Showing posts with label ad- hominem. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ad- hominem. Show all posts

Monday 13 February 2023

On "Putin's American Cheerleaders"

Critical Thinking skills

I have to preface this post by revisiting "critical thinking skills"--that phrase used by university programs in the humanities and social sciences as a core justification for their existence.  The vast majority of university students graduate from these programs.  In theory,  millions upon millions of university-educated Americans and Canadians can claim an expertise in identifying arguments based on logic and evidence and, conversely, immediately spot logical fallacies:  the ad hominem, the straw man, guilt by association, and rhetorical obfuscation.  

"Putin's American Cheerleaders"

I read Adrian Karatnycky's Wall Street Journal article, "Putin’s American Cheerleaders: How Jeffrey Sachs, Mark Episkopos and Dimitri Simes contribute to the Russian propaganda effort" against the grain, as a string of logical fallacies light on rebuttal evidence.  The headline makes obvious the ad hominem intent to attack the authors rather than their arguments.  

We Are at war

But let's be clear:  we are at war.  The war is being fought by Ukrainians, but it is a war between Russia and the collective West, led by the USA.  The war has caused global precarity, massive destruction and the deaths of thousands.  Beyond the concrete devastation, the war in Ukraine is, above all, a propaganda war.  Arguably, propaganda will determine the outcome of this war.  In this context, we shouldn't be surprised that we are all likened to soldiers on the battlefield, and any deviation from the Western narrative is collaborating with the enemy, if not betrayal and treason. 

And yet . . .

Even if we are all conscripts in the propaganda war should we accept "to do and die" in a nuclear Crimean War without stopping "to reason why"? Is it unreasonable to invoke "thinking skills" in the midst of this war?  No-one knows the whole story of this war.  Even in Kyiv or Moscow or Washington or Berlin or London or Ottawa, even on the battlefield, even with drones and satellites, people know as much and as little as they can see and hear and read.  In a war, especially in a propaganda war like this one, enormous effort is put into controlling what is seen and heard and read. 

The Dominant Western narrative

The dominant Western narrative, primarily in the legacy media, is that escalation is the only acceptable solution to the conflict in Ukraine.  The argument is presented that Russia must be defeated because failure to defeat Russia now will lead to Russian expansionism and greater escalation somewhere down the road.  Overlaying this argument is an appeal to morality.  Russia must be defeated because the invasion and the conduct of the war are immoral, criminal and evil.  Anything less than total Russian defeat would be a victory for evil.    

Does the Western narrative hold up under scrutiny?

Under the microscope of critical reasoning skills,  the arguments for escalation do not hold up well.  Let me quickly insert that this does not mean that they are wrong or untrue.  They are simply unproven, counterfactual, hypothetical, and speculative.  We will inevitably try to imagine what Russia might do after the war, but there is a weakness in trying to be too specific and too certain about what might happen in the distant future.  We can say with fair certainty that a negotiated peace--what the Western narrative qualifies as a Russian victory--would include some sort of autonomy if not outright Russian control of Crimea and the eastern regions of Ukraine; that is, those regions with significant populations of ethnic Russians where President Viktor Yanucovitch, who was overthrown in a bloody coup in 2014, had his strongest democratic support.

The Moral argument

The moral argument for escalating the war is equally weak.  The argument depends on our accepting as axiomatic that the war is between absolute evil and pure goodness.  The goal of propaganda is to promote this vision, but even cursory scrutiny of the context of the war makes this absolutist vision impossible to maintain.  Some 13,000 people were killed in the Donbas region in the aftermath of the bloody coup overthrowing President Yanocovitch in 2014 and before Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022.  Even the US Congress has banned the sale of weapons to Ukraine's Azimov Battalion on the grounds that the battalion openly includes neo-Nazis in its ranks.

Naming and Shaming

I first read "Putin's American Cheerleaders" because it provides a list of a half dozen Americans who question the proxy war between Russia and the West going on in Ukraine--which isn't generally easy to come by.  The article is a telling example of widespread, ham-fisted attempts to discredit, shame and silence anyone who dares to question the war. Articles of this ilk are emotionally evocative and are based on an underlying presumption of moral superiority shared by writer and reader.  The vocabulary is emotionally charged but logical consideration of risks and outcomes is avoided.  For potential outcomes, the war in Ukraine should be compared to other recent wars spearheaded by the USA--Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Vietnam and Korea--but these are comparisons which the dominant narrative tends to avoid.

Guilt by Association

While Mr. Karatnycky concedes that "experts are free to challenge the pro-Ukraine views held by the vast majority of Americans," he decries the fact that these American experts have appeared on a Russian program hosted by Vladimir Solovyov, whom he describes as a Russian propagandist. Karatnycky has more to say about Solovyov than about the "American cheerleaders."  The Americans' failure is guilt by association with Solovyov.  According to Karatnycky, what Jeffrey Sachs said on Russian media was

that a “massive number” of Americans “wish to exit the conflict in Ukraine,” condemned the U.S. administration for “disinformation,” and called President Volodymyr Zelensky’s conditions for peace “absolute nonsense.”

None of these claims about American attitudes are obvious errors of fact.  Zelensky's conditions for peace go beyond total Russian defeat and surrender.  They sound a lot like the "conditions" imposed upon Germany after the First World War. The Washington Post has reported that the Biden administration has been asking Zelensky to dial down his "conditions for peace." 

Framing the War as exclusively between Russia and Ukraine

Karatnycky's awkward--and therefore revealing--attempts to frame the war as between Ukraine and Russia leaving the USA and even NATO out of the equation is typical of the dominant narrative.  People who dare to suggest a negotiated peace are not identified as critics of the war but "Ukraine critics." Americans who endorse escalation of the war are identified as "pro-Ukrainian."

NATO Expansion isn't a threat!  Really!?

Jeffrey Sachs is characterized as a "Putin cheerleader" because, as with a number of other "foreign policy realists," he "has long argued that the West provoked Russia into invading Ukraine in 2014 by virtue of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 'threatening' expansion toward Russia."  Karatnycky's quotation marks around the word "threatening" are intended to display a tone of sarcasm.  Still, no matter what your politics, how can anyone look at the ongoing expansion of NATO to Russia's borders and logically conclude that the expansion of an inimical military alliance to a nation's very borders is not "threatening"?

What Jeffrey Sachs said . . .

Furthermore, beyond the threatening posture of NATO, as Sachs points out in an interview on Democracy Now, [ . . .] the United States, very unwisely and very provocatively, contributed to the overthrow of Mr. Yanukovych in early 2014, setting in motion the tragedy before our eyes."  

What Cannot be said:  Ukraine is ethnically divided between east and west

One argument which shaming the authors is designed to preclude is that Ukraine is ethnically divided.  As Sacks elaborates:

The "Minsk Accords" must also be denied

The resulting Minsk Accords, as we have seen, are quashed and denied in pro-war editorials, even when the narrative requires contradicting its own sources.  Sachs argues:

What happened — and this is crucial to understand — is that, in 2015, there were agreements to solve this problem by giving autonomy to these eastern regions that were predominantly ethnic Russian. And these are called the Minsk agreements, Minsk I and Minsk II.

John Bolton was in Ukraine in 2019 and reports that Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected promising to end Ukrainian corruption and make peace with the eastern regions,  "was determined to get the Donbas back as soon as possible and end the war within the Minsk agreements" (457 The Room Where It Happened).  However in the intervening years there has been consistent repudiation and denial of the Minsk Accords in Western and Ukrainian media.  It is as if they never existed.

The Zeitgeist:  Preparing for the historical dialectic

Karatnycky claims that "Most U.S. guests on Russian media come from the fringe."  He names Virginia State Sen. Richard Black and former United States Marine Corps intelligence officer, former United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) weapons inspector Scott Ritter.  However, the first name on his list of "Putin's American Cheerleaders" is Tulsi Gabbard, a former American Congresswoman and candidate in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primaries.  In her interviews, she has a very simple and clear message:  "The world has never been closer to a nuclear war."

The rule of the historical dialectic is that the Zeitgeist will change over time and the dominant thesis of the age will give way to its antithesis.  If the rule of the dialectic holds in this case, those "fringe" arguments against escalation, which are everywhere on social media in blogs and vlogs and interviews but nowhere in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, or Globe and Mail, may soon become the dominant Western narrative.

Sunday 1 May 2016

This Professor Should Be Fired for Defending What I Believe In

I call it the “ad hominem dilemma.”  Just to remind you, an “ad hominem argument“ is a logical fallacy defined as trying to win an argument by attacking a person rather than the ideas that person is trying to present or represent in a debate.  The dilemma I have just coined occurs when you like an idea, but you don’t like the person presenting it, or you like a person but you don’t like the idea or argument.  In an ideal world the dilemma disappears because you always agree with the ideas of the people you like—though you might want to have your intellectual rigour checked.

So you might feel torn when you discover that Hitler liked apple pie, and you like apple pie, but you don’t want to be identified as one of those apple-pie-eating Nazis.  Like me, you might have wanted to tear out your hair when Wayne Gretsky announced he was supporting Stephen Harper in the last federal election—you remember, the election Gretsky couldn’t vote in because of Conservative policy preventing non-residents from voting.  Tells you what years in the California sun can do to an otherwise sane Canadian hockey player.  

Then there’s the Donald Trump (aka Drumpf) phenomenon.  You may have heard the claim that an infinite number of monkeys pounding on the keys of an infinite number of typewriters (i.e, keyboards without computers) would eventual type the complete works of Shakespeare.  Trump Drumpf gets so much media coverage, without ever spelling out the details of his proposals, that eventually he is bound to make some vague promise that you agree with, and there you are facing the “ad hominem dilemma.”

Many women were dismayed by the outcome of the Jiam Ghomeshi trial.  It seems pretty obvious that consensual sex does not mean you are consenting to be choked and punched in the head,  but how the obvious was represented at trial was anything but clear.  Ultimately, the acute “ad hominem dilemma” has been provoked not by Ghomeshi himself (okay, being an anus is not a provable crime, but still he has been proven an anus) or by his accusers, but by Marie Henein, Ghomeshi’s lawyer.

Marie Henein should be a feminist icon, a heroine for all womankind, a tough, skilled, astute defence lawyer at the peak of her profession.  In fact, she is all those things and has become them by defending people accused of some pretty heinous crimes, including crimes against women--because that's what defence lawyers do.  Both Michelle Hauser in the Whig ("Mansbridge hit journalistic low point") and Tabatha Southey in the Globe ("Upset about the Jian Ghomeshi verdict? Don’t get mad – get informed") have broached the dilemma which Henein has provoked

The issue of my concern will seem trivial, insignificant and certainly pedantic by comparison to the justice system's futile struggles to prosecute sexual assault.  The object of my obsession is the course plan; what is usually referred to in colleges and universities as the syllabus (the “silly bus” that carries students from the beginning to the end of the course?).  Who cares about syllabi?  Well, I guess people of my ilk who know how to pluralize "hippopotamus"--pedants (which is generally an insult even though it just means "male teachers.")

I used to really care about course plans . . . a lot.  I didn't call them course plans or syllabi, I used to call them "the contract" and I would do this really pumped-up, earnest presentation in the first class explaining that this document was a contract between me and my students, that they had the right to object and make changes if they could persuasively argue that something I was requesting was unreasonable or there were better alternatives.  If the first class and "the contract" went well, chances of the course as a whole going well were vastly improved.

Then the worst happened. University administrators began to agree with me that course plans were really important.  The Chair of our department announced a new policy. In the name of providing the best possible education to our students, in future we would all submit our course plans for review at the beginning of each semester.  My colleagues and I objected to this new policy on three grounds:  1) it was redundant; the information that might concern the department was already available in the form of course descriptions which were regularly updated, 2) the requirement to submit a more detailed description of what we would be doing with students to an administrator seemed more like surveillance than pedagogy, and 3) it would lead to bureaucratization, the uniformisation and rigidification of all course plans.  Redundancy was undeniable, but we were assured that in no way did this new policy suggest increased surveillance or bureaucratization.  The new policy was implemented.

The first time I submitted a course plan, the department Chair took me aside--at the department Christmas party--to tell me she had reviewed my course plan and determined that I hadn't scheduled enough classes for one of my courses.  I had been teaching the course for ten years and the number of classes had always been the same.  How was this not surveillance, I wondered? A year later, under a new Chair, I was notified that the same course plan contained one too many classes.  Luckily for me, as a tenured professor, I could and did blithely ignore the instructions in both cases.  

A more damaging outcome for me was the bureaucratization of the course plan.  With each passing semester I received increasingly insistent and precise instructions on the form and content of each course plan circulated through the Faculty of Education and seconded by my own faculty. The upshot was that as I presented my course plan to students I realized that what they saw before them was a replica of every other course plan that had been presented to them that week. The chances that I could credibly describe the plan as a mutual contract were nil. Even the possibility that I might convince the students there was something distinctive in the syllabus, something worthy of their concentration and interest, was minute at best.  They would view the course plan as bureaucratic red tape, imposed as much upon me as it was upon them, and they weren't wrong.  In the name of "providing the best possible education for students," I was deprived of a useful pedagogical tool.

In recent weeks, reading reports online about Roberty T. Dillen Jr., an associate professor of "genetics and evolutionary biology at the College of Charleston," who was facing suspension for refusing to change his course plan for the university's suggested course "outcomes," I thought "a messiah, a Prometheus willing to sacrifice himself to give fire to university teachers everywhere!"  I read the article in which his Dean accused him of playing "Silly, Sanctimonious Games" and described complaints against Dillen Jr., including his self-confessed, impish penchant for deliberately misinforming students and refusing to answer their questions. Then I read Dillen Jr.'s defense of his resistance: "Why I’m Sticking to My ‘Noncompliant’ Learning Outcomes."

My ad-hominem dilemma:  despite my conviction that course plans should be the purview of teachers not administrators, everything that I have read (especially his own words) leads me to the conclusion that this Robert T. Dillen Jr. is really an ass.  His only motivation seems to be that he likes being an ass and his pleasure was redoubled by the fact that he could get away with it.   As a tenured professor he can be an obfuscating, obstreperous lump of inertia who doesn't even have to logically defend himself and no-one can do anything about it, or so he thought.

Dillen Jr. has been teaching for 34 years.  He was consulted, advised, warned, and presented with alternative "outcomes" which he rejected. Still he manages to feign bewilderment, as if he were the only calm rational mind in this brouhaha rather than its provocateur, and asks rhetorically:  "How could such an apparently minor disagreement escalate so far, so fast?"

I am irked, in the first place, because Dillen Jr. could not have done a better job of undermining all university teachers in their efforts to control the presentation of their own courses.  When university administrators argue that the syllabus must be administered by the university and not left in the hands of eccentric egg heads, Dillen Jr. will be the precedent they cite.

But I am also outraged by a university professor's vain display of elitist, aloof, opinionated incoherence.  In lieu of "course outcomes," in his syllabus, Dillen Jr. inserted a quotation from a speech given by Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University in 1896.  In his apologia, Dillen Jr. offered three justifications for use of this quotation as the learning outcome of a biology course:  1) he and Woodrow Wilson were born 10 miles apart, 2) both he and Wilson "were Presbyterian professors"  and 3) that Wilson "seems to be so universally despised." 

Here is the Wilson quotation which Dillen Jr. used as his "course outcomes" and cannibalized for his rhetorical self-defence:
Explicit Learning Outcome. "It is the business of a University to impart to the rank and file of the men whom it trains the right thought of the world, the thought which it has tested and established, the principles which have stood through the seasons and become at length part of the immemorial wisdom of the race. The object of education is not merely to draw out the powers of the individual mind: it is rather its right object to draw all minds to a proper adjustment to the physical and social world in which they are to have their life and their development: to enlighten, strengthen, and make fit. The business of the world is not individual success, but its own betterment, strengthening, and growth in spiritual insight. ‘So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom’ is its right prayer and aspiration."— Woodrow Wilson, 1896
Beyond the ludicrousness of his justifications, the gross absurdity of Dillen Jr.'s using this quote as the cornerstone of his refusal to accept and adjust to authority is that the quote and the Princeton Commencement speech from which it is taken and even the Bible quote which it cites (and Dillen Jr. re-cites) are all explicit refrains of the theme that the individual must accept and submit to the direction of higher authorities, including "the social world in which they are to have their life"--exactly what Dillen Jr. is refusing to do.

No-where in his exposition does Dillen Jr. show any interest in what his students might (or might not) be gaining from his stubbornly repeated use of Wilson's quote (encouraging Princeton grads to enlist for the Spanish-American War) for his "course outcomes."  The university's decision that Associate Professor Robert T. Dillen Jr. "would be suspended without pay for the fall 2016 academic term" strikes me as a set back for all good teachers and a gift to the students of genetics and evolutionary biology at the College of Charleston.


Princeton University decides to remove Woodrow Wilson's name from its building because of racist history.

What Does Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty Actually Say?

In The Room Where It Happened , John Bolton points out that "This provision [Article 5] is actually less binding than its reputation [....