Posted tagged ‘false equivalence’

Better Press Corps (Time edition)/Odds and Ends.

October 3, 2012

A couple of things.

As Zander points out, Ta-Nehisi Coates has already gutted  Tucker Carlson.  In my view, the prematurely bow-tied young fogey has finally and irrevocably crossed the SchwarzDrudgechild boundary.  He has descended into a region where the ordinary laws of space and time break down.  He will experience nothing but an infinite loop of right-wing fantasy world affirmation, while those of us safely beyond the event horizon will enjoy the blessed tranquility of something approximating real life.

Not going to bother with FdB either, who (a) never claimed to be a journalist and hence doesn’t belong in this post and (b) whose latest effort to troll this and other blogs seems to me simply sad.  Mistermix deals with that last and oddly jumbled cry for help more gently than I would, and I think it best just to leave it lie, but for this:  in the past, I’ve achieved world-competitive pinnacles of high dudgeon when right wing folks assert as facts claims like : “Bloggers are insecure, as a species. I find that if you scratch at the perfectly calculated pose of preemptive superiority, you find people who are unable to look you in the face while they tell you you’re wrong.”  This is McArdle-worthy — akin to her habit  of saying her (unnamed) liberal friends are all (x).  Freddy is better than that by far, usually.  Here’s hoping he finds a better analytical groove soon.

Nope, the reason I’m chiming up when I should be doing almost anything else is to deal with the latest bit of truthiness from Time’s website, a Michael Scherer bit of wisdom on lying in politics telling us…wait for it…that both sides do it.

Most of the article is a rehash of stuff a lot of folks have already been covering about the role of party affiliation (and leader-influence) on whether or not mere factual argument penetrates somebody’s body of assumptions and agreed narratives.  Nothing wrong with that, for the most part, other than it’s old enough to grow whiskers.

But as he attempts to find equivalence Scherer surrenders to his default village instinct (an example of the pathology he goes on to describe, perhaps?)  He offers one notable Romney lie — the claim regularly repeated that Obama’s administration has gutted welfare-to-work rules, and he says, almost bluntly enough to satisfy even partisan me, that “The ad was unmistakably deceptive.” (It was false, and not merely misleading, but still, this is a pretty clear evaluation.”

But then he goes on to put forward two alleged Obama falsehoods.  Here’s the first:

“Nobody accused Mr. Romney of being a felon,” he said. In fact, one of the President’s senior strategists, Stephanie Cutter, told reporters a month earlier that Romney was misrepresenting himself either to the American people or to securities regulators—“which is a felony,” she said.  Cutter’s was a conditional accusation but an accusation nonetheless.

So, on the one hand you have a piece of information publicly and widely disseminated that is false (the welfare/work stuff) and on the other you have someone saying that if Romney did (x) that’s a felony, and thus Obama lied when he said that his folks hadn’t called Romney a felon.  I’m not going into the weeds of parsing how what Obama said is in fact accurate (if politically clever in the mode of the great and vicious LBJ).  But if you can’t see the consequential difference in the two statements you’re in the wrong line of work.

But the really egregious statement comes a little later:

One of the most galling Obama deceptions, embedded in two television ads, asserts that Romney backed a bill outlawing “all abortion even in cases of rape and incest.” This is not true. Romney has consistently maintained, since becoming a pro-life politician in 2005, that he supports exceptions for rape and incest and to protect the life of the mother.

“This is not true.”

Sure you want to pick that hill to die on Michael?


In March of 2012, Romney explained to radio host Tommy Tucker that his current positions were the same as “the last time.” He offered the same to Sean Hannity in a November 2011 interview: “I have the same positions today I had four years ago where you know I’m a conservative guy.”

…From an Aug. 8, 2007 ABC News article:

Appearing Monday on “Good Morning America,” Romney was asked by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos if he supports the Republican Party’s 2004 platform on abortion rights, which states, “We support a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution and we endorse legislation to make it clear that the 14th Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”
Romney replied, “You know, I do support the Republican platform, and I support that being part of the Republican platform and I’m pro-life.”

…Here’s a post from Peter J. Smith at LifeSiteNews:

Romney made the choice to abandon his earlier rejection of the human life amendment as he poured money and energy into winning the Ames caucus in Iowa, where Republican voters run strongly social conservative.
“I do support the Republican platform and I do support that big part of the Republican platform, and I am pro-life,” Romney said during an August 6 Republican debate, when asked whether he affirmed the human life amendment, a key part of the 2004 Republican pro-life platform that was written by his pro-life advisor James Bopp,Jr..

The human life amendment intends to change the US Constitution by expanding 14th Amendment protections – such as due process and equal protection clauses – to include unborn children. Such an amendment would ban abortions nationwide and repeal the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

I have a suggestion.   Michael?  Anytime you feel tempted to use the words “consistent” and “Romney” in the same sentence, lie down until the feeling passes.

In that vein, I should note that Jason Linkins, the HuffPo writer who assembled the record quoted just above also dug up this bit of High Romneyism:

However the Associated Press reports that Romney later qualified his support for a human life amendment. According to the AP, Romney said his advisor Bopp had told him “there are a wide range of possible human life amendments” ranging from a total ban on abortion to an amendment that let states make the decision. On top of that, getting both houses of Congress and 38 out of 50 states to support a constitutional amendment, Bopp told him, “is just not realistic.”

What does Romney really think about abortion?  Who the f**k knows.  If I were to guess I’d say his deepest wish is that talk of abortion would go away — he’s running for office for Pete’s sake.  But Romney’s waffle doesn’t get Scherer off the hook:  He claimed the Obama campaign lied because Romney has since 2005 maintained a single and clearly articulated position on an issue — but that statement is easily and clearly shown to be that which drops from the south end of a north facing horse.

To steal the phrase from Brad DeLong, why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

Image:  Giovanni Bellini, Four Allegories: Falsehood (or Wisdom), c. 1490.

A Fish is to a Bicycle

January 3, 2011

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

Andrew Sullivan and the Anatomy of False Equivalence

April 24, 2010

Here’s one more attempt to learn how to blog short, made glorious summer by that son of Surrey (not quite the same ring, is it?), Andrew Sullivan.

Instead of doing the full John Foster Dulles at every opportunity, I want to try picking on the one moment that illustrates the larger problem.

Here it is Sullivan’s inability to escape both the tropes of a failed journalistic conceit he himself often condemns…and the fact that he simply cannot free himself from the fetters of both identity politics and the claim of faith over experience.

Here’s the relevant passage in his post from yesterday (April 23, 2010) on yet one more bit of David Brooks’ maundering:

I can see how easy it was for the FNC-RNC to wheel out their exhausted tropes of anti-government rhetoric and for Paul Krugman, say, to wheel out his own pro-government radicalism.

Of course, to any unbiased observer — hell to just about any biased one, it must be obvious that a major propaganda network and the national committee of one of two American political parties are institutionally equivalent to one biweekly newspaper columnist.

Or not.

And of course, there is the question of the empirical issue:  who was right.  The weird thing here is that Sullivan actually knows the answer, for a little further down in his post, he writes,

“I happen to think that Krugman has much more of a case right now, because the circumstances almost require the drastic measures he favors.”

Which is to say, of course, that Krugman is not radical, and his work is not “pro-government,” whatever the hell that cliche masquerading as a thought might actually mean.  Rather, he proposed a series of extraordinarily conventional, mainstream economist’s responses to a classic financial crisis, and both his proposals and his criticisms of the actions actually undertaken have turned out to be well matched to the actual events and clearly derived from a long-standing and often-tested body of economic thought.

And, not to belabor what I think is obvious, this is where, for all of Sullivan’s obvious accomplishments, he still allows the habits born of his roots in polemic, not to mention his tortured identity politics, to limit his grasp of his circumstances.

Fox News and the modern Republican party are radical, by any reasonable definition of the term.  They are committed to creating a false reality to replace the actual body of knowledge and experience that describes the world most of us actually inhabit (and yes, I’m getting ready to ridicule you too, Rod Dreher, you pietistic and scientifically illiterate purveyor of false intellectual modesty).  And most important, they lie a lot.  All the time.  About big stuff and small.

And there is nothing in that record that is equivalent to anything in Krugman’s.  Again:  Krugman was right and Krugman was wholly conventional, neither seeking an expansion of government for its own sake nor any radical transformation of the relationship of government to the economy.  The pairing simply makes no sense as an actual statement about the world — and it only does in the context of Sullivan’s angst about the fact that the person he believes himself to be is one that his world now clearly says he’s not.

That is:  he wants to continue calling himself a conservative, despite the fact that most of the people in this country who claim that label, at least in the public arena, disdain his views, a favor he readily returns.  At the same time, he wants to appropriate any act he approves of as “genuine” conservativism — notably the many accomplishments he and I both admire to President Obama’s credit.  It’s an endlessly fluid concept, Sullivan’s political theory:  what is truly conservative is that which satisfies his sense of self-image and or necessity at any moment.

And that, of course, is the danger one faces when reading him:  you need to continuously filter out his reflex to utter and perhaps even in some deep way believe “conservative” tropes that should have been mugged out of him by the history of the last two decades.  That he still cannot do so on a regular basis (and there is a lot more of this kind of nonsense in just this one post…really I’m trying to restrain myself here) is a measure of how hard it is to abandon epistemic closure (to coin a phrase…or not) even when you warn against it.

Image: Ambroise Paré “Portrait of a Chameleon” 1585.