Honesty and Accuracy, Even in Arguing Against People You Disagree With:

One reader writes, apropos my defense of the ACLU against charges of "frivolous" and "criminal" litigation:

If the ACLU is successful in their New York subway suit, we all lose our most basic freedom -- not to be killed by a bomb. If they are successful, it will be the end of riding on the subway (following a successful train bombing in the USA).

I usually agree with Eugene but in this case I think he has lost his usual common sense and is thinking only of the legal technicalities.

Distinguishing fair criticisms of one's adversaries from unfair criticisms is not a technicality. I've seen lots of people, left, right, or elsewhere, make the same mistake: Just because they think their adversaries are wrong in one way (e.g., propose an unsound view of the Constitution), they feel free to just throw a barrage of epithets at them -- their arguments are criminal, frivolous, pro-terrorist, dishonest, corrupt, Nazi, or what have you. And then, when a third party defends the targets against the unfair criticisms, the critics seem upset. How can you defend these bad people? They're clearly wrong!

Well, that our adversaries are wrong doesn't justify our making wrong (and unfair) arguments ourselves. Consider the message I quote above: My correspondent is complaining about what would happen if the ACLU is successful in their suit. That is flatly inconsistent with the argument that the ACLU's position is "frivolous." (To be frivolous, a legal position has to be not just a loser, but such a sure loser that it can't be justified as a good faith attempt to change the law.) If the ACLU's positions were really frivolous -- which is the supposed essence of the Christians Reviving America's Value call for "the US Congress to investigate the ACLU for widespread use of frivolous lawsuits" -- then why worry about the ACLU's lawsuit being successful?

If you think the ACLU's legal position is mistaken, explain why you think it's mistaken. Labeling that position with epithets that it doesn't deserve is, I think, on balance ineffective, since it undermines your own credibility. But effective or not, it's just wrong.