Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rightwing Cartoon Watch (12-20-06)

Here's the latest installment! Further thoughts on the Baker Commission, Holocaust denial, cow flatulence, and more!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Reilly Issues Correction

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

In this recent post, I criticized a piece by The Phoenix's Adam Reilly. I thought it only fair to leave a condensed version of my criticism in the comments for his piece, along with the URL for my post. To Reilly’s credit, he looked into the error I raised and acknowledged it. He also quoted a new blog comment to substitute for the problematic one. While I still question aspects of his original piece, and question his new quotation, he deserves credit for issuing a correction and being very civil in his comment thread. Feel free to read all the comments here. Here’s the response I wrote:

Adam, kudos for acknowledging the mistake. I went into more detail in my blog post, but the url is hard to see. Based on my research at least, the correction was posted close to 1:50pm EST (I wrote WGBH to confirm this but haven’t received a reply yet). The second quotation, as you note, did occur afterwards. I found it ironic that in a sense you repeated Carroll’s error by basing a large part of your critique (essentially, bloggers are churlish) on false information (although I do understand how it happened).

As an occasional blogger, let me weigh in. I believe your larger point is that bloggers and the mainstream media can have an uneasy relationship. That’s certainly fair and accurate. There are also certainly bloggers and commentators, who are immature, abusive, can pile on, or read conspiracies into everything. But that’s free speech, and other bloggers and commentators are free to call them on anything they think goes over the line. However, blog communities do develop standards and the coin of the realm for most political and news blogs is the same as it is for traditional media – credibility. As others have noted, if a major site gets something factually wrong, readers write in pretty quickly, and the good blogs always issue a correction. In my experience, most prominent liberal bloggers want accuracy and laud good journalism (although you can find bloggers of every political stripe who want advocacy versus “straight” reporting).

If I may make a few respectful requests: Please distinguish between blog posts and thread comments. Commentators tend to be much more extreme, and popular sites tend to attract “trolls.” Please consider whether a comment is representative of the thread before you use it. The range of opinion between blogs, or even in a single post’s thread, can be very diverse, and anyone can cherry-pick them. Most prominent bloggers, even when criticizing each other, tend only to quote someone else’s *post* versus a comment in a thread. (It’s my view that your quotations were not very representative. While some of the Greater Boston thread comments express the distrust you highlight in the first quotation and your new, third one, I found that overwhelmingly, the comments plead for accuracy and transparency. For the second, sarcastic quotation, the actual post it comments on is a pretty serious inspection of Carroll’s accuracy and the issue of disclosure, and most of the other comments are in the same vein.) Personally, I consider Carroll’s gaffe a dead issue now that he and Greater Boston issued a correction and apologized. As I mentioned before, however, Carroll’s disdain and his error fit a pattern of such incidents from traditional journalists, which is why he received the reaction he did. (Frankly, I feel you fell into some of the same pattern, but I also have to credit your correction.) Finally, I know the Phoenix is a physical paper, and adding hyperlinks for the web version could be a pain if you’re understaffed. However, it’s a wonderful feature to link any blogs you quote, because then readers can check out things for themselves.

Sorry, this has gotten long. I’d end by saying I’m a fan of good reporting, whether it appears in traditional media or on blogs. Best of luck in your future work.

I’ll say it again — the traditional media (in this case Carroll and Reilly), deserve to be challenged when they get something wrong. However, they also deserve credit when they correct the record. Proven hacks may not deserve mercy, but the entire point of engaging with traditional journalists is to encourage better reporting. Here’s hoping this incident leads to more of it.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Rightwing Cartoon Watch (12-14-06)

In the latest Rightwing Cartoon Watch, the hottest topic is still the Baker Commission. Are they giving Bush a gift, are they hedging their bets, or are they cheese-eating surrender monkeys?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Adam Reilly Repeats John Carroll’s Mistake

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

Updated below

On the blog-smear front, one of the big stories this week has centered on John Carroll. Appearing on the show Greater Boston on famed PBS station WGBH, Carroll criticized MyDD’s Jerome Armstrong for scurrilous conduct, specifically, posing as different users on his site — the only problem being that Armstrong didn’t do it. Carroll misread a satirical post as serious. Had he bothered to read the comment thread, or contacted Armstrong or anyone else at the blog — y’know, that journalistic verification thing — he’d have caught his mistake. To their credit, Greater Boston issued a correction and apology, as has Carroll.

Considering the dismissive tone of Carroll and his tut-tutting about a lack of professionalism among bloggers, the ridicule and criticism he received from the blogosphere was justified. However, bloggers reported the correction and apology as well. Bloggers also noted that part of Friday’s 12/15 installment of Greater Boston is scheduled to address this entire incident, and were interested as to what would be said.

Of course, that’s not the end of it. As John Amato notes on Crooks and Liars, “Apparently, when we call for good and honest reporting we're hypocrites because we also praise good and honest reporting.” Amato links Adam Reilly of The Phoenix in Boston. For a column on the Carroll affair, Reilly noted Greater Boston’s correction, then wrote:

But the blogosphere (terrible term, but unavoidable here) wasn’t satisfied. Consider this response to Mills’s correction: “The ethics of those working at Greater Boston are now in question.” Or, from a comment on Blue Mass Group: “[H]ow can you blame John Carroll for not knowing that. [H]e is a journalist, and he merely repeated the innuendos and rumors he heard as The Wisdom Received. [H]ow could you expect him to do any better?” All told, the mix-up generated well over 100 comments on Boston-area blogs.

Obviously, Carroll screwed up — and the snarky discussion that followed his story certainly didn’t help matters. But what’s really fascinating about this whole episode is that it reveals the blogosphere’s profound ambivalence about traditional journalists.

Reilly goes on make some disparaging comments about bloggers. But guess what? Reilly repeated Carroll’s mistake! He didn’t bother to read the comment thread carefully and a key aspect of his central accusation is false.

Anyone can cherry-pick comments from a thread on a blog. The real question is how representative a comment is. It’s also been a common mistake of “old media” journalists to conflate blog posts with comments. In the case of Reilly’s piece, his central claim is that commentators were still railing against Carroll, Greater Boston, and WGBH after they issued the correction. However, one of the comments he quotes occurred before the correction, and the other comment occurred in a thread primarily about blogger disclosure issues and the inaccuracy of Carroll’s original report.

The Greater Boston comment thread (linked again here) is confusing to read at first because the post issues a correction while the earlier comments ask for correction as if one hasn’t been issued. It’s natural to wonder what’s going on. It turns out it’s because the actual post has been edited at least twice, as noted by webmaster Frank Capria in this comment. Many commentators take issue with this, noting that instead Capria or someone else should have posted an update to the original post, made a new one, or something similar. Of course this wasn’t a “nefarious” move by Capria, but it was a faux pas, because the earlier comments no longer refer to the displayed post.

John Amato reported Greater Boston’s correction at 12:32pm PST (3:32pm EST) on 12/11. The Blue Mass Group, which may have been the first blog to report on Carroll’s piece here, on 12/9, received the Greater Boston correction from Mark Mills, the Executive Producer of Greater Boston at 2:43pm EST, in the thread of this 12/11 post (and good for him). The first direct mention of the correction in the Greater Boston comment thread comes here at 1:56pm EST 12/11. A commentator asks for a correction as late as 1:45pm, so I’d guess the post itself was updated to print the correction at roughly 1:50pm. (I’m writing WGBH to confirm this, not that the exact minute is crucial.)

Reilly’s first quoted comment was posted at 10:53am on the Greater Boston blog, hours before the correction was issued. His second quoted comment was posted on Blue Mass Group at 12/12, 10:24am, after the correction was issued. However, the post it commented on was about the accuracy of Carroll’s report and blogger disclosure issues, not the correction. I suppose Reilly can lambast “Shai Sachs” for not immediately forgiving Carroll his mistake. However, at that point Carroll had not apologized publicly apart from Greg Sargent’s blog less than two hours earlier and I doubt Shai Sachs knew that. The post itself was about Carroll’s accuracy, not his or Greater Boston’s contrition. Most importantly, this was a comment, not a post, and as a casual read will reveal, Shai Sach’s quick, sarcastic comment was not even representative of the discussion in that thread! (Even if it were, personally I wouldn’t find a problem with it.)

Reilly’s piece was published on 12/13 and probably was written on 12/12. Consequently, he really has no excuse not to catch his error with the first quotation, since the post editing issue was clear in the Greater Boston comment thread by the afternoon of 12/11. The second quotation is just bad judgment on his part (that’s my judgment, anyway).

So, to recap, Adam Reilly chastises bloggers (although he only quotes blog commentators) in one case for not acknowledging a correction that hadn’t been issued yet, and in the other case just cherry-picks (I consider the first quotation something of a cherry-pick as well). Who really has the thin skin here? Irony of ironies. John Carroll slammed a blogger because he misread a blog entry, didn’t bother to read the comments, and didn’t research. Adam Reilly then enters the fray, slamming bloggers in part because he didn’t bother to read all the comments, and didn’t research. Apart from these issues, both seem to have started with their conclusions predetermined. Contrary to Reilly’s claims, as John Amato alludes to, the liberal blogosphere is overwhelmingly concerned with accuracy in the media, not in receiving praise. The reason the Carroll report attracted attention is because it fits a pattern of undue disparagement toward bloggers, and frankly, PBS and NPR typically uphold higher standards. It’s also simply good to be accurate, especially if you’re making a negative claim.

Personally, I love PBS and NPR, and WGBH produces many of PBS’ excellent programs. While I found Carroll’s initial report disappointing and dismissive, I credit WGBH, Greater Boston and Carroll for admitting their mistakes and correcting their errors. That sort of behavior should be encouraged, and assuming they’re more careful in the future, all is well.

As for Adam Reilly — we all make mistakes. However, the condescending tone coupled with a central error doesn’t really help your credibility or your appeal. Let’s see if you can follow Carroll’s example a second time, admit your mistake and apologize.

Updated 12/16/06

To his credit, Adam Reilly has admitted to his error about the first quotation he used. I have a follow-up post with more detail here. Thanks to C&L for the link, and to any readers for stopping by!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Rightwing Cartoon Watch (12-6-06)

The latest Rightwing Cartoon Watch is here! Anticipation about the Baker Commission! Michael Richards! Litvinenko! Global Warming! And Dastardly Democrats!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Rightwing Cartoon Watch (11-27-06)

In this week's installment of Rightwing Cartoon Watch, conservative cartoonists grapple with the mess in Iraq, attack those dastardly Democrats, rail against (liberal) indoctrination in our schools, excoriate O.J. Simpson, and make some unfortunate arguments about the prospects of a new military draft and national service. Some prime contenders for "most offensive cartoon of the week" emerge!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Voice of Attack Ads

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

Posts earlier this month examined ”Political Attack Ads” and ”Imaginary Candidates, Ideal and Dastardly.” However, even though the election season is over (for now), if you missed it this NPR story deserves a listen, as “Melissa Block talks with voice-over artists Dennis Steele and Scott Sanders about how to make a threatening voice for a political ad.” It’s NPR at its best —both informative and funny. The webpage also links several attack ads, but it’s the brilliant way this segment ends that makes it essential listening.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Rightwing Cartoon Watch (11-22-06)

This week's installment covers cartoons from 11-12-06 to 11-18-06. Will conservative cartoonists offer an olive branch after their stunning defeat in the midterm elections? See for yourself!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Film Viewing List

The film and rental recommendation conversation is a staple of life (or has been for me this past week!). It's always fun to discuss favorite films, overloooked gems, and “what have you seen recently that you like?” I haven’t written about film nearly as often as I’d like or I originally intended to on this blog.

What follows is a short film viewing list I was asked to compile as part of a high school summer reading list for 2001 (thus The Lord of the Rings didn’t make it). As the introduction advised:

Due to space limitations, this list is hardly comprehensive; in most cases, a single film from a given director is listed, so feel free to make substitutions. Ratings and content are not listed, so if you have such concerns, please look up more information on the film before viewing.

Foreign films are listed as they are most commonly known in the United States. If there are multiple films of a given title, I’ve included the year in parenthesis.

The original list was meant to fit on a single sheet, and I had to exclude a great deal. I’ll expand and update this list later, and make it interactive (and add links to other good lists). However, here it is as is to serve in the meantime. I don’t even touch on TV, and of course now there’s the fantastic option of renting an entire season of a series. Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments for me to consider for a more comprehensive version.

Hollywood Classics (pre-1960s)

The Adventures of Robin Hood
All About Eve
All Quiet on the Western Front
Bringing Up Baby
Citizen Kane
The Court Jester
The Day the Earth Stood Still
East of Eden
The Gold Rush
High Noon
His Girl Friday
The Maltese Falcon
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
A Night at the Opera
The Ox-Bow Incident
Paths of Glory
Rear Window
The Searchers
Singing in the Rain
Sullivan’s Travels
12 Angry Men
The Wizard of Oz

World Cinema

Alexander Nevsky
The Bicycle Thief
Claire’s Knee
The Conformist
Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Cyrano de Bergerac (’90)
Das Boot
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Europa, Europa
Fanny and Alexander
Farewell My Concubine
The 400 Blows
Grand Illusion
La Strada
Life is Beautiful
Les Misérables (’95)
Pather Panchali
The Seven Samurai
Wild Strawberries
Wings of Desire
Tokyo Story
Toto the Hero

Shifting Visions (1960-1989)

All the President’s Men
Annie Hall
The Apartment
Blade Runner
Bonnie and Clyde
The Conversation
Cool Hand Luke
Dead Poets Society
The Deer Hunter
Dr. Strangelove
The Elephant Man
The Godfather, parts I&II
Harold and Maude
Judgment at Nuremberg
The King of Comedy
Lawrence of Arabia
The Manchurian Candidate
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Once Upon a Time in the West
The Princess Bride
Raging Bull
The Star Wars “trilogy”
To Kill a Mockingbird
2001: A Space Odyssey
Young Frankenstein

Recent Films (1990-2000)

American Beauty
Boys Don’t Cry
Bullets Over Broadway
Dancer in the Dark
Dead Man Walking
Edward Scissorhands
The Fisher King
Gods and Monsters
Hoop Dreams
The Insider
L.A. Confidential
Letters from Home
Lone Star
Malcolm X
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Piano
Rob Roy
Saving Private Ryan
Secrets & Lies
Shakespeare in Love
The Shawshank Redemption
The Silence of the Lambs
The Straight Story
The Talented Mr. Ripley
To Die For
Toy Story
Waiting for Guffman
Welcome to the Dollhouse

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Rightwing Cartoon Watch (11-16-06)

The latest installment of Rightwing Cartoon Watch is finally up, here. This installment covers cartoons from 11/6/06 to 11/11/06, and focuses on the midterm elections.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Veterans' Day Cartoons

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

Daryl Cagle has collected some fine cartoons for Veteran's Day. You can see the rest here.

11/11 Armistice Day 2006

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

Amen, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving.

(This post is a repeat from last year because I don't see how to top Kelly.)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day: Dirty Tricks Watch

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

I know many folks read Josh Marshall's excellent assorted blogs, but he's been in the lead documenting some scary crap. Many other liberal and non-partisan outlets have been doing a great job as well covering the last rounds of GOP dirty tricks. Here's Marshall's main page. "Blue" is also doing a splendid job at The Blue Herald.

Here's what I figure. The GOP is scared shitless. They're pulling out all the stops. And it's absolutely imperative that all this crap gets investigated, and the villains serve jail time. Those that can't be prosecuted need to be exposed and shamed. I want everyone annoyed by an RNC robocall posing as a Dem call in the middle of the night, or repeated deceptive RNC robocalls to the same house, to know who the real culprits are. I'd like to see all nefarious moves widely talked about and the culprits imprisoned. No weekend political talk show should fail to cover this. No major newspaper or television network should not make this a headline. Al Franken just had Simon Rosenberg (founder/president of the New Democrat Network) on, and Rosenberg was pointing out that Dems really need to hammer home how the GOP disenfranchises voters, and that the Dems are the party that wants all votes counted. Make the Republican "franchise" take a well-deserved hit. The Republicans need to pay a price for this, and the only way is exposure, discussion, and criminal penalties.

The encouraging news is that people are documenting this BS on blogs, on YouTube videos, and even the MSM is covering some of this. Some of the better outlets are covering this quite well. The Washington Post has an article on the RNC robocalls and how they violate FCC guidelines. Their political chats have been flooded with readers asking about them about the deceptive robocalls and urging investigation. People are justifiably pissed off and are taking action.

However, it's up to television networks especially, specifically the craven false equivalency crowd in the media, to grow a conscience, some courage and integrity and cover this relentlessly, because these GOP moves are in many cases illegal and are in all cases unethical. This is Republican villainy (and if there's any Dem villainy, condemn that, too!). This is not time for the sort of ludicrous mindset that dictates that if George Bush knifes a man to death the media must report for balance that John Kerry must have meant to trip over that kitten.

I am sick of disingenuous arguments from knaves who cannot win a debate on substance. I am sick of the dumbest, meanest, most short-sighted and selfish people being in power. I am sick of people who cannot govern preventing those who actually want to help our country from making it better. Voting is the American secular equivalent of a sacred right. No citizen entitled to vote should ever be denied or deliberately impeded. I am sick of this mendacity and these election day tricks.

How dare Bush preach freedom while simultaneously attacking civil rights and the Constitution. How dare he adopt a tone of moral purity when across the country his party is trying to suppress the vote. Being a true patriot means honoring why America was founded to begin with, not the consolidation of power. Americans have died to secure the right to vote, and to give that right to other Americans. How dare Bush and his party disrespect their sacrifice. America is an ideal and a promise to keep striving. Freedom is more than a buzz word.

And no civility is due those who would rob us of our civil rights.

Regardless of the outcome of any given single election, evil cannot prevail indefinitely. The party of FDR, JFK, MLK and Wellstone cannot be stopped by these motherfuckers.

Get out that vote!

Imaginary Candidates, Ideal and Dastardly

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

NPR had a great feature on Friday (emphasis mine):

We revive an All Things Considered tradition from 1994: Robert Siegel talks to three political professionals to design the ideal Congressional candidate for 2006. We even make a campaign commercial for the ideal candidate.

Here’s the segment.

Meanwhile, Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter urges readers to take out their election frustrations with political scoundrels “on the fictional. Let's cream the five most annoying politicians in movie history.”

Due to peculiarities of the Post web set-up (I suspect for the sake of photos), the piece appears over six separate web pages.

Here’s Stephen Hunter’s brief introduction to his piece “Negative Campaigning: Cinema's Most Loathsome Politicians.” Here are his candidates, with excerpts from his comments (click on the character names for the full versions):

JOHNNY ISELIN, The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Known for: Demagoguery, venality, stupidity, treason.


Iselin is a stand-in for Joe McCarthy, but Gregory, a skillful character actor, took it a step further; he didn't simply and lazily count on McCarthy's reputation to build his character. What I loved about his skankiness was a certain fleshy, blurry, alcoholic rolling of his head, as if his neck had been dissolved in the spirits loading his system, and had turned to suet.

JOSEPH HARRISON PAINE, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Known for: Weary acceptance of corruption.


[Claude] Rains has a delicacy, a weight of grief, an almost eerie perfection of gesture and voice that so vividly (and tragically) evokes Sen. Paine. He is not so much the man you love to hate as the man you hate to hate. In Stewart's idealistically hot and burning eyes, you can see the man Paine once was. Now he is what he is and it's not pretty, and being self-aware and ironic, he knows exactly what that is. Rains conveys this so subtly, yet so profoundly, it's almost a miracle, and it's really the key performance in the film, the performance that establishes the moral tone of the picture.

TRACY FLICK, Election (1999)

Known for: Utter certitude, complete lack of self-awareness and mindless ambition.

How wondrously monstrous is the fabulous Reese Witherspoon in Alexander Payne's "Election." She's one of those perfect American girls who gets up at dawn, bakes cupcakes, carries a 4.0, is president of the French Club and captain of the cheerleaders. You hated her in high school, unless she smiled at you, in which case you loved, adored, worshiped, were enraptured by, were enslaved by, would do anything for her -- until the next day, when she ignored you again, and that rapture turned to bitter, rancid hatred that lasted a lifetime. Unless she smiled the next day. However -- she never did.

FRED VAN ACKERMAN, Advise & Consent (1962)

Known for: Unction, moral preening, ruthlessness.

Now, from the other side of the aisle, George Grizzard as everybody's favorite peacenik-we-love-to-hate. Otto Preminger directed this 1962 classic of the old Washington, where civility reigned and compromise was the name of the game -- but he also projects its demise. The scandal that he unfolds presciently looked into a future composed of the politics of personal destruction.

CHARLES FOSTER KANE, Citizen Kane (1941)

Known for: Sense of entitlement.

It's really Kane himself who represents something rotten in politics, something that has too long dogged our shores and tainted our institutions. That is the sense of entitlement and moral superiority that the rich have, the sense that they are vouchsafed entry into the higher levels of the ruling profession based on nothing more than a shrewd selection of extremely wealthy people as parents.

Why do such people assume a natural right to rule?

Why indeed?

Scold for Senator

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

Everyone has the candidate they’d really like to see win — and even more so, at least one candidate they’d really like to see lose.

Watching a clip of Clinton “rallying the troops” for Jim Webb, it occurred to me I’d really like to see George Allen and Joe Lieberman lose. I’m well aware Lieberman’s currently favored. And Allen may well win. But I can’t respect either of them.

Both men are horribly, delusionally wrong about Iraq. Allen has his racism, his arrogant sense of privilege, his good ol’ boy faux populism shtick and his awful positions on issues. Plus, he’s a bully. Lieberman has been a suck-up to Bush, insensitive to women’s reproductive rights, utterly gutless, and has a soporific speaking style more dry than a piece of burnt toast left in Death Valley for three days.

However, in addition to all that, I dislike both men because whether through political posturing or a true gap in their souls, they are scolds, they are prudes, they are twits when it comes to culture (in the case of Allen) and pop culture (in the case of Lieberman). They are hypocrites at worst, blowhards at best. They actually believe the youth of America would be better off listening to them on such matters. They believe there is nothing they need to learn in return. They may have their uses, but I can never trust such men. Allen is Bush without the brains. Lieberman seems to think that kowtowing to an opponent without receiving anything in return is advanced statesmanship, and that the obtuse, dull lecture is the most elevated form of human discourse.

Lieberman’s fuddy-duddiness is not as big an issue in this election, but if you need a reminder, here’s his moralizing about Clinton on the Senate floor, and here’s a compilation of some of his greatest hits.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post had a withering, witty op-ed slamming Allen for attacking James Webb’s novels. Here’s the link, and here’s a substantial excerpt:

Mr. Allen, a Republican whose campaign professes profound moral shock that actual sex should occur in fiction, has spent months trying to extract himself from his own "macaca"-inspired tailspin. When all else failed -- including an Allen ad in which a woman accused Mr. Webb of misquoting her, although he never quoted her at all -- Mr. Allen apparently decided that what he needed was a sex scandal crafted to smear his rival and timed for the campaign's fourth quarter. Lacking such material in real life, he turned to Mr. Webb's novels, most of which concern the wartime experiences of soldiers and international intrigue. There he found -- horrors! -- sex. And what better place to spread the word than the Web site of Matt Drudge, the online gossip-monger. That ensured the story would be echoed by radio talk show hosts in high dudgeon.

Mr. Allen has spent months disparaging Mr. Webb as a writer of fiction, as if a novelist's experience is any more divorced from everyday reality than the life of a U.S. senator. His campaign suggests that because some female characters in Mr. Webb's books are portrayed as sleazy or servile Mr. Webb must himself see women in that light. Please. Maybe Mr. Allen also believes that J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, takes too soft a line on wizards.


Mr. Allen certainly is an inspiration -- to anyone who believes that political campaigns may be won by diversions and dirty tactics, even as the candidate calls high-mindedly for a discussion of "the issues." Win or lose, he'll be remembered for his performance during this race, and not fondly.

There’s also a brilliant letter to the editor about Allen’s attacks on Webb’s novels:

Sen. Allen, what do you think of a writer whose works include scenes depicting the violent deaths of children, a 30-year-old man with an incestuous fascination with his mother's sex life, the blinding of an elderly gentleman by a married couple (who are his houseguests, no less!) and teenagers who defy their parents in order to become sexually active?

Given the affront these works present to good Virginia families, should we not ban from schools, bookstores, libraries and theaters Shakespeare's "Macbeth," "Hamlet," "King Lear" and "Romeo and Juliet"?

Allen is an outright knave, playing prude and attacking a book as a political gambit. He deserves to lose. The same goes for Lieberman, who (as others have noted) possesses a campaign slogan that says it all: “Connecticut for Lieberman.” Joe has long ago forgotten it should be the other way around.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Ballot Propositions and Get Out the Vote!

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

The website Vote411.org, run by the League of Women Voters, is a good resource for looking up ballot propositions and other voting information (h/t Mike’s Blog Round-Up).

The Left Coaster and Firedoglake also have a series of links for volunteering, if you can do so. Get out that vote!


For California residents, The Los Angeles Times has a good page detailing the usual deluge of ballot initiatives. You can see who supports which measures and find links for the proponents and opponents of the measures, as well as some neutral assessments.

Meanwhile, Warren Olney did a special edition of Which Way LA? on NPR station KCRW today. If you go to this page, you can hear the show, which does a last-minute overview of the ballot initiatives. The webpage also provides a host of other links.

Rightwing Cartoon Watch (11-6-06)

I have the latest installment of Rightwing Cartoon Watch up at The Blue Herald. You have three guesses about what captured the fancy of rightwing cartoonists this week, and the first two don't count.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Political Attack Ads

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

This post could be called “GOP Attack Ads,” but that would be redundant. A handful of good articles on political ads have been making the rounds. The Washington Post’s Michael Grunwald reported on 10/27/06 in “The Year Of Playing Dirtier” (emphasis mine):

The result has been a carnival of ugly, especially on the GOP side, where operatives are trying to counter what polls show is a hostile political environment by casting opponents as fatally flawed characters. The National Republican Campaign Committee is spending more than 90 percent of its advertising budget on negative ads, according to GOP operatives, and the rest of the party seems to be following suit.

Post columnist E.J. Dionne observes how the GOP has shifted completely from hope to fear as a selling point in ”Republicans' Double Negatives” (10/31/06). He also decries false equivalency:

It's common to gather all political attacks under one large rubric called "negative campaigning" and to condemn the lot. But this is misleading.

A conservative who attacks his opponent for wanting to raise taxes and a liberal who accuses an adversary of favoring cuts in Medicare or environmental programs are both being "negative," but legitimately so, presuming that the criticisms are rooted in fact. If candidates can't air their disagreements, what's the point of free elections?

But this year Republican campaigners and their advocates in the conservative media have crossed line after line in sheer meanness, triviality and tastelessness. Conservative optimism and its promise of morning in America have curdled into the gloom of a Halloween midnight horror show.

But Post media columnist Howard Kurtz still manages to manufacture a false equivalency in his 10/26/06 column, ”Down in the Mud”:

Let's review the rather low state of this campaign season:

A GOP ad against Senate candidate Harold Ford -- featuring a white seductress who says she met the black lawmaker at a Playboy party and that he should call her -- is so odious and racially tinged that Ford's Republican opponent, Bob Corker, denounces it.

Republican Wyoming congresswoman Barbara Cubin tells a wheelchair-bound Libertarian candidate after a debate: "If you weren't sitting in that chair, I'd slap you in the face."

Hillary Clinton's opponent says she used to be ugly -- and why did Bill marry her, anyway? -- but now looks okay thanks to millions in plastic surgery.

Rush Limbaugh says Michael J. Fox is exaggerating his Parkinson's in political ads.

A John Kerry spokesman calls carping liberal bloggers "cowards."

Anybody out there feel like taking a shower?

When I read this column, I was astounded and appalled. It’s blatantly obvious that Kurtz added the Kerry spokesman item to placate his conservative audience and that it has absolutely no relation to the other items. Glenn Greenwald had the same reaction and dissected the column at more length, quipping “As we all learned to inquire from Sesame Street -- which of those examples does not belong on that list?”

Howard Kurtz seemed to come to his senses a week later with his 11/3/06 column ”Nattering Negativity,” if only because he read and quoted Slate’s Jacob Weisberg and his piece, ”Poisoned Politics.” Weisberg’s article possesses the refreshing subtitle, “The ads this year are worse than ever. Both sides aren't to blame.” After surveying several abhorrent Republican ads, Weisberg writes:

The other familiar excuse for negative advertising is that "everybody does it." Newspaper stories about attack commercials usually include a sampling of harsh Democratic spots in an effort to appear evenhanded. But there's really no comparison between what the two parties and their respective surrogates are doing. According to factcheck.org, a respected site that reviews the accuracy of various ads, "the National Republican Campaign Committee's work stands out this year for the sheer volume of assaults on the personal character of Democratic House challengers." Negative Democratic ads tie Republican candidates to President Bush, and to the Iraq war, or accuse them of being in the tank for the oil or pharmaceutical industries. But Democratic ads do not charge that their opponents "prey on our children"—even though one recently resigned following accusations that he did precisely that. One can only imagine the ads Republicans would have made this year if Mark Foley had happened to be a Democrat.

In fact, the form, style, and content of the contemporary attack ad are a specifically conservative contribution to American politics.

It’s a relief to see that many journalists can indeed accurately report the facts rather than succumbing to one side berating them as referee to slant things for them. As for Kurtz, I think he believes he is unbiased, and he occasionally makes good points, but after reading him closely for about three years now, I have to conclude he is more conservative than he thinks he is. (While he does quote liberal and neutral bloggers at times, his column almost always starts and predominates with a conservative blog round-up, and he quotes some really stupid and disingenuous conservatives. It would be more valuable if he challenged their obvious factual inaccuracies and failings of logic more often.)

But enough of such matters! Let’s see some ads and you can judge for yourself!

Exactly how bad are those dastardly Democrats?

They work for the mob!

(More information on this ad here.)

They're gay!

(More information on this ad here.)

The dark-skinned ones have sex with white women!

(Most people have seen the Harold Ford ad above already, but Crooks and Liars has a pretty exhaustive archive of the coverage on this ad, including Ken Mehlman’s craven spin, here.)

Gay illegal immigrants are crossing the border to steal your jobs, prevent prayer in school, and to piss on an upside-down American flag they've set on fire!

(Well, that's exaggerating a bit. But not by much!)

Slate also has a feature called “Damned Spot,” covering and annotating political ads. They now have selected ”The Slimiest Campaign Ads of 2006: Slate crowns this year's worst of the worst.” It’s not surprising that the contenders include at least one of the above candidates! But who will win the title?

See you next time, when a Democrat and his meth-dealing gay lover strangle a puppy!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Political Cartoons

I have five Halloween political cartoons posted over at The Blue Herald here.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Garry Trudeau and The Sandbox

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

Earlier this year I did a brief post on Garry Trudeau’s remarkable series in Doonesbury on B.D. struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Trudeau now has a great new feature for military service people and their families called The Sandbox. It already has some striking entries. (Here is the full cartoon excerpted above. Trudeau has a more general response section called Blowback).

Trudeau has a new book out centering on the B.D. cartoons. The War Within. Here is the link. The proceeds benefit Fisher House. Their mission: “Supporting America's military in their time of need, we provide ”a home away from home” that enables family members to be close to a loved one at the most stressful time -- during hospitalization for an illness, disease or injury.”

Finally, Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post has an absolutely exceptional profile of the reclusive, shy Trudeau here, and discussed it with readers here. It’s worth spending some time with this one.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Rightwing Cartoon Watch (10-25-06)

It's a few days later than usual, but I have the latest installment of Righwing Cartoon Watch up at the Blue Herald, here.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Eid ul-Fitr

Today marks the end of Ramadan in the United States, the holiday Eid ul-Fitr. Typically, this involves prayer, the visiting of relatives and friends, acts of charity, the wearing of new or special clothes, and special foods and feasts (sadly, in some hot zones the visiting and intermingling are just too dangerous this year). The Wikipedia entry does a pretty nice job of covering different customs for Eid ul-Fitr in different countries.

Happy Eid, or Eid mubarak!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Get Out the Vote!

While some of the poll numbers are looking good, it’s imperative to have a strong voter turnout on November 7th (after all, most Democratic groups met their district turnout goals in 2004, and look what happened!). Several states have anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballot to draw out the social conservatives like prehistoric flies to homophobic honey. Taking the Senate in particular will be tough but very possible. Let’s get out the vote!

From Matt Stoller at MyDD:

Click here to be counted as someone who registered because of net neutrality. As Stoller says, “Save the Internet coalition will be able to brag about how many voters we have on our side to politicians when trying to convince them to support net neutrality.”

Click here for regular voter registration.

From Digby, here’s a site for The Secretaries of State Project, who seek to elect candidates who will protect voting rights.

Also from Digby, The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) allows bloggers to embed the Volunteer Web Bug to recruit election volunteers on their sites.

Remaining Registration Deadlines:

Alabama — October 27
California — October 23
Connecticut — October 24
Iowa — October 28
Kansas — October 23
Maine — October 17
Maryland — October 17
Massachusetts — October 18
Minnesota — pre-reg. October 17
Nebraska — October 20
New Jersey — October 17
Oregon — October 17
Rhode Island — October 17
South Dakota — October 23
Vermont — October 28
West Virginia — October 17
Wisconsin — October 19

If you miss your state’s deadline, in most states you can still cast a provisional ballot on election day.

Get Out the Vote!

Rightwing Cartoon Watch (10-15-06)

I have the third installment up at The Blue Herald, here.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Dance of the Straw Men

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Of all the faulty argument patterns typically employed by the GOP, the most popular by far is a straw man argument with an ad hominem attack nestled inside. President George W. Bush and his speech writers absolutely love straw man arguments, but typically Bush has let surrogates serve as attack dogs and deliver the harshest rhetoric against his perceived political opponents. However, in this election season, Bush has chosen to go on the offensive himself, throwing out a dizzying array of false and prejudicial charges against Democrats.

Dan Froomkin’s 9/27/06 column, ”Bush’s Imaginary Foes,” serves as a splendid in-depth examination of some of Bush’s recent straw men. The Fallacy Files entry on the straw man fallacy is a great overview with a look at the formal logic involved (or rather, ignored), and the Wikipedia entry is surprisingly good. As the Wiki entry puts it:

One can set up a straw man in the following ways:

1. Present a misrepresentation of the opponent's position, refute it, and pretend that the opponent's actual position has been refuted.

2. Quote an opponent's words "out of context" -- i.e., choose quotations that are not representative of the opponent's actual intentions (see contextomy)

3. Present someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, refute that person's arguments, and pretend that every upholder of that position, and thus the position itself, has been defeated.

4. Invent a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs that are criticized, and pretend that the person represents a group of whom the speaker is critical.

Some logic textbooks define the straw man fallacy only as a misrepresented argument. It is now common, however, to use the term to refer to all of these tactics.

In my studies, initially I had been taught that a straw man argument was #3, but #1 is far more common, and Bush revels in #4. Rather than merely pick an inarticulate Democrat to rebut, or misrepresent a Democrat’s argument, Bush often goes further and chooses to invent fictional Democrats who hold fantastical, ridiculous views that no sane person on the planet has ever held (of course, these evil and loony Democrats only exist in that happy parallel universe where we are winning, or on the verge of winning, in Iraq).

Froomkin’s piece deserves a complete read, but here’s a key section (emphasis in original):

"PRESIDENT BUSH: I, of course, read the key judgments on the NIE. I agree with their conclusion that because of our successes against the leadership of al Qaeda, the enemy is becoming more diffuse and independent. I'm not surprised the enemy is exploiting the situation in Iraq and using it as a propaganda tool to try to recruit more people to their -- to their murderous ways.

"Some people have guessed what's in the report and have concluded that going into Iraq was a mistake. I strongly disagree. I think it's naive. I think it's a mistake for people to believe that going on the offense against people that want to do harm to the American people makes us less safe."

OK, that's straw-man number one. Nobody I've heard of is suggesting that going on the offense against terrorists is bad. The question at hand is whether going on the offense against Iraq -- which had nothing to do with 9/11 -- made us less safe. By using this absurd straw-man, Bush leaves that issue unaddressed.

Bush: "The terrorists fight us in Iraq for a reason: They want to try to stop a young democracy from developing, just like they're trying to fight another young democracy in Afghanistan. And they use it as a recruitment tool, because they understand the stakes. They understand what will happen to them when we defeat them in Iraq."

Here, Bush makes it sound like the fight in Iraq is between the United States and terrorists. But of course the vast majority of fighting is now sectarian in nature, with U.S. troops caught in the middle.

Bush: "You know, to suggest that if we weren't in Iraq, we would see a rosier scenario with fewer extremists joining the radical movement requires us to ignore 20 years of experience."

Here, Bush paraphrases his critics somewhat accurately. But his ensuing argument is bizarre.

Bush: "We weren't in Iraq when we got attacked on September the 11th. We weren't in Iraq, and thousands of fighters were trained in terror camps inside your country, Mr. President. We weren't in Iraq when they first attacked the World Trade Center in 1993. We weren't in Iraq when they bombed the Cole. We weren't in Iraq when they blew up our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.”

Froomkin calls this last argument by Bush:

...perhaps the ultimate Bush straw-man argument, this one so absurd it almost defies description.

No one is suggesting that the invasion of Iraq was responsible for terrorist act that predate that invasion! The argument is that invading Iraq has made the threat of terrorism since then worse than it otherwise would have been. Reciting past terrorist acts is almost laughably nonresponsive. And yet it's a staple of Bush's argument.

The “We weren’t in Iraq on September 11th” argument, employed by Bush and Cheney before, is so nonsensical it indeed almost defies description. However, while it can be viewed as a straw man argument, it seems to be more specifically a modified version of the fallacy Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc, "After this, therefore because of this.” The Fallacy Files nicely describe this as:

Event C happened immediately prior to event E.
Therefore, C caused E.

In this case, C would be “Not invading Iraq” and E would be “9/11.” This is not a strict, typical formulation primarily because Bush’s reasoning is so ludicrous. The key underlying (false) premise of Bush’s entire statement is causality: our refusal to invade Iraq caused the 1993 World Trade Center attack, 9/11, and so on. If it’s difficult to find the right formal term to capture how poor Bush’s reasoning is, it’s quite easy to show why he’s wrong. Bush’s faulty argument pattern can also be put into syllogism form, where it’s obviously false:

• We were attacked on 9/11.
• We had not invaded Iraq yet on 9/11.
• Therefore, we were attacked on 9/11 because we had not invaded Iraq yet.

Because there is no causal relationship between the first and second premises, this is essentially:

• A
• Not B
• Therefore, A because of Not B

My immediate reaction when I first heard Cheney use the “We weren’t in Iraq on September 11th” argument was, “We also hadn’t invaded London!” For that matter, we also hadn’t invaded the more threatening North Korea. Or, to make the absurdity of the Bush/Cheney proposition abundantly clear:

• We were attacked on 9/11.
• On 9/11, ”Lost Control” by Kevin “K-Fed” Federline had not been released yet.
• Therefore, we were attacked on 9/11 because K-Fed’s “Lost Cause” had not been released yet.

Now, to be fair, before the war Iraq could legitimately be seen as a threat, if a contained one, while “K-Fed” is merely an aesthetic threat. Also, in contrast with his arguments for invading Iraq, not even Bush would argue that the world is better off now that the "Lost Control" video has been released. (For another connection, one could argue that the Iraq war was started by pasty white boys pretending to be gangstas.) The point is, because A and B have no causal relation, one can pick anything for B and it will have as much logical validity as Bush's statement — that is to say, none. The point of his argument, as with all faulty arguments, is to persuade or confuse the casual listener. And, case in point, it generally takes longer to skewer a false argument than to assert one (at least to the casual listener). All that said, because of the central role of false causality, the Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc pattern is probably the most helpful description of what’s probably Bush’s most egregiously bad argument for invading Iraq to date.

One of Dan Froomkin’s readers also pointed out a key element of the “We weren’t in Iraq on September 11th” argument that may be apparent from the discussion of the syllogisms above. As Froomkin wrote in his 9/28/06 column, ”Bush Rules”:

Jorge Ovalle writes: "'We weren't in Iraq when they first attacked the World Trade Center in 1993,' says President Bush. The stronger point is that President Bush consistently fails to distinguish between the terrorists who struck us on 9/11 and the Hussein-led Iraqi government. It is not surprising that half of the American people still believe Iraq had something to do with 9/11.

In other words, while there is no causal relationship between the two premises “We were attacked on 9/11” and “We had not invaded Iraq yet on 9/11,” with their underlying assertion Bush and Cheney are still trying to suggest a direct connection between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and 9/11. (Bush has flatly said there was no connection, but still conflates the two, as does Cheney, who also still insists the long discredited Atta-Iraqi meeting in the Czech Republic actually took place.)

Sadly, most reporters do not call Bush or other public officials on their use of straw men. Washington Post writer Peter Baker took a crack at it in a 10/6/06 article:

As Bush wound up a three-day campaign swing out west on Wednesday, for example, he attacked Democrats for voting last week against legislation authorizing warrantless telephone and e-mail surveillance.

"One hundred and seventy-seven of the opposition party said, 'You know, we don't think we ought to be listening to the conversations of terrorists,' " Bush said at a fundraiser for Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) before heading to Colorado for gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez.

Asked about the president's statement, White House aides could not name any Democrat who has said that the government should not listen in on terrorists. Democrats who voted against the legislation had complained that it would hand too much power to the president and had said that they wanted more checks in the bill to protect civil liberties.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) called Bush's comment outrageous: "Every member of Congress, from both parties, supports listening in on terrorist communications, but the president still hasn't explained why we have to break the law to do it. It is time for the president to stop exploiting the terrorist threat to justify his power grab."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino defended Bush's remark as a reasonable extrapolation of the Democratic position. "Of course, they aren't silly enough to say they don't want to listen in on terrorists, but actions speak louder than words, and people should know what the Democrats' voting record is," she said.

Perino’s infuriating, asinine justification is utter poppycock, of course. Bush’s remark is a stupid, prejudicial, pejorative “extrapolation” that can fairly be called a lie, especially since he and other Republicans have offered some version of this straw man for almost a year now, and have been repeatedly challenged on it. Froomkin noted this article, as did the Daily Howler, but while Baker deserves credit for his work, the Howler also feels Baker pulled his punches.

This brings us to one final point. Just as the logical problem with a straw man argument is its inaccuracy, the ethical problem with a straw man argument is its dishonesty. True scholars, philosophers and policy wonks are interested in the truth and honest discussion, whereas hacks are interested only in winning an argument, or “winning the half hour,” as Froomkin put it. Debate has something called the “Principle of Charitable Interpretation,” or the Principle of Charity.” In the practical sense, this entails that if one’s opponent says anything ambiguous, one is obligated to interpret it in the strongest manner possible — essentially giving one’s opponent the benefit of the doubt. Socrates would of course ask questions to clarify someone’s actual position, which is also a splendid idea. But this attitude of integrity and fairness, implicit in all serious scholarship, empirical research, and honest debate, is the precise opposite of the straw man approach. The straw man argument epitomizes intellectual dishonesty.

Given Bush’s parade of dancing straw men, it’d be easy to make the quip “If he only had a brain” (ad hominem, even if accurate), but one must be charitable and assume he knows exactly what he’s doing. In this case, he and his administration are scoundrels, not idiots. They simply refuse to engage in an honest, open debate on any level, even within their own party. Sadly, it’d be far more accurate to muse, if they only had a conscience.

(Edited slightly on 10/16/06 for emphasis and clarity.)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Slippery Slope

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

Continuing this week’s examination of faulty argument patterns, we turn to today’s Washington Post. Some readers offered some splendid examples of the slippery slope, which The Non-Sequitur site describes succinctly as “alleging that accepting the conclusion of an opponent’s argument will invariably lead to an increasing series of dastardly consequences.”

Eugene Robinson’s column today was 'Values' Choice for The GOP, focusing on issues of GOP moral hypocrisy raised by the Mark Foley scandal. Among the other points he makes, Robinson observes that:

The culture war is supposed to be about morality, but really it's a crusade to compel Americans to follow certain norms of private behavior that some social and religious conservatives believe are mandated by sociology, nature or God. Republican officeholders have paid lip service to this crusade, all the while knowing that the human family is diverse and fallible. They know that the gravest threat to marriage is the heterosexual divorce rate. They know that Republicans drink, swear, carouse and have affairs, just like Democrats. They know that homosexuals aren't devils.

He ends with:

But Republicans positioned themselves as our national Church Lady and were rewarded with the support of the staunchest religious conservatives, who now feel betrayed. Faced with the spreading Foley scandal, the party has a choice.

The party can look America in the face and say, "Folks, we're all just human, and while we should strive to adhere to the highest moral standards, this whole idea of writing a specific, narrow, fundamentalist Christian view of morality into law is really not a good idea. Even those of us who thought that way when we came to Washington realize we were wrong. Condemning others just because they are different doesn't make us stronger or better, it makes us weaker and poorer. As Barry Goldwater would have said, live and let live."

Or the party can purge its gay staffers, maybe symbolically burn a few at the stake, and continue to pretend that you can legislate what is permitted to reside in American hearts and minds. Unfortunately, that's where it looks like we're headed.

As usual, Robinson’s discussion today drew some pointed comments, and as usual he picked plenty of comments from people who disagreed with him (emphasis mine):

Gainesville, Va.: I think it's important to be fair in presenting the position of conservative Christians. One key word is "conservative," in its original sense. So much of what we believe in is conserving the values and behaviors we grew up with. By and large the liberal agenda is change (increase tolerance). Thus we are asked to accept homosexual marriage (a new definition after four millennia of accepted usage of marriage as between a man and a woman), a culture that encourages unbridled sexuality of all types, and abortion, the killing of a fetus or baby depending on your beliefs. We never needed laws against homosexual marriage because prior to the decision of the Mass. Supreme Court, marriage was understood to be heterosexual. It is not conservative Christians who are out to legislate morality, it is liberal secularists who are trying to change the laws to support their views.

Eugene Robinson: I agree that the liberal agenda is one of tolerance. But it is not true that the specific moral standards advocated by conservative Christians have been in place for thousands of years. Nor is it true that all the values and behaviors we grew up with are worth preserving. When I grew up, for example, many people considered racial segregation a "value" worth defending. Our standards do change, and often for the better.

“Gainesville” receives many a response later from other readers. But the next question veers into classic faulty argument pattern:

Vienna, Va.: Mr. Robinson,

In your column today, you wrote: "Condemning others just because they are different doesn't make us stronger or better, it makes us weaker and poorer."

I see your point, but there is a strong counter argument. Shouldn't society instill strong moral standards about sexual behavior? At one time society frowned on people who committed adultery and engaged in sex before marriage. Now neither one is considered taboo. Is modern society better for this?

Today liberals are pushing to consider homosexuality as normal.

What is next? Should bigamy be deemed OK? How about polygamy? In your view, is there anything that society should deem inappropriate? Or should we just allow everyone to live and let live?

Eugene Robinson: That's the slippery-slope argument, and I don't buy it. Of course society has to draw a line between the acceptable and the unacceptable. But society's view of where that line should be drawn has changed many times in the past and will continue to change. The was a time when we considered women second-class citizens unworthy of the vote. There was a time when we thought smoking was cool. Things change.

Later on, another reader runs with the banner yet again:

Maryland: So you don't buy the slippery-slope argument? I recall over 20 years ago when the ERA amendment was being debated, and one argument against it, which its proponents denied, is that it would lead to same-sex marriages! I say it's just a matter of time before the NAMBLA crowd starts lobbying against child-protection laws as being discriminatory to their own particular lifestyle - but that's progress to the progressives, isn't it?

Eugene Robinson: But by your logic, women would never have been given full rights in our society, or blacks, or anybody except white men. Just because you decide to take one specific step in the direction of inclusion and tolerance does not mean you then have to take every imaginable subsequent step.

One more conservative reader takes a stab at it:

Washington, D.C.: Whenever a conservative says that we should keep something traditional like the definition of marriage, liberals trot out the same tired argument that without change women and blacks would never have gotten their due rights.

What does one have to do with the other? The definition of marriage is a completely separate issue than women's voting rights or blacks' civil rights. Why confuse the issue? Or can't you argue the case on its own merits?

Eugene Robinson: Interracial marriage was once illegal in Southern states. So, no, these are not completely separate issues.

The argument on the merits is simple, in my view. Two individuals are gay and want to make a commitment to each other through marriage. What is bad about that? How does that threaten me, or you, or anyone else? My marriage will not dissolve if gay people are allowed to marry. The world will not cease its orbit around the sun. We'll all be fine, believe me.

I was sorely tempted to quote the entire discussion, which is a quick read and very good, as always. Several moderate and liberal readers make excellent points and rebuttals to the conservatives, and the discussion is one of the better I’ve seen recently in having people of truly different viewpoints debate what it means to be liberal or progressive versus conservative when it comes to social issues. Eugene Robinson deserves credit for consistently selecting opposing points of view and delivering this level of discussion in an impromptu chat. However, in this week of conservatives conjuring dire, ludicrous pictures of legalized pedophilia and polygamy, Robinson deserves special thanks this week for highlighting the slippery slope.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Faulty Argument Patterns and Informal Fallacies

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

1. Nothing is better than eternal happiness.
2. A ham sandwich is better than nothing.
∆ A ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness.

Do I trust the word of a madman and forget the lessons of September the 11th, or take action to defend America? Given that choice, I will defend America every time.
President George W. Bush, 9/3/04

The first argument above is a silly example of the informal fallacy known as equivocation. “Nothing” means something different in premise #2 than it does in #1. (It’s no coincidence that equivocation overlaps with joke-writing.) The second argument is a classic example of a false dilemma or false choice. A world of possibilities exists beyond the ridiculously narrow and prejudicial choices President Bush presents.

It would be naive to believe that all pundits and politicians seek an honest discussion of issues and do their best to avoid faulty and unfair arguments. Most of them are intent on “winning the half hour,” as The Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin puts it — they try out a few talking points, score a few points off their opponent, deflect a few questions and scuttle off before anyone can really subject their assertions to serious scrutiny. A good sound bite often advances one’s cause better than a substantive argument. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but the trick for wonks who aspire to political success defeating hacks is to find the right words. It is also essential to remember that many politicians, and the vast majority of pundits, are bullshitters, who may be accidentally accurate, but simply don’t care whether what they say is true or not.

If I could design a media literacy course for every American student, it would include a unit on common advertising techniques (buzz words, the false comparison, bandwagon versus snob appeal approaches, and so on). It would feature George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and Neil Postman’s “Silent Questions.” And it would highlight faulty argument patterns, with a special attention to scouring the news for them and dissecting them.

The Web features several great sites on faulty argument patterns and informal fallacies. Critical Thinking on the Web features a bevy of other links (some are dead) and a good resource page of informal fallacies. The Wikipedia entries on logical fallacies are a good resource as well. Logical Fallacies.Info is also a good site with clear examples. The Fallacy Files is pretty exhaustive. The Stone Forest is a pretty readable overview of logical fallacies. The Non Sequitur: A Logical Analysis of Political Media is a great site run by two philosophy professors who follow the news and analyze it for informal fallacies. Their description of informal fallacies is also useful. Finally, Conversational Terrorism and The Woolly-Thinker's Guide to Rhetoric list argument techniques essentially designed for bullshitters that makes for funny reading.

For my own mea culpa, I certainly do not always uphold some Socratic ideal and cannot pretend to a, ahem, consistent rhetorical purity. A blog post can be a simple link, a short essay, or a cathartic rant, and all have their place. The key, it seems to me, is knowing with whom one is speaking, and the tone and level of the conversation. Casual dinner conversation tends to veer away from formal debate. In comparison, political blog threads tend to be more serious and earnest, depending on the site and the post. What seems immoral to me, if one purports to care about Truth, Justice, and the American Way — or at least, truth, honest discussion, and earnest problem-solving — is to come to a sincere debate with earnest people and not engage them in kind. Most political blog chatter features some combination of smart ass attitude with a serious point (a spectrum roughly from South Park to PBS’ NewsHour). The more “newsy” a political talk show is, the further towards the “serious” the pendulum typically swings. Crossfire increasingly became a parody of itself, while William F. Buckley’s Firing Line series, despite witnessing some truly ludicrous arguments over the years, also featured at least some sincere, intelligent people advancing substantive arguments.

It’s certainly possible to make a substantive point with some humor. I also don’t find any real moral problem with insulting a hack (or troll) for being a hack as long as one makes a substantive point as well — but let’s be honest, a great deal of dealing with a hack is calling bullshit on his or her abuses of rhetoric and misrepresentation of facts. The media is loathe to call someone a liar, and an artful liar can typically get away with it, because he or she only needs to “win the half hour” and be gone before the fact-checkers can catch up with him or her. Realistically, the honest — but witty! — debater needs a mastery of both rhetorical technique and the pertinent facts. I think it’s much harder to be a truly masterful, honest debater versus a bullshitting, spin doctor-hack, but it’s also so beautiful when someone does it right.

When dealing with a hack, one needs to come fully armed and ready to deal with bullshit and faulty argument patterns. When dealing with a true scholar or wonk, faulty argument patterns are likely to be rare, and one should avoid injecting them.

All that said — Socrates would make one helluva guest or host for Meet the Press.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Rightwing Cartoon Watch (10-7-06)

I have the second installment of Rightwing Cartoon Watch up over at The Blue Herald here.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Woodward Watch

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

If you’ve been following the news, there’s a slight chance you may perhaps have noticed that Bob Woodward has a new book out, State of Denial: Bush At War, Part III. Most Woodward books tend to be “events” among journalists and news junkies, and true to form, DC is abuzz about the book (in addition to the Foley scandal). In case you missed a few of the many excerpts or reviews, here they are.

The Washington Post printed two excerpts from the book, ”Secret Reports Dispute White House Optimism” and ”Should He Stay?” (focusing on Rumsfeld). Newsweek printed another section on Rumsfeld that can be read here.

The 60 Minutes interview is here.

(The Charlie Rose footage is not available yet, except in small clips.)

The Fresh Air radio interview, where Woodward actually gets choked up, is here.

The PBS NewsHour interview and transcript is here.

The transcript of the Larry King interview is here (the video is on YouTube, but in about 7 parts).

Howard Kurtz covered the book and Woodward for The Washington Post here. Dan Froomkin covered the book in his Friday, 9/28/06 column here and has been covering other accounts, and the Bush administration’s flimsy and failed denials since.

Michiko Kakutani reviews it for The New York Times here, and also looks over the “floodlet” of books on Bush in ”All the President’s Books.”

The Salon review, which zeros in on some key details, is here.

The book is sure to be dissected more in the coming month. But already, there’s corroborating accounts.

In The Washington Post, Tom Ricks (author of Fiasco) reports that ”U.S. European Commander Confirms Quotes in Book.”

Meanwhile, one of the most explosive and contentious charges deals with a July 10th, 2001 meeting called by George Tenet and Cofer Black with Condoleezza Rice to warn her about Al-Qaeda. Greg Sargent summed up many of the small contradictions and remaining questions here. Mahablog managed to answer some of those questions here, drawing on Dan Froomkin and Taylor Marsh. Marsh in turn cites an important Countdown segment and posts the video here. In a later post, Marsh examines and posts some of the Charlie Rose interview with Woodward, viewable here.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Bush is an Idiot, Cheney is a Dangerous Nutcase

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

This really can’t qualify as a “news” item. But over at Hullabaloo, Digby has two more striking, insightful posts up. ”Meanwhile, Back In Iraq” is primarily an examination of exactly how bad Iraq is — but it ends with a brief observation of the macho-unmoored-to-reality mentality of Cheney and the gang that lead to what Digby accurately calls a “meatgrinder.” Meanwhile, ”Nuts And Dolts” delves, err — skims — the intellect that is George W. Bush. As Digby writes:

I'm really beginning to resent all those people who say Bush really is smart, he's just incurious. No. He's clearly an idiot and an arrogant, immature idiot at that. He's been manipulated by a bunch of wily, evil men with competing agendas creating lawlessness, chaos and incoherence in our government.

Over the last six years when we watched Bush shift uncomfortably and babble incomprehensibly in response to complicated questions, when we saw him lash out at anyone who dared to question his judgment or his authority, when we observed him humiliating those around him, we weren't hallucinating and it wasn't an act. This intellectually deficient, petulent man-child was exactly what he appeared to be --- and his inept, arrogant administration is a perfect reflection of him.

The same post also offers this telling glimpse of Cheney:

Having figured out that the general was being too cautious with his fourth combat command in three decades of soldiering, Cheney got his staff busy and began presenting Schwarzkopf with his own ideas about how to fight the Iraqis: What if we parachute the 82nd Airborne into the far western part of Iraq, hundreds of miles from Kuwait and totally cut off from any kind of support, and seize a couple of missile sites, then line up along the highway and drive for Baghdad? Schwarzkopf charitably describes the plan as being "as bad as it could possibly be... But despite our criticism, the western excursion wouldn't die: three times in that week alone Powell called with new variations from Cheney's staff. The most bizarre involved capturing a town in western Iraq and offering it to Saddam in exchange for Kuwait."

The problem with Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush is they’re stubborn and relentless in pursuing a course of action, but never bother to get the course right before they set out. Even after Tenet and others disproved the Niger-uranium allegations, and kept on insisting they be removed from pre-war speeches, Cheney and his capos kept on slipping them back in, in each new draft, and in new speeches. Cheney apparently used the same approach for battle plans. And in many ways, the entire Bush administration is merely Cheney, Rumsfeld and their gang re-fighting all the battles of the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

The Bush administration would be a marvel of satire if only they were as fictional as the grandeur they think they possess. Being consistently flat-out, disastrously wrong apparently gives pause only to lesser men. They are the Peter Principle in action, raised to the level of Biblical plague. Their first National Security Advisor, Rice, was still fighting the Cold War, never mind that it had ended nine years previously (so was Cheney). One of their key lawyers (John Yoo) was meddling with constitutional law despite a stunning ignorance of the United States Constitution. Dick Cheney was pushing for a combative foreign policy despite his apparently disastrous handle on war strategy and tenuous grasp of reality. They had a brainless brain trust in the aggressive but unrealistic neocons of Wolfowitz, Feith, Addington, Libby, and countless other members of the Cheney cabal. Their outside “grey beard” was Kissinger, a man who, unlike even Robert McNamara, was still unwilling to admit obvious and cataclysmic mistakes 30 years after the fact and was also still fighting the Cold War on the most un-winnable front possible — Vietnam.

And Bush, the boy king, clearly has always been in way over his head, a dolt and an imbecile unwilling to grow into the job and too insecure to surround himself with wise men and women, smarter than he, to counsel him. He must insult academics, ridicule nuance and degradingly reduce the world to simplistic, black and white terms because he simply cannot engage on a higher plane, and must resort to bullying and power rather than reason or rightness to win. He has prized perceived loyalty over all competence, viewed dissent as disloyalty, and hewed to horrible, snap decisions with the mad desperation and stubbornness of a man terrified of actually — thinking. Bob Woodward believes Bush hasn’t lost ten minutes of sleep over the fact that they never found any WMDs in Iraq. The empty mind is the untroubled mind; ignorance is bliss. (Ignorance, in the empty mind, is strength.)

The Bush administration is a perfect storm of arrogant, pugnacious, deadly idiocy. The only thing we can hope for is that such storms are as rare in politics as they are in nature.