27 December 2003

Where is Diogenes When You Need Him?

I seldom stick my nose into the debates between the established big-name ideologues. This time, though, I cannot resist, because it is an excellent example of taking material out of context and argument by redefinition—and it concerns the rationale for putting my butt out where it could be (and was) shot at during my first career.

Kevin Drum at CalPundit argued that myopic "conservative" concentration on Communism as the ultimate evil and supporting any anti-Communist polity as better than any Communist polity was counterproductive and led to "the rise of an even bigger problem." Stuart Buck, on the other hand, takes two of Mr. Drum's sentences from the middle of his article and argues that Mr. Drum really means:

What makes Kevin Drum think that Islamic fundamentalism is an "even bigger problem" than Communism? Does he simply mean a bigger problem for us Americans? (Communists never killed anyone on American soil, after all.) Or is it that he thinks Islamic fundamentalism will kill many more people in the future before it is played out?

Neocons and Communism, 24 Dec 2003 (italics and footnote omitted for clarity).

This is one of the most egregious examples of intellectual dishonesty that I've seen in the blogosphere in a long time. Well, three weeks, anyway—which is forever in the blogosphere.

  • Mr. Drum was not using "number of deaths caused" as a proxy for evil. As he specifically stated,

    Wolfowitz and the neocons seem to truly believe that they're motivated by an idealistic devotion to democracy, but at the same time they're willfully blind to the fact that their own Cold War history makes a shambles of that supposed devotion.

    That is, the evil in question is opposition to democracy, not death. If, that is, one can see any evil other than death; and I think that the whole point of the Constitution.

  • Mr. Buck also assumes that the only "anti-Communist-caused deaths" that may be used to balance those "caused by" Communism are those "caused by" Islamic fundamentalist regimes. Even accepting his figures—that Communism killed 100 million people, and that Islamic fundamentalism kills "only" 500 per year through terrorism—one can only shake one's head. First of all, the "fair" comparison is between terrorist deaths caused by Communist regimes and terrorist deaths caused by Islamic fundamentalist regimes, and I seriously doubt that 100 million can be so attributed to Communism without doing great violence to the common understanding of "terrorism." Or, on the other hand, if one insists on that 100 million figure as somehow sacrosanct, one must also look at non-terrorism deaths caused by Islamic fundamentalism. I have no hard figures to contribute; neither does anyone else; that number surely exceeds 500 per year worldwide. Now add in all the other "anti-Communist" deaths caused by non-Islamic fundamentalist regimes, such as Chile under Pinochet and Argentina and Brazil under the generals; the Khmer Rouge; Sukarno; need I go on? Further, that "100 million" figure seems to include a lot of deaths under Stalin, which precede the time period (1970s and 1980s) invoked by Mr. Drum.
  • All of the above assumes that one accepts the figures in the State Department's reports as a basis for "measuring" deaths caused by terrorism. I don't; the specific reasons for that fall within my NDA; but even cursory analysis of the actual material (as opposed to a summary table in a secondary source) should raise grave doubts in anyone's mind. This is a minor criticism; it is, however, interesting foreshadowing of…
  • Mr. Buck also cites as authoritative a passage from Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments that criticizes the "European mindset" as purportedly caring more about losing the tip of one European's finger than the entire population of China. Leaving aside the obvious hyperbole—not a valid basis for argument—one might also question whether Smith's invocation of a purported 18th-century European attitude has all that much to do with Mr. Drum's concerns with a late-20th-century American attitude. Even if it does, Smith's example is only an explanation of attitude, not authority on the relative values of death and antidemocratic governments as evils; it is instead merely inflammatory. The irony that Mr. Drum notes that "The old hatred of Europe is back too, this time even more virulent than before" is particularly delicious.

I don't ordinarily go in for deconstruction as a method of analysis. Most of the time, it is only a means to prove that the analyst is more clever than the text in question (this is not a very high standard, as the text can't talk back). That, however, seems to be exactly what Mr. Buck is doing in his "deconstruction" of Mr. Drum's post: first changing it to something that he (Mr. Buck) wanted to argue about, then marshalling everything he could to defeat the straw man created thereby. If there is one thing that deconstruction teaches, if only by implication, it is that there is no content without context. One need not be an absolutist to see that. Or, instead, is this yet another attempt to advance the logically insupportable "all politics and morals are absolute, not relative" position that acts as the curtain hiding the little men who operate Oz? In any event:

Shame on you, Mr. Buck. You had an opportunity to actually try to advance a debate; instead, you chose to twist another's words to make the ideological point that you wanted to in an effort to make your "opponent" look foolish. In the end, you only discredited your own position. At least, to anyone who actually thinks about what was said instead of merely looking at the labels and saying "Buck is better than CalPundit, therefore Buck must be right" (pun intended).