Friday, November 11, 2005

Defending Yourself by Complimenting Your Enemy

There's a fairly good article in Salon today.  I don't necessarily recommend that you read it, unless you are willing to watch one of their annoying advertisements first.  Besides, the article is only fairly good.  In the War Room column, Tim Grieve writes:
The president attacks his critics

We said it was coming, and here it is: On Veterans Day, George W. Bush is defending his administration's use of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, not by rebutting the charges that have been made, but by attacking those who have made them.

In a speech in Pennsylvania today, the president accused his critics of making "baseless attacks," rewriting history and throwing out "false charges" that serve only to undercut the troops now serving in Iraq. Although a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released this week showed that 57 percent of the American public now believes that the president deliberately misled the country about the case for war in Iraq, Bush marginalized those concerns as the wild charges of "some Democrats and anti-war critics." He said it's important to remember that "more than 100 Democrats in the House and the Senate who had access to the same intelligence voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power." [...]

How would the prewar debate have gone if everyone knew what the administration knew before the war started: that stories from an al-Qaida member about an Iraq connection had been called into question; that warnings Colin Powell delivered about mobile weapons labs weren't based on solid evidence; that claims about an Iraq-Niger had been debunked within the CIA before Bush made them; that pronouncements Condoleezza Rice made about aluminum tubes had been discredited before she spoke? [...]
It is true that Mr. Bush's approach to the antiwar movement has involved some elements of argumentum ad hominem.  To be clear, though, that was not the main thrust of his Veteran's Day speech.  No, the main thrust is a lesser-used, but equally fallacious form of argument.  It may even have Latin name, although if it does, I do know know what it is.  The main argument he makes, one that is parroted endlessly in the Blogosphere, is a more peculiar one.  One of the classic forms of the ad hominem  argument goes like this (from Wikipedia):
Ad hominem abusive

Ad hominem abusive (also called argumentum ad personam) usually and most notoriously involves merely (and often unfairly) insulting one's opponent, but can also involve pointing out factual but damning character flaws or actions. The reason that this is fallacious is that — usually, anyway — insults and even damaging facts simply do not undermine what logical support there might be for one's opponent's arguments or assertions; argumentum ad personam short-circuits these potential arguments from logic in favor of a direct attack on the opponent's authority.

Example 1:

    "You can't believe Jack when he says there is no God because he doesn't even have a job."

Example 2:

    Person A: "There is a God and archaeological records of the Middle East prove it."
    Person B: "Well, that's what I'd expect a fundamentalist Christian preacher to say. His livelihood depends on it."
Bush's ploy is the reverse: instead of saying that those gosh-darn Democrats said X, therefore X must be wrong, he says essentially: 'even the Democrats believed it, so it must be true.'   Or, if it isn't true, then 'at least I can be excused for having believed it.'  Or something like that.  Now that I think about it, it isn't exactly the reverse of the ad hominem argument, since he isn't really complimenting his enemy.  Rather, he is linking his opinion to those of his opponents, so that it would seem that one could not attack his opinion, without also attacking his opponents.  If you generally agree with his opponents, that would create an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance.  

This technique can be effective, when used against persons who are not in the habit of thinking clearly.  Nobody likes cognitive dissonance; often, people shy away from a line of reasoning that generates such discomfort.  But those in the habit of thinking clearly are not put off by such sloppy rhetorical tactics.  

Grieve's rejoinder is to assert that the Democrats who agreed with Bush did not have access to all of the same information.  Therefore, the argument goes, they can be forgiven if they agreed with what is now known to be a false conclusion (that war was justified).  

The problem with that is, at this point, those of us in the general public do not necessarily know what facts congressional Democrats had access to.  Personally, I suspect that many of them did have access to the pertinent information, and chose to go along with the whole scheme anyway.  If that is the case, they should be voted out of office, dissonant as that conclusion may seem.

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