It might be getting time to wrap up the debate/discussion I’ve been having with Mike Lumish over at Israel Thrives regarding Israel and the Left. Not that there isn’t a lot more to say about this subject, but I suspect that our attempts to find major disagreements could devolve into a Narcissism of Small Difference destined to deliver a diminishing return on investment.
But to keep things going for just one more column, I continue to take issue with the core assertion that drives much of Mike’s argument (one he claims I agree with in his last piece) that the current President supports (or “supported”) the Muslim Brotherhood, if by “support” he means (1) agrees with the goals of that organization and (2) wishes it to succeed.
This might seem like a small linguistic point, but within it lies the reason I suspect Mike is having such a hard time getting his messages accepted. For, simply put, the argument at the heart of his critique is not strong enough.
But fear not. For the somewhat technical analysis you are about to read is designed to strengthen, rather than weaken, the argument of my friendly opponent. So if you can stand a few paragraphs of logical dweebiness, read on.
For the few of you remaining, there are a number of techniques that allow you to determine the strengths and weakness of arguments delivered in normal human language (vs. machine code which is much easier to check for flaws).
If you want to go back 2500 years, Aristotle’s syllogisms still pack a punch, although I’ve developed a growing preference for so-called Toulmin Diagrams in recent years. But since those would take too long to explain, I think we can get what we need through use of the simplest structure for an argument: a set of premises leading to a conclusion.
With this in mind, Mike’s key points can be boiled down into an argument that looks something like this:
Premise 1: The Muslim Brotherhood is a totalitarian organization with goals at odds with the US and the West, which is also the wellspring of Jihadi violence in the Middle East.
Premise 2: President Obama and his administration have made decisions and statements (especially when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power in Egypt) that involved helping and praising that Brotherhood regime.
Premise 3: Only someone who supports the Muslim Brotherhood would help and praise the Muslim Brotherhood regime when it ruled Egypt.
Conclusion: President Obama supports a totalitarian organization with goals at odds with the US and the West, which is also the wellspring of Jihadi violence in the Middle East.
Now there are two primary tests for determining the strength of an argument structured in this way.
First, the argument can be checked for validity and such a check is fairly simple. For if accepting the premises of the argument requires you to accept the conclusion, then the argument can be said to be valid.
An iconic example of a valid argument would be “Toby is cat. All cats are animals. Therefore Toby is an animal.” which includes two premises (the first two sentences) that, if you accept them as true, requires you to accept the conclusion as also being true. And if you look at Mike’s argument (as I’ve articulated it above) you will see that it is perfectly valid.
Now the way Mike’s argument has been formally structured was my work, not his, which means someone else might perform a translation that ended in a non-valid argument. But as I’ll demonstrate, it is usually good practice to do your best to turn an opponent’s statements into a valid argument which can then be checked for soundness – the second test of an argument’s strength.
For an argument to be sound, not only must it be valid, but its premises must be true in the real world. For many daft arguments are perfectly valid. For example: “My wife is a mermaid. All mermaids are leprechauns. Therefore, my wife is a leprechaun.” is a valid argument, but the fact that my wife is the only thing in that argument which actually exists makes it unsound.
Now in the case of Mike’s argument, in the context of this discussion his first premise is totally acceptable. In a scholarly context, someone might want to point out the complex interplay between the Brotherhood, Wahabism, Shiite fundamentalism and other religious and historic trends that have led to our current Jihad problem. But for purposes of this conversation Premise 1 is perfectly acceptable in its present form. And I think anyone who has followed US foreign policy over the last 5-6 years would agree that Premise 2 is on safe historic ground.
But a reasonable person can come up with a variety of alternatives to Premise 3. For example, someone might make crappy decisions (like the ones we’ve seen the Obama administration make) because they suck at diplomacy/realpolitique due to incompetence, arrogance or a combination of both. Or perhaps the President’s ideology blinds him to seeing forces (even Muslim Fundamentalist forces) fighting against an oppressive regime as new totalitarians in waiting (vs. successors to the civil rights heroes of old).
Notice that none of these descriptions is flattering to the current US administration, or dodges the fact that their decisions have made the world much less safe. In fact, I would say they are stronger critiques than the original Premise 3 above since they do not claim to understand the psychological reasons behind someone’s (Obama’s) choices, and thus are less susceptible to the kind of challenges you are reading now.
If you read through the several exchanges Mike and I have had, you will notice that when this challenge has been presented (by me or others – albeit in a less structured/dweeby way) he has tried to reinforce his argument by providing more examples of Brotherhood ruthlessness and anti-Semitism or Obama administration perfidy. But, as you can now see, all that does is boost the two premises about which there is already agreement, providing nothing to shore up that argument’s weakest link.
Now Mike could dispute my definition of “support” to mean support of Brotherhood goals and a desire to see that movement succeed. But if that’s the case, why spend so much time and energy getting upset that others don’t agree with his core claim if the key term in that claim (“support”) is up for grabs?
I’m hoping this analysis highlights the key reason why I’m putting readers through so much tech-talk since my goal is not to smash Mike’s points but to provide him the means to make them stronger. For I suspect that what he perceives as people being in denial over the important points he is trying to make actually represents a dispute over a problematical premise that Mike might not realize weakens his case, making it that much harder for others to accept what he is saying more broadly.
And given that his critique of the Left (especially the Jewish Left) hinges on a conclusion drawn from a potentially unsound argument (vs. other arguments over the Left and Islam/Israel which do not carry such a flaw), I return to my original promise that this type of analysis can only help to make my opponent’s arguments more powerful, presuming he is ready to adjust his language to strengthen the weak link and not be so hard on those who seem more than ready to agree with him on everything but his most fragile point.