What follows is a reposting of an entry that first appeared in these pages on 19 July 2010. The reposting is prompted by the following surprising statement by Joe Nocera: "But it is equally true that anyone who goes into a school with a semiautomatic and kills 20 children and six adults is, by definition, mentally ill." (Emphasis added.) Well, maybe it isn't so surprising given that Mr. Nocera is a NYT op-ed writer. Surprising or not, Nocera's claim is not only false, but illustrative of complete confusion about the meaning of 'by definition.'
Suppose a Palestinian Arab terrorist enters a yeshiva with a semi-automatic rifle and kills 20 children and six adults. May you validly infer that the terrorist is mentally ill? Of course not. He may or may not be. Were the 9/11 hijackers mentally ill? No. They collectively committed an unspeakably evil act. But only a liberal would confuse an evil act with an insane act. Suppose a young SS soldier is ordered to shoot a group of 26 defenceless Jews, toppling them into a mass grave they were forced to dig. He does so, acting sanely and rationally, knowing that if he does not commit mass murder he himself will be shot to death.
Conceptual confusion and emotive uses of language are trademarks of liberal feel-good 'thinking.' To give one more example from Nocera's piece, he refers to semi-automatics as "killing machines." Question: would a semi-auto pistol or rifle be a "killing machine" if it were used purely defensively or to stop a would-be mass murderer? Is an 'assault weapon' an assault weapon when used for defense? Is a liberal a liberal on the rare occasions when he talks sense?
What is wrong with the following sentence: "Excellent health care is by definition redistributional"? It is from a speech by Donald Berwick, President Obama's nominee to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, speaking to a British audience about why he favors government-run health care.
I have no objection to someone arguing that health care ought to be redistributional. Argue away, and
good luck! But I object strenuously to an argumentative procedure whereby one proves that X is Y by illict importation of the predicate Y into the definition of X. But that is exactly what Berwick is doing. Obviously, it is no part of the definition of 'health care' or 'excellent health care' that it should be redistributional. Similarly, it is no part of the definition of 'illegal alien' that illegal aliens are Hispanic. It is true that most of them are, but it does not fall out of the definition.
This is the sort of intellectual slovenliness (or is it mendacity?) that one finds not only in leftists but also in Randians like Leonard Peikoff. In one place, he defines 'existence' in such a way that nothing supernatural exists, and then triumphantly 'proves' that God cannot exist! See here.
This has all the advantages of theft over honest toil as Bertrand Russell remarked in a different connection.
One more example. Bill Maher was arguing with Bill O'Reilly one night on The O'Reilly Factor. O'Reilly came out against wealth redistribution via taxation, to which Maher responded in effect that that is just what taxation is. The benighted Maher apparently believes that taxation by definition is redistributional. Now that is plainly idiotic: there is nothing in the nature of taxation to require that it redistribute wealth. Taxation is the coercive taking of monies from citizens in order to fund the functions of government. One can of course argue for progressive taxation and wealth redistribution via
taxation. But those are further ideas not contained in the very notion of taxation.
Leftists are typically intellectual cheaters. They will try to bamboozle you. Listen carefully when they bandy about phrases like 'by definition.' Don't let yourself be fooled.
"But are Berwick, Peikoff, and Maher really trying to fool people, or are they merely confused?" I don't know and it doesn''t matter. The main thing is not to be taken in by their linguistic sleight-of-hand whether intentional or unintentional.