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March 20, 2005 - The Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle?

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Arianna Huffington is the nationally syndicated columnist who lives out here, a few miles down Sunset in Brentwood – born in Greece, raised in England, went to Cambridge and got a masters in economics and was president of their debating society, the Cambridge Union.  Yeah, she ran for governor out here two or three years ago - and got clobbered.  Folks liked the muscle-bound Austrian bodybuilder better.  Hey – it’s a no-one-likes-a-smarty-pants thing.  Or perhaps out here we prefer simple-minded somewhat inarticulate but forceful German-types to glib Greeks with fancy educations.  Whatever.  She used to be right-side conservative.  Now she’s left-side progressive.  A decade ago her husband then, a staunch Republican, Michael Huffington, ran for the senate, spending thirty million dollars of his own money - and got clobbered.  Michael then left Arianna – he came out of the closet and moved in with his male companion.  Life is strange.  And Republicans are fun.


And this - Arianna Huffington’s biography of Pablo Picasso, “Picasso: Creator and Destroyer” (1988) was a bestseller, translated into sixteen languages.  The book got made into a Merchant-Ivory movie for Warner Brothers – with Anthony Hopkins as Picasso.  Think “Silence of the Lambs” in early twentieth century Montmartre.  Awful film. 


Her latest two books are "Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption are Undermining America” (2003) and "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America" (April 2004) – so you get the idea.  Now she’s buddies with Al Franken.  She seems to be on all the talks shows.


Anyway, her column this last week was amusing.  The idea is that the election in Iraq may or may not mean much – and it probably doesn’t vindicate the war.  Whether it does depends on what you remember from your logic courses in college.  Title?  “The Washington Establishment Fails Logic 101” – not nice.


The opening:


I just got back from a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth. Didn't ride the Teacups, though. Because I wasn't in Disneyland but in Washington, D.C., where everyone is walking on air, swept away by the Beltway's latest consensus: President Bush was right on Iraq, and, as a result, Tomorrowland in the Middle East will feature an E-ticket ride on the Matterhorn of freedom and democracy.

The political and cultural establishment has gone positively Goofy over this notion. In the corridors of power, Republicans are high-fiving, and Democrats are nodding in agreement and patting themselves on the back for how graciously they've been able to accept the fact that they were wrong. The groupthink in the nation's capital would be the envy of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.

Even heroes of mine like Jon Stewart and my buddy Bill Maher have hopped on the Bush bandwagon. "I've been supportive of President Bush," Maher told Wolf Blitzer this week, "now that I think Iraq is turning around. . . . He had a bigger and better idea than the rest of us."

How did this cozy unanimity come to pass? Is it something in the water, a byproduct of Bush gutting the EPA? But then I thought back to my time at Cambridge, taking a course in elementary logic, studying the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle. For those of you in need of a refresher on the concept, here's an example from the first chapter of my Logic 101 textbook: "All oaks are trees. All elms are trees. Therefore, all oaks are elms." See how easily you can go from point A to point Z, jumping over all the important steps in between?

So: We invaded Iraq. Change is afoot in the Middle East. Therefore, the Middle East is changing because we invaded Iraq. Q.E.D. G.W.B.


And this – “The Bush White House has been masterful at this infantile reasoning: America is free and democratic. Terrorists attacked America. Therefore, terrorists hate freedom and democracy. And that's all anyone needs to know.”


Is this infantile reasoning – or she hates America?  You decide.


The core, after her evidence (read that yourself) –


As much as I hate to rain on the president's Democracy Parade, the fact remains: Holding an election is not the same thing as establishing a democracy. Just ask the people of Russia. Or Algeria. Or Haiti. Or Africa. Indeed, there have been more than 50 elections in Africa over the past decade and a half--but the continent is not exactly a hotbed of political freedom.

The truth is, the vast majority of Arabs remain skeptical of U.S. motives. So as long as the idea of democracy is equated with America--and promoted by America--it will be much harder for real democracy to take root in the Middle East. Especially when it is democracy accompanied by 150,000 U.S. troops.

And can we really blame the Arab world for its skepticism about the United States' sudden commitment to freedom and democracy? After all, it wasn't that long ago that Dick Cheney was opposing the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa; Donald Rumsfeld was cutting deals with Saddam Hussein; and the CIA was overthrowing Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran, and installing the Shah. And President Bush continues to make nice with Mr. Putin, Gen. Musharraf and the House of Saud.

And let's not forget that the great underpinning of the president's devotion to spreading democracy throughout the world is his oft-stated belief that more freedom will lead to less terrorism--a belief for which he has offered little evidence. Mohammed Atta was exposed to all the freedom and openness America has to offer. So was Timothy McVeigh. That didn't stop them from leading the two deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Each was driven by a fanatical ideology, not by a hatred of freedom and democracy.


What did Barry Goldwater say about extremism being no vice when the goal is… whatever the goal is?  That man has a lot to answer for – but he’s dead.

Anyway – the full text is here. 


This indeed is the problem – now when you enter discussions of national importance there’s a sign over the door that reads “Abandon Logic, All Ye Who Enter Here.”  That’s an odd Inferno that Dante never imagined.


Whenever someone tells me it’s simple, really - America is free and democratic. Terrorists attacked America. Therefore, terrorists hate freedom and democracy. And that's all anyone needs to know. – I tend to fall back into that elitist, unpatriotic, bookish fear that things are perhaps more complicated than that.


Q: Why do you make things so complicated?  What’s your problem?

A: Why?  Because it’s dangerous to miss things!  Some details matter.


Of course, this comes down to name-calling.  And that doesn’t get us anywhere.  Arianna calls the triumphal-minded folks infantile in their reasoning.  The triumphal-minded folks call the rest of us worry-warts (or Arnold’s formulation, girly-men).


Perhaps the divide is between the simplifiers – the president and my governor out here – and the detail-minded. 


And of course a good simple summary is gratifying, and comforting.  And such a summary is even better if it is correct.


When the summary provides emotional comfort without being true?  Trouble ahead. 



Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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