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.
– Matthew J. Franck is professor and chairman of political science at Radford University, and a regular blogger at NRO’s “Bench Memos.”