The ‘No True Scotsman’ Fallacy:
The No True Scotsman fallacy is a way of reinterpreting evidence in order to prevent the refutation of one’s position. Proposed counter-examples to a theory are dismissed as irrelevant solely because they are counter-examples, but purportedly because they are not what the theory is about.
The No True Scotsman fallacy involves discounting evidence that would refute a proposition, concluding that it hasn’t been falsified when in fact it has.
If Angus, a Glaswegian, who puts sugar on his porridge, is proposed as a counter-example to the claim “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge”, the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy would run as follows:
(1) Angus puts sugar on his porridge.
(2) No (true) Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
(3) Angus is not a (true) Scotsman.
(4) Angus is not a counter-example to the claim that no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
This fallacy is a form of circular argument, with an existing belief being assumed to be true in order to dismiss any apparent counter-examples to it. The existing belief thus becomes unfalsifiable.
An argument similar to this is often arises when people attempt to define religious groups. In some Christian groups, for example, there is an idea that faith is permanent, that once one becomes a Christian one cannot fall away. Apparent counter-examples to this idea, people who appear to have faith but subsequently lose it, are written off using the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy: they didn’t really have faith, they weren’t true Christians. The claim that faith cannot be lost is thus preserved from refutation. Given such an approach, this claim is unfalsifiable, there is no possible refutation of it.
‘When he lived in the Philippines in the 1990s, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, described as “the principal architect” of the 11 September attacks by the 9/11 Commission, once flew a helicopter past a girlfriend’s office building with a banner saying “I love you”. His nephew Ramzi Yousef, sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, also had a girlfriend and, like his uncle, was often spotted in Manila’s red-light district. The FBI agent who hunted Yousef said that he “hid behind a cloak of Islam”. Eyewitness accounts suggest the 9/11 hijackers were visiting bars and strip clubs in Florida and Las Vegas in the run-up to the attacks. The Spanish neighbours of Hamid Ahmidan, convicted for his role in the Madrid train bombings of 2004, remember him “zooming by on a motorcycle with his long-haired girlfriend, a Spanish woman with a taste for revealing outfits”, according to press reports.’
Above: Fisk says ‘apocalyptic’ talk is “childish”
An estimated 20,000 to 40,000 Yazidis driven onto Mount Sinjar to escape genocide; 130,000 other Yazadis fleeing to Kurdistan or Irbil; 100,000 Assyrian Christians in flight for their lives; 20,000 Shia Turkmen residents of Amerli besieged for two months and at risk of massacre and/or starvation; countless women and girls kidnapped, raped and sold into slavery; massacres, beheadings, crucifictions, forced conversions …
… I’d say that was a pretty apocalyptic picture, warranting strong action by those of us who care about human rights and democracy.
But for The Independent‘s Robert Fisk, not only is strong action unwarranted: even strong language is to be deplored.
Yesterday, Fisk’s characteristic combination of sneering and preaching was directed at Obama’s use of language:
‘Foley’s murder [has been turned] into a further reason to go on bombing the Isis “caliphate” . And what else did they provoke from us – or at least from America’s vacationing President/ A battle on strictly religious terms … Yes Barak Obama … informed the world that “No just God would stand for what they [Isis] did yesterday and for what they do every single day.” So there you have it: Obama turned the “caliphate’s” savagery into an inter-religious battle of rival Gods, “ours” [ie the West's] against “theirs” [the Muslim God, of course]. This was the nearest Obama has yet come in rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 in which he said that “we” are going to go on a “Crusade”.’
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that any serious commentator on Isis would have more important things to fulminate about than Obama’s use of language? Never mind the fact that Fisk’s interpretation of what Obama said and the comparison with Bush’s use of the word “crusade” is plainly nonsense, and even Fisk himself goes on to admit as much in his next paragraph. So what point, exactly, is this so-called “expert” on Middle Eastern affairs trying to make? Who knows, except that it’s all “our” (ie the West’s, the US’s, Britians’s, Europe’s, etc, etc) fault, perhapd because of “our” use of language. But cutting through Fisk’s verbose waffle is a difficult task, and I for one actually prefer the straightforward ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ western self-hatred of, say, Seumas Milne, and the Stop The War Coalition’s simple formula that everything’s the fault of the ‘West’.
And Fisk’s linguistic concerns continue: in today’s Indepenedent he once again deplores the Yanks’ use of strong language when describing Isis/Islamic State:
‘”Apocalyptic.” “End-of-days strategic vision.” “Beyond anything we have ever seen.” “An imminent threat to every interest we have.” “Beyond just a terrorist group.” “We must prepare for everything.”
The death of Lauren Bacall (pictured above with husband Humphrey Bogart leading a 1947 march against McCarthy’s witch hunt of leftists and liberals) robs us of the last great star from Hollwood’s ‘golden age’ and a brave liberal – in the best sense of the word. She described herself to TV host Larry King, in 2005, as “anti-Republican and a liberal. The L-word. Being a liberal is the best thing on earth you can be. You are welcoming to everyone when you’re a liberal. You do not have a small mind.”
I can’t resist the opportunity to show you a clip of Bacall in her first film, Howard Hawks’ 1944 ‘To Have And Have Not’, in which she sings the Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer number ‘How Little We Know’, accompanied by Hoagy himself at the piano. For many years it was thought that Bacall’s singing was dubbed by the young Andy Williams, but Hawks confirmed (in Joseph McBride’s book ‘Hawks on Hawks’) that although Williams’ voice was recorded, it was not used because he (Hawks) decided Bacall’s voice was good enough.
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It should not need saying, but it does: people can be as angry as they like at the Israeli government, but to attack a synagogue, threaten children at a Jewish school, or throw a brick through the window of a Jewish grocery store is vile and contemptible racism. It cannot be excused by reference to Israeli military behaviour. The two are and should be kept utterly distinct.
Some may counter that that is impossible, given the strong attachment of most Jews to Israel. But this is less complicated than it looks. Yes, Jews feel bound up with Israel, they believe in its right to survive and thrive. But that does not mean they should be held responsible for its policy, on which some may disagree and over which they have no control.
Nor should they be required to declare their distance from Israel as a condition for admission into polite society. We opposed such a question being put to all Muslims after 9/11 and, though the cases are not equivalent, the same logic applies here. This is a test for those who take a strong stance in support of the Palestinians, but in truth it is a test for all of us.
The Guardian has recently carried a number of pieces denouncing antisemitism, including the editorial quoted from above, a powerful piece by Jon Henley on the rise in antisemitic attacks in Europe, a polemic entitled ‘Please don’t tell me what I should think about Israel’ by self-described “liberal American Jew” Hadley Freeman, and a confused but well-intentioned ramble by Owen Jones, who makes some good points but still seems to think that (often) “the charge of antisemitism is concocted” to silence critics of Israeli policy. Still, whatever its weaknesses, Jones’ s piece is further evidence of the Guardian taking antisemitism seriously.
Why the Guardian‘s recent concern with antisemitism comes as something of a surprise is because the paper itself has, in the past, been accused of downplaying the dangers of antisemitism, and even of promoting it, due to its often extremely simplistic Middle Eastern coverage, its promotion of ‘one-state’ (sic) propaganda and crude ‘anti-Zionism,’ due in large part to the the influence of the paper’s Stalinist associate editor Seumas Milne and its middle east editor Ian Black. The criticisms have not only come from the right. At the time of the last Gaza war (2009), Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers Liberty wrote the following open letter to editor Alan Rusbridger. It’s worth republishing now because the underlying political problems it identifies are still commonplace on the liberal-left, including – as Owen Jones’s piece arguably demonstrates – the Guardian itself:
Dear Alan Rusbridger,
The Guardian is the “house organ” of most of the non-Muslim people who took part in the two big demonstrations during the Gaza war. A vigorous campaign by the Guardian against anti-semitism on the “left” might do much good.
On Saturday 7 February, the Guardian carried an editorial, “Language and History”, denouncing anti-semitism and specifically the “anti-Zionist” anti-semitism that is now commonplace, remarking on the growth of anti-semitic incidents in Britain (now on average, one per day, and increasing).
Unfortunately, the editorial seriously misdefined the realities of what it discussed, and pussyfooted around the issue.
“Some extremists on the right and possibly [sic] the left might claim [that] the government is in the pocket of a ‘Jewish lobby’. There is no ‘Jewish lobby’ in the conspiratorial sense that the slur implies, and to assert that there is can only be the result of the kind of racism that has scarred Europe from tsarist Russia to the fascists and Stalinists of the 1930s through to the jihadists now. To present all Jewish people as coterminous with Israel and its supporters is a mistake with potentially terrible consequences. It aligns ethnicity with a political perspective, and it is simply racist”.
Indeed. The editorial records the Government’s statement that “unlike other forms of racism, antisemitism is being accepted within parts of society instead of being condemned.”
And the left? “Some within its ranks now risk sloppily allowing their horror of Israeli actions to blind them to antisemitism…. Last month, a rally in defence of the people of Gaza that included verbal attacks on the so-called ‘Nazi tendencies’ of Israel was followed by actual attacks on Jewish targets in north London”.
The editorial adds that such things as “kill Arabs” graffiti in Gaza are “chilling”. And? “The style in which that is condemned must not create the climate that allows scrawling ‘kill Jews’ on synagogues in Manchester”. The style….
The problem with all this is that it is so shot through with understatement that it seriously misrepresents the state of things. The demonstrations on Gaza “included verbal attacks on the so-called ‘Nazi tendencies’ of Israel”? Included? As we reported (www.workersliberty.org/gazademos) the demonstrations were entirely dominated by placards equating the Star of David and the Nazi swastika, Israel with South Africa, Gaza with the Nazi mass murder of Jews, or chants about a “Palestine” stretching “from the river to the sea”.
All the platform speakers, in their varying notes, tones annd degrees, proclaimed the same sort of politics. The one-time British diplomat Craig Murray explicitly called for the abolition of Israel and the rolling-back of Middle East history to before 1948. An SWP organiser on the megaphone at one of the marches was shouting that Israeli Jews should “go back to New York”.
The Guardian says that the left “possibly” subscribes to notions of an all-controlling “Jewish lobby”. Possibly? Moshe Machover came pretty close to saying it outright in the recent exchanges in this paper – and he is one of the most sophisticated of the “absolute anti-Zionists”.
Mr Rusbridger, the root and core of modern anti-Semitism is the denial of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. That inexorably leads on to a radical political hostility to most Jews alive.
Of course Jews and Israel are not co-terminous. They could hardly be! It is a fact that all but a few Jews — revolutionary socialists, Neturei Karta, etc. — feel connected with Israel, however critically, and however much they abhor such things as the onslaught on Gaza. How could a people with their history not have such attitudes?
The “demand” that the self-proclaimed left has made on British Jews — very aggressively on university campuses, for example – has been that they repudiate Israel, that they not be Zionists, that they accept that Israel is “racist” in essence and has no right to exist.
The denial of Israel’s right to exist, predominant on the self-proclaimed left, is the precondition for the bizarre alliance of so much of the left with political Islam (to give it its proper name, Islamic clerical fascism). It is what allows the self-proclaimed left, political Islam, and Islamic communalists to merge and meld almost indistinguishably on occasions like the Gaza demonstrations.
Inevitably that radical political hostility to most Jews alive taps into the great half-buried septic reservoirs of old anti-semitism — into old racist, religious, and nondescript crank anti-semitism.
The Guardian Editorial writes of Nazi and Stalinist anti-Semitism in the 1930s. The worst Stalinist anti-semitism – from which come such things as the Stalinist-typical lunacy of equating Zionism and Nazism – erupted in the late 1940s and early 50s. The poisonous account of modern Jewish and Zionist history in the 20th century, which is dominant on the “left”, originates there, in Stalinism.
These old ideas of High Stalinist “anti-Zionism”/ anti-Semitism are rampant in the pro-Palestinian movement because they have conquered so much of the Trotskyism-rooted “left”. Young people who, to their credit, want to do something about such things as Gaza, come under the sway of the “smash Israel”, supposedly “pro-Palestinian” campaigns. The are taught ro reject a “Two State” settlement.
For the Guardian editorial to say that the difficulty lies in “the style” in which specific Israeli actions are criticised and condemned is simply preposterous! Whatever the “style” — and it varies from the seemingly reasonable to froth-at-the-mouth, open anti-semitism — the proposal to put an end to Israel leads inexorably to the things which the Guardian condemns, and to far worse.
The Guardian Editorial talks of the anti-semitism of the “jihadists”. The point is that the politics dominant in the Gaza demonstrations were entirely in line with the jihadists and their anti-semitism.
The Guardian has influence within the broad left. It is a pity you do not use that influence to tell the left the unpalatable truth about the state it’s in, that you don’t hold the mirror up, force people who should know better to see what they have let themselves become.
Below: different faces of contemporary antisemitism:
The late Robin Williams was, by all accounts, a good guy. He was certainly on our side:
Very good obit in the New York Times, here
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He was … “a friend and partisan of all good causes, always ready to circulate a petition, help out a collection or get up a protest meeting to demand that wrongs be righted. The good causes, then as now, were mostly unpopular ones, and he nearly always found himself in the minority, on the side of the under-dogs who couldn’t do him any good in the tough game of making money and getting ahead. He had to pay for that […] but it couldn’t be helped. [He] was made that way, and I don’t think it ever entered his head to do otherwise or live otherwise than he did.
“That’s just about all there is to tell of him. But I thought [...], that’s a great deal. Carl Sandberg said it in this way: ‘These are the heroes then – among the plain people – Heroes, did you say? And why not? They gave all they’ve got and ask no questions and take what comes to them and what more do you want?’ “ – James P.Cannon (The Militant, June 1947)
Above: Tom towards the end, with old friends and comrades.
I’ve just heard that Tom Cashman is dead.
His daughter, Ruth, got in contact to say:
My dad died yesterday. Though he had differences [...] he considered you all comrades.
We will send round details of the funeral once it has been arranged.
“For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionist; for forty-two of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again I would of course try and avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth…”
Leon Trotsky — the Last Testament of Leon Trotsky, Mexico, 27 February 1940
Tom had been ill with a brain tumour for a couple of years, so at one level his death is not a shock.
But Tom’s mental and physical strength meant that he’d hung on for much longer than would normally have been the case.
Not necessarily a good or merciful thing, but there we are.
I’ll write more about Tom shortly.
But for now, I’d just like to say:
He was about the finest and most principled person I ever knew.
He introduced me to real socialist politics.
He understood the interaction between trade unionism and socialist politics.
He – together with Graham Stevenson, who had completely different politics – devised the plan that kept union organisation intact on London buses after privatisation.
He was the voice of political sophistication and Marxism on the T&G -going into -Unite Executive, while he was on there.
Best wishes and solidarity to Ruth, Johnnie and all Tom’s friends, comrades and family.
I’ll write more soon.
Amongst the many good and decent people who’ve been demonstrating against what Israel is doing in Gaza, are a significant number of anti-Semites, like this character:
It is probably the case that such undesirable elements will inevitably attach themselves to pro-Palestinian events. What is more worrying is the willingness (both at the events themselves, and then subsequently on social media) of leftists who claim to oppose anti-Semitism, to defend, explain away, minimise and generally turn a blind eye to, this sort of filth. Neither is there any evidence (that I’m aware of) of the PSC or other organisers of recent demos in London and elsewhere, doing anything to remove or challenge anti-Semites. Even this guy:
Try explaining that away…
This hasn’t been mentioned in any of the obituaries that I’ve read in the UK media … but now I’ve found something about it in the Washington Post.
Nice to know he really was a good guy (is that Nina Simone he’s holding hands with?)
Above: wounded Palestinian baby, July 2014; a coherent response is needed
This response to the present horror in Gaza is a little confusing:
BDS (total boycott of all things – and people – Israeli) activist Haim Bresheeth appears to be heavily involved in an appeal, also involving Noam Chomsky, which quite rightly, calls on Israeli academics to speak out against the bombardment and siege of Gaza:
How does this fit with his and others’ desire for a boycott? The appeal is signed by at least one SWP’er (Mick Cushman, assuming he’s still a member) and also by leading boycotter and Hamas apologist Ilan Pappé.
An account of the difficulties of getting Israeli signatures (written by a supporter of Pappé) is linked to, but criticised for being “too dismissive of the Israeli reaction.”
The actual statement has so far been signed by about 40 Israeli academics and is a clear call for a negotiated settlement and peace agreement that will end the occupation and settlements. Unless anyone tries to interpret this as a voluntary liquidation of Israel it can only be a call for a two state solution.
The signatories to this statement, all academics at Israeli universities, wish it to be known that they utterly deplore the aggressive military strategy being deployed by the Israeli government. The slaughter of large numbers of wholly innocent people, is placing yet more barriers of blood in the way of the negotiated agreement which is the only alternative to the occupation and endless oppression of the Palestinian people. Israel must agree to an immediate cease-fire, and start negotiating in good faith for the end of the occupation and settlements, through a just peace agreement.
So the BDS movement (SWP included) is calling for action, from people they say should not be engaged with in any way, advocating support for two states and laying into Pappé’s supporters for being unduly cynical about it.
Can anyone explain the logic behind this?
H/t: Comrade Pete
Thanks to Owen Jones, in today’s Graun, for drawing my attention to a nasty little piece in the present edition of Socialist Worker. SW was once essential (and – believe it or not – entertaining) reading on the left, even for those of us who had little time for the SWP’s politics. But I haven’t bought a copy since September 2001 and so very rarely get to read it.
Above: Prof Callinicos, privately educated scion of the ruling class
For those of you who can’t be arsed to follow the link above, the article is entitled ‘Eton by Bear? The inquest begins,’ a supposedly ‘humorous’ take on the death of Horatio Chapple, mauled to death by a polar bear while on a trip to the Svalbard archipelago of Norway.
What makes the death of Chapple suitable material for SWP chortling is, it seems, the fact that he was a posh boy who went to Eton.
There was a time when I might have joined in with the sniggering, but I well remember being admonished over this by a senior comrade (himself of unimpeachable working class credentials) who told me, “socialism is about doing away with the idea that people’s worth should be judged by an accident of birth – and that applies just as much to workerism on the left as it does to mainstream society’s fawning before the aristocracy.” He was surely right, and I’ve never forgotten it – or the shame I felt at having to have such an elementary point explained to me.
Socialist Worker’s unpleasant sniggering over the death of this young man is all the more bizarre and distasteful when you consider the upper class, public school backgrounds of so many of their leading comrades, past and present – not least head honcho Callinicos, who (according to Wikipedia) “was educated at St George’s College, Salisbury (now Harare) … [and] … first became involved in revolutionary politics as a student at Balliol College, Oxford, from which he received his BA.”
Even more importantly, SW‘s gloating over this horrible death tells us a lot about the kind of “socialism” that this degenerate organisation now represents. Jones usefully reminds us of the words of Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker (forerunner of the Morning Star) journalist who resigned from the Communist Party of Britain after they suppressed his sympathetic coverage of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Fryer was describing the Stalinist CP, but his words equally well apply to the nominally “Trotskyist” SWP of today:
“Stalinism is Marxism with the heart cut out, de-humanised, dried, frozen, petrified, rigid, barren.”
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