People commenting on Ethics Alarms constantly accuse me of making ad hominem attacks, when what they mean to say is “You’re name-calling.” I’ll cop to name-calling. It’s can be a bad habit, but it has its uses, best illustrated when President Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” The description was true, and it immediately focused values-based criticism on a government and culture that needed it and deserved it.
Ad hominem, in contrast, is a logical fallacy in which one attempts to counter a substantive argument by attacking the character or other aspects of the advocate that can’t possibly have any bearing on the argument’s validity. For example, “you’re uglier than a pug” does nothing to disprove the substance of your adversary’s position, even if he is. Similarly, Bill Cosby has argued, even before 34 women accused him of raping them, that his advocacy of black community responsibility should not be undermined because of questions about his own rectitude.
There is nothing inherently fallacious, however, about diagnosing the conduct or statements of someone as proof that he or she is a fool, or a liar, or a jerk. It may not be civil, and it may be unfair, but it is not an ad hominem attack. As I have explained it before, if I say you are an idiot because I think your comments are idiotic, that is a legitimate, if rebuttable assumption. (I may also be using “you are an idiot” as shorthand for “you are talking/sounding/acting like an idiot, and should avoid that.”) If I say you are an idiot, and therefor everything you say must be dismissed and ignored as the rantings of an idiot, that’s an unethical debating technique, ducking the argument by impugning the advocate.
Distinguishing between these very different but similar-appearing phenomenon can be a problem when trying to be fair to someone whose prior statements and conduct have already generated a negative diagnosis, and thus a bias. I have concluded, for example, that Joe Biden is a dolt, that Michele Bachmann is not playing with a full deck; that Sarah Palin is intellectually lazy and irresponsible, that Newt Gingrich is manipulative and untrustworthy, that Bill Maher is a pompous, none-too-bright blowhard and that Howard Dean is a vicious and unscrupulous ideologue. Nonetheless, I have to fight to assess what they say on the basis of merit, not my well-considered assumptions. It’s hard. When an idiot asserts something, is it unreasonable to be more skeptical of the statement than one would if, say, a brilliant, credentialed, unbiased observer said the same thing? (Wow—I can’t think of a single one!) No. And this is why ad hominem attacks, especially coy, subtle, clever ad hominem attacks, work so well in politics.
This brings us to that vicious and unscrupulous ideologue, Howard Dean.
Dean was on MSNBC chatting with Joe Scarborough, and the topic of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker came up. While visiting Great Britain, a journalist asked Walker, “Are you comfortable with the idea of evolution, do you believe in it, do you accept it?” It was a classic “gotcha!” question for a Republican and conservative, and an incompetent question too. “Comfortable?” The query poses a problem similar to the one facing Obama when he first ran for office, if he had been asked “Are you comfortable with same-sex marriage, do you believe in it, do you accept it?” We now know Obama lied about his support of gay marriage, but “evolution,” unlike gay marriage, is not an issue that has anything to do with the Presidency. All Walker could accomplish by answering is to alienate one portion of his potential voter pool or another. So he said,
“That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or another. So, I’m going to leave that up to you.”
Good answer, in my view. Smart answer too: it’s always smart to avoid being pulled into a trap.*
If the question was supposed to be about what role Walker felt science and the predominant views of the scientific community should play in public policy, the interviewer should have asked that. The question the reporter asked was as reasonable as asking “Are you comfortable with string-theory, do you believe in it, do you accept it?” I almost wish Walker had said, “Oh, bite me.”
Howard didn’t agree, or rather he sensed an opportunity to start the process that has been part of the essential Democratic playbook since 1952: use ad hominem to define a GOP national candidate as a dim bulb as soon as possible. This was a tactic used against Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan, Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, McCain, and Palin with, as you can see, varying results. Dean told Morning Joe:
“This is a particular problem for Scott Walker which has not been an issue yet but it will. Scott Walker, were he to become president, would be the first president in many generations that did not have a college degree. He’s never finished. The issue here is not just an issue of dancing around the question of evolution for political reasons, the issue is how well educated is this guy? And that’s a problem. “
This led to the following exchange, with Scarborough, to his credit, being incredulous at Dean’s statement:
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Are you serious?
DEAN: I am absolutely serious.
SCARBOROUGH: Are you serious? You’re saying he might not be qualified because he didn’t finish college?
DEAN: I think there are going to be a lot of people who worry about that.
SCARBOROUGH: Do you worry about people that don’t finish college?
DEAN: I worry about people being President of the United States not knowing much about the world and not knowing much about science. I worry about that.
SCARBOROUGH: Oh, God. Let’s name the people that didn’t finish college that have changed this world.
DEAN: Harry Truman, who was a great president, there’s no question about it.
SCARBOROUGH: Did Bill Gates finish college?
DEAN: I think Bill Gates is a little on a different –nobody is accusing Scott Walker of having the intellect of Bill Gates.
SCARBOROUGH: Well, nobody is accusing Scott Walker of being dumb because he didn’t graduate from college except you.
DEAN: I didn’t say dumb, I said unknowledgeable.
Isn’t Dean awful? He impugns Walker’s intellect, then says “a lot of people” will be thinking that (Translation: “If Democrats keep hammering on it, like I just did!”) When Scarborough mentions Bill Gates, Dean denigrates Walker, ridiculing the comparison. But Scarborough’s comparison is apt, because Dean just said that Walker’s intellect is suspect because he doesn’t have a degree. If not having a degree means one’s intellect is suspect, and Bill Gates doesn’t have a degree, then Bill Gate’s intellect is as suspect as Scott Walker’s, because that’s the sole criteria Dean has used. Did Dean study logic in college? Anywhere?
Then he plays games: “I didn’t say dumb, I said unknowledgeable.” Yes, and when Dodgers executive Jim Campanis committed professional suicide by telling Ted Koppel on national television that blackc “lacked the necessities” to be major league managers, he didn’t say “dumb” either. We got the message, though.
Dean’s implication is also–dare I say it?—as stupid as it is unfair. Walker left Marquette, with a B average, half-way through his senior year in 1990 to take a job; he also ran for office in the fall of that year. He never got a diploma: so what? As Ann Althouse, a professor who lives in Wisconsin and has seen quite a bit of Scott Walker, says,
“Scott Walker had 3 years of college. Hillary Clinton had 4 (plus law school). Both Walker and Clinton majored in political science. Did they take any non-social-science science courses? Walker has had plenty of political science life experience to compensate for the lack of that final year. Hillary did her senior year, closing out the requirements for her degree from Wellesley by completing her senior honors thesis in political science: “‘There Is Only the Fight…’: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model.” Did that bring her any deeper understanding of scientific topics like evolution and fetal development and climate change?”
I’ll assume that we can all agree on “no,” and also that nobody would ask Hillary about evolution, or what newspapers she reads, because she’s a Democrat, and thus isn’t presumed by Democratic-voting journalists to be stupid.
Dean’s smear, however, shows, in addition to ruthlessness and a willingness to mislead, his ignorance of leadership and history. Many of the best educated or intellectually gifted Presidents have been failures or less than effective: the Adamses, Arthur, Taft, Wilson, Carter, the Bushes, and..well, let’s stop there. Many who lacked formal education or intellectual credentials have been outstanding. Not only is the lack of a college degree no marker of ability, the choice not to attend college at all may be meaningless. One striking example is James Taranto, one of the sharpest and best writers among online pundits, who, like Walker, attended college ( pursuing a degree in journalism at California State University, Northridge) but never got his degree—not that it stops liberal pundits from pointing that out when they can’t counter his criticism. Nor is a graduate degree proof of leadership ability, judgment or acuity. Take Bachmann. Take Rand Paul. Take Michael Steele. Take Howard Dean.
Howard Dean doesn’t want the American public to make a fair, informed judgment about Scott Walker’s potential as a President based on his record, his words, his character or policy positions. He wants the voters to dismiss him as ” unknowledgeable” now, so none of that will matter. That’s ad hominem; it’s also lazy, nasty and insults the intelligence of voters.
It also proves, if any further proof was required, that Howard Dean is an ass.
*Aside: This was the trap Clarence Darrow led William Jennings Bryan into during the famous Scopes monkey trial, when Bryan was called as an “expert” on the Bible. The trial was being broadcast—the first one ever—and Bryan knew that he wasn’t just talking to the Dayton, Tennessee fundamentalists in the courtroom. He was also addressing the rest of the country, and Bryan still harbored dreams of running for President a fourth time. Darrow knew that Bryan didn’t dare claim that every Old Testament tale was literal fact to the general audience, which would have made them think Bryan was a gullible fanatic. He tried to finesse Darrow’s questions about the Bible, but when he admitted that the seven days God took to create the universe may not have been literal 24-hour days—Darrow had pointed out that the sun hadn’t been made until Day #3—Bryan was beaten. By conceding to common sense so as not to alienate the majority, he validated Darrow’s defense: the Bible wasn’t literally true, and Creation might have taken millions of years, meaning that Darwin and the Bible were not mutually exclusive.