A Disquieting Parallel

I read with some dismay the story about the athletes from North Korea who have had success and will therefore be welcomed home — and about those who fail and are punished by their government when they return back home. In part, the story reads as follows:

International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.

The gold medalists are hoping their feats will cover the country in glory and please its people and one man in particular – new leader Kim Jong-un, who only recently took over as head of the family dynasty on the death of his father Kim Jong-il.

For good reason: a life of luxury awaits the Olympians as reward for glorifying the Stalinist state. Elite athletes receive cash, cars, houses and the coveted membership of the Workers Party of Korea.. . .

The consequences of sporting failure are far less palatable.

The coach of the national soccer team, who lost all three of their 2010 World Cup games, was reportedly expelled from the Worker’s Party and forced to become a builder for his “betrayal”.

Now we certainly do not punish losers in this country — unless vanishing from the public eye can be regarded as punishment. They are quickly forgotten. But there are some alarming parallels between a country that chooses to ignore its poor and disadvantaged and our country.ย  Bear in mind that North Korea is in serious trouble because of the failure of its food production and distribution plus the sanctions it has brought down on itself because of its intransigence regarding the continued development of nuclear weapons. The country has thousands of hungry and out-of-work citizens who barely manage to stay alive because the country has put a premium — that is, spending the major portion of their income — on the development of weapons of war.

Therein lies the parallel. No, we are not a Communist (that is, Stalinist) country. But we glory in the gold our champions win (we also pay the winners, big time), relegate our losers to oblivion, and our government has also chosen to put its focus on the development of weapons of war at a time when a two-year drought in the Midwest threatens to further damage farm production, thereby making food more costly at a time when thousands are out of work, and the numbers of hungry and homeless people in this country grows perceptibly.

I do not wish to push the parallel farther than it will go. But the fact that there is any sort of parallel between a supposedly “free” country and one that holds its citizens in chains of intimidation and repression is deeply disturbing. The fact that there are thousands of wealthy people in this country who endorse their government’s decision to continue to spend money on “defense” while it ignores the plight of their neighbors —ย  neighbors who have no place to live and very little food to put on the table, or who have to work two jobs at minimum wage (if they can find work) to support a hungry family — is also deeply disturbing.

We talk about the 1% who control the wealth in this country but we tend to ignore the plight ofย  the 1% who are homeless, who sleep in their family van or in a cardboard box, and worry where their next meal is coming from — an average of 842,000 in a given week. And there are thousands more who are not categorized as “homeless” but who live in temporary shelters and suffer from lack of adequate food; 46 million Americans are on food stamps. We call them “bums” but they are people like you and me who have been caught in the “trickle down” [sic] of wealth from the rich to the very rich. It is not something we can be proud of. And given the fact that these people and the government they support continue to build weapons of war while their fellow citizens suffer and they look for another social program to cut is a somewhat alarming parallel between our country and a country that we rightly criticize for being cruel and inhumane.

No, we don’t punish those who lose athletics contests. Not really. But we punish those who cannot keep their heads above water in life and we call them “losers” when it is we who are the losers.

‘Tis (Almost) The Season

In case there was any doubt that the coming elections will be the most expensive (wasteful?) and mind-deadening yet, the spectacle of the campaign already underway in Virginia and Florida sets the record straight. As a recent Yahoo News story tells us, Both states and both media markets are awash in TV ads in a crush noteworthy for its negativity, early start and involvement of outside groups that are likely to spend more on commercials than both the Obama and Romney campaigns. With this in mind, it occurs to me that we need a primer on informal fallacies. Political cant is full of them.๐Ÿ˜Š

I have spoken about the post hoc fallacy before, but it bears repeating. This fallacy is committed when one politician (from either party) claims that his or her opponent is responsible for the mess we are in — whatever the mess of the day happens to be, usually the economic mess. (You see, the politicians have figured out that American voters focus myopically on the economy so they aim their rhetoric in that direction.) None of these people will accept blame for the mess; it’s always the other guy’s fault. The fallacy results from the fact that even though Smith claims that incumbent Jones is responsible for the mess, Jones may not in fact have had anything whatever to do with the mess simply because he’s the incumbent. The mess may have been there for years before Jones ever took office. But his opponent will blame him anyway. There is a mess. Jones is in office. Therefore Jones caused the mess. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. It’s fallacious reasoning.

The second most popular fallacy we will hear repeatedly is the ad hominem fallacy. This is committed when the politician attacks his opponent rather than his opponent’s political position. It’s a personal attack and it may be even more common than the post hoc fallacy. It’s always fun to poke fun at people and the voters respond with applause. It is also called “mud-slinging” and it gets votes. No one wants to vote for a scum bag and if we are told that Jones is a scum bag we won’t vote for Jones. It’s a fallacy because even though Jones is a scum bag his opponent might also be one — as indeed might all politicians. But the fact that Jones might in this case have made a good point or have a reasonable position in spite of his scum-bag status the issue itself is ignored completely. The point here is to direct attention away from the issue or the stand Jones takes on the issue to scum-bag Jones himself who is not worthy of our vote. Obviously,

A third fallacy, which is not quite as common, is called “poisoning the wells” in which we are told that we shouldn’t vote for Jones because he is known to be a socialist. Or a Communist. Or a conservative. Or a liberal. Or a reactionary. Or a radical. The labels aren’t the issue here. What is the issue is the guilt by association. We label the group our opponent is supposedly associated with and, knowing what we think we know about that group (which is often very little, but we know we don’t like it) we refuse to have anything to do with that politician. Thus, we vote for the candidate who convinces us that his or her opponent is “one of them.” That’s poisoning the wells. Nothing that person says can be relied upon; he’s one of them and we know what they’re like — or we think we do.

The reason these ploys are called “fallacies” (and there are many more, believe me) is because they are technically non-sequiturs. That is, the reasons given for the conclusion do not support that conclusion. They not only do not support the conclusion, they are often totally unrelated to the conclusion. But we accept the conclusion anyway, because we find the reasons given persuasive — usually on a “gut level.” On that level, these fallacies are especially powerful. Intellectually they don’t hold water.

Keep your eyes and ears open. You will be hearing these fallacies committed again and again. And they will probably launch many a bright political career, depending on how cleverly they are employed and how easily duped the voters are. While this is happening you may want to make sure your mute on the television is in good working order and “caller ID” is operating on the phone!