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We're Not Laughing

Two political scientists are stranded on an island .  .  .

Jan 19, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 17 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington

Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes

by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

Abrams Image, 196 pp., $18.95

Thomas Cathcart and
Daniel Klein have followed their best-selling Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by another book with a dopey title and a small number of tiny pages. The publisher, scenting a franchise (albeit with steadily lengthening subtitles), announced an initial printing of 250,000, and probably guessed right.

Aristotle is a parade of rhetorical tricks illustrated by real-life examples, most from the mouths of current American politicians and pundits. One may fairly ask what such an enterprise offers aside from the modest pleasures of watching fish in a barrel being shot. The philosophy advertised in the title consists basically of name checks: Here a one-sentence definition of epistemology, there two pages on theories of truth, and so on. It presents the authors as men who have some learning but wear it lightly--for example, by interrupting their explanation of Hilary Putnam's coherence theory of truth with a comedic "Whaaa?"

The advertised jokes, mostly chestnuts, are meant to reinforce the real-life examples. They are supplemented, in turn, by a couple dozen pages of New Yorker (or New Yorkerish) cartoons and by various digressions printed in blue ink and surrounded by decorative borders. As the reader is never far from one of these humor units, and no topic lasts for more than three pages or so, the format is nicely optimized for limited attention spans.

The authors also contribute comic sallies of their own. Consider, for example, their discussion of quotation out of context. It cites a congressman who selectively quotes Earth in the Balance to accuse Al Gore of valuing yew trees more than people, and a theater advert that staples together fragments of a so-so review to manufacture a rave, and then sums up with a one-liner: "In other words, yews had to be there."

The occurrence of an original humor unit is sometimes, and helpfully, indicated by an exclamation point. Beware, however, that upping the boff-quotient of a joke with one of these little rim shots is a tricky business best left to comedy professionals. Wannabes should first learn how to handle Funny Numbers: "We were not permitted a sufficient number of pages to cover the most egregious political whoppers perpetrated in the last ten years (72,383, by our informal estimate)." The Funny Number gag is as close to a comic gimme as it gets.

In strict logic, cheating is cheating whatever political ends it serves, and any illustration of a fallacy is as good as any other. Taking that principle to heart, the authors' chosen cheaters are, by an overwhelming margin, Republican and/or right-wing. And the indictments can be overzealous; not all of them stand up to examination. I offer these observations in a nonpartisan spirit exemplified by a famous Seinfeld episode. Jerry's dentist has converted to Judaism so that he can tell Jewish jokes. When Jerry complains, he's asked, "And this offends you, as a Jew?"

"No," replies Seinfeld. "It offends me as a comedian." I am offended as a logician and a comedian--or, at least, someone with a sideline in supposedly comic fiction and plays.

Cynically stroking the prejudices of one's target audience can, of course, be a sound marketing strategy. (Markos Moulitsas, the blogging impresario of the angry left, found the book "darn entertaining.") But doing so sincerely is problematic. For example, George W. Bush's post-9/11 declaration that "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists" is alleged to be "from a logical point of view .  .  . clearly" an example of a false dilemma, since those alternatives don't exhaust the possibilities.

This claim is bizarre. It was universally understood that Bush was not stating a proposition but announcing a policy: that the United States would preclude any other possibilities. Oddly enough, after further huffing about the perniciousness of false dilemmas, the authors concede just that, and then change the line of attack: Bush had--maliciously, I guess, but at this point, who knows?--expressed his intentions in a fallacious way (or a way that would have been fallacious had he meant what they concede he did not) because that was "far punchier"--with the result (presumably bad, since this is the finale of an accusation) that "much of the international community thought better than to nitpick the logic of his formulation."

To which one can only say, "Whaaa?"

In compiling this book, the authors seem also to have suffered a deformación profesional--prone to feel that whatever got them riled could find a place there. So they claim that a Homeric-length football simile from Senator Charles Grassley is a weak (i.e., deceptive) analogy when it was merely an embarrassing one. They criticize a journalist's lazy evasion that "if they're both mad at you, you know you're doing your job" with an outburst of weird pedantry, and then decide to show their moxie by taking on one of the big boys, George Santayana, doing one of his greatest hits: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This, they acknowledge, is "not fallacious in itself, but there is an implicit conclusion that makes it fallacious. We are led to the conclusion that those who do remember the past are not condemned to repeat it." So his remark is a fallacy because we misuse it. (And while we're at it, who is "we"?)

More interesting is the authors' anomalous choice of a nonpolitical example when a high profile political example was ready to hand--a Maureen Dowd column, much remarked on, that used cut-and-paste to fabricate a quotation from George W. Bush. One explanation, plausibly malicious, is that the authors couldn't bring themselves to show the loathed Bush at the receiving end of a dirty trick. Another is chance. Another is their lack of interest in the news media as political actors with characteristic forms of misbehavior. One could write a small monograph on the making of "corrections" by placing a small box at the bottom of page 18 to retract errors that were originally splashed on the front page. Dowd used a form of "silent correction," inserting the full quotation into a subsequent column with no indication that it had ever appeared in doctored form.

By and large, of course, the examples are correct, and a reader could learn a few things--were he willing to apply them to himself. Does it matter that two aging college buddies wanted to position themselves as merry japesters and speakers of truth to power, and stake their claim to the comedy throne of Andy Rooney? So what if all the examples swing the same way? That's no outrage to logic. So two aging
college buddies think, like most of us, that their crotchets are savvy and interesting and merit widespread attention--when, of course, their observations are third-hand, mediocre, and predictable. The real question is, Will there be a sequel? And the answer, surely, is Yes.

David Guaspari is a writer in Ithaca, New York.