May 15, 2002
Patch Adams and the Folk Song Army Fallacy

From Greg Hlatky comes this article about Patch Adams and the "Dialogue for Democracy" which took place at the University of Pittsburgh.

Patch, the subject of an incredibly sappy feel-good movie, is apparently a bit confused about current events:

"I am literally comparing Bush and his cronies to Hitler," Adams said, "only Hitler had a smaller vision."

Umm, Patch? Do the words Godwin's Law mean anything to you? I am now literally comparing you to a mouth-breathing idiot who has no idea what genuine evil is.

Patch also doesn't understand basic economics:

"[I] don't understand why a ball bouncer makes more than a schoolteacher," Adams said.

Well, that would be because someone is willing to pay those ball-bouncers lots of money. Feel free to distribute some of those millions you got for selling your life story to Hollywood to all the teachers you like if you want to make a difference here.

Finally, Patch and cohort Dr. Helen Caldicott, a "vehement opponent of nuclear weapons", seem to be unable to grasp the difference between ends and means:

"I think there are a majority of people who want love, peace and cooperation," said Caldicott. "But we find it hard to reach out to each other."

We all want love, peace, and cooperation, dimwit. That includes the Taliban and the Committee for the Suppression of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. They would be (or would have been, in the case of the late and unlamented Taliban) very happy to have us all live in peace and harmony with their vision of how the world should be. Where we differ is in how we think we can best acheive these ends. All the happy talk in the world does squat to change this fact.

Which leads me to the second part of my subject. What we've seen here is another application of what I'm calling the Folk Song Army Fallacy. Basically, the FSAF is what happens when an advocate confuses the ends for the means to those ends. Someone who is "for peace" or "against crime" has committed the FSAF if he or she:

  1. Loudly and constantly touts his or her commitment to the ends (i.e., "promoting peace", "getting tough on crime", etc).

  2. Demonizes those who do not stand firmly with them, and

  3. Has no clearly articulated plan for acheiving their desired end, or has a clearly articulated plan without having any idea of the costs and consequences of that plan.

The beauty of the FSAF, of course, is that you can always be on the right side of an issue. Who doesn't want peace? Or less crime? Or an end to poverty and injustice? Even better, you can accuse your opponents of not being in favor of these wonderful things. With the FSAF, you can't go wrong.

Peaceniks are commonly afflicted with the FSAF. As the Jo Walton quote that Patrick has on his page indicates, "peace" is not the same as "not fighting", but the distinction is lost on those who'd rather chant than think. It's my belief that the more simplistic and sound-bite-like an advocacy group is, the more likely that they have a bad case of FSAF. Once you know the symptoms of this syndrome, it's pretty easy to recognize it in its sufferers. It's also pretty depressingly common.

Naturally, you didn't have to come here to read a barrel shot of this particular fish. You've probably already read Lileks' screed. Lileks is a great writer and all that, but does he make metaphorical use of Tom Lehrer songs like I do? (Don't tell me if he does; it'd just depress me.)

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 15, 2002 to Skepticism