Monday, August 30, 2004

Hitler analogies

Andrew Sullivan in this link complains about pro-gay marriage people being compared to Nazis. I agree with him that the argument he is replying to is unfortunate but I think he is purposely misstating the author’s point.

It seems to me that Drew is making the point that the gay marriage issue is one that everyone will have to take a side on. It is a question at the foundation of our regime and civilization and taking no position is a position. Still, the argument is unfortunate, though not for the reason Sullivan states.

Here is the thing with Hitler analogies. They are quite useful in reasoning about things precisely because he represents a universally agreed upon evil. They are dangerous because they represent a universally agreed up evil.

In mathematical reasoning it is often the case that we want to take something to a logical extreme. “Suppose I start with the largest prime number…” Why do we do that? Well it allows us to find a test case. If it is not true at some extreme value then we don’t have to worry about it being true at some lesser value. If it some proposition is true at some extreme value then we can start working our way back to find out at what values it stops being true.

Hitler is a recognized end point on a continuum. The continuum of evil. If, say, we want to know if we are going to prohibit the speech of people with whom we disagree we can conveniently pose the question as would we let Hitler speak? If yes we are done. If no then we can start figuring out where we are willing to draw the line.

The problem is that using such arguments, so benign and useful in mathematics, has a drawback in politics. We are often said to be ‘implicitly’ comparing someone to Hitler. And of course we are. We are saying that someone shares with Hitler a quality of being morally objectionable in some way. Being morally objectionable is in itself not much of a criticism. But by using Hitler in the example brings in associations that take on a life of their own.

The problem is that language works in two ways. One is on the logical level and the other is on the level of associations. On the level of logic we are not doing anyone a dis-service by drawing an analogy between them and Hitler—there are lots of abstract qualities that Hitler had which a person could share and not be so bad. The problem is that language works also at the level of associations. Even if the logical point one is making is not so harsh, the association that is being built is one almost anyone does have a right to object to.

So, when someone complains about a Hitler analogy the proper response is not “how dare you compare me to Hitler?” Or “How dare you compare me to Lenin [or Marx, etc.]?” Logically there is almost no one or no position that is not on a continuum that ends with some very objectionable figure. And the person drawing the analogy is usually in a position to make some sort of pedantic but correct reply that they are not comparing you to Hitler but just taking some quality to a logical extreme to make a point. The real objection is that certain analogies are so toxic that whatever the merits of the logic of an argument in which they are employed, they should be avoided. It strikes me as a case of bad writing than of bad will.

Thursday, August 26, 2004


Finally here!

I am at my new job in Gettysburg. I have a real office and a real life finally. This place is in the mountains. No one told me that. What is the deal with these things? Driving here it was up and and up and down. There was no point to it. Ok you are on a mountain or by a mountain, but I never thought about what being in the mountains is like.

It is the Gettysburg of the Gettysburg Address and battle of the same name. I don't want to seem impertinent but it is rather a nuisance having a cemetary surrounding you.

You may be hearing about the College in the news soon. There is an 'artist' lynching a Confederate flag next week which has resulted in a charming group of people promising to visit us. Apparently the college is already out a couple hundred grand for extra security.

I can't say I disagree with my collegues about having the exhibit and not allowing some thugs to intimidate us. Still there is something that doesn't sit well with me. I mean, it is the feeling that we are somehow making some heroic statement. All this talk about 'the artist feels that it is essential to the integrety of his work that the display...." I mean, how much guts does it take to come out against lynching on the campus of a liberal arts college in 2004?

Tuesday, August 17, 2004


When you approach the world committed to the theory that all bad things are caused by the powerful oppressing the weak the facts become unnecessary. You already know who is responsible for the violence--the powerful. You can always explain away any violence by the people you caste as the weak as the result, ultimately, of the actions of the powerful. That is why the Palestinians are never held to account for terror--it is not really thier fault. The arguments about what Arafat knew and how much control he or some other part of the Palestinian leadership has or which side committed what act first are ultimately irrelevant. The theory through which reality is interpreted imposes a structure on perception. More Palestinian violence is only more proof of what the Israelis are doing to them. It is becasue they have defined as the weaker party that nothing they will ever do will ever be more than another reason for more Isreali consessions.

The fact that Palestinian terrorism is not necessarily centrally directed or coordinated is not proof that it is caused by oppression. There was plenty of spontaneous violence on the part of whites against blacks in the South. It never caused anyone to ask what the blacks were doing to those poor white people to make white people hate them so much.

The real victory in the war for world opinion was won when the conflict was recast as the Palestinian-Isreali conflict. That is what made the Israelis the strong and the Palestinians the weak. When it was the Isrealis against 200 million Arabs (who are, incidentally, still at war with the Israelis) the Arabs were still to some degree held to some kind of account for thier actions.


No one ever comments on my blog. I am inclined to take that as agreement. Note to mankind: failure to register your objections to my opinions in a timely fashion will result in forfiture of your right to disagree with any of these opinions should I choose to repeat them at some ponit in the future.

P.S., no snide remarks about my spelling.

P.P.S. My philosophy on spelling was best summed up by Senator Hearst: "People say I am ignorant. They say I spell bird "B-U-R-D." Weill if "B-U-R-D" Doesn't spell bird what the hell does it spell?

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Words and War

Most political catastrophes come from using the wrong words. Words influence not only how others see a problem but also how you think about the problem yourself. In the case of Iraq policy makers were mislead by the term state. They assumed that they were fighting a state when in fact they were fighting a mafia.

The essence of a regime is its ability to compel compliance with its will. A state compels compliance by organs of state: a system of laws administered by employees of the state. They are governed by rules and impersonally administered sanctions. At the top of every state must be some political entity, something that is governed by personal loyalties and ties, but the state itself it separate from the political entities at the top and outlasts changes in the governing political group. A mafia compels compliance by the ability to administer personal violence at the discretion of individuals and based not on impersonal rules but on highly personalistic loyalties.

Iraq had the appearance of being a state but had long since degenerated into a mafia that simply controlled an unusually large amount of territory. Therefore, when the ‘state’, the buildings and official rule making entities, were captured by the coalition forces at the end of just a few weeks of fighting the coalition mistakenly assumed that they had won the war. They assumed that without the things through which a state rules—rule making and enforcement organs, the ability to pay and fire the visible administrators of the state’s power—they assumed that the war was over.

But in fact they had only inconvenienced the enemy regime. The power of the enemy regime was never based on the administration of rules but on the maintenance the ability to sanction people for not doing what the leadership wants—the ability to kill people. Taking away the organs of the state inconvenienced rather than crippled the enemy regime.

We were also mislead by the connotations of the term guerrilla war. For us it meant fighting in the jungle as we did in Vietnam. There were no jungles in Iraq so we assumed we were home free. But what a guerilla hides behind are not trees but people. They trade on their willingness to sacrifice their own civilians and our own reluctance to inflict civilian casualties. Of course part of the reason that we miss this is that we again think of Iraq as a state and the people there as citizens. Our own soldiers would never think of blowing up our own citizens or using them as shields for enemy fire so they had trouble anticipating the use of such tactics by the enemy. It would have been easier to foresee and adjust to such developments had language not lead us to expect their ‘soldiers’ to act like soldiers. If we had remembered that they were Mafiosi we would have understood that the bulk of the people in Iraq are better thought of as prisoners or prey than as citizens. The willingness of our enemy to use their living bodies as protective shields or their dead bodies as propaganda tools would have been less surprising.

We would also have been better able to deal with the support—strikingly small as a percentage of the population though it is, all polls that I know of putting it as less than %15—that the insurgents enjoy. We should think of it more as an instance of mass Stockholm syndrome to be dealt with by liberating the hostage population from the threat of their captors than as a legitimate expression public opinion to be dealt with by negotiating with their captors.

Of course, among the cheif reasons for our mis-definition of the situation is our continuing attachment to the United Nations. By allowing the emisaries of mafia families and legitimate states to sit at the same table as equals, it inflates the status of the one and dimishes the status as well as thinking processes of the other.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Alan Keyes

Allow me to confess up front. I am a social conservative and if you matched my answers on a survey questionaire with those of Alan Keyes they would probably match up pretty well. I should also say I have met Alan Keyes. About 10 years ago I was in a local chapter of the organization he was then heading called Citizens Against Government Waste. He came out to have breakfast with about 5 of us. Whenever people ask if I have head him give a speech I say yes in good conscience. Having breakfast with Alan Keyes and listening to him give a speech in front of a few hundred people is more or less the same thing. Actually the meal option is better. It gives you something to do in between being paused into voicing your approval.

I can't stand the guy and it mystifies me how anyone else can. There is so much that is disagreeable about the whole specticle but the thing which bothers me most is how everyone is always going on about what a great debater he is. I couldn't disagree more. He is the worst kind of debater. Every question gets the same answer. Ask him anything and no matter the question and the answer will take the for of "Well, I think [insert some standard republican position], but the real quesion is how are we going to restore God and the Family to their proper place American life [continue on theme until moderator forces you to stop]. Moreover, he as this terrible habit of impuning everyone's motives. Anyone who thinks that there is question for which the answer is not restoring traditional values to their proper place in American life is purposefully dodging the issue and is part of the dark force that is leading America into Godlessness.

Or, they are racists. I find it odd that so few people comment on how often he uses the race card. Everything that does not go his way is due to racism, everyone that denies him something he thinks he is entitle to is a racist. You can get through an entire evening of Al Sharpton without him ever claiming to be a victim, but Keyes does it all the time.

When he is asked about being a carpet bagger and fed back some of his own quotes on Hillary Clinton I don't even have to hear his answer, it plays itself in my head, "Well, certainly I agree that it would be better if candidates come from the states they are running to represent, but I think the real question is [insert family, God...] and I think that those who raise the carpet bagger question are really trying to distract the American people from the real issue of [insert more family/God boilerplate]. "And I find it interesting that these same people who are raising the carpet bagger issue now were silent when a white woman ran for Senate in a state where she had never resided." Let that last made up quote stand as a bet (assuming anyone reads this blog). I wager that Keyes will play the race card on the carpet bagger question. Not the perfectly sensible and perfectly true partisan hypocracy card but no, the race card.

It always follows the same pattern, trifling concession, ...but the real question is...[family/God boilerplate]. Aside from the small amount of creativity he employs to bounce off of the question he is asked into the subject he always wants to talk about his answers are almost entirely interchangable from one question to the next. But what makes it unbearable is the way people go on about what a great speaker he is.

Oh yes, and one last thing, the pomposity. It is unbearable. (again I speak as a pompus religious conservative myself). There was once like a 3 second period where I almsot found myself liking Alan Keyes. It was news clip during the Republican primaries where he suddenly, at the encouragement of a large crowd at a rock concernt, decided to fall backwards off the stage and be passed through a mashe pit.

In the republican primary debates the next night Gary Bauer, who was fighting it out with Keyes for 5th place, accused him of conduct unbecoming of a conservative by allowing himself to be so circulated. Of course Keyes could have said, yeah but it was fun but no, he did it for a higher purpose. He did it to show that "Conservatives trust people, trust people to do the right thing, which is why we are willing to downsize the government and return to the people that those in Washington who have driven God out of the family and the family out of our children's lives the power to make decisions in their own lives, and by trusting in the people in that mashe pit...."

I think that is when my dislike for Alan Keyes crossed the line into an unhealthy obsessive hatred.


Whenever you have an argument about someone over the Israelis and the Palestinians you reach a point where the other side says, "But you have to compromise at somepoint--they have no choice but to live together." To which I would always answer, "Why?"

There are lots of peoples in the world that live next to each other but do not live together. The peoples of East and West Germany during the cold war, Cyprus, Pakistan and India, all live next to each other but have virtually no contact accross some border. There is no reason that the people of one state have to daily travel into the territory of another state daily just because they are next to one and other. The reason that Israel is expected to allow Palestinians to come into Israel daily is because the Palestinian state is not economically viable on its own, which is held to be the fault of Israel. But even if that were true (though why, in the absence of Israel the Palestinian state should be expected to be any more viable than any other Arab state is unclear), the world seems pervectly willing to go on subsidizing the Palestinians in exchance for terror, why not do so in exchange for actual peace?

But this is ultimately a side issue. What makes people demand that Israel take the wall down and continue to allow daily mass migration into its territory by a population committed to destroying it is that the wall proves what Palestinian supporters must know in their hearts--that the two peoples don't have to live together. They can live separated quite well thank you.

Actual demonstration of this fact terrifies the advocates of "peace". Since the wall has gone up terror attacks have dwindled to almost nothing. The media manages to keep the issue of the middle east looking important by dramtising the internal violence in the Palestinian territories but as the 'rush' to do something about Sudan has show a few thousand Arabs getting killed by other Arabs is something the world, and certainly the other Arabs, are quite willing to tolerate. As for not having the opportunity to work in Israel everyday, that is only what the other Arab states have imposed on themselves already. The Palestinian territories will settle into a comfortable routine of killing, marches and recriminations. The people of the new state will live under a brutal thugocracy that blames all of its problems on the Jews. In other words, it will become a normal Arab country.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004


I think Dafur is a case where the existence of the UN is actually making things worse. They have to not only decide not to do anything about it--something which nations have had no trouble doing from time immemorial--they have to actually deny the reality by claiming that it is not a genocide. Their obligations under the UN charter would require them to do something if they admitted that,14658,1279835,00.html. It is similar to what happened in Rwanda where the Clinton administration found it necessary to not simply ignore the situation but to actively suppress the news.

Of course the other reason that Europeans want to deny what is going on there is that there is no way to plausibly blame it on the Jews. If you can't blame it on Israel (or at least the US) then you have to hold Arabs responsible for their actions. That could set an even worse things. It would mean Arab governments would actually have to be promoted to the status of autonomous moral agents in European thought--rather than just the mechanism by which the crimes of the US and Israel are translated into the natural consequences of oppression such as terrorism and hatred for the West. The whole basis for Europe's self-esteem would be threatened. Their policy of treating the root causes of terrorism by supporting Arab 'moderates' such as Arafat would come into question. Paying money to people that spontaneously commit acts of violence against you out of the frustrations of poverty and injustice is enlighted, paying money to people that decide to commit acts of violence is cowardess.

A system of self-deception elaborate enough to justify appeasing a group as vile and as weak as the Arabs can hardly be jeopardized for the sake of 30,000 odd Arabs. Imagine if 30,000 defenseless Arabs had been killed by Israel. Can you imagine the grandees of the UN worrying about being portrayed as imperialists for intervening on behalf of the victims against Israel?

Monday, August 02, 2004


In statistics you often hear the story of a teacher asking students to take a sample within the 95% confidence interval and having 19 out of 20 students get an answer that is within the interval. The teacher goes to the one who got an answer outside the interval and tries to find out what he did wrong. But it is the teacher that has it wrong. A 95% confidence interval implies that one of the students should get something outside the interval, i.e., should get it wrong.

Why is the starting point the assumption that we got it wrong on WMD? It is true that the expected stockpiles have not been found. Even this is not determinative since we know that in the past the Iraqi regime has burried entire fighter craft (in spite of the fact that this renders them permanently useless) and during the Gluf war sent a large part of its airforce to Iran, a nation it spent almost a decade at war with.

But assuming that Sadaam's story is true, that he destroyed them, neglected to tell the UN even though it would have allowed him to qruadruple his national income, and decided to obstruct the inspections on general principle. That still is no warrent for saying that the administration came to the wrong conclusion about WMD intellegence. The fact that there is no stockpile found in the end doesn't prove that the decision to go to war in the belief that they were there is wrong any more than the fact that an attack doesn't end up occurring in New York means that the decision to increase security on the assumption that one is coming is the wrong decision. It is besides the point what the actual end information is. The point of criticising someone's decision is that they drew the wrong conclusions from the information they had. It is no rebuke to a statistician's art that his projection turns out to be untrue. The only criticism that carries any weight is one that tells us what model we should have made our projection with instead.

In the case of the WMD intellegence a critic, particularly one like Kerry who had access to virtually all the information that the President had, must not only point out that the conclusion Bush reached turns out to have been untrue, he must show how he would have reasoned differently from the same evidence. This is of course the one thing we do not hear from Kerry. That is because the facts as they are on record would lead almost anyone to conclude that the stock piles existed (as indeed, Sadaam's own generals did--usually when we have the same information that the enemy's top generals have we would call that a success). More importantly, they lead John Kerry to conclude they did:

"I will be voting to give the President of the United States the authority to use force-- if necessary-- to disarm Saddam Hussein because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a real and grave threat to our security." Sen. John F. Kerry (D, MA), Oct. 9, 2002.

Of course there is always the possibility that Bush misrepresented some piece of evidence that lead Kerry to come to that now apparently erroneous conclusion but so far we haven't heard it. We are unlikely to. It would be one thing for Bush to convince people of the existence of these weapons if they had come to the conclusion since he took office, but since almost every major figure in the Democratic party is on record as being convinced of the existence of Iraq's WMD--alonge with every major foreign intellegence service--since the Clinton administration it is going to be hard to pin it on Bush.


Well, according to the new gallup poll the Democratic convention has actually lead to a negative bounce for Kerry. Don't loose heart though, soon the Republicans will have to have theirs, giving the democrats a chance to make up lost ground.