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September 12, 2005


You should do more than Google searches to come up with your arguments.

And, by the way, what is your argument? Has defense of the administration now boiled down to merely attacking its detractors?

What's next? Blaming Democrats for hurricanes?

I generally like Eric Alterman quite a bit, but on this argument, I think his position is indefensible. We all know what "in order to" means. He probably misspoke and he ought to simply cop to that instead becoming more truculent. It's too bad.

If he wants to talk irony, what's so striking about Alterman's own blog reply (Sep. 12) is that, in two sentences:

First he denies the charge Nyhan levels against him:

"I am not saying, as a foolish young blogger named Brendan Nyhan idiotically insists, that Bush has done this because he wants more terrorism."

And then--in the very next sentence! --continues parading around this same sloppy equivocation by accusing Bush of actively seeking out the very sort of nasty results that someone who "wants more terrorism" could expect:

"I don’t pretend to know what Bush wants, but I would be honestly surprised if it included killing lots of brave American soldiers for no good reason."

He just doesn't get it. Or, rather, he gets it, and is scraping anywhere for something to save him.

And his intentional obfuscations through that "accusing X of accusing Y of thinking Z" explanation are just the old rhetorical trick of throwing up a very complex-looking, but very hollow, distraction when you get caught. Great job in not taking the bait and keeping debate centered around the real point.

scratch my previous comment. Misread the "would" as a "wouldn't"


I'm on your side, Brendan. In general, bloggers like to insert unnecessary blatant absurdities in their text. Conversational absurdities like "don't knock yourself out" or "I'd never in a million years..." are only absurd when taken literally, but the people who use them don't mean them literally. Blogging (like email) adopts that conversational style without any of the social context of loose speech. So even if you'd be a "jerk" to tell someone that you have no intention of actually knocking yourself out, you have every right to do so to a blogger.

Bad bloggers tend to insert odd epithets like Chimp-in-Chief or Mr. Flip-Flopper where good old names would suffice (which is most of the time). It's as if (to guess intentions) they feel the need to seem angrier, or that any missed opportunity to hurl an insult is a political loss. So to see Mr. Alterman, whom I appreciate a lot, get cutsey-loose with his language and then get mad at you for calling him out is disheartening. Especially since you're both ostensibly on the same team (though Mr. Alterman has chosen territory with clearer political use) regarding media.

Having read Altercation daily for several years, I think I understand what Dr. Alterman was trying to impart, based on what he has written previously on the subject. Changing the last clause of the section you excerpt to "...creating more terrorists and letting bin Laden get away," might have been more precise verbage. I think it is silly to suggest that Dr. Alterman believes Bush intended to create more terrorists, however, that is exactly what Bush has done, and debating semantics will not change the fact that brave American soldiers are dying for less than nothing in Bush's Iraq.

I've followed your work from spinsanity to here. There are only a small circle of people trying to police political discourse. I only know of you, your spinsanity pal, and the daily howler.

I appreciate your efforts even when I disagree with you (I don't always agree with your critism of the right).

As far as I am concerned, you are a "language cop" , and that is a good thing. Eric Alterman is clearly wrong in his use of the phase "in order to", but he is more wrong in not recognizing that he is dealing with someone who has more crediblity than himself.

Keep up the good work you young, foolish, little language cop!

"You are making a jerk of yourself which is why I am doing you the favor of ignoring these baseless accusations on the blog." == I AM IGNORING YOU BY E-MAILING YOU THIS HUFFY MESSAGE.

"Foolish young blogger! Trix are for Alter-Man! My ad hominem technique is unstoppable!" I used to have sympathy for Alterman after that awful Dennis Miller interview, but now i have to wonder if he earned such scorn from Miller.

This really isn't complicated, people. If you read Alterman's blog regularly, you know he's being sarcastic here. If you don't read his blog regularly, you might misunderstand, as Nyhan has obviously done.

On a blog you can get away with stuff like this -- that's one of the things that separates blogs from traditional publications. Alterman would never write a statement like the one at issue in his column in the Nation because that's a publication pitched at a wider audience, and a very personal form of sarcasm that's shared by him and his blog readers wouldn't work there.

Also, the Coulter comparison is silly -- as Yglesias pointed out. Sometimes she writes satirically and sometimes she doesn't. Often enough, she outright lies and smears, and it's pretty obvious when she's doing that.

If Alterman lies and smears, call him on it. But if you don't get his sarcasm, that's your problem.

Brendan, I'm not really convinced you think this issue merits the mighty offense you've launched. Yes, the phrase "in order to" has a literal meaning, and I might be alarmed by Dr. Alterman's adamant disregard of that if he were a reporter.

But he's not a reporter. He has every right to develop his own style, and to amass a readership whose collective intellect is not so sufficiently dull that it resorts to parsing his prose in a manner more appropriate for babelfish or hand-held translation gadgetry.

Alterman's "in order to" sounds an alarm in my brain, too. I know I'm wading in partisan territory and actually, I appreciate writers who wear their opinions on their sleeves. Neutered missives and short bits of reference material do little to foster intellectual development.

So in sum, this altercation between you and Alterman isn't worthy of drawing the conclusions you (appear to) want us to draw. You've done a great job of starting an important discussion about word use and implication, but I hope Alterman doesn't change his writing style.

I actually don't know anything about Nyhan or Alterman. By Chance I read Alterman's post where he called Nyhan a "foolish young blogger" and a "little language cop". That prompted me to read Nyhan's posts and the thread of emails between Nyhan and Alterman. I have to agree with Nyhan. Nyhan is correct in that people should be as clear as possible with the language they use. Assumming that others can decipher your true intentions and meanings, if they know you well enough, just sounds like complete nonsense to me. Let me take a crack at re-phrasing what I think Alterman was trying to say.

In the name of fighting "terrorism," the administration has sent 40 percent of the National Guard to Iraq and Afghanistan which has resulted in the creation of more terrorists and the failure to capture/kill bin Laden.

Maybe I'm also miss-interpreting Alterman's point, but that's my best guess of what he was trying to say. If the interpretation is correct then "in order" was completely miss-used.

If I am reading you correctly, you are saying that if the sarcasm is really nasty, it is implying nasty stuff. I.e. if I say that Ann Coulter believes being patriotic is having are sons and daughters lives and hundreds of billions wasted on a senseless war then I am implying that she really does believe that. Am I correct? If that is true, well my nanoscopic-barely-got-a B.S.-from- UCLA brain thinks that is simply bullshit.

Come on, Brendan. Obviously, Alterman is being sarcastic; he is not really claiming that Bush is deliberately creating more terrorists or wants Bin Laden to go away. Although that may be the literal meaning of the sentence, any reader can understand Alterman's real point. (It's been a long time since English Composition, but isn't this the distinction between the detonation and the connotation?)

If Alterman had said something like, "In the name of fighting 'terrorism,' the administration has sent 40 percent of the National Guard to Iraq and Afghanistan in order to make money for its buddies at Haliburton" then you might have a case.

(cheering:) fight! fight! fight!

We all know the maxim concerning people who protest too much.

In my humble opinion, this paragraph -- "In the name of fighting "terrorism," the administration has sent 40 percent of the National Guard to Iraq and Afghanistan in order to create more terrorists and let bin Laden get away." -- is just simply very poor writing.

Frankly, it simply doesn't make sense and that, I believe, was intentional. Alterman WAS trying to say exactly what Brandon alleges, only in a manner he could defend should he have a need to defend his wordsmithing. Read the paragraph again, it is intentionally confusing two ideas.

I don't support Bush or his regime, but I really despise Democrats or anti-Bush folks who engage in the same kind of spin Karl Rove turned into an art form.

The Dems can't allow themselves to fall into this trap. It doesn't serve to raise the level of general discourse.

Man, some people need a serious refresher course in sarcasm.

It is getting spooky having to explain some of this these days. (FYI, brainsnap, and the Onion are satire, not 'real news')

Soon we will be trying to get people to understand that the Simpsons is not reality TV.

What I find particularly frustrating about this is that you explicitly mentioned that you presumed he was probably being sarcastic, but your point is that this mode of speech is bad: it's divisive, it encourages people to think of things in an implausible black & white way, whatever. Alterman isn't defending that: "no, I think writing in this over-the-top republicans-are-evil is the best way of solving the problems of America today"; he's just griping over the "I didn't really say that," which is, I think, a red herring (albeit one that I think you're feeding by insisting "what else could that mean").

I'd love to see the debate over your actual complaint: "No, Mr. Nyhan, I don't think what we need to do right now is raise the level of discourse; I think the best thing for liberals to do to advance their cause right now is lots of trash-talking and name-calling". Oh wait--"foolish", "idiotically", etc. Just at the wrong target.

Being called a jerk by Eric Alterman... isn't that like being called ugly by a warthog?

Not to mention the many regular fans of alterman, who would wilfully intereperate alterman's statement the way you suggest people might.

Clearly, he gives away the game with his scare quotes around the word "terrorism," which says to me, "the administration says it is a war about "terrorism" but it is really about something else. What is that something else? At least in part, "in order to create more terrorists and let bin Laden get away." Alterman should at least acknowledge that his flip use of language leaves him open to this sort of interpretation, whether he intends it or not.

Alterman sounds like Bill Clinton debating the meaning of the word "is".

Alterman is a piece of work.

He holds others accountable for their words, but wants complete freedom write and talk as if his words have meaning, but no consquence.

Sigh. This reminds me of the time Spinsanity attacked Al Gore because he called the press a fifth column -- the press wasn't, Spinsanity observed, literally in the pay of a foreign government, so Mr. Gore, Spinsanity reasoned, was guilty of a vicious smear. Mr. Nyhan and his former Spinsanity buddies believe a word or phrase has only one meaning and that therefore metaphor and sarcasm debase public discourse. Politics is to be discussed in prose written in the same spirit as the instruction manual for a hair dryer. Mr. Alterman's meaning is clear to everyone except those who don't want to know it.

Paul is right. You've called Alterman on an act of sloppy writing. As Alterman himself says, he is using "in order to" to mean "with the consequence of," but this is a blatant misuse of the phrase, as you point out. It is true that someone who has read Alterman enough can become accustomed to this misuse, but that doesn't turn it into a simple issue of style. We all have these language blunders; the easiest thing to do would be for Alterman to just own up to it and stop making the mistake.

Those who call this sarcasm are engaging in a language blunder too. Alterman, rightfully, isn't even trying to defend himself that way.

Arguing on the Internet is like competing in the Special Olympics. No matter who "wins", you're still retarded.

Sarcasm, my ass. Words are words, people, and Alterman's word choice was either poor or he meant every word of it. He should be a man about it and admit it. I'm not holding my breath...

Maybe Alterman has been reading "Through the Looking Glass." He sounds as if he's channeling Humpty Dumpty: (link here with great picture:
http://sundials.org/about/humpty.htm )

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. 'They've a temper, some of them - particularly verbs: they're the proudest - adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs - however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

'Would you tell me, please,' said Alice, 'what that means?'

'Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. 'I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'

'That's a great deal to make one word mean,' Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'I always pay it extra.'

A very good technical argument. Alterman doesn't have a leg to stand on here.

He should have just noted his incorrect use of language and moved on.

Alterman has been stewing in his own cortisol for as long as I've been aware of him. Eventually, he'll burst an blood vessel, and my quiet assurance that "this, too, shall pass" will be vindicated.

I read Alterman frequently, and I strongly believe he did not mean to imply Bush deliberately wants to create terrorists. I think he meant "in order" as a substitute for "which will cause." However, you are right-his language was sloppy and a less familiar reader could certainly come to a different conclusion. I also think his ad hominem attack against you was unfair and juvenile.

Alterman's rhetoric of the thing seems to use "in order to" as genuine irony -- "I went hiking in order to turn my ankle" -- to heighten his expression of the cussedness and clumsiness of the enterprise, and to relish allusively the peripheral tones of blame.

On-the-edge in language usage, but not incomprehensible. And that is the appropriate level of explanation.

Alterman loses more than the argument with ad hominem and arrogant attacks on Brendan's youth and straightforwardness, apparently startled into dismissive incivility because Brendan interrupted the trance state of some kind of circle-dance of bile.

Yes, "this too shall pass," in the long run we're all dead, and accuracy and close observation are a good thing in the meantime. Thanks, Brendan, and for the fine hurricane watch.

Maybe by "in order to" he meant something along the lines of "which resulted in."

Silly of him not to aknowledge that he may have phrased something poorly and correct it. Now he just looks like a jackass. (Note I did not say he IS a jackass, I said he looks like one, please do not infer this to mean that I think that he IS a jackass, because it may or may not mean that.)

mikmik says:

Man, some people need a serious refresher course in sarcasm.

One of the reasons I left the Left was the realization the Leftists are very rarely laughing, and when they are, it's usually at some form of sarcasm or snark.

The reliance of Lefits on sarcasm as a way of "humorously making a point" has gotten to the point where it's emotionally crippling.

I've been wrestling with this exchange in contrast to Mr. Nyhan's similar criticism of Michael Moore Sept. 12 post)

How long do you have to read Alterman before you understand that he does not actually consider Bush a heartless monster?

Alterman frequently comes off as an arrogant prick but in this case I'm giving him a pass - it wasn't his choice to get in to this little squabble.
Alterman's statement is obviously meant to be ironic - sending troops for a war supposedly to fight terror that is creating more terrorists.
By Brendan's reasoning we can remove all irony or sarcasm from the web because someone, somewhere is bound to not get the statement in question - as occurs here.



Prior to today I had never read either your or Eric Alterman's work (I will ignore the honorific).

Having done so now, it is clear that Eric Alterman is wrong.

Clearly wrong.

His writing, in this case, conveyed the meaning that Mr. Bush had acted malevolently.

As to whether Eric Alterman intended this as sarcasm, or not, I could take him at his word that he did not.

But his professed intentions aside, the meaning of what he wrote is unequivocal.

His subsequent attacks on you make him appear petty and dishonest.

Shameful, really.

Much better, I think, for a writer at his level to simply say, "Yes, I see how this could be read that way." Followed by, "No, I didn't mean it in that way, but thank you for pointing that out to me."

Cased closed.

Or not, in this case.

They're called manners and integrity.

Look them up.


Imagine that an educated speaker "misspoke", but instead of implying evil on the part of a president you don't like - the effect was to imply an ugly racial steriotype about a group of which you are a member. Makes it a little harder to argue that the misstatement should be read in "context" of the speaker's track record or that he was merely being sarcastic.

Yes, that is it! Al Campanis and Jimmy the Greek were merely being sarcastic! They now may await their invitations to the NAACP Image awards - I'm sure they will be awarded something.

You know I'm glad I found this post.

What a moron you are. The reason most readers understood Alterman's original phrase is because they have a BRAIN! This is what happens when you read one post.

Go back to your corner of the wingnuttosphere.

"My ad hominem technique is unstoppable!"

Am I the only one with a mental image of much jumping, arm waving and bad lip-synching associated with this statement.

My simple suggestion is for Mr. Alterman to include the connective phrase "having the result of" in his literary bag of tricks along side "in order to". This will then allow him to more clearly communicate his opinions in standard English, something I understand to be a common goal of many top tier writers and blogs.

Alterman takes other people out of context all the time, then gets upset when the shoe is on the other foot. how childish.

Alterman is using the Al Franken defense. Everything is meaningful unless the words depict the speaker as a fool.

I'm sure Al Franken borrowed the defense from someone else, but since the launch of Air America the rate of citation has increased.

I've never appreciated Alterman's work - particularly his butchery of logic in What Liberal Media?. I'm pleased to see that his intellectual dishonesty is now on display to a wider audience. Regardless of his original statement, he has revealed his true nature in his immature and poorly reasoned emails.

Alterman reminds me of Humpty Dumpty in Through The Looking-Glass:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I chose it to mean—nothing less, and nothing more."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."


I think you've run up against a central truth about Eric Alterman, which is - It's all about Eric Alterman.

He's clearly a smart guy and worth reading even when one disagrees with him, and he is capable of respectfull and civil disagreement (see his posts conveying grudging respect for Paul Wolfowitz) But, whenever the disagreement becomes personal (not ad hominem, just personal, as in "I think Eric Alterman is wrong, or said something dumb.") it's as if a switch gets flipped inside him. His intellectual honesty goes out the window, and he becomes hostile, insulting, and incapable of admitting to the slightest of errors. He is, in other words, not just sensitive but hyper-sensitive to critisism. How DARE this young whipper-snapper critisize ME, ERIC ALTERMAN.

Why are you wasting your time reading Eric Alterman's ranting?

He established his discredibility when he denied that the MSM has a liberal bias. That would be like someone on the right declaring that Rush Limbaugh votes Democrat.

When someone is so far beyond the pale that you can't even get him to agree on the plain facts, why try to reason with him?

Alterman admits that the literal meaning of what he wrote is false, but criticizes Hyhan for taking it so literally. The problem with Alterman's response is that when he was called on a blunt false assertion he became peevish and supercilious.

The fact that he didn't mean his remark literally doesn't excuse its overblown assertion and vicious intent. It's a cheap shot, and a tired one at that. This is no different from calling the president Bushitler, depicting him with a Hitler mustache, or calling him a dunce, a chimp, Nazi, Fascist or anything synonymous.

This is the stuff of hysteria. It has left the realm of reasoned debate and criticism. It's puerile and self-indulgent and unworthy of someone who is paid to write for a living.

Eric Alterman: PWN3D

Eric Alterman behaving like the Queen of Hearts??? I am shocked.

That is sarcasm.

Doctor Alterman is a pompous jackass who doesn't enjoy having the little people question his grandeloquence.

That is not sarcasm.

Actually, Alterman most likely believes exactly what he said, his denials notwithstanding. Leftist tend to believe that human beings in general and organized human beings (like, say, the goverment) in particular have the power to run the world as intended, producing mostly intended outcomes. Free health care for everyone? We just have to want it enough politically to make it happen. End gun crime? We need only want enough for the government to "ban" guns and it will be so. End poverty? Etc. etc. etc.

The problem with holding this gross overestimate of human power and capacity for knowledge as a premise arises when we apply logic to it. Logic states that if A=B, then B=A. Thus in a world where the will=the deed, then the deed=the will.

Unfortunately for Alterman, his logic is sound. Being ensnared by one's own logic is always disorienting, and explains why Alterman is so confused. It explains how he can deny stating something, and then state it again with his very next breath.

It's also why whenever an undesirable outcome occurs, the left immediately—immediately—seeks to assign blame, and why the left always views anyone who disagrees with them as morally suspect at best. The idea that will=deed is what forms the theorectical basis for power being the lowest common denominator of leftist thought.


Mike Bergen.

I have read and heard this trope repeated endlessly:

" I think it is silly to suggest that Dr. Alterman believes Bush intended to create more terrorists, however, that is exactly what Bush has done, and debating semantics will not change the fact that brave American soldiers are dying for less than nothing in Bush's Iraq. "

Please explain to me how you arrived at this conclusion, citing specific data and metrics. What's that? You can't? Then stop going around repeating it as fact.

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