A Fish is to a Bicycle

Cross posted at Balloon Juice.

Just to jump onto the false equivalence bandwagon, here’s another reason why, unlike John Cole, I don’t love Andrew Sullivan’s work.

John’s comment, y’all remember, came in the context of his righteous snort of derision at the thought of one of Sully’s annual awards for bad behavior going to TBogg for a post in which the Bassett Man righteously excoriated the loathesome Bill Kristol. (Which, having campaigned for the honor, TBogg won, hurray!)

So why don’t I don’t love Sully?

Because for all that I respect his craft accomplishments — the Dish really is a hugely innovative take on journalism and opinion making in our brave new digital era — and acknowledge his non-craziness (most of the time) and his willingness to tackle crucial subjects like torture, he still seems to me to be a deeply sloppy thinker.

Case in point, this post, titled “The Borking of Kagan,” in which he shows off truly impressive intellectual incoherence, combined with a genuinely nasty attempt to carry the water of the worst on the right if the opportunity affords to bash a hippie or two.  (Why target this post, now seven months gone?  Because Sullivan himself touted it as one of his posts of the year, directing his readers to take another look just last Wednesday.)

Sullivan writes of his attempt to ascertain Elena Kagan’s sexual identity (or self-identification) that,

Will Saletan pens the most penetrating and persuasive critique of my question as to the emotional orientation of Elena Kagan. He puts it better than I, but his argument is essentially that the personal facts of a supreme court nominee can lead to unending and cruel and prejudiced exposure, in a manner that distorts the process and wounds the person. He reminds me of the religious inquisition of the agnostic Robert Bork. It is indeed vile. What was done to Clarence Thomas was, in my view, viler – although I remain convinced that Anita Hill was telling the truth.

There’s a lot more that one can dispute in Sullivan’s post, but focus here on just this one bit of wretched rhetorical posturing.

Diagram out what Sullivan does:  he acknowledges the criticism that exposing Kagan’s presumed same-sex preference would lead to the presumptively* inappropriate tactics that allegedly marred the nomination process through which Robert Bork was denied a Supreme Court slot.

Then, for no apparent reason he throws in Thomas, who did, sadly, navigate the Senate’s narrows to achieve Supreme status.

So look what he is trying to claim here:  Bork suffered, in Sullivan’s view, because he was denied his goal for illegitimate reasons, as some evil folk slandered him as immoral for failing to acknowledge a living god.  And then, Thomas suffered more in achieving his goal after perjuring himself –as Sullivan says he believes — about the sexual harassment of a subordinate.

I mean, what?

It seems that Sullivan still, after all these years, finds the unseemliness of asking someone about pubic hairs and Coke cans “viler” (an unlovely construction) than lying about criminal acts perpetrated on the folks you boss around.

What on earth prompted Sullivan to go there?  It’s not part of his argument.  It sure doesn’t line up with what he’s trying to claim from Kagan. (He wants to know about Kagan’s qualities, her self or identity.  At the Thomas hearing, the question was one of incidents and acts:  what had Thomas done to whom?)  And, of course, it captures the same strange blindness to nonequivalence  at the Dish that John pointed out over the Moore award.

I frankly don’t get it.  A fish =/ a bicycle; sexual harassment =/ asking questions about credible charges that you’ve engaged in sexual harassment.  I don’t think that’s a surprising, or even a minority view.

And if I were to generalize one level up, I’d say that this is a kind of rhetorical trick that needs stomping on every time we catch it.

Why do people attempt to draw false connections?  It is to persuade their audiences of things that are not true.  In current circumstances, too many of these falsehoods fall under the umbrella of asserting that the sins of the right are forgivable, because they are the same as, or responding to equivalent misdeeds on the left. That in turn gets to the real aim of such rhetorical shenanigans:  to defang criticisms of the behavior of the right, so as to render the wholesale return to power of the worst elements in our body politic that much more likely.

I imagine Sullivan would argue that he’s been a loud and important voice objecting to exactly that. I think that’s true, actually — really there’s no doubt of it.  But he’s sloppy, and has habits of mind, and perhaps he simply writes to fast to interrogate his own reflexes …and this kind of tripe is the result.  Which is why, though I find Sullivan’s work interesting, I don’t love it.

*The question here is whether Bork was Borked via a relentless personal scapegoating, or by pressing the case as strongly as possible that Bork’s views were the wrong ones to guide a life-long appointee to the court of no appeal.

The answer here isn’t that hard.  You look at the record of Bork’s hearings, from Ted Kennedy’s famous speech forward to Joe Biden’s handling of the Judiciary Committee proceedings, and you find that opposition from Democrats was framed in exactly the terms it should have been:  that Bork’s views and approach to judging were unacceptable in a Supreme Court nominee.

You can dissent from those arguments, certainly, and Bork himself did with passion.  But Bork failed because he and the Reagan administration failed to counter the argument that Bork would reverse a woman’s right to choose and come to other results many opposed by using a philosophy that would consistently skew the results of court decisions in ways that a majority of the senate opposed.  How is that not part of a legitimate review process?  If you can’t stand the heat…

It is true that Bork’s agnosticism came up in the hearings, as Saletan discusses in the piece Sullivan references.  But one should never underestimate Saletan’s gift for omitting key details.  He cites two southern senators who explained their votes against Bork on the basis of their distaste for his religious views, or lack thereof (a condition now remedied, presumably, by Bork’s conversion to Catholicism).

But he and Sullivan both, in tying Bork’s failure to survive senate confirmation to this admittedly ugly sideshow, ignore almost all of what went on in the hearings and the surrounding political debate to defeat Bork’s nomination.

Robert Bork is not a Supreme today (for which we all may be grateful, given what Mr. Bork has told us of his views since those days) because he failed to persuade 50 senators and the American people that his approach to judging  matters of privacy, of the balance of state vs. individual power and many other such was acceptable in this democracy.  Saletan’s and Sullivan’s invocation of Bork’s troubles with the religious litmus-testers is thus a red herring, a too-useful editing of history.

Images:  Lucas Cranach, Gerechtigkeit als nackte Frau mit Schwert und Waage. (Justice, as a naked woman with sword and scales), 1537.

Edgar Degas, The Interior, between 1868 and 1869

Explore posts in the same categories: bad writing, Journalism and its discontents

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One Comment on “A Fish is to a Bicycle”


  1. […] I’ve got a slightly different order and one shift in the illustrations up at the copy of this post at Inverse Square, if anyone […]


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