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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