Rick Perlstein, a friend from the days of Lingua Franca, is now working on a book about Richard Nixon. Last year, he published a series of in-depth articles about the Republican Party and the American conservative movement. (Those are not quite the same thing, though that distinction only becomes salient from time to time.) In short, Perlstein has had occasion to think about honesty and dissimulation -- and about the broad, swampy territory in between, where politicians finesse the difference. As do artists and used-car salesmen....
It’s the job of historians to map that territory. But philosophers wander there, too. “What is truth?” as Nietzsche once asked. “A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms. Truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions.” Kind of a Cheneyo-Rumsfeldian ring to that thought. It comes from an essay called “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” which does, too, come to think of it.
So anyway, about a week ago, Rick pointed out a recent discussion of how the Bush Administration is dealing with critics who accuse it of fudging the intelligence that suggested Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The link went to a comment by Joshua Micah Marshall, who is a liberal Democrat of the more temperate sort, not prone to hyperventilation.
“Garden variety lying is knowing it’s Y and saying it’s X,” he wrote, giving Lyndon Johnson on the Gulf of Tonkin as an example. The present executive branch, he continued, shows “a much deeper indifference to factual information in itself.”
Rick posed an interesting question: “Isn't Josh Marshall here describing as the Administration's methodology exactly what that Princeton philosophy prof defines as ‘bullshit’?” That prof being, of course, Harry Frankfurt, whose short and best-selling treatise On Bullshit will probably cover everyone’s Christmas bonus at Princeton University Press this year.
In February, The New York Times beat us by a day or so with its article on the book, which daintily avoided giving its title. But "Intellectual Affairs" first took a close look, not just at Frankfurt’s text -- noting that it remained essentially unchanged since its original publication as a scholarly paper in the 1980s -- but at the philosophical critique of it presented in G.A. Cohen’s essay “Deeper into Bullshit.”
Since then, the call for papers for another volume of meditations on the theme of bull has appeared. Truly, we are living in a golden age.
The gist of Frankfurt’s argument, as you may recall, is that pitching BS is a very different form of activity from merely telling a lie. And Marshall’s comments do somewhat echo the philosopher’s point. Frankfurt would agree that “garden variety lying” is saying one thing when you know another to be true. The liar operates within a domain that acknowledges the difference between accuracy and untruth. The bullshitter, in Frankfurt’s analysis, does not. In a sense, then, the other feature of Marshall’s statement would seem to fit. Bullshit involves something like “indifference to factual information in itself.”
So does it follow, then, that in characterizing the Bush team’s state of mind three years ago, during the run-up to the war, we must choose between the options of incompetence, dishonesty, and bullshit?
Please understand that I frame it in such terms, not from any political motive, but purely in the interest of conceptual rigor.
That said.... It seems to me that this range of terms is inadequate. One may agree that Bush et al. are profoundly indifferent to verifiable truth without concluding that the Frankfurt category necessarily applies.
Per G. A. Cohen’s analysis in “Deeper into Bullshit,” we must stress that Frankfurt’s model rests on a particular understanding of the consciousness of the liar. The mind of the bullshitter is defined by contrast to this state. For the liar, (1) the contrast between truth and untruth is clearly discerned, and (2) that difference would be grasped by the person to whom the liar speaks. But the liar’s intentionality also includes (3) some specific and lucidly grasped advantage over the listener made possible by the act of lying.
By contrast, the bullshitter is vague on (1) and radically unconcerned with (2). There is more work to be done on the elements of relationship and efficacy indicated by (3). We lack a carefully argued account of bullshit’s effect on the bullshitee.
There is, however, another possible state of consciousness not adequately described by Frankfurt’s paper. What might be called “the true believer” is someone possessing an intense concern with truth.
But it is a Higher Truth, which the listener may not (indeed, probably cannot) grasp. The true believer is speaking a truth that somehow exceeds the understanding of the person hearing it.
During the Moscow Trials of the late 1930s, Stalin’s attorney lodged numerous charges against the accused that were, by normal standards, absurd. In many cases, the “evidence” could be shown to be false. But so much worse for the facts, at least from the vantage point of the true believer. If you’ve ever known someone who got involved in EST or a multi-level marketing business, the same general principle applies. In each case, it is not quite accurate to say that the true believers are lying. Nor are they bullshitting, in the strictest sense, for they maintain a certain fidelity to the Higher Truth.
Similarly, it did not matter three years ago whether or not any evidence existed to link Saddam and Osama. To anyone possessing the Higher Truth, it was obvious that Iraq must be a training ground for Al Qaeda. And guess what? It is now. So why argue about it?
On a less world-historical scale, I see something interesting and apropos in Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors. In the latest issue, David Horowitz makes clear that he is not a liar just because he told a national television audience something that he knew was not true.
(This item was brought to my attention by a friend who teaches in a state undergoing one of Horowitz’s ideological rectification campaigns. My guess is that he’d rather not be thanked by name.)
Here’s the story so far: In February, while the Ward Churchill debate was heating up, Horowitz appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s program. It came up that Horowitz, like Churchill, had been invited to lecture at Hamilton College at some point. But he was not, he said, “a speaker paid by and invited by the faculty.”
As we all know, university faculties are hotbeds of left-wing extremism. (Especially the business schools and engineering departments. And reports of how hotel-management students are forced to read speeches by Pol Pot are positively blood-curdling.) Anyway, whenever Horowitz appears on campus, it’s because some plucky youngsters invite him. He was at Hamilton because he had been asked by “the conservative kids.”
That came as a surprise to Maurice Isserman, a left-of-center historian who teaches at Hamilton College. When I saw him at a conference a few years ago, he seemed to have a little gray in his hair, and his last book, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington, was a biography of the founder of the Democratic Socialists of America. No doubt he’s been called all sorts of things over the years, but “conservative kid” is not one of them. And when Horowitz spoke at Hamilton a few years ago, it was as a guest lecturer in Isserman’s class on the 1960s.
As Isserman put it in the September/October issue of Academe: “Contrary to the impression he gave on "The O’Reilly Factor," Horowitz was, in fact, an official guest of Hamilton College in fall 2002, invited by a faculty member, introduced at his talk by the dean of the faculty, and generously compensated for his time.”
I will leave to you the pleasure and edification of watching Horowitz explain himself in the latest issue of Academe. But in short, he could not tell the truth because that would have been a lie, so he had to say something untrue in order to speak a Higher Truth.
My apologies for the pretzel-like twistiness of that paraphrase. It is all so much clearer in the original Newspeak: Thoughtcrime is doubleplus ungood.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading