Bulverism Unchained


The Danish media ignored a lot of American stories this week.

With an opening like that I could go on for days, but let’s stick to the really big American developments they ought to have covered: the bellwether gubernatorial race in Virginia, and the dirty tricks being played by the Clintonite McAuliffe’s campaign and supporters; the continuing crash and burn of Joe Biden’s approval numbers; the probably not unrelated fanfare as the administration announced a bold new “Gender Equity” initiative; the administration’s announced intention to pay “reparations” of 450,000 U.S. dollars per person to illegal aliens separated from their families while seeking to enter the country illegally in 2018; another dismal economic growth report; increasing shortages of everything from energy to meat products to paper goods; Attorney General Merrick Garland’s doubling down on his pursuit of imaginary hobgoblins; Congressional Democrats’ inability to hammer out a compromise on their “infrastructure” bills forcing Joe Biden to announce a “framework” as if that were actually a thing; a “caravan” of foreigners literally smashing through Mexican police on their way to America’s southern border; Transportation Secretary Buttigieg’s responding to criticisms of his two-month absence during a transportation crisis by making the rounds of the talk show circuit to talk up parental leave; and much, much more. (Notice I didn’t even touch on foreign affairs. Those are just a sampling of the domestic issues.)

The lack of coverage isn’t accidental. It isn’t happenstance. Denmark’s major media have made it very clear that they have the resources and will to cover American affairs in great depth when it suits them. I’m not going to support that premise with a link: the whole body of this blog up through January of this year—and then some—is proof by example. There were days when the home pages of DR, Berlingske, Politiken, Jyllands-Posten, TV2, and the rest were smothered in American news, all of it related to the American president, and I pointed that out on these electric pages on multiple occasions.

I won’t rule out the possibility that some of the stories I mentioned may have popped up somewhere: my point is that were the president a Republican, and were Congress in Republican hands, then all of these stories would have been lathered all over Danish news media all week. You’d have to dig through it all to find news of the Danish election.

(Okay, maybe the Danish election news would get a little attention. Maybe.)

America’s doing badly, its government is floundering—but there’s a Democrat in the White House. As Vizzini would say: “Inconceivable!

This must be an inexplicable state of affairs to the Danish media. It’s possible they’re (mostly) ignoring these stories not because they’re partisan hacks (“Democrats good, Republicans bad”) but because they genuinely don’t understand them. They don’t fit the template for leftish Danish preconceptions about America.

(Either that or they haven’t figured out a way to blame Donald Trump for these phenomena. Yet.)

America and Americans can often be difficult to decipher, and are often simply indecipherable (it’s our national genius), but that difficulty is increased by several orders of magnitude when you genuinely believe that half the country is actuated by the worst possible motives: by hatred, greed, anger, gluttony, and the rest. Unfortunately, a lot of Danish news media professionals—a lot of Danes—a lot of people—seem to believe that about the American right.

I suspect a lot of Danish journalists in particular share the contempt for American conservatives so perfectly illustrated last Thursday by Brian Karem in a Salon article entitled “Dumbass nation”:

“The United States is a nation of militantly ignorant people, arrogant in their beliefs, unable to change their minds and unwilling to try. We lack education.”

“We.” Heh.

Does anyone believe for a minute that Brian Karem includes himself among the “militantly ignorant” and “arrogant” Americans who lack education?

I don’t want to pull out any particular citations from his opinion piece—I feel dirty enough just for having read it—but there’s no need to. His entire column can be summarized into a single sentence: “America’s being ruined by people who don’t think, act, or vote the way I want them to, and because I’m right about everything the only possible explanation is that they’re too stupid to know how they ought to be thinking, acting, and voting.”

Maybe that’s an incomplete characterization: he blames all that stupidity on our educational system—the awfulness of which he lays at the feet of Ronald Reagan (“a feckless fool who destroyed unions, education, the free press and health care, and took us down the road to ruin”) and George H.W. Bush.

But let’s not get bogged down splitting hairs: Karem’s main point is that the American government isn’t being run as it ought to be because “we” are too stupid to see the truths that are obvious to anyone with a decent education—anyone, that is, with at least an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, which is what Karem has going for him.

You get the same sort of vibe from a lot of Danish commentators on the American scene: America could be such a lovely country, almost as nice as Denmark, if only there weren’t all those right-wing idiots standing in the way.

At the heart of this kind of thinking is a fallacy that is known, I have just come to learn, as Bulverism.

I’d never heard the term until I went sniffing around the internet on the assumption that I’d forgotten the name for the logical fallacy of arguing against your opponent’s stupidity instead of the merits of his argument. (It’s sort of ad hominem, and yet not quite: dismissing your ideas because of your stupidity is not the same as attacking you for being stupid.) It turns out I hadn’t forgotten the name for the fallacy: I’d never known it. What’s worse, it was apparently minted by C.S. Lewis, whose work I thought I’d read pretty attentively.

So here’s Lewis in his own words (it’s a long extract, lifted from Wikipedia, but I think it’s worth your while):

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.”

Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third—

“Oh you say that because you are a man.”

“At that moment”, E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.”

That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant—but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must first find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.

So there it is: Bulverism.

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.


Or before you start blaming his wrongness on stupidity, or begin probing the source of his stupidity.

In a post last week, I referred to an article by Batya Ungar-Sargon about the decline of journalism. In that article, she made the following point about the establishment media’s dismissal of Trump voters:

The truth is, the reasons people gave for voting for Trump were numerous —and legitimate. His promise to appoint conservative justices was a major motivating factor for antiabortion evangelicals. Others were swayed by his commitment to religious liberty, which gave him a lot of support in the Orthodox Jewish community. Independents especially appreciated his anti-war position. Lower-income voters were impressed by his opposition to America’s disastrous trade deals.

Anyone who talked to Trump voters knew their reasons for voting for him. But journalists at America’s leading publications did not know any Trump supporters socially, and that made it easy to caricature and misrepresent them. When New York Times reporters did venture into Trump country, they inevitably found some reason to tar the people they interviewed as racist.

Bulverism at work: everyone knew it was wrong to vote for Donald Trump, so the real question was how people could be stupid enough to vote for him.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying Brian Karem’s ideas of what would make for good policy in America are right or wrong. I’m saying his argument that anyone who disagrees him with is doing so from stupidity is a fallacious species of reasoning, and that this particular fallacy is called Bulverism.

Look at the list of issues Karem blames on “our” stupidity and ignorance:

It is the root cause of our problems with China. It’s why some people don’t want to get vaccinated. It’s why some people still gleefully follow Donald Trump. It explains why Congress can’t get together in a bipartisan fashion to deal with infrastructure, health care and gun control. It’s why we have problems understanding climate change. It explains voter suppression. It’s why “critical race theory” has become controversial, why elements of our population on the left and right are at war with each other and why some believe the earth is flat and the Holocaust didn’t occur. It’s why some of us believe we’re still the “No. 1” nation in the world when — other than having the largest military — we clearly lag behind other major nations in many critical factors. More than anything else it explains why we fail.

Karem can’t imagine any good faith disagreement on the issues: dissent can only be a consequence (in every case) of intractable stupidity.

The logical takeaway from Karem’s position is that there is already one known “right” answer to all of these issues—tensions with China, vaccinations, Trump, infrastructure, health care, gun control, climate change, voting laws, critical race theory. All decent educated people know these right answers, and the only reason they can’t act on them is all those damned idiots blocking progress. He’s comparing anyone who disagrees with his own ideas about health care and gun control to flat-earthers and Holocaust-deniers.

Could he be more “militantly ignorant and arrogant?”

Karem needs to show that opinions divergent from his own, on each and every one of these issues, are in fact wrong before he starts trying to diagnose why other people hold those opinions.

Brian Karem’s intelligence and educational achievements are neither here nor there to me, nor should they be to you. But to counter his hypothesis (that all of these various wrong opinions are a consequence of poorly educated minds), all we need to do is show that there are people who hold some of these “wrong opinions” despite educational credentials superior to Karem’s.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Thomas Sowell: a man with degrees from Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago, and a great deal of contempt for many of the ideas Karem holds to be sacred and right.

See the problem with Bulverism? If you say, “My opponents are wrong because they’re uneducated,” the only proof necessary to smash your own argument to pieces is the evidence of someone holding “wrong beliefs” despite their having a better education than you.

I assume we can all agree that Thomas Sowell’s credentials are enough to remove him from the ranks of the militantly ignorant: Karem’s entire premise is thereby defeated by his own logic.

That doesn’t mean Karem’s position on any given issue is automatically wrong, or that Thomas Sowell is always right: merely that the Karem’s entire premise is itself an exercise in stupidity and arrogance.

Thus, too, with the Danish news media: so long as they cling to the idea that half of America is dirty, bad, stupid, and wrong about everything, Danish news consumers will continue to be denied the opportunity to weigh any arguments on the merits.

There had been signs a couple of weeks ago that maybe the Danish media were beginning to allow themselves to flirt with the idea that American Democrats in general and Joe Biden in particular might not actually have all the answers. That even if Republicans weren’t necessarily right about anything, at least they might possibly have a valid point or two.

This week’s silence suggests that my hopes were probably premature.