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Friday, September 17, 2010

How to Ruin Your Political Book: Making Obviously Fallacious Arguments

No, I'm not talking about Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly or Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity or their democratic equivalents (Keith Olberman, Rachel Maddow, et al.).  In fact, this post is based on a book that is, I think, far less controversial than the usual fair from the authors I just mentioned--a book that, by all accounts, should be fairly easy to argue without being clouded by bias or political affiliation.  I'm talking about Lies the Government Told You:  Myth, Power, and Deception in American History by Judge Andrew P. Napolitano.  It's a book with an innocuous cover (friendly, might be the word--see the bottom of this post for more on the cover, which apparently comes in two versions) and a forward by Ron Paul, who, at least to me, is more reasonable than most politicians, especially if you base that only on the fact that he's one of the few politicians to have publicly stated that he thinks the fiasco over the "9/11 Mosque" is based on an innate desire by some to paint Islam with a broad brush.  The book's cover synopsis even paints it as a book that might be of interest to anyone who wants to understand the extensive history of our political system and its persistence to lie, without clear ties to any particular political slant:

What new crisis will the federal government manufacture in order to acquire more power over individuals? What new lies will it tell?

Throughout our history, the federal government has lied to send our children off to war, lied to take our money, lied to steal our property, lied to gain our trust, and lied to enhance its power over us. Not only does the government lie to us, we lie to ourselves. We won't admit that each time we let the government get away with misleading us, we are allowing it to increase in size and power and decrease our personal liberty.

In acquiescing to the government's continuous fraudulent behavior, we bear partial responsibility for the erosion of our individual liberties and the ever-expanding federal regulation of private behavior. This book attacks the culture in government that facilitates lying, and it challenges readers to recognize that culture, to confront it, and to be rid of it.
You might say that the book isn't really saying anything we didn't already know.  After all, our politicians routinely lie to us and to their colleagues on all manner of issues, so much so that it's often hard to discern what is and is not the truth.

But then you open the book and read the first couple of pages of the introduction, in which Judge Napolitano says as an example of his argument:
[A] male drug dealer with a heavy foreign accent and minimal understanding of English stupidly tells his FBI agent that his name is Nancy Reagan, and he is arrested, prosecuted, and jailed for lying to the government.  Another FBI agent tells the cultural guru Martha Stewart, in an informal conversation in the presence of others, that she is not a target of a federal criminal probe, and she replies that she did not sell a certain stock on a certain day.  They both lied, but she went to jail and the FBI agent kept his job.
If you didn't do a double-take when reading this paragraph, then you might have missed the logical problems here.  There are two primary issues:

  1. In the first example, the FBI agent hasn't committed any crime, nor committed a moral crime, which you might attach to the ethics of lying.  In fact, the drug dealer is the one committing the crime, and while his inability to speak English might be a product of his ignorance of the law, he is still to be held accountable for the laws he is breaking--in this case, there are two:  selling drugs and lying to a federal officer (which, correct me if I'm wrong, is similar to committing perjury on the witness stand).

    In the second example, one should be questioning why Martha Stewart would tell an FBI agent anything to do with the crime she says she hasn't committed, which speaks more about her intelligence in the above situation than about the ethical or moral qualities of the agent or the government.  It doesn't really matter if the FBI agent lied in this case, since she should have reasonably assumed that anything she might have said in the presence of said agent might have been used against her in some future case.  He is a witness to the lie, regardless of his part in the acquisition of said lie.
  2. The drug dealer and Martha Stewart have both committed crimes punishable by the law, and while there are ethical implications for the actions of the FBI agents, the fact still remains that the FBI agents aren't lying about something they shouldn't be doing.  FBI agents investigate things, and are expected to do so for the sake of the country (though, understandably, they don't always do a good job).  The author seems to be implying that Martha Stewart's lie and subsequent punishment are somehow unjust in the face of the FBI agent's lie, as if somehow two wrongs make a right.  Martha Stewart in this logic, then, shouldn't have been held accountable for violating economic laws, and the same seems to apply to the drug dealer.

    (Note:  In no way am I suggesting that lying on the part of the FBI agent is an appropriate action.  That's an entirely different issue than the one I'm trying to raise here.)
It's at this point that I stopped reading.  I don't generally read political books, but if you're going to write one, you should at least make arguments that have some sense to them (and perhaps that's a mistaken hope on my part).  Having an obviously fallacious argument in the first few pages of the book is a great way to toss away any credibility you might have received from everything else that preceded the reading experience (Ron Paul's forward, the cover, perhaps, the synopsis, and so on).  I think it's even more shocking that a former Supreme Court Judge is the author.  Either our standards have fallen to the wayside when it comes to court appointees, or since his retirement from judicial authority, Napolitano has simply lost a few marbles.  Then again, maybe if the information on the ebook had indicated to me that he works for FOX News, I might have saved myself the trouble.

Note:  Apparently there are two versions of the cover.  There is Happy Napolitano:
And slightly unamused Napolitano:
I think it's fair to say that the latter is more appropriate for the book, considering the topic.  What do you think?

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