Friday, July 13, 2007

Scalia-Thomas Derangement Syndrome: A full-court press of illogic

The other day, at National Review Online's "Bench Memos" blog, I commented that an Ellen Goodman column on the subject of Clarence Thomas seemed to be altogether devoid of anything that could be recognized as an argument. No construction of premises plainly stated for the reader to accept or reject; no marshaling of evidence whose truth can be assessed, so far as is possible from a brief newspaper commentary; no assembly of the connective tissue that will lead a fair-minded reader to see a conclusion of which he might be persuaded after weighing the matter for himself.

Instead Goodman's column was a tissue of sneers, ad hominem attacks, begged questions, and appeals to the passions of readers already inclined to view matters as she does. Now, preaching to the choir is a common enough phenomenon in opinion commentary. It's hardly a new thing created by the "everyone's a critic" political culture to which the blogosphere has brought us. After all, the Constitution was only a couple of years old when rival newspapermen John Fenno and Philip Freneau started to hurl epithets around the nation's capital with scant regard for the niceties of argumentative ethics or logical structure.

Still, what Charles Krauthammer has called "Bush Derangement Syndrome" has plainly got some people unhinged when it comes to their ability to construct arguments. (In journalism on the Supreme Court, this would be "Scalia-Thomas Derangement Syndrome.") Whole colonies of commentators on the Left, congregating on liberal websites and in university faculties, have let their hatred of their political opponents turn itself into misology, the hatred of reason itself. The Right is not immune to this affliction, but the characteristic form of a liberal argument these days seems to be:

Major premise: All the works of Subject X (President Bush, Justice Thomas, et al.) are known to be evil by all right-thinking people.

Minor premise: Evil is known to be caused by ignorance, hypocrisy, intolerance, greed, the thirst for power, or the simple desire to harm others for the sake of the harm itself.

Conclusion: Therefore the account given by Subject X of his own actions needn't be examined, as it is known beforehand to be a mere rationalization for the evil caused by these faults and impulses.

Does it need to be pointed out that the major premise is itself a wholly undefended conclusion from another argument altogether, one that hasn't been made within the confines of the structure described here? Once upon a time, I wouldn't have thought it necessary to point this out, but I'm not so sure any more.

Conveniently for our purposes, three examples of this kind of misology appeared in two of the nation's major newspapers on Monday. First, consider this news article about Justice Thomas in the New York Times. The reporter, Neil A. Lewis, has interviewed a number of persons with a view to getting to the bottom of why Thomas voted as he did in the recent racial school-assignment cases from Seattle and Louisville. Lewis pays a little perfunctory attention to the arguments Thomas made in his 36-page opinion, in which he concurred in the invalidation of programs that assigned some children to schools solely in order to achieve racial "balance."

But Thomas's arguments are not actually assessed for their validity, or the extent to which they are supported by either factual evidence or defensible legal principles, by Lewis or any of his interlocutors. Instead the whole tack of the article is to address "questions about [how] much his legal views are shaped by the difficulties of his own experience with race and education." Has he, in the words of his latest biographers, "burned with anger at slights, real and imagined," and therefore concluded that he will set his face against "integration"? Yes, that must be it. No need to open your mind to what Thomas actually says - the reasons he gives, in a job where reason-giving is the stock in trade, for the votes he casts.

A second example came in this article in the Washington Post, part of a recurring feature under the heading "Department of Human Behavior," in which the writer Shankar Vedantam reviews some of the latest findings in the social and behavioral sciences and connects them to current events. In Monday's installment Vedantam shoots the breeze with a couple of liberal psychologists about the notion of "cognitive dissonance," about which they have written a whole politically inspired book (though in truth, it is a concept of extremely limited explanatory utility). Though their book came out before the president commuted Scooter Libby's sentence, our academic experts happily opine on the subject when Vedantam reaches them. And boy do they deliver the goods. As Vedantam recounts their take:

For Bush to have allowed Libby to go to jail, he would have had to live with the idea that someone who he thought was a good and loyal soldier was being punished for being a good and loyal soldier - a fairly extreme form of cognitive dissonance. The only way to keep such cognitive dissonance at bay, the psychologists said, was for Bush to see Libby's prison sentence as overly harsh and do away with it altogether, even though Bush, both as president and governor of Texas, has long prided himself on refusing clemency to felons.

Now as it happens, the president gave his own account of his reasons for commuting Libby's sentence. Although the Constitution does not oblige him to explain his use of the pardon power (the grant of clemency itself was a separate document, briefly and baldly stating an action), Bush saw fit to give his reasons. Would a decent respect for the uses of public power, and for those who wield it, call us to consider whether there was something persuasive about Bush's reasons before we rush for the psychobabble explanations? Not if we are confirmed misologists, who have foresworn the lending of any credence to "them" who stand opposed to our fondest beliefs. Now who has the bad case of dissonance?

Our last example takes us back to the Times, this time for an op-ed by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. Here we have a deeply, historically informed misology. None of this putting our enemy on a shrink's couch from afar, looking for inner turmoils from his youth, or for any unmet needs he may have to view himself as a good person. No sirree, Wilentz has a manly contempt for these explanations buried in the id, instead preferring to reason roughly as follows, if I read him aright:

1) The Iran-contra affair two decades ago, as everyone knows, was the scene of executive depredations on the Constitution of the very worst sort, as can be seen by the fact that Oliver North "was eventually convicted of three federal felonies," though none of them went to the heart of the issue between Congress and the president.

2) Dick Cheney was a signer of Congress's minority report on the affair (to which two Cheney honchos contributed their mite), in which arguments were made that the president is principally responsible for foreign affairs and that therefore the "scandal" owed as much or more to Congress's over-reaching in that area as to presidential irresponsibility or skullduggery.

3) Dick Cheney is responsible for a "quest to accumulate unaccountable executive power" in the present administration. Conclusion: We have in the White House today a concerted effort to bring about a presidential dominance of our politics that has a whiff of criminality about it. Or is there some other conclusion we should draw?

Although Wilentz draws our attention to the Iran-contra minority report, in truth he does not want us to read it. He wants to tell us about it, and to stamp it indelibly with a seal of disapprobration based on what everyone knows about those now half-forgotten events. His account of what that report said can hardly be reckoned as an analysis of its argument, or even as a fair recapitulation of what it contained. The executive summary of Wilentz's op-ed would be something like this: "Iran-contra bad, a crime even. Cheney at scene of crime, saying `what crime?' Cheney present in White House today. You do the math." This isn't an argument. It's a Daily Kos rant, tricked out in a suit.

Maybe Professor Wilentz can get together with our "cognitive dissonance" psychologists and start a new left-wing magazine. They could call it Misology Today.


Europe slowly returning to Christianity

A new offering from Penn State historian Philip Jenkins provides a brilliantly researched, intellectually honest, and surprising account of Europe's cultural future. In God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis, Jenkins is guardedly optimistic, though not for reasons that will leave most secular Americans comfortable. Europe will survive, indeed will flourish. But in the process, it will become far more religious and morally conservative.

One reason is simple demography. In a society in which childless and single- children families have become the norm, an overwhelmingly large share of the children who are born descend from highly conservative, religious parents who follow the injunction of the Bible and the Koran to go forth and multiply. Jenkins makes this more than just an abstract proposition by providing on-the-ground reporting of a Christian reawakening that is already occurring in Europe.

How many Americans would have guessed, for example, that the Catholic Church is now flourishing in London? Jenkins quotes one parishioner, "We used to celebrate Mass three times on a Sunday and we were never full. Now we have six or eight services every Sunday and people are standing outside in the street." Britain is still very secular compared to the United States. In 2001, only 33 percent of adults attended church during the Christmas season, but by 2005 that number had surged to 43 percent. In part, these numbers reflect the migration of Polish Catholics to Britain in recent years. But around Britain, American-style Protestant megachurches are also flourishing, such as Holy Trinity in Brompton, which now attracts 3,000 to its Sunday services and is organized into lay-led groups of twenty-five to thirty members who meet fortnightly.

In a particularly elucidative chapter entitled "Faith Among the Ruins," Jenkins points to similar examples of religious revival across Europe. The number of young Italian women entering convents is surging. In 2005, the German Protestant Convention in Hanover attracted a record crowd of 400,000. In Finland, most people may be fed up with the official Lutheran Church, but large numbers of urban teenagers and young adults are flocking to the alternative "Thomas Mass," which is based on liturgical traditions of the Lutheran Church, heavily influenced by ecumenicism. Jenkins estimates that Europe's evangelicals, charismatics, and Pentecostals, many of them immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, outnumber Muslims by almost two to one, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

When I first read Jenkins's book, my reaction was "interesting, if true." But as it happened, I found myself in Poland this May, and was surprised to discover the Catholic churches of Warsaw and Krakow filled to the last pew-and not just with old ladies, but with enthusiastic young professionals and their children as well. Religious icons, like the black Madonna of Czestochowa, attract throngs of pilgrims, as does the birthplace of Pope John Paul II. A three-day conference of the World Congress of Families in Warsaw, at which I was a token backsliding secularist speaker, drew thousands of religious conservatives from across Europe who vibrated with energy.

The reason more Americans aren't aware of these trends, Jenkins argues, is because most of what they know about Europe is filtered first by the European media, which are overwhelmingly secular and generally hostile to organized religion. "European accounts of religious life all but ignore significant trends or events, and this lack of attention means that these movements receive little attention elsewhere."

For similar reasons, most Americans have little conception of how conservative ordinary Europeans are on a wide range of other issues. For example, no European country has practiced capital punishment since 1981. Because of the ability of elites to control public discussion, the issue is simply off the table. Yet, as Jenkins reports, majorities in most European countries support the death penalty, as well as much tougher stands on criminal justice. Similarly, the European "man in the street" opposes much else the European Union stands for, including sheltering asylum seekers and promoting "positive discrimination" (affirmative action) for Muslim youths. Americans who don't pay close attention get only hints of what a "red state" Europe is becoming-as when, for example, a majority of voters in France and the Netherlands unexpectedly rejects the proposed EU constitution (in 2005), or when France elects a "law and order" president like Nicolas Sarkozy.

"Putting all these various issues together," Jenkins concludes, "we can envision a near future Europe that is anything but uniformly secular." The number of Christians may decline, along with Europe's population as a whole, but they will account for a larger, and presumably louder, share of the population.

The influence of European Muslims will also grow. But their numbers are, as Jenkins points out, still quite small. The largest concentration of Muslims is in France, at about 8 percent of the population. In the Netherlands, 6.3 percent of the population is Muslim, and Jenkins notes that in all other current EU countries, just 4.3 percent are Muslim. Furthermore, there is great diversity within Europe's Muslim citizenry. The Turks who dominate Germany's Muslim population do not even speak the same language as France's Algerians, much less Britain's Pakistanis. Moreover, polls suggest that Muslims living in Europe generally express far more positive attitudes toward Christians-91 percent in France, 82 percent in Spain, and 71 percent in Britain-than do Muslims in their countries of origin. Though European Muslims are generally hostile to Jews, they are less so than Muslims living elsewhere in the world. And, as Jenkins points out, violent fundamentalists are a very tiny minority of all practicing Muslims.

Such considerations lead Jenkins to make an optimistic comparison with the United States' historical experience with Catholic immigration. "Fears that the nation would be swamped by immigrants, perhaps by revolutionary force, provoked Protestants to mobilize in some of the largest mass movements ever seen in American history," he reminds us, "above all, the Ku Klux Klan of the early 1920s." If there is friction between Muslim immigrants and the native stock of Europe today, just be patient, Jenkins councils. "Let us make a fair comparison: just how well was the United States doing with assimilation in 1925 or so?"

This particular comparison strikes me as strained. Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century did experience terrorism from self-styled anarchists and unionists, many of them immigrants (for example, the Haymarket bombing, the McKinley assassination). But there were never any Catholic equivalents of today's Islamic suicide bombers. Nor did Catholic crusaders assassinate people over cartoons. Moreover, to suggest that it is no great cause for alarm if Europe witnesses the resurgence of movements akin to the KKK for a generation or two strikes me as less than comforting.

Still, a confrontation between a resurgent Christianity in Europe and a militant Islam is not necessarily the new battle line in European society. Indeed, as I was reminded at the World Congress of Families in Warsaw, conservative Christians and conservative Muslims living in Europe have much more in common with each other on many issues-notably abortion, euthanasia, and "family values"-than they do with Europe's childless relativistic secularists. Time and again, speakers at the conference made this point. We are all People of the Book. The true infidels are the secularists who deny a role for the God of Abraham in public life, and who in the name of human rights and personal liberation create a "culture of death."

If one defines European civilization by the public philosophy of the European Union, including its embrace of secularism and multiculturalism, then that Europe is definitely in demographic decline. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that this Europe forgot to have children and thereby lost much of its influence over the evolution of European society while also undermining the sustainability of its welfare state. If, however, one defines European civilization by its Judeo-Christian traditions, including its long history of both confronting and adapting to Islamic influences, then Europe looks poised for rejuvenation.


Leftist bias masquerading as journalism

An editorial from "The Australian" below pulls no punches. Like many Murdoch properties, "The Australian" gives good coverage to both conservative and Leftist viewpoints -- something the Left find unforgiveable

The measure of good journalism is objectivity and a fearless regard for truth. Bias, nonetheless, is in the eye of the beholder and some people will always see conspiracy when the facts don't suit their view of the world. This is the affliction that has gripped, to a large measure, Australia's online news commentariat that has found passing endless comment on other people's work preferable to breaking real stories and adding to society's pool of knowledge.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the fortnightly fury that accompanies The Australian's presentation of Newspoll, the nation's most authoritative snapshot of the political landscape. Newspoll cannot predict the future but it can provide clues. Often they are hidden beyond the headline figure in an emerging trend. The Australian has proved itself adept at spotting these trends but our woolly-headed critics dismiss this as manipulation. But if history repeats itself and the turnaround reported in John Howard's Newspoll rating as preferred Prime Minister indicates a bigger swing in support back to the coalition will the on-line commentariat finally admit it is they, not us, who are blinded by bias? As the nation's leading newspaper we expect our reporting and expert analysis will get attention. But the one-eyed anti-Howard cheer squad now masquerading as serious online political commentary, apart from a few notable exceptions, has all but exhausted its claim to be taken seriously.

Smug, self assured, delusional swagger is no substitute for getting it right. When it comes to spotting and properly understanding emerging trends, the evidence is on our side. Our analysis was proved correct in 1998, 2001 and 2004 and we expect it will again this year. We do not know who will win the next election but despite Labor's big lead in the opinion polls since Kevin Rudd was elected leader last December, history suggests it will be a tough fight. According to The Australian's political editor, Dennis Shanahan, no Opposition since World War II has won government without two key indicators 12 months out from the election. These are that the Opposition Leader has a lead over the incumbent of at least five points on the question of who would make a better Prime Minister and the party has a nine point lead on a two party preferred basis. Applying this historical test Mr Rudd may not have had enough time to cement his claim to the top job, though he leads by a huge margin now.

The fact that Mr Howard has pulled back Mr Rudd's advantage on the question of better Prime Minister in the latest Newspoll survey is significant. As Newspoll chief executive Martin O'Shannessy wrote in The Australian yesterday, evidence from the past three elections is that a turnaround in Mr Howard's better PM rating can be interpreted as a leading indicator for an improvement in the Coalition's overall electoral stocks. Though it may not happen this time, the pattern over the last three electoral cycles has been a fall in Mr Howard's ratings 12 months out from an election, accompanied by a fall in the Coalition primary vote in two of the past three elections. This has been followed by a bottoming out of Mr Howard's rating three to six months out from the election which is in turn followed immediately by an improvement in his better PM rating and a rise in the Coalition primary vote.

In mid-1998 Labor appeared to be in a position to win government after support for the Coalition slumped to the lowest on record but within five months Howard was re-elected as Prime Minister after defeating Kim Beazley as Labor leader for the first time. In late 2003 Shanahan was criticised for highlighting Simon Crean's poor Newspoll showing but within months Crean had stepped aside in favour of Mark Latham. In the lead-up to the 2004 election, the ALP under Latham looked competitive, and was reported as such in this newspaper, but Labor was thrashed at the October 2004 poll. Where The Australian recognised that Mr Latham could not win in mid 2004 many online commentators continued to support him until a year after his defeat.

The Australian was criticised for its analysis of Newspoll last November indicating Mr Beazley was a fatal liability for Labor's electoral chances. At that time Shanahan accurately picked the significance of Labor's fall in primary support to below 40 per cent, the level at which Paul Keating had said the ALP had no chance of winning an election. Labor's performance after replacing Mr Beazley with Mr Rudd suggests Shanahan's analysis was correct.

If there is a common theme to the criticisms levelled against The Australian's political coverage by the self appointed online commentariat it is that our critics only howl when the heat is being applied to Labor. There was a flurry of concern when we criticised Mr Beazley but silence when Mr Howard's performance has been put under the gun. The Australian's coverage of the first Newspoll with Mr Rudd as Labor leader said it had been a dream start. The Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard 'dream team' ticket was cemented following a special Newspoll which showed it would be the most popular combination for Labor against Mr Howard. In February, Mr Shanahan made the first call that Mr Howard could lose to Mr Rudd claiming, 'This time, Howard is vulnerable'. When we led with the story that Mr Rudd's Newspoll rating as better Prime Minister had soared past that of Mr Howard there was no negative commentary about our reporting or the emphasis on the measure of better PM. But when we reported Mr Howard pulling level with Mr Rudd this week on preferred prime minister we were accused of selective analysis and doing the Government's bidding. As a general rule, if the polls show Mr Howard is performing badly, our critics are happy.

As a newspaper we don't know who we will support at the federal election. On several occasions this year we have called for the Government to address the substance of Labor's policies rather than attack Mr Rudd personally because, as our own editorials have said, we are sure Mr Rudd would make a good prime minister. Rather than being a mouthpiece for the Government, as some online news sites would suggest, we have been harsh critics of Mr Howard. But most of our criticism has been from the Right, chiding the Government for being overly generous with middle class welfare and reform shy. The self appointed experts online come instead from the extreme Left, populated as many sites are by sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper. We fully expect that if anything goes wrong for Mr Rudd in the campaign this year we will be blamed for Labor's misfortune.

It reflects how out of touch with ordinary views so many on-line commentators are. They claim to understand the mainstream but in reality represent a clique that believes what it considers to be the evils of the Howard Government position on Iraq, climate change, and Work Choices to be self-evident truths. They despair that Mr Howard has not suffered the same collapse in public support as US President George W Bush and Newspoll makes it clear Mr Howard still enjoys very strong support in the electorate. Such commentators clearly have a market because there are a lot of people who want to have their own prejudices endlessly confirmed. But they should not kid themselves they are engaged in proper journalism and real reporting.

On almost every issue it is difficult not to conclude that most of the electronic offerings that feed off the work of The Australian to create their own content are a waste of time. They contribute only defamatory comments and politically coloured analysis. Unlike Crikey, we understand Newspoll because we own it. Martin O'Shannessy understands Newspoll because he runs it and Sol Lebovic understands Newspoll because he started it. The results of our analysis speak for themselves over 20 years.

A guide book recently published by one site demonstrates the extent of confused thinking on how the polls operate. A chapter by Mumble's Peter Brent says two party preferred ratings are at the same time worthy but unreliable and that an Opposition Leader with a high satisfaction rating has no better chance of being elected than one with a low rating. He dismisses approval ratings and the preferred Prime Minister measure as "embroidery". Yet the fact is when Mr Howard and Mr Rudd's offices telephone The Australian to get advance warning on what the following day's Newspoll will show they invariably want to know two things: The primary vote and preferred PM.

Not properly understanding how polls work gives our critics licence to project their own bias onto analysis of our reporting. The Australian is not beholden to any one side of politics and recent election outcomes vindicate our treatment of our polls. So let's not mince words. We just don't think many of our critics have any real clue about polling and very little practical experience of politics.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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