Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Bush is Hitler: A Platonic Dialogue

[Note: Some have thought that the following is an actual dialogue. It is not. The dialogue is a Platonic one, i.e., it is a fictive narrative in which I tackle real arguments. It is explicitly modeled on the first book of Plato's Republic. Despite its fictive nature, the positions are real and reflect what I have heard around campus.]

I was on foot and moving towards the philosophy department, when I inadvertently found myself walking through the middle of Speaker’s Circle, a spot set aside by the university for free speech. Ahead and to my right, a young woman was handing out a flyer to passers-by. I tried customarily to avoid her, but alas, she had spotted me. I accepted the flyer—I always feel compelled to accept literature from proselytizers of any kind, this being a university—and thanked her (another compulsion). Before I could go, she encouraged me to vote against Bush. A round of yeahs erupted from her comrades, and one young man, wearing a t-shirt designed on the flag of the Soviet Union yelled: “Bush is Hitler!”

“Bush is Hitler?” I responded.

“Well, you know, he’s like Hitler.”

“That’s quite alarming. I will surely vote against Bush if he is Hitler. But I’m afraid I have to admit my ignorance—I can’t quite see the analogy.”


“In other words, I’m not sure I understand how Bush is like Hitler.”

“He invaded Iraq based on a lie.”

“That makes him like Hitler?”


“So if a leader lies about the reason for invading a country and then invades that country, he is like Hitler?”


“Because Hitler did that?”


“What countries did Hitler invade?”

“I don’t know. But he did.”

“If two things are like in one regard, are they alike in all regards?”


“If two things are alike because they share something in common, then are they alike in every way?”

“’Course not.”

“So it is at least possible that Bush and Hitler share something in common, but aren’t much alike in other respects. For example, I’m wearing pants. I’m pretty sure that Hitler wore pants. But I’m not much like Hitler in other ways.”

“Yeah, but they both invaded countries that were of no threat—only fascists do that.”

“Is Bill Clinton a fascist?”


“Yet he took us to war against Serbia. Was Serbia a threat to the United States?”


“So a leader who starts a war against a non-threatening country isn’t necessarily like Hitler?”

At this point, the young woman who had given me the flyer broke into the conversation.

“What you’re forgetting is that Clinton went to war against Serbia to stop ethnic cleansing. So the war was just, even though Serbia was no threat to the United States.”

“So the essential difference is that Bush and Hitler did not have good reasons for going to war, but Clinton did.”


“Did Saddam Hussein ever engage in ethnic cleansing?”

“Yes … and I know what you’re going to say—Saddam is a bad man who killed tens of thousands of people and yada yada. No one denies that Saddam is a bad man, but that isn’t a reason for going to war. There are lots of bad leaders in the world—why don’t we go after all of them?

“You mean like Slobodan Milosevic?”


“The former leader of Serbia.”

“Yes … I mean … no. Look, I didn’t necessarily support the war against Serbia—I’m just saying that it was different.”

“It was different even though both Slobodan and Saddam were genocidal leaders? And Bill Clinton isn’t like Hitler, but Bush is?”

“I see your point, but let’s drop the ‘Bush is Hitler’ thing—I don’t go around saying that and neither do most of my friends. The real issue—the one you’re missing—is that Bush lied about Iraq. It’s one thing for a leader to lie about an affair, but it’s another thing altogether to lie about why one country should go to war against another country. Innocent people died because Bush lied, and that’s an unforgivable thing for a leader to do.”

Another round of yeahs erupted around us.

“Well said. But just to be clear: what is it that Bush lied about and how do we know that he lied?”

“Have you been living on Mars? He said that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and it turned out that he did not. There weren’t any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So he lied.”

“So Bush said something that was false?”


“And saying something false is the same as lying?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean this. Suppose I say that the food court has waffle fries, and you go to the food court in search of waffle fries. However, there aren’t any waffle fries there. Have I lied?”


“Yes, maybe. Why is it “maybe” and not “yes”?

“Because you might have really thought that there were waffle fries in the food court.”

“Right, and there even might have been. So lying is not merely saying something false; it is saying something false and knowing that it is false.”

“So it would seem.”

“So did Bush know that there were no WMDs in Iraq?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Really? So why did he lie?”

“It was all about the oil.”

“Whose oil?”

“Iraq’s oil. He wanted to invade Iraq to get its oil and to get Halliburton rich.”

“You do know that Clinton gave lucrative contracts to Halliburton after the Serbian …”

For several minutes, a student in a Che Guevara t-shirt had tried to break in to the conversation, but the quick responses of my interlocutor had stopped him. Now, however, he reared up like a wild beast and roared at me.

“Enough! I’m sick of this—I’m sick of your petty attempts to catch these people in a contradiction for thinking one thing about Clinton and another about Bush. Clinton was just as much a tool for corporations as is Bush, and the Democrats are just as corrupt as the Republicans. So don’t try your word tricks on me—they won’t work. And don’t go after just the ‘Bush is Hitler” people—that’s too easy. You don’t have to have believe that Bush is Hitler in order to believe what Bush really is—a corporate fascist, someone who uses military power to benefit the corporate state. And yes, I think that Clinton was a corporate fascist, so that little trick won’t work on me.”

After I regained my composure, I continued.

“I would never presume to play tricks on one such as you, and I beseech you to be patient with us. We are only trying to find out why I should not vote for Bush, but the answer eludes us like Proteus. Perhaps you are the Odysseus who can catch it.”

“You have to be told why you shouldn’t vote for a corporate fascist?”

“You might as well have said ‘don’t vote for a vermicious snozzwanger’—I have no more idea of what that is than I do a ‘corporate fascist.’”

“Look, Bush lied in order to invade Iraq … in order to get oil … in order to get oil companies rich.”

“Did that happen?”

“Yes, haven’t you seen Fahrenheit 9/11?”

“Seen what?”

“The Michael Moore movie?”


Michael Moore. The guy who documents all of this stuff.”

“I’m sure he is a very wise man, and if he were here, he could tell me why not to vote for Bush. But alas, we’ll have to search without him. So let’s continue.”

“Without your tricks.”

“Of course. Now, although you may have been no more than ten when the first Persian Gulf War happened, the one led by the elder Bush, I remember distinctly that the same criticisms were made of Bush senior. Namely, that we were going to war for the oil.”

“And we did.”

“Where is it?”

“Where’s what?”

“The oil—the oil that we stole?”

“I don’t know. Like you said, I wasn’t very old when that war happened.”

“Well, we didn’t take Iraqi oil and Iraq—I should say Saddam—continued to profit from oil sales.”

“Look, we didn’t have a good reason for invading Iraq, then or now; so there must have been some economic reason for doing so.”

“The first war occurred because Saddam invaded Kuwait.”

He smirked.

“That’s the excuse, the pretext for going to war. That’s not the real reason.”

“But what ulterior desire was actually fulfilled by the war?”

“I don’t follow.”

“We’re saying that there were two reasons for the first Persian Gulf War. One was the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam, an invasion condemned internationally and prompting the intervention of the United States, the United Nations, and a coalition of 39 countries, including France and Saudi Arabia. The other reason was Iraqi oil. One of these reasons, according to you, is a sham reason, and the other one is the real reason. So what I want to know is: did the United States satisfy its ulterior motive? And what was the ulterior motive of the other nations? And how about the United Nations?”

“Look, I told you I don’t know that much about the first war—and it has nothing to do with the current one. The bottom line is that Bush lied and he did so in order to invade Iraq for economic reasons.”

“All well and good, but the question is the same: how did the Bush administration and its so-called cronies benefit from the war?”

“Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky could …”

“But they’re not here.”

A voice I hadn’t heard before seemed to come from nowhere.

“No, they’re not; but we don’t need them. I think you’re missing the bigger picture.”

Students moved out of the way for a dapper middle-aged man, whom I presumed to be a professor.

“The bigger picture is that this war is a distraction. Instead of spending money on education and health care, we’re spending it on a failed war, whatever the reasons for the war are. So that’s your reason for voting against Bush.”

“So I shouldn’t vote for a leader who spends money on war but doesn’t spend money on education and health care?”


“Is Bush such a leader?”


“So he doesn’t spend money on education and health care?”

“Yes, of course, he does—I’m not claiming that he spends no money on education and health care. I’m just claiming that the money we’re spending on Iraq could be better spent at home.”

“What if a war is just?”

“This isn’t a just war.”

“I didn’t say it was. I said if it were a just war.”

“I don’t deal in hypotheticals.”

“Why not? Don’t we make a lot of decisions based on hypothetical scenarios? If that restaurant is out of fish, I’ll go have a hamburger at another; if that company’s stock continues to decline, I’m going to sell it. And so on.”

“Yes, sometimes we use hypotheticals.”

“So I’m asking: if a war is just, should we not spend money to wage it on the grounds that we could spend the same money on domestic programs? Does the need for butter always outweigh the need for guns?”

“No, but in this case, the war is unjust, and so we should spend money on butter instead of guns.”

“So the reason I shouldn’t vote for Bush is that he favors unjust military actions over just domestic spending?”

“Yes; that sums it up. That’s the big picture.”

“I do think your big picture is a much better kind of reason for voting against Bush than the ‘Bush is Hitler” kind of reasoning. Nonetheless, I have two concerns. First, I think the war is just. My reason in brief is that Saddam Hussein was in constant violation of the cease-fire agreement he made with the United Nations after the first Persian Gulf War. It is just to remove a regime that will not live up to a cease-fire agreement, especially when that regime is the aggressor in the war prompting the agreement. Second, I don’t think that it’s the job of the President to spend money on education and health care; the main purpose of the executive branch is to secure the liberty and security of its citizens …”

My interlocutor and I were both startled when the young man in the Soviet Union t-shirt burst out in anger and pointed at me.

“I knew it. That guy is a fascist—he believes in a police state. He probably even watches Fox News. Damn Republican!”

“Actually, I’m registered as an independent, and I’ve never voted Republican—yet. Nice t-shirt. Stalin is Hitler.”

With that, I continued on my way to the philosophy department.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Bill Maher and the False Barbarians

Some thoughts on the transcript of Bill Maher’s interview with the CBC.
[Maher] is a frequent guest on Larry King on CNN because of his no-holds-barred, politically incorrect style …
There isn’t anything politically incorrect about Bill Maher. Calling the American people stupid while lauding Europeans as deep thinkers is de rigueur for liberal elitists such as Maher. Moreover, the stereotype of Americans as ignorant rubes who don’t know a salad fork from a dinner fork is an old one—and it’s one we got over when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote “My Kinsman, Major Molyneaux.”

Maher is one of those people who get a reputation for being smart simply because they can fire off acerbic, but superficial criticisms of the Way Things Are, criticisms that often play to the prejudices of those who fancy themselves to be critical thinkers. Example:

This is a fear election. This is an election that has been framed along the lines of – elect this guy or you'll die. Don't, don't vote for the wrong guy. Or you'll be dead. Johnny Jihad will drive a car bomb into your house if you elect a Democrat.
This sounds great—except for the picayune fact that it’s a straw man attack on the Bush campaign. The claim is that the United States will be less safe from terrorism if Kerry is elected. That claim is plausible, because Kerry seems to be more inclined towards paper diplomacy than military action, more inclined to appease world opinion than to prevent future attacks. But the most damning evidence that Kerry will be lax on terrorism is that the terrorists want him to win. We can argue about this, but it is a far cry from fear-mongering.

Maher loses all credibility when the interviewer asks why Americans think that another attack is imminent:

Well, it did happen. It happened once and we didn't catch the guy who did it. We have only exacerbated the situation and made more people in the Muslim world want to do it. So I think they have every reason to think another one is coming. I think another one is coming. I just don't think we're taking the right steps to prevent it.
It happened once. Think about that. Maher accuses Americans of being ignorant on both domestic and foreign issues, and he is utterly clueless about the history of Islamic terrorism in the last two decades. Did he forget the first attack on the World Trade Center? Stranger still, he agrees that another attack is imminent, but blames it on us. We messed with the Islamic snake, so now we’re going to get bit.

What he fails to see is a pattern of Islamic terrorism. The second WTC attack was an attempt to kill even more people than the first one and easily could have killed tens of thousands of people, if not a hundred thousand. That indicates persistence and an intent to kill as many Americans as possible, and that is why we can infer that another attack is imminent. If Maher thinks we “exacerbated the situation” by going to Afghanistan and Iraq, what is his explanation for the two attacks on the WTC? What is his explanation for the plot to fly an airplane into the Eiffel Tower?

And you know, we're all about the feelings here. Thinking, that's for the Europeans.
Yep. Those Europeans took the thoughtful, rational approach towards Hitler, and we emotional barbarians went and messed it all up by kicking his tush.

Here’s Maher’s imitation of how Americans think vis-à-vis Kerry’s explanation of why he voted against one form of a bill but for another version of the same bill:

I'm not a Harvard professor. Stay the course. Now there is something I can understand. It's three words. If you go past three words, we're dead, you know. No new taxes. Read my lips. Where's the beef?
Yep. “Hope is on the way” is so much more complex, nuanced, and sophisticated—it’s got five words instead of three!

The interviewer gets in on the act when she says:

But say that liberals are, classic liberalism is, to have a high tolerance for contradiction.
To which Maher responds:
Well yes, life is complicated, and there are two sides to issues sometimes.
There just aren’t two sides when it comes voting for Bush or Kerry. People who vote for Bush are stoooooopid.

Here’s Maher on Bush’s “theft” of Kerry’s wartime bravery:

That's what I was telling you, it's all about marketing. It doesn't matter what the truth is. It's what the marketing is. Black is white, and up is down. And John Kerry, who went to Vietnam, not a war hero. John McCain, who was five and a half years in the Vietnamese prison, not a war hero. Max Cleland lost three limbs on the battlefield in Vietnam, not a war hero. George Bush? Stayed in Alabama, in Texas? War hero.
Well, Bill, life is complicated, and you have to have a high tolerance for contradiction.

Finally, Maher opines on religion:

To me, to me it's a real dividing line between people of intelligence and – not that there haven't been some intelligent people who are religious. I mean, T.S. Elliott [sic] was a great poet and he became a very devout Catholic. But I always call religion a neurological disorder. I really do believe that. I mean it's not criticizing. I'm just saying if you took religion out of it and somebody went to a psychiatrist and said you know I believe in you know this crazy, illogical thing, the shrink would say, well you have a neurological disorder. And you need to really get therapy or take a pill.
Oh no, he’s not criticizing. He just thinks you’re crazy and need to take a little pill if you believe in God—and not only are you crazy, you’re dumb to boot. You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny, too. We could point out that Maher’s thinking isn’t quite consistent; people who believe in x because they have a psychological disorder and people who believe in x because they’re stupid belong in different groups. That’s not to say that there are no crazy people who are stupid and vice versa, but we generally don’t label mentally ill people as stupid for holding pathological beliefs. So Maher needs to stick with one criticism or the other and not go for a twofer.

To wrap up, what’s wrong with Maher is that he is completely given over to what might be called the false barbarian fallacy. That’s the fallacy of misidentifying who the real barbarian is. To Maher and much of the left, Americans are the real barbarians, the real threat to world peace. Meanwhile, the real barbarians are at the gate, and they don’t like anybody; they don’t like Americans, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, liberals, conservatives, homosexuals, women or blacks. They have declared their intent to kill as many Americans as possible, and they have succeeded. So we should worry less about supposed problems with our electoral college and worry more about the people who would destroy not only our electoral college, but our entire system of government.