Archive for Trump

Budgets, Tax Cuts, and Dog Whistles—Oh, My!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2017 by deborah1960

 

Unless you have the amazing good luck of living under a rock, you have, by now, heard about Trump’s proposed budget. In a nutshell, the budget factors in the $600 billion tax cut to the wealthiest citizens resulting from the not-yet repealed ACA, slashes governmental programs across the board with an extra whack of the budget axe to those that provide assistance to the poor, and gives a nice, fat increase to defense spending.

It is a mark of Trump’s diminishing standing among his fellow party members that several GOP members of Congress have chipped in and bought themselves a spine, and declared the budget “dead on arrival.”  However, the moribund status of Trump’s proposal has not prevented a spirited –nay, dare I say, feisty?—defense of this latest manifestation of Trumpism by a variety of surrogates from the Office of Management and Budget,  Congress,  and various “think” tanks.  And from Mick Mulvaney on down, these apologists have glommed onto one particular talking point with alarming alacrity.  In defending their slash and burn budget, they claim that they are “showing compassion to the taxpayer” by cutting federal programs to the bone.  It is not fair, they declare, to expect hardworking middle-class tax payers to continue footing the bill for the lazy slugs who are sucking undeserved milk from a worn out public teat. Fully 45% of American households do not pay income taxes!  Why should we subsidize them?

In other words, they’ve cynically split American citizenry into two camps:  makers and takers.   On a certain gut level, this argument seems to make sense.  You work your butt off, this line of reasoning goes, so why should you pay for free breakfast and medical insurance for the illegitimate spawn of a feckless welfare queen?  And the legitimacy of this position appears to be bolstered by the additional fact that approximately 45% of American households do not pay federal income taxes.  But the very ire that this stance provokes in the listener—that sting from the enormity of this insulting injustice—is precisely what should make you pause and consider the legitimacy of the argument.  Remember:  logic is boring, dull, and analytical.  It should rarely make you need to reach for an extra dose of your blood pressure medication. If an argument leaves you feeling absolutely murderous, then you need to see if it is grounded in logic, or if it is mired in knee-jerk provoking emotionalism.

So, let’s put on our Spock ears and look dispassionately at what they’re saying.  Personally, I think there are at several logically sound reasons for rejecting Mulvaney’s argument.

First, that 45% figure that’s bandied about is interesting as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really go that far.  For example, it doesn’t include all of the other taxes that people pay:   even if you don’t pay federal income taxes, the chances are pretty great that you do pay some combination of payroll, state, property, excise, sales, sin, and gas taxes. According to Roberton Williams, an analyst for the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, the actual percentage of people who pay no taxes is actually closer to 1%.[1]  Pretty much all of us are makers, as it turns out. Similarly, many of the households who didn’t pay federal income taxes had taken advantage of various deductions and credits that they were entitled to because Congress decided to use the tax code as a mechanism for carrying out important social policies, such as encouraging home ownership or giving to charities or making sure that the working poor can afford to go to work or keeping your granddad out of the poorhouse[2] or deciding that families that make less than $20,000 probably have too much shit on their plate already to worry about paying taxes.  You know, compassion.

Second, let’s just look a bit at who is eating the federal pie.  According to their really pretty pie chart, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found that in Fiscal Year 2015, the federal government spent $3.7 trillion, of which $3.2 trillion was from taxes and the rest from loans.  In that year, 16%  of the federal budget went to defense, 24% went to Social Security, 25% (or $938 billion) went to Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP[3] , and ACA marketplace subsidies, and 10% went to Safety Net programs.  Debt, vets, transportation, education, science and medical research, non-security related international programs, and miscellaneous crap made up the rest of the expenses (about 25%).  Now, you might tot up the Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, marketplace, and safety net programs and think, “Holy shit!!  The poor really are sucking up all of the federal resources.”  But slow down, okay? First of all, Social Security, including Social Security Disability Insurance,  is an insurance program, and current recipients have contributed to the program through their payroll tax contributions.  Second, of the 25% of the federal budget that went to paying for the poor’s health bill, two-thirds went to Medicare—which is available to all Americans over the age of 65, both rich and poorall you have to do is pay in and hope you make it to 65.  Social Security and Medicare are not programs for the poor.

But let’s be truly Scrooge-ish in our analysis and do our best to root out the freebooters in Granny’s nursing home. In 2015, 24% of Medicare recipients were at or under 200% of federal poverty levels.   However, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 41% of Medicare payments come from general federal revenues, while 38% was from pay roll taxes, 13% from beneficiary premiums, and the rest from state transfers, interests, and the ubiquitous but tantalizingly vague “other.”[4] Part A of Medicare, which covers hospital, nursing home, hospital, and home care, is the most expensive part of Medicare ($261.2 billion), and, guess what:  in 2014, only 1% of the Part A bill was paid for through income taxes!  The bulk of Medicare payments that were covered by federal income taxes were under Medicare B and D. These two programs totaled $338 billion, of which $253.5 billion (or 75%) is paid for by federal tax dollars.[5]  So, if we assume that 24% of that $253.5 billion was spent on the elderly poor, then the total of federal tax dollars spent on the poor for Medicare B and D is $63.4 billion. Add in the $633 million the feds chip in to the poor in Medicare A (25% of $2.5 billion in federal income taxes paid under Part A), the total payments to the poor under Medicare that originated from federal income tax is $64 billion.

So, let’s add up the federal income tax dollars that were spent on the poor (in billions of dollars):

 

Medicare 64
CHIP 9.7
Medicaid 351
ACA marketplace subsidies 41
Safety net programs[6] 362
Total: 827.7

 

Now, let’s see what percentage of federal income tax dollars were actually paid directly to the poor.  Taking the $3.7 trillion 2015 total budget as our starting point, I’ll immediately knock out the $938 billion in Social Security because, as I’ve pointed out before, that is funded by payroll taxes.  Similarly, I’ll toss out the $343.2 billion for Medicaid that came from non-federal income tax dollars.  That leaves us with roughly $2.4 trillion, of which $827.7 billion is 34%.  And since in 2015 32% of Americans were at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level, I would be inclined to say that seems about right.  And here’s a point:  if you thought it was unfair for 55% of potential federal income tax payers to subsidize the 45% who don’t pay income tax, then how fair is it for 32% of the population to bear the burden of 60% of the budget cuts?

When you think about it, the middle and upper classes get quite a lot out of the budget.  After all, who benefited from bank bailouts?  Who gets the most benefit from agricultural subsidies and shiny new airports?  I have a guess, and it isn’t the under-employed white guy living out in the country who’s about to lose his pick-up truck because he can’t make his loan payments.  Furthermore, this is not taking into account the very real benefits to the rich that are not accounted for in the budget. In 2015, $1.2 trillion dollars were exempted, excluded, or deducted from potential federal income tax and payroll tax revenues.  Also known as “tax expenditures,” these funds would have been enough to pay for Social Security, or Medicare and Medicaid combined, or defense and non-defense discretionary spending. In essence, because these dollars that are not captured by the federal government, they act as subsidies for the people who are eligible to claim them. While the poor benefited from the Earned Tax Credit, most tax deductions and exclusions are overwhelmingly skewed towards the wealthy[7] :  according to the CBPP, 50% of tax expenditures were claimed by the top 20%.[8] But because by their very nature they are not revenue, this benefit is not reflected in the federal budget. So who’s the real piggy at the trough?  Not sure, but I bet it’s the one whose chauffeur drove it to the food fest, and not the one who can’t afford the bus fare to get there.

All of this raises an important question:  why focus on the poor if they represent only a third of federal income tax dollars spent?  Well, for one thing, it’s easy to pick on the poor.  Practically by definition, they are vulnerable to attack, lacking the education, savvy, and resources to defend themselves and their interests.  And, let’s face it, we don’t really like the poor.  For all our protestations about being a classless society, we have a long, extensive and fairly vile history of abusing and denigrating the poor[9].  They make us feel bad, especially when it turns out that it’s not people’s  poor choices that create poverty (or even their state of mind), but ingrained societal inequities, including the failure to provide a living wage and the disproportionate impact of inherited wealth.[10] So when we’re feeling sad and scared and want to blame someone for our shitty state of affairs, the poor make a convenient whipping boy. Perhaps that’s why Trump’s budget really packs a wallop against the same white, rural, poor who voted for him.

But let’s be real here, right?  We know what Mulvaney is really trying to do.  He’s blowing on his dog whistle.   The tendency of white Americans to associate poverty with African-Americans has been well-documented, as has its connection to attacks on welfare systems.[11]  Using “poor” as a surrogate for “black” is a time-honored tradition at least since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in the 1968 presidential campaign—and not just for Republican presidents.[12] And nobody can blow on that particular dog whistle half as well as Donald Trump. He won not despite using overtly racist language, but because of it.  So Mulvaney, by picking on the poor, by pitting hard-working “us” against shiftless, feckless “them,” is using the same tactics his boss used to such great success back in November.[13]

So what do we do?  Point out that in 2015 41% of people living under the poverty line were white? Discuss how his budget will actually hurt Trump supporters the most?  Convene symposia on the links between structural racism and poverty? Well, as much as I love to think that reasoned discourse would bring an end to our racial woes, I really, really, doubt it.  Racism is an emotional response to the world, mired in shame, guilt, and greed, and as such is pretty immune to logic.  Anybody who has had Thanksgiving dinner with their Archie Bunker uncle knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Engaging in the debate on Mulvaney’s terms will do nothing to eradicate the inherent racism of his argument, but it would actually play into his hands by deepening the chasm between Trump supporters and reasonable people and hardening the differences of our positions even more. I therefore suggest that we reject Mulvaney’s position in its entirety and refuse to participate in it at all.  Instead, we need to replace his emotional appeal with one of our own.  And ours, I humbly suggest, would have the double charm of being grounded in fact and patriotism.  Hooray!

Here’s how it goes. While a mere 99% of households are makers, I would argue that 100% of us are takers.  We don’t all take the same things, but we all take something.  Some people get retirement benefits from having served our country, while others get help getting preventive medical care for their kids.  Hipsters might go to an exhibit funded in part by the NEA, while little kids like going to their local libraries and museums to learn[14].   Student loans help our kids get further education, and clean water and fresh air are universally popular, even if, for some unfathomable reason, you don’t “believe” in the impact of greenhouse gasses.  Nobody wants to lose their fingers at work.  The National Park Service is nifty, and how would I get my giggles without the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report? I don’t know about you, but I like  science and medical research, and disease prevention is something I could definitely live with.  Some of us need help to afford to eat, while others like to rake in agricultural subsidies . See how it works?  Something for everyone.  The federal budget accommodates the needs and desires of all citizens, and that’s cool because this country, like all countries, is a joint enterprise.  If Justice Holmes were right, and taxes are the dues we pay for a civilized society, then the budget is the mechanism for establishing and maintaining that civilization. What we need, instead of attacking the users, is a fair and equitable means of raising tax revenues—including from the oh-so-favored top 20%.

Basically, there is a division in our country, but it is not between the makers and the takers.  Instead, it is between those who see government as a means to provide for the common welfare of all its citizens and those who see it as a way to redistribute funds from the poor to the rich. Reader, I think the choice is obvious, but we need to beat our drums about it more, because there are those who will buy Mulvaney’s false dichotomy and deepen the rifts that are already dangerously close to ripping our nation apart.  Sad!

 

©2017 D. R. Miller

[1] For a good explanation of the limitations of the 45% figure, click here.

[2] According to The Economist, in 2011, 22% of families that didn’t pay federal taxes were seniors receiving tax-exempt Social Security benefits.

[3] Children’s Health Insurance Program.  Oh, those pesky kids.

[4] Figure 6 on the KFF fact sheet.  The KFF fact sheet is based on FY 2014 figures, but, you know what?  I’m willing to bet that the percentages are about the same for FY 2015.

[5] Part B = 259.8 billion, and Part D = $78.2 billion.

[6] These programs include SNAP, and Supplemental Security Income for the elderly or disabled poor, and unemployment insurance

[7] The disparity between the haves and have-nots is especially eye-watering when looking at who benefits from the capital gains preferences.

[8] 16.6% went to the top 1%.

[9] And if you don’t believe me, check out this light-hearted tome, the genteelly named White Trash by Nancy Isenberg .  Also available on Audible for your listening pleasure.

[10] Stupid poor.  Always choosing the wrong parents.

[11] See, for example, Gilens, M. “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the News Media” Public Opinion Quarterly, 1996, found at http://www.uvm.edu/~dguber/POLS234/articles/gilens.pdf.

[12] Bill Clinton’s campaign for welfare reform springs to mind, for example.

[13] You really need to read the National Book Award winning Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram X. Kelly of the University of Florida.  I mentioned this book in my last blog, but I really can’t recommend it enough if you’re at all interested in the evolution of racist ideas and their role in justifying racist beliefs, actions, and policies.

[14] Because Christ knows they won’t be able to learn anything at their local public school, thanks to Trump’s budget!

Presidential Grammar 101: Dynamic, Stative, and Modal Verbs

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2017 by deborah1960

Verbs are wonderful.  The root of a verb is aptly called “the infinitive” because any given verb can take place at any time: the past, the present, the future.  With verbs, we can express actions that occurred in the past but continue into the present (present perfect:  Trump has always been a buffoon) or that will take place in the future after something else occurs (future perfect:  I hope that Comey will have completed his public testimony before Sean Spicer’s ass is fired.)  Heck!  Verbs are so flexible that we can even use them to express hypotheticals, situations contrary to fact, or wishes (conditional:  If Paul Ryan loved his country more than power, he would start impeachment proceedings; and subjunctive:  I wish McConnell weren’t such a bald-faced liar and hypocrite.)

So, verbs are gifted with temporal agility, and if that were all they were capable of, I think we could still agree that they are pretty remarkable indeed.  However, the true beauty of verbs is their ability to allow us to express a limitless range of physical and mental and emotional actions.  In other words, they not only allow us to express what we do, but also what we are—and even what we should.  It is this aspect of verbs, which is so fundamental to their nature that it is frequently overlooked, that I wish to examine.

In general, then, there are three basic types of verbs:  dynamic, stative, and modal.[1]  Dynamic verbs, as their name suggests, involve some type of action, process, or behavior.  In other words, it’s what we do.  Here are some examples:

Hillary Clinton laughed until she nearly wet herself at the notion that Trump had fired Comey because of the FBI’s bungled investigation of her emails.

Anderson Cooper’s eyes rolled like a wheel of fortune during his interview with Kellyanne Conway.

The hundreds of Benghazi “patriots” who had gathered in front of the White House to protest Trump’s loosey-goosey sharing of top-top-top secret intelligence with his Russian comrades screamed, “Lock him up!”[2]

Stative verbs, on the other hand, reflect our states of being, or who we are. These include verbs of existence (“Trump is totally irresponsible”); appearance (“Kellyanne seems really shifty”); feelings and emotion (“McMasters really hates lying to the press on behalf of his shit-storm of a boss”); mental processes (“Mitch McConnell forgot the meaning of the phrase ‘checks and balances’); and possession (“To their chagrin, many GOP congressmen own their votes in favor of TrumpRyanCare”).  Generally, you don’t use the progressive (continuous) tense[3] with stative verbs.  So, for example, you would say “The chocolate cake tastes all right but really it’s nothing to write home about,” but not “The chocolate cake is tasting all right but really it’s nothing to write home about.”  However, there are lots and lots of stative verbs that can also be dynamic.[4] Here’s an example of what I mean:

Sean Spicer lies to the press (stative:  he always does it).

Sean Spicer is lying to the press again (dynamic:  he is currently in the act of lying).

Sean Spicer is lying prostrate on the rug after the daily briefing (dynamic: using a different meaning of the verb “to lie”).

“To be” can, under certain circumstances be either stative or dynamic, depending on how it’s used:

Sean Spicer is a liar (stative:  he always is a liar)

Sean Spicer is being a liar (dynamic:  right now, at this moment, Sean Spicer is lying).[5]

“To have” can also be dynamic or stative:

I have had a nasty case of nausea since November 9, 2016 (stative:  possession)

I am having a particularly nasty case of nausea right now (dynamic:  I am in the process of being sick right now).

However, even though they can behave similarly,[6] they really do not mean the same thing.  Consider the difference between these two sentences:

“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts”

“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which is absolutely right to do, facts”

Now, as delightfully refreshing as it is to see Trump dealing in facts, even in the most unfortunate of circumstances, I think we can agree that the first sentence (his actual tweet) is quite different from the second sentence (which is what I think he wishes we would think he said).  To have the right to do something does not mean that it is right to do it. You would think that was obvious, but, well, you know.  Trump.

But this exploration between having a right and being right—the difference between “can” and “ought,” in other words–makes a nice segue to modal verbs.  Modal verbs are words that express degrees of necessity and possibility.  They include could, should, would, ought, may, might, can, shall, will, and must. Hardly anyone (besides English teachers and other grammar enthusiasts, that is) realizes that these words are verbs at all. They simply don’t act like normal verbs; hell, they don’t even have an infinitive form (there is no “to must”).  When diagramming a sentence with modal verbs, most students just scratch their heads and wonder where in the world the goddamned predicate is.

Yet, in many ways, the modal verb is what makes civilization possible.  They establish our bounds, and also act as a reality check.  When joined by “have”, could, would, and should allow us to evaluate our past actions, and enable us to learn from our mistakes.  They really are the most marvelous words.  But don’t just take my word for it:  look at these incredibly useful examples to see what I mean!

A president may disclose top secret information to a traditional enemy, but perhaps he oughtn’t.

A president could choose to share top secret information with a traditional enemy, but he should not do it just to prove how cool his intelligence sources are.

The Russian officials must have been beside themselves with joy when they received the top secret information from the president.

The next time the president thinks about sharing top secret information with the Russians, he might want to remember that he has a duty to the citizens of his country to act in their best interests.

So, that’s it, then.  Dynamic, stative, and modal.  Now, you might be thinking that all this is nice, but has nothing to do with real life.  Reader, I could not disagree more.  If you think about it, looking closely at these verbs should remind us about the difference between our thoughts and our actions, between innate qualities that cannot be changed and attitudes that can be, between the things we can do and the things that we ought (or ought not). That’s because our words and the rules that govern them are not separate from ourselves and our actions, but are entwined in them.  We once had a president who understood that, and chose his words carefully as a result.  Alas, that is no longer the case.  So, if the current president won’t pay attention to his words, then we have no choice but to do it for him.  Sad!

[1] Yes, yes, yes.  I know that there are auxiliary verbs (AKA “helping verbs”)—to have, to do, and to be.  But when these verbs are functioning as auxiliary verbs, they are used to just change the tense of verbs.  In other words, they perform a purely grammatical function.  So screw them—they’re boring.    But please note that I said “functioning as auxiliary verbs” because all of these auxiliary verbs can be dynamic, and two of them can be stative and dynamic (but no prizes for guessing which ones). Verbs.  As slippery as the slope the GOP is pushing us down.

[2] Not really—I’m just fucking with you.

[3] The continuous or progressive tense is formed by joining some form of the verb “to be” with the present participle (-ing) of the verb in question.  Here’s what I mean:

Past continuous:  Donald Trump was eating the most delicious piece of chocolate cake when he shared state secrets with the waiters at Mar-a-Lago.

Present continuous:  Right now, Donald Trump is eating the most delicious piece of chocolate cake while sharing state secrets with the waiters at Mar-a-Lago.

Future continuous:  Without a doubt, Donald Trump will be eating the most delicious piece of chocolate cake the next time he shares state secrets with the waiters at Mar-a-Lago.

[4] Well, of course there are.  This IS English grammar we’re discussing, after all!

[5] However, you need to be careful—there are some conditions that are so innate that you cannot convert them to a dynamic state.  So, you can say “Donald Trump is a narcissist,” but not “Donald Trump is being a narcissist.” That’s because Trump’s narcissism is the very core of his personality, and not something that he can turn on or off like a faucet.

[6] And now you know which two auxiliary verbs are both stative and dynamic!  Good for you!

© 2017 D.R. Miller

How to Tell BF from BS

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2017 by deborah1960

A recent op-ed article in the New York Times raised an interesting (and eponymous) question:  has Trump stolen philosophy’s critical tools? The author, Casey Williams, argues that some of the blame for Trump’s rather casual relationship with the truth lies in some measure with the philosophers, literary critics, and social scientists who have chipped away at the notion that truth can in any way be deemed objective, universal, and unquestionable.  In a world where the one universally acknowledged truth is that the truth cannot be known, it is a short hop, skip, and a jump to proclaiming the legitimacy of “alt-truth.”  Certainly, truth is subjective.  If nothing else, neuroscience has established that the evidence of our eyes and of our memory is anything but reliable.  A quick peek at Neuroscience News reveals how researchers are learning how fragile, friable, and fantastical our memories—so critical to our understanding of “truth”–are.  Trump therefore cannot be lying, because there cannot be such a thing as the truth.  Instead of lies, Trump is merely recasting his version of the truth, or rather, is positing one of an infinite possible truths.  This situation raises the hitherto unthinkable possibility that Trump is a b.f. (bona fide—good faith) philosopher, and not a b.s. (bullus shittus) artist.

And yet this prospect doesn’t sit well with me, and I think Williams finds it a quite uncomfortable notion, too. Indeed, he ends by stating that the only way for us to determine the legitimacy (or otherwise) of Trump’s pronouncements is for us to use critical thinking skills.  After all, philosophy and truth-seeking should be supported by sound reasoning, right? So, let’s put on our Critical Thinking Caps and do it!  Let’s root out rotten reasoning!

First, intentions should matter. And something tells me that Trump’s intentions are not pure.  Someone who acknowledges the possibility of a subjective truth, and who rejects the notion of a universal truth, tends to be anti-authoritarian.  If you have a nuanced view of the world, and are willing to accept that there is, indeed, more than one way to skin a cat,[1] then you are far less likely to attempt to impose your world view upon others.  This is evident in literary criticism, which by its very nature encourages the reader to develop personal interpretations of texts.  Analyzing a canonical work such as Othello through a feminist lens, for example, enables us to view the characters of Emilia and Desdemona as far more critical (and interesting) than if we simply accept the heavy-handed traditional view that the female characters are merely stock figures whose sole purpose in the play is to move the plot along.  Similarly, adopting different ways of viewing the world might make one a bit more sensitive to the impact of history upon current events.  So, for example, one might be a tad more willing to concede the importance of asserting that “black lives matter” if one looked at the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching through the eyes of African Americans.  I know that if I were African American, I would be a bit shrill in asserting my right to exist in the face of a power structure that has done everything possible to downplay the importance of black lives.[2] Absolutists, on the other hand, appear to have no difficulty with declaring that their point of view is the correct position to take. Frankly, there is nothing in Trump’s biography, rhetoric, or actions to support the idea that he is a subtle observer of the human condition.  Indeed, I think that Trump himself would scoff at the idea that he really need to see things from another person’s point of view. Atticus Finch he is not.[3] At the very least, his sweeping generalizations indicate that he is a man who sees the world in absolute terms.

But even if we assume that Trump’s intentions are as pure as Sir Galahad, and that Trump were posing an alternative truth instead of a downright lie, there should still be some relationship to the “truth” he is refuting.  Let’s look at the example Williams used:  Trump’s tweet in response to the increased heat generated by the investigation into Russian interference with the election.  Here it is, in all its glory:

 “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism.”

Now, you might look high, and you might look low, but there is nothing in this statement that is in any way relevant to the question of just how far up his puppet Putin’s hands go.[4]  This lack of a logical relationship between the statement (“Putin really had his hand way, way, WAY up his puppet!”) and the refutation (“Obama bugged me!”) can be either intentional (a red herring) or inadvertent (ignoratio elenchi)[5].  But either way, as any Critical Thinking Teacher worth her salt can tell you, this disconnection is a fatal flaw to the argument Trump is making, because all it does is throw sand into the reader’s eyes.  Instead of shedding light on the matter at hand, Trump is obscuring it.  Blurts do not sound reasoning make.

Furthermore, even if “truth” doesn’t exist, “facts” sure do.  There are observable, measurable phenomena whose existence can be verified.  Temperatures can be measured, stock prices recorded, and hot mic remarks  replayed.  To date, he has not offered any evidence to back his claim about Obama bugging Trump Tower.  Nor is this an isolated lapse: Trump’s relationship with facts is notoriously lax. Politifact, an independent fact-checking website, reckons that 71% of the 394 statements by Trump that they fact-checked were mostly false (20%), false (33%), or “pants-on-fire” (16%).  And these statements include easily fact-checked falsehoods (“All pipelines that are coming into this country from now on has (sic) to be American steel”) and some just plain silly pants-igniting lies ( “Before the presidential campaign, ‘I didn’t know Steve [Bannon]’”). I think that we can all agree that a philosophical truth-seeker will, if nothing else, at least try to make his or her statements consistent with the factual record.

But mostly, Trump’s rhetoric is simply not consistent with typical philosophical discourse.  Can any among you honestly say that The Critique of Pure Reason was simply un-put-down-able?  Or that Of Grammatology was a real page turner?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Bueller?

Of course not.  And there is an excellent reason for this:  philosophical writings are intellectual, rational, and about as exciting to read as paint can labels.  That’s why most people don’t read them and instead use Sparknotes.[6]

Now, there are many things you can call Trump’s rhetoric, but “dry” and “intellectual” certainly aren’t among them.  Look at these examples to see what I mean:

“Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”

“I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

“If I were running ‘The View’, I’d fire Rosie O’Donnell. I mean, I’d look at her right in that fat, ugly face of hers, I’d say ‘Rosie, you’re fired.’”

They are not identical in tone or subject.  In that first quotation, Trump’s New Year’s greeting manages to conflate love and vague threats to his “enemies” in a rather memorable –and disturbing—manner, while the repeated references to the greatness of his wall in the second quotation brings to mind the hubristic musings of an illiterate eight-year-old.  The revenge fantasy of the third quotation is marked by its viciousness.  But they share a vital quality:  they are all riddled with emotive language.

Emotive language, as its name strongly suggests, is used to create an emotional response in the reader or listener.  And that emotional response is often visceral, which literally means taking place in the gut.  Fear, love, humor, horror all have physical manifestations: sweat, increased heart rate, laughter.  Even my usual response to Trump’s language, nausea, is merely the physical manifestation of my disgust.

You might notice that in the midst of all this emotion, there is very little intellectual reaction going on.  It takes real effort to think after reading a Trumpism, because you feel emotionally drained.  A b.f. philosopher, on the other hand, leaves you exhausted because she exercised your brain.  By purposely creating an emotional reaction, Trump is using linguistic prestidigitation to distract the reader from the critical task at hand of evaluating the legitimacy of his “alt-truth.”  Far from seeking his own subjective truth, he is preventing the reader from engaging with the meaning of his words in any substantive way.

And that, dear reader, is why I feel utterly comfortable with labeling Trump as a b.s. artist, and his “alternate truths” as lies.

[1] My cat hates this expression.

[2] And in case you think I’m being ever so slightly hysterical, you might want to check out this book.

[3] I am, of course, referring to the Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird, or, as I like to call him, the real Atticus Finch.  Someday I will write a blog about the immorality of tricking an old lady with dementia into publishing a draft of a crap novel she had abandoned decades ago.  But more of that anon.

[4] My!  That’s a disturbing image!

[5] If you want to know the difference, I suggest you click here to read a really, really AMAZING blog that uses the best words to explain it!! Nice!

[6] Yes, yes, yes.  I know that there are a few among you who have, indeed, read these works in their entirety and really, really liked them.  Bully for you.  But I was talking about normal people.

 

Copyright 2017 D. R. Miller

Ban Banners and the Banning Bannons That Support Them!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2017 by deborah1960

I started out this blog as a way to share breezy little essays about things of interest to me:  The Archers, the wonders of Britain, Steinbeck’s superb use of structure to convey meaning, and even how not to raise your kids.  Lately, I’ve been applying the principles that I taught to my erstwhile Critical Thinking classes to the various idiocies spouted off by the current regime, mostly because I find its total disregard of logic and intellectual honesty to be beyond outrageous.  The voice I’ve been adopting in these latter essayettes has been pedantic sarcasm on steroids—as if I have been channeling a rabid Mr. Peabody—all in defense of sound reasoning and honest argumentation.

However, today I find that neither voice suffices to address today’s topic.  Trump’s Executive Order on “Protection of the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”[1] is so grossly wrong on so many levels, that the only justifiable response to it is a fierce moral outrage.  The New York Times provides a nice synopsis of the order:

President Trump on Friday closed the nation’s borders to refugees from around the world, ordering that families fleeing the slaughter in Syria be indefinitely blocked from entering the United States, and temporarily suspending immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries [Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen].  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/us/politics/refugee-muslim-executive-order-trump.html?ribbon-ad-idx=11&src=trending&module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Politics&action=swipe&region=FixedLeft&pgtype=article

Frankly, documenting all of the many ways that Trump has offended even the most lax standards of decency is too heavy a load for this little bagatelle of a blog to carry.  But let me run down a few.

First, the class of people targeted by Trump’s pernicious decree are amongst the most miserable of the miserable. A refugee does not choose to leave his or her home country:   under Department of Homeland Security (presumably those who would know best who constitutes a threat to the nation), a refugee is “a person who has fled his or her country of origin because of past persecution or a fear of future persecution based upon race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group (https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/refugees/questions-answers-refugees ).”   I think that the operative word to focus on here is “fled,” the past tense of “flee,” the first definition of which, appropriately enough for the purpose of this particular essayette, is “1. a :  to run away, often from danger or evil :  fly <The family fled from the war-torn zone.>b :  to hurry toward a place of security <Refugees fled to a neighboring country.> (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/flee).”[2] There is nothing voluntary about becoming a refugee.  Indeed, the DHS regulations explicitly exclude those who have chosen to leave for economic or other reasons.  It is compulsion, not desire, that induces the refugee to leave her native land. Targeting this vulnerable group of people, people who have had to leave behind all they knew and loved, is a despicable act of bullying—even coming from one of history’s all-time great despicable bullies. The fact that he chose to sign the order on Holocaust Remembrance Day is further proof (if any were needed) of Trump’s utter callousness to the suffering of others.

Second, Trump’s stated desire of ensuring “extreme vetting” of refugees in order to “protect the nation” is a straw man made of the shoddiest of materials.  Refugees already undergo “extreme vetting”:  the State Department undertakes an exhaustive review of each applicant’s claim for refugee status.[3] Typically, the process takes 18 to 24 months to complete,[4] hardly what you could sensibly call a lighthearted decision. How could this vetting possibly be more microscopic?  What he calls “extreme vetting” is actually “exclusion.”

Further, Trump is creating a false equivalency between refugees and foreign terrorists. He asserts that refugees are somehow a threat to the country:  if we take pity on the miserable, they will inevitably turn around and attack us.  How sharper than a serpent’s tooth, according to Trump, it is to have an ungrateful refugee.  Yet there is little to back up Trump’s bald assertion.  A recent study strongly suggests that in Germany, which has welcomed over a million refugees from the Maghreb, there is “no clear link between refugees and most kinds of crime (http://www.dw.com/en/study-contradicts-efforts-to-link-migrants-to-crime/a-19390414 ).”  Indeed, increased numbers in immigration are correlated to decreases in crime overall, not only in Germany (ibid), but even here in the good old U S of A (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0002716212438938).[5]  If immigration in general is beneficial to the host nation, how much more so is welcoming refugees, the people who have the greatest motivation to be grateful to their port in the storm?

Additionally, Trump’s particular definition of “foreign terrorist” is so narrowly drawn that it is nothing more than a coded word for “Muslim.” This is made absolutely clear by the fact that exceptions will be considered for members of “religious minorities”—or, as they are commonly referred to, Christians.[6] Trump’s fear, hatred, and fundamental misunderstanding of Islam is well-documented:  it is amongst the highest pitched of his many dog whistles.[7] He is blatantly and deliberately targeting members of a particular religion.  Perhaps Trump has suffered from a spectacular case of amnesia, because he certainly seems to have forgotten that, just a little over a week before he signed this evil document, he took a pledge to “uphold and defend the Constitution”—including, presumably, the First[8] and the Fourteenth[9] Amendments.

But, purely for the sake of argument, let’s forget all the moral, logical, and constitutional objections that I have raised to the Executive Order. Let’s even forget the possibility that other countries might start taking a long, hard look at US citizens entering their country.  Instead, let’s look at the Order’s stated purpose:  the protection of the nation.  If that were truly Trump’s aim, then it is hard to see how he could have missed the mark by any wider margin. First, one would expect that at least one of the seven countries named in the order to have had citizens involved in terrorist attacks against the United States.  However, such is not the case.[10]  Not only that, but the refugees who are fleeing those countries are, in fact, the victims of the very violence that Trump is purportedly seeking to curb.[11] In fact, many of the Iraqi refugees now banned from entering the U.S. have been targeted for retribution by ISIS because they aided the U.S. military.[12] How does forsaking the people who aided us in any way make us safer? And what motivation will they have to help us in the future?  What position does Trump’s actions put American military and civilian personnel currently in Iraq?  The illogic of Trump’s position is more than mind-boggling:  it is soul destroying.

And finally, the greatest danger to the nation is the fact that this Order, based as it is in venality, bigotry, and idiocy, is a 24 karat gift to ISIS or any of its ilk.  It is not generosity that inspires terrorism.  To the contrary, it is the clear injustice of this document that will serve as a clarion call to would-be martyrs, threatening US citizens not only here, but abroad.  By acting so foolishly in order to “protect” us, all Trump has done is to place us in even greater danger.

© 2017 D R Miller

 

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/us/politics/refugee-muslim-executive-order-trump.html?_r=0

[2] How marvelously apt those example sentences are! Bravo, Merriam-Webster.  Bravo.

[3]   Q.  What Kind Of Processing Can I Expect Under The United States Refugee Program?
A.   The U.S. Department of State Resettlement Service Centers (RSCs) carry out most of the casework preparation for refugee eligibility interviews. The RSCs pre-screen applicants, help prepare the applications for USCIS, initiate background security checks, and arrange medical examinations for those refugees approved by USCIS.

Following USCIS approval, the processing entity also asks for the names and addresses of any relatives in the United States, for details on the person’s work history and job skills, and for any special educational or medical needs of the refugee and accompanying family members, in order to determine the best resettlement arrangements for the refugee.

The International Organization for Migration generally arranges transportation to the United States on a loan basis. Refugees are expected to repay the cost of their transportation once they are established in the United States.  Individual refugees or their relatives may pay for transportation costs in advance. (https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/refugees/questions-answers-refugees )

[4] https://www.state.gov/j/prm/releases/factsheets/2017/266447.htm

[5] However, there does appear to be one category of crime that has worryingly increased since the influx of refugees to Germany: crime against refugees.

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/28/trump-immigration-ban-syria-muslims-reaction-lawsuits

[7] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/11/donald-trump-islamophobia-president-161109065355945.html Indeed, Islamophobia is only one of the many traits Trump shares with Vladimir Putin (“In almost every case it has been his distinctive combination of homophobia and Islamophobia that has made Putin one of the Christian right’s favorite international figures (nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/12/why-the-christian-right-shares-trumps-affection-for-putin.html)”). Putin infamously consolidated his power in Russia through his war on majority- Muslim Chechnya—a war that he justified in response to a “terrorist” attack on a Moscow apartment building that most likely was plotted and carried out by Russian security agents (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/putins-way/transcript/).

[8] “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances (https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights-transcript).”

[9] “Section 1.  All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws (https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv ).”

[10] As this Huffington Post article unequivocally declares in its title: There Have Been No Fatal Terror Attacks In The U.S. By Immigrants From The 7 Banned Muslim Countries ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/no-terror-attacks-muslim-ban-7-countries-trump_us_588b5a1fe4b0230ce61b4b93 ).

[11] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-muslim-ban-immigration-visas-refugees-syria-iraq-terrorism-isis-attacks-most-victims-a7550936.html

[12] http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/iraq-kind-phone-call-tells-lot

Kellyanne and the Sea of Red Herrings

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2017 by deborah1960

 

A “red herring” in rhetoric refers to a diversionary tactic that is used to distract attention from the issue actually at hand.  Because it is an attempt to use an irrelevancy to avoid the real argument, it is a massive, albeit popular, logical fallacy. There are lots of fun, apocryphal stories about the origin of the phrase, but they all boil down to the same idea:  in order to throw hounds off a trail, crafty [fugitives, thieves, hunters, take your pick] would use a stinky old fish to create a false trail for whatever gullible rube they were trying to fool (http://www.culinarylore.com/food-history:origin-of-red-herring-expression, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2016/05/origins-phrase-red-herring/).  I was reminded of the term on December 29, when various Trump surrogates, including Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer, strongly implied that the real story about the alleged Russian hacks of the DNC computers was how the DNC was actually to blame because of its piss-poor cybersecurity measures.

CNN asked Kellyanne about actions President Obama took in response to intelligence reports that not only did Russia hack the DNC, but they did so in aid of the Trump campaign.  She said many interesting things that day, but this is what really pricked up my ears:

This is really about the DNC’s breach. They didn’t have the proper security … and someone was able to hack the information, and we are not in favor of foreign governments interfering in our elections or interfering in our intelligence (http://www.politicususa.com/2016/12/29/kellyanne-conway-blames-u-s-intelligence-agencies-russia-election-hacking.html).

It seemed as if she were saying that, instead of going after the hackers and whoever might have benefitted from their actions, we should instead blame the DNC.  Now that seems like a distraction, doesn’t it?

But it is important not to leap to conclusions.  Even teachers of Critical Thinking have been known to have an emotional reaction or two, and I certainly did not want to commit a logical fallacy of my own.  In this case, the fallacy I wanted to avoid is called “confusing an explanation for an excuse.”

Before going on to examine this fallacy, it’s important to recall basic principles of argumentation in order to understand the difference between excuses and explanations.  An argument has two basic components:  a reason and a conclusion.  A conclusion is the proposition or claim that you are trying to prove. A reason is a statement given to support or justify the conclusion.  If you can logically put “because” before a statement, it is a reason; similarly, if you can put “therefore” before a statement, then it is a conclusion. [1]  And if you have the two together, then you have an argument.

Here are some examples:

“[Because] I think, therefore I am.”

“[Because] I am a grammar nazi.  Therefore I would be a good copy editor.”

“[Because] I like cats, therefore I hate dogs.”

These are all properly formulated (albeit not very well-developed) arguments.

Explanations, however, are not reasons—they support the reason by making the thinking behind the reason clearer.

“I like cats.  They are fluffy and sweet.  Therefore, I hate dogs.”

The statement “they are fluffy and sweet” clarifies why I prefer cats, but does not justify why I hate dogs.  Thus, it is an explanation, and not a reason.

Unlike most logical fallacies, where the flaw is committed by the speaker or writer, “confusing an explanation for an excuse” is usually the result of faulty thinking on the part of the reader or listener.  Instead of realizing that what is being said is being offered to clarify the reasons behind the speaker’s ultimate conclusion, the reader jumps ahead and assumes that the writer is justifying the conclusion.  In other words, what is being used as an explanation is interpreted as a reason or excuse.

Here’s an example of how the fallacy can be committed:

Me:  Where’s your homework?

Student:  I didn’t do it.  I am a lazy slug.

Me:  I suppose you think that excuses/justifies your decision not to hand in your homework. [SPOILER ALERT:  This is the step where I commit the fallacy.]

Student:  No, I’m just explaining/clarifying that this is how God made me. You knew this about me, you have always known this about me, and you will always know this about me. Therefore, it was totally illogical of you to expect me to do the homework in the first place

I assumed that the student was saying “Because I am a lazy slug, I therefore did not do the homework,” and attacked her before she could conclude the argument.  I (gasp!) committed a flaw in my logic because I interrupted her before she could give me her reason (“You knew this about me…”) that supported her conclusion (“Therefore, it was totally illogical of you to expect me to do the homework in the first place”).  “I am a lazy slug” was simply strengthening her reason.  Now, I don’t have to accept her argument, but at least I can recognize the true role being performed by her statement, “I am a lazy slug.”

It is not always easy to make the distinction between an explanation and an excuse.  For example, sometimes an explanation is so compelling that it looks like an excuse.

Me: Where’s your homework?

Student:  I was in the hospital for two weeks in traction for two broken arms and high as a kite on pain killers.

Now, unless I were a total dickhead, this explanation would more than suffice as justification for cutting the kid some slack.  But, strictly speaking, it is still an explanation that supports the implied reason that she couldn’t do the homework, which would support her implied conclusion that she should be exempted from my “homework is due when homework is due” policy.  If my student were as pedantic as I am, she would have formulated her argument thusly:

Me:  Where’s your homework?

Student:  I should be not be punished for not handing in my homework [Conclusion] because I couldn’t do it [Reason/excuse/justification].  I was in the hospital for two weeks in traction for two broken arms and high as a kite on pain killers [Explanation].

There are many reasons why the listener can mistake explanations for excuses.  My second student didn’t structure her argument formally (she was still on painkillers), and it’s rather unreasonable (even for a dedicated pedant such as your author) to expect everyone to formulate every argument according to my exacting specifications. Another reason the listener can make the mistake is because of emotions.  For example, I was so pissed off at the student in the first example that I jumped the gun.

In order to distinguish excuses from explanations, it is necessary to see how the statement in question is being used.   Is it setting the stage by giving context for the reasons supporting the conclusion?  Is it giving you a fact that strengthens the reasoning behind the conclusion?  Or is it being used as a reason that justifies the conclusion of the argument?

So, keeping these considerations in mind, let’s look again at what Kellyanne said about the DNC hacks to determine if I’ve committed a fallacy by mistaking her explanation for her reason:

This is really about the DNC’s breach. They didn’t have the proper security … and someone was able to hack the information, and we are not in favor of foreign governments interfering in our elections or interfering in our intelligence (http://www.politicususa.com/2016/12/29/kellyanne-conway-blames-u-s-intelligence-agencies-russia-election-hacking.html).

Now, if we were speaking strictly in structural terms, it’s clear that Kellyanne is making an argument:  you can logically insert the word “because” in front of the sentence starting “They didn’t have the proper security…” and “therefore” in front of “This is really about the DNC’s breach.”  Grrr.  She really does seem to be saying that the DNC is solely responsible for the hack.  But, maybe like my student in my second example, Kellyanne’s powers of reasoning were somehow not up to par.  Maybe the stress of her job is getting to her.  So let’s cut her some slack, and see if we can discern an implied intent to use this statement as an explanation, and not an excuse. To do this would require us to see if “This is really about the DNC’s breach” can function as a reason, and not a conclusion.

But, assuming Kellyanne is being logical, there should be some proposition that would flow naturally from her reason “This is really about the DNC’s breach.”  What could that conclusion be?  That the DNC is the author of their own downfall?  That the hackers are utterly absolved of their own culpability?  It’s hard to see what other conclusion might be drawn.[2]

Or, if there is no reason at all in her statement, but it is instead a pile of explanations, of clarifications, of context, what reason would those explanations support?  Perhaps she is using this information to build an argument about the necessity for constant vigilance in the face of foreign attacks upon our political structures. In that case, we would reasonably look for her to condemn the Russians for taking advantage of the security breach.  Such an argument might look like this:

This is really about the DNC’s breach. They didn’t have the proper security … and someone was able to hack the information, and we are not in favor of foreign governments interfering in our elections or interfering in our intelligence.  Because of the lax security, the Russians were able to influence the outcome of the election.  Therefore, we must have a root and branch investigation of the DNC hacking to ensure that this never happens again.[3]

However, Kellyanne’s statement does not use the fact of the DNC’s rather fey attitude to cybersecurity for either of these purposes.  No. Instead, she says “[t]his is really about the DNC’s breach.”  That’s it.  End of report.  Kellyanne is not showing any interest in addressing the underlying issue of the rights or wrongs of the DNC hack:  instead, she is allocating all of the blame to the DNC, and none to the hackers.  So, after all that, I’m pretty sure that I’m not committing the error of mistaking an explanation for a reason.  Additionally, other GOP surrogates have failed to dissuade me from this conclusion.

For example, Sean Spicer used similar language the same day in his response to the news that the Russians were linked to the hacking:

At some point, the question hasn’t even been asked of the (Democratic National Committee): Did you take basic measures to protect the data that was on there?  Where’s the responsibility of them to protect their systems? http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/29/politics/sean-spicer-dnc-hackings/

Again, this might be deemed to be an explanation of why the hacking occurred in the first place.  However, Sean never takes that extra step of saying that the hacks should never occurred in the first place, or that we really do need to find a way to keep those pesky Russians from stealing personal documents.  Instead, he goes on to attack the media for not asking the DNC about its crap security and the intelligence agencies for not making their findings public.  Indeed, his ire seems to be aimed at just about everybody except the people who experts agree are the most likely culprit.  This is not the language of explanation:  it’s the language of obfuscation.  Of sand in your eyes.  Or, to use a term I learned on my mother’s knees, horse feathers.

Well, what’s the big deal, you might ask.  After all, Kellyanne and Sean have a point:  if the DNC hadn’t been so whimsical about basic cybersecurity, they wouldn’t have been hacked, right?  Even if they come to this conclusion, what makes it a red herring?

Well, the reason why it’s a red herring is that it is an attempt to distract the reader from the real issues at hand:  who the hell committed those hacks, and what should we do about them and their beneficiaries?  Instead, Kellyanne and Sean are offering up a new culprit:  the victim of the hacks, and not the hackers themselves.

There is something that feels good about this stance:  it seems balanced.  The bad action provokes the bad reaction.  Man up and stop being such a baby—you got what was coming to you.  And there are, indeed, times when someone richly deserves the bad karma he or she provokes.  I once knew a guy who wrecked his MG Spitfire, so his amazingly indulgent parents gave him a Triumph 7.  Spoiled rich guy hated the Triumph, so he would leave it in the middle of the highest crime neighborhood in the city– unlocked, convertible roof opened, windows down, and key dangling from the ignition—praying that it would be stolen so his parents could use the insurance money to buy him a new Spitfire.  Of course it wasn’t stolen (any would-be thief with half a brain cell would have thought it was a trap set by the police), but if it had been, I would have been the first in line to say that my friend had it coming to him.[4]

But it is precisely because this formulation is so emotionally satisfying that we should look at it carefully.  Remember:  emotions cloud reason.  In essence, we are blaming the victim, and a victim, by definition, should evoke our sympathy.  Therefore, when a claim not only neutralizes our compassion, but actually gets us to actively sneer at the victim, we really need to look at it with a magnifying glass.

The key to determining the reasonableness of blaming the victim is to examine the proportionality of the action and the result. The classic formulation of victim blaming is “if she weren’t so drunk/dressed like a slut/walking home alone, she would not have been raped.” Surely, even if any of these actions were the proximate cause of a sexual assault (and that is HIGHLY debatable), they are so negligible that they wouldn’t justify a brutal crime.  The results are simply wildly out of proportion to the alleged cause.[5]

So, let us use the proportionality test to ascertain whether it is fair to say that, since the DNC is the author of its own woes, we should not try to dig more into the hacking itself.

First of all, what’s sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander:  if we shouldn’t take the DNC hack seriously because it was its own fault, then we should never take hacking seriously if the victim had poor cybersecurity.  But being lax with cybersecurity is hardly unique to the DNC.  A 2014 report by the Heritage Foundation reveals a list of hacked companies that is simply breathtaking in its breadth.  (http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/10/cyber-attacks-on-us-companies-in-2014).  From Sony to Target, it seems no one is safe from internet malefactors.  And surely, there must have been some laxity involved.  For example, as recently as 2015, in an article discussing a hack of Anthem, the New York Times reported that health insurance companies are vulnerable to hacking as a result of lax security practices surrounding the personal information in their files (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/business/experts-suspect-lax-security-left-anthem-vulnerable-to-hackers.html). And yet, despite this laxity, various federal and state law enforcement agencies have been hunting the hackers down—and occasionally even managing to arrest them (http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/surprise-breaking/2016/10/27/phoenix-meetkumar-desai-arrested-cyberattack-911-system/92847226/). So, surprise, surprise:  as far as law enforcement is concerned, the victim is still a victim, and the hacking is still a crime, even if the victim had been somewhat lazy about not responding to phishing expeditions.  I guess that’s only fair:  after all, cops still investigate burglaries even if the victim left the door unlocked.

Second, we need to look at the enormity of the Russian hack.  Top intelligence officials believe that the Russians deliberately interfered with our election by selectively releasing embarrassing emails in the hopes of swaying the voters away from Secretary Clinton.  Goodness only knows why they preferred Trump; I admit I’m as perplexed as the next person about it.  Maybe it has something to do with those pesky tax forms (http://ijr.com/2016/09/698715-senate-democrats-speculate-that-donald-trumps-tax-returns-would-reveal-russian-collusion/), or the bizarre love triangle between Putin, Trump, and Manafort (http://www.nationalreview.com/article/439164/donald-trump-paul-manafort-russian-ties)  .  But whatever the reason, there is a clear indication that this election’s results probably came from Russia, with love. This is a foreign attack on our electoral system, which, in the humble opinion of your author, is a YUGE deal.  The preservation of fundamental democratic principles demands that the government conduct a full and open investigation into the hack and its connections to the RNC, even if the DNC were hopelessly naïve about cybersecurity.

Consequently, not only did Kellyanne and Sean use a red herring to keep us off the trail, but it was a particularly stinky one.

 

THIS JUST IN: 

Even though Kellyanne and Sean made their comments on 29 December, I didn’t complete this essay until 1 AM on 4 January.  That’s because I like to do a little something called “thinking” before I set my words down for everyone to read.   Call me old school.  However, it did give me a little qualm, thinking that what I said might not have the same relevance that it might have had if I had been a bit quicker at the keyboard.

Well, thank God for Donald Trump (and, trust me, that’s a prayer you’ll rarely hear from my lips)!  Almost as if my fairy godmother had let him know my worries, he posted the following on Twitter at 7:22 AM on 4 January:

Julian Assange said “a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta” – why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info! (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/816620855958601730).

What a sweetie!

Clearly, Trump is using one of his favorite devices—the rhetorical question—to make the argument that the DNC’s ineptitude, and not the Russian cyber hit squad(s), are to blame for the hack.  There is not even a hint of a whiff of an explanation here:  the DNC was careless, therefore they are to blame.  The use of the question is especially telling, because questions, by their nature, raise, well, questions.  They do not provide facts.  They do not provide answers.  They demand responses.  So it is evident that Trump is using the old red herring (as well as blaming the victim) to distract us from the substantive questions about Russia’s role in his election.  Nice!

Furthermore, I can’t help but notice that Trump is using Assange as a source about both the DNC cybersecurity and the role of the Russians.  Now, Assange might be a stand-up kind of guy.  Haven’t a clue.  However, when it comes to Secretary Clinton, he’s hardly a fan:

“Hillary Clinton is receiving constant updates about my personal situation; she has pushed for the prosecution of WikiLeaks,” he told ITV. “We do see her as more of a problem for freedom of the press generally. (http://www.vox.com/2016/9/15/12929262/wikileaks-hillary-clinton-julian-assange-hate).

It kind of hurts to admit this, but I get the distinct impression that Trump has not read my earlier blog on how to evaluate sources.[6]  If he had, he would know to be wary of citing Assange under these circumstances as he fails two of the prongs of the RAVEN test:  V (vested interest) and N (neutrality).  Assange clearly hates Clinton, so he is far from neutral.  Further, while I’m sure that being squirreled away in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London is as much fun for him as it is for his hosts, I bet that Assange is hankering to breathe the sweet, sweet air of freedom.  But if he hits the pavements, he might be sent to Sweden to face two rape charges.[7]  Yet, that is not the least of his legal woes:  once he’s in Sweden, he might very well be sent to the US and face capital charges for leaking a whole heap o’ classified documents.[8] So things might be a bit rosier for Assange if a non-Secretary Clinton were in the White House—especially if said non-Clinton owed his occupancy of the Oval Office to, in some degree, Assange. In other words, Assange has a vested interest in the outcome of this particular debate.

So, in conclusion, I needn’t have worried that Kellyanne’s little red herring would be irrelevant.  It is as stinky now as it was when she rubbed it on CNN’s trail on the 29th. It also indicates that we can expect more, and not less, use of this logical fallacy on the part of the Trump administration.  Sad!

 

[1] This is not to say that the reason is a good one, or that it necessarily leads to the conclusion.  It’s just saying that this is how an argument is formally structured.  The argument, “[Because] Fox News is owned by Rupert Murdoch, therefore I believe every word Tucker Carlson says,” while structurally correct, does not pass substantive muster in ways too numerous to address.

[2] And for reasons given below, I would count this conclusion as a red herring.

[3] Of course, another formulation of the argument might have the following reason and conclusion:

Because you guys were suckers, [therefore] we win.  Nanny, nanny boo-boo.

But surely not.

[4] And, given the fact that the car wasn’t stolen, it is arguable that he got exactly what was coming to him.

[5] Unlike my rich friend, whose actions not only would have justified the theft of his car, but also the pressing of charges for insurance fraud.

[6] Here’s where you can find it, in case you forgot: https://essayettes.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/pizzagate-how-to-consider-the-source/.  It’s really good.  Trust my unbiased opinion.

[7] In the interest of fairness, I want to point out that Assange insists that these charges are politically motivated (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/oct/14/wiileaks-from-liberal-beacon-to-a-prop-for-trump-what-has-happened). I don’t know enough to evaluate this claim, so I’m willing, for the sake of argument, to accept his statement.

[8] The United Kingdom does not extradite people if they are facing the death penalty after a court ruled that the risk of serving on death row would constitute a violation of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which I think is rather sporting. Soering v United Kingdom (1989) 11 EHRR 439, Judgment of 7 July 1989. That’s why the trip to Stockholm is key to getting him to the US:  Sweden apparently has no such qualms.

Copyright 2017 D R Miller

Ding, dong, Fallacies on High! The RNC’s been tweeting!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on December 28, 2016 by deborah1960

My goodness, but Christmas just keeps on giving and giving!  Not only did the RNC appear to greet the day with a false equivalency between Trump and Jesus, but Trump has provided another opportunity for me to discuss yet another type of logical fallacy:  post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this).  Now, I was kind of hoping to take a bit of a break in my blogging because, as I’ve confessed before, I am quite lazy.  Also, all the kids are home, and it would have been nice to spend a little more time with them.  But, as my father told me once, you should spread when the manure is hot.  Or something like that.  But whatever he said, the message is clear:  with material this good, it is a moral imperative to respond in a timely manner.

So, take my hand, and let’s commence our journey through the looking glass.

Ambiguous Ambiguities

Reince Priebus, Chair of the RNC, caused quite a kerfluffle with his Christmas Day greeting to the nation.   I’m certain that Priebus had only the purest of intentions, but the internet has exploded over his innocent tweet.  Half of the nation claimed Reince was favorably comparing Trump to the Prince of Peace, while the other half denied it, presumably because no one would be that vulgar. (http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/311799-social-media-erupts-after-gop-statement-about-new-king).  It seems that no one knows precisely what Priebus meant, and this is a good clue that he has been ambiguous.

“Ambiguous” comes from hitching the prefix ambi- (both or around) to a form of the Latin verb agere (to lead or drive) (https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/ambiguous ).  Thus, an ambiguous word or phrase has a meaning that can be driven in two opposing directions, or all around a variety of directions.  They generally arise when an author uses a word with more than one meaning, but her grammar doesn’t make clear which meaning is used.  For example, the mythical headline “Man Biting Dog” is humorous because it is unclear whether “man biting” constitutes the subject and verb of the sentence, or if it is a compound adjective describing the dog. This is called an amphiboly, if you really want to know.

Another kind of common ambiguity is “equivocation,” which occurs when the author uses a word in one way at the beginning of his premise, but then does the old switcheroo to another definition later on.  For example, look at the following:

Some think that artifice is necessary to create a work of lasting value; therefore, lies, the most common form of artifice, are masterpieces.

Here, I’m starting out with the original meaning of the word “artifice”, clever or artful skill, but in the second clause, I use the other meaning of the word:  trickery or connivance.  I have equivocated.

With that background in mind, let’s look at the RNC tweet:

“Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind,” the message from RNC chair Reince Priebus and co-chair Sharon Day said. “Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King http://fortune.com/2016/12/25/rnc-new-king-trump-christmas/ ).”

The issue at hand is what Priebus meant by “a new King.”  Some people are saying that Priebus is alluding to the election of Trump in his virtual Hallmark card.  They get this outlandish notion by interpreting “new,” as in “new King,” to mean “fresh,” “different,” or “novel”—the same meaning that is apparently being used when Priebus refers to “a new hope” in the first part of the tweet (unless, of course, Priebus is a huge fan of Star Wars Episode IV, or, as I like to call it, The First Ever Star Wars Movie–RIP, General Organa).  In other words, critics of Priebus are saying that he is not being ambiguous at all, and his meaning is clear.  Now how crazy is that?  And if they are right, that Priebus is unequivocally using the same definition of the word throughout the tweet, then Priebus is referring to a new ruler on the scene.  If that new ruler happens to be Trump, then the tweet is doubly blasphemous.  Trump is many things, but I’m pretty sure that the Savior of Mankind isn’t one of them.  Also, one of the most deeply held tenets of American political philosophy is that we are a representative democracy and not a kingdom, thank you very much.  It’s kind of why we fought that revolution.

The RNC, on the other hand, says that this is a tortured leap of logic.  Obviously, when Reince said “new King,” he meant the “old King,” Jesus.  Of course. How absurd of Trump’s critics to jump to the outrageous conclusion that Reince was being consistent in his definitions.  Or, to state it another way, the only way that Reince’s words come out the way that he claims they should is for him to be guilty of equivocation.  Indeed, it is even more extreme than that:  “new” does not, by its very definition, ever mean “old.”  It is the opposite of old.

Now, far be it from me to suggest that Reince actually believes that Trump is the Son of Man (although, I must confess that I frequently blurt out “Jesus Christ!” when I hear Trump speak), nor is it entirely outside of the realm of possibility that he is not showing a preference for an autocratic dictator to rule our land.  However, all this fuss and feathers could have been avoided if Priebus had actually taken the time and effort to use his words wisely.  Writing is very, very hard, because words are so important and have so many meanings.  If our readers are able to understand what we’re saying only by using faulty logic, then we have committed faulty writing.  So, the next time you feel like sending us a tweet, Reince, you should really make sure that you take the time to make it so clear that equivocation is unnecessary for us to get your intended meaning.

And now let’s look at our second holiday present from the GOP:  Trump’s Boxing Day greeting.

Post Hoc, Ergo Poppy Cock

I tap a ball with my foot, and it rolls.  The tap is the cause of the rolling—without that causation, the result would not take place.  My dog enters the room, and the cat has a conniption. Again, causation and result.  Causes produce consequences, in chronological order.  First this, then that.

But sometimes, what looks like a cause isn’t a cause at all—it’s a coincidence.

In the morning, before I walk my dog, I deactivate my alarm system.  It makes a cheery chirp, which my dog hears.  Immediately afterward, he gets to go out for a walk.  After a few weeks of this, I noticed that my dog starts wagging his tail and looking at me expectantly whenever I set or deactivate the alarm (it makes the same noise either way).  He has come to think that the alarm causes the walk.  In other words, he has mistaken a coincidence for causation simply because it proceeds that precious, precious walk.  Puppy has committed post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this).

Puppy isn’t the only one who does this, of course.  Believe it or not, we all do it.  It’s why pitchers wear lucky socks.  The appearance of a comet on the Bayeux tapestry is testimony to the false causation fallacy: innocently shooting across the sky before the disastrous events of 1066, Halley’s Comet is blamed for disruptions that take place on the earth below.

The fallout from the post hoc fallacy can be quite serious.   Andrew Wakefield, a highly discredited British doctor, wrote a report purporting to establish a link between MMR vaccinations and autism.  His basic argument was that the twelve kids he studied had the MMR shot before they developed autism.  Therefore, the autism was caused by the MMR.  Forget about the possibility of genetic factors, or the pathetically small sample size—if a doctor said it, it must be so (watch out for a future essay on the problems with appeals to authority).  Even though the study was thoroughly debunked (and, in an extraordinary move by The Lancet, retracted by the journal that originally published it), the anti-vax league glued themselves to the report like barnacles on the rusty hull of a garbage scow (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/us/a-discredited-vaccine-studys-continuing-impact-on-public-health.html).  As a result, twenty states have “philosophical exemptions” to vaccine requirements (as opposed to medical exemptions), and in those twenty states, thousands of children have gone unvaccinated. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/us/a-discredited-vaccine-studys-continuing-impact-on-public-health.html). At the risk of making my own post hoc, ergo propter hoc mistake, I’m willing to bet that there is a causal link between the decrease in vaccinations and the increase in the outbreak of preventable and potentially fatal diseases—and the Journal of the American Medical Association seems to agree with me (http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2503179).

So, now that we know what the post hoc fallacy is and how destructive they can be, let’s take a look at Trump’s characteristically humble greeting to his followers on 26 December, Boxing Day.  Here’s what he said:

The world was gloomy before I won – there was no hope. Now the market is up nearly 10% and Christmas spending is over a trillion dollars!

Just by walking on the stage, it appears, Trump has been able to bestow hope, bolster retail sales, and heat up the stock market.  He hasn’t made a single policy change, nor has he issued any executive order, and yet he is able to singlehandedly resuscitate a previously failing economy. Wow!  Maybe Reince was right about Trump being the new Lamb of God after all, because there’s certainly something messianic about the claims he’s making.[1]

Outside of divine intervention, there is very little likelihood that Trump would have such a profound impact on the economy.  Indeed, according to Team Trump, the source of the tweet was a Deloitte University Press projection that predicted in September that Christmas spending would exceed one trillion dollars—well before the world turned upside down on 8 November.[2]  Furthermore, in its October Christmas sales forecast, the National Retail Federation (hardly a hotbed of leftist-pinko-socialist thinking) attributed the projected increase not to Trump’s election (which hadn’t taken place yet), but to “steady jobs and income gains (http://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/26/president-elect-donald-trump-claims-credit-for-higher-market-christmas-shopping.html).” Since the word “steady” indicates a trend that occurs over time, it would be reasonable to assume that the NRF was referring to events and policies that were in place well before Trump’s election.  Further, the final figures are not yet in, so the trillion dollar projection might indeed be a bunch of hooey. It wouldn’t be the first time in 2016 that predictions went to hell in a hand basket, after all.

The increase in market activity did take place after Trump was elected, and there is some indication that it was in response to the election.  But it isn’t clear why Trump had that effect, nor is it at all clear that the rally is sustainable (http://www.npr.org/2016/11/30/503902394/postelection-stock-market-rise-shocks-prominent-economists). Indeed, it seems quite likely that Trump caused the rally by not doing anything at all.[3] For example, noted billionaire investor and Trump supporter Carl Icahn has cautioned that the rally might be “overdone” because the optimism about Trumponomics that fueled the rally might not be sustainable. The infrastructure funding that he promised might not materialize, nor might he be able to carry out the deregulation of the investment banking industry.  (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/carl-icahn-says-dial-back-on-stocks-as-trump-rally-looks-overdone-2016-11-17). So, ironically, Trump has caused a rally not because of what he has actually done, but because of what others believe he might do.  In other words, there is no “hoc”—just a lot of “ergo-mania.”

So, where does that leave us?

Well, first of all, I think both tweets leave a lot to be desired in terms of clarity.  Preibus, whether he intended to or not, convoluted the meaning of “new” to such an extent that it became utterly nonsensical. I stated in an earlier blog that it’s probably a good idea to avoid using modifiers, in order to prevent ad hominem attacks.  Usually, just naming the noun should suffice. However, there are times when it is necessary to be precise, and so a modifier is justified.  But here, the modifier appears to have been chosen precisely to cause imprecision and chaos.  Who the hell knows what “new” means in this tweet?

Similarly, Trump’s tweet lacks clarity because he is using unverified projections to bolster his position that he has been a force for economic good simply by existing.  He also neglects to mention that his “evidence” was published one to two months before his election—an excellent indication that his election had nothing to do with the brisk Christmas trade that the NRF was fervently praying for.

The lack of clarity is key:  both tweets generated a lot of interest.  But for all the heat that they inspired, there was precious little light.  It would be interesting to see what stories these tweets obscured.  For example, it appears that the nomination of Rep. Tom Price to be Secretary of Health and Human Services has caused a real ruckus amongst the medical profession—but who, besides a few policy nerds and Critical Thinking teachers, noticed (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/26/us/tom-price-hhs-donald-trump-cabinet.html)?  It was much more fun, I’m sure, to write witty ripostes on the RNC and Trump twitter accounts than to keep an eye on what that wacky Trump transition team was getting up to.

And finally, we are again left with a feeling of profound gratitude to Trump and his supporters for providing us with yet another useful tool for examining logical fallacies.  In these dark times, it is important to look for even the slightest glimmer of a silver lining.

[1] It is also interesting that both tweets refer to “hope.” In Priebus’s case, he was referring to the Son of God, while Trump, with great humility, was referring to himself.  Even though Trump is a notorious non-reader of books (https://newrepublic.com/minutes/133566/donald-trump-doesnt-read-books), perhaps he took the time to read Priebus’s tweet before writing his own.

[2]Now that I think of it, is it possible that the Deloitte University Press is responsible for the election of Donald Trump?  I mean, September is before November, after all.

[3] Goodness only knows what might happen when he actually does something! (http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2016/11/global-economy).

Copyright 2016, D R Miller

Sand Gets In Your Eyes: Using Trump’s Rhetoric to Recognize and Analyze Two Basic Logical Fallacies

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on December 23, 2016 by deborah1960

Logical fallacies are, basically, flaws in reasoning that under normal circumstances should be fatal to the argument they are meant to support.  There are a wide variety of them, and while some of them are pretty easy to spot (e.g., the nearly onomatopoeic “hasty generalization”), others are a bit more obscure (e.g., the oft-misused “begging the question”).  But the kids in Critical Thinking classes are generally clever, and they usually get it:  logical fallacies are bad, and need to be rooted out with the skill of pedigree Italian truffle hounds.  Occasionally, I get a student who wants to know “how to use” logical fallacies, but I take some extra time with that kid until he or she realizes that logical fallacies are not tools for structuring an argument.  Give them a wide berth, sonny.  They’ll scupper you.

Judging from the caliber of his rhetoric, however, I get the feeling that the current president-elect has not read the memo about the nature of logical fallacies.  Far from avoiding these flaws, Trump seems to glory in them, using the most fallacious logic this side of the Mad Hatter.  As a dedicated teacher of Critical Thinking, I think I can be forgiven for feeling a shudder of despair as I see people fall for the various defects Trump employs to communicate with his followers.  However, it is an ill wind that blows no good:  Critical Thinking teachers the world over can rejoice in the number of pedagogical resources that his speeches, tweets, and other pronouncements can engender—not to mention those of his surrogates.  Indeed, it is only one of the many ways that Trump and his cronies have given new life to the term “embarrassment of riches.”

I think that it would be a useful exercise to examine some examples of the unsound “thinking” behind Trump’s verbal squirts, not only to deepen an understanding of how illogical he truly is, but to help people recognize these flaws in other contexts.  After all, just because he’s probably the most prominent specimen we have right now, he is by far not the only person using bad logic to an alarming, if not dishonest, degree.[1]  While I’m sure that I could use Trump as an illustration for every logical fallacy in the book, out of consideration for my reader’s patience (and the delicacy of my stomach) I will not attempt to cover all of them in this essay (although, I just might give it a go in a series of blogs).  Instead, I will look at what appears to be Trump’s two most favorite logical fallacies:  two wrongs don’t make a right and tu quoque (pronounced “to KWO-kway”).  I’ve chosen these two not only because they occur with alarming frequency in Trump’s tweets, but because, in my, ahem, humble opinion, they are particularly effective tools when one is hoping to throw sand in one’s listener’s/reader’s eyes.  They are also frequently confused with each other, so I hope to make the distinctions clearer, not only so you can analyze them accurately, but you’ll be able to amaze your friends with your vocabulary.  Or bore the socks off of them.  Whatever.

Anyhow, here we go!

Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

Ah, who among us can honestly say that we haven’t used this old chestnut?

There you go, driving merrily down the highway at a leisurely eighty miles per hour, when a state trooper pulls you over.  You try to keep it together as you listen to him lecture you on speed limits, but you can feel your blood pressure rise to dizzying heights in response to the outrageous miscarriage of justice being carried out right in front of you.  Where was Mr. Eagle Eyes when all those other assholes were weaving in and out of the traffic like maniacs?

Finally, you can’t take it anymore, and you burst out, as the trooper calmly writes out your ticket, “But what about the guy who kept cutting me off?”

And, as inevitable as high tides in the spring time, he responds, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

It is, without doubt, the most infuriating response to what seems to be a perfectly legitimate grievance. Why should I be punished when there are far more outrageous scoundrels out roaming the nation’s interstate system?  It’s just so damned unfair.

But that righteous anger you feel is the very reason that you’ve committed a logical fallacy.  Logic, by its very nature, requires you to be a bit cold-blooded, like Mr. Spock.  It is not very likely to make you purple in the face.  Emotions, while normal and healthy, tend to blind you to the meat of the matter.  If your first response to an argument is to feel a strong emotion, then that should be like an alarm bell to you: you might be reacting to a flaw that is somehow leading you away from the substance of the argument.  Here, your anger is blinding you to the fact that you were, in fact, breaking the law.  The possibility that other people were breaking the law does not detract from that truth one little bit.S o, the name “two wrongs don’t make a right” isn’t quite accurate, because it is a criticism of the flaw, rather than the flaw itself.

Now, let’s examine a real life example of “two wrongs don’t make a right” to see how it works and why the flaw should be taken seriously.

On 16 December 2016, in response to the news that the cyberattack upon the DNC was pretty definitely done at the personal behest of Vladimir Putin, Trump tweeted the following:

“Are we talking about the same cyberattack where it was revealed that head of the DNC illegally gave Hillary the questions to the debate?”

The Washington Post characterized this tweet as “misleading and masterful”—and I agree on both counts (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/12/16/trump-keeps-misleading-his-voters-on-the-donna-brazile-debate-scandal/?utm_term=.7067680136d7). The Post, however, focused on the substantive issue—the statement’s rather casual relationship to the truth.[2] But because Louis Sullivan was right in saying “form follows function,” I will be looking at how the structure of the statement in and of itself is misleading, and therefore flawed.

So here you have two wrongs:  the cyber attack and Brazile’s leaking of some of the questions prepared for a Democratic candidates debate. Before going on, I really have to tip my hat off to Trump for his formulation of the two wrongs. Usually, a speaker cites the wrongdoing of another in order to avoid substantively discussing the impact of the first wrong.  Trump, however, does more than avoid discussion of the cyberattack—he appears to be denying that it was all that wrong a doing in the first place.  When the flaw is made, there is normally at least some sense that the speaker has been caught out.  That’s why it’s such a popular trap to fall into:  yes, I did something wrong, but x did something worse.  But here, while Brazile is named and shamed, the perpetrators of the hack are left unnamed, underscoring Trump’s oft-repeated contention that the hackers are unknown and unknowable (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/12/11/trump-claims-russian-interference-in-2016-race-ridiculous-dems-making-excuses.html).  He is absolutely not owning that first wrong doing, even though he appears to have at least benefited from it (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/us/obama-russia-election-hack.html). But even more remarkably, by using a rhetorical question, Trump is subtly calling into question the reality of the cyber attack itself—a position he recently took in that same Fox News interview (id.).  Not only is he saying that Brazile did the second wrong, but he is also questioning the very existence of the first wrong. Wow. That’s some serious sand in my eye. [3]

Additionally, Trump is establishing a false equivalency between the two wrongs—he is indirectly making the case that giving Clinton a heads up about a possible (but not totally unpredictable) question at a Democratic party debate (where Trump would not be the “victim” of Brazile’s “crime”) somehow deserves the same level of outrage as a cyber attack carried out on a US target by Russian military intelligence operators under the direction of the Russian head of state (http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/22/politics/crowdstrike-dnc-hack-russian-military/index.html and https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/cybersecurity-firm-finds-a-link-between-dnc-hack-and-ukrainian-artillery/2016/12/21/47bf1f5a-c7e3-11e6-bf4b-2c064d32a4bf_story.html?utm_term=.5cc7f0c69c42). I don’t know about you, but I’m just not seeing it quite that way.  Call me old-fashioned, but I’m of the opinion that a cyber attack committed by a military arm of a foreign government is a bit more serious than spilling the beans on a debate question.

Beautiful, huh?

Tu Quoque

Sorry to have spent so much time on “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but having done so should make explaining the tu quoque flaw much easier and quicker.  It is easy to mistake the one flaw for the other, but since the effects are a bit different, it’s important to have a clear understanding of both kinds of fallacies.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right” requires, by definition, two wrongs.  Tu quoque is Latin for “you, too,” or “thou, also,” and involves two parties committing the same wrong.  I happen to think that my oldest sister’s formulation of the fallacy is much easier to grasp:   “Look who’s talking.”  The speaker is saying “yeah, I did x, but you also did x, so where do you get off criticizing me, you filthy hypocrite?” And it is the use of the “h-word” that gives this flaw its emotional power.  We all hate hypocrites—even hypocrites hate hypocrites.  And if a speaker can make his opponent out to be a hypocrite, then he has the audience firmly in his pocket.

My favorite example of Trump’s use of a tu quoque remains his delightfully misguided attempt to paint Warren Buffett with the same tax-evading brush that had recently tarred Trump.  In the second debate, Anderson Cooper asked Trump if he had taken advantage of the carry-forward rule to use massive losses he sustained in 1995 to offset his subsequent federal income taxes.   Trump responded that he “absolutely” used it, “and so did Warren Buffett http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/politics/transcript-second-debate.html).”  The implicit claim being made is that Clinton has a hell of a lot of nerve making any noises about Trump’s taxes when her very own donors use the same exact rule to minimize their tax liability.  By having Buffett stand in for Clinton, Trump is gamely making a tu quoque attack.

Trump’s gambit could have been quite effective, too, if it hadn’t been for one small detail:  the very next day, Buffett released his taxes, which showed he paid very hefty taxes, indeed.[4] But, for the purpose of understanding the ill effects of a tu quoque flaw, let’s assume that Trump is right on the money:  Buffett used the carry-forward rule with unseemly abandon to cut his taxes down to the barest nothing.  Even under those circumstances, Trump’s tu quoque is a fatal flaw to his argument. First of all, because tu quoque is a form of ad hominem attack (you are, after all, accusing your opponent of being a hypocrite), it does seem to be only gentlemanly to actually aim the attack at your opponent—and not a surrogate.  However, in these rough and tumble times, the Marquis of Queensbury rules of debating sadly no longer seem to apply.

No, the main problem with Trump’s claim is not that he’s ascribing someone else’s hypocrisy to Secretary Clinton.  The actual problem is that, once again, he is avoiding the substance of the question.  If, as Trump claims, all of Clinton’s surrogates used the carry-forward rule to avoid paying taxes, that should serve only to underscore the enormity of the problem.  If all these billionaires are avoiding paying their taxes, who will be stuck paying the bill for our infrastructure, environmental protection, and those precious, precious agricultural subsidies?

Furthermore, it distracts from the underlying issue that we don’t know whether Trump has used the carry-forward rule to avoid paying taxes for the past twenty years.  We know nothing about his tax situation—good, bad, or indifferent—for the simple reason that Trump has never, ever released his taxes.  But by using a tu quoque attack on Clinton and her supporters, he distracted us for at least a few minutes from wondering why he’s avoided doing something that every president since Nixon (NIXON!!) has done.

So there you have it.  In sum, these two logical fallacies are particularly dangerous because they rile us up and make us forget the substantive question being asked.  Instead, we become fixated upon righting perceived injustices and rooting out hypocrisy.  We accept false equivalencies, and take at face value personal attacks—all of which allows scoundrels to avoid responsibility for answering real and serious questions.  Bigly.

[1] “Aha!” I hear you cry.  “You’ve just committed an ad hominem attack on our esteemed Twitterer in Chief.  Your logic is therefore flawed!” Hmmm.  Maybe, but I don’t think so.  If my argument is that Donald is using intellectual dishonesty for a dishonorable reason, then my calling him dishonest is valid because “the claims made about a person’s character or actions are relevant to the conclusions being drawn (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/character-attack/).”

[2] And there certainly is a lot more that could be said about the underlying truthfulness of the statement.  For example, the use of the adverb “illegally” to describe Brazile’s actions is certainly problematic.  While “unethically,” “nastily,” and, possibly, “immorally” could be used with some regard to the truth, Brazile’s actions would not rise to the level of being criminal.  Also, as a side note, I would be remiss in my duties as a Critical Thinking teacher if I didn’t point out that using heavily loaded modifiers such as these might considerably weaken an otherwisestrong argument.  So if I chose to modify “Trump” with the appositive phrase “a lying sack of shit”, as in, “Trump, a lying sack of shit,” then I could honestly be accused of allowing my emotions to override my argument.  Best to avoid modifiers altogether, unless they are purely factual and not a matter of opinion.

[3] A stance, by the way, that is at odds with the position taken by the CIA and the FBI.  But what do they know? (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/clinton-blames-putins-personal-grudge-against-her-for-election-interference/2016/12/16/12f36250-c3be-11e6-8422-eac61c0ef74d_story.html?utm_term=.9b0c96c6e77b).

[4] In an explanatory note, Buffett made it quite clear that not only had he never taken advantage of the carry forward rule (perhaps a subtle swipe at Trump’s losses in the face of Mr. Buffett’s own successes?), but he had paid income taxes every year of his life since he was thirteen.  Mr. Buffett’s take down of Trump is so classy and so comprehensive that I could never, in a million years, do it justice.  You should take a moment to read it over to see a masterful example of how to marshal facts in aid of an argument:  http://fortune.com/2016/10/10/presidential-debate-donald-trump-warren-buffett/.

Copyright D R Miller 2016