Steven Den Beste continues to provide excellent examples of logical fallacies as they occur in real-world conversations. Some day I should thank him for that, because his examples of “how not to do it” serve a valuable educational purpose. In today’s example, he’s responding to the following from William J. Beck:

How on earth does it happen that people like Steven Den Beste will actually, seriously, say something like: “The people of this nation are now more free than they’ve ever been, and we are closer to fulfilling the philosophical promise of our founding charter than we ever have been.”

How, indeed? In this age of the DMCA and USA PATRIOT acts, abridged freedom of speech, secret tribunals, etc. ad nauseam, Den Beste’s claim seems quite strange. Even I can remember when we were freer, and I’m younger than he is. Here’s Den Beste’s defense (or counterattack):

I think the problem here is that Beck is assuming that I’m trying to say that freedom in this country has been uniformly, universally, monotonically improving and that therefore we are at this moment more free in every conceivable way than we’ve ever been before, and that’s not really what I meant at all.

Can you name that fallacy? Try straw man. Beck never said or appeared to assume anything like what Den Beste attributes to him. Beck quotes Den Beste directly, and a phrase like “more free than they’ve ever been” is pretty unambiguous. This isn’t just a regular strawman, though; SDB is a sophisticated escape artist, and garden-variety strawmen are strictly for amateurs. This is really a sacrificial strawman – a decoy of sorts. The idea is to make up an obviously absurd version of the original claim, claim that it was only the decoy that was destroyed, and then bring out the supposedly-unscathed original claim for another round. Sorry, Steven. Beck really was aiming at the original, and he hit it pretty squarely.

To wind up, SDB plays a bit with definitions:

If you look in too narrow an area, or over too narrow a scope of time, or with too much emphasis on a certain concept, you can come away with a deeply distorted view of the long term progress we’ve been making.

When SDB said “more free than they’ve ever been” there was no such reference to time periods or trend lines. It’s quite reasonable to interpret “more than ever” as meaning “more than four years ago” (for example). Only now, when the absurdity of the original statement has already been noted, is “four years ago” being redefined as part of the present so that it can be contrasted with a bygone era. With such a convenient definition of “now” ready to hand, I wonder what Den Beste thinks “is” is.