Monday, April 12, 2010

Changing the Subject

In the past 2 days I've noticed something very strange on the web 3 times (I can't find the third example now. It was written years ago by Orin Kerr and I happened to read it today).

update: found it. More updating below.

In each case a conservative raises an issue, a non-conservative shows that the conservatives argument is nonsense and a conservative objects that the non-conservatives insisted that the issue to be discussed was the one raised by the conservative.

1. Newt Gingrich and Sean Hannity lie about the text of the Obama administration's new nuclear posture. Jon Stewert presents proof. Mark Kleiman links to Stewert. A commenter writes

Thomas says:
April 10, 2010 at 7:52 am
Mark, you’re just confused. You and your comedian friend pretend that there’s no possible way to reasonably disagree with the changes in policy that Obama has made,

This is nonsense. Stewert didn't say anything about what the policy should be. He just noted that Gingrich and Hannity lied about what it was. Thomas insists that the fact that a lie was cablecast by the nations number one all news network is a matter of no interest to anyone -- that the real issue, the only possible real issue is Obama's nuclear policy and claims that to note a lie is to claim that no reasonable person could agree with the liars policy recommendation.

John Holbo (via Brad DeLong) comments on a debate among libertarians starting with a quote of Will Wilkinson

"1880’s America was a society in which well more than half the population was systematically and often brutally denied basic liberty rights. If that’s golden, I’d hate to see bronze."

Arnold Kling responded, in defense of Hornberger, making the same damn obvious mistake... a third time.... "[I]t’s a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back in the days of Jim Crow or women’s subservience...." To which Will [Wilkinson] makes the obvious rejoinder. The notion that the way things would be in an ideal libertarian polity constitutes some sort of defense of how things actually were in 1880 is... well, not to be made sense of.

Brad comments on the debate. Commenter Charlie has a question for Brad

" Does everyone that is concerned about higher taxes have to preface their commentary with an apology for past injustice?"

Huh. A group of people each of whom is concerned about higher taxes decided to discuss the USA in 1880 and somehow Charlie is convinced that someone made them do it. Holbo and DeLong obviously didn't choose that topic. No one forced the libertarians to discuss the past -- they just decided to discuss it.

Now an older example from a much more eminent source. Orin Kerr discussed Michael Mukassey's testimony during his confirmation hearings.

Now changing the subject is a very traditional debating trick. However, angrily asserting that someone else insists on discussing the original topic which they are only discussing in response to a third person (well the original person in one case) is very odd.

I assume that non-conservatives do this too (examples in comments please) and that people have been doing this for a long time (again examples please). I'm sure the cases aren't proof that the weight of evidence that they are totally wrong about everything has recently driven conservatives totally crazy.

update: Orin Kerr. The original topic was attorney general nominee Michael Mukassey's testimony at his confirmation hearing. The question would appear to be whether the senate should confirm him or, perhaps, what is a good attorney general.

At one point in a debate, Kerr demanded judicial restraint writing
"Maybe I'm missing something, but I thought the point of the thread is about the "strictly legal" question."

Very odd. The question of who is fit to serve in the cabinet is a political question according to the narrowest possible definition of the word. Judges should only discuss what the law says and not what it does say, however, Senators are not judges. They should not defer to the elected branches and should legislate from the legislature.

Kerr asserts that a question asked by a Senator is a strictly legal question if the witness chooses to interpret it that way. The witness was being considered for a political position where his legitimate role includes advising the Senate on possible legislative reform. If he thought there was any ambiguity in the law, given where he was and the job he sought, he should have advised the Senate to clarify the matter. Notably the attorney general is not supposed to meddle in the application of the law. This is a tradition not a provision of the constitution, but it is important. His proper role is administering, setting priorities and contributing to the debate about legislature. By tradition he is supposed to leave strictly legal issues to career prosecutors.

The point is that he wants to change the subject from whether Mukasey's testimony demonstrated that he is a depraved monster unfit to serve any role in the development of policy to whether the law as written clearly defines waterboarding as torture (as by the way, he now concedes). So Kerr accused Michael Drake of changing the subject for noting, in passing, that Kerr had changed the subject.

update II: Silly me. Mukasey's conduct would not have been acceptable in a judge either. Judges are not allowed to ignore precedent and merely note that a law isn't totally unambiguous. Stare decisis and all that. If the law has always and invariably been interpreted one way, a judge must argue that the interpretation is definitely inconsistent with the law or the constitution or accept it. US courts have never held that water boarding is not torture. US courts have convicted people of torture because they water boarded. One of those people was put to death.

Unless a judge is willing to claim that the definition of torture is absolutely inconsistent with the claim that waterboarding is torture can that judge properly overturn decades of precedent.

Of course Kerr understands perfectly well that, according to US law, water boarding is torture (the recent post quotes him writing just that). In 2007, He chose to lie to get to the conclusion he wanted.

And he was, until recently, on my very short list of reasonable and reasonably honest conservatives.

update II.

There are some wonderful cooment threads over at Crooked Timber. I will nutpick a stupid comment because it is a fourth example of the phenomenon I discuss in this post.

Michael Berube quotes Meghan McArdle suggesting that the low number of conservative academics is due to subtle discrimination. She (not he she) decided to make an analogy

I doubt many bank hiring committees in the fifties got together and voted not to hire any negro bank managers. Yet, somehow, they didn’t hire any negro bank managers.

Why not? Because things like social networks, subtle bias, and tacit norms about what constituted the boundaries of acceptable traits in bank managers did all the work for them. And I doubt they got many black applicants, because after all, why on earth would you bother? Better to try to start a small business, or get a job as a Pullman porter, where you had a realistic shot at making a decent income.

Berube suggests that the analogy is not exact since in the "fifties" (I use quotation marks because I am quoting a word that McArdle freely chose to type -- they are not "scare quotes") explicit racial discrimination was legal and common.

Commenter bjk writes

bjk 04.13.10 at 8:39 pm

Why is the left always refighting the civil rights movement? That was fifty years ago. You don’t get any credit for being on the right side fifty years later.


Why did the leftist McArdle decide to bring up race relations 50 to 60 years ago ? Or is he or she asking why Berube changed the subject from race relations 50 to 60 years ago to race relations 50 to 60 years ago ?

It's weird.

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