Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The bullshit presidency

I finally got my oversubscribed copy of Harry G. Frankfurt's delightful 1986 essay "On Bullshit." Although clearly he was inspired by a different era of bullshit (yes, that would the Reagan era of bullshit), one cannot help but be struck as one reads it by the prescience with which he captures the essence of the current Bush presidency.

The difference between bullshit and a mere lie, Frankfurt explains, is that the liar cares about truth; that is, he cares about the relationship between his statement and the reality to which his statement refers. Bullshitters, by contrast, don't care about the relationship between their statements and reality. Indeed, Frankfurt suggests that bullshitters are heirs to the radical epistemic skepticism generated by postmodern antifoundationalism. The motive for their discourse is thus not to describe reality (a task they consider largely irrelevant) but rather to present a picture of who they are. Here's Frankfurt:
One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.
Reading this can't help but make you reconsider the implications of Bush's eternal refrain, whenever anyone questions his grasp on facts, that, "You know where I stand." (Indeed, the whole anti-scientific attitude of the Republican Party is intimately related to their skepticism that such a thing as "facts" exist.) Thus Karl Rove explains why Bush makes the perfect Bullshit President:
I think a great deal of it is his personal characteristics. He is a person who is “"centered." This is a person who, as you know, went to Sam Houston Junior High – who grew up in Midland, Texas. He knows who he is and is comfortable with who he is. He doesn’t need validation from the editorial pages of the Washington Post or the New York Times.
We'll have more on Frankfurt and Bush later....


Zak Braverman said...

See, I think that this perfectly explains the academic mode of modern liberal arts education as well. As the product of such education, I can state pretty definitively that all the students (and most of the teachers) know that they come to class to "bullshit". That's even the exact word used to describe the main skill learned at a liberal arts college.

What else can you expect when students are told that their opinions matter just as much as those of the professor, and that their emotional reactions to the subject matter are a valid topic of classroom discussion.

Anonymous said...

I think your an ass...