Friday, February 22, 2013

good question

Andrew Sullivan pushes back against my take on Will Saletan and drones:
Yes, but Will has copped to his errors of judgment, which is by far the most important thing. Freddie should focus more on those like Charles Krauthammer who was the intellectual architect of the worst foreign policy disaster since Vietnam and is still treated as a foreign policy and military expert in Washington.
That might move me more were it not for the fact that Saletan expresses his defense of drones with precisely the same condescending certitude he displayed when he insisted that those who wanted to minimize civilian casualties in Iraq had to shut up and support the war. And that points to the bigger problem: it's not just that he got it so wrong; it's that he seemingly took nothing from getting it so wrong, and that there are no professional consequences for him not evolving in response to getting it wrong. I pulled out that argument because it is nearly identical, in every respect, to the one he is making today about drones. The thinking is totally the same. Saying you're sorry for getting it wrong is important. But changing your thinking in reaction to getting it wrong is even more important. And not only has Saletan betrayed no evolution in his thinking, he's demonstrating literally the identical train of thought here that he did in 2003: stop complaining because our military is so skillful and so moral that innocent people aren't going to get hurt. Men like Saletan never, never stop believing in the inexhaustible goodness and proficiency of the American war machine, or in the lie of war without war. Not even after hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead.

Were it just Saletan, it would be a small problem. But it is a problem that exists for our entire newsmedia: what systems of accountability are there at all? What forms of assessment? It's one of the most important jobs in the world, and yet no one can provide me with anything resembling a cogent answer. Indeed, when I asked, I am told that asking is an example of my bad behavior. Saletan, ludicrously, accused me of ad hominem, for a post in which I merely quote the entirety of a post, without elision. (A post, I might add, in which he asserts the complicity of antiwar activists in the killing of innocents.)

Today, the preference for those who get it wrong continues. When Glenn Greenwald or Jeremy Scahill speak out against American military operations, the burden of proof they face is still far higher than for those who advocate the use of military force. And, indeed, people like them are still considered on the fringes of polite political conversation. Why? Look at the people who publicly opposed the Iraq war before it started, back when it mattered. To a truly dispiriting degree, they tend to remain in less prominent and respected positions than those who supported the war. (Here's a depressing game: which New York Times columnists opposed the war before it began?) And those who have admitted wrongdoing tend to say that "those who got it right did so for the wrong reasons"-- a stance that ensures that the least useful lesson will be learned. What do you think the message of all this is, for people within our media? What does that incentive structure lead to?

Let's take two other examples that are dear to Sully's heart: Christopher Hitchens and Jeffrey Goldberg. Hitchens not only explicitly refused to say he had been wrong about Iraq, he continued to wage a maximally-aggressive argument against those who had opposed the war. There were no professional consequences for Hitchens; his stature only grew. And the Dish continues to give him a forum. (Posthumously!) Goldberg did not merely get Iraq wrong. He was directly complicit in credulous journalism that helped build the case for going to war in the first place. There were no professional consequences. On the contrary, he got a more prominent position and, apparently, a raise. He has since undergone a campaign to attack his critics and continue to make the thoroughly discredited case that Saddam was connected to Al Qaeda. Once ensconced at The Atlantic, he took to the cover to predict that an Israeli strike on Iran was imminent, staking the magazine's significant prestige in doing so. That was two and a half years ago. There have been no professional consequences of any kind.

If you're a writer at The Atlantic, what possible professional incentive do you feel to get it right? What fear do you have of getting it wrong? When people who get such specific questions so deeply wrong suffer no professional consequences whatsoever, how will the magazine ever get better? If you're Conor Friedersdorf or Garance Franke-Ruta or Derek Thompson or any other staffer there, what process internal to the magazine pushes you to get things right? It's bizarre that our chief neoliberal magazine seems to not believe in professional incentives. Please, somebody with access, ask James Bennet: does your magazine have standards?

I'm 31 years old. My country has considered itself to be at war-- and invoked all of the frightening powers that comes along with it-- for a third of my life. No one is naive enough to think that this will end soon. As a mere citizen, one who fights to stay informed, I am totally at the mercy of our media. And not only has that media not developed anything like a system of internal accountability or review, it rewards those who get it wrong and punishes those who ask for reform. What does Andrew want me to do?

10 comments:

Rasmus Xera said...

I really enjoyed this post.

What's even more telling about the reaction to Greenwald and a few others is not just how consistently right they've been, but how logically sound and thoroughly researched most of their arguments are. On a purely intellectual basis, the pro-war hacks don't come close - they just happen to be far more useful to those in power, so they maintain their prominent voice.

And as far as war goes, history certainly suggests that the US won't end its aggressive demeanor anytime soon (and that depending on how you define war in the first place, the country may have never actually been at peace).

c9a5604e-7d26-11e2-b666-000bcdcb2996 said...

I largely agree with you, but I'm not sure why you think it's ludicrous that Saletan accused you of ad hominem. Saletan made an argument about drones, and your response was "don't listen to him, he's Will Saletan." That's sort of the definition of ad hominem, isn't it?

Freddie said...

That is itself a ludicrous charge. I demonstrated that in a previous instance, he used the exact same reasoning, and that the consequences were disastrous. Or are you really contending that holding people to account for their mistakes is necessarily ad hominem? That's absurd, and destructive of bad behavior.

c9a5604e-7d26-11e2-b666-000bcdcb2996 said...

Okay, let me step back. The underlying point you're making is not an ad hominem argument. It's "this argument is similar to Saletan's previous argument; Saletan's previous argument turned out to be wrong; therefore we should be cautious in adopting the current reasoning." But that's not what you actually said in the post. What you said was that Saletan is a person "who should have been renounced long ago," that he shouldn't be "taken seriously" or "treated as someone worth listening to." Which I think you would concede has a certain surface-level similarity to my uncharitable rephrasing, "don't listen to him, he's Will Saletan."

So what I really meant to say, I guess, is that you shouldn't be surprised to be accused of ad hominem after framing the argument the way you did. "Ludicrous" was just a little strong, is all.

Rasmus Xera said...

The argument is not "Saletan is regularly wrong so now anything he says is wrong by default", but rather "Saletan is wrong so regularly that he should not still have such a prominent position, especially given that he's still using the same faulty logic and argumentation."

This is especially true given there are many incredible writers (with much better track records) who focus on the same issues and could take his place.

Paul Sherrard said...

Jesus Christ. It seems like 90% of people who bring up ad hominem online don't know what it means. It's the "beg the question" of the 2010s.

Asad Sucks said...

>"The Atlantic, he took to the cover to predict that an Israeli strike on Iran was imminent, staking the magazine's significant prestige in doing so. That was two and a half years ago. There have been no professional consequences of any kind."

Huh? Actually, he wrote "a consensus emerged that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July." So that might explain why there haven't been any consequences.

What are your thoughts on Seymour Hersh, given this article? http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/04/17/060417fa_fact?currentPage=all

Dean said...

c9a5604e... is absolutely correct. From: http://www.csun.edu/~dgw61315/fallacies.html#Argumentum%20ad%20hominem here's the definition of ad hominem
Argumentum ad hominem (argument directed at the person). This is the error of attacking the character or motives of a person who has stated an idea, rather than the idea itself. The most obvious example of this fallacy is when one debater maligns the character of another debater (e.g, "The members of the opposition are a couple of fascists!"), but this is actually not that common. A more typical manifestation of argumentum ad hominem is attacking a source of information -- for example, responding to a quotation from Richard Nixon on the subject of free trade with China by saying, "We all know Nixon was a liar and a cheat, so why should we believe anything he says?" Argumentum ad hominem also occurs when someone's arguments are discounted merely because they stand to benefit from the policy they advocate -- such as Bill Gates arguing against antitrust, rich people arguing for lower taxes, white people arguing against affirmative action, minorities arguing for affirmative action, etc. In all of these cases, the relevant question is not who makes the argument, but whether the argument is valid.

It is always bad form to use the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem. But there are some cases when it is not really a fallacy, such as when one needs to evaluate the truth of factual statements (as opposed to lines of argument or statements of value) made by interested parties. If someone has an incentive to lie about something, then it would be naive to accept his statements about that subject without question. It is also possible to restate many ad hominem arguments so as to redirect them toward ideas rather than people, such as by replacing "My opponents are fascists" with "My opponents' arguments are fascist."

Dean said...

I'll start a new comment to make clear that what I've posted above was posted Cal State Northridge website. Here, if one wants to prove that Saletan should be in all cases disregarded, it requires a heavier list than showing that he was wrong on an argument a decade ago, then offer no evidence to disprove the analogous but factually distinct argument he's making today, and then concluding that he's in all ways and every way wrong wrong wrong. You'd have to dissect many of his arguments over time and prove that he's almost always wrong, and therefore not worthy of attention.

Now, if you want to prove that his drone argument is wrong, then you'll have to directly engage with the well documented argument he made. Frankly, I think you'll have a hard time disproving him if you do that, but that's neither here nor there. But certainly one need not take an argument seriously if it's merely an argument ad hominem and in no way engages the actual argument.

Erik said...

And yes, *my* argument is entirely ad hominem.