Note to Media and Campaign Staffs: Stop with the sex thing. You sound like a bunch of adolescents. Get your hands out of your pants – or skirts, if you wear them – and report on something else, say, for example, drug addiction and death rates, possible wars being hatched around the world, whether we are militarily over committed, bankruptcies and medical costs, collapsing cities and the like. You’re acting like a bunch of spinsters gossiping at the back of the church.

G. Sallust

[This is Phil, office philosopher for Elemental Zoo Two. G. Sallust is on vacation, but left some parting advice, i.e., the words you see above. He’s off to do something new, he said; specifically he’d never married and felt it was time to try that. He’s picked out a partner – a 19 year old guy – and is trying to find a way to pop the question. I really couldn’t help him much – there’s a really big age difference between them, you know – but wished him well. He said if he’s accepted they’ll marry in New York [where else?] and honeymoon up there until the snow flies. That shouldn’t be too expensive for a couple with limited resources. So he says. Obviously he hasn’t been to New York for a while.

Good luck anyway. In the meantime, since the boss wants us to discuss the Trump and Clinton campaigns I guess we’ll do that. Here we are, in the final phase of a horse race for the Presidency, except that it looks rather more like a barroom brawl than a race, and neither side shows any sign of tiring. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.]

But some of it is familiar. The big guns on both sides mostly attack each other’s character and fitness to serve, and say virtually nothing about policy disagreements. Their campaigns are marching down a path originally charted by Jeremy Bentham. You remember him, don’t you? He was a philosopher 200 years ago and wrote a lot about political rhetoric. Those papers were collected and published as The Book of Fallacies.[1]  It’s not an easy read, but it’s a pretty good index of ways politicians operate even today.

Bentham originated, or at least popularized the notion of the political fallacy. Those are the rhetorical tricks and dodges politicians use to divert us from the merits of a dispute, and refocus the public on irrelevancies and, most likely, on emotion. In all cases a political fallacy raises matters that are irrelevant to the issue being discussed. “Whatever be the measure in hand, [political fallacies] are, with relation to it, irrelevant.”[2]

Generally the politicians who do this are not very smart, or think their audience is stupid, or both. At least, that’s what Bentham thought[3] and he went further than that. He said when political fallacies – i.e., irrelevancies – are introduced into a debate, that’s a pretty strong indication that the one introducing them has nothing else to bolster his [or her] case.[4]

So what’s the current argument about Donald Trump? That he’s a libertine, not properly respectful of women, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed in high office? Of course we won’t know the truth of these allegations, or any new ones, for months. We’ve had compelling stories about Duke Lacrosse players[5], and UVA students[6] that eventually proved untrue. Many others are exaggerated. “The art of spreading rumors may be compared to the art of pin-making, there is usually some truth, which I call the wire; as this passes from hand to hand, one gives it a polish, another a point, others make and put on the head, and at last the pin is completed.”[7] But I have a different question.

Really, what does a politician’s sex life have to do with whether we should go to war with this or that country; cut or increase taxes; build up our military or cut it back; curb drug addiction; subsidize health care and/or our cities; and so forth? Actually, nothing. When someone has made an argument, and you attack his or her character in response, you’re making an ad hominem response. You’re avoiding the issue and going after the person who raised it. The problem is, if you oppose all proposals made by bad people, what do you do if bad people make a good proposal? Suppose a good person later supports the same thing; does it then become good?[8]

  • Suppose Donald Trump had a cure for a particularly virulent form of cancer. Suppose it could save your life. Would you reject it simply because you didn’t like his personal life, or thought he victimized women? You’d be pretty stupid if you did that, wouldn’t you? Reject the life-saving gift simply because you didn’t like the donor?
  • Suppose Hillary Clinton also said she had a cure, but you suspected she really didn’t. Would you accept her cure simply because you liked her better, even though you knew Trump’s would work and her cure probably wouldn’t? Would that be smart?

Of course you can reverse the politicians and make Hillary the hero of the example, if you want to. In either case the relevant question is not whether you like the donor of the cure, but whether you think it will work. If anyone feels hurt by Trump’s or Clinton’s sex life, perhaps he or she should take it to court rather than inject it into our politics.

That’s interesting, but what are we to do with the current situation, where each side mostly attacks the other candidate’s character? Why do they do that? Well, Jeremy Bentham had an opinion about that as well. Politicians employ arguments that they think will work. Personal attacks – and other political fallacies -were used in Bentham’s day out of “contempt for the understandings of those on whose minds they [were] destined to operate.”[9] Today our media agree, but say it differently. They quote H.L. Mencken, to the effect that “no one ever lost money by underestimating the American people?”[10] Which shows us what they [and our politicians; today they seem to be indistinguishable] think of us. Frankly I’m beginning to feel insulted.

Also the presidential campaigns no doubt raced down the fallacy route because each thought the other side might go there first. Bentham called that “self [defense] against counter-fallacies”[11] and, interestingly enough, said it might be legitimate. Counter fallacies made sense, he said, if (i) a politician makes real arguments with them, and (ii) acknowledges that the fallacies – say the personal attacks – aren’t really important.[12] I’m not sure I agree with that, but that’s what Jeremy Bentham said. In any case neither side is doing what Bentham suggested. What we have instead is an escalating war about sex.

I agree with G. Sallust. Drop the sex, you idiots! Move on to something that shows how you intend to govern. Give us a reason to choose one of you, rather than “None of the Above.” And G, I hope you succeeded and are up there in New York watching the leaves turn. If you are, don’t turn on the TV! There’s a weird, freakish world down here.

[1] See Bentham & Bingham, The Book of Fallacies: From Unfinished Papers of Jeremy Bentham (Hunt, 1824, Nabu Reprint, circa 2010.) Hereafter the book will be cited as Political Fallacies at __. Nabu reprints are basically photocopies of the original, so page citations necessarily will be to the original.

[2] See Political Fallacies at p. 359.

[3] Id. at Part the Fifth, Ch. 1, Characters common to all these Fallacies, p. 360: Political fallacies, when used, “are indicative of either improbity or intellectual weakness [of the user], or of a contempt for the understanding of those on whose minds they are destined to operate.”

[4] See, id. “They are all of them such, that the application of these irrelevant arguments, affords a presumption of the weakness or total absence of relevant arguments on the side on which they are employed.”

[5] Want to see more on this? Check out the Wikipedia entry on Duke Lacrosse case at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duke_lacrosse_case

[6] See Rolling Stone, Columbia University, Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report (2015) at http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/a-rape-on-campus-what-went-wrong-20150405

[7] A neat period quote. See Notable Quotes, J. Newton, The Saturday Magazine (1834), available at http://www.notable-quotes.com/r/rumors_quotes_vi.html

[8] See Political Fallacies at Fallacies of Danger, Imputation of bad character, p. 132 – 133.

[9] See Political Fallacies at Part the Fifth, Characters common to all these Fallacies, p. 360.

[10] Actually this is simply a digest of a longer sentence from Mencken. You can find the original in Wikiquote, at https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/H._L._Mencken: ”No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

[11] See Political Fallacies at Causes of the utterance of these Fallacies, p. 362. See also Chapter VI, Fourth Cause, at p. 379 -381.

[12] Id at 380: “That on the occasion of employing the fallacies in question, an acknowledgement should be made of their true character, of their intricate weakness, and of the considerations which, as above, seemed to impose on the individual in question the obligation of employing them, and of the regret with which the consciousness of such an obligation was accompanied.”

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