Logic-Policing Cole and Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan and John Cole are two of my favorite bloggers, but today both have fallen prey to the fallacy of Faulty Comparison. This fallacy is better known as “comparing apples to oranges.” It is a very common error, and spotting it can be extremely helpful in a debate.

Let’s start with Cole. He is upset with many of his commenters today, and is “floored” by what he calls the “staggering hypocrisy” of some of them defending the Obama administration’s approval of the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, while decrying the Bush administration’s torture programs.

It seems like a good number of you, who completely and totally lost your shit (and deservedly so) when the Bush administration waterboarded foreigners, now seem to either blithely look the other way or even endorse the concept of assassinating American citizens.

It was funny, and sad, watching many of you become shithouse lawyers, justifying the unjustifiable. Some of you are ok with the assassination if it is signed off by the courts- because then it would be A-OK! Sarah Palin- I just found your death panels.

Some of you say “I’m ok with it if it is done legally.” You know what else was deemed legal- the torture you screamed about for the last eight years. The law in Arizona that you all abhor is “legal.” Segregation was “legal.” The reason you all had a sad face because Dawn Johnsen was not confirmed was because what the OLC and the last administration did to sanitize the morally indefensible and call it “legal.” …

…This really is not a tough call at all. This is not because I am some crazy civil liberties absolutist. This is just basic common sense, and this kind of thing would set an absolutely horrible precedent. It is beyond me how anyone could get upset about Gitmo and Abu Gharaib and then think assassination of citizens is ok. Personally, I’ll take terrorized by guard dogs and waterboarded over a bullet to the brain pan.

But you know me. I’m just a wild-eyed crazy liberal.

Cole is flatly wrong that this is the same as waterboarding prisoners. Prisoners, by definition, are in prison. They are under the total control of their captors and are not a threat. Al-Awlaki, on the other hand, is in Yemen, presumably armed, surrounded by other armed men, and is plotting to kill American citizens. He is not in our control, and the only way to stop him may be “a bullet to the brain pan” or (more likely) a predator drone strike. So Cole is doubly wrong when he accuses those who see the difference between these two executive acts as hypocrites.

Sullivan’s error is a little less obvious and definitely less angry, but there nonetheless. Today he compared a quote of David Axelrod’s with part of Obama’s prepared remarks on the nomination of Elena Kagan:

Senior White House adviser David Axelrod told reporters earlier this week that he and President Obama agree. A nominee’s sexuality “has no place in this process,” he said. “It wasn’t an avenue of inquiry on our part and it shouldn’t be on anybody else’s’ part.”

and the president’s initial statement:

Elena has also spoken movingly about how her mother had grown up at a time when women had few opportunities to pursue their ambitions and took great joy in watching her daughter do so. Neither she, nor Elena’s father, lived to see this day. But I think her mother would relish this moment. I think she would relish — as I do — the prospect of three women taking their seat on the nation’s highest Court for the first time in history. A Court that would be more inclusive, more representative, more reflective of us as a people than ever before.

Sullivan responds:

But if gender is an active and legitimate category to consider, why is sexual orientation out of bounds of even inquiry?

Or let me put it this way. I find Axelrod’s casual bracketing of sexual orientation as somehow different – and lesser – than gender to be offensive. I don’t think it was meant to be, and I think it was said out of a legitimate concern to be fair to people’s privacy. But if identity matters in selecting a Justice, and if that identity is obviously a way in which nominees really do understand the impact of the law (and discrimination) on ordinary lives, and if all this has been explicitly stated by the president as integral to his vision of the Supreme Court, then why is sexual orientation off the list?

His most glaring error here is calling this “Axelrod’s casual bracketing of sexual orientation as somehow different – and lesser – than gender.” Axelrod didn’t bracket these two quotes from himself and Obama, Sullivan did. But even if Axelrod wrote Obama’s speech and personally stands behind every word of it, this is still an unlike comparison of two things. He sees sexuality and gender as equal-identity issues, and Axelrod’s statement as an unintended insult to homosexuality.

But his nod to privacy undermines his argument. You can be private about your sexuality. You cannot be private about your gender. Yes, gay people are a persecuted minority. No doubt. But other minorities do not have the refuge of the closet. Persons of good faith can devoutly wish that no homosexual ever has to live in the closet, while honoring the privacy of those that do. But at a job interview, your gender is apparent. Your sexuality is not. Acknowledging this is not insulting, and Sullivan should reconsider his position.

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Published in: on May 14, 2010 at 2:38 pm  Comments (9)  
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  1. Thanks! I love both of those blogs too, particularly Balloon Juice. I did not wade into that fight, but I found both posts on the assassination policy to be discordant and off somehow – I just did not see the comparison. But I could not really articulate why, so I just kept quiet. Thanks for articulating my thoughts.

    • Anytime. Thanks for the kind words.

  2. I really didn’t read Cole’s post that way. He wasn’t calling people hypocrites for decrying prison torture but then accepting a targeted assassination of a terrorist — he was saying “look, these things are both illegal: you can’t torture a prisoner and you can’t summarily execute a citizen. If you opposed the former, you should be against the latter.” It was the acceptance of illegality in one case but not another that caused him to cry Hypocrite.

    At least, that’s the way I see his argument. And I think that he was rightly pissed that there were (and still are) commenters who really don’t see a problem with the latter. It recalls to mind the “ticking time bomb” arguments for torture, those ends-justify-the-means apologist justifications that someone *might* know something so we’re cool to drown them and rape them and pull out their fingernails just to make sure.

    Rational non-sociopathic people don’t think that way, and that’s why there was so much justified hue-and-cry about torture. And similarly, targeting someone for death — an american citizen, no less — for simply giving inflammatory speeches is pretty despicable and unwarranted. We’re supposed to be the good guys here. Even in the case of actual crimes being committed, there’s process that has to be carried out; you don’t just bomb away and “let God sort’em out,” as the redneck expression goes.

    The way I read it, Cole was just pointing that out.

    • “He wasn’t calling people hypocrites for decrying prison torture but then accepting a targeted assassination of a terrorist…”

      Yes he was. Repeatedly. Reread the post. That was his assertion.

      “…he was saying ‘look, these things are both illegal: you can’t torture a prisoner and you can’t summarily execute a citizen. If you opposed the former, you should be against the latter.’”

      That wasn’t his assertion. That was his argument in defense of his assertion. It fails because it relies on a faulty comparison. It’s like saying, “If you hate apples you have to hate oranges, because they’re both fruit.”

      “And similarly, targeting someone for death — an american citizen, no less — for simply giving inflammatory speeches is pretty despicable and unwarranted.”

      From the NY Times Article – “Intelligence analysts believe that only recently he began to help plot strikes, including the failed attempt to bomb an airliner on Dec. 25.”

      “Even in the case of actual crimes being committed, there’s process that has to be carried out; you don’t just bomb away and ‘let God sort’em out,’ as the redneck expression goes.”

      How do you envision that process being carried out? And what if an arrest is not possible? We just snap our fingers and say “shucks?”

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  4. Dude, if you’re not going to post comments that take issue with your conclusions, then you’re not going to get readers. Moreover, I’m going to call you out about it on BJ. John Cole may be a lot of things, but he’s not guilty of your “false comparisons” charge, and he doesn’t block comments.

    • Sorry about the mixup. Rookie mistake. Come back anytime.

  5. Okay, good for you for posting those comments. Now, onwards.

    So look, I see where you’re coming from, but you’re wrong. My point is that John was not making the false comparison of which you blame him, because his focus was upon the illegalities: everyone decries the illegality of torture, but read through the (now 500+) comments of that thread and be amazed at the people who condone state-sanctioned assassination of american citizens.

    So yes, you’re right, that’s the argument. BUT THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT. If the assertion bothers you, then go ahead and ignore it — but don’t rant about apples and oranges and dismiss the fact that the real crux of the matter is not their flavor but the fact that they are, indeed, both fruit, and that that’s where the argument lies.

    “From the NY Times Article – “Intelligence analysts believe that only recently he began to help plot strikes, including the failed attempt to bomb an airliner on Dec. 25.””

    Ah, yes, Intelligence Analysts. These are the same brave heroes upon whose “beliefs” one Dick Cheney declared that Saddam Hussein’s reps “met with al Qaeda in Switzerland,” which the Bush administration used as an (one of several) rationales for invading Iraq. All of which later proved to be bogus, to the detriment of 100,000+ dead Iraqis.

    “How do you envision that process being carried out? And what if an arrest is not possible? We just snap our fingers and say “shucks?””

    You’re talking about a citizen of the USA here. For starters, let’s talk about his citizenship. Should he remain a citizen? In my passport, it says that renouncing my citizenship to (iirc) an embassy rep could result in the loss of my citizenship. If that happens, then I am no longer due many of the rights of the US Constitution. But as long as I am, by the 14th amendment to the constitution, “no State shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

    So let’s back this up: these people aren’t even talking about citizenship. They’re talking about blindingly bombing — but not totally blindly, but rather with the explicit purpose of killing an american citizen. Without due process. Depriving him of life, on the basis of.. nothing!

    So there you go. They’re not even taking what might even be the very first, very basic, most obvious step. Is that enough for you? They haven’t even asked “hey, is this legal?”

    Look, I get what you’re saying. You’re all “24” up in this shit and probably love the ticking time-bomb-scenario arguments in which we have to do some horrible act because if we don’t, some big ole enormous bomb is going to go off and demolish New York. But it’s not that simple, and you need to stop acting like it is. How do I “envision” the process being carried out? I don’t. That’s not my job, and it’s not anything that I have any expertise in. For that reason, I don’t comment upon it. You could take note of that and follow by example, because you know you don’t know for shit about what you’re talking about. But I do know my rights, since they’re pretty clearly laid out in a few simple amendments to the US constitution, and really that’s all that John Cole was taking offense at: that there are actually people who think that preemptively murdering a US citizen for what he or she says or thinks without not only due process but even the most basic examination of the facts to be, well, pretty egregiously shitty.

    • James, you’re assuming a lot here. First off, let me dispel the caricature of me that you’ve formed in your mind. I’m not all 24 up in this shit and don’t love the ticking time bomb scenario. That scenario is used to justify torture of prisoners, which I abhor. And nothing gets me steamed like the treatment of Jose Padilla, precisely because he is a citizen. But I recognize the difference between a prison and a battlefield.

      I also think you’re assuming the blithe indifference of those who made this decision, as well as assuming away the possibility that the intelligence analysts may actually have good intelligence. You’re assuming they have no basis for making this controversial ruling. That seems ridiculous to me.

      I think you and Cole are more focused on what’s illegal, whereas I’m more focused on what’s immoral and counter-productive. I’m not claiming that you don’t care about morality. I’m convinced you do. But your argument rests on legality. Is that an absolute standard with you? Do you feel (for example) that Clinton should have been removed from office for lying about a blowjob? I don’t, but maybe you do. After all, it was illegal.

      So when I say I’m focused on morality and productiveness, what I mean is that the immorality and counter-productiveness of torturing prisoners is what bothered me. I do not feel the same way about assassinating a US citizen who has declared war on the US and plots attacks from beyond the reach of our ability to arrest. It seems to me that he has renounced every other function of his citizenship. I don’t feel bad about renouncing the part that shields him from our bombs. Therefore there is no double-standard in my mind or in my heart. I would have been cool with the Bush administration making this exact decision, because of the different circumstances in this case. Therefore I am not a hypocrite. You and Cole may devoutly wish that I care about the illegality of this act as much as you do, but I don’t. And I’m not likely to. I can respect you disagreeing with me, and even being repulsed by my position. I won’t hold that against you. But I take great offense at being called a hypocrite when I know exactly how I made my judgment, and what I care about, and you don’t.

      Anyway, thanks for engaging me on this issue. It has helped me clarify a few things.


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