Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Rangel's Reductio

I've been fascinated by the dust up over Charlie Rangel's proposal to bring back the draft. Designed to shame those who rushed to war, it drew only eye rolls or looks of bemused puzzlement from them. From his own side, however, a significant portion of the reaction was strong and negative -- check out Brock at Battle Panda and Dave at Quaker Agitator for a couple of smart folks who showed more than mild distaste for the idea.

I've been thinking about the underlying logic of the discussion. What Congressman Rangel was trying to do was to employ something like what we call a reductio ad absurdum argument (Latin for "reduce to the absurd") where we prove a sentence is true by assuming it is false. It works like this:

- Assume that sentence A is false.
- Adding in the truth of "not A" to what we already know must lead to a contradiction "B and not B"
- Contradictions cannot be true
- Therefore, since accepting "not A" leads to a logically untenable (absurd) position, A must be true.
In its strongest form, denying A leads to impossible consequences meaning that A must be true.

A weaker form of this type of argument is the "poison pill" where the resulting consequence is not a contradiction, but simply a proposition you know your interlocutor will be unwilling to accept. That was what the Congressman was trying to do, making the possibility of legislators own children or the children of their more well off constituents the ones who might end up in the line of fire.

None of this, of course, was lost on those on the left who objected to Rangel. So what was the problem? Rangel's entire move was based on the fact that reinstating the draft is a non-starter. But the fear is that the pill is not poisonous enough. If one could imagine a President whipping up sufficient frenzy around false claims in order to invade another country, if you could imagine people in this age being arrested for simply holding a sign that opposes those in power, if you could imagine not only having public debate over the moral permissibility of torture, but having that debate so skewed that those opposing torture are seen as the far-out wackos, then something as mundane as the draft hardly seems the absurdity needed to make the argument work. Everyone sees the point the Congressman is making, but it seems that in these times it is us that have already been reduced to the absurd, rendering the argument ineffectual. It harkens back to Alice's conversation with the catepillar wherein she said,
"being so many sizes in one day is confusing."
"It isn't,' said the Caterpillar.
"Well, perhaps you haven't found it so yet," said Alice; "but when you have to turn into a chrysalis--you will some day, you know--and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel it a little queer, won't you?"
"Not a bit," said the Caterpillar.
When one lives in Wonderland, one's definition of absurd must be adjusted. So to Congressman Rangel and most of the rest of everyone, a very merry unbirthday to you.