Britain) in Northern Ireland. A “two-state solution” had already been effected for Ireland in 1921. Palestinian Arabs rejected their two-state solution in 1948.

Rather than an internal minority rising up in violence against the State of Northern Ireland, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (more fully, historically, the Arab-Israeli conflict) is the product of an external majority’s unwillingness to acknowledge, or seeking to destroy, a separate state.

For all the enmity between Irish Protestants and Catholics, Unionists and Republicans, neither was committed by charter or theology to the genocidal destruction of the other.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 required first a ceasefire and was predicated on IRA disarmament.

Whatever compromises were reached, the IRA was required to abandon its goal of uniting Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.

Those who put forth this analogy generally articulate their case from the standpoint of human conflict as the product of misunderstanding and mistrust, however overlaid it may be with webs of historical, religious, and political complexity. In such presentations they do not acknowledge the reality of any kind of essential hate, of arrogance and absolutism. With enough patience and communication, human miscommunication can be overcome, they believe. Problems can be solved. We can all come together.

The indigenous peoples of the world – as that category was identified by the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations – Native Americans in the United States, First Nations peoples in Canada, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, the many Indigenous cultures of Latin America all wait for the First World nations’ recognition of the reality of absolutism, arrogance, and condescending hate. But those peoples already lost, to conquerors who were merciless in their conquest and are unrepentant in their rule. Fortunately for the New World’s ruling cultures, their indigenous peoples are not supplied with rockets by Syria and Iran. Fortunately for Israel, it does not have to focus on what the past week would have been like were the circumstances reversed, though it can never afford to forget.


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The Political Animal

Reason and Rationalization


Happy day when theory can be considered in the light of immediate actual events. Let’s consider, shall we? First the theory.

At The New York Times’ The Stone, philosophers Gary Gutting and Michael P. Lynch responded separately to psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, The Righteous Mind, in which Haidt argues for the primacy of intuition over reason in the formation, particularly, of our moral judgments. Gutting and Lynch argue that Haidt slights reason. Haidt responded that “Reasons Matter (When Intuitions Don’t Object).” All really agree on the general contours of the intuition-reason landscape, so the debate is mostly over emphasis, of where and to what extent reason might play a genuine role in persuasion – influencing people to change their minds.

My difficulty with Haidt’s argument (in the essay – I haven’t read the book) is fundamental – what I find a confused use of the key term, intuition. Haidt urges that

we be realistic about reasoning and recognize that reasons persuade others on moral and political issues only under very special circumstances.

He further argues that

two basic kinds of cognitive events are “seeing-that” and “reasoning-why.” … We effortlessly and intuitively “see that” something is true, and then we work to find justifications, or “reasons why,” which we can give to others.  Both processes are crucial for understanding belief and persuasion.

There are already a couple of confusions developing here. One is in the very concern with the subject of truth. Philosophy has been ever focused on the actuality of it, that is, with truth itself. Haidt, as a psychologist, is concerned instead with what people consider to be true, their convictions of truth, i.e. their beliefs. Merriam-Webster begins by telling us that intuition is “quick and ready insight; immediate apprehension or cognition.” It goes on to fudge the distinction between knowledge and belief, as the use of the word “intuition” will, but in philosophy intuition commonly refers to a priori knowledge. Psychology, by its different nature, is interested not in truth or knowledge, but in the (in this case, intuitive) processes by which people arrive at what they take to be truth or knowledge.

If we understand intuition as insight, we presume that there is something being seen and that it is not an illusion, so there is the suggestion, by common usage, of actual knowledge. If we understand intuition as merely a quick, immediate un-reasoned sense of conviction, this is a very different animal, with no necessary suggestion of sight or knowledge at all, just automatic belief. Writes Haidt,

Intuition is what most matters for belief. Yet a moral argument generally consists of round after round of reasoning.… Therefore, if your opponent succeeds in defeating your reasons, you are unlikely to change your judgment.


This, I suggest, is how moral arguments proceed when people have strong intuitions anchoring their beliefs. And intuitions are rarely stronger than when they are part of our partisan identities. So I’m not saying that reasons “play no role in moral judgment.” …Most of what’s going on during an argument is reasoning. Rather, I’m saying that reason is far less powerful than intuition, so if you’re arguing (or deliberating) with a partner who lives on the other side of the political spectrum from you, and you approach issues such as abortion, gay marriage or income inequality with powerfully different intuitive reactions, you are unlikely to effect any persuasion no matter how good your arguments and no matter how much time you give your opponent to reflect upon your logic.

In some instances, we might call all this “intuition” because the defender of a challenged position may find himself falling back inarticulately on a deeply held conviction, though without the reasoned argument to defend it. Speaking philosophically, this is not intuition. It is an emotive claim based on learned, but not reasoned conviction. Speaking philosophically, we are precisely nowhere if we do not distinguish between “We hold these truths to be self-evident” and “homosexuality is an abomination before God.”

Arguments based on emotional conviction, learned belief, or reliance upon divine origin are not intuitions; they are rationalizations. Rationalizations are, properly speaking, exactly what Haidt says people do when challenged to defend beliefs they hold according to what he calls intuition. “Therefore,” I have already quoted Haidt as stating, “if your opponent succeeds in defeating your reasons, you are unlikely to change your judgment.” True. You are likely to start rationalizing. Reason, ideally, construes a conclusion forward from its premises. Rationalization constructs the premises backwards from the conclusion. And Haidt is right – it’s damned common, and in values arguments, difficult to overcome not just because people cling to their automatic and learned beliefs, but because a conviction about abortion does not reside in the individual in isolation, but is part of an entire complex of moral values, a world view. Altering a moral value means tilting that world view off its axis – a job, nearly, for Superman. But is it quite as unlikely as Haidt argues?

Says Haidt,

Reasons matter, reasons produce movement on the epistemological map, but only at the right time, when countervailing intuitions have been turned off.


This is why there has been such rapid movement on gay marriage and gay rights. It’s not because good arguments have suddenly appeared, which nobody thought of in the 1990s. The polling data show a clear demographic transition. Older people, who grew up in an environment where homosexuality was hidden and shameful, often still feel a visceral disgust at the thought of it. But younger people, who grew up knowing gay people and seeing gay couples on television, have no such disgust. For them, the arguments are much more persuasive.

Among the great difficulties in reasoning and philosophizing is that we do them with language, and carrying ideas in words is a little like transporting liquid in a sieve. It leaks. Above, in “when countervailing intuitions have been turned off,” what exactly does “turned off” mean? How precisely did the intuitions get turned off? What turned them off? Haidt contrasts older people with more traditional views about homosexuality with younger people with more tolerant, accepting, even embracing attitudes. Were these younger people born with them? How exactly did they acquire those socially altered views? Haidt says the young people grew up “seeing gay couples on television.” Well, how did they get there? Was it some of those at least slightly older people who put them there because their views, rather than abruptly changed, were changing? What was the process of their changing? What, gradually, for over forty years now, has been turning off what Haidt calls intuition and I call automatic thinking? I claim it is various forms of reason.

But enough of theory. Now, quickly to the actual. Last week, Greta Berlin a cofounder of the Free Gaza Movement was found to have posted to Twitter and Facebook a couple of truly vile anti-Semitic videos. There are many accounts of the ongoing story, but no better place to go to learn all about it than Avi Mayer, who broke the story. This manifest evidence of what always should have been recognized as the anti-Semitism of Berlin and her movement is not my focus here. What interest me in the context of this discussion are two responses to it.

One surprising response – surprising, I think to most if not all – was that of Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian and cofounder of The Electronic Intifada, who might have been expected to join in the ideological solidarity that led many to accept Berlin’s obvious lies about how the two videos came to be posted. Neither Abunimah nor Electronic Intifada has changed in their ideological orientation toward Israel, the tortuous nature of which I examined here. Still, there was this break with what is for many an easy, internal ideological coherence.

In contrast, consider Naomi Klein. Klein, who is Jewish, was one of a number of well-known people listed as serving on the advisory board of Free Gaza. Quickly after the controversy came to light, some people – including your humble scribe, no doubt decisively – began challenging Klein and these others about their connection to such an organization and person. Klein, who is not much of a tweeter, in one of her only two tweets on October 3, retweeted Hawaida Arraf in accepting Berlin’s explanation and apology. Two days later, the controversy growing and Berlin’s account of events ever less defensible, Klein did resign as an advisory board member of Free Gaza. In her tweet announcing the resignation, Klein did two notable things – again, in the context of this discussion – which is not bad for 140 characters. In the end, she states that the leadership of Free Gaza has changed since she signed up. This is a clear misstatement of fact, since the controversy surrounds a person who is – one thinks Klein would have to know – a cofounder of the organization. Just before that misstatement, Klein obviously felt compelled to affirm that she still supports the mission of Free Gaza. What we get, then, from Klein, is a resignation without any condemnation or even characterization of the events leading to it, a misstatement of the conditions leading to the resignation, and a defensive assertion that despite the resignation her beliefs are unaltered.

I am prepared to reason against Klein’s beliefs, and I do not think that a set of poorly defended beliefs that shrink before the reasons against them are properly described, merely because they are inarticulate and stubbornly unalterable, as intuition. Intuition deserves better.


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Indian Country The Political Animal



I was talking with my class the other day about the methodology of fully-developed conspiracy theories and my general skepticism toward them. The undeveloped conspiracy theory works off a form of radical skepticism. How do you know we really landed on the moon? Have you been witness to any of the reality of the moon landings? How do you know it was not all filmed in a studio somewhere? (How do you know, for that matter, that George Washington really existed? Have you yourself seen any of the historical evidence of his life and presidency? Have you carbon dated any of the documents with his signature? Can you personally verify the legitimacy of carbon dating?)

The fully-developed conspiracy theory works in exactly the reverse manner. Fully-developed theories do not work off skepticism, but the overwhelming of skepticism with fact – factual bombardment that constructs your credulity. Theories such as accounts of the assassination of President Kennedy or, more currently, 9/11 Truther conspiracies about U.S. government authorship of the 9/11 attacks can run to hundreds of pages of arcane and even science-based detail. Then, to reemploy the radical skepticism in a converse manner – are you going to make yourself expert in the composition of the steel beams of the World Trade Center towers, their melting temperatures, the combustion temperature of jet fuel, and the physics of building collapse? How do you feel certain these theories are not true?

Undergraduates, and lots of other people, have an unclear understanding of the nature of fact and its distinction from opinion, and then, when they begin to learn the difference, turns facts into totems. As if fact-checking political campaigns is all we need do to settle disputes about social policy. “Just the facts, ma’am.” In fact, not just the facts. Joe Friday then needed to understand the facts, what they added up to, how to read them. The facts are a text, the detective a reader of the text making meaning out of it.

Gary Gutting offered a primer on the subject recently in The New York Times’ The Stone column recently, “Facts, Arguments and Politics.”

What is the moral? That facts alone are necessary but not sufficient for a good argument. As important as getting the facts right is putting the facts into a comprehensive logical structure that supports your conclusion. This structure must present a plausible account of the various factors relevant to the conclusion. Without it, even an impeccable set of facts does not give us a good argument. The recent journalistic trend toward serious fact-checking holds considerable promise for improving our political debates. But we also need a serious effort at argument-checking.

Well, one of the things I like to do with my classes is play with authority – that is, I work against the authority they passively offer texts, and then from and off the authority they place in me. People have to learn to think for themselves somehow: why not pull that thoughtless trust out from beneath them? Just as some slippery slope arguments may not be fallacious – some slopes are slippery; it’s just that you have to demonstrate the existence of the ice – it isn’t as if there are not actual conspiracies in the world. What was, after all, in its secret heyday, the Mafia?

So it is that a little while back I received the latest email update from the administrators of the Cobell Indian Trust Settlement. The Cobell Individual Indian Money Trust Fund case was in many respects the genesis of this blog. Lead plaintiff, Blackfeet Indian and MacArthur Foundation Fellow Elouise Cobell, who died just about a year ago, feared at the time she finally agreed to settle the case after thirteen years that the 500,000 potential beneficiaries of the suit were aging and dying off at an alarming rate, making dramatically reduced compromise in the settlement figure her only conscionable decision. Rather than the $200 billion figure some believed had truly been embezzled by the United States government from the Individual Indian Trusts, Cobell and her attorneys agreed to accept the Obama administration’s offer of $3.4 billion. That settlement was reached in December, 2009. Nearly three years later, settlement trust payments have still to be made.

The first hold up, even before Cobell died, was because of Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, who, of course, was more concerned about the welfare of American Indians than they are themselves. So it has always been. Once Barrasso’s obstruction was overcome, four separate suits objecting to the settlement were filed by four different American Indians. The cases of these four have received scant respect in the courts. Still, the four are appealing. The email updates I receive are addressed to the settlement recipients. Here, in a Q & A, is Dennis Gingold, Lead Counsel, who took over the updates after Cobell’s death:

Why are appellants appealing the court’s rejection of “blatantly mischaracterized” arguments that are “without merit” and otherwise “ignore the history of this hard-fought litigation and enormous obstacles to producing an historical accounting”?  What are the chances of the four appellants prevailing?  Speculation is inappropriate; however, I note a potentially relevant statistic. In 2010, the latest full term of the Supreme Court, the Court reviewed 7,857 petitions for the Court to hear cases. Of those, only 86 were granted. This suggests that there is about a 1% chance that the petitions of Craven et al. will be granted.  As reported by on August 15, Colombe, himself, admitted to the Native Sun News that they, the appellants, were “going to be blown out of the water” by the Supreme Court.  But, even so, in the unlikely event that one of the petitions is granted, your payments may be delayed at least another year.

I am not aware of any case in which the Supreme Court has rejected calls from all three branches of government urging the prompt and fair resolution of a settlement with the United States government.


So, if they have little chance of prevailing on the merits, why are they appealing? I cannot answer that question because I do not know.  Class members, including those who identify themselves as family of the appellants, ask us the same question.  They ask why appellants are doing this when they know that it hurts so many Indian people, including their own grandchildren.  To the extent that the appellants ever believed they had a chance of prevailing prior to May 22, 2012, it is clear that they have very little or no chance of prevailing now. And, should they succeed, that means that the settlement would be terminated and that they and you will receive nothing. It is not within the realm of possibility that Congress will again appropriate $3.4 billion for individual Indian trust beneficiaries.  When so many class members are dying and many must do without heat and adequate shelter this winter, I believe that the efforts of the appellants and their counsel are nothing short of a travesty of justice.

This is all rather extraordinary – a now 16-year lawsuit settlement of an historic financial wrong so direly jeopardized by four different American Indians acting, with so little basis, against the interests of their own. Gingold answered one final question in this latest update.

Who are the attorneys who represent the appellants?  McGuireWoods LLP, a Virginia law firm with a Washington, D.C. office, is representing Kimberly Craven.  An associate in that firm, Anand Ramana, is handling her petition and is counsel of record.  It is the same firm that filed an amicus brief in the Court of Appeals on behalf of Competitive Enterprise Institute (“Institute”) in support of Craven’s meritless arguments.  The Institute is a tax-exempt organization and Wikipedia reports that it is funded by ExxonMobil Corporation, Texaco, Inc., Coca Cola Company, CSX Corporation, FMC Corporation, and others.  The Institute says that it is “dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government.”

Just in case you’ve been wondering where I was going with all of this.


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(Updated) Impenetrable: The Hollow Rhetoric of Judith Butler


(Update) Tomorrow, September 11, 2012, the birthday of Theodor Adorno, and only chronologically coincident with the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attack, Judith Butler is set to receive the triennial Adorno Prize, awarded by the city of Frankfurt. Resonant with the themes addressed in the commentary below, originally posted last week at the Algemeiner, is this reporting, yesterday, from Deutsche Welle’s DW website. The now long-noted rise in anti-Jewish sentiment and ideas, on the left, in Europe, and recently, most disturbingly, in Germany is subtly reflected in the DW report.

What is the headline of the report? “Adorno Prize for Judith Butler irks Jewish groups.”

Irk. To annoy. To irritate. That is all this gross insult and dangerous intellectual manifestation is said to amount to: an annoyance. Get over it.

Throughout the report, Butler is referred to as an “Israel critic.” Consider how this innocuous terminology – it’s all healthy intellectual exchange, right? – dangerously misrepresents the  truth. “Critic” suggests analysis and fault finding: the evaluation of weakness within and against an integral whole. The book, film, music, art critic finds flaw – as well as source for praise – in an artistic endeavor, an endeavor honored in principle. Rarely does the book critic state that the book never should have been written, and not just because the book is so bad, but because the very idea of the book was illegitimate.

Do critics of the United States, of England, of Russia, of China, argue that those nations should not, should never have existed?

When did “foe,” when did “enemy” become critic? The leadership of Iran uses destructive tropes, intellectuals like Butler use ideologized tropes, but the challenge to Israel’s legitimacy is the same, the goal of its elimination as a Jewish state and homeland identical. This single term fully represents the fundamental dishonesty at the core of the campaign against Israel.

Throughout the report by Helen Whittle, the “criticism” of Israel by Butler is never adjectivally characterized; her defense of herself is called “spirited.” Once again, as frequently since its publication on August 26, a newspaper report in the Jerusalem Post on the Jewish reaction to the award is itself characterized, as if it were an editorial, as “scathing.” While Butler’s anti-Israeli activities are not placed in the context of repeated acts and attacks of their kind, the objection to her award is specifically identified with the reaction to Günter Grass’s abominable attack on Israel in faux poetic form, “What Must Be Said.” And the reaction to Grass is described as “vicious.”

“Amid the uproar,” we are told, “Grass expressed his frustration that criticism of Israel is often equated with anti-Semitism.”

Impenetrable: The Hollow Rhetoric of Judith Butler

That title appears a contradiction. We think of the impenetrable as dense, so thick and compacted it cannot be pierced. But what is hollow is also impenetrable, differently, for there is nothing to pierce. The projectile, the probing argument, successful, smashes into density and destroys some part of it, alters the rest. In a hollow space, the molecules part like an undulation in air and reform themselves, after the traceless passage, around the same space. Nothing is changed.

Such is the rhetoric of Judith Butler, and are the ethics that are the product of that rhetoric, that are – in the language of that rhetoric – essentiallyrhetoricized. Butlers’s enmity toward Israel, and the argument she makes to justify that enmity, must be understood as another empty wind in the greater hollow space in which it blows. Butler writes in defense, in fact, not of her argument, but of herself – a telling distinction – that while many criticize her, with her impending Adorno Prize, for support of BDS, she is criticized from the left, on the contrary, for rejecting violence.

It is true: I do not endorse practices of violent resistance and neither do I endorse state violence, cannot, and never have. This view makes me perhaps more naïve than dangerous, but it is my view. [Emphasis in the original]

This is not merely a pathetic defense, but a contemptible one. A grown woman, an internationally honored scholar who thrusts her ideas challengingly into world political debate, defends herself on the basis of not just naiveté, contritely, but of self-conscious naiveté, willingly. Of innocence, naiveté’s younger sibling, Graham Greene once wrote, in an ironically, historically counter political context, in The Quiet American:

Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

As naiveté claimed by one so well-schooled, it is more the leper having thrown the bell away.

So distinguished a mind cannot, apparently, conceive herself naïve and dangerous, dangerous because naïve, even as she resists the obvious recognition that someone such as she has no right to be naïve. So distinguished a mind retreats to naiveté, makes manifestly no argument, and declares, like one entirely unschooled, simply: “it is my view.”

As if Butler might simply, credibly hold to such a declaration as a position irreducible and unchallengeable. But why be surprised? In her latest book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, she writes,

It may be that binationalism is an impossibility, but that mere fact does not suffice as a reason to be against it.

So Butler recognizes in her thought and in the political programs she advocates none of the compulsion of the possible, of reality. One may simply advocate ideas without the obligation to contemplate their effect on reality, for if they are, indeed, impossible, they are impossible for reasons: reality rejects them, and if reality rejects them, there are consequences to the rejection. Many people, living in the world beyond the hermeneutical and hermetic enclosure of rhetoricized reality recognize what those consequences might be. But as Richard Landes notes,

Butler and her post-modern, non-violent performers, however, cannot [commit the violence]. They can only empower the forces that seek, openly, to do so violently. They can only identify with aggressors. Would she intentionally stir up genocidal forces against her people? God Forbid! Would she do so in practice by signing petitions and writing denunciations of that allude to a comparison between Israel and the Nazis, and by hanging with people like the gang at Mondoweiss, who have no problem making the analogy? Yes. But as long as it’s not an intentional murder, her hands are clean.

Not surprisingly, so solipsistic a moral approach to the real world of people, expresses itself with striking self-absorption. In her essay of 2000 words, “I” appears 50 times, often followed by irrelevant (but apparently not to her) personal information. The consequences of her deeds, what Summers referred to as the effects of her performance on her own people, apparently carry no weight in her moral calculus. Her good intentions absolve all accidental sins, defend from all criticism.

To the point, an earlier book of Butler’s, of moral philosophy, is entitled Giving an Account of Oneself. Not an account of one’s ideas, of the occurrences in the world that one enables, but of oneself. Of course, the title emerges from Butler’s whole project of accounting for the nature of subjectivity, of the “I” that stands in relation to itself and in moral relation to others, but it would hardly become the critical theorist who is Butler, ever examining the self that is constructed of – and imposed upon one – by language to dismiss the implications of the language she uses.

The opening sentence of Giving an Account of Oneself is

I would like to begin by considering how it might be possible to pose the question of moral philosophy, a question that has to do with conduct and, hence, with doing….

There is thus an apparent recognition of the obvious purpose of ethical consideration, to enable real, right action and not merely produce ideologically whole but detached theorizing (the fact of impossibility does not suffice…). Pages later, much to the fundamental point of Butler’s general post-structural theorizing, she writes,

When a universal precept cannot, for social reasons, be appropriated or when – indeed, for social reasons – it must be refused, the universal precept itself becomes a site of contest, a theme and an object of democratic debate. That is to say, it loses its status as precondition of democratic debate; if it did operate there as a precondition, as a sine qua non of participation, it would impose its violence as a form of exclusionary violence.

That is to say, when a universal value is judged inappropriate to a local, i.e. not a universal, social context, and is thus rejected, it is no longer a universal value.

That is to say, with application to Israel-Palestine, that the liberal democratic values by which some might wish to judge the historical and contemporary records of the parties to the conflict are invalidated because others, Butler among them, have constructed an inverted ideology of power that renders the universal short-circuited. You are on 120 volts, as it were; they are on 240. Butler is limning Theodor Adorno in these lines, but the foundation for argument is hers.

Do not trouble yourself about the logical coherence of this assertion. As Butler’s prose goes, the excerpt is actually rather lucid, and already we see that when one is able to pierce the smokescreen of impenetrable jargon, one finds nothing there. Confronted by real world application the critical theorizing explodes in contradiction and self-negation – on the very basic level of upholding real justice and not merely advancing ideologized constructs of it.

Butler’s notoriously obscure and awful writing is only among the worst examples of a common malady – theory-talk that when it descends in hawk-like gyres to the ground of reality reveals its predatory nature: Jean Baudrillard, after 9/11, writing of the “twin-suicide” of the towers of which everyone had dreamed; Slavoj Zizek, welcoming the United States to the “Desert of the Real.” When Butler similarly descends to political defense and apologetics, and attempts actually clearly to communicate, a different kind of empty cant reveals the hollow vessel that delivers it.

Butler is at pains to do three things in her Mondoweiss defense: argue against charges of anti-Semitism, defend herself against accusations of praise for Hezbollah and Hamas, and reassert her social justice bona fides. She fails on all three counts.

I do not mean on the first count that Butler is manifestly anti-Semitic. She is not, and the question is never one of knowing another’s heart. However, to the degree that Butler makes any genuine argument at all in her defense, and it is a low degree, her attempt, as is now customary for her, is to coopt the history and nature of Judaism, and its meaning – limiting it, for instance, to Disaporic rather than national Judaism – so that she may embrace the Judaism she prefers, reject the other, and excuse herself, she thinks, of the anti-Semitic charge.

Such is Butler’s presiding strategy throughout her theorizing. She rhetorically disappears difference by analyzing it as a product of language and performance. The social problems engaged by political feminism are for Butler the product not of any actual human difference, but of the social constructs of the feminine and masculine. Queer is not a challenge to the oppressive power of the normative – as the original politicized embrace of the term declared; for Butler, it is a subversion of the very idea of normativity. Normal and queer are constructs too. Similarly, the problem with Israel is not that it is Jewish; the problem is that – by method of Judith Butler’s critique and theoretical disappearing act – it is, voila, not Jewish. So saith Judith Butler.

Then there is the fact that Butler chose to publish her defense at Mondoweiss, a blog that, in the psychodrama of its originating authorship, and in much of its commenting community, is deeply, personally and politically anti-Semitic. Does Butler think that because she steers clear of Stormfront she is all right, or is it that Stormfront is on the right, and Butler, from Mondoweiss to Hamas, cannot perceive anti-Semitism on what she conceives to be the left?

Writes Butler of the anti-Semitic charge,

The charge refuses to consider the view, debate its validity, consider its forms of evidence, and derive a sound conclusion on the basis of listening to reason. The charge is not only an attack on persons who hold views that some find objectionable, but it is an attack on reasonable exchange, on the very possibility of listening and speaking in a context where one might actually consider what another has to say.

We see here and throughout that when Butler permits herself to be readily understood, she is preposterous and dishonest. Refusal to consider and debate? An attack on reasonable exchange – on listening and speaking? Butler knows full well that there are almost countless numbers of people – intellectual and scholarly peers and others – who consider and debate hers and like ideas regularly, who listen and speak in response, and refute, and who would argue with and debate her and the ideas she promotes without hesitation. Her accusation of silencing dissent is a completely insupportable, cant response, because she has no better. The charge of anti-Semitism is both separate and the same, and it is made, when it is made, for preceding cause, not in order to preclude debate.

Butler’s defense against the accusation of praise for Hamas and Hezbollah is the usual weasely evasion, most reminiscent, currently, of her political opposite, Todd Akin’s “I used the wrong words in the wrong way” when referring to “legitimate rape.”

What she said then:

I think: Yes, understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important. That does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements. … So again, a critical, important engagement. I mean, I certainly think it should be entered into the conversation on the Left. I similarly think boycotts and divestment procedures are, again, an essential component of any resistance movement.

What she says now:

My remarks on Hamas and Hezbollah have been taken out of context …. I was asked by a member of an academic audience … whether I thought Hamas and Hezbollah belonged to “the global left” and I replied with two points. My first point was merely descriptive: those political organizations define themselves as anti-imperialist, and anti-imperialism is one characteristic of the global left, so on that basis one could describe them as part of the global left. My second point was then critical: as with any group on the left, one has to decide whether one is for that group or against that group, and one needs to critically evaluate their stand. I do not accept or endorse all groups on the global left.

Little of what Butler now claims is true. Her remarks were not “merely descriptive.” The two organizations she described not just as left, but as, actually, “progressive,” and Butler called it “important” to so understand them. (And why, anyway, would she cede public and valued political designation of two violent terrorist organizations to the organizations themselves?) She did not offer the choice of support for the groups – and why endorse even the choice? – but called understanding Hamas and Hezbollah as progressive, left social movements to be a “critical, important engagement.”

A fascinating feature of the moral imagination is that even the brilliant manufacturer of abstruse ethical theory will, when cornered by natural and acculturated conscience, seek to escape the mirror she finds there. The extended “as-a-Jew” recitative that opens her defense, and that culminates with that term, is followed by the announced imperative, for Butler, “to speak out against injustice and to struggle against all forms of racism,” as “someone who wishes to affirm a Judaism that is not identified with state violence, and that is identified with a broad-based struggle for social justice.”

“All forms of racism,” “state violence,” broad-based “struggle for social justice.” All meaningful terms representing real ideals, except for when they are reduced to cant – to trite formulations that drop from the tongue, as they do among her fellows, like ritualized epithets. Butler ends her account of herself by attempting to substantiate the “all forms” of racism and the “broad base” of the struggle for social justice, but the effort is a fraud, a gross misapplication of terms. Demonstrably, she does no such thing – for where are her critiques of broad-based Arab anti-Semitism, her supportive attendance at conferences opposing misogyny and homophobia in the Muslim world?

State violence? Where in the world is there not state violence? Where is Judith Butler vocalizing in support of the self-determination of the Kurdish people against their violent suppression by Iran, Syria, and Turkey? On what basis does one choose one’s commitments, and how will one verbally scurry to mask that basis?

When Butler was ridiculed in 1998, chosen by the journal Philosophy and Literature to receive First Prize in its Bad Writing Competition, she wrote what was an earlier defense of herself in a New York Times Op-Ed. In it, she commits a telling confusion of terms. She argues that “ordinary language” is expressive of “common sense,” common sense itself too often (always?) representative of hegemonic and oppressive power structures. So, conveniently, a theory is defended by which impenetrable language is the marker of radical critique. Intelligible language is confused with ordinary language, the complex with the obscure, clarity of expression with common sense. By just such a rhetorical strategy is the reality of who one is, and what one really stands for, disguised.

But there is no hiding in plain sight. In plain sight, when Judith Butler comes into it, we see right through her.


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Culture Clash

Pythonian Philosophy


In the spirit both of the most recent “Drowning Child” post and our current London Olympiad, we persevere in our arguments by exploring the nature of intellectual competition. The first video I actually share with my students in the opening week of my critical thinking class. It’s a hoot and does make a point. About the second, recommended by Rob in the discussion of the last post, what better observation than the words of the play-by-play commentary:

Hegel is arguing that the reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics, Kant via the categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination, and Marx is claiming it was offside.


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The Political Animal

Is Chris Hayes Too Thoughtful for the Mediated Public Square?


You don’t have to think of Chris Hayes as the anti-Limbaugh. (That’s most of us.) Consider him the anti Chris Matthews, his stable mate at MSNBC. Matthews drew a lot of attention the other day for his interview of Newt Gingrich, during which he did play, yes, a form of hardball, asking tough questions and scoffing at nonsensical answers, but he also played Tip O’Neill to the Newt’s Reagan. “Mr. Speakaah,” Matthews intoned in verbal backslappery in introducing his guest. For Matthews, as everyone knows, loves the game, and Gingrich as full of shit as he is, and vile when he needs to be, is a player in the game, and you gotta – that is, Matthews has gotta – love his moves.

Chris Hayes only analyzes the game. He neither plays it nor fanaticizes it, memorializing scraps or seeking entrance to the backroom bar after play has ended. He is a thinker, not a thinking man’s pol or pol handicapper, and if you watch the entire segment of his Sunday show, in which he and his guests discussed the meaning of military heroism, what you see is not a jingoist or a simple-minded despoiler of patriotism, but a thoughtful, serious man discussing ideas with genuine sensitivity to the meaning of his words and his own relation to his words. If that sounds, already, a little too refined for the mental horseplay of our cable, our internet, and our social mediated public discourse, that is the point. Even Hayes’s unnecessary apology, rather than pro forma evasion and cant, was genuine, extended, and thoughtful.

Against the locker room ridicule of Hayes’s critics has come some good defense, but even so, like Page Six actually arguing with the Editorial Board on an issue of substance, another televised pretence of thoughtful commentary, on the Today show, offered us Star Jones and Donny Deutsch, swine squealing with incomprehension at the pearls, defecating on the oyster. Deutsch thought the discussion essentially over in declaring that Hayes looks like “a weenie.”

They are heroes: beginning, middle, end of story. I don’t know what the other side of this argument is.

Of course not. That would require the swine, type boar, to think.

By far the best, most comprehensive defense of Hayes has come tellingly from conservative Conor Friedersdorf.

Of course, Hayes wasnt actually expressing discomfort with granting the bravery or achievements or noble qualities of American troops. His fear was that in addition to its strict definition, hero had an unavoidable connotation attached to it — that for some people, hearing that a warrior is a hero carries with it the implication that the war in which he bravely partook was a just one.

This is the kind of linguistic, intellectual and moral discrimination that a Deutsch and the general Roman circus of political punditry are incapable, and against which Hayes’s discussion was an argument. While Hayes and his guests considered, within the very limiting confines of even a twelve-minute television segment, the distinctions among “hero,” “sacrifice,” “valor,” and “courage,” the effort was two-fold: to contend against the automatic, thus indiscriminate, valorization of war just by virtue of the vocabulary we use, and to resist the chauvinistic gravity exhibited by normalizing all displays of patriotism. Rather, now, for displays of a flag, or a flag lapel pin, demonstrating an exceptional experience of national pride and solidarity, they are a conformist requirement. For a presidential candidate not to wear a lapel pin, as Obama, for a time did not, in 2008, is leveled an unpatriotic display. If all soldiers are the valorized hero (rather than, say, “merely” brave, for going to war), then what word do we use for the act of exceptional courage and valor? These critical lovers of heartland values have obviously never visited Lake Woebegone, where “all the children are above average.” Its ironic charms would escape them even if they did stop by for a spell.

In instructive contrast, a bad liberal defense of Hayes came from Peter Beinart, who repeated the momentary misstep of only one of Hayes’s guests, in using the discussion to inveigh against the Iraq and Afghan wars and, in Beinart’s case, the “9/11 fearmongers” too. This is precisely what Hayes did not do. He did not use his discussion of language and the politicizing pull on it that public discourse exerts, as merely a pretext to for specific policy criticism. The usual gang of political locker room dunderheads cannot grasp this and neither, apparently, can Beinart. Hayes was self-conscious and self-critical enough even while he explored his ideational instincts, to question the inclinations of the, in his phrase, “liberal caricature” that he might be seen to represent. This reflexivity is leagues beyond his critics, and some of his defenders. Beinart wrote,

 I don’t share Hayes’s queasiness about the using the word “hero” to describe those Americans who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. In America today, where self-gratification is practically a national religion, there is something heroic about voluntarily placing your fate at your country’s service. But Hayes’s larger point—that in honoring the dead we should not surrender our critical faculties about war—is not only correct, it’s crucial. For more than 10 years now, the Coulters and Dick Cheneys of American politics have used the pain and pride of a nation at war to cow those who might have questioned our post-9/11 wars.

Beinart actually has it exactly backwards. The larger point is in the challenge to language, not in the specific challenges to policy, because it is only in the questioning of language and the greater ideas it even implicitly conveys that one can develop the critical tools with which to question policy and all the other rudiments of life. This is what Hayes was doing. Most of the other media performers are still splashing around in the mud.

Friedersdorf closed his very fine defense of Hayes by offering five extended sets of questions all on the subject of “heroism” and what it might mean to use language the way we habitually do or may feel compelled to do by the force of public censure and common stupidity. In these questions, devoid of politics, we see the necessary critical thinking mind at work, representative of the minds we want a truly democratic and (mentally) free citizenry to possess – the very opposite of “They are heroes: beginning, middle, end of story.”

1) Are all American war dead heroic because, if nothing else, they had the courage to volunteer for service knowing they might ultimately give their life for their country? That seems heroic to me. But if they’re all heroes, does it follow that everyone in the military is a hero? Why is dying necessary? And if everyone who volunteers is a hero, what about the guys who would go AWOL if sent to fight, or who assault their commanding officer, or who run away in combat? What about the ones who are dishonorably discharged? Was Bradley Manning a hero? Had Lynndie England died in Iraq, would she have been a hero?

2) What about people who volunteer for foreign armed forces? Are they all heroic? Or does it depend upon their country? If an American helping to liberate Libya would’ve been a hero had he died in action, shouldn’t the Germans from NATO engaged in the same conflict be heroes too? What about the Islamic fundamentalists fighting alongside NATO? Heroes?

3) What about the morality of the cause? Does anyone think brave Nazi soldiers during the World War II era were heroes? How about the soldiers in Stalin’s army? Does the nature of the mission matter, so that a Soviet soldier who died liberating a death camp was a hero, whereas another who died while ravaging German civilians he was ordered to take revenge upon isn’t? There’s this reality to confront: if bestowing the title hero has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of the cause or mission, we’ll have to grant the honorific to individuals who took part in deeply immoral acts… and yet, if the mission does matter, do we really want to deny the heroism of a GI who jumped on a grenade to save his platoon, even if we think the platoon’s presence in country X was immoral? It’s a confounding choice.

4) Speaking of jumping on grenades, isn’t “hero” often invoked in common parlance as if it means even more than serving and dying? For example, when we hear someone described as “a World War II hero,” don’t we expect that he did more than fall overboard and drown en route to the D-Day invasion? Don’t we assume from that adjective that he undertook some dangerous mission, or distinguished himself in combat, like the younger Bailey brother in It’s a Wonderful Life? Were the average American to watch From Here to Eternity, would he or she call Robert E. Lee Prewitt a hero?

5) And say, for the sake of argument, that all American war dead are heroes, strictly defined, but that the word and its emotional resonance is being manipulated by advocates of an imprudent war. Is it better to give soldiers an honorific they deserve, consequences be damned, or to withhold an honorific they deserve to prevent future soldiers from needlessly dying?


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The Political Animal

Bile as Argument


Several days ago, a late reader of my post “Christopher Hitchens, Glenn Greenwald, and the War of Ideas” sent me an insulting private email. Since this is a blog with a public commenting apparatus, I am always struck when people choose to insult me privately rather than offer counter-arguments and insult in the public forum. I have considered this phenomenon in the past. There is, in part, I think, recognition, in the mere insult, that a boundary is being transgressed, a level sunk below, and the consequent concern that the comment will be deleted. The private email ensures, at the very least, that I will receive the verbal shiv, because, as I said before, the writer “imagines the whispered remark the more deeply wounding insult, like a blade inserted at close quarters.” The writer also probably imagines the unlikelihood that the victim will make the insult public, and thus be challenged to defend his form of argument. People are free to imagine whatever they like.

The writer, Robert Pentangelo, wrote the following:

By the way, you neocon apologist, since you finally ascertained that the Bush administration got it wrong on Iraq:

1.  Where are your blogs condemning them for their lies and manipulations?
2. Where are your blogs  condemning Snitch for his continued war mongering AFTER you in your brilliance finally figured out the truth.

You are the dishonest bullshit artist, not Mr. Greenwald.

The first point to make is that Pentangelo wrote in response to a post that was not a defense of the Iraq War or a criticism of Glenn Greenwald’s own position on the Iraq War, but a criticism – as just about always when I write about Greenwald – of the manner in which Greenwald argues: its dishonesty and its, technically speaking, nature as bullshit. In my post, in fact, I highlighted how Greenwald’s deceptive argument, purporting to serve as resistance to some prohibition against speaking ill of the dead, specifically Christopher Hitchens, and as some sort of consideration of the “protocol for public figure deaths,” was actually the latest of Greenwald’s frequent exercises in personally trashing anyone who, as he did, supported the Iraq War, but who has either not recanted his support or, like Greenwald, simply, conveniently built a public career on never acknowledging his former support in the first place. There will be another post on this tomorrow. Pentangelo, an apparent Greenwald fanboy, continues in the manner of his hero by ignoring the subject of the post and wants to focus, instead, on Iraq. As there is always someone wrong on the Internet, for the Pentangelos and Greenwalds there is always still someone out there who thought differently from them (well, not, actually, Greenwald) on Iraq and who has not yet been reviled as lower than a snail’s ass. They cannot rest.

Penatangelo wonders where are my blogs condemning the Neocons and Bush administration for their “their lies and manipulations” on Iraq. Apparently one of those for whom the mouth is to off more readily than the bother is to research, Pentangelo seems not to know that the Iraq War began in March 2003 and I did not begin to blog until November 2008. For the first year of my blogging, the focus was on my travels in Indian Country. I haven’t skewered the Kennedy  administration for the Bay of Pigs yet, either, but I’m sure I’ll get caught up. Anyone who has read this blog knows where I stand in relation to the Bush administration, and, for instance, on still lively issues during the life of this blog such as torture.

But this is not about me, though the Greenwald’s and Pentangelos will always personalize the issues in ad hominem attack rather than honest consideration of ideas. (This, by the way, is not ad hominem, because the very issue is the person and how he argues, and I am offering idea and illustration in support of my claim.) Greenwald himself even offered a recent defense of the procedure.

Is it really “a sign of decency” to refuse to view any political ideas as not merely wrong in some abstract intellectual sense, but as a reflection of the person’s character? Obviously, there are many political disagreements — most — which can and should be conducted in perfectly good faith without the need for personal animus. Conversely, though, aren’t there some political views so repellent and sociopathic that “a sign of essential decency” is to make it personal, rather than refusing to do so?

Of course, nearly everyone will think that of course there are views so repellent we need to make them personal – Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot, and George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh, Christopher Hitchens, George Soros, Saul Alinsky and, yea, Barry Obama. For among the corrupting influences on the right of the American political scene whom Greenwald may be said to simulate, Newt Gingrich is one. It is Gingrich more than any public figure in American politics who originated – consciously, purposely originated – what became known as the “politics of personal destruction.” It was Gingrich who engineered the GOP ascent into the congressional majority by determining that the loyal, collegial opposition would be henceforth enemies of America. The clarion call of the far right fringe – the John Birch Society – would become the everyday thrust of mainstream political attack. Are there “any political ideas” Greenwald asks that are “not merely wrong in some abstract intellectual sense, but … a reflection of the person’s character?” Sure, we will agree. But if “repellent and sociopathic” begin at Hitchens and, might I float, Glenn Greenwald, what room does that leave for Saddam Hussein and Bashir Assad – spawn of Satan? Is that even worse?

The language, the terms of the debate, is so excessive, so broadly cast that once you determine to use those nets, the stock is quickly depleted. It happens every time.

I’ll suggest to Robert Pentangelo that he try to argue any issue in American politics without sputtering out “neocon” like a “you know” tic. That he is probably too old for the resort to “Snitch.” (Hitchens, Hitch, Snitch,.Get it? Ha!) That if he calls someone dishonest, he actually point out a dishonesty – a determinable truth and a misrepresentation of it – and, if a “bullshit” artist, he offer up the turd, with a clear analysis of its properties. It’s dirty work, but some of us have to do it. Until then, he doesn’t engage in any kind of worthwhile argument at all. He merely serves as an object lesson.


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Israel The Political Animal

How Greenwald Argues

We’ve had an interesting and now long-running thread of comments going from Rob H.’s guest post the other day, “Glenn Greenwald’s False Accusation Against The New York Times.” I’ve offered my latest contribution in the comments, the full length of which you can reach via link at the end of this post. I thought I would highlight here my comments on Greenwald rather than the other topic of Israel with which the thread also became involved.

This commentary thread has intertwined criticism of Greenwald on a different topic with the topic of Israel. Ultimately, I think, for those critical of Greenwald and of certain ideological trends he represents in his peculiar way, those two strains have the same source.

Here is a typical passage from Greenwald that Rob quotes:

“Conversely, the U.S. Government most certainly did pursue vastly increased security powers in the name of McVeigh’s attack: the Clinton administration, citing the Oklahoma City attack, demanded a full-scale prohibition on all computer encryption that the Government could not access, as well as significantly increased domestic eavesdropping powers, while Congress — by an overwhelming majority — enacted the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 that severely infringed due process rights, created new Terrorism crimes, and vested the government with a litany of vast new prosecutorial powers — all galvanized by the McVeigh attack (read more from The New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse on how both parties exploited the Oklahoma City bombing to significantly increase the government’s surveillance and police powers).”

Vague and diffuse adjectives and adverbs for Greenwald are ideational cluster bombs. Based just on those few I highlighted one might think 1996 ushered in the beginnings of a police state. Undoubtedly, there are readers of Greenwald who do think we already live in a police state. Language, like the metaphors of violence I mentioned earlier, can create the reality in which we choose to live. There is, too, the mixture of what the government pursued and Clinton demanded with what the Congress enacted. How many readers of that passage know how these laws actually are changed based on these events?

Rob quotes this passage:

“Regardless of the justifications of these wars — and Norway is in both countries as part of a U.N. action — it is simply a fact that Norway has sent its military to two foreign countries where it is attacking people, dropping bombs, and killing civilians.”

“On a weekly basis — literally — the U.S. and its Western allies explode homes, mangle children, extinguish the lives of innocent people, disrupt communities, kill community and government leaders, and bring violence and terror to large numbers of people — those are just facts.”

Greenwald is no real writer anymore than he is a genuine thinker, so it would probably take skills he lacks to argue with any less integrity. On the larger level, these two bathetic paragraphs would apply, allowing for anachronism, to every war ever fought in the history of humankind, regardless – and why, pray tell, regardless? – “of the justification of these wars.” (Don’t justifications matter?) More narrowly, “attacking people [just people, any, old people], dropping bombs, and killing civilians” certainly sounds purposeful to those effects, doesn’t it? “

[T]he U.S. and its Western allies explode homes, mangle children, extinguish the lives of innocent people, disrupt communities, kill community and government leaders, and bring violence and terror to large numbers of people.” Sounds purposeful again, doesn’t it? What monsters! If only it weren’t for “the U.S. and its Western allies,” what peaceful, terror-free and unmangled and unextinguished lives we might all be leading. And this manipulative combination of purposeful agency and bathetic description is labeled “just facts.”

The kind of person capable of arguing in this manner is the bullshitter. In “The Hypocrisy and Bullshit of Glenn Greenwald,” I quoted thusly Harry G. Frankfurt from On Bullshit:

Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.

(Full comment here…)

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Reasoning Gone Off the Rails: Jerusalem’s Light Rail Project

It is, so far, impossible to run out of examples of how intellectually corrupt much contemporary thinking is on the subject of Israel-Palestine. Today, Adam Levick at CiFWatch offers a mundane municipal illustration by way of Jerusalem’s soon to be operational (in its first phase) Light Rail line. Levick tells us that

the first line will run through the East part of the city, and serve Arab neighborhoods, such as Shu’afat, and the Project planners noted that they consulted with, and gained the approval of, resident associations there – many of which will benefit by the increased ease of access to the center of town, and a rise in property values – which, according to Rail planners, has already occurred.

Despite the agreement of the actual Arab residents, the official position of the Palestinian Authority has been one opposed to the line. One can easily see, if not endorse, the PA’s reasoning: the rail line is just one more way that Israel’s governance of East Jerusalem, in a unified city, appears acceded to and a fait accompli. Again, though, note that the actual Arab locals endorsed the line and benefit from it in multiple ways. But this is not the real point of Levick’s post. The point is how do others, not the PA, react to the Light Rail? How do they integrate it into the narrative that media and involved third parties are daily constructing around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

As media events in Israel go, this was, for most journalists covering the story, quite non-controversial, and the smooth, quiet ride we took on the modern rail car, on a small section of the route which runs through the center from Yaffo to the road along the Arab section of the Old City, was a quite pleasant experience.

However, during the Q&A session after the presentation, both by transportation officials, and then later, in our group’s meeting with Jerusalem’s Mayor, Nir Barkat, two American journalists – one from National Public Radio (NPR) and the other from the New York Times … asked whether the fact that the route runs though the East part of the city (serving Arab neighborhoods) was an impediment to peace.

Should reporters ever not ask questions? That’s their job, right? These might seem reasonable questions, too. Isn’t everything that happens in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians either an aide or an impediment to peace? Ah, but the reporters didn’t ask what might have struck them as the counter-intuitive question about aiding peace. And a question is not just a question. Even just asked – as in “I just asked” – it introduces an idea.

[W]hile listening [to] the NYT and NPR correspondents question Mayor Barkat on the political implications of the Light Rail Project, I began wondering what the reaction would be if the Arab neighborhoods were excluded from the Rail’s route.  Is there any question that the narrative would have been one of racism and discrimination against Jerusalem’s Arabs?

Further, would it be preferable if the city were to delay addressing such major municipal problems until a peace agreement is one day achieved?

These are “just questions” too. And any honest observer knows the answers. “Apartheid,” anyone?

When an action and its opposite are both, according to a line of thought, condemnable, we then have one more, and the best reason for judging an argument and the position behind it to have collapsed into utter self-contradictory absurdity.

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The Political Animal

This Whole Debate Is Torture

Given that the dark matter is once again exercising its invisible pull on the national consciousness – come, let me show you something my little darlings, its right here, just around the corner, you’ll like it, a little further now – and attempting to use Osama bin Laden’s long goodbye as renewed justification for torture, I thought it might be a good time to rerun a few favorites we at the sad red earth earlier posted on the subject. We being I and my tortured muse.

Among the several characteristics to note in the very flawed way we pursue this debate is how nearly everyone, including ardent opponents of torture, run from the morality of the act. Even those with a deep conviction of the immorality of interrogation enhanced with – enhanced with what? ah, yes, torture, enhanced with torture – even they vigorously argue, instead, the question of torture’s efficacy: it doesn’t work, they are all at pains to persuade us. Somehow, after two millennia and more of the supposedly irreplaceable and refining ethical influence of monotheistic theology, very few people really believe that a moral argument has any – how shall I put it? – any balls to it. Talk to me like a man, like a conqueror of lands and peoples. Talk to me of what works.

Here, then, today, from the vaults of the past, originally posted on May 8, 2009, just over two years ago,

Tortured Argument

The next several years of the torture debate will be variously instructive, not least in what we already see in the low form and manner of important public political argument among figures who should have been schooled to a higher level. The debate will last at least a few years, and it will distress in too many ways. To begin, there is, well, yes, the torture, distressing to the tortured to be sure, but distressing, too, to the fabric of the society that permits or institutionalizes it. We see that already.

The integrity of that social fabric – the health of the society, the democracy that necessarily engages in debate – is ensured in no small part by the quality of its argumentation. We can see that, too, in the arguments that formed our nation, including where, ahem, a few stitches were missed. There have always been shoddy arguments, sure. Always will be. And you appreciate your good view, in part, by a little perspective on the cheap seats.

So let’s examine some. Let’s start with the misdirection of focus by torture proponents on the recent most high-profile subjects of torture, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh.

You feel sympathy for them? proponents impugn.

Notice the hat? See the rabbit?

The eternal tortures of the damned for both of them, I say.

But let’s recall where the damned get tortured.

And who does the torturing.

It isn’t about them. Not to mention the reported one-hundred-plus dead in detention who weren’t KSM and RB.

It’s about us. As death penalty opponents often try to focus us sympathetically (the emotional appeal) on the innocence or injustice in the case of a particular prisoner, rather than the greater argument against capital punishment – that it dehumanizes the culture that creates a system for it, the more so the less it questions its righteousness in doing so – so, in reverse, torture proponents mislead us to the heinous subject of torture rather than the practice of it and what it means for the culture that endorses in it.

Let’s keep our eye on the argument. Rabbits come and go.

Then, too, notice how constantly is the red herring dragged across the ground of whether the torture is effective. This is done, in fact, on both sides of the debate – for obvious reasons by torture proponents, but why by opponents? In this one instance, they are the more disingenuous. The whole appeal of their argument is intended to be ethical, and then they resort to efficacy as a kind of sleight of argument piling on. (“I’ll just throw this in for extra measure, however irrelevant, and if it persuades anyone of the thusly invalid conclusion that torture is wrong, well, all’s fair in L, W, and political debate.”) What is more, opponents’ smug assertions that torture doesn’t work are hardly definitively supportable. (One form of cheap, or cheating, argument is to pretend there is nothing about which to argue.) Evidence is presented on both sides, almost always by self-interested or biased parties, and in neither case is it the pièce de résistance (“and it doesn’t even work!”) the promulgator of the half canard with plum sauce pretends.

You want to investigate torture as an enterprise in effective human engineering, fine. But that’s not what our current debate is about, now is it? Our continuing descent from the trees, marked over the past couple of hundred years by increasingly developed rules of war, codified in international law, did not lead us to define and ban torture because it doesn’t work. We decided it was inhumane, and, so, morally wrong. When then President Ronald Reagan – the patron saint of many now disturbing his rest – signed the UN Convention Against Torture, he didn’t do it because torture doesn’t work. He stated:

The United States participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of the Convention. It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.

Reagan signed the Convention because torture is wrong – even if it does work. And to grasp at the crutch of its declared inefficacy is to falter in courage – the courage to believe in, and hold to, the force of moral reasoning even in the face of the brute: not just the torturer, but the effective torturer.

Another point of distress, then, are the many leading lights – journalists and government officials, think-tank intellects and media silverbacks – who do, in their argument, acknowledge this distinction by caring very little to pretend they are not advocating torture. But it is not some “third-world” tin-pot tyranny wrestling with the seaweed here, it isn’t some doctrine-drunk, authoritarian oligarchy, it is the United States of America (apply your own heart-felt encomium), and we see that people who have been raised in it – nurtured on the traditions of the first great modern republic and educated in its democratic universities – would now very readily turn back scores of years of social evolution and advancement in international affairs in order to rule, and righteously so, by the screw. As if the darkness of the Middle Ages and Inquisitions had never lifted. As if several centuries of perpetual European conflict had not managed to lead us – as some manner of solace – out of it.

Just so we know.

Just so we all may ponder how easily a kind of false consciousness can slip over us, the thug arrived at the family table – pretending that certain matters had not already once and finally been settled – and demanding his plate with fine words and songs of the nation-volk. Where we may proceed to feed him, until history delivers its slap in the face (its repertoire so varied) and we spend decades trying to understand how we brought ourselves to do it – trying, even, to acknowledge that we did.

Not just there. It can happen anywhere. It can happen here.

We see their stolid forms, their overcoats, the bent brims of their hats, the narrow bureaucratic lapels and the ruler-thin ties. We hear the drone of their banality. The Woos, the Bybees, the Bradburys and Addingtons. Educated men whose great distinction, once in life, was to become ready levers for the engineers of power that were Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the knavish naïf who led them.

And they will have done it, they’ll say, for us. They will even believe it.

It is obvious, though, that many torture proponents do know, yes, what they do, and paying their homage to virtue deny that all kinds of torture, not just waterboarding – don’t be fooled by that one – but a range of acts that inflict pain and suffering, are actually torture. How do they do it? With Orwellian “newspeak” and Inquisitorial casuistry. They warp reality by rending its linguistic fabric. “Enhanced” or “robust” interrogation techniques were just the start, as robust persuasion is only the first kick in the ass. And it is no accident that “enhanced interrogation” was a Nazi term of art, because the slayers of honest thought, however well they think of themselves, all are drawn to loiter in the same verbal death house.

Members of the Convention Against Torture (in green)

So we see in the recently released Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel memos how bureaucratic exactitude merges with a kind of theological casuistry to produce a bland moral derangement. In the August 1, 2002 memo from Assistant Attorney General Bybee to Acting General Counsel of the CIA John Rizzo, for instance, the mutual ass-covering purpose of the memo is all in the “reported” speech that constitutes most of it. Bybee reports back to Rizzo what Rizzo has purportedly already described elsewhere about the interrogation techniques being used. Every legal clearance Bybee offers, then, is dependent in its authority on the accuracy of Rizzo’s prior account, and each can hold the other accountable for any discrepancy producing legal jeopardy. And the discrepancies would be from the feigned precision in the application of the techniques. Page four tells us that during the waterboarding, “air flow is slightly restricted from 20 to 40 seconds” as if 15 or 50 seconds have through some formal methodology been established as beyond some regulatory pale, and with “slightly” surprisingly undefined. The water is “applied from a height of twelve to twenty-four inches” because the Office of Legal Counsel, or course, has had access to studies demonstrating that eight or thirty inches will miss some either humane or efficacious mark. Elsewhere, stress positions, where the subject leans back at a, no doubt, medically-determined “45 degree angle” produce “muscle fatigue” of a sort that “despite its discomfort” cannot “be said to be too difficult to endure” and so does not constitute “severe physical pain or suffering,” as mere drops of water dripping onto a forehead are merely uncomfortable in a technique Bybee presumably sought to have renamed the Chinese Water Annoyance.

Subsequently, and for near theological lunacy, nothing surpasses Fox News and its distinction and insistence that KSM was not waterboarded 183 times, but subjected to 183 “pours” of water, the “pour” now, sadly, a new technical term for journalists who cover the torture beat. We might almost be resorting to Aristotelian “substance” and “accidents” to distinguish what is from what is apparent in the Eucharistic transubstantiation. Or better, from Andrew Sullivan, the Inquisition’s non ad iterandum tormenta sed ad continuandum: to “continue” a torture (okay) was not to “repeat” it (not okay). Fox News: yesterday’s arugments for torture today.

Sullivan has addressed the essential point here:

The entire spirit of the UN Convention and the Geneva Conventions is not to see whether governments can find clever, legal loopholes in the ban on torture, abuse, inhuman treatment and outrages on human dignity – but to see that no government ever comes near the kind of prisoner abuse and torture that we have seen throughout history. I cannot begin to believe that those who drafted both conventions believed that waterboarding, for example, was okay if it is done in certain ways and not others. And to even countenance such a sophistry is to have capitulated to the logic that the executive – empowered with massive force and enormous secrecy – should always get the benefit of the doubt when applying the rule of law.  The lawyers we are talking about, after all, are lawyers for the president, whose oath of office demands that he faithfully execute the laws.

Beyond the mockery derivable from absurd efforts at self-justification, however, it is important to affirm that this debate – worldwide – has already long since been had, even before Reagan and the UN Convention, back to the Geneva Convention of 1929, revised as the Third Geneva Convention, which the United States signed in 1949 and ratified in 1955. When the U.S. signed the convention, it expressed only one formal reservation, regarding the death penalty, and it specifically rejected the reservations made by others at the time of signing, never mind fifty-plus year later when it might have suited any party’s new purpose. The debate was closed, and by the U.S. too. If certain elements of the U.S. polity now wish to reopen it, against the sweeping tide of civilized history in this matter, they are free to try to do so, but let them be honest and clear in their purpose and their language. Let them tell all, without subterfuge in language or manipulation of law, where the world has gone wrong in this regard and how they will lead us right.

Honesty in debate is incumbent on all sides, however. When torture proponents raise the “ticking bomb” hypothetical, not matter how unlikely opponents believe – or want to believe – that hypothetical situation is, proponents are offering a coherent counter-argument to a morally absolute claim (torture is always wrong, under all circumstances) made without qualification. This is a fundamental and frequently explored quandary of moral reasoning – whether to switch the runaway train onto a track to kill only one person rather than the five now in the train’s path (and now with the twist that the lone person set the train on that path) – and simply to derisively dismiss it due to its hypothetical unlikeliness is to fail to engage the moral problem and not to respond to the argument.

In fact, there are answers. Josh Marshall offers one here:

As I’ve argued before, I think the answer to the ticking time bomb rationale for torture is this: that in the extremely unlikely circumstance that government officials ever found themselves in that position of having a ticking time bomb ticking away, they might have to make the decision to break the law. Not fudge it or keep their actions hidden, but take the decision on their own responsibility that it was the best thing to do in the situation — despite it being wrong as a general matter — and then bring their decision to attention of the people and law enforcement authorities and throw themselves on the mercy of the public. Thomas Jefferson explored a similar question and argument for the position a president could find himself in when faced with extra-constitutional or even unconstitutional actions.

Note how Marshall’s argument opens up the necessary distinction between the legal and the moral, essential to a full discussion of the dimensions of this issue. A lie is always an admission of the known violation of a social code, regardless of whether one agrees with the code. If one does not, the disagreement should be acknowledged, not hidden by “enhanced term creation.”

In the end, we all come before the law; we can all be Kafka’s man from the country, who lifelong seeks admittance before the door, and its keeper, that none else ever approaches:

“Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”


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The Political Animal

Dishonest Argument: the Social Divider

Bill Clinton with Ross Perot, Independent, and...
Image via Wikipedia

The other day I mentioned the argumentative reversal in debate, when one party makes use of the argument against it to try to turn the tables, sort of the way in Aikido, one does not directly counter the opponent, but redirects his attacking force back against him. The party implicitly accepts an argument – without acknowledging that acceptance or the foundation the acceptance could provide toward some measure of agreement – only for the purpose of using the underlying principle behind it to launch a mirror counter argument and put the other party on the defensive.

A variation of the argumentative reversal uses the “I could argue” rhetorical ploy. Professional political spinmeisters use this technique frequently. Make what argument you will, say that WI Governor Scott Walker has, in the jargon of the day, “overreached” by pursuing a policy – public sector union busting – not supported by the voters, and the counter claimant will respond, “I could argue that Barack Obama did the same thing by pursing healthcare reform not supported by the majority of American voters.”

Leaving aside the embedded claim about what the majority of American voters support, this counter move is completely devious. Has the person making it accepted the claim about Walker? Has that person agreed to the questionable principle that governmental chief executives should govern according to changeable poll results? Is the person praising or rejecting both claims? None of these. The individual has only attempted to shift the ground and place the attacker on the defensive. It is a move made only to obscure the truth, fool the audience, avoid giving ground and appear to win the argument. Neither truth nor agreement is an object. In this case, one obscured truth is that Barack Obama ran very openly and assertively on his desire to reform healthcare policy in the U.S., whatever the details. In contrast, Scott Walker did not run on – there is no record of his ever once affirming – a policy of eliminating collective bargaining rights for public sector unions. And many an interlocutor, not wanting to grant that distinction, for fear of giving any ground to the opposition, will respond, “I could argue….”

You often hear these days some formulation of “I could argue” regarding rhetorical excess and abusive demonization of Presidents. Conservatives attacked today for their treatment of Obama will call up the Left’s hatred and abuse of George W. Bush. Liberals will in turn reach farther back to the charges against Bill Clinton. “I could argue” is no more than an adult version of the eight-year-old’s “She did it too!”

This kind of dishonesty in debate poisons social relations. There are authentic and respectable philosophical differences to be understood and managed within the general political framework of a liberal democracy. Negotiating often dramatically different world views is difficult enough even when there is respect for the sincerity and good will of the other side. When people come to believe, in addition, that those of contrary views will dishonestly maneuver to avoid any concession in understanding, even before compromise in policy, difference in point of view deteriorates into an abiding animus.

In the current conflicts (nothing in the public discourse bears any resemblance to actual, honest argument) over the rights of public sector employees to unionize and bargain collectively, a dishonest representation less apparent than the argumentative reversal is the simple mischaracterization. The mischaracterization is different from misreporting details or the suppression of contradictory information. In a mischaracterization, an element in a debate is inadequately – not fully – explained. The element is often, then, named or labeled deceptively. What purportedly really is at issue in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, and more states – according to Republican governors – are budgetary problems. Within that framework, public sector unions are criticized for their overly generous “benefits,” including, in some cases, “free” benefits.

Now, Webster’s, first, defines “benefit” in the way it used here as a service (as health insurance) or right (as to take vacation time) provided by an employer in addition to wages or salary.” The truth is that most unions – public sector or private – negotiate salary, health insurance, and pension coverage as “total compensation,” compensation meaning remuneration: payment for services. Most unions (I can hardly speak to all) make trades in the bargaining process among salary, health coverage costs, and pension contributions.

I served on the two contract negotiating teams for the Los Angeles College Faculty Guild, and as a member of the Guild’s executive board was knowledgeable about the negotiations of other contracts. We accepted lower salaries than we would otherwise have sought (and increases in pension vesting time) in order to have the value of those salary increases fund health coverage. It was all compensation for services, and we negotiated the direction of that compensation into different areas of the package. These “benefits” are not benefits in the sense of any extra gift of kindness from the employer. Whatever “contribution,” is made by the employee toward health care or pension, that is, “contribution” as deduction from salary or copay or deductible, is not, by these terms, an employee payment toward the benefit, while the rest is gifted to the worker: it is a modification of the compensation that was negotiated. The total not paid for directly by the employee is not a gift to the employee from the employer or the taxpayer – a category of stakeholder, when speaking of public sector unions, that includes the employee – but is part of compensation. It is no more “free” than is salary, which also – curious, and obviously absurd, to note – does not come out of the employees paycheck as a deduction.

It might at any time, given circumstances, be appropriate to renegotiate some elements of such packages up or down. Those are reasonable and fair discussions and debates to have, whatever the positions and outcomes. But mischaracterizing the terms of the debate in order to mislead less knowledgeable segments of the public about the nature of the situation and the position of union members – something that elected and unelected Republicans know well they are doing – while it may sometimes succeed in gaining policy victories, only, in its dishonesty, rips the social fabric in ways that recent decades suggest cannot be mended.


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The Political Animal

The Right’s Responsibility for the Tucson Shooting

The Washington Post provided fascinating news about Jared Lee Loughner yesterday.

In the weeks and days before the shooting rampage in Tucson, suspect Jared Lee Loughner surfed the Internet on his computer in what investigators believe was an effort to prepare for his alleged assassination attempt, law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation said.

Loughner pulled up several Web sites about lethal injections and solitary confinement in prison, said the sources, who asked to be anonymous because the investigation is ongoing. He also viewed Internet sites about political assassins, according to an analysis of Loughner’s computer that was completed by investigators last week, the sources said.

Police seized Loughner’s computer when they forcibly entered his family home in Tucson on Jan. 8, shortly after the shooting outside a Safeway that killed six people and injured 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

“The impression investigators have is that he was trying to educate himself on assassinations and also research the consequences,” said one source close to the investigation. The source said Loughner pulled up sites that explained the process and effects of lethal injections.

There are two points to be made regarding this news. First, while Right Wing politicians and mouthpieces were eager to take sneering umbrage at suggestions that their insinuations of political violence over the past two years might have played a role in sparking the  shooting – heatedly offering that liberals were too quick to draw conclusions – the same hacks and howlers were not slow themselves to conclude, with no clinical assessment having been made, that Loughner was some kind of crazy person, how dare anyone pretend otherwise, now let’s move on. Regardless of any psychiatric evaluation forthcoming, we have in this WaPo report news likely to hold profound legal significance.

Insanity defenses typically hold that defendants were incapable of comprehending the consequences of their actions or that they were unable to comprehend that what they were doing was wrong. Diminished capacity defenses typically are based on whether defendants had the capacity to form the intent to commit the crime. Loughner’s surfing activity the night before the shooting powerfully undermines any of these contentions. It is manifest that he had a very specific kind of intent – political assassination – and that he was cognizant of the legal injunction against it.

Second, Loughner’s investigation into the subject of political assassination argues persuasively in answer to the question that I and others have raised: if the act was merely the violent outburst of an unstable mind, why was it not targeted at people in Loughner’s life against whom he might have felt personal anger – employers who had fired him and the college that had expelled him, for instance? As I have also argued before, causation is often a complex matter. While the Right argued that it was liberals who were seeking simple answers, it was, in fact, the Right, in seeking quickly to attribute the cause of the shooting to no more than mental instability, that was attempting conveniently to simplify and dismiss and to absolve itself of responsibility for its behavior the past two years. Others on the Right – the lowest hacks of all – mentally groped among the incoherent details of Loughner’s cracked reading list and interests to find, for instance, the Communist Manifesto and declare him a Leftist. But the the essential point has never been – regardless of what anyone on Right or Left has said – whatever could be claimed to serve as Loughner’s politics. The essential point has never been whether a direct line of influence could be found between Loughner and Sarah Palin, or Michele Bachman, or Sharon Angle, or Glenn Beck, or many others. The true matter of significance is whether an atmosphere exists in the country, whether it has been created in the country, in which, indeed, a person mostly likely of doubtful moral or mental capacity might explode in politically conceived or characterized violence – and what are the forces, who are the agents, who have fostered that atmosphere. In fact, people had already exploded in such violence multiple times, and the influences on them have been repeatedly revealed.

The hypocrisy of the Right, second in import only to its shameful flirtation with violence ever since the first Black president was elected, has been its flight in argument from the very case for cultural influence on social reality that the Right itself has been making for decades, and that most people reasonably believe. Here is The Washington Times from 2007:

A new cultural-values survey of 2,000 American adults performed by the polling firm of Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates for the Culture and Media Institute reveals a strong majority, 74 percent, believes moral values in America are weaker than they were 20 years ago. Almost half, 48 percent, agree that values are much weaker than they were 20 years ago.

For most, a leading indicator of moral decline is the media. Clearly, Americans look into their television sets and get a high-definition dose of Hollywood’s take on values. Sixty-eight percent of Americans in the survey said the media are having a detrimental effect on moral values in America.

Americans place heavier blame on the entertainment media, but they blame the news media as well, with its emphasis on sex, violence and ditzy head-shaving celebrities. Why do even supposedly serious news outlets devote hours of airtime to airheads like Paris Hilton, whose ticket to fame was her old-wealth surname and her talent on “private” sex tapes?

The agreement is remarkable across political and religious subsets. Not only do 73 percent believe the entertainment media has a negative effect on America’s commitment to moral values, that’s a sentiment shared by Republicans (86 percent) and Democrats (68 percent); conservatives (80 percent) and liberals (64 percent); even religious types identified as orthodox (82 percent) and mostly secular progressives (62 percent).

Here, too, is the Cato Institute on “Welfare and the Culture of Poverty.” Repeatedly, for more than three decades the American Right has argued that our political, social, and artistic cultures are recursive influences on themselves and each other. Only when the Right is confronted with its own excesses does it cravenly and dishonestly retreat from the principles of causal influence it has long promoted.

In these intensely partisan political days (but, really, more so than the late 60s and the 70s?) “moderation” has become a cant ideal. But moderation as any kind of meaningful value must refer not to extremity, but to excess. These are not the same notion. When Barry Goldwater famously declared at the 1964 Republican convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he was right. What else did Patrick Henry mean when he thundered to the 1775 Virginia convention, “Give me liberty or give me death”? When Goldwater completed his antithesis by declaring, “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” what else was he saying but what Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote just a year earlier in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”? Moderation, if it is to be meaningful, must refer to a balance in temperament and judiciousness of judgment, not some weak and statistically-styled mean of articulated opinion that seeks to distribute moral responsibility like a tax rebate. Excess is wrong by definition. An extremity, arrived at by that judicious temperament and balanced judgment, may be liberty in contrast to tyranny, the truth in opposition to a lie.

The record is clear and overwhelming that for over two years the political Right in the United States rhetorically and symbolically flirted, in hope of arousing a response, with hysterical conjurings of oppressive government and the idea of political insurrection. Though all around, those on the Right deny their excesses and any consequence to them, in the aftermath of Tucson conservatives now mostly withdraw in their conduct, in tacit acknowledgment that they went too far. To claim that there was equality of offense on Right and Left – moderation in the apportionment of responsibility for a climate of intolerance and threat – is plainly contradicted by the evidence, and a self-delusion or a lie.



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The Political Animal

Evading Responsibility

Part of the thicket we have to cut through to think clearly and reasonably about political discourse and events is the near wall of entangled rationalizations and defensiveness. Self-contradiction gets separated from hypocrisy only by insight into an individual’s mind and motivations. Or as Tom Delay justified himself to the court yesterday when he evaded responsibility of money laundering,

I fought the fight, ran the race and kept the faith.

If Milton’s Satan can posture as proud rebel, anyone, even a mere worldly and corrupt minion like Delay can tell himself anything.

Part of the problem is something as fundamental as tribalism, where it shouldn’t show up. A reader of this blog some time back, when I was engaging in my debates with ShrinkWrapped, characterized that blog’s conservative readers as responding tribally to him and other liberals. I agreed. Not that there is anything unique to conservatives in the tendency. Liberals and others do it too. No doubt, it is easier to see the tribalism in others more clearly than oneself. But as liberals have argued these past few days that conservative rhetoric over the past two years may have played a role in the Tucson shooting – how much of the conservative reaction in denial do you think may be spurred by resentment at the charge and an unwillingness to concede fault to what one might think a mortal enemy?

More moderately, but nonetheless, we get this morning David Brooks on The Politicized Mind.

Other themes from Loughner’s life fit the rampage-killer profile. He saw himself in world historical terms. He appeared to have a poor sense of his own illness (part of a condition known as anosognosia). He had increasingly frequent run-ins with the police. In short, the evidence before us suggests that Loughner was locked in a world far removed from politics as we normally understand it.

Yet the early coverage and commentary of the Tucson massacre suppressed this evidence. The coverage and commentary shifted to an entirely different explanation: Loughner unleashed his rampage because he was incited by the violent rhetoric of the Tea Party, the anti-immigrant movement and Sarah Palin.

Mainstream news organizations linked the attack to an offensive target map issued by Sarah Palin’s political action committee. The Huffington Post erupted, with former Senator Gary Hart flatly stating that the killings were the result of angry political rhetoric. Keith Olbermann demanded a Palin repudiation and the founder of the Daily Kos wrote on Twitter: “Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin.” Others argued that the killing was fostered by a political climate of hate.

These accusations — that political actors contributed to the murder of 6 people, including a 9-year-old girl — are extremely grave. They were made despite the fact that there was, and is, no evidence that Loughner was part of these movements or a consumer of their literature. They were made despite the fact that the link between political rhetoric and actual violence is extremely murky. They were vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness.

This is a curiously slanted and reductive presentation. While we have, indeed, been having the debate about political responsibility for what happened, no one has been suppressing evidence of Loughner’s behavioral problems, which have been reported as soon as information on the assailant became known. (You wouldn’t know it from Brooks, who is so concerned about clear evidence about political causality, but no one has yet diagnosed mental illness in Loughner.) Defensive rationalizations from the Right have misleadingly argued, as Brooks does that “there was, and is, no evidence that Loughner was part of these [Tea Party or like] movements or a consumer of their literature.” But is the argument that this needs to be so for the political climate of the past two years to have played some role. Nonetheless, remember Bryon Williams this past summer?

When California Highway Patrol officers stopped him on an interstate in Oakland for driving erratically, Byron Williams, wearing body armor, fired at police with a 9mm handgun, a shotgun and a .308-caliber rifle with armor-piercing bullets, Oakland police say. Shot and captured after injuring two officers, Williams, on parole for bank robbery, told investigators that he wanted “to start a revolution” by “killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU,” according to a police affidavit. His mother, Janice, told the San Francisco Chronicle that her son had been watching television news and was upset by “the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items.”

But what television news show could have directed the troubled man’s ire toward the obscure Tides Foundation,

Here is one answer.

For good measure, Beck went after Tides again on Fox that night. And Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Thursday night. That’s on top of 29 other mentions of Tides on Beck’s Fox show over the past 18 months (two in the week before the shootout) according to a tally by the liberal press watchdog Media Matters. Other than two mentions of Tides on the show of Beck’s Fox colleague Sean Hannity, Media Matters said it was unable to find any other mention of Tides on any news broadcast by any network over that same period. Beck declined comment.

*(Full disclosure: The Tides Center has been the fiscal sponsor for the non-profit projects – such as documenting child labor conditions around the world – of Julia Dean, of this blog.)

Does mental instability preclude the influence of political rhetoric? Or is it, indeed, the very fertile ground in which the seeds of hateful political rhetoric can take root.? However crazy Loughner may be, why crazy politically?  He has reportedly been focused among other issues on a return to the gold standard. Where do we find an interest in that arcane economic subject?

Some are now citing an Anti-Defamation League analysis of Loughner’s online writing.

Taken together, these writings suggest someone who probably is not associated with any particular extremist groups or movements, but who has a generic distrust of government and a vague interest in conspiracy theories. Additionally, the style and nature of the writings–which are often disjointed, rambling, and semi-coherent–appear consistent with someone suffering from some form of mental illness, such as schizophrenia.

Loughner’s writings are typically not coherent enough to make arguments that are possible to follow in the normal sense, but they can serve at least to indicate his areas of interest or fascination. They do not, however, provide any solid body of evidence or any patterns that would seem clearly to point to a particular ideology or belief system as a significant motivating factor.

One makes of this the basis for a generally mistaken either/or argument only if one wants. If Loughner is mentally ill, which seems likely, it is no wonder that his ideas might be incoherent. But what are his ideas? What is their subject matter? Where did they come from? I don’t mean specifically – Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck – but generally. What did an ill mind feed off? The culture around him. He is clearly drawing from it, however senselessly. He did not, like New York’s Son of Sam over three decades ago receive messages from a satanic dog: he heard political conspiracy and government power. He did not shoot the workers at the animal care center that let him go, or workers and students at Pima Community College which expelled him. He chose a controversial Democratic congresswoman in a volatile district. The dangerously unstable mind will always find its impetus to action, but to pretend that the impetus was not drawn from the current culture is to bury one’s head.

One of the surest signs of defensive rationalization is inconsistency of thought, self-contradiction. It has been fundamental to the conservative critique of contemporary American culture that the substance of high and popular culture has had dramatic deleterious effect on daily life and our greater social structures. From divorce rates to births out of wedlock to adolescent sex to violence and coarse language and manners, conservatives have argued for decades that what we permit and promote become a promoted permissiveness. And now?

Brooks decides that the real story in Tucson is mental health policy. There needn’t be one story, though, and those reducing it to only one have reasons we should question. It isn’t in the end about blame either. Those who deserve some will never acknowledge it anyway. But the rest of us can try to see through arguments meant to obscure rather than clarify.  There are at least three large issues connected to this story: mental health policy, gun policy, and inflammatory – suggestive of violence, conspiratorial, demonizing – rhetoric. The influence of words, mere words, is why we monitor how our children talk and why try to review what they hear on television and in the classroom. Because we believe, without decades of gold standard experimental studies – at least until it is convenient for us not to – that how we talk to each other and what we say matters.



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The Political Animal

Shitty Arguments

That is the technical term – shitty argument – a type of informal logical argument first identified by Aristotle in his Logic, as part of his discussion of sophistical arguments. A shitty argument may be shitty because it is a particular manifestation of “bad” – that is, so shameless that the perpetrator of it is recognized (generally immediately, by all but his mother, campaign manager, or enraged acolytes) as being full of, well, shit – and/or (these sub-species not being mutually exclusive) because the argument is of the infantile nature otherwise generally made by those formative thinkers who tend to be preoccupied with their – well, you know.

As the Urban Dictionary tells tells us

Shitty is of very poor quality; highly inferior. Contemptible; despicable. Unfortunate; unpleasant. Being in a state of discomfort or unhappiness; miserable. Incompetent; inept. Trivial; insignificant.

Almost all of these descriptions apply to a shitty argument. Because of the second definition of “contemptible; despicable,” it is often appropriate to refer to the propagator of a shitty argument as a “shit.”

As an example of the first kind of shitty argument, take the response generally forthcoming from some defenders of the unregulated sale and ownership of every form of fire arm from the derringer to the shoulder-fired missile, whenever there is an awful event like this weekend’s shooting in Tucson. Against the cries of gun control advocates, proponents of unfettered gun ownership rights will often argue, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” This is an attempt to direct our attention to the fact that guns do not have volition, while people do. This is true (“as far as I know,” to quote Hilary Clinton.) Nonetheless, this is a kind of fallacy of accent (a shitty fallacy of accent) because the proper first response to this argument is yes, in large numbers and far too easily, “People kill people with guns.” The argument may proceed from there, but this first response from gun advocates belongs in the can.

A second example of this kind of persuasive bull, a link to the second kind of argumentum ad latrine, is that being made by various conservatives and Tea Party sympathizers against charges that their rhetoric these past two years has created a volatile environment.

Some Democrats and liberal activists wondered aloud whether heated Republican and conservative attacks against Democrats and the government over the past two years had contributed to a climate in which the gunman found a target in a member of Congress.

Republicans, at times indignant, focused blame on the apparent psychological problems of the suspect, Jared L. Loughner, and suggested that liberals were trying to politicize a personal tragedy. As much as anyone, Ms. Palin emerged as a fulcrum for the debate, once again personifying a broader cultural and ideological divide.

Ah, but for we get to the always well-reasoned and sanitary Sarah Palin, what kind of “indignant” responses are we, indeed getting from the Right.

The radio hosts struck a defensive, even embattled tone at times on Monday. They said Saturday’s shooting had nothing to do with either their broadcasts or the state’s tense political environment; they read e-mails over the air that were critical of their political stances, and some spoke about death threats they had received.

All agreed that Sheriff Dupnik had embarrassed Arizona and unfairly denigrated talk radio by linking it with the shooting.

“There isn’t any correlation,” said Jon Justice, who hosts a highly rated program on KQTH, 104.1 FM, in Tucson. “It’s like blaming Jodie Foster for the individual who shot Ronald Reagan.”

Garret Lewis, host of The Morning Ritual on KNST, 790 AM, in Tucson, said Sherriff Dupnik’s comments had “incited stupidity around the world.”

“People have the image now that we’re a bunch of racist bigots and there are shootouts in the streets,” Mr. Lewis said. “Again, he has absolutely no proof that any of this is true.”

Steve, a caller on Mr. Justice’s show, said Mr. Dupnik’s statements “showed him for the buffoon he is.”

Later, a caller named Lee said the sheriff was “a blithering idiot.” Caller after caller came up with their own colorful descriptions.

An interesting element of the shitty argument– and Aristotle is very clear on this point – is its smelly quality, so that while it might potentially (if with little likelihood) be developed to a sound conclusion, it does still (as my Aunt Goldie would have said) stink to high heaven. The question I have for those making the protestations above – and the far reaching grasp of the Jodie Foster example is actually right on (how do we put it these days) target – is how many of them otherwise believe, or have argued over the past thirty or more years, that the increased verbal and visual violence and sexual crudity of contemporary film, television, and music has had a coarsening affect on the culture? How many have thought that nihilistic song lyrics have on occasion pushed troubled fans of the music over the edge into suicide? That has been a common conservative argument for a long time. Now, of course, under these circumstances, nothing anyone does has any affect on anyone else. But shitty arguments are shameless and convenient, like doing it on the side of the road.

Even more liberal, more usually well-reasoned people can find themselves incontinent on this issue. Said Jeffrey Goldberg today,

I’m with Jack Shafer, by the way: Such language does not make most people kill other people in shopping malls.

Do you see it? Do you see where the whole – the flush – is? “Most.” Who is arguing – who would? – that most people are driven to such acts? It need only be a few, or one? Who wants to argue – Sarah Palin? – that a few deaths, this weekend’s deaths, are a regrettable but acceptable price to pay for the exercise of the technical liberty to voice foolish, violent tropes?

Speaking of Palin, as I promised,

Ms. Mansour [a Palin advisor] said that the cross hairs [placed on maps of congressional districts, including that of Gabrielle Giffords), in fact, were not meant to be an allusion to guns, and agreed with her interviewer’s reference to them as “surveyors symbols.”

Pardon me, but someone just laid a stinker.

This whole topic of inflammatory speech brings out the inner child in large numbers of people. The most common response on the subject coming from those on the Right and otherwise angry these days – and when necessary comes just as readily from the Left – from people like Neal Boortz who are actually over ten years old, and have children and pay taxes and everything, is that the Left did the same thing when Bush was President.

This is a reasonable point to make only if your interlocutor is being a hypocrite on the subject or claiming that only one side of the political divide has been guilty of excessive rhetoric. Otherwise, I regret to report, if you make this argument – and I’m telling you, I’ve got Aristotle on my side – you just took a poopy.


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The Political Animal

The (Lost) Art of Democratic Argument – A Day Trip (3)

from Eric Scheie at Classical Values, on the subject of “odious debt” from which a citizenry might be granted relief:

The Cato Institute has another piece on odious debt:

Most debts created by Saddam Hussein in the name of the Iraqi people would qualify as “odious” according to the international Doctrine of Odious Debts. This legal doctrine holds that debts not used in the public interest are not legally enforceable.Far be it from me to compare people like Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to Saddam Hussein. They didn’t build huge palaces or massacre their political enemies. But how can reckless policies which are certain to bankrupt a country ever be considered to be in the public interest? Saddam Hussein would say that his were, and I think all tyrants would make the same claim. As to consent, once again, all the Saddams would argue that of course the people consented. Just ask Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; I am sure he will say that the people love him and he is acting in their interest.

But tyranny is tyranny. It doesn’t have to reach the bloodthirsty levels of a Saddam Hussein. Tyranny is arbitrary power, especially illegal and unconstitutional power.

Which raises the question of the day: Are we now living under tyranny?

I sometimes get myself worked up into emotional states, and when I do I try to avoid writing about the topic that upset me, because I find I am more capable of being logical, analytical, and rational when I am calm. And it is really easy to get all worked up and scream that these people who want to invade our privacy, steal our money, and run every last aspect of our lives are tyrants.

But the other day I was calm, collected, unemotional, relaxed, you know, completely sober in every sense of the word, and I concluded that, yes, it is beyond question that the United States government has become tyrannical.

On sober reflection, I still agree with my sober and reflective thought.

Let’s start with Scheie’s gracious concession that Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid might be distinguished from Saddam Hussein on the basis that they “didn’t build huge palaces or massacre their political enemies.” Good that he was able to find some moral space between the parties. I think the same space may be found between Hussein and G.W. Bush. Yet there has to be for Scheie some basis of comparison, so he finds it in fiscal policies that are “certain to bankrupt a country,” and in this the parties are all alike. But, of course, the current policies are not certain to bankrupt the country (if I were required to bet money on the prospect – I’d rather not – I would bet they won’t), but because that certainty is required for the foolish moral equivalency Scheie draws, he asserts it anyway. He then claims, out of some faculty other than a critical one, that Saddam Hussein, like the Democrats, thought his fiscal policies for the good of his country – another equivalency. There is good reason, actually, to think that Hussein did not think about the good of his country, not in any way, by any definition of the words “good” and “country,” that the rest of us would understand, but even if he did conceptualize in those terms, Scheie would here be making the kind of relativistic argument that a believer in “classical values” would otherwise reject. He has just offered the fiscal equivalent of “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Just because Hussein might have made the same claims as Democrats – and Republicans – doesn’t mean that the claims are true or equivalent, anymore than wrapping oneself in a banner of national liberation and freedom fighting means, on the basis of the claim alone, that one doesn’t meet a definition of terrorist. Individual cases need to be judged against established criteria.

Let’s continue with the observation that Scheie takes no note in his agonizing over the debt of the policies of George W. Bush and the amount of debt his administration racked up, or the trillions – a quadrupling – accumulated during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Wherever we are right now, we didn’t get here by the guidance of Barack Obama alone, but this kind of slanting is necessary when you want odiously to compare people to a tyrant like Saddam Hussein, as many people Scheie would reject compared Bush and Hussein. Playwright Tony Kushner said he thought both of them evil. I’ll bet that really burned Scheie. Now look what he is up to.

Scheie says we’re “living under a tyranny.”

Here is is

/ˈtɪrəni/ Show Spelled[tir-uh-nee] Show IPA
–noun, plural -nies.
1. arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority.

2. the government or rule of a tyrant or absolute ruler.

3. a state ruled by a tyrant or absolute ruler.

4. oppressive or unjustly severe government on the part of any ruler.

5. undue severity or harshness.

6. a tyrannical act or proceeding.

Some of these words are subjective. Your “oppressed”?  Hey, I feel oppressed, too. I use you, but you abuse me. And just and unjust we could argue all day. There are times many of us, when young, feel our parents to be tyrants. But “unrestrained,” “absolute rule” is the starting point for tyranny, from which the severity and harshness and all the rest may objectively follow. You can dislike the policies of your government a whole, whole lot – it can even, actually, be misguided – but that doesn’t make it a tyranny. That’s why Scheie is waiting so eagerly for November. The meanings of words do matter, and one might think a believer in “classical values,” like good, honest democratic debate, might well believe that, too.

Judging by this nonsense, apparently not.

(H/T Shrinkwrapped)



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The Political Animal

The (Lost) Art of Democratic Argument – A Day Trip (2)

Yesterday at the Huffington Post, Shawn Amoei offered a post entitled “Neocon War Plans Undermine Iranians’ Quest for Democracy.” The post opened, after that already auspicious title,

The “Bomb Iran” crowd, fresh off their historic blunder in Iraq, is now at it again with Iran. As if the daily drumbeat of articles and op-eds advocating war with Iran was not enough, Republicans in the House of Representatives have introduced a truly dangerous resolution — explicitly green-lighting the use of force by Israel against Iran.

Amoei then went on to cite Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen as stating that any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be, he quotes Mullen, “calamitous.”

Now, if I weren’t someone who reads this sort of stuff for reasons other than genuine interest in what the writer has to say, I would have been ready to bolt at the title, and I definitely would not have passed that introductory paragraph, and so would never have learned how Amoei deceptively used Mullen’s statement. Working backwards, then, we need to know that Mullen, on Meet the Press, described both options – an attack aimed at disabling Iran’s nuclear program and the alternative of permitting a nuclear armed Iran – as bad, potentially calamitous outcomes. So, you see – you see what he did there? Amoei cherry picked Mullen’s statement about as manipulatively as can be done.

But back to that title. I imagine Amoei is a graduate of the Glenn Greenwald school of categorical thinking and reflexive labeling. True, there may be some individuals who never met a bomb they didn’t want to drop, and I’ve noted before that Charles Krauthammer himself is rumored to fly around in Washington airspace with actual hawks; however, this automatic, unthinking, empty use of the term Neocon to designate anyone who would ever consider under any circumstances the use of military force should be one of those signs that the writer you are about to read may, should you already agree with him, pet your peeve, but he is not about to offer anything in the way of respectable argument. Just in case one does not think the level of argumentation sufficiently lowered to begin, Amoei offers us an alternative label: the “bomb Iran” crowd. Crowd. You know, that bunch that hangs out around the corner of 96th and first. (Or is it the Yale club?) They harmonize with John McCain sampling the Beach Boys. Strategic foreign policy and national security considerations are here reduced to juvenile conceptualizing generally applied to groups that like to beat up hippies, fags, and suits or knock back Manhattan’s amid oak wainscoting while they trade legacy admissions. Then we’re “fresh” off the Iraq War (what’s the start date for “fresh”?) amid a primitive “drum beat” for war. Throw into that first paragraph “Republicans” (as if none other considers the possibility that action against the Iranian nuclear facilities may be necessary) and for good measure “Israel” and one has so slanted the presentation that quibbling about the appropriateness of the phrase “war with Iran” seems almost beside the point.

Not beside the point is the full title. One can certainly reasonably argue that military action and its range of consequences might set back the potential of democratic change in Iran. One can also argue that said potential has been pretty effectively squelched already this past year by Iran’s tyrannical regime, or even that the upheaval of any attack on the nuclear facilities might destabilize the political situation enough to bring about a democratic resurgence. One can argue all of those possibilities and more – that’s what honest, democratic argument is for – but the title states that the “quest for democracy” is already being undermined, right now, and not be any actual attack, but by the planning (thinking?) about the possibility.

This is not thinking. It’s thuggery. You were mugged on the way to the second paragraph.



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The Political Animal

The (Lost) Art of Democratic Argument – A Day Trip (I)

The other day I posted a TED video of Harvard’s Michael Sandel on “The Lost Art of Democratic Debate,” or argument. Today, we’ll look at some random (hmn) examples of what he might have been talking about.

Here is Sharron Angle, Tea Party challenger to Nevada’s, and Democratic Party Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, from the Las Vegas Sun’s Nevada Wonk:

Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle chalks up her shift — some say flip-flop — on Social Security to gathering more information.

Angle said today during the opening of her North Las Vegas headquarters that she never wanted to privatize Social Security. Instead, she said, she wants to “personalize” it.

But during a debate in May on the public affairs show “Face to Face With Jon Ralston,” Angle said, “We need to phase Medicare and Social Security out in favor of something privatized.”

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has assailed his opponent for the comment. He opposes Social Security privatization.

President George W. Bush also tried to privatize a portion of the Social Security program in 2005. The move was defeated, and Republicans saw their popularity plummet.

I, myself, in creative contexts, have played with connotative distinctions between “private” and “personal,” the former suggesting a possible secretiveness, as in Merriam-Webster’s third definition, that is not connoted, properly, by the latter. But none of this is relevant to the debate over Social Security accounts, and, really, we don’t want politicians and the government playing semantic games with us, do we? Yet they do, all the time, don’t they? Even “reformist” Tea Party candidates, who the moment they run for office and wish to win decide they will treat “the people” like idiots – as we see above in the verbal shell game switch between words.

Then there is the the not entirely negligible matter of logic. The origins of Social Security, we know, are in the Great Depression. What we are just possibly managing to live through is the closest thing to it since. If you have an IRA or some kind of 503B or 547 retirement account, not to ignore any non-retirement investments, did you notice how their balances did not soar during the economic meltdown of 2008-09? Had it been privatized – oh, goodness, even if it had been personalized – that is what would have happened to your Social Security account. Some security. Not very social.



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The Political Animal

The Argument: Defense is Offensive

We know the adage: the best defense is a good offense. Generally speaking, that was the argument for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That is the doctrine of preemptive attack. That is what Israel did in 1967.

That is not the argument I mean to address.

Perhaps coincidentally – or maybe not, after consideration I am not going to give the topic now – the argument I mean to address is one that is often employed by people who reject that first argument. This argument states, seemingly conversely, that to act defensively, in an aggressive, military manner, is offensive to those who may identify with one’s perceived enemy, and will thus make one new enemies. This is an argument frequently made by those who oppose continued U.S. military action in Afghanistan or clandestine, military-style attacks on Islamic terrorists, rather than non-military, but law enforcement actions. It is also an argument that was, and is, made against the Iraq War, most recently the other day, by Eliza Manningham-Buller, former director-general of Britain’s MI5 (H/T Normblog). She told the ongoing Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War:

Our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people – not a whole generation, a few among a generation– who saw our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as being an attack upon Islam. [That is quite an immediate scaled back claim. AJA]

There the argument is in a nutshell. Now I’ll reduce it to the nut:

If we fight back, then they’ll really fuck us up.

Of course, that is a simplification devoid of all context. Depending on context, there may be many reasons to be measured in response to an attack, even to withhold any kind of like response. Note that neither South Korea, the U.S. nor anyone else (and note, while we’re noting, that the “anyone else” is completely pro forma) has taken military action against North Korea for its apparent sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. While it is usually conservatives, particularly when there is a Democratic President, who argue that every punch in the face requires a mallet over the head in response, even the military, in its counter insurgency (COIN) doctrine, acknowledges that all wars cannot be won simply by overpowering the enemy militarily. But that is a different argument.

This argument is that we – whoever “we” are, but really the West – in combating our enemies, should beware of aggressively counter attacking, because then we’ll really piss them off. This is, when you think about it, a truly peculiar argument. Of course, we’ll piss them off. (Whoever “we” and “they” are.) That’s what happens in conflict. You punch me in the face, and it really pisses me off. So I punch you back, and, by God, you don’t say, “Oh, sorry. I stand corrected.” No, it really pisses you off – and then we really have at it, until any number of possible outcomes, including – it does happen – somebody winning and somebody losing.

No doubt, during the latter stages of the Pacific War during World War Two, more than a few young Japanese males, barely men, hearing of the deaths in combat of their elder brothers or fathers were angrily and spiritually moved to volunteer to serve as Kamikaze pilots. Many young American men, in similar circumstances – just after Pearl Harbor, for instance – felt their blood boil and marched off to enlist at seventeen. In war, until the moment of final defeat and surrender (and even sometimes after, among bands of recalcitrant guerillas) the attack of one’s foe, by the very nature of the antagonisms of warfare, acts not quickly to end all conflict, but to engender more conflict. That is the way it goes. It is in the very nature of the argument that such as Manningham-Buller make, about Iraq or about Afghanistan, or about clandestine actions in Yemen or Somalia, that they are acknowledging that those conflicts are not discrete and separable Wars (certainly Iraq wasn’t after the invasion), but battles in what is a, structurally, potentially larger conflict – unless their claim is true (I think not) that by withholding aggressive response we can defuse the aggression against us.

To be clear, my point here is not necessarily that the U.S. or other Western nations or forces should wage war in any particular locale against violent Islamic extremists. Those are judgments that need to be made both in strategic and specific contexts. My point is that it is an obvious truth that joining a conflict against a violent enemy will engender, for an unknown period of time, not less, but more violence against the defending party, and so is, in and by itself, no argument either for or against that course of action.

The currency of the “defense is offensive” argument has, I think, several causes. First, it is, when stripped of context, essentially – there is no way to avoid this truth – an argument from fear and cowardice. It is an argument that says, If we don’t provoke them, maybe they’ll leave us alone. If we keep quiet and don’t acknowledge who we are, maybe they won’t notice us, and we’ll be safe. Maybe there is some way to mollify them. But if we oppose them, we’ll make them angry, and they’ll seek to hurt us more.

This is the mental attitude of people who no longer believe sufficiently in who they are, in their culture and civilization, and in their values, to feel sufficiently aggrieved by those who seek to negate them. It is the argument of those who have come to prize their apparent safety and comfort, which are part of the bourgeois ideal, beyond any resultant capacity to recognize with brute honesty the threat against those very features of their lives. This is a weakness, and it is precisely a weakness that the most extreme elements who oppose the West believe they see in it.

Beyond weakness, or maybe, truly as an expression of that weakness, it is demonstrably so that segments of the West do not perceive the West as even properly the aggrieved party. I speak now not in any relative sense – the subjective sense in which any parties to a conflict we’ll perceive their own position and interests. This is, in reality, the position from which these Western interests argue, that all conflict is always a matter of misunderstanding among people whose interests, misperceived as separate and irreconcilable, can, in fact, be reconciled. Of course, I am speaking of segments of the Left, which have indeed given up any belief in the unique value of their culture. Since I am picking today on the British, here is Madeline Bunting of The Guardian only a month after 9/11, arguing against the overthrow of the Taliban.

Intolerant liberalism

The west’s arrogant assumption of its superiority is as dangerous as any other form of fundamentalism

…what is also lurking here is the outline of a form of western fundamentalism. It believes in historical progress and regards the west as its most advanced manifestation. And it insists that the only way for other countries to match its achievement is to adopt its political, economic and cultural values. It is tolerant towards other cultures only to the extent that they reflect its own values – so it is frequently fiercely intolerant of religious belief and has no qualms about expressing its contempt and prejudice. At its worst, western fundamentalism echoes the characteristics it finds so repulsive in its enemy, Bin Laden: first, a sense of unquestioned superiority; second, an assertion of the universal applicability of its values; and third, a lack of will to understand what is profoundly different from itself.

While, argued in proper context, there may be elements of truth in what Bunting says (I have already suggested there are elements of truth in what Islamic extremists believe of the West), the major claim of Bunting is not elements of truth, but a sweeping rejection of Western culture, of, indeed – a theme she continued to develop – the Enlightenment. In such rejection we obviously move beyond simply an enervated will to affirm and defend the value of one’s own society. Such as Bunting commonly make the “defense as offensive argument” too, and there is, then, a form of unacknowledged yet embedded counter-argument just beneath the cover argument: Bunting does not actually accept the premise that the culture is worth defending. She even believes that it is Western culture that has committed the originating offense.  “Defense is offensive” is then not a critical analysis of outcomes, but an indictment: beyond sheer arrogant and dominating force of arms, Bunting argues against any moral force in the “defense” that can bolster its prospects.

Finally, there is frequently a level of disingenuousness when the “defense is offensive” argument is employed. It is disingenuousness similar to that of arguing against torture – when one believes it morally objectionable – on the basis of its efficacy. I made the case against this approach in Tortured Argument. It is demonstrably not always so that torture does not work – the Nazis, for instance, did break members of the French Resistance during the Second World War – and the immorality of torture, if that is one’s position, should require no support from an argument to efficacy. If torture is immoral, it is immoral even if it works.

While the nature of the disingenuousness with regard to “defense is offensive” is not an exact parallel – one might be opposed to the defense on other grounds and still argue persuasively that the defense is counterproductive – the unacknowledged, embedded argument should produce a healthy skepticism. When we recognize that a debater has not fully acknowledged the grounds for the claim he argues, we have good reason, then, to examine more closely the premises of the argument being made.

That aggressive defense may – even likely will – engender more offensive action in return is an obvious claim. It should be a premise from which to reason toward other more useful and possibly determinative conclusions. It should not be conclusive in itself.



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The Political Animal

Analogize This

From time to time on this blog I have offered my opinion on the use of analogies in political argumentation. Generally speaking: not well done. An analogy became the culminating point of focus in that Jeffrey Goldberg-Glenn Greenwald dispute a couple of weeks ago that I covered over a series of posts. In “Pino/Cheney,” I wrote,

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!

This was what was so disingenuous about Greenwald’s analogy of Nazi invasions to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, supposedly solely to Goldberg’s point about the Kurdish welcome of the invading U.S. army. Greenwald gave himself what I called a “get out of jail free card” by advising,

It should go without saying, but doesn’t:  the point here is not that the attack on Iraq is comparable to these above-referenced invasions.  It may or may not be, but that’s irrelevant.

Thus, when various parties took umbrage at the apparent Nazi analogy, Greenwald was able to point to that warning and turn himself inside out in multipost-and-update stupefaction that his adversaries were so unbelievably stupid (or, better really, dishonest) that they claimed him to be offering a Nazi analogy when, at the end of offering an analogy that was not a Nazi analogy, but that made use only of Nazi references, he specifically and clearly stated that he was not necessarily offering a Nazi analogy, though he just as clearly and specifically stated that he was not necessarily not offering a Nazi analogy.

Jim Wald at To Find the Principles gets to the heart of it:

It is perfectly legitimate to make an analogy and specify a limited application. Most of us do that from time to time.

Indeed, I did in “Pino/Cheney.”

However, if the only point is that the welcoming of an invader by any part of the population is no proof of the morality of the invasion, then that’s unexceptionable because it’s banal and utterly uninformative. In that case, citing 5 duplicative examples from the Third Reich (along with pictures, for excess) really does start to look disingenuous, as if the writer seeks to avail himself of the full moral opprobrium of the Nazi analogy while at the same time maintaining plausible deniability.

Wald is a “cultural historian of modern Europe” who focuses on “the use and abuse of history in public life and popular culture.” It is pretty much inherent in the “use” of history that such use will be often analogical, and there is no readier, more potent analogy available to argument than a Nazi analogy. (This is the reason for the development of Godwin’s Law, which Greenwald claimed is distorted as a total prohibition against Nazi analogies, and further claimed at length – bogusly, since no one had – that his foes had invoked against him.) Wald, then, not infrequently focuses on the abuse of historical analogies and, even more specifically, Nazi analogies. About historical analogies he further says,

As David Hackett Fischer observed in his now-classic Historians’ Fallacies, “The word ‘analogy,’ in modern usage, signifies an inference that if two or more things agree in one respect, then they might also agree in another.…

If one employs a historical analogy, it really has to fit, and one has to be aware of both its strengths and its limits. This is a tempting but dangerous enterprise, as Hackett Fisher demonstrates. “The fallacy of proof by analogy,” he says, “is a functional form or error, which violates a cardinal rule of analogical inference—analogy is a useful tool of historical understanding only as an auxiliary to proof. It is never a substitute for it, however great the temptation may be or however difficult the empirical task at hand may seem. [Emphasis added]

As I stated in “Pino/Cheney,”

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.

But this is just the reason that “example” has “illustration,” in this regard, as a synonym. The maker of the argument is illustrating, as an aid to understanding – to cognitive sight – what is otherwise being argued on the basis of adequate evidence and reason. We all know, or should, that examples by themselves are merely anecdotal offerings that carry no persuasive weight.

Something to keep in mind, too, about the hail of opportunistic political analogies that regularly beats down on us.



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