While it’s true that arguing to convince others is pretty hit or miss in the real world, this doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Certainly we’re faced with numerous difficulties in getting agreement on the kinds of facts we can all accept, particularly when this involves reliance on information based on what others tell us or report. But there is at least one sure way to make progress in an argument and that’s to show that the other’s viewpoint is incoherent.
What’s that? It’s when we apply different rules to similar situations, or apply the same rules differently, although we have no basis for that . . . or when we’re just unclear about what we’re trying to say but say it anyway.
The Left tells us, for instance, that there was no reason to go to war to remove Saddam Hussein because he wasn’t really a danger to us . . . but not to worry because sanctions were containing him anyway (why bother if he wasn’t a danger?). Of course, they add, those same sanctions needed to be removed because they were harming the people of Iraq. Besides, Saddam didn’t have the WMD we thought we’d find, and which were a major reason advanced by the administration for acting quickly against him so the sanctions really weren’t necessary.
If Saddam didn’t have the WMD, why do those on the Left think that was so? The UN inspections, they tell us, and the sanctions (which needed to be removed) no doubt did their job!
But what if we had finally removed the sanctions as those on the Left were demanding? What would have happened then? Well, Saddam didn’t have any WMD at that point, says the Left, as we now know, so we should certainly have removed the sanctions, if only as a long overdue humanitarian gesture. But Saddam used to have WMD, didn’t he? Well, yes, they’ll admit (though grudgingly). But the inspections regime and the sanctions (which were a humanitarian horror and needed to be removed) had ended all that.
But if he could get them once, couldn’t he get them again, once the inspection regime and sanctions were removed? Sure, but then we could simply have re-instituted the sanctions (though they were a humanitarian travesty which needed to be lifted).
Now comes Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson writing the other day in The New York Times about President Bush’s inaugural speech. Bush, of course, made history by making that speech a call for advancing freedom around the world. But what did Professor Patterson have to say about it? After misrepresenting the administration’s argument for removing Saddam by wrongly characterizing it in the guise of a flawed syllogism, which did not reflect the real administration argument, he got right down to it: “In the twentieth century,” he writes, “two versions of freedom emerged in America . . . .The modern liberal version emphasizes civil liberties, political participation and social justice.” But “most ordinary Americans,” he adds, “view freedom in different terms.”
They do? Aside from the question of who these “ordinary Americans” might be and how they differ from more exalted types, like the professor, who hold his “modern liberal” idea of freedom, the obvious question is whether there really is such a difference. Are there really two notions of freedom at work here and is one somehow superior to the other as the professor alleges?
The modern notion, Professor Patterson assures us, is the view “formally extolled by the federal government, debated by philosophers and taught in schools . . . the version most treasured by foreigners who struggle for freedom in their own countries.” But this view is not the one George W. Bush has in mind. It isn’t?