Wednesday, May 31, 2006

"It's A Man's World On The Kiwi Rugby Team" Dept

Those of you who know who the All Blacks are without being told (frighteningly, that group includes my own self), will be disillusioned -- unless you are Australian, in which case your glee will not have dissipated a year hence -- by this news item, which begins thusly:
A New Zealand rugby player burst into tears when his captain hit him with a woman's handbag in an early morning incident in a Christchurch bar, news reports said today.

The pair were then thrown out by a female bouncer.
So can New Zealand's male population just go ahead and die right now from shame, girlfriend, or what?

HT: Dave Barry, naturally.

UPDATE: I suppose this was inevitable. (Also by way of Dave.) As of 7:03 p.m. on Friday, current bid: 21,569.00 NZD (which is about $13,600 U.S.).

"Catholic Conundrum of the Day" Dept

I only just now have found out (from an anonymous reader of The Corner) that Bill Buckley once asked, "If a liberal Catholic is dying, does he ask the priest to give him Moderate Unction?"

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

For future reference

I could write seven or eight different points using the following quotation as a springboard, but I think the one I'll write (not today because I have too much else to do) will have to do with immaturity.

Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, as quoted in Time, 29 May 2006, p. 65:

It was awesome to feel those feelings again that I felt in high school: to be angry, to be sure that you're right and that the things you do matter.
Discuss among yourselves; I'll post on immaturity and anger sometime in the next couple of days.

"The Dummies' Guide To Christianity" Dept

I have just discovered something that instantly takes a high seat in my personal pantheon of all-time favorite comic pieces.

Are you struggling to grasp the complex distinctions between various types of Christians? Here is all you need to know.


Protestants believe the Bible is literal and exactly true in every detail except the description of the Eucharist, while Catholics are not allowed to read the Bible.
Leading fundamentalist institutions include Bob Jones University and Syracuse. Larry Brown's failure to get the Knicks into the playoffs has been seen as a major setback for the cause of fundamentalism.
Baptists are Christians who believe God can only be accessed by means of a swimming pool or, in some cases, a shallow outdoor stream. The first Baptist was John the Baptist, who was said to eat locusts and honey, although contemporary Baptists generally prefer barbecue...Catholics believe that anyone can perform a valid baptism, Orthodox believe that any Christian can, while Baptists, paradoxically, believe that only they can.

"Watch It Soon" Dept

Darth Vader has to explain to the Emperor that he's um, sort of let his teenaged son wreck the Death Star.

Why watch it soon? 'Cause I think it's probably posted in violation of copyright and will disappear without warning. But it's hi-lar-ious. (Some non-Baptist language and gestures.)

HT: Jonah at The Corner.

Monday, May 29, 2006

"So Which Person Is Siller?" Dept

No doubt, given the sophistication and social polish of the readers of this blog, you have all long since read this particular Miss Manners column.

The gist is that somebody put on their blog -- which blog they think of very much the way I think of mine, namely, as a way to keep a journal and keep in touch with friends -- a few frank comments about a novel they had read recently and disliked. They were then shocked (which is silly) when the novelist, armed with search engines, spare time, and narcissism, hunted up the review and proceeded to flame the blogger for having dared to dislike his novel -- which, to my mind, is an order of magnitude sillier.

At any rate, the person writing to Miss Manners was upset about this and wanted to know whether one should one's blog as something public, like letters published in a newspaper. Um...this is really a hard question?

Myself, though, if the same thing were to happen to me, I would just think it was genuinely hilarious. In fact it has happened to me: I posted a visual Aggie joke in which a picture made an Aggie store proprietor appear to be stupid, and the next thing I know a highly defensive comment from the proprietor shows up explaining seriously that he wasn't being stupid. To me, the picture was pretty funny, but the thought of the guy scrambling all over the internet trying to explain that he wasn't really stupid -- now that was hi-frickin'-larious.

And I've been on the other side: somebody once took some shots at me (actually at a stereotype for which I was a convenient stand-in) in a blog conversation with his buddies on a blog almost as obscure as mine, and one of my friends saw it and was enraged. Fortunately I happened to find out that my friend was about to release a nuclear-strength flame onto that blog just before she sent it, and I talked her into letting me respond myself with much more moderation than she intended to wield on my behalf (bless her admirably loyal heart, which by the way I very deeply appreciate). And the blog owner was like, "Oops, I've done again...forgot that people can actually see what I say about them when I put it on the blog."

So, two pieces of advice:

1. Whatever snarky thing you post in a blog, assume that your target will read it eventually.

2. If somebody writes something snarky about you in a blog, remember that if you go to their blog to comment on it, nine times out of ten you will make yourself look infinitely more stupid than they could make you look without your help.

Always nice to laugh

The thing about a good joke (such as Molly Ivins's line about how a Patrick Buchanan speech wasn't very good but we should cut him some slack because "it probably sounded much better in the original German") is that it can give you pleasure whether you agree with the politics or not. I happen to agree with the Hatemongers' politics more often than not, and certainly it's all but a moral necessity to make merciless mock of any feeble-headed magazine that thinks Paul Wolfowitz might be, in the words of this New Statesman headline, "the worst man in the world." And I think there's a very serious political point to be made; I think there are a lot of Americans who, like me, have a pretty bloody low opinion of the Shrub, but who, like me, are appalled and disgusted and repelled by the Howard Dean / Kossack conviction that the Shrub is the one true enemy of America.

But what was it that knocked me off my chair in guffaws halfway through this HQ rant? Why, obviously, it was the presence in this list of my favorite actors:

Last we checked, the following people still inhabit what R. Buckminster Fuller labeled Our Spaceship Earth: Kim Jong-il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fidel Castro, Osama bin Laden, Gérard Depardieu. And then there’s the likes of Hamas, Bashir Assad, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Tamil Tigers (and the Detroit Lions), &c.
Which made me do two things: (a) laugh immoderately and (b) think to myself, "It's been entirely too long since I've watched the Depardieu Cyrano."

A nice kicker of a closer, too:

For its patent imbecility, we feel as if the New Statesman deserves the “worst magazine in the world” award. Perhaps the real worst person in the world can thumb through it. We refer, of course, to Keith Olberman.

It never ends

Not particularly happy with God at the moment.

Because of our having been left holding the bag of an $80,000 home equity loss by an insurance company whose claim of "good hands" turned out to mean, "We're good at washing our hands of you," I've spent the last year and a half trying to avoid foreclosure and bankruptcy. Finally, we got word that a buyer had been found -- two, actually, one of whom could close by the Friday deadline to avoid foreclosure -- and so we made arrangements to go up last Friday and close on the house, pay off our mortgage, and make a giant step toward fighting our way free without welshing on any debts (which is a big deal to me). We are beside ourselves with happiness; it'll be easily the best day of the past twelve months except for the day on which the court gave us Anya and Kinya and the day they landed in Austin.

That morning the puppy my wife had spent the week nursing took a turn for the worse, but hey, no problem, I had already gotten power of attorney and could do all the closing myself. The kids and I get in the car. The closing had been scheduled for 10:00 a.m. in Austin, but there were some paperwork issues because the buyers had done a couple of stupid things with their loan application and we had rescheduled for 12:30 or so.

We get to Austin and I call to find out where exactly we are going and when. Uh-oh, bad news: the buyers have really screwed up and it looks like it will take until 4:00 to straighten out. (Remember that 5:00 is our foreclosure deadline.)

We hang out for several more hours. To make a painful story short, the buyers have screwed up too badly and can't get their loan funded and the closing complete today. I go ahead and sign all our papers, at a quarter before closing (that is, six o'clock) in the Wells Fargo branch I used to bank at when we still were in Austin; that way at least if the whole thing goes to hell I'll keep the earnest money. My agent has begged and pleaded with the mortgage company and thinks that we will still be able to avoid foreclosure but we won't know until Tuesday (which means I still don't know as of this blog posting).

The kids and I start back on the three-hour drive home. I call my wife...

...and she tells me that our landlord has called. Our lease expires at the end of June but we had discussed extending it for a year with the landlord, and they had told us they wanted to do that because they were planning to get a different house. But now they have called back and their other house thing has fallen through and they need to live in that house. So we have to be out by 1 July.

Early the next morning the puppy dies in my wife's arms.

I think I'll change my name by deed Tevya...

"...but what do you have against my dog? Really, sometimes I think, when it's too quiet up there, You say to Yourself, 'What mischief can I play today on my friend Kenny?'..."

(I know, I know, to compare my sufferings with Tevya's is appalling license, similar to comparing having been splashed too hard in a pool to having been on the Titanic, but if you can't whine shamelessly on a blog where exactly can you whine shamelessly?)

P.S. To those who have been worrying about me because of the lack of blogging and commenting: a very sincere thank you indeed. As you perceive not all is well (though I'm used to that), but nobody has died except a couple of puppies. I do really appreciate your concern, and Jim, I enjoyed the link very much; thanks.

We Still Do Not Forget

I was going to write a Memorial Day post, and then I ran across this speech by Ben Stein, which is much better than anything I could write.

Nobody could possibly put into words the respect and gratitude I hold and feel for the men and women of the American armed forces.

To each and every one of you, I say:

Thank you.

It is not enough. But then whatever could be? And yes, I know your answer already: "It is an honor to serve, sir." I believe you; and I can only say that I honor your service.

Ken Pierce
Protectee and grateful fellow citizen

Sunday, May 28, 2006

"Helpful In The Kitchen" Dept

She's in the kitchen doing the boiled eggs for breakfast.

He walks in. "What's for breakfast?"

She turns to him. "You've got to make love to me this very moment".

It's never been this easy, maybe never again will be, he can hardly believe his luck but hey, carpe diem, so it's onto the kitchen table and gettin' busy.

Afterwards he: "That was great, what was that all about?"

She: "The egg timer is broken."

Thursday, May 25, 2006

"Either Way He Doesn't Get Turned On By Pictures Of J-Lo" Dept

In case you are frustrated with the incompetence of co-workers, here's evidence that other people also suffer...

Monday, May 08, 2006

"The Complete History Of American Dance" Dept

Mr. Guidry is on a roll; I may have to start crediting him as a guest-blogger...

My kids probably won't understand how funny this is -- but then they haven't laid down any of these dance moves in their lurid personal pasts, either.

Hatemonger's Quarterly Uncovers The True Conspiracy

Namely, the nefarious Gentile Lobby.

Friday, May 05, 2006

"The Complete Military History of France" Dept

To celebrate Pofirio Diaz's victory over the French on this date in 1862, I give you one of the most hilarious perversions of history I've ever seen. The person who drew up this list had an exhaustive knowledge of history, but what makes it a tour de force is his genius for finding ways to display each incident in French military history in the worst possible light by playing with such things as, to take just a single example, the difference in connotation between "Roman" and "Italian."

No serious point is intended here, only delight in the verbal virtuosity.

Here, to remind ourselves that even the famously incompetent Mexican army once found an army that it could defeat, is (courtesy of Tim Baber from back in the immediate aftermath of 9/11)...


- Gallic Wars: Lost. In a war whose ending foreshadows the next 2000 years of French history, France is conquered by of all things, an Italian.

- Hundred Years War: Mostly lost, saved at last by female schizophrenic who inadvertently creates The First Rule of French Warfare: "France's armies are victorious only when not led by a Frenchman."

- Italian Wars: Lost. France becomes the first and only country to ever lose two wars when fighting Italians.

- Wars of Religion: France goes 0-5-4 against the Huguenots. (Catholic France claims a win over Protestant France by offering the throne to leading Huguenot Henry, who responds, "The throne of France isn't worth a Mass.")

- Thirty Years War: France is technically not a participant, but manages to get invaded anyway. Claims a tie on the basis that eventually the other participants started ignoring her.

- War of Devolution: Tied. Frenchmen take to wearing red flowerpots as chapeaux.

- The Dutch War: Tied.

- War of the Augsburg League/King William's War/French and Indian War: Lost, but claimed as a tie. Three ties in a row induces Frogophiles the world over to label the period, quite properly, as the height of French military power.

- War of the Spanish Succession: Lost. The War also gave the French their first taste of a Marlborough, which they have loved ever since.

- American Revolution: In a move that will become quite familiar to future Americans, France claims a win even though the English colonists saw far more action. This is later known as "de Gaulle Syndrome", and leads to the Second Rule of French Warfare: "France only wins when America does most of the fighting."

- French Revolution: Won, primarily due the fact that the opponent was also French.

- The Napoleonic Wars: Lost. Temporary victories (remember the First Rule!) due to leadership of a Corsican, who ended up being no match for a British footwear designer.

- The Franco-Prussian War: Lost. Germany first plays the role of drunk frat boy to France's ugly girl home alone on a Saturday night.

- World War I: Tied and on the way to losing, France is saved by the United States. Thousands of French women find out what it's like to not only sleep with a winner, but one who doesn't call her "Fraulein." Sadly, widespread use of condoms by American forces forestalls any improvement in the French bloodline.

- World War II: Lost. Conquered French liberated by the United States and Britain just as they finish learning the Horst Wessel Song.

- War in Indochina: Lost. French forces plead sickness, take to bed with the Dien Bien Flu.

- Algerian Rebellion: Lost. Loss marks the first defeat of a western army by a Non-Turkic Muslim force since the Crusades, and produces the First Rule of Muslim Warfare: "We can always beat the French." This rule is identical to the First Rules of the Italians, Russians, Germans, English, Dutch, Spanish, Mexicans, Vietnamese and Inuit.

- War on Terrorism: France, keeping in mind its recent history, surrenders to Germans and Muslims just to be safe. Attempts to surrender to Vietnamese ambassador fail after he takes refuge in a McDonald's.

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Very sincerely meant. Salsa for everybody!

"Traffic Advisory of the Day" Dept

Thursday, May 04, 2006

"Special Olympics IT Solution" Dept

A bit of supposedly non-urban-mythical e-mail dialogue that comes my way as part of the IT world...oh, by the way, for you non-techies: when a database is performing badly, sometimes it helps to do something called "running statistics."

One IT guy: "Are we going to have to bounce the database again? What can we do about this? Should we run spastics and then kick off the job now?"

Second IT guy's response: "That sounds pretty entertaining, but I don't see how it will help..."

I suppose it could have been worse -- he could have suggested running the job and then kicking off the spastics...

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The argumentum ad hypocrisem

UPDATED 5/4/2006 as a result of good comments; see end of post.

The previous post was meant to be just an introductory paragraph to this one, but took on a life of its own. Still, you should certainly read the previous one before you read this one, as this one sort of assumes that you understand the point of the previous one.


In the last few years, a particular variant of the argumentum ad hominem has begun growing in popularity among the Left. This particular variant is so common in modern leftist rhetoric that it deserves its own name, and therefore I have begun referring to it as the argumentum ad hypocrisem. It is flawed in several ways, but we can think of the different errors as variations on two basic flaws in logic and one (rather ironic) flaw in morals. The errors in reasoning lie in a perverse definition of the term hypocrisy and in the fallacy of bifurcation. The moral failure is, amusingly, hypocrisy itself.

If we strip the argument of the rhetorical fog with which it is usually surrounded, we see that it works like this: a person (we’ll call him The Jerk), whom I wish to abhor and to whom I wish to consider myself morally superior, has done something that other people admire, and I don’t think my chances of convincing them that the action itself was evil, are very good. I therefore implicitly concede to them that the action itself might well be good in the abstract, but I argue that that very same action, when done by The Jerk, is evil and abhorrent, because he is a “hypocrite.” Setting the logical steps out step-by-step, I proceed as follows: ...continue reading...

Premise #1: An action is only good when done by a good person. (An alternative way to express the same premise: if a bad person does a good thing, the action’s good nature does not improve the bad person; instead, the bad person’s evil nature pollutes the action.)

Implied (but NEVER openly expressed) Premise #2: there are only two kinds of people: evil people, and the ones whose behavior not only is perfectly self-consistent now, but has always been so.

Definition #1: Any person whose behavior is inconsistent, is a “hypocrite.”

Conclusion #1: All actions performed by “hypocrites” are evil actions.

Premise #3: If the action The Jerk is said to have taken, would be the right thing for a moral person to do, then the opposite behavior must be evil, and vice versa.

Premise #4: The Jerk has, in the past, often done the opposite.

Conclusion #2: Either what The Jerk did in the past was evil, or else his more recent behavior is evil.

Corollary #1 to Conclusion #2: The Jerk’s behavior is inconsistent, i.e., he is a “hypocrite.”

Corollary #2 to Corollary #1: Either what The Jerk has just done is evil per se, or else what The Jerk has just done is evil because it was done by a hypocrite.

Final Conclusion: I may safely abhor The Jerk because whether the thing he has just done was intrinsically evil or not – indeed, even if it would, if done by anyone else, have been admirable – I can use it to prove that he is evil: if the act is evil per se then obviously it proves his evil nature, while if the act is good per se then such behavior is inconsistent from his previous evil behavior and thus he is evil, because “hypocritical.”
Note that while the person making this argument starts out by pretending that he is talking about the action, his true purpose all along is the condemnation of The Jerk.

The problems with this argument are probably obvious, but I’ll go ahead and spell them out anyway.

1. Fallacy of bifurcation. The fallacy of bifurcation arises whenever you falsely pretend that there are only two possibilities, disprove one of them, and claim that you have therefore proved the alternative. Implied Premise #2 is a perfect example. One must be very ignorant indeed of human nature – or else willfully blind to the humanity of the person whom you target when you use this argument – not to understand that human nature is both frail and reformable, and that therefore there is practically nobody in the world who is “good” by the standards of Premise #2, even though most people in the world are not “evil” in the sense required by the argument.

A. People sometimes figure out that the way they have lived in the past was foolish or immoral, and they change. When you try to say that a man’s past must be held inflexibly to determine his present character, with no willingness to recognize the possibility of enlightenment and/or repentance, you choose to stand with Inspector Javert in his implacable persecution of Jean Valjean. (For the victims of the American public school system, I should mention that this is not a good thing, and should further recommend any good abridged version of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s famous novelization of a pretty decent musical.)

B. As I said above, people are flighty things, buffeted about by emotions and confusion and ignorance and stress, etc., and so it is a tricky thing to pass judgment on their character even if you know them well personally. And this is especially true when looking at how they have responded when faced with nasty complex problems to which there are no easy answers (and if you don’t think that, for example, “What should we do about the Middle East and Islamist terrorists and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?” falls into the no-easy-answer category, then you’re too much of a fool for any sane person to waste a moment’s conversation on).

2. Perverse definition of the term hypocrite.

The argument depends on taking the cultural revulsion attached emotively to the term hypocrite, and seeking to associate that revulsion with “people who do not behave the same way all the time.” But in point of fact, the reason the term evokes revulsion, is that a “hypocrite” has historically been somebody who meets the following criteria: (a) he claims to be morally superior to other people, and (b) in order to support that claim, he pretends not to be guilty of sins that he in fact commits and for which he blames others. The hypocrite, in other words, cares very much about looking morally superior to others, and he attempts to prop up his claim by pretending not to be guilty of the things he attacks others for doing.

It is not hypocrisy to say that it’s evil to engage in activities that you yourself freely admit to having carried out in the past. In fact it’s not even hypocrisy to say that it’s evil to engage in behaviors that you yourself still occasionally engage in – as long as you freely admit that you yourself are guilty, and as long as you agree that it’s just as bad for you to behave that way as it would be for anybody else. Hypocrisy is not about inconsistency. It is about pretense.

Therefore the evidence that purports to show that The Jerk is a "hypocrite," does nothing of the sort, unless the term "hypocrite" is defined perversely-- and defining the term perversely is precisely what the person wielding the argumentum ad hypocrisem implicitly does.

It is worth observing that the focus of the hypocrite is on reputations and the moral judgment of himself and other people, not on virtue and the nature of right and wrong. To put it another way, the hypocrite is not really interested in what is the best thing to do. He is interested in who is the best person, and he intends to make sure you know that it’s him.

In short, the hypocrite lives in a judgmental world. The milder form merely wishes to do what he wants to do but still wants judgmental people to think he is a good person, and therefore he seeks to hide his bad behavior lest he be judged. The more common, and more serious, hypocrite, wants to be able to congratulate himself on his own moral superiority to others, and therefore he seeks to hide his bad behavior from himself and others lest the illusion of moral superiority be shattered.

Among other things, let’s say that two people are discussing a controversial action (such as the coalition’s invasion of Iraq, or whether it is appropriate to multitask by sucking up to a none-too-bright Congressman on the phone while a none-too-bright intern is, um – well, moving right along...). When we understand clearly what hypocrisy really is, it becomes apparent that if one of the people in the conversation is interested in what ought to have been done, while the other is interested in whether the President is an evil bastard, the second is much more likely to engage in hypocrisy than the first, because hypocrisy is a temptation primarily to those whose passion is the judging of other people.

3. The intrinsic hypocrisy of the argument.

The argument itself has, as its purpose, the demonstration of my moral superiority to The Jerk. Thus I claim to be morally superior to somebody else, which is the first half of hypocrisy. But my complaint is that he does not behave with perfect consistency in all situations, and in particular that if I go far enough back into his past I will find things that he did then that do not match what he’s done very recently – and, assuming that I’m human, the same thing is almost certainly true of me. The standard that I appeal to in invoking the argumentum ad hypocrisem, is a standard that practically nobody can live up to – and that includes me, unless I’m a saint who lives perfectly to my own highest standards consistently and whose mind is so closed to new information that none of my ideas ever change.

Indeed, it is a standard that nobody ought to live up to. If your behavior in the past has been evil, then to remain true to your past today, is to behave despicably today. When a man does what is right, he ought not to be condemned for it.

Even if we hate him and are desperately seeking an excuse for his condemnation.


A final point: there's an excellent example of the argumentum ad hypocrisem here, the same commentor expanding further on his remarks here. This being the double-oughts rather than the '90's, the Hateful President du jour is George W. Bush (though Hillary Rodham Clinton can certainly bring out the bile from the other side of the aisle); and thus on the Left, if Dubya is mentioned at all, then the judgmentalism tends to kick in. Commenter Craig uses a form of the argument that is particularly common among the anti-American crowd: he mixes in with the argumentum ad hypocrisem an enthusiastic and all-pervasive use of the fallacy of hypostasization: the "hypocrite" in this case is not even an actual individual, but is a hypostatic "America," and much of the alleged "hypocrisy" really simply reduces to the fact that different Presidents at different times have different policies. The abstract "America" is "proved" to be a hypocrite, and this is taken to prove that Dubya's invasion into Iraq was the decision of an evil man.

Furthermore, the same comment makes heavy use of a rhetorical tactic I've also been meaning to post about: the faux corporate confession, which makes use of (again) the fallacy of hypostasization so that Craig can "confess" to "our" sins when what he's really doing is accusing people he detests of doing things that we are all meant to understand Craig himself would never do. At every point where he says "we," you can replace it with the much more accurate "those bastards," because that's what he really means -- since he himself has of course not the slightest impact on America's foreign policy and bears no actual personal responsibility for the actions of people, and indeed (as he is at pains to imply) he has never so much granted his assent to them. He "confesses" that "we" (meaning "they") are evil, as a way of reaffirming that he personally is their moral superior. It's a childish and transparent tactic, but an extremely common one.

And don't even get me started on the special pleading.

So basically, it's a very remarkable comment, an instructive and (for those of us with uncharitable senses of humor) highly amusing compendium of folly. But let me urge you (especially those of you who are conservative Republicans and therefore will yourself be tempted to take pleasure in Craig's bad behavior -- "those stupid, judgmental Democrats and their Bush Derangement Syndrome, they're just so deliciously pitiful") to remember that there are a whole bunch of people who are off the deep end about Dubya but are quite nice and likable people as long as the conversational Pavlovian bell never rings. Craig uses an argument that is intrinsically hypocritical, irrational and judgmental. It does not follow that he is himself under normal circumstances any of those things.

UPDATE: I don't mean to imply that the argumentum ad hypocrisem is the exclusive domain of the Left. An excellent example of the tactic would be many conservatives' delighted observation that Teddy Kennedy long ago made a couple of extremely strongly pro-life statements back in the day before Roe v. Wade.

I also certainly do think that you can accuse a man of hypocrisy if his positions change, as long as you can show evidence that his positions were changing not because his actual opinions were changing but because he was playing some sort of game. I suppose you could make a case for that with John Kerry. Even so, I never felt that Kerry was hypocritical so much as that he just was a hopelessly incoherent pseudo-thinker who had never been able to muster the intellectual effort to ever actually figure out what his own principles and opinions were. That is, stuff like "I voted for it before I voted against it," struck not as hypocritical nearly so much as just plain ol' stupid.

In order to wield the appeal to hypocrisy, it just seems to me that you have to claim so much understanding of somebody else's motives -- perhaps the most difficult thing in the world truly to understand -- that your burden of proof is just too high to reach most of the time. But that doesn't keep people from trying.

On judgmentalism and the argumentum ad hominem

If you study logic and rhetoric and the ways liars trick the gullible into believing their lies, you learn fairly early on about the "tactics of distraction." There you will meet one of the very few logical terms that the average educated American actually still knows and uses properly: the ad hominem argument, or, in English, "the argument based on the person," that is, attacking your opponent's character rather than his arguments.

The essence of the tactic is to make the people to whom one is lying (this usually includes oneself) stop paying attention to the question, "What is true?" and instead to start paying attention to the question, "Who is evil?" Whenever you hear a sentence that starts, "You only say that because you're a [man/racist/callous Republican/godless Communist]," you can be pretty confident you're dealing with an ad hominem. ...continue reading...The tiresome "chickenhawk" argument used by mindless anti-war types to say that anybody who isn't a soldier is not allowed to defend the wisdom of going to war, is a particularly obvious example. So is a statement such as, "I do not choose to be lectured on sexual morality and social responsibility by the man who walked away and left Mary Jo Kopechne to die."

I've said before on this blog that I find it useful to distinguish between discussions (in which two people who disagree set out together in pursuit of the truth), debates (in which either each person is trying to get his own way, or else each person is trying to prove that he's smarter than the other), and arguments (in which each person is trying to prove that the other one is a jerk). I'll make use of that distinction in what follows; be sure you grasp my meaning before proceeding.

The argumentum ad hominem happens in two situations, generally speaking.

(1) A guy who's likely to get into trouble in a battle of wits, and who doesn't have a lot of ammunition when it comes to evidence for his point of view, will commonly take refuge in the argumentum ad hominem because it turns discussions and debates into arguments. And since a fool can usually convince himself that the other guy is a jerk, he can usually convince himself that he's "proved" that the other guy is a jerk, and therefore that he has won the argument. Arguments are the refuge of the stupidly self-deceived, precisely because all you have to do is tell yourself, "Oh, yeah, the guy's a bastard," and you feel like you've won.

By comparison, debates and discussions are much more problematic. I believe Ambrose Bierce once defined the word "pitiful" as "the state of an opponent after an imaginary confrontation with oneself." But the trouble with debates and discussions is that, unless you're actually pretty sharp and really have done your homework, the outcome of a real confrontation is too often that it's not the other guy who winds up looking pitiful. Arguments, by contrast, are a safe harbor: you can almost always convince yourself that you won the argument, and march off the field of battle in triumph, oblivious to the degree to which onlookers are holding you in the same contempt in which you hold your opponent. For in an argument, each guy thinks the other guy's a jerk, and by the time the argument is over, usually each guy has proved...that the other guy is right.

(2) In the particular fields of ethics and morality, there is a distinction between passing judgment on a particular action, and passing judgment on the character of the person who does that action. It's perfectly possible to say that a person has done a bad thing without saying that that person is a bad person. People are flighty things, buffeted about by emotions and confusion and ignorance and stress, and so they very often fail to live up to their own standards, not because they are evil people, but just because they had their facts wrong, or they got bad advice, or they did something muddled-headed (allowed themselves to be persuaded, for example, by an argumentum ad hominem), or felt that they had no choice other than a lesser-of-two-evils choice, or just flat had a bad day and did something they knew they shouldn’t have done. And people have their own strengths and weaknesses: a man can be regrettably weak in some ethical areas while being remarkably admirable in others. It is, therefore, perfectly possible to discuss the question of whether a particular kind of action is in itself a good or bad action, without interesting yourself at all in whether some particular person who has done that thing is a good or bad person.

But a lot of people think it's much more fun to worry about whether other people are good or bad people. And the word that describes a person whose primary interest is in decreeing whether somebody else is a good person or a bad person, is judgmental.

Ironically, judgmental people generally wish to reserve that privilege for themselves; if you pass judgment on them -- or even just on some particular one of their actions -- they bitterly condemn you for being, you guessed it, judgmental. Even more ironically, if you are a person who is interested in serious questions of ethics, and you have had the bad luck of saying that a certain kind of behavior is immoral in the presence of a judgmental person who disagrees with you, then you don't need me to tell you that they will instantly leap to accuse you of being "judgmental" -- even though you were not, and even though by making that charge they prove that they are. You also don't need me to tell you that they are blind to their own judgmentalism.

Just to make the distinction clear between judging an action and judging a person, let's take a well-known example from literature.

In Jane Austen's Emma, the title character is a sweet and well-intentioned, but very naive and innocently vain young lady, whose wealth and social standing has caused her to know little in the way of inconvenience and even less in the way of criticism. She is loved (though she is too naive to recognize the fact for most of the book) by a quite intelligent man some years her senior. As Austen knew perfectly well, they know best who love most truly, and while Mr. Knightley loves Emma very much, Austen is careful to emphasize, in the very first scene in which Mr. Knightley appears, that, "Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them."

At one point, in an uncharacteristic moment of spite, Emma says something needlessly cruel to an impoverished and kind, though garrolous, old family friend. And Mr. Knightley takes Emma aside and gives her a tongue-lashing that is worth quoting in full, precisely in order to show how a clear-headed and loving person can condemn an action utterly while yet not condemning the person who has committed it:

While waiting for the carriage, she found Mr. Knightley by her side. He looked around, as if to see that no one were near, and then said,

"Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible."

Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off.

"Nay, how could I help saying what I did?—Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me."

"I assure you she did. She felt your full meaning. She has talked of it since. I wish you could have heard how she talked of it—with what candour and generosity. I wish you could have heard her honouring your forbearance, in being able to pay her such attentions, as she was for ever receiving from yourself and your father, when her society must be so irksome."

"Oh!" cried Emma, "I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow, that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her."

"They are blended," said he, "I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!—You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.—This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I can; satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now."
If you go back over Mr. Knightley's speech, what you discover is that everything negative he has to say is concerned with this act. He does not try to say, "You always do things like that;" indeed, he says explictly that, based on his general opinion of Emma's good character, "Emma, I had not thought it possible." Indeed, it is clear throughout that he thinks that Emma is fundamentally a good person, and that that is precisely why he is bothering.

And there is one other absolutely critical statement: "This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me." Mr. Knightley is perfectly sincere.

Two marks of the judgmental man are both absent in Mr. Knightley. (1) The judgmental man takes the bad action and attempts to use it as evidence that his target is a bad person. It is the person, not the action, that the judgmental man wishes to condemn. Indeed, if there is evidence that there might actually be some good in the target, the judgmental man leaps to prove that the apparent good is really just an illusion and the detested one is through-and-through detestable. (2) The judgmental man finds pleasure -- a particular brand of moral self-satisfaction -- in contemplating his target's moral inferiority to himself. He is reluctant to accept that his target might be more moral than he, the judgmental man, wishes his target to be.

Now, judgmental people wield the argumentum ad hominem as a matter of preference. They turn from discussion and debate to argument, they shift their interest from the ethics of their target's actions to the blackness of their target's character, not because they are in danger of losing the debate, but because the moral condemnation that the argument allows them to spew out, is precisely the black pleasure they crave in the first place.

We all have our judgmental moments. In fact most of us know people whose very presence in a room, or the very mention of whom in a discussion, throws us irresistably into a judgmental fever. But God protect us from allowing jugmentalism to wear a groove into our character until we have become judgmental people, rather thus just people who have judgmental moments.

And if He does protect us, it will most likely be by giving us our very own Mr. Knightley -- that is, the kind of friend who will pass stern judgment on our actions, while still having a high enough opinion of our character to be willing to take us aside and tell us the truth. God grant us such friends -- and the humility to know better than to resent their honesty as "judgmental."

This post started out merely as a couple of introductory paragraphs to this one, which looks in detail at a particularly interesting variant of the argumentum ad hominem.

"Breaking News" Dept -- Bird Flu Epidemic Strikes Florida

The ever-alert Randy Guidry directs my attention to the ominous harbingers of the carnage to come...

"Two Jokes With But A Single Tasteless Theme" Dept

The doctor looks over the top of his glasses at the elderly patient. "Well, Mr. Charlesworth, the results of your physical are in, and I have some bad news, I'm afraid."

The elderly gentleman smiles with cheerful resignation. "At my age, Doc, you expect bad news. What's the deal?"

"Two things. First of all, I'm very sorry to tell you this, but you have cancer."

The patient exhales slowly, then shrugs. "Okay, and what else?"

"I'm afraid our tests also show that you have Alzheimer's disease."

The patient mulls it over for a few seconds, staring down at his lap, then he looks up and smiles again. "Well, Doc, look at the bright side -- at least I don't have cancer."


That puts me in mind of a bonus joke that is perhaps tasteless but at least does not have the theme of making fun of old people (the second joke to which the post title refers will have to wait a moment)...

The patient slowly wakes up in the post-op hospital bed. As his mind clears, he sees the doctor standing next to his bed with a very pensive look on his face.

"How'd it go, Doc?" the patient whispers groggily.

The doctor looks very uncomfortable. "Well, there's good news and bad news."

"Why don't you get the bad news out of the way first and save the good news to cheer me up later?"

The doctor looks down and the floor and shuffles his feet. "Fine, fine, of, I really don't know how this happened, and I'm very embarrassed to have to tell you fact I don't really know how to put it...but, well, it seems there was a bit of confusion in the theatre, and what with one thing and another...we're really very very sorry, but...well, there's only one way to say it: somehow we seem to have amputated the wrong leg."

The patient is wide awake now. "Good God, Doc, for heaven's sake, give me the good news quick!"

The doctor's face brightens, and his eyes come back up to meet the patient's, and he says cheerfully, "Well, it's lookin' now like we won't have to cut the other one off after all..."


Now back to our regularly scheduled programming:

The door to the street swings open in the elegant little jazz bar downtown, and in walks a dapper, elegantly-dressed elderly gentleman. He looks around the room appreciatively and then spots, seated alone at the bar, a woman about his age, still very attractive and pleasant-looking. He walks up to her purposefully.

"May I join you?"

She gestures toward the empty barstool next to her and inclines her head graciously: "Please, be my guest."

He takes his seat and looks around. "This is a nice place." He looks at her. "Tell I come here a lot?"