Saturday, March 31, 2018

Rhetorical Excess

Mr. Bret Stephens writes a letter to his pal Kevin D. Williamson, newly appointed columnist for The Atlantic, commiserating with him over the sad fate of being criticized ("The Outrage Over Kevin Williamson"):
The case against you, as best as I can tell, rests on three charges. You think abortion is murder and tweeted — appallingly in my view — that doctors and women should perhaps be hanged for it. You believe “sex is a biological reality” and that gender should not be a choice. And you once boorishly described an African-American boy in East St. Louis, Ill., “raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge.”
My view is that there are more important charges than these: he is a bad writer and dishonest. For example, he falsely accused Jonathan Chait of using a strawman argument in a piece in which he himself used an idiotic strawman argument, an awful ad hominem argument, and two serious falsehoods, followed by a second post in which he falsely accused Chait of dishonesty, and falsely claimed that the great socialist writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., agreed with him (Williamson) that human inequality is genetically determined (of course the basic criticism there applies to Stephens too). I wrote it up in 2015:

Kevin D. Williamson of the National Review, on Thursday, writes about "Inequality Warriors Vs. the Family and the Individual", chides persons of progressive views over
the inequality that you purport to be committed to eradicating.
and invites us to
abandon the inequality crusade
(for comments see Scott Lemieux at LGM) but, on Friday, objects with some agitation to having his rhetoric criticized:
Jonathan Chait at New York magazine takes issue with my recent piece on inequality politics:
Much of Williamson’s essay is dedicated to the straw man argument that liberals propose “eradicating” inequality, as opposed to the actual liberal position, which is to ameliorate it slightly while still accepting not only significant inequality but more of it than nearly any other advanced economy.
As is usual with Chait, he ignores the actual substance of the piece in question, which was not about redistributive taxing and spending but about progressive arguments for much more radical interventions into family and private life, such as abolishing private schools and treating the fact that some families read bedtime stories to their children as a political problem, worrying that such parenting should be regarded as conferring unfair advantages that illegitimately deepen inequality. piece was not an assault on a “straw man” as Chait put it; Adam Swift really does want to abolish private schools, and he really does think that we should be worried about the inequality that results from good parenting. A straw man is an argument attributed to an opponent for rhetorical purposes, e.g. claiming that conservatives believe that “Paris Hilton and her dog” are the “products of individual merit and superior upbringing,” in case Chait would like to see an actual straw-man argument right at the top of his own illiterate column 
1. The Paris Hilton and her dog example is not a straw man but a reductio ad absurdum. Chait uses it as a photo caption to illustrate the consequences of accepting the contention of Irving Kristol (1972) that inequality of wealth and income is a natural and inevitable consequence of inequality of talent.

2. The argument pursued in Williamson's post, as summarized in his peroration, that people of progressive views are wrong because they "purport to be committed to eradicating" human social inequality, is a straw man, because there are no such liberals. When he says the "actual substance of the piece" was not that, he is lying. The stuff about private schools and bedtime stories is Williamson's attempt to demonstrate that liberals are like this by citing the philosopher Adam Swift, who has publicly wondered whether the aims of egalitarianism should be advanced by abolishing private education (yes) or forbidding parents to read aloud to their children (no).

Which also, incidentally, literally proves that he is wrong. It is not a matter of treating the bedtime story as a political issue, but as a limiting case. Swift argues that there are certain things as a matter of public policy that could be done to reduce inequality, and other things that could not, thus clarifying his view (widely shared) that inequality cannot be eradicated, whether it would be a good idea or not, only mitigated.

I certainly agree that private education should be abolished, in case you were wondering. People shouldn't be able to buy their kids a childhood segregated by income any more than one segregated by race.

3. Calling Chait's column illiterate is an ad hominem argument (and "as usual... he ignores the substance" is an ad hominem sneer, though it might be relevant if he offered any evidence).

4. It is also untrue, like the suggestion that Adam Swift has called for the eradication of inequality. And the denial that he himself made a straw man argument, which is kind of the worst of all. And Williamson knows very well that it is. Thus when Williamson headlines his second piece

Jonathan Chait Is Intellectually Dishonest

it's, um, ironic to say the least, because he has built this opinion out of a whole pile of dishonesty. But you knew that already. Chait will, fortunately, survive this preemptive tu-quoque.

He is also pretty dishonest in citing Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s short story "Harrison Bergeron" (1961) as whatever he was citing it as, but in this he is joining a long tradition that started when William F. Buckley, Jr., bought the reprint rights and ran the story in the National Review of November 16, 1965, as part of the magazine's anti–civil rights campaign.

The story, an extremely slight vehicle and not stylistically a recognizable Vonnegut product, takes the form of a kind of TV sketch featuring a married couple in a dystopian future, 2081, when a lunatic government has enforced equality on all citizens by forcing them to wear handicaps to prevent them from enjoying superior strength, intelligence, or beauty. As George and Hazel watch the handicapped dancers on television, their 14-year-old son Harrison, a handsome giant genius jailed for refusing to wear his handicaps and threatening to overthrow the government, escapes to the TV studio while his parents watch in their living room, frees one of the dancers of her shackles, and declares himself emperor, upon which the Handicapper General comes in and shoots the two of them dead, and George and Hazel, unable because of their own handicaps to grasp what has happened, slide into a Burns and Allen routine.

The apparently purpose of referencing it is to argue that "even the liberal Kurt Vonnegut was against egalitarianism", but
  • Vonnegut wasn't against egalitarianism—
    In an interview, he said of George Orwell, "I like his socialism" (Clancy 53). He said in a commencement speech at Bennington College, "I suggest that you work for a socialist form of government ... It isn't moonbeams to talk of modest plenty for all. They have it in Sweden"(168). In an address at Wheaton College, he even quoted Karl Marx approvingly: "From each according to his abilities. To each according to his needs" (217). When asked in an interview how he would have campaigned against Nixon, he responded, "I would have set the poor against the rich" ("Playboy" 273).
  • he explicitly rejected political interpretations of the story
  • I can't be sure, but there is a possibility that my story "Harrison Bergeron" is about the envy and self-pity I felt in an over-achievers' high school in Indianapolis quite a while ago now. Some people never tame those emotions. John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald and Mark David Chapman come to mind. "Handicapper Generals," if you like.
  • and what kind of argument is that anyway?
Besides, the dystopia isn't even one in which income and wealth inequalities have been eliminated. The evil government doesn't seem to have thought of simple redistribution; they're trying to eradicate personal differences instead of class differences, and to that extent the Handicapper General is doing socialism wrong. It's the same kind of silly excess as the bedtime story example Adam Swift uses (only Williamson seems unable to understand this) to clarify through philosophical examination which kinds of egalitarian policies are desirable (redistribution of wealth) and which are obviously not. Kevin Williamson has achieved some kind of peak wrongness here.

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