Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Mugged By Logic

Over at The Non Sequitur a short while ago, jcasey dissected the tortured logic of a 10/4/07 Roger Cohen op-ed for the The New York Times. Cohen's agenda? Bashing liberals for criticizing the neocons, and creating a false equivalency about how both sides engage in unfair name-calling, yadda yadda yadda. Of course, Cohen doesn't go after actual liberal positions, just the evil phantoms he's conjured. What's all the more laughable is one of the few liberals he actually cites is Matthew Yglesias, one of many "liberal hawks" who advocated for invading Iraq (although at least Yglesias has apologized for it).

I've previously described Cohen's sort of assertion as "a straw man argument with an ad hominem attack nestled inside." (It's a GOP favorite.) Jcasey uses similar terms, but also observes that Cohen employs "the basic bait and switch typical of all fallacies of relevance." Over at Gin and Tacos, Ed delves into the same article and considers its other "false or misleading analogies." Check out both their takes.

Of course, as Jonathan Schwarz points out, "America's conservatives either cannot or will not construct accurate analogies." Cohen may not be an official conservative, but like Richard Cohen (more on him in a subsequent post), Roger Cohen offers a ridiculous, unfounded and poorly argued attack on liberals. He and other "liberal hawks" often achieve the same goals as their more conservative brethren, and with the same means to boot. As Ed notes:

It's quite amazing, the depths to which even papers like the New York Times will sink. They give column space to dreck like this for the sole purpose of precluding allegations of bias. Nevermind if said columnist is thunderingly ignorant or can't make an argument to save his soul - the important thing is having someone who will talk about how great of an idea the Iraq War is on a bi-weekly basis.

Similarly, jcasey writes, "Often I think newspaper editors across the globe ought to get together and ban the following kind of argument pattern, much as they would any insistence on violating the rules of subject-verb agreement."

A splendid idea. Honestly, I'm pretty sure most high school and college teachers would at least make a comment on Cohen's ridiculous bait-and-switch, straw man argument. I guess they just have higher standards for their students than the editors at the Times have for their columnists (or some columnists have for themselves).

Why does this happen? For one thing, papers need to fill space. However, Ed's take seems dead on to me. The reasons neocons are so discredited is because they've been wrong about virtually everything. The reason they still deserve discrediting and mockery is because they're still wrong, loudly and insistently. But I guess saying so too often feels harsh to the Times, so they try to create an artificial "balance." Plus, as Glenn Greenwald has written in several posts, the entrenched foreign policy community almost always views war advocacy and imperialism as "Serious" and opposition as naïve. Add in that so very many pundits were dead wrong on Iraq, and desperately want to protect their brand. Thus, we're still being lectured by folks who got it wrong the first time and are still wrong. Worse, they continue to manufacture reasons for berating those of us who had it right all along. It's not just the bomb-happy Norman Podhoretzes, Michael Ledeens, Max Boots and William Kristols of the world (neocons all, by the way). We're even lectured by folks who are supposed to be objective journalists, and folks who are supposed to be liberal. I'm pretty damn sick of it. The only purpose of Cohen's column (besides filling space) was to bash liberals. He didn't make a honest case, perhaps because there wasn't an honest case to be made. The problem with Cohen is not his attitude per se but the quality of the work itself. Where are the New York Times' standards?

In any case, a good, clean logical dissection of faulty arguments such as Cohen's is always a boon. Still, especially in cases such as this, moral umbrage also has its place. I'm sick of writers such as Cohen getting a column or air time when so many much more worthy analysts are denied. Cohen invokes a Broder-esque "civility" in his responses to reader comments. Politeness is a virtue, but not at the cost of honesty when discussing important issues. A news organization's job is to call bullshit, not to spread it.

Update: Speaking of moral umbrage, over at Hullabaloo Tristero rips Cohen apart here and here for his "blatantly misleading, self-serving, and malicious essay." My favorite passage in the first piece is probably: "You deplore the lack of "nuance" amongst those of us who were right about Iraq from the beginning. And yet, you lump us together into some amorphous category called "the left."" Cohen's responded to readers here. One of his key lines is: "What I find intolerable is the way a smug left personnified [sic] by Michael Tomasky (see his attempt at humor in God, what a bunch of whiners) can drone on about Iraq for 25 paragraphs or so without ever mentioning what Saddam’s murder-central was like."

You can read Tomasky for yourself here, but it's hardly an "attempt at humor" minimizing human suffering as Cohen seems to suggest. I'd say it's a savage and extremely accurate critique of "the liberal hawks' infuriating and dishonest need for self-justification":

But Cohen's more maddening error is this. In his world, there are three categories of foreign-policy debate: the neocons; the liberal hawks; and then everyone to the left of, say, Jeffrey Goldberg - or Cohen himself - who constitute the left…

But Cohen completely ignores the fourth category of foreign-policy debate: liberals who are neither hawks nor on the left. People who, for example, supported the US invasion of Afghanistan. People who, for that matter, supported the interventions of the 1990s. People who would very much like to have seen the United States do something, earlier and more forcefully, about Darfur.

Who are these people? Mainstream liberals who aren't the anti-militarist left but who also opposed the Iraq war (or, in a small number of cases, supported it originally but quickly recognized the horror of the situation and withdrew their support)…

The Cohen taxonomy is not merely infuriating and stupid. It is, I suspect, intentional in its oversight. It's far easier for a liberal who supported the war to sleep at night if he can shrug off everyone to his left as an appeasing radical. He and Hitchens and others can go on believing they're on "the right side of history" if they wish. What they cannot do is pretend that the people who were right about Iraq, and who represent a point of view that they can't easily dismiss, don't exist.

To my mind, if anyone's minimized human suffering, it’s Cohen and the neocons, most of whom have yet to acknowledge their mistakes, and many of whom are hell-bent on repeating them. As Tristero pointedly says in his second piece: "PS By the way, Roger. I don't need anyone whose pen and mouth are as engorged with the blood of dead Iraqis as yours are to lecture someone like me on the evils of Saddam Hussein. You've got one helluva lot of nerve."

Yes, Roger Cohen, wrong on Iraq before, wrong now, but still eager to chastise us for mischaracterizing warmongers such as himself while he simultaneously grossly mischaracterizes us. He reads a piece that directly calls him on the obvious straw man at the heart of his column and cravenly tries to change the subject. That's pretty intellectually dishonest, suggesting his first column was no fluke. But Cohen cannot be wrong, for he is Serious, and an Honorable Man (so are they all, all honorable men). Evidently, he hasn't learned much since 2002. It would be lovely if Cohen and his ilk prized honesty, accuracy and wisdom as much as "civility," but I ain't holding my breath.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

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