Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Strawmen

You've probably heard this term before. If you've ever read a comment thread on Shot in the Dark, you've probably seen that word over a thousand times (and that's just from Flash's comments). In modern-day internet speak, a straw man is a logical fallacy that involves the restatement of an opponent's argument that resembles the original, but is just slightly different enough that it can be seized on and easily discredited.

OK, you already knew that.

But what you might not know is that term has a history in, of all things, Real Property Law. Yes, I'll explain.

Say a married couple purchases some property and wants to take ownership as joint tenants. Back in the day, purchasers could only own title as joint tenants if the following four conditions (the "Four Unities") applied to their ownership:

Unity of time - both tenants must take title at the same time.

Unity of title - ...to the same parcel

Unity of interest - (this gets into some technical stuff involving awful terms such as "fee simple absolute," "life estate" etc., so I won't go into detail here)

Possession - both tenants must have a right to possess the whole.

The benefit of owning property as joint tenants has to do with the fact that when one tenant dies, his or her interest in the property is automatically vested in the other, avoiding probate. Nowadays, the parties to a transaction can merely sign a simple declaration as to whether to own as joint tenants, or in cases where they already own land as joint tenants, sever the joint tenancy.

But, back in the olden days, when joint owners wanted to sever the tenancy and hold the property as tenants in common, it wasn't as simple as merely filling out and signing some boilerplate form. More commonly, the same held true if one who already held fee simple title to land wanted to create a joint tenancy with, say, a new spouse. If they couldn't "unite" the title under their joint ownership, when a spouse died, the property had to go through the meat grinder of probate.

So what's a newly betrothed property owner to do?

Why, find a third party, of course!

In order to create the joint tenancy, the newly married landowner would convey title to a trusted third party - a "straw man" - who would then reconvey it back to the landowner and his new spouse (for a nominal fee, of course). This new (sham) transaction through this fake purchaser would have the effect of uniting time, title, interest and possession in the couple who could then take the property as joint tenants. While most of these sham transactions were innocent and entered into with the purest of intentions, there were enough instances of conniving spouses using straw man transactions to sever joint tenancies, that the term became something of a pejorative.

The whole point of this is that, the term for that logical fallacy the "straw man" at one time actually referred to a man. Since my Property course in law school ended, I had only seen the term used in reference to an argument, and never to an actual person like the old understanding of that term.

Until yesterday.

Over on the aforementioned Shot in the Dark, there is a particularly trollish commenter that goes by the name (at least for now) "peevish". He insinuates himself into just about every comment thread hurling manifesto-length off-topic ad hominems. He is also a frequent invoker of the "strawman" fallacy.

Well, peevish went and started himself a blog (under yet another pseudonym). Hopefully in time, it will capture and isolate most of his bullshit so that it may eventually be safely disposed of in Yucca Mountain, or perhaps launched into the sun. He wrote this the other day in a gassy, novel-length post entitled "Abiding Arrogance" (emphasis mine):

What's worse, Berg, became incenced (sic) when someone suggested he just might have a little bit of bigottry (sic) too - the commenter said we all do - and demanded an apology - (sic) which the commenter provided.

One wonders when Berg will apologize to Cole? (well, not really, double-standards a.re (sic) Berg's calling card, his 'raison d' etre' as they might say in France, or Senegal)

Yeah. The "someone" "commenter" peev refers to on his blog, excerpted here, is himself.

Why would he do such a thing? Why wouldn't he just write that he was the "commenter"; that the "someone" was him?

Because one of them is a sham seller. He's his own strawman. Reason number 1,760,195 why the internet sucks.

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