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S.U.V. bashing bashed

In this morning's New York Times, somebody named Woody Hochswender writes that people should stop giving him grief about driving an SUV. It's an incoherent mess of an article, chock full o' logical inconsistencies. I'm going to break it down, so if you aren't willing to go in and read the article, first, even if it requires registration, it's probably worth skipping this entry. It's the sort of sloppy thinking and writing that really gets up my nose, and now that I have a blog, I find I can't ignore it.

First, there's an ad hominem attack, suggesting that the producer of Pulp Fiction, who is producing anti-SUV TV ads with Arianna Huffington, is not in a position to make moral proclamations. Even if you accept that this is true, and that it matters who produces a TV ad, it does not in any way invalidate the argument.

The argument of the ads, by the way, is evidently that by driving low-mileage vehicles, we support regimes in oil-rich countries that support terrorism. I haven't seen the ads; I don't know if they make the argument in any coherent way. I do think that US dependence on foreign oil makes us vulnerable to instability in oil-rich regions, but this note isn't about what I think. It's about this Tohu Bohu of a Times Op-Ed piece.

Hochswender, after dismissing the ad as "trendy," says that "[t]hose who implicate Americans ... validate the terrorists as essentially right." This is a bizarre jump; I'm not sure what the terrorists believe (other, of course, than the monstrous belief that there are circumstances which justify acts of terrorism), so I'm not sure what they could possibly be right about. I suspect that he believes that people like Bin Laden hate us for "our freedoms," which include, presumably, our freedom to drive SUVs. This is preposterous. If it is true that fundamentalist Islamists despise American license, it has nothing to do with regulations, or the lack of them, on cars and trucks. It may well have to do with allowing women to drive, and to hold political office, and control their sexual lives themselves, and it may well have to do with our popular culture combining incredible persuasive skill and materialistic godlessness, but I don't think the most fanatic anti-American is incensed by the wide range of vehicles available for purchase.

By the way, in addition to being false, it is another ad hominem argument: if the terrorists are right about something, that thing must be wrong. I suspect that the terrorists believe that, for instance, the sun comes up in the east; I think so, too, and it would be absurd to change that belief simply because there are murderers and madman who share it.

After that, Hochswender makes a detour into defending his choice of vehicle on practical grounds. This is particularly magnificent from a logical point of view. Argument: Driving an SUV supports rogue regimes and therefore terrorists. Rebuttal: But the roads are icy! Look, everybody gets to make their own moral choices, and if you live somewhere where practicalities require you to use resources in a certain way, that's fine. But black ice on the roads doesn't make the initial argument disappear. If oil money supports terrorism, it supports terrorism whether you are getting value for the oil you buy or not.

Next, he defends SUVs against the charge that they are unsafe by saying that he's a safe driver. Yep. Sure. Everyone who says that he's a safe driver is a safe driver. That's evidence. More to the point, it's entirely irrelevant. Again, argument: Driving an SUV supports rogue regimes and therefore terrorists. Rebuttal: SUVs aren't as unsafe as you think they are, because I'm a safe driver. Hunh?

OK, shortly after that, he gets down to addressing in some measure the actual argument. In the eighth paragraph. And what is his defense? Although SUVs get bad mileage, "[p]eople who drive light trucks quickly learn not to drive around aimlessly." He provides no evidence of this at all, other than his own experience, which is suspect (note the appropriate use of an ad hominem argument by Your Humble Blogger: consider the source, and if he has an interest in one side of the argument, do not accept uncorroborated evidence from that source). Still, it does address the main concern, which is that people who drive SUVs consume more gasoline. I'm afraid I don't buy that they don't, but since all of my evidence that they do is equally anecdotal, I can't claim victory.

Then he addresses the macro-economic issue, that is, if America cut its fuel consumption by 20%, what effect would it have on the world economy, and therefore on rogue states, and terrorist organizations? His answer is that it would have no effect whatsoever, because oil companies would still buy up oil from rogue states. Hmmm. Instinctively, I would think that a massive decrease in demand, would lead to some sort of change in the market. I think the results aren't terribly predictable, but no change isn't likely.

He then finishes with yet another ad hominem argument (surprise!) claiming without any evidence whatsoever that Ms. Huffington is spending more on heating and air-conditioning her house than could be saved by giving up an SUV. Look, it is worth pointing out that there are other ways to be fuel-inefficient than driving an SUV, and that the whole focus on SUVs may well be missing the point, like ignoring the golf courses during a drought to focus on people's lawns. But everybody is responsible for their own choices, and to say that Hochswender gets a clean break on the SUV because he fuels his house efficiently is like saying that it's OK for the cops to take protection money from a few places because they do, after all, enforce the law in others. It's a bought indulgence, and it's just silly.

What’s my point? First of all, don’t be persuaded by ad hominem attacks unless they are to the point. It’s fair to say that Bush and his cronies are oilmen, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that everything they say about Hussein is false. Second, don’t pay any attention to irrelevant arguments, or make them. Find out what you (or whoever you are reading or listening to) are arguing against, and stick to that. Better yet, do some research into the initial argument, to find out if it’s any good or not. Third, don’t get Your Humble Blogger started.

Thank you,