Sunday, July 02, 2006

Understanding Toulmin Argument Just in Time

Time Magazine is coming out with a new poll this week that shows that President Bush’s approval ratings have slipped once again, to 35 percent, with only 33 percent saying they approve of the way he is handling the war in Iraq. This is a rather startling development, given the recent spate of essentially good new the administration has enjoyed: the death of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, Karl Rove’s non-indictment in the outing of a CIA agent, and a fairly robust economy even in the face of gasoline prices that hit $3.46 in Chicago over the weekend.

So it comes as no surprise that the President, his puppetmaster Dick Cheney, and their usual chorus of slavish dittoheads in Congress, FoxNews, the blogsophere and talk radio would attempt to change the terms of the debate by attacking the press, namely the New York Times. Their argument is that the Times is traitorous because it ran a story last week about how the government tracks financial data to sniff out terrorist plans and movements.

There’s a name of this type of argument: ad hominem, which means “go to the man.” In this case, rather than engaging the New York Times in a debate about the merits and dangers of this type of data mining, the administration and its surrogates have attacked the character of the men (and women) of the nation’s 2nd largest newspaper. This type of argument against the press is nothing new. Richard Nixon and his felonious vice-president Spiro Agnew have fulminated against the press in an effort to move the debate away from their own failed policies in Vietnam and criminal behavior. This new attack, however, reaches an uglier level, because treason is a crime punishable by death.

One line you hear from the usual suspects on TV, such as the national hypocrite and moralistic pontificator Bill Bennett, is that no one gave the press the right to decide what’s secret and what isn’t. That’s an amazing comment, particularly coming form Bennett, who was President Reagan’s Secretary of Education. Apparently though he is none to well educated himself, for if he had read his history he would not have needed telling by William Safire that the Founding Fathers explicitly wrote the First Amendment to the Constitution to protect the press’s roll of critiquing, criticizing, and balancing the government.

Looking at the argument more carefully, however, we can use British philosopher Stephen Toulmin’s method to break an argument into its component parts in order to see more clearly its strengths and weakness by looking at the “claims” and “warrants” of the argument. In order for the argument to hold up, Toulmin notes, the warrants must support the claim. The claim here is easy and in two parts: the New York Times published secrets in a time of war, and publishing secrets in a time of war is treasonous. The warrants here, however, are not quite as clear and need a little developing:

  1. the material the NYT published was secret until the NYT published it
  2. the NYT has no right to publish secrets
  3. it’s “Ok” that the material in question was deemed “secret” by the government
  4. the terrorists did not already know these secrets
  5. no one else has published these secrets
  6. the material in question should not be debated
  7. there’s nothing in the material in question that should alarm the American public
  8. we trust our government
  9. what our government does is always legal
  10. no one in government would use any of the data mining to harm innocent law-abiding citizens
  11. what our government does is always in our best interests

The list of warrants that emanate from this claim of course goes on and on, and you can see where I’m heading. Ponder this please as you enjoy the 4th of July holiday.


At 6:46 PM, Blogger Steve said...

I'm glad you commented on this. While the event received some press last week, the controversy or inpropriety was incorrectly placed in the pages of the Times. The real issue here is of course the willingness of the Bush admin. to distort news as the cost of national security for political motives. Although Rove was not prosecuted last week, we should not forget that his cunning was responsbile for Time's true credibility gaffs. I find the most outrageous part of this story to be the Washington Post's rebuke of the Times. Once again, the collective press have back away for making logical connection between the actions and motives of politicians.

At 12:47 PM, Blogger Shannon E. said...

I appreciate the both of you breaking these issues down. As a midwest Mother who never really cared about Politics I find myself easy confused on who and what is right in the links provided and information going back and forth I have a better time understanding what it is I think is right.

Off subject, thanks for the comment on the white space Worth. It was something I never even thought of and have been playing with it a little in my personal blog and you are right. It does look better and not long and drawn up. When you see those sorts of things you kind of don't want to read. Thanks again.

Hope you are having a good time!:)

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Hugh Johnson said...

Is there a 4th of July in Iraq?

At 8:37 PM, Blogger Hugh Johnson said...

My guess is that July 3rd has been extended for an additional 24 hours in North Manchester - the calendar skips directly to July 5th.

At 11:46 PM, Anonymous Jason said...

I really don't like politics or any politicians at all, but for me it all comes down to the name of your blog. Not only is everything an argument, but your comments show that you are on one side of it. Therefore, you can argue the point anyway you want, and a skilled rhetoric teacher like you can present it supporting his own biases, just like the other side can do it too. This is no different than Socrates on trial. By the end, he had argued that he should not be condemned to death for polluting the youth of Athens, but that he should further be released and awarded a pension for his services to public education. Your piece is a good example of trying to demonstrate the Toumlin argument with a current affair, but your own ad hominem arguments/impolite name calling of certain political figures undermines your credibility with someone like me who has no interest in politics. If you stayed away from that, you would have convinced me much better. Instead you opened by using the tactic you most criticized, and when you did that, you lost my attention. I would like to have heard the case from Socrates' accusers. Remember, it was Plato, his greatest admirer, who wrote the Apology. It's really good literature, but not very objective.

At 1:02 PM, Anonymous Heather said...

Hi- I read your blog, and it show a good example for trying and using the Toulin method. Everything is an argument. Everyone has there own opinion and is entitled to that. But that opinion is what makes things change or give a different look at the situation. I like how you broke everything down for your views to see every point clearly.
Which ever side you choose to argue there is a reason to argue. Weather you are the press and wanting to supply your readers with certain info weather it should have been a secret or not, or if you are the goevernment and it should have been confidential. Anyone can argue his or her points of interest. with what you wrote and provided for information I find I am not sure who is right? But you expalined and showed the argument very well. Thanks

At 1:54 PM, Blogger derek said...

Excelent points! With a government seemingly bent on cutting public knowledge, and participation it has fallen to the media to inform the public. Unfortunately more media is co-operating with the government in this fashion then are rebelling against it.
One simple question must be answered, What is more unjust, breakign laws that limit public knowledge, or enforcing laws that limit public knowledge? There is no way for true democracy to flourish when the public is not informed.


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