Thursday, April 12, 2007

Smoking, Slavery, and Senators

Here is the Cliff's Notes version of a story in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune:

In smoking ban debate, county commissioner makes sweeping generalization that he must always do what a majority of his constituents want. Fellow commissioner queries whether that would include voting for slavery if a majority were in favor. Commissioner says 'yes' to voting for slavery. Pandemonium ensues.

Today's fun (yet predictable) quote is as follows:

"He doesn't seem to understand, and for him to hold a public office and not understand that is offensive," [St. Mark's AME Pastor Danita] Williams said. She said Nelson must offer a public, unqualified apology, "and he also needs to take a diversity class."

Of course. I wonder how long before someone demands that Don Imus take a similar class. But St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson does not need a diversity class. He needs a civics class because of his failure to understand the difference between representative democracy and direct democracy. But I digress.

The other predictable thing from the story is that Nelson accuses his fellow commissioner of equating smoking with slavery. Not true. The other guy was taking Nelson's sweeping generalization to its logical extreme. Two former Indiana politicians (what is it with these Hoosiers?) unfairly got in hot water for doing exactly the same thing -- then-Senator Dan Quayle for asking whether his relatively few years in the Senate would have excluded John F. Kennedy from being President, and Senator Rick Santorum for asking whether the arguments in favor of gay marriage could also justify bestiality.

The point of taking someone's sweeping generalization to its logical extreme is not to say that the two things are the same or similar. It is to show how two totally different things are equated when one makes an unqualified and logically sloppy statement. Last summer, I wrote about this as a guest on SCSU Scholars.

This leads to a larger point about comparisons. By bringing up slavery, have I equated the Taliban and the Baathists with slaveowners? Or have I merely pointed out a flaw in the sweeping generalization presented by Boyd and Coleman?

Let's assume that someone asserts that the reason that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a hero is that he went to jail for his beliefs. If a second person points out that the Ayatollah Khomeini also went to jail for his beliefs, does that mean that the second person has likened MLK to a ruthless dictator? Actually, the second person would be saying quite the opposite. When your standard for heroism is so imprecise, then polar opposites like MLK and Khomeini are caught up in the same category. So you had better refine your definition of heroism.

Remember Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's famous "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" line? Again, that was billed as a "comparison" by then-Senator Quayle to the 35th president. Perhaps Quayle could have responded that Bentsen had proved his point. When you look only at age and years in Congress, then people who are as different as President Kennedy and Vice President Quayle look exactly the same. So we must evaluate candidates using other criteria.

Nelson would have been better off to trot out the flawed, but effective logic of Lloyd Bentsen from the beginning. He, too, could have been a media hero.

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Blogger Marty said...

"A represantative owes his people not only his industry but also his judgement and he betrays them if he sacrifices it for their opinion"

-Edmund Burke

Pretty sure that's the quote word for word but don't make too big a deal if it's not. The main premise is still there.

There is a huge jump between smoking bans and slavery. Slavery take away the humanity of humans while smoking bans are about property rights and scientific enquiry and where the fit into a represantational republic.

Studying a little Burke could have saved this Commissioner a lot of headache.

April 13, 2007 12:51 PM  

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