The Magazine

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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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.