In celebration of Groundhog Day, let’s look at false dilemmas and false dichotomies.
Although it was sunny in Connecticut, Punxsutawney Phil, the nation’s most celebrated groundhog, failed to see his shadow in Pennsylvania, thus predicting an early spring. (If he sees it, the prediction is for six more weeks of winter.)
This is an example of a false dichotomy: There’s really only one outcome. Either way, spring will come at the same time, at the vernal equinox on March 20. That’s 46 days away, or about six and a half weeks. So six weeks is, by definition, an early spring.
A false dilemma is an apparent choice between two options, when actually there are others. The one that’s making the rounds now that 2020 presidential candidates are emerging: “Vote for an independent, elect Trump.” A third-party candidate might, and probably will, draw voters from both parties and thus could swing an election either way.
Wow. Whoever chose November for the National Novel Writing Month challenge must have had a sadistic streak.
For starters, November hath 30 days, which makes it one of the shorter months. Mathematically, a 30-day goal may be cleaner to calculate than 31 days, but it does increase the tension.
Speaking of tension, in November most Americans celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, which involves more than the day set aside for preparation and consumption of the feast. Depending on your role, you are also making time for housekeeping, travel, Black Friday shopping, tree-cutting, holiday decorating, and more that week — which also happens to be close to the deadline for the contest.
Many, if not most, of the participants in this project appear to be teens or young adults, working around school or work, or both. As a retired old fart, I’m an exception to that rule.
Even though I generally kept ahead of the 1,667-word-a-day pace for making the 50,000-word monthly challenge, I fell behind during the Thanksgiving weekend because family took priority. Some days I wrote nothing, some days only a few hundred words.
All this does, as we say in the news business, bury the lede — or lead, if you prefer: Yes, I completed the challenge and wrote 50,000 of a novel within the deadline. (Newsies understand deadlines.) It was a full novel, with beginning, middle and end. With some revision — and that process is covered in January and February — it may actually be publishable.
That said, it was what we called in my college days a unidraft — that is, you sit down at the typewriter (today, your keyboard), start writing and don’t look back. No time for a rewrite, although on the final day I did reread, correct obvious errors, and make a few minor revisions.
Without getting into too much detail, I did have a couple of factors in my favor. “Welcome to Betelgeuse” is an introduction to a fictional universe that I’ve been imagining and pondering for years. (Coincidentally, during November I opened an old file drawer and discovered a folder called “Betelgeuse Project” with printouts dated 1999.) Second, because of the nature of this universe, many of the characters I was using were already familiar so I did not have to develop them from scratch, although I did have to research them, so there was a tradeoff.
Some takeaways from the experience:
The deadline was what got me off the dime on a project.
It takes discipline to say “I’m going off to write now” and to do that.
I write much better dialogue than action, and better action than visualized setting. Maybe I should stick to playwriting.
Setting daily goals and keeping track of them helped keep up the pace.
Now that I’ve completed a draft of a book, I should be able to do it again because “I can’t” and “I never” are not valid excuses.
It was actually fun and I’ll probably try the contest again next year.
So there I was, scrolling through my emails, when I found a missive from the Mark Twain House in Hartford. I’m on their mailing lists because I attended a writers’ weekend a couple of years ago, and because I donated to their foundation.
It pitched one of the new programs, in which writers can book some time to write in Mark Twain’s library at the mansion. It sounds like fun, although the fun has its limits: pens are not permitted (pencils are), and power in the library is limited so laptops have to be fully charged and able to last.
Part of the pitch was that writers could get in shape for #NaNoWriMo, which of course led me to wonder what the heck had such a strange acronym. It turns out that this national nonprofit organization’s program called National Novel Writing Month has taken place every November since 2006. It’s sponsored by schools and libraries and local writers clubs across the country and encourages writers, young and old, experienced and new, to pound out a 50,000-word fiction manuscript during the 30 days that hath November. It’s a free program but the nonprofit accepts donations.
This word count results in a modest-sized novel, but the rules are loose: it doesn’t HAVE to be a novel or even fiction; it doesn’t HAVE to be complete; it doesn’t even HAVE to be good. The idea is to push the writer to Just Do It — overcome the self-editor, the procrastinator, the deep planner, the researcher — and bang out a first draft. That has been exactly my problem with my first two novels, which are both about one-quarter of the way through. I put them aside for Real Life, or for research, or for just plain fear, and may not get back to them for months or even years.
One of the few rules of NaNoWriMo is that they discourage you from working on an existing project, finishing or editing something that you already have in the works. You start with a clean slate, zero words on Day -1, and try to complete it in the time allotted. That’s an average of 1,667 words a day — a difficult pace but not grueling. My typical columns would have run about 700 words, so this is a little more than two columns worth of writing, or about four to five hours of writing.
This post comes to just over 500 words. It’s taken me about 30 minutes, including interruptions and editing in links the morning after. So this won’t exactly be a piece of cake, but it’s a reasonable target. I’m going to give it a try with a third project I’ve been thinking about. Perhaps the experience — and Scrivener, the writing tool I’m trying out through the program — will give me the confidence and practice and discipline needed to complete the challenge. Wish me luck! (And if you’re inspired to try NaNoWriMo too and want to be a writing buddy, look me up on the site. I’m listed as hwfielding.)
So if you don’t hear from me for another month or so, you’ll understand. Or perhaps I’ll share some of the story as it develops. Just don’t expect too much. (NaNoWriMo continues with editing and revisions in January.)
To wrap up the last two postings, the controversy over the nomination of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court provided high political drama just weeks before the mid-term elections.
Americans generally don’t understand judicial theory and philosophy, but they do understand politics, at least as far as their teams go. The winning team in the presidential election gets to appoint federal judges, including justices, with what the Constitution calls the “advice and consent” of the Senate.
Since the 1980s, Republicans have been trying to turn away from what they call “activist judges” and appoint “originalists” who look to the letter of the law and the Constitution rather than attempting to enforce broad social policy through the courts. Democrats tend to prefer courts that will interpret the laws in the context of current political and social issues.
Thus when then-Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, an originalist whose appointment would secure a 5-4 conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, was nominated in the summer before the midterm elections, it became a political race against the clock. With a narrow Republican majority in the Senate, Democrats sought to delay the vote on the appointment until after the midterms in hopes they would gain a majority. Republicans pressed for a speedy vote, partly to get the new justice on board in time to hear arguments at the beginning of the session, but mostly because they were uncertain they’d hold the Senate and be able to approve him in a lame-duck session.
Beyond his judicial conservatism, Democrats had many reasons to dislike Kavanaugh for political reasons. He had served as associate to Independent Counsel Kenneth Star and written much of the so-called Starr Report about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal; he worked on the George Bush legal team regarding the Florida recount in 2000; and was a key player in vetting Bush’s judicial nominees, including Chief Justice John Roberts.
The Democrats’ first attempt to run the clock was to demand, in addition to his court rulings, documents from his time as White House secretary under President George W. Bush, who had appointed him to the D.C. Circuit. When, late in the game, some 42,000 pages of documents were released, Democrats complained that they had no time to review them before a vote and requested that the vote be postponed. When that was denied and the Republican-led Judiciary Committee pressed on with the nomination, Democrats pulled the pin on a grenade that they’d apparently been holding onto for three months.
In July, even before Kavanaugh’s name appeared on the short list of potential nominees, Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University, contacted the Washington Post and her congresswoman, Rep. Anna Eschoo, D-Calif., with a report that Kavanaugh had sexually attacked her during a drunken high school party in the 1980s. Fearing retribution, Ford demanded that she be kept anonymous, but she met with Eschoo, who was convinced of her credibility. Eschoo referred the matter to Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, who honored Ford’s request for anonymity and did not bring the accusations up during the committee hearings.
In mid-September, with a vote on the nominee expected at the end of the month, an online news organization reported that Feinstein was withholding a report from fellow Judiciary Committee members. Feinstein then forwarded the letter to the FBI. The resulting news reports eventually forced Ford to go public with her accusations. She and Kavanaugh both had a chance to testify before the committee in a dramatic extra day of hearings on Sept. 27. The next day, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, asked to postpone the vote for an additional week so the FBI could investigate Ford’s claims. This was granted, but apparently the FBI was unable to confirm the claims within the time allotted. The Senate approved the nomination on Oct. 6 in a party-line vote.
The testimony has been thoroughly rehashed and books are already in the works, so there’s no need to revisit that. What’s interesting here are the rhetorical strategies used in this campaign.
I suspect that the whole thing was never intended to go this far, that the politicians involved hoped that the anonymous charges would either force the nominee to withdraw (or be withdrawn) or justify a further background investigation that could delay the vote until after the midterms. When the accuser went public, things spun out of control. Compounding the matter were copycat accusers, anonymous and named.
On the day Kavanaugh was sworn in, one of my Facebook friends, apparently a Democrat, posted how disappointed she was — hashtag BelieveSurvivors. This illustrates the full transition of changing the subject from the Federalist Society (see previous post) to an assumption of guilt regarding men accused of sexual improprieties. The public doesn’t get excited over judicial philosophy. It does get excited over partisanship, and much more so over sex. Sex is, well, sexy.
When the subject-matter bottle was spun, it ended up pointing to hashtag BelieveSurvivors. If that’s the bottom line of the whole ugly mess, here’s how I believe survivors:
I believe survivors have the right to be treated fairly and honestly by the politicians they entrust with their personal concerns.
I believe survivors should not be exploited by politicians.
I believe survivors and those they accuse have the right to due process, including the right to produce and cross-examine witnesses, in a court of law and not in the court of public opinion.
A footnote on believing survivors: In early November, at least one “Jane Doe” complainant admitted to the Judiciary Committee that she had fabricated an anonymous report of sexual assault against Kavanaugh. She was referred to the Justice Department for making false statements.
The nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh (see previous post) gave opponents an opportunity to use two tried-and-true (or perhaps false) rhetorical techniques: ad hominem and changing the subject.
The real subject of this nomination fight was whether the Supreme Court should seek to expand the law of the land under modern interpretations, or restrain itself to the original rules as written into the Constitution, which reserve rights to the states and the people.
The Constitution established three equal branches of government: the legislative to create the laws; the administrative to administer and enforce them; and the judicial to determine whether the laws and their enforcement are valid and consistent with existing law and the Constitution. If not, the court may direct the administrative branch to enforce a law differently, or sometimes force the legislative branch to write new law that would be valid.
During the tumultuous 1950s, ’60s and ’70s the Supreme Court’s role began to change, especially under chief justices Earl Warren (1953-1969) and Warren E. Burger (1969-1986). It expanded civil rights and civil liberties — and federal and judicial power by, among other things, declaring its rulings on those matters the law of the land. Nixon appointee Burger was a conservative and critic of the Warren court, but nevertheless joined the majority in 1973’s Roe v. Wade case in finding an implied right to privacy in the Constitution that prohibited states from banning abortions.
President Ronald Reagan elevated Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist, the most conservative member of the Burger court, to chief justice in 1986. Like fellow Reagan nominee Judge Robert Bork, Rehnquist was considered an originalist, a jurist who looked to the original meaning of the Constitution and the laws rather than interpreting them to reflect current existing conditions and norms. Rehnquist held to a legal concept of federalism that in relied on the Tenth Amendment, which reserved any rights not enumerated in the Constitution to the states or to the people.
This school of thought, which became more prominent in the 1980s, gave rise to the Federalist Society, which describes itself as “a group of conservatives and libertarians dedicated to reforming the current legal order. We are committed to the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.”
All five of the nine sitting Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents — Chief Justice John Roberts (George W. Bush, 2005), Clarence Thomas (George H.W. Bush, 1991), Samuel Alito (G.W. Bush, 2006), Neil Gorsuch (Donald Trump, 2017) and Kavanaugh (Trump, 2018) — have Federalist Society credentials. The Roberts court has, of late, consistently ruled based on narrow interpretations of the law rather than broader issues of social policy.
Opponents who think of the Supreme Court as a superlegislature often argue that a conservative court “will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade,” but that’s not how courts work. Courts rule on the facts of a specific case, based on existing law and precedent. During their nomination hearings, both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh said Roe v. Wade is settled law. It won’t change, no matter how much liberals may fear it will or conservatives may want it to.
People don’t understand legal procedures or judicial policy, but they do understand the drama of politics. When the Kavanaugh nomination process seemed to be proceeding smoothly, opponents changed the subject at the last minute to something more dramatic, and started attacking the man rather than his judicial philosophy. They changed the subject — twice.
When the law is on your side, argue the law.
When the facts are on your side, argue the facts.
When neither the law nor the facts are on your side, call the other lawyer names.
I try not to address political topics in the heat of the moment, so forgive me for delivering old news. Earlier this month we added a new justice to the United States Supreme Court. The final days of the process were tense, angry and partisan — and give us good examples of two rhetorical techniques known as ad hominem attacks and changing the subject.
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh replaces retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, for whom he clerked early in his career. Kennedy, who was considered a swing vote on many of the court’s 5-4 decisions in recent years, was nominated by conservative President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and unanimously approved by the Senate in 1988.
It’s tempting to say that those were the good old days of civility and “advice and consent” by the Senate, which at that time required a two-thirds majority to approve judicial nominees. The truth is that Kennedy was uncontroversial only in comparison to Reagan’s first nominee to replace the retiring moderate Justice Lewis Powell (also a swing vote) — conservative Judge Robert Bork.
In his legal philosophy, Bork was considered an originalist: He interpreted the Constitution to be applied as it was written without modern conclusions such as an implied right to privacy, a key element of the Roe v. Wade decision that applied abortion law nationwide instead of as one of the laws not enumerated in the Constitution and thus reserved to the states.
Democrats and others feared that this approach would lead the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, and thus opposed Bork on ideological grounds rather than his qualifications. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D- Massachusetts, delivered this famous speech within an hour after the nomination:
Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.
Other senators, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden, D-Delaware, opposed Bork on his legal philosophy, saying that originalism was at odds with modern interpretations that a right to privacy exists beyond the text of the Constitution.
The committee voted 9-5 against Bork, who was expected to withdraw his nomination before a full Senate vote. He didn’t, saying instead:
There should be a full debate and a final Senate decision. In deciding on this course, I harbor no illusions. But a crucial principle is at stake. That principle is the way we select the men and women who guard the liberties of all the American people. That should not be done through public campaigns of distortion. If I withdraw now, that campaign would be seen as a success, and it would be mounted against future nominees. For the sake of the Federal judiciary and the American people, that must not happen. The deliberative process must be restored.
Bork’s nomination was rejected in the full Senate, 58-42, but the attacks on the man rather than his qualifications have given us a new name for such ad-hominem attacks, especially in political appointments, that has lasted three decades: to Bork.