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Bush Derangement Syndrome Syndrome

Lots of people are having fun with this Peter Berkowitz column that appeared in the WSJ yesterday, and rightly so, because Berkowitz's piece is an orotund display of question-begging, petty casuistry, and sheer illogic, and I'm going to pile on. … Read More

By / November 15, 2007

Lots of people are having fun with this Peter Berkowitz column that appeared in the WSJ yesterday, and rightly so, because Berkowitz's piece is an orotund display of question-begging, petty casuistry, and sheer illogic, and I'm going to pile on.

Berkowitz's ostensible subject is Bush-hatred and the ways in which, according to Berkowitz, it corrodes rational discourse, but the very moment Berkowitz moves beyond anecdotal descriptions of what Bush-hatred consists in, the piece takes a schizophrenic turn, veering between condemnations of passion-based politics as a deleterious force in society, and efforts to show that the substantive motivations behind alleged instances of hatred of the president are misguided and rooted in errors of fact. What is the need, one might well ask, to establish the latter point, if the former holds regardless of whether substantive criticisms of the president are well-founded? Perhaps it is that, if the administration were guilty of the worst accusations it faces, some strong moral reaction would be justified, and hence Berkowitz's claims about hatred, passion, and irrationality stand in need of qualification. In other words, the fact that Berkowitz feels compelled to offer exculpatory arguments on behalf of the administration shows that on some level even he doesn't quite believe that passionate, vehement dislike (shall we say) of a government cannot be a token of "good moral hygiene."

There is a general rhetorical fallacy at work here, something akin to what John Holbo calls "the two-step of terrific triviality," and it's worth unpacking. On one hand, the claim that blinkering hatred clouds judgment, and ceteris paribus, is a vice in politics, is so obvious that it's absurd to write an op-ed defending it. On the other hand, the claim that the Bush administration is innocent of any misdeeds to which moral outrage is a natural and rational response is a claim that requires argumentation, and indeed, is unsupportable given the preponderance of empirical evidence. Berkowitz's stratagem is to argue for the latter while disdaining the suggestion that he is arguing for anything but the former, lending the piece a patina of reasonableness that he sustains by means of loaded terms ('hatred', for example) and assumptions of his conclusions among his premises.

When we cut through the rhetoric, Berkowitz's substantive defenses of the administration are extraordinarily flimsy. Thus we are treated to strings of reasoning like the following:

And lord knows the Bush administration has blundered in its handling of legal issues that have arisen in the war on terror. But from the common progressive denunciations you would never know that the Bush administration has rejected torture as illegal. And you could easily overlook that in our system of government the executive branch, which has principal responsibility for defending the nation, is in wartime bound to overreach–especially when it confronts on a daily basis intelligence reports that describe terrifying threats–but that when checked by the Supreme Court the Bush administration has, in accordance with the system, promptly complied with the law.

Emphases mine. During his career as a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have once asked a jury (for reasons I can't recall), "If legs were called 'tails', how many legs would a donkey have?" The answer, of course, is four. Using a different term to refer to something doesn't change the nature (or count) of the referent. Likewise, the Bush administration has hardly rejected torture. It has redefined 'torture' as an indexical term referring to whatever torture techniques it does not presently authorize, and abjures only those. What Berkowitz is saying is no more meaningful or informative than "the Bush administration rejects as illegal what it rejects as illegal." That Berkowitz regards this as good enough an exculpation is an astonishing admission for a law professor to make — to say nothing of his apparent notion that the administration's unwillingness so far to mount a coup against the Supreme Court somehow makes it virtuous.

We've all heard of Bush Derangement Syndrome, and heard quite enough of it, in fact. Perhaps Charles Krauthammer could do just a little more violence to his medical degree and come up with another pseudo-psychiatric term to describe a compulsion to analyze the crimes of the Bush administration purely in terms of the outraged responses it provokes, so as to avoid ever having to grasp that the Bush administration is, in fact, criminal.

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