Saturday, August 21, 2010

Divine Simplicity

I am very happy to see serious attempts by philosophers to present their arguments to the public. And I'm equally happy to see a non-expert (Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels) trying to understand them. This is the first of two posts on this blog post for the New York Times philosophy blog by Gary Gutting. Since these issues, especially those discussed in this entry on divine simplicity in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Divine Simplicity, are far from clear, I thought I would attempt a little explanation and my own critique.

Gutting argues that Dawkins is not justified in assuming as a premise that God is complex, and that God's complexity requires explanation. There is some brief mention that Dawkins addressed arguments by Richard Swinburne but did not address the serious thinkers on divine simplicity. I'm glad to know that Swinburne can be excluded from the club of serious thinkers. Even so, according to Gutting, Dawkins cannot assume that God is complex, and so Dawkins's argument, that God must require at least as much explanation as the complexity of the universe that God is posited to explain, fails. Gutt enjoins Dawkins to review the serious thoughts from this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on divine simplicity.

As a first pass at divine simplicity, we might claim that God is a simple, non-physical substance and so is simple in that sense. God might have complex thoughts that occur in a substance that has no parts and so no possibility of complex relations among its parts. How this thinking might occur without any interaction of cognitive systems is all very mysterious. And immaterial substances are highly problematic entities. We have no way of verifying or falsifying claims about them. Why think, for example, that God is constituted by only one immaterial stuff rather than two? Why think that God's immaterial stuff is the same stuff from one day to the next? What does it even mean to say that immaterial stuff is the same or different? Immaterial stuff is so mysterious that it is hard to see how there could be any such substance, divine or not. These problems with the concept of a simple, immaterial substance are probably insuperable. But let's move on.

Even if God does not have parts, God is still informationally complex in the Shannon-sense that representing God's knowledge and potential behavior--assuming that God created and designed the universe and considered all possible alternatives in doing so--would require an enormous, indeed infinite, number of bits. I believe some theists will say that this is a mistaken view of God's knowledge of the world. God, it might be said, does not represent anything but knows it directly in a non-representational way. I cannot make sense of this if God considers alternative possibilities in creating the universe. Merely possible objects cannot be their own representation. So, how God's informational complexity is instantiated in God's supposedly simple substance is another significant mystery.

All this suggests that Dawkins is right that God is complex--and if not, there is no way to understand what God is and so there could be no reason to believe that God exists. Even so, it would not follow that God's existence and complexity must be explained by reference to anything outside God's own nature. A better alternative for theists is not to argue that God is informationally simple but to argue that God, or God's complexity, can be explained by God's own nature or concept. That is a key assumption of the cosmological argument and evaluation of such a claim goes far beyond my discussion here. However, the idea of divine simplicity discussed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is altogether more bizarre and probably incoherent if not logically inconsistent.

The author of the SEP piece William F. Vallicella suggests another notion of divine simplicity. This notion is that God is not a thing that has properties but is those properties, or, as Vallicella writes,

Besides lacking spatial and temporal parts, God is free of matter/form composition, potency/act composition, and existence/essence composition. There is also no real distinction between God as subject of his attributes and his attributes.

There is no distinct stuff that makes up God and the properties that God has. There is no distinction between God's nature, the properties God "has", and God's existence. God is God's properties; for God, our ordinary conception of objects as things with properties does not apply.

What could motivate such a strange and seemingly incoherent doctrine? One central consideration derives from the Anselmian definition of God as maximally perfect, as that than which no greater can be conceived. A God who was less than maximally perfect would not be an absolute reality and appropriate object of worship. A God who was less than ultimate and absolute would be an idol. Now an absolute reality must be a se, from itself, and so not dependent on anything distinct from itself for either its nature or its existence. If God had properties in the way creatures have them, however, he would be distinct from them and so dependent on them. This is the case whether one thinks of a property of x as a constituent of x, or as an entity external to x to which x is tied by the asymmetrical relation (or nonrelational tie) of instantiation. If the properties of x are constituents or ontological (proper) parts of x, then x will depend on them in the same way that any whole composed of parts depends on its parts. But if x is tied to its properties by the asymmetrical relation of instantiation, it is still the case that x will depend on them: if x is F in virtue of x's instantiation of F-ness, then F-ness is a logically prior condition of x's being F. In sum, the divine aseity would seem to require that God be rather have his attributes.

Translation: if God is "composed" of a stuff that has properties, then God would depend on that stuff and those properties in order to exist. The immaterial stuff and the divine properties would be more basic than God. But God cannot depend on anything; nothing can be more fundamental than God. So, God must not be "composed" in this way.

The author defends this view of God against the charge that it is incoherent or logically inconsistent. This is an extremely low bar, but I do not think he meets it. Or, he might meet it in the very weak sense that it might be logically possible for 2 + 2 not to equal 4. That is, if I were completely mistaken about everything I think I know about numbers, then this might somehow be logically consistent even though I could have no idea what such a claim could even mean. In this case, it might be logically possible that God be identical to God's (singular) property if I somehow was completely wrong about everything I think I know about what objects are, what God is supposed to be and what properties are.

It is at least as plausible a conclusion of the previous argument that God does not exist. Since everything that exists is "composed" in this way of substance with properties, and if God cannot be so composed, then God does not exist. Unfortunately, as nice as it would be to have such a simple argument against the existence of God, I think the assumptions of this argument are incorrect.

Do things depend for their existence on the properties and underlying stuff that "composes" them? I don't think so. First, it's not plausible that anything depends for its existence on its properties. On the Aristotelian conception, properties depend on their instantiations (the things that have them). Bob would exist whether he was tall or short. Bob does not depend on his tallness in order to exist. Possibly things have essential properties, but it's hard to see how even then the thing would depend on its properties. How could Bob depend for his existence on his humanity? Aristotle supposes that properties depend on their instances, so humanity as a property would not exist without humans to instantiate that property. Even if we do not accept Aristotle's view, it is bizarre to suggest that Bob depends for his existence on his humanity (even if Bob could not exist without being human).

It is more plausible that God's existence might depend on the stuff that makes God up. For example, we might think that humans are constituted by physical stuff that could exist even if those humans did not exist. In that case, the stuff that makes us up is more basic than we are. But this is not the sense of "constitution" Vallicella mentions.

We should not think the matter that constitutes things is more fundamental than the thing itself when we get to the most basic stuff. Humans might depend on the organs and cells that make them up, and those cells and organs might depend on the molecules and atoms that make them up. But it is a fundamentally different situation when we get to the basic constituents of the world, quarks, say. If we ever reach bottom, there will not be a stuff more basic which constitutes that bottom level. And in that case, it does not make much sense to say that a quark depends on the matter that constitutes the quark. There is no other matter (or energy) there besides the quark; there just is the quark. The quark is not "constituted" by matter and properties in any sense that makes this matter and these properties more basic. It may still be correct to say that the quark is matter with properties, but it does not follow from this that the matter of the quark exists more fundamentally than the quark and the quarkiness of it is a property that also preexists (one might say) the quark itself. This "pincushion" model of reality in which a thing is undifferentiated matter with properties imposed on it to give it structure--especially one in which the pins and the pincushion are more fundamental than the thing itself--takes us from the realm of common sense (i.e. things have properties) to the realm of highly problematic metaphysics. If I am right about this, and God is a simple substance, then there's no more basic stuff that constitutes God, and so God does not depend on God's properties and undifferentiated stuff. Vallicella continues:

A central threat to coherence is the question of how a thing could be identical to its properties. Alvin Plantinga (1980, p. 47) maintains that if God is identical to his properties, then he is a property, and they are a single property, in which case God is a single property. Given that properties are abstract entities, and abstracta are causally inert, then God is abstract and causally inert — which is of course inconsistent with the core tenet of classical theism according to which God is the personal creator and sustainer of every contingent being. No abstract object is a person or a causal agent. No abstract object can be omniscient, or indeed know anything at all. More fundamentally, no abstract object can be identical to any concrete object.

Vallicella is making a very clever move here without it being at all obvious what he's doing. This is a form of the strawman fallacy, one I call the fallacy of Spurious Specificity. This fallacy occurs when one takes only one specific idea or argument, rather than the broader set of such ideas or arguments of which it is a subset, and counters only that narrower idea. Plantinga and those arguing for the view of facts as abstract objects are not the only ones who might object to the doctrine that God is identical to God's property, and so you cannot undermine objections to the doctrine by rejecting Plantinga's view. And you cannot reasonably pretend that this debate is a matter of some obscure, debatable program of one particular philosopher. The problem with divine simplicity is not exhausted by Plantinga's argument that it entails that God is abstract. Vallicella comes close to the problem by saying that "More fundamentally, no abstract object can be identical to any concrete object."

The problem with Vallicella's account of divine simplicity is basic and obvious. It does not even make sense that a thing, being or entity, an individual object, is identical to a property. Properties are features or characteristics of things. A property cannot itself be a thing. Let's consider why philosophers even talk about properties; properties are things that are shared by multiple objects; they account for sameness or similarity of individual things. There are lots of different accounts of properties, whether they must be abstract, or whether we can understand properties completely as sets of individuals (or sets of actual and possible individuals). A theory of properties that did not somehow account for similarities among objects would not be a theory of properties at all. But the reason we talk about them in the first place is because we need to account for how two things can share something in common, how, for example, two things can both be red. If there is some property, redness, that they each have, then we have an explanation for why they are both red and how the statement "John McCain's angry visage is the same color as a ripe tomato," is true. That means that nothing can do the job of a property if it cannot, in some sense, be shared among individual things or instances of that property.

God, an individual thing, cannot be shared, exemplified, instantiated or otherwise exist in more than one thing. The reason we call them "individual things" is that they cannot be shared by other individuals (not in this sense, anyway). You might say that God is everything (in which case we are all part of the individual object that is God), or you can say that God is omnipresent (in which case that individual thing pervades the universe like a particularly invasive gas), but you cannot say that anything is an instance of God. Even God is not an instance of God but is identical to God. Even if there were only one red thing in the universe, redness would not, could not, be that thing. Redness would be a property with a unique instance, but it just makes no sense to say that being red could be identical to a red thing. (Even for the nominalist about properties, the unit set is distinct from its element.) What I'm saying is that individual, distinct, enumerable objects cannot at the same time be characteristics or qualities that can be shared by distinct individuals.

In short, the only way to understand God as a property is to throw out everything that properties are for and understand properties in your own unique way. This is a bit like saying, "Well, in your ordinary language 2 + 2 = 4, but in my vernacular, '4' refers to a rabbit's rectum, not a number, so on my way of understanding '4', 2 + 2 is not equal to 4." Fine, you can change talk of properties in this way if you want to, but when you do so, you have given up any possibility of making sensical claims that anyone else can accept.

My argument here might be little more than an incredulous stare: how can a thing be a property or a property be a thing? Those are mutually exclusive ontic categories (types of being). Properties can be shared by individuals, and individuals can exemplify properties, but neither can be identical to the other.

In sum, to say that God is the property Godness (say), is nonsensical; it contradicts everything we understand about the nature of properties. This whole construct of divine simplicity is misguided. Even though there are lots of issues philosophers discuss that he should take seriously, in this case, Dawkins has no obligation to evaluate such a bizarre theory. Gutting may as well have demanded that Dawkins, if he denies the existence of angels, must have a complete theory of angelic nature--including their pin-head-dancing proclivities--before denying their existence. Some theist arguments are too arcane, bizarre, wrong-headed or incoherent to be seriously entertained outside academia. The claim that God is identical to God's singular property is one such claim.

Plantinga, A., 1980, Does God Have a Nature?, Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Burden-Shifting Arguments and God

Never let it be said philosophers are shiftless layabouts. Indeed, we do a great deal of shifting, and it is not precisely laziness that leads us to such shifting. Nonetheless, it is often burdens, more precisely, the burden of proof we shift, and that shifting is always an attempt to take the onus off ourselves and place it on our opponent.

Gary Gutting, writing in the New York Times philosophy blog, argues that the atheist attempt at burden-shifting fails; the burden should remain on atheists, not on theists, or, at least, not exclusively on theists. Before we examine his argument, I want to make clear why philosophers care so much for shifting of burdens.

In most ball-sports--basketball, football--only the team with the ball can score, so having the ball is necessary for winning. Philosophy is not that kind of game. It's more like a game of chess if one's opponent spots you his/her queen; as long as you don't make any egregious mistakes, you are practically guaranteed a victory. Or, maybe, it's like that TV gameshow Wipeout when you've inexplicably traversed the course successfully and have the time to beat. All you have to do is make sure the people racing after you slip up or get knocked down. Philosophers want the other side to bear the burden of proof so they get to play defense, only needing to undermine the other side's arguments, without needing to prove a positive case themselves. Burden of proof matters in philosophy the way it does in a criminal trial: all you need to do is show that the prosecution has not made its case and the defendant is (one hopes) declared innocent. Given that any philosopher worth his/her salt can find flaws in even the best arguments, it's easy to see why the burden matters. If S bears the of proof, S has to present clear, complete, compelling evidence and overcome every niggling objection his/her opponent can conjure up. If S's opponent bears the burden of proof, S gets to be the one raising niggling (or, in extreme cases, actually compelling) objections. If both sides bear the burden of proof, the game most likely ends in stalemate. Thus, philosophers try to shift the burden of proof to the opposition.

Traditionally, then, the burden of proof is taken to be on the side of one making a positive existential claim, a claim that such-and-such exists. This, it is thought, is only fair because it is theoretically easy to prove that something does exist. You just find it and show it to people. On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to prove a negative existential. There are few circumstances in which it would be reasonable to ask someone to prove that something does not exist. It's possible to disprove the existence of the Loch Ness monster if you could, say, drain the entire lake and show that Nessie was not left flopping in the ooze. In practice, however, such disproof is unlikely. And with generous escape clauses, it is impossible. Disproving the existence of Bigfoot is rendered nearly impossible by adding that Bigfoot is shy and elusive.

On the point of the present inquiry, to disprove the existence of a perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God, it ought to be sufficient to show that there is one instance of totally unnecessary evil, one case of suffering that served no greater good or purpose (or to show that God would not be morally vicious enough to torture people in order to achieve such a greater good). Theists, however, claim that, for all we know, all the suffering we see really is necessary for some greater good that God has a moral obligation to create despite our inability to see it. Thus, God's working in mysterious ways renders such empirical falsification impossible. Such a generous escape clause means that disproof of God's existence is impossible, and, for basic fairness' sake, it would appear that the burden of proof should be borne by those attempting to prove God's existence, not on those attempting to prove God's non-existence. (And with an uncountably infinite number of epistemic possibilities, shouldn't we err on the side of caution and only add things to our ontology only when necessary? Ontological explosion appears the only alternative.)

Now we come to Gutting's burden-shifting argument. He writes,
Of course, philosophical discussions have not resolved the question of God’s existence. Even the best theistic and atheistic arguments remain controversial. Given this, atheists may appeal (as many of the comments on my blog did) to what we might call the “no-arguments argument.” To say that the universe was created by a good and powerful being who cares about us is an extraordinary claim, so improbable to begin with that we surely should deny it unless there are decisive arguments for it (arguments showing that it is highly probable). Even if Dawkins’ arguments against theism are faulty, can’t he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God’s existence?

He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God’s existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.

But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.

The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable atheism.

Here's where the importance of burden-shifting becomes obvious. Gutting must know that the testimony of believers based on their mystical experiences, revelations or direct awareness of some divinity are highly problematic. No responsible philosopher would rely on these as evidence for the existence of God. Here are just two quick reasons:

1. The experiences are not intersubjectively verifiable: they rely on no known perceptual apparatus that others can use to verify or falsify the claims.

2. The experiences are inconsistent: people from different religious traditions have qualitatively similar experiences but interpret them differently according to the religious tradition of which they are part. Christian mystics see God; Buddhists see their connection to all reality without a God; Voodoo practioners see Loa. The experience means what it is interpreted to mean within the tradition itself.

My point is that this direct awareness is not reliable evidence for the existence of God and so could not be considered an argument for God's existence, but Gutting does not expect it to do that work. Instead, all Gutting wants this evidence to do is shift the burden of proof onto the atheist. Given, then, a competent theist who gets to play defense, the atheist cannot win the game.

I have two things to say here. First, we should find this move highly suspicious because this burden-shifting argument against the atheist starting point really plays the role of an argument for theism. If something functions like an argument for P, it ought to be acceptable to evaluate it as an argument for P.

Second, and this is true even if one rejects my first point, this evidence should not be taken seriously enough even to shift the burden of proof to the atheist. Lots of people have claimed to see Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster or space aliens. In fact, they even relied on perceptual experiences that, while imperfect, at least we understand and have the capacity to evaluate. Does this mean we should suspend judgment about the existence of Bigfoot or Nessie? Obviously not. We require good evidence before we shift the burden from the positive existential claim here, and we should require no less for God.

So, God, the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good creator and designer of the universe who exists eternal and unchanging outside time, knows and sees everything directly throughout all time and space, yet nonetheless intercedes in the workings of the universe, who somehow maintains the universe in existence at every moment, who cares about and loves us, while inexplicably allowing millions to suffer and die for apparently no purpose whatsoever, lacks intrinsic probability. I don't know exactly what "intrinsic probability" is, but I'd say that being doesn't just lack intrinsic probability, it's outright intrinsically improbable. That's a damn sight more intrinsically improbable than Bigfoot.

Gutting needs to shift the burden of proof given, as he admits, the inconclusive nature of arguments for (and against) the existence of God. He wants testimonial evidence from direct awareness of God, mystical experiences of the divine, to shift that burden while (presumably) reckoning these experiences to be inadequate as arguments for the existence of God. However, the burden does not budge based on this knowably inadequate evidence. Showing that people sometimes have experiences they interpret as having a divine cause does not imply that people (e.g. theists) bear any less obligation to prove the experiences accurate. When my students claim to see ghosts, that is no reason (given all the problems with such experiences) to suspend judgment about the existence of ghosts until such a time as I can explain what the nature of their misperception was. Denying the existence of ghosts is still the rational thing to do even when someone claims to have seen them.

Before leaving Gutting, however, I want to highlight his connection of this issue to contemporary philosophy of mind. Gutting notes that Dawkins could hitch the improbability of God to the probability of materialism. If there's good reason to think everything is material, then there's good reason to deny that God exists absent compelling argument to the contrary.

But what is the evidence for materialism? Presumably, that scientific investigation reveals the existence of nothing except material things. But religious believers will plausibly reply that science is suited to discover only what is material (indeed, the best definition of “material” may be just “the sort of thing that science can discover”). They will also cite our experiences of our own conscious life (thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.) as excellent evidence for the existence of immaterial realities that cannot be fully understood by science.

One hopes that Gutting is not serious here, that he is just throwing things to see what sticks, because it's bloody obvious that "our experiences of our own conscious life" is simply not good evidence that our minds are immaterial. Our first-person experience has no access to the real nature of anything, including our minds. How something appears to us is no indication of what it ultimately is. Moreover, it is increasingly unclear to me why our experiences are supposed to appear to be immaterial in the first place. How, precisely, is it that our experience of our minds could reveal that they are immaterial? (I know, I know, lack of spatial location, etc. But I just cannot take this seriously.) Obviously, they do not appear to be immaterial any more than they appear to be material. Even Nagel, in his highly flawed argument in "What Is It Like To Be a Bat?" only ever suggests agnosticism about materialism.

At this point, the dispute between theists and atheists morphs into one of the most lively (and difficult) of current philosophical debates—that between those who think consciousness is somehow reducible to material brain-states and those who think it is not. This debate is far from settled and at least shows that materialism is not something atheists can simply assert as an established fact. It follows that they have no good basis for treating the existence of God as so improbable that it should be denied unless there is decisive proof for it. This in turn shows that atheists are at best entitled to be agnostics, seriously doubting but not denying the existence of God.

Gutting commits a strawman/false dilemma here. The alternatives are not reduction and dualism. There are non-reductive accounts of the mind that are not substance dualist accounts. The "lively" current debate is not between reductionists who think that conscious is a brain state and dualists who think that it is not. Dualism, the view that the mind consists of a non-physical, immaterial stuff that "occupies" and perhaps interacts with a physical brain, is effectively defunct in contemporary philosophy of mind. "It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisibule." The lively debate is between varieties of materialism, reductive vs. non-reductive, not between materialism and dualism. Is the mind identical to the specific type of physical brain one finds in humans and similar organisms or could there be other types of physical entities (say, properly programmed computers) that also can accurately be described as thinking things? The question debated is only which variety of materialism best coheres with the evidence and our pre-theoretic intuitions, not whether materialism is true at all. If Dawkins' argument for the improbability of God depends on the debate in philosophy about the tenability of dualism, then Dawkins is on very firm ground indeed.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bob Somerby--Sometimes Still a Dick

A friend of mine recently championed Bob Somerby's criticisms of Rachel Maddow, who is, in my not-fully-educated opinion, the most careful, articulate and reasonable person on television news, so I took up the Somerby challenge to see whether he was onto something in his criticisms.

Hence: my review of Somerby's comments today. The column had nothing to do with Rachel Maddow but, assuming this column was a random sample of Somerby's work, I might draw some general conclusions.

Somerby's discussion has two parts. In the first part, he criticizes Greta Van Susteren's misleading presentation of Michelle Obama's trip and her implication that the taxpayers pick up unnecessarily large amounts of the bill for the trip. I have no intention of criticizing Somerby for this. She does use some misleading language that does produce the effect he implies.

The second, much longer part, criticizes certain liberals for their use of the term "Racism". Somerby's point is that using that term to describe even fairly reprehensible thinking is too easy, "the simplest move a liberal can make", and falsely satisfying since it only makes liberals feel better about themselves while anyone who feels sympathy for the other side will see the recipient of the insult as a victim and be turned off to the rest of the liberal critique. So far, so good. No one should "drop the R-bomb" lightly. But what about the specifics of Somerby's critique?

Somerby singles out Howard Dean for three basic criticisms in recent appearances, in particular, on Keith Olbermann's show. First, he quibbles about Dean's language and generally criticizes his lack of preparation. Second, he reads Dean's mind and concludes that Dean applies a double standard in his use of the term "Racist", using it for his social lessers but not to his social equals. Third, he suggests that Dean should not have brought up the charged issue of racism at all. The first critique is basically justified but trivial; the second critique is not justified; the third point may be correct, but it is not obvious that Dean has done this in an offensive manner.

Here's the problematic clip from Dean on Countdown:

DEAN: It probably is a good idea because I’m sure they’ve polled for it. Here’s the problem with the Tea Party: There are really two Tea Parties. There are a bunch of people in the Tea Party that are reasonable, thoughtful people who are really worried about the deficits.

There are also a lot of people in the Tea Parties who carry signs and saying Obama is a Nazi. And [chuckling] it was somebody today said the marriage thing out in California was Soviet-style takeover of marriage. I mean, these people—you know, this is exactly what middle-of-the-road people, this is why they abandoned the Republican Party to elect President Obama.

Somerby's critique follows immediately:
Are there “a bunch of people in the Tea Party that are reasonable, thoughtful people who are really worried about the deficits?” Presumably yes, though it all depends on what the meaning of “a bunch” is. On the other hand: Are there really “a lot of people” carrying signs saying Obama is a Nazi? That’s a very strong bit of denigration, rather casually tossed on the pile by a very casual player. From there, a chuckling Dean moved to an anecdote—an anecdote in which “somebody today said the marriage thing out in California was Soviet-style takeover of marriage.” For the record, he was apparently referring to Maggie Gallagher, a long-time conservative columnist/activist, past president of the National Organization for Marriage, a conservative group which opposes same-sex marriage. (You know? Like Obama? And Hillary Clinton?) That morning, Gallagher’s newest column had appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. It included a passage which Dean overstated, giving us rubes a good laugh.

So, Somerby appears to think that Dean should be more precise in his terms. "A bunch" and "a lot of people" are imprecise. Is a bunch more than a lot? Or is a lot more than a bunch? I don't know, and it doesn't matter to Dean's point.

Somerby thinks that Dean is too quick to paint the Tea Party movement as racist based on an indeterminate number of offensive (racist?) signs. Dean's point is that the Tea Party movement, and the conservative movement more generally (the Tea Party did not exist during Obama's run for the Presidency, so Dean must have been referring to something more general), include extremists whose rhetoric offends middle America. Does any of Somerby's quibbling about "a bunch" and "a lot" affect this point? Does Somerby even deny that such antics turn off most Americans?

Perhaps the reference to the "passage which Dean overstated" will be the smoking gun that will show Dean's errors. Dean characterizes this as the claim that the judge's ruling on Proposition 8 is a "Soviet-style takeover of marriage".

Well, here's what Maggie Gallagher actually wrote:

Parents will find that, almost Soviet-style, their own children will be re-educated using their own tax dollars to disrespect their parents' views and values.

I see. Gallagher doesn't call it a Soviet-style takeover of marriage, but an "almost" Soviet-style "re-educat[ion]" of our children to reject their parents' "views and values" (presumably their religious views). Dean's understanding is a bit inaccurate here, but, if anything, his understanding is less extreme and more relevant. The judge didn't rule anything about people's values (see this Glenn Greenwald column for the explanation) and taking over marriage seems a lot less extreme than re-educating all our children to reject our world-views. It's hard to see Dean's comment as overstatement, and the extremism of this view and rhetoric may well turn people off.

So, was Dean unprepared? Somerby's criticisms are largely quibbles, but Dean was also quite vague, so, probably, he was. Talking heads on TV are repeatedly called upon to opine about things about which they are not truly expert. And probably Dean was not the person to go to for an analysis of race relations in America. But, if you recall, he used to have something of an interest in electoral politics, and that was clearly the point of Dean's commentary. I would agree in general terms that TV talkers are often unprepared and speaking outside their area of expertise, but Dean doesn't deserve any special criticism here.

Somerby's second point (in two parts) is more substantive, but not adequately supported.

Dean is quick to let us know that these high-ranking people aren’t racists, even when they play race cards in the most egregious fashion, as George H. W. Bush did in 1988. . . .
You see, Dean is from old money, and he’s from Yale—and so are both the Bushes. Dean is a famous political celebrity—and so is Gingrich, who plays every race card “Fox News” deals, except he plays them harder.

Darlings! Dean is from Yale, and so are the Bushes—and so, by law, they can’t be racist! But he drops implied R-bombs on everyone else, in a very casual manner.

This is very bad on the merits. Beyond that, it’s the dumbest possible way to do politics—to seek the votes of all those “reasonable, thoughtful people who are really worried about the deficits.” It’s also an ugly, unintelligent way to pimp yourself out about race.

I don't know how Somerby knows what is going on in Dean's mind. Dean deliberately refuses to call four people--Bush I, Bush II, Newt Gingrich and Chris Wallace--racist. Of course, Dean doesn't actually call anyone a racist. Dean singles out these individuals as non-racist but then contrasts them with "extremist" and "fringe elements" who turned many people against the Republican party and into the arms of the Democrats. Perhaps Dean means to imply that these other people are racists, but since he does not actually call them racists, it's not obvious that this was his intention. More problematically, there's no way to say why Dean singles out these non-racists.

It's unclear what Somerby wants. Does Somerby want Dean to call Bush I and Gingrich racists? Wasn't the point that this turns people off?

My point, though, is about Dean's refusal to drop the R-bomb. Is this based on shared social class? There's no way to know. Dean might just be squeamish about calling any individual, no matter their class, racist. He might also think that calling any particular person a racist would result in a media firestorm. (After all, he was pilloried just for rallying his troops after an electoral loss.) Maybe he didn't even really intend to imply that anyone was a racist; he may just have wanted to clarify for these individuals. Somerby simply has no basis for imputing any class-based discrimination; he's not entitled to read Dean's mind in this way.

On the third point, Somerby may be right that Dean should not even mention racism or race, and in this case it may not have been justified. I do, however, think people who makes signs of Barack Obama as a witchdoctor with a bone through his nose merit the appellation.

Somerby's criticism of Dean comes down to quibbling about language, imputing class-based reasoning to Dean without justification, and bringing up racism when it wasn't necessary. Only on the third point does Somerby have much of a case, but it's not so obvious that Dean even intended to drop "R-bombs".

It seems odd to single out Dean for a relatively minor offense when many others merit much more criticism. It appears that Somerby has bought into the "pox on both their houses" high-Broderism that blights our political discourse. And that's why I don't read the Daily Howler any more.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Notes from the Road

Five things that are worse than the Bataan Death March:
(5) People who think that driving on the highway is a race, and their only goal is to stay in front of me. I start to pass, they speed up. They pass me and then slow down. Why is being in front of me so exciting?

(4) Tollbooths with an "Exact Change Only" lane but with posted cost only visible when you reach the tollbooth. So you can't know whether you have the exact change until it's too late.

(3) Birmingham, Alabama.

(2) 55 mile per hour speed limit on the Interstate. Didn't Sammy Haggar rid us of this scourge forever?

(1) Traveling across the rural South without a CD player but only radio stations to listen to. The only radio stations are Jesus, Country and Jesus/Country (where, I think, Jesus takes your dog, your horse and your girlfriend).

(Sorry, can't figure out how to find the This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow for the Bataan Death March joke.)