Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Sowell on "simple" theories of terrorism and crime

Christopher Hitchens writes, in an article headlined "Simply Evil":

The proper task of the "public intellectual" might be conceived as the responsibility to introduce complexity into the argument: the reminder that things are very infrequently as simple as they can be made to seem. But what I learned in a highly indelible manner from the events and arguments of September 2001 was this: Never, ever ignore the obvious either. To the government and most of the people of the United States, it seemed that the country on 9/11 had been attacked in a particularly odious way (air piracy used to maximize civilian casualties) by a particularly odious group (a secretive and homicidal gang: part multinational corporation, part crime family) that was sworn to a medieval cult of death, a racist hatred of Jews, a religious frenzy against Hindus, Christians, Shia Muslims, and "unbelievers," and the restoration of a long-vanished and despotic empire.

To me, this remains the main point about al-Qaida and its surrogates. I do not believe, by stipulating it as the main point, that I try to oversimplify matters. I feel no need to show off or to think of something novel to say. Moreover, many of the attempts to introduce "complexity" into the picture strike me as half-baked obfuscations or distractions. These range from the irredeemably paranoid and contemptible efforts to pin responsibility for the attacks onto the Bush administration or the Jews, to the sometimes wearisome but not necessarily untrue insistence that Islamic peoples have suffered oppression. (Even when formally true, the latter must simply not be used as nonsequitur special pleading for the use of random violence by self-appointed Muslims.)

Underlying these and other attempts to change the subject there was, and still is, a perverse desire to say that the 9/11 atrocities were in some way deserved, or made historically more explicable, by the many crimes of past American foreign policy. Either that, or—to recall the contemporary comments of the "Reverends" Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—a punishment from heaven for American sinfulness. . . . That this was an assault upon our society, whatever its ostensible capitalist and militarist "targets," was again thought too obvious a point for a clever person to make. It became increasingly obvious, though, with every successive nihilistic attack on London, Madrid, Istanbul, Baghdad, and Bali. . . .

10 years ago in Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, Pa., there was a direct confrontation with the totalitarian idea, expressed in its most vicious and unvarnished form. Let this and other struggles temper and strengthen us for future battles where it will be necessary to repudiate the big lie.
This reminds me of a great passage — one of many — in Thomas Sowell's 2009 book Intellectuals and Society. (By the way, I appreciate that this book has an index that's more complex than the usual list of obvious nouns like names and places. This index actually has an entry for "Simplistic Arguments," which allowed me to easily find the passage I was thinking of.) Sowell writes:
[T]he assumption that certain arguments are unworthy because they are "simplistic" — not as a conclusion from counter-evidence or counter-arguments, but in lieu of counter-evidence or counter-arguments . . . is a very effective debating tactic, however questionable it may be logically. With one word, it preempts the intellectual high ground without offering anything substantive. It is insinuated, rather than demonstrated, that a more complex explanation is more logically consistent or more empirically valid.
That one argument may be simpler than another says nothing about which argument reaches conclusions that turn out to be validated by empirical evidence more often. Certainly the explanation of many physical phenomena — the sun setting over the horizon, for example — by the argument that the earth is round is simpler than the more complex explanations of the same phenomena by members of the Flat Earth Society. Evasions of the obvious can become very complex. (81)
Later in the book, he applies this observation to fighting crime:
Even the most blatant facts can be sidestepped by saying that the causes of crime are too "complex" to be covered by a "simplistic" explanation. This verbal tactic simply expands the question to unanswerable dimensions, as a prelude to dismissing any explanation not consonant with the prevailing vision as "simplistic" because it cannot fully answer the expanded question. But no one has to master the complexities of Newton's law of gravity to know that stepping off the roof of a skyscraper will have consequences. Similarly, no one has to unravel the complexities of the innumerable known and unknown reasons why people commit crimes to know that putting criminals behind bars has a better track record of reducing the crime rate than any of the complex theories or lofty policies favored by the intelligentsia. (195)


chickenlittle said...

Occam's Razor is powerful analytic tool invoked in hard science as needed.

No one serious about argument dismisses something because it is too simple. Arguments and hypotheses get rejected because they are incomplete.

beckett said...

The more I think about the Hitchens piece, the more I think it's little more than propaganda.

He creates a group of people who try to introduce complexity, which enables him to lump seemingly everyone who disagrees with him on the subject of 9/11 and al Qaeda into one deluded faction.

He fails to say why looking to past crimes of America foreign policy to make 9/11 "historically more explicable" is "perverse," again lumping more considerate adversaries with the lunatic fringe.

His closing is telling in its grand style: "there was a direct confrontation with the totalitarian idea, expressed in its most vicious and unvarnished form. Let this and other struggles temper and strengthen us for future battles where it will be necessary to repudiate the big lie."

In all, he seems to be saying: 9/11 can be understood as nothing but an atrocity committed by the enemy in Western Freedom's fight against ignorance and hatred. Even accepting his "main point," what is wrong with trying to understand al Qaeda and its supporters? We study WWII and why Germans accepted Naziism without forgetting that Naziism was evil.

Hitchens accuses his straw men of obfuscation, distraction, and non sequiturs. Yet these are the tools he employs in his rallying cry of an article.

John Althouse Cohen said...

He fails to say why looking to past crimes of America foreign policy to make 9/11 "historically more explicable" is "perverse,"

Well, yes he does: because other countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia have also been attacked by al Qaeda or its allies. That suggests the attacks aren't specifically about American foreign policy. You may disagree with that reasoning — fine. But he does provide reasoning.

I don't interpret Hitchens to be saying we must avoid ever understanding the motivations of al Qaeda at any level of complexity beyond the analysis he gave in his 2-page Slate article. In fact, I'm sure he would disagree with that statement. He's making a narrower point, and one I agree with: that we shouldn't allow the goal of understanding al Qaeda in its full complexity to inhibit us from taking action to kill al Qaeda. To use your analogy, there might have been multifaceted depths of Hitler's psyche that would be quite edifying to explore, but doing so was not a precondition to entering World War II and killing the Nazis.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Notice that after his first paragraph, he says he's just stated "the main point" about al Qaeda. The inimitable Christopher Hitchens (whom I've seen on video many times and had the pleasure to meet once) chooses his words with extraordinary care. He deliberately did not say "the only point."