Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Four Musketeers of Argument

Not to be confused with these guys....

Aristotle, "a truly veteran scribe," described the four elements of rhetoric in argument.  They were:


It's always fascinated me that ethos came first, because ethos refers to the ethical character of the speaker.  If the speaker making the argument has a bad ethos, Aristotle understood, no one will listen to his argument.

"I have to be honest with you, I was at dinner, and I almost wanted to vomit," [Sen. Bob] Menendez said in an appearance on CNN Wednesday night. "The reality is, I worry when someone who came up through the KGB tells us what's in our national interest and what is not. And, you know, it really raises the questions of how serious this Russian proposal is."
Because the substance of the argument is far less important than who puts it forward.

It isn't supposed to be like this.  Ad hominem is the most basic of logical fallacies.  When you don't like the message, attack the messenger.  And yet evaluating the motives of the speaker can be crucial to understanding why the speaker is making a specific argument, like when Glenn Greenwald isn't the story, even though he still is.

So everybody wants in on the game:

 Vlad Putin, internationalist. And if you don't believe him, well, it'd be a shame if you ran into polonium or something.

(And if you are familiar with the history of Dracula (Son of the Dragon), you know Vlad the Impaler, and you see what Mr. Pierce did there with a most improper reduction of Mr. Putin's name.  But wait, there's more!)

Let me stop right here and say, Vlad Putin, citing the pope? I'm starting to look more seriously at the suddenly popular end-times scenario
Oh, balls. You're a thug and a hypocrite, and your government is engaged in a pogrom against gay people that still may fk up the Olympics. The Lord's blessings? Did your ghostwriter's fingers turn to flame immediately after typing that sentence?

But even a blind pig finds an acorn:

The problem is that, other than the fact that the author's a goon, this thing makes more sense than most of the rest of the commentary I've read on the subject. One thing I will say for him, the man doesn't miss a trick. And, if you're keeping score at home, the tally in the Substantive Political Columns category now reads: Vladimir Putin 1, Maureen Dowd 0.
Scrape away the obligatory Putin bshing ('cause this is AMURIKA!  YEAH!!!!), and we find Putin has a point.  Even if we deny him any ethos on the subject, even if we admit he's a KGB thug, he's still also the head of state of a nation that would be seriously impacted the collapse of the Syrian government, as he himself says:

Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.
"This threatens us all"?  Gee, that argument actually sounds kinda familiar.  Where have I heard that before....?

Putin has logos (it's a well reasoned argument, better than, as Pierce notes, the usual work of most NYT columnists); he invokes some effort, at least, blending both pathos (identifying with the needs of the audience) and kairos (awareness of the present situation) in a way that really speaks to the concerns of the American public frankly better than Obama did on Tuesday night:

The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.
He even throws a jab at Sec. Kerry, noting something the State Dept. hasn't been anxious to put front and center so far:

Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.
But this is where he really reaches his audience, I think:

 It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”
We could say "that is our enemy trying to fool us into laying down our arms," but we aren't going to war with Russia anytime soon.  And the most heartening thing about recent events have been that even Congress is not anxious to authorize military action, because the American public has not been just unwilling to support it, but has loudly proclaimed they won't support it.  Sometimes this representative system actually works.  And isn't this, after all, precisely the argument used against the foreign and military policy of the Bush Administration?

The world reacts by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded. 

We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.
I don't have to agree with Putin's argument, to acknowledge he makes excellent points that really should be considered.  Like Sen. Menendez, I recognize the power of ethos; but I don't have to honor it.  Somewhere in this nation we can carry out this discussion about US foreign policy and accept the points of this message without undue concern for the messenger.

Or maybe we're not all that exceptional after all.

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