Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

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.)

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