Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Great Arguments — The Tyrant’s Tirade

The Frosty Wonk’s primary line of work is political analysis, not rhetoric. But the cut-and-thrust of modern debate demands some effort at unraveling its arguments.

Today’s guest, Rock Samson, has coached prizewinning fighters in twelve disciplines since his discharge from an undisclosed paramilitary group. This makes him uniquely qualified to discuss questions of conflict; and he has agreed to offer his valuable services as a regular commentator on debating technique and argumentation.

Today, we’ll be discussing this piece, in which Gary Kamiya, Salon editor, recycles his own work from 2005 on the conflict in Iraq.

Rock: Wonk, Kamiya’s angry. The war’s ragin’ and he’s mad as a bear in a trap that nobody’s bitchin’ about it.

Wonk: But Rock, people are complaining. He’s complaining, isn’t he? There are protests all the time.

Rock: Not enough, Wonk. A few thousand protesters can’t gum up the works the way Kamiya wants. He’s lookin’ for an all-out brawl with the big boys — streets choked with men and women until the President cracks.

Wonk: Why does he think that’s likely to happen?

Rock: It’s gotta. Kamiya knows that any sane person wants to fight against the war with everything it takes.

Wonk: So why don’t they?

Rock: They don’t know what’s good for ‘em. If they were payin’ attention and had all the facts, they’d all agree with him.

Wonk: Is that what he means when he writes that:

It is too late to stop the fatal endgame of Bush’s war. But at least we can honor those who have died in that war, Iraqis and Americans alike, by refusing to look away from their deaths.

Rock: Right on. He knows that if you’re payin’ attention to the deaths, you’re against the war.

Wonk: But isn’t it possible for people to come to different conclusions based on the same facts?

Rock: Not if they’re usin’ their brains. That’s what rational thinkin’s for! There’s only one answer to any question. If you plug the right facts in, you’ll get the right answer. There’s just no other way.

Wonk: But reason doesn’t work that way. It’s not the same thing as logic — reasonable people can differ over the same things.

Rock: Kamiya’s not buyin’ that. Reason only has one answer — his; and he’s goin’ to the wall for it.

Wonk: So why does he bother to assume that people are reasonable?

Rock: Flatters ‘em. Check out Aristotle some time, Wonk, he explains why that matters.

Wonk: And if he claimed that people were incapable of coming to the right conclusion, he’d effectively be pointing to a problem with democracy, wouldn’t he? If people aren’t capable of coming to the right notion, then there’s a strong justification for excluding them from most kinds of decision-making.

Rock: Hold on there, ’cause you’ll love the rest. If everybody’s reasonable, and reason always gives the same answer on the same facts, then he’s got dynamite proof that folks don’t know the facts — they disagree with him! That makes his claim righter.

Wonk: I don’t think you can use that word that way.

Rock: ‘Proof’? Sure you can.

Wonk: Alright. So Kamiya’s argument says that people would complain if they knew what was going on, and that we know they don’t know what’s going on because they aren’t complaining.

Rock: You got it.

Wonk: How does he know that he’s the one who’s right? Isn’t everyone going to come to the same conclusion and justify it the same way?

Rock: Sure they could, but he knows his argument against the war’s right. So now, he’s got to explain why other folks don’t agree.

Wonk: So this is really a frustrated outburst? A temper tantrum?

Rock: Right.

Wonk: But if he thinks he’s right, why is he bothered by the fact that others disagree?

Rock: It’s a serious issue, Wonk. He’s sure that if enough people agreed, they’d be able to end the war!

Wonk: So the fact that he wants this to happen by convincing the public demonstrates his commitment to democratic principles?

Rock: Probably.

Wonk: But the idea that there can be only one right answer for any reasonable person is profoundly undemocratic! It’s authoritarianism applied to thinking! It’s tyranny!

Rock: Not no more it ain’t, Wonk. Not no more it ain’t.

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