Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cheney’s Double Fallacy

Vice President (for another 25 days) Dick Cheney seems suddenly interested in establishing his “legacy.” Normally media-averse, he has unexpectedly appeared on several talk shows to explain how he has been a terrific vice-president and GW Bush just as terrific.

His argument employs two rhetorical fallacies. The first is the fallacy of future history (also called the “knowing the unknowable” fallacy). This is where a person claims to know what future historians will write about the present. Of course nobody knows that. Political predictions are notoriously inaccurate, and of all speculations one might make, what future historians will write is patently unknowable.

The future history fallacy encourages the listener or reader to recontextualize current events into a larger time scale extending into the future. From that imaginary God’s-eye view, it is suggested, the current events will seem more important than they do now. Since it is merely an exercise of fantasy, this argument is invalid.

Political historians do tend to obsess over presidential administrations, so we can be fairly sure that future histories of this one will be written (of which Cheney and Bush memoirs will probably be among the first out of the chute). However my guess is thatmost non-participant observers will evaluate the Bush-Cheney administration as one of the most incompetent and disastrous of its age. And my guess has as much value as Cheney's since the future is unknowable.

The second rhetorical fallacy deployed by Cheney in his recent interviews is a politicians’ favorite, the straw man. With this pseudo-argument one objects to a statement the other side never made or to a position that the other side does not actually hold. The effect of the fallacy is to deceive the uninformed listener or reader into thinking that the other side does hold the incorrect view. Since deception violates the foundation of legitimate discourse, this argument is invalid.

Cheney’s use of the straw man fallacy is reported in the New York Times of 12/22/08 (“Cheney Defends Bush on President’s Role”). Cheney criticized Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who had remarked that Cheney had been “the most dangerous vice president we’ve had in American history.”

Cheney’s dismissive reply was, “If he wants to diminish the office of vice president, that’s obviously his call.” But did Biden attempt to diminish the office of vice president? Not at all. His remark was directed squarely at Dick Cheney, occupant of that office. Cheney’s strategy was to deflect the criticism by pretending it was a different criticism, one that Biden never made. It is a classic maneuver.

Cheney went on to offer many unsound arguments, such as asserting that “the president “doesn’t have to check with anybody” — not Congress, not the courts — before launching a nuclear attack to defend the nation “because of the nature of the world we live in” since the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001” (NYT). This assertion contradicts the United States Constitution that Cheney and Bush swore to uphold. That contradiction makes it an unsound argument.

But that is not a fallacy, which is an error in reasoning. It is just a weak, unjustified, unconvincing argument based on inadequate evidence.

It is difficult to decide if Cheney simply cannot reason correctly, or if he uses fallacious arguments deliberately to deceive his audience.

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