Posts tagged Joel Stein

Dr. Strangeread, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Our Troops

Robert Bidinotto is pissed off. He’s pissed off at me in particular and he’s pissed off at anti-American scumbags in general. So much so that I have been denounced as, inter alia, a scumbag, a liar, a sophist, disingenuous, a complete fraud, and incapable of arguing straight up and honestly. So much so that I have been informed that I am no longer welcome to comment at Bidinotto’s blog. Others have gotten tagged with most or all of these terms, and just for good measure some of them have been denounced as bitches, contemptible, bottom feeders, and complete lunatics. Here’s why.

Late last month, Bidinotto was pissed off that Joel Stein, Leftist columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a column in which he took issue with the popular cant of supporting the troops.

Leftist columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Joel Stein, has become notorious during the past couple of days for writing, I don’t support our troops. Not I don’t support the war in Iraq or even I don’t support the war against Islamist terrorism. No — I don’t support our troops.

And the scumbag means it. Sure, we could blame just Bush, he wrote. But blaming the president is a little too easy. The truth is that people who pull triggers are ultimately responsible, whether they’re following orders or not. An army of people making individual moral choices may be inefficient, but an army of people ignoring their morality is horrifying.

Yup. He’s blaming the troops.

But he’s not the only one.

Then follows a long invective, frequently updated with new bellows of outrage, against libertarians — mostly those in the orbit of LewRockwell.com and the Ludwig von Mises Institute — who have similar things to say, or other things that don’t bear much relation to Stein’s column but strike him as outrageous anti-American scumbaggery. In reply to all this, I asked two days ago (2006-02-03):

From Rad Geek on 02/03/06

Here’s the comment of Joel Stein’s that Bindinotto [sic] singles out, apparently for special outrage: The truth is that people who pull triggers are ultimately responsible, whether they’re following orders or not. An army of people making individual moral choices may be inefficient, but an army of people ignoring their morality is horrifying.

Isn’t this true?

To which Bidinotto replied (2006-02-04):

From Bidinotto on 02/04/06

Hey Geek, do you know what question begging means? It means assuming what it is that you’re supposed to be proving.

Let me spell it out for you: You are assuming (1) that the American soldiers are acting immorally, and (2) that they know their activities to be immoral, but are ignoring that fact. Neither is the case. So — no, the last statement is not applicable.

I point out to one side that I have a long-standing professional interest in the teaching of logic and that I’ve written philosophical work on the nature of question-begging fallacies. Not that that means anything. In any case, since this didn’t answer my question, I replied yesterday (2006-02-04):

From Rad Geek on 02/04/06

Bidinotto:“Let me spell it out for you: You are assuming (1) that the American soldiers are acting immorally, and (2) that they know their activities to be immoral, but are ignoring that fact.

No, I’m not. I’m asking you whether or not it is true that individual soldiers bear at least partial moral responsibility for the actions they carry out, even when they are acting on orders. And further whether large-scale surrender of individual conscience under military orders (whenever it happens) is horrifying. Neither I nor the passage I asked you about says [sic] anything at all about whether in fact the conduct of soldiers in the Iraq War specifically is immoral.

(And yes, I realize that the rest of the article does make that point. So what? The question is about the passage that you singled out for excoriation, not the rest of the article.)

Bidinotto: Neither is the case. So — no, the last statement is not applicable.

I didn’t ask whether it was applicable to the Iraq War or not. I asked whether it is true or false.

Bidinotto came around to the question and added one of his own (2006-02-04):

From Bidinotto on 02/04/06

EVERYONE bears moral responsibility for his or her actions. Soldiers, too. And in fact the disobedience of soldiers to improper orders is a time-honored tradition. So is the prosecution of those who give, and follow, transparently improper orders. Remember Lt. Calley in ‘Nam? Hell, what about the Abu Graib prison abuse?

But none of that is what Stein’s disgusting piece was about, as you well know and acknowledge. His I don’t support the troops was about the troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq; it was they whom he calumnied as horrifying by declaring that they were ignoring their morality; and THAT was what I indeed target for special outrage.

Now a question for you: in the context of Iraq, do you agree with Stein that our troops are acting immorally — and knowingly so?

Which I then answered, with a clarification of the point I was interested in:

From Rad Geek on 02/04/06

Now a question for you: in the context of Iraq, do you agree with Stein that our troops are acting immorally — and knowingly so?

I think that some of them are and others aren’t; the issue is complicated by the fact that soldiers are not free to stop participating in the war and thus some of them are acting under duress. Those that are willingly doing it are, I think, willingly participating in evil, and I see no reason to celebrate them for that or sanctimoniously declare my support for them on that account (even if they do things that require a lot of physical or intellectual skill, and even if they do things that are very daring).

If that makes me an anti-American scumbag, so be it; my main concern here, though, is that the argument over that should be played from where it lies. Your real complaint here isn’t that Stein, Rockwell, Snider et al. don’t support the troops. It’s that they don’t support the war in Iraq. Fine; that’s an argument to be had. But fuming about the fact that people who already consider the war to be an unjustifiable campaign of State murder afortiori consider those foot soldiers who willingly carry it out to be murderers, really seemsto me to be a bit much. The debate is better served by arguing over the premises, not shouting back and forth over the conclusion.

To which Bidinotto replied earlier today (2006-02-05):

From Bidinotto on 02/05/06

So, Geekie, now you admit that what I said earlier WAS true: You are assuming (1) that the American soldiers are acting immorally, and (2) that they know their activities to be immoral, but are ignoring that fact.

Initially, in reply, you said No, I’m not — maintaining that you were not referring to soldiers in Iraq, but to generic soldiers who blindly follow orders.

But now you admit that all along you WERE referring to our soldiers’s activities in Iraq, and that Those that are willingly doing it are, I think, willingly participating in evil… You now admit that you consider those soldiers to be murderers.

In short, in trying to get my original response, you lied.

I do not welcome sophists who argue disingenuously, just to try to score debating points. Besides being an anti-American scumbag, Geekie, you have revealed yourself to be a fraud, and any future comments by you will be deleted. And should you, Betsy, or similar sorts try to sneak in here under assumed names, you will only underscore the fact that you are complete frauds who cannot argue straight up and honestly.

Second, Geekie, don’t tell me what my real complaint is with Stein, Rockwell, you, et al. I made it very clear in this post that I have friends and colleagues who strongly oppose the war in Iraq; but they remain friends and colleagues precisely because they do NOT mock, insult, and belittle our SOLDIERS over that policy disagreement.

No, Geekie, my targets in this post are anti-American scumbags like you, who DO sully American troops.

Got it?

Everyone else: got it?

Since I’m no longer welcome to post comments at Bidinotto’s website, I’ll mention a couple of points here.

First, a point about logic and language. It’s not accurate to say that I’m assuming that American troops are acting immorally, and that they’re doing so knowingly. I’m concluding that on the basis of an argument. The argument is mostly left unexpressed in my comments at Bidinotto’s blog; but that brings us to the second point: the reason it is left unexpressed is that nothing turns on it in the discussion with Bidinotto. The passage from Stein that Bidinotto singles out for outrage is true — and Bidinotto later concedes that it is true — whether or not the principle set out in it is (as Stein thinks it is, and Bidinotto does not) applicable to the situation of those soldiers who are willingly fighting in Iraq. (I think it’s important to note that not all soldiers fighting in Iraq are doing so willingly, in any meaningful sense. But that’s a side issue.) That’s all I was asking, and all I was interested in; There is a difference between stating that you’re going to discuss a principle without applying it to a particular situation, and stating that you’re going to discuss a principle that doesn’t apply to that particular situation. The question (and my implied endorsement of the principle) presupposed nothing (neither a Yes or a No) about its applicability in this particular case. Which is what I was saying. The invective against my dishonesty and fraudulence is, thus, based on something hard to distinguish from wilful misreading.

Logic lesson for the day: in order for an argument to beg the question, the argument must first be made. Or at least alluded to. Or something.

Second, the fact that Bidinotto is willing to bestow sentimental praise on some opponents of the Iraq war is not even remotely to the point. Here is a rough version of the argument being used by the folks that he is outraged at:

  1. The things done in the prosecution of the Iraq War are evil.
  2. There are some (many) American soldiers who willingly do the things done in the prosecution of the Iraq War.
  3. If soldiers willingly do things that are evil, they bear (at least some) moral responsibility for them.
  4. You shouldn’t support people who bear (at least some) moral responsibility for doing things that are evil.
  5. Therefore, there are some (many) American soldiers you shouldn’t support.

As far as I can tell, this is a valid deductive argument (if somewhat roughly expressed). Bidinotto strongly disagrees with the conclusion; and he’s pretty pissed off about those who would draw it. But what is it that he disagrees with in the argument? He explicitly states that he agrees with 3. 2 is a matter of manifest empirical fact. He doesn’t say anything one way or the other about 4 in this article, but as an Objectivist it’s unlikely that he’d want to deny it. So which premise does that leave in dispute: (1), the premise that the things done in the prosecution of the Iraq War are evil. If you accept all of the premises but don’t accept the conclusion, then you’re being inconsistent. If you avoid the conclusion only by rejecting premise 1, then the real issue in the debate just isn’t the scumbaggery of failing to support our troops. It’s the damned war. Acting as if your decision to sanction or not sanction the actions of American soldiers in Iraq should be insulated from any moral considerations about the propriety of the ongoing use of militarized violence in Iraq, or the direct individual roles that the soldiers play in carrying out the force, or the individual decisions that they make to comply or not to comply with that policy, requires you to either (1) deny one of the other premises (i.e., to give up on the idea that you shouldn’t sanction willing participation in evil, or to give up on the idea that individual soldiers are morally accountable for their actions under the banner of war); or (2) blank out. Neither of these is an option that should recommend itself to rational and civilized people.

It’s one thing to get pissed off about deep disagreements of moral principle over the nature, justice, and effects of the Iraq War. It’s quite another to fume at people for refusing to hypocritically profess to support for our troops when they have concluded that some (many) of those troops are willing participants in evil.

There is no nobility in blanking out the conclusions of your premises, and no honor in palavering hypocrisy. Modus ponens is a tough cookie.

That’s all I’m saying.

Update 2006-02-09: I fixed an issue of sentence order in the first paragraph.