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Monday, 11 February 2008 06:57

Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes: The Art of Illogical Persuasion

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The post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument that you hear politicians make all the time is, they tell you that 85% of heroin addicts started with marijuana, so marijuana is a gateway drug. And apparently that's true, that 85% of heroin addicts started with marijuana. But 100% started with milk.

-- Thomas Cathcart, coauthor, Aristotle and an Aardvark Go To Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes



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Authors of the surprise bestseller, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, the erstwhile Harvard roommates -- of many a moon ago -- have returned with a most pertinent exploration of political balderdash, philosophy, and jokes, appropriately entitled: Aristotle and an Aardvark Go To Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes.

Tom Cathcart and Daniel Klein have been lifelong friends, but it is only recently that they began collaborating to apply philosophical (and particularly logical) principles to analyzing modern life, and -- in this case -- political discourse. What readers find so charming about their books is that they integrate jokes with broad philosophical concepts to analyze public political statements that most of us have heard in recent years.

Most political language has been institutionalized to the point that it takes a conventional format that doesn't need to make any sense. It appears not to be bound by rules of logic, but rather illogic. But we've become so adjusted to convoluted political oratory, it often appears to make sense.

Cathcart and Klein have the last laugh as they apply philosophical tenets to the likes of Donald Rumsfeld (a veritable treasure chest of mangled language based on logical fallacies.) Interviewing them is a special treat. It was like having a corned beef sandwich at a deli with two learned comedians, who just couldn't resist one more philosophical application and Milton Berle style joke.
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BuzzFlash: Have you been watching the candidate debates, and were there any philosophical or logical principles that you wanted to apply to the debates?

Thomas Cathcart: I watched a bit last night [January 21, South Carolina], and then I got disgusted and turned it off. The point at which I turned it off was when they were employing the old tu quoque - you too - or "so's your mother," as we call it in the book. "It's a, you know, where you said this, you know, and your husband said that. But he didn't mean that, and you said this." It was that kind of back-and-forth between Hillary and Obama.

Daniel Klein: It's the equivalent of "your mother wears army boots." But that's before army boots were a fashion statement.

BuzzFlash: I think you call it political trash-talking.

Daniel Klein: Yeah.

BuzzFlash: Basically, Hillary Clinton said to Barack Obama, "You praised twelve years of Republican rule." Obama said, "No, I merely said that President Reagan was a transformative figure in American politics. I didn't say they were good years." Then Hillary Clinton said, "Well, I never mentioned Reagan." He said, "Well, your husband did." And she said, "He's not here."

Thomas Cathcart: Well, yeah. And he had a good comeback, which was, "I sometimes get confused who I'm running against."

BuzzFlash: Was there some logical fallacy to that?

Thomas Cathcart: Probably.

Daniel Klein: Hillary was making a statement by quoting him out of context.

Thomas Cathcart: That's a classical fallacy called contextamy. It's like quoting the theater review that says "boffo performance." But when you read the whole review, it says, "You know, if there was a boffo performance in this, I didn't see it."

BuzzFlash: We've been very proud to sell your two books. The first one, of course, was Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar. Now you have what's even more appropriate for BuzzFlash, Aristotle and an Aardvark Go To Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes. And nothing could be more timely.

Correct me if I'm wrong. The way I read through your books is, you have three basic elements. You have a real incident or statement. In the case of Aristotle and an Aardvark, that's from a political figure. You have a philosophical or logical principle that illustrates what that statement is doing in terms of philosophy or logic. And then you often end that with a joke, often a Milton Berle-type of joke, and very funny.

Thomas Cathcart: That's the part we worry about -- whether it's funny.

BuzzFlash: They're quite funny, but is that basically the structure?

Daniel Klein: I think that's right on. That's exactly it. Incidentally, when you mentioned the subtitle, Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes -- the first subtitle was Understanding Political Bullshit Through Philosophy and Jokes.

BuzzFlash: Then your publisher prevailed? Well, there's clearly no short supply of it, I assume.

Thomas Cathcart: No.

Daniel Klein: No, there isn't. Harry Frankfurt writes in his book, On Bullshit, about the difference between bullshit and outright lies. And actually, the lies exceed the number of bullshit utterances in the current administration -- just outright lies.

BuzzFlash: That book was by a philosophy professor from Princeton -- is that right?

Daniel Klein: That's correct.

BuzzFlash: Let's just dive in with an example and give some people some sense of how your books work. But we'll start backwards from the joke. The joke is, it's like a guy painting his house pink to ward off dragons. Call him nuts, and he points to his success rate. Could you tell me the logical principle here? And also the actual incident which kind of precipitated this, relating to President Bush.

Daniel Klein: It's post hoc, ergo propter hoc. ("After this, therefore because of this.") I've got an even longer joke for post hoc ergo propter hoc. May I tell it?

BuzzFlash: Sure, but first of all, according to your book, this ties in with the notion that President Bush constantly tells the American public, that the war in Iraq must be working because there haven't been further attacks on the U.S.

Daniel Klein: Exactly.

BuzzFlash: We need to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here.

Thomas Cathcart: It's just so bad, the fallacious parts. We have been fighting them over there. And they haven't been fighting us over here. But is this showing that a war really works? You know, it took 19 guys to take down the World Trade Center. Does it mean that we're keeping them tied up, where they can't spare another 19 guys? I don't think that's it.

BuzzFlash: And wouldn't it be cheaper just to paint the White House pink then?

Thomas Cathcart: It wouldn't be politically correct.

BuzzFlash: Then we can just say no terrorist will attack a pink house. So what's your other joke?

Daniel Klein: It's a little on the schmaltzy side. It's one of my favorites though. This guy goes to his doctor, and he complains he's having these blinding headaches. He's had them for years now, and no other doctor has found the cause, and consequently a cure for them. The doctor goes to check them, and he says, "Oh, you have this very strange condition." He says, "What it is, is that your testicles are pressing against the base of your spine. And that's what's causing the headache. And the only cure is surgical castration." And the guy says, "Oh, God, should I go through the headaches, or the surgery?" And he finally decides to get the castration, and he does.

He's in a foul mood afterwards, of course. He's depressed. And the only way he can think to cheer himself up is to get a new set of clothes. So he goes to a haberdasher.

He sees a nice pin-striped suit in the window, and he goes in and says, "I'd like that pin-striped suit." And the guy goes, "Good. That's good. You wear a 42 long." The guy goes, "Amazing! How did you do that?" The haberdasher says, "I've been in the business forever. I know my stuff." The guy says, "Well, that's great. I'd also like to get a shirt." And he says, "Yeah, that's a 16 ½ neck, 33 sleeve." He says, "Bloody amazing. You're really good at this." He says, "While I'm at it, I think I'd like to get some briefs." And the guy says, "Well, that'd be a 36 brief."

And the guy says, "Nope, you're wrong this time, Mr. Haberdasher. I wear a 34 brief." The haberdasher says, "No, you don't want to wear a 34." He says, "That'd press your balls against your spine and give you a headache."

BuzzFlash: If you use that word haberdasher, it takes us back to Harry Truman, who was a haberdasher.

Daniel Klein: Well, I'm in my late sixties. Haberdashers and milliners -- I don't know.

BuzzFlash: I was talking to my wife about that the other day. I said, "Where is a sewing shop anymore?" When I grew up, you used to be able to go and buy a sewing machine at a sewing shop. I mean, where do you find a sewing machine store?

Daniel Klein: Where do you find a wife who knows how to run one?

BuzzFlash: All the Hillary supporters will consider that sexist.

Thomas Cathcart: The post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument that you hear politicians make all the time is, they tell you that 85% of heroin addicts started with marijuana, so marijuana is a gateway drug. And apparently that's true, that 85% of heroin addicts started with marijuana. But 100% started with milk.

BuzzFlash: Oh, God, now we're going to get all those letters from the Wisconsin dairy farmers.

Daniel Klein: Yeah, the gateway drug, milk. Can I tell one of my other favorite post hoc gags? Or are you getting tired of them?

BuzzFlash: No, hey, I've got the drumsticks ready.

Daniel Klein: Okay, so this thirty-something gentile guy falls in love with a Jewish girl, and asks her to marry him. And she says, "Yes, but on one condition. You have to get circumcised." And the guy says, "Oh, okay. Oh, geeze." And he goes and he talks to the Jewish friend of his, and he says, "You know, what are the effects of circumcision?" And the guy says, "Well, I was only two weeks old when I had mine, and so I don't remember whether it hurt. But I do remember that for a year afterwards, I couldn't walk."

BuzzFlash: Okay.

Daniel Klein: Badda-bing.

BuzzFlash: Moving right along. Okay, you've got a joke here which I think is wonderful, because it illustrates something out of Richard Clarke's memoirs concerning Donald Rumsfeld. The press reported what he said, and to us, it was always rather amazing, because what he said was so baffling in general. So we'll begin with the joke and then move backward to what Richard Clarke said. The joke, which I really love, is the guy taking his evening walk. Does one of you want to tell this one?

Daniel Klein: Okay, so this guy's out taking his evening walk. And he notices his neighbor down on his hands and knees, under a street lamp. And he says, "What are you doing?" He says, "I'm looking for my car key." He says, "Oh, you dropped them here?" He says, "Oh, no, I dropped them over there behind that hedge, but the light is better here."

BuzzFlash: Okay, and so this illustrates -- ?

Thomas Cathcart: Ignorance of the issue, or, in this case, ignoring the issue or changing the subject. Ignoratio Elenchi. And it's the famous passage from the Richard Clarke book, where he tells the story of Rumsfeld right after 9/11. They're all in the war room, talking about what to do. And Rumsfeld says, "Let's get Iraq." And Colin Powell says, "Iraq? Shouldn't we be focusing on al-Qaeda?" And Rumsfeld complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan, and that we should consider bombing Iraq, which he said had better targets. It's really bizarre when you think about it.

BuzzFlash: Well, you could write a whole book about Rumsfeld's statements.

Daniel Klein: Yeah, yeah.

BuzzFlash: There was that statement about the knowns and the unknowns.

Thomas Cathcart: Yeah.

Daniel Klein: Yes.

BuzzFlash: I don't know what philosophical or logical principle that illustrates.

Daniel Klein: When he was talking about Osama, he said, "He's either alive or dead, in Pakistan or someplace else."

BuzzFlash: And what logical principle is that?

Daniel Klein: He's covered all possible possibilities. So he's not giving us an analytic statement -- is that right, Tom?

Thomas Cathcart: Yeah, it's not giving any new information.

Daniel Klein: But we, putting our heads together, came up with one he didn't cover, so it gets him off the hook. And that is that Osama never existed in the first place.

BuzzFlash: That's quite something. Now how did you decide how to divide up your chapters? You have so much fodder here.

Daniel Klein: Really, what we were interested in to start with was to cover as many of the prevalent fallacies as as we possibly could. Some are "formal," which is deductive logic, and some are informal, which is an inductive logic, and some are their own rhetorical devices. And then we discovered what statements were out there by famous idiots -- politicians. We covered those. And then from there, we dug into our stockpile of jokes for illustrations.

BuzzFlash: Given the wealth of material, how did you winnow it down?

Thomas Cathcart: One of the criteria was, where is the opportunity for a joke that really nailed it?

BuzzFlash: You had to match them to the logical fallacies, or the philosophical principle.

Daniel Klein: Absolutely. That was the sine qua non.

BuzzFlash: And then find a joke. Is there any national politician that doesn't qualify?

Daniel Klein: Well, sometimes there is. Sometimes they just lie. We had our hardest time with Bush, because a lot of stuff he said was either a lie or made no syntactical sense whatsoever. You know, if it makes no syntactical sense, it's pretty hard to poke a hole in his argument.

Thomas Cathcart: When people hear about the book, they say, oh, you must have had a ball with Bush. And we do have some Bushisms in there. But that being said, the bulk of his stuff isn't really fallacious. It just doesn't make any sense at all.

BuzzFlash: So it doesn't even climb to the level of analysis because you can't even figure out what he's talking about.

Thomas Cathcart: No. A logician looks at it and, instead of going "aha," he goes, "Whaa?"

BuzzFlash: Were these just the political statements you remembered, or did you use Google?

Thomas Cathcart: Some we remembered. Some were said on the news at the time that we were writing the book. Some of them are off of Google. We tried to get some historical ones, just to show this wasn't a recent phenomenon, so we dug back into Genghis Kahn and Adolph Hitler, and Cicero and Jefferson.

To get to the real crux of your question, sometimes, as you said, you know you're being fed b.s. But sometimes, it just has sort of a fallacious smell to it, so that you have to really sit down and analyze it to see if it really did fit one of the classical fallacies. And sometimes it did, sometimes it didn't.

Daniel Klein: What we hope we can do for the reader is help them out when, often like us, they say: "There's something screwy about what he said. I can't quite put my finger on it." So we tried to figure out where they could put their finger on it. That's kind of the aim of the book.

BuzzFlash: Looking at page 26 here, and returning to our favorite subject, Donald Rumsfeld, you have the quote here: "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Simply because you do not have evidence that something does exist, does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn't exist."

Daniel Klein: That's true. He's right.

BuzzFlash: But you call this the rhetorical equivalent of the triple lutz.

Thomas Cathcart: Yeah -- just talk about being dazzled with b.s. -- he's pretty dazzling with that one. And as Danny says, he's absolutely right. On the other hand, as Sam Harris says in his book, The End of Fate, you could be agnostic about the theory that there's a teapot that orbits around the planet Pluto. We can't disprove it, because you can't disprove a negative, is what he's trying to say. Rumsfeld was saying you can't disprove a negative. But that doesn't mean the theory that there is a teapot orbiting is on the same level with the theory that there isn't. You've still got to go with the evidence.

BuzzFlash: You gave another example of this principle. And what is it in Latin? Argumentum ad ignoratiam?

Daniel Klein: Yeah. The argument from ignorance.

BuzzFlash: You quote Joe McCarthy, of anti-communist fame, who says of one government official: "I do not have much information on this except the general statement of the agency that there is nothing in the files to disprove his communist connection."

Daniel Klein: That's a little like "when did you stop beating your wife."

BuzzFlash: So if you don't have anything to prove your innocence, you're guilty.

Daniel Klein: Right.

Thomas Cathcart: Right.

BuzzFlash: You have a hysterical last chapter where you set up your own interviews. You imagine the interviews, and you have Home and Garden's Kahi Lee interviewing Dennis Kucinich.

Thomas Cathcart: We're shameless, aren't we?

BuzzFlash: Yeah, you have Robert Verdi, Fashion Police host, interviewing John Edwards. Then MTV has Barack Obama, and Rachel Ray talks with Hillary Clinton. They're much more interesting and amusing than the real debates, I must say.

Thomas Cathcart: Damning with faint praise, I think.

Daniel Klein: Well, the idea was that we're at the point where every little niche was having their moment. You know, the MTV, YouTube, I think the gay channel, Logo. Everybody had their chance to do their interviews. So we thought, why stop there? And imagined these other ones.

BuzzFlash: And how do you guys work together?How did you come up with this?

Thomas Cathcart: I think this was your idea, Danny. You wrote a couple of them, I wrote a couple of them.

Daniel Klein: One thing that can shed a little light on your question is that Tom and I have known each other for fifty years, which is a little less than half our lives. And not only do we know each other's senses of humor, but we probably have formed each other's senses of humor. So working together, even though we live at opposite ends of the state, and most of the time our work is done by e-mail or on the phone, you know -- we don't need a lot of explaining to each other of where we get the gag, or what we think the point is.

BuzzFlash: You studied philosophy and got to know each other as philosophy majors at Harvard as undergraduates in the early Sixties, was it?

Daniel Klein: Late Fifties, early Sixties.

BuzzFlash: Over these years, did you maintain your interest in philosophy?

Thomas Cathcart: Yeah. I've had my oar in there a little bit more than Danny. I keep going to divinity schools.

Daniel Klein: He keeps going until he gets it right.

Thomas Cathcart: Over the course of the last fifty years, I think I've now been to four different divinity schools. So there you get a little taste of philosophy, philosophical theology. So probably I've been more au courant than Danny is. But basically we also have to prime our memory quite a bit. We've surrounded ourselves with books. We sometimes have only the vaguest memory of what a philosopher had to say on the subject, except to remember that he said something. Yeah, I think so.

Daniel Klein: But on the other side, Tom and I had, for most of the last fifty years, taken a bachelor vacation together. And often as not, wherever we happen to be vacationing, we'll end up in a bookstore at some point. And we find ourselves inevitably drifting to the philosophy section. And sometimes that stimulates the conversation. So it's kind of been stuff that we talk about -- something big we have in common. And it's a subject, because we aren't in academia, we can't really chat about with other people. So it's been kind of our dialogue for a long time.

BuzzFlash: It seems that political discourse, in a way, is the art of magically conveying an answer that sounds like it's making sense when it really is evading the question, for the most part. That seems to be the primary art of politics.

Daniel Klein: The things that we point out in the book are known as formal and informal fallacies in reasoning. But in fact, we suspect -- and we have strong reason to suspect -- that the politicians use these fallacies as strategies. They know how hard it is to detect what's wrong with this argument. So let's put it out there that way.

Thomas Cathcart: And some of them are very subtle at it. You really have to look carefully at what they said. For example, the other day, when the flap was going back and forth about Hillary having said that it took LBJ to pass the Civil Rights Act. And a few days later, Representative Charles Rangel, who's a Hillary supporter, said, "How can Obama suggest that MLK could have signed the Civil Rights Act?" And, of course, you think: Obama said that? Okay. He said I didn't say he said it. He "suggested" it. That's what we call a weasel word, that makes it technically not a lie.

BuzzFlash: To us, that seemed more the common practice in politics rather than the exception.

Daniel Klein: That certainly does. Can I tell a joke that raises the question of when does something like a weasel word cross the line to an outright lie. Because it gets into a gray area.

BuzzFlash: Which is where it seems most politics is ensconced -- the gray zone.

Daniel Klein: It is very gray. And it's a classic joke about this guy who walks into town, and he sees this other guy. And he says, "Moysha, what happened to you? You used to be such a tall fellow. Now you're short. You used to be bald. Now you have a full head of hair. You used to be a snappy dresser. Now you're wearing rags. Moysha, what happened to you?" And the guy says, "My name isn't Moysha - it's Saul." And the first guy says, "Oh, so you changed your name, too."

BuzzFlash: So what principle does that illustrate?

Daniel Klein: Sort of hanging on to your point, regardless of all evidence to the contrary.

BuzzFlash: Which is kind of what Bush does.

Daniel Klein: Which is kind of what Bush does, yeah.

Thomas Cathcart: What a lot of them do.

BuzzFlash: So, in other words, this joke was making the point that the person who believes it's Moysha has to be right.

Daniel Klein: For him, the only way that Moysha has changed is he's become a liar.

Thomas Cathcart: When Danny was talking about the fine line between weasel words and out-and-out, bald-faced, outrageous lies, there's a weird example in the book. A CNN interviewer is talking to Francis Fragos Townsend, the Homeland Security advisor. And he says, "You know, going back to September 2001, the President said dead or alive, we're going to get him." Meaning Osama bin Laden. We still don't have him. I know you're saying there's been successes in the war on terror, and there have been. Now it's a failure. But Francis Fragos Townsend says, "Well, I'm not sure -- it's a success that hasn't occurred yet. I don't know if I view that as a failure."

BuzzFlash: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Thomas Cathcart: Is that a weasel word, or just outright misrepresentation? It's kind of like saying: I'm not drunk, officer. What you're seeing is sobriety that hasn't returned yet.

BuzzFlash: Well, let me ask you -- is there something you can apply to the Bush doctrine about democracy? For instance, if you look at the Gaza strip, he said, well, this is a great example, we're going to have a democratic vote. So there's a vote and they elect Hamas. And Bush says, we can't allow a terrorist government in Gaza.

Thomas Cathcart: Fair.

BuzzFlash: So is there a logical fallacy? It's like, well, we really want to encourage a democracy, as long as the outcome is in our interests.

Thomas Cathcart: Exactly.

Daniel Klein: Yeah, maybe he should just say that.

Buzzflash: Then you wouldn't have a book to write.

Daniel Klein: We wouldn't have a government either. I'd trade a government like that for this book, believe me.

BuzzFlash: So, Tom and Danny, is there one favorite statement by a politician in this book that just knock your socks off in terms of being an example of a logical fallacy or a philosophical principle?

Thomas Cathcart: Well, I kind of like Cheney's use of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, a very fortuitously named fallacy, in terms of his own tendency to mistake friends for pheasants. The sharpshooter fallacy is where you shoot a bunch of holes in the barn door, and then you draw the target around the holes. It's a lot easier to score bullseyes that way.

Just at a time when Bush was trying to make the case for the "surge," the British announced they were going to pull their troops out of Iraq. And you think: Oh, my God, what a PR disaster for these guys. But instead, Cheney gets on the air and paints the bullseye around the holes and says: Well, this is just an indication that things are going so well in Basra that it was okay for them to pull out the troops, never mentioning the fact that you'd think that an ally might say, well, geez, if you need to add 20,000 more in Baghdad, why don't you take our eight? But, you know, what he was trying to do was take a lemon and make lemonade.

BuzzFlash: And Danny, did you have a favorite one?

Daniel Klein: This is my favorite from George Bush. It points to what we call the analytic synthetic shuffle. And that's referring to Immanuel Kant's distinction between analytic and synthetic statements. So Bush says, "If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year." And you know what? He's right, because it's an analytic statement. And an analytic statement is one where the predicate is contained in the subject. As Robert Jensen, from CounterPunch, pointed out, all Bush is really saying is if Iraqi had the capability of producing a nuclear bomb, it would have the capability of producing a nuclear bomb, which is hard to argue with.

Thomas Cathcart: Apparently the difficult part of making a nuclear weapon is getting a source of highly enriched uranium.

Daniel Klein: It's a little bit like when two guys are listening to a singer. And one guy says, "God, what a great singer he is." And the other guy says, "Ah, if I had his voice, I'd be a great singer too." Badda-bing.

BuzzFlash: Badda-bing. Okay, well, thank you, Tom and Danny, so much. And thank you for this wonderful book. I think our readers will love it. And keep up the work. We look forward to a third volume.

Daniel Klein: All right. Thank you, Mark.

BuzzFlash: Thanks a lot.

Thomas Cathcart: Bye-bye.

BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karllin.

* * *


Aristotle and an Aardvark Go To Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes.

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes.


Read 3810 times Last modified on Thursday, 14 February 2008 08:02