Saturday, September 17, 2005

Calling Bullshit

In the continuing Generik Brand series of pimping SF Chronicle writers (speaking of which, check out Jon Carroll's second column regarding Pluto and Pomona and other things celestial), I'd like to recommend Steven Winn's recent article about Professor Harry G. Frankfurt's book, On Bullshit. It seems that lately we're surrounded by bullshit, from the White House and its cadre of obfuscators and prevaricators on down through the Swift Boat Liars, the Fightin' 101st Keyboarders, the Freepers and Little Green Footballers to the lowliest right-wing talk radio dittoheads and mindless defenders of Preznit Bring 'Em On. Bullshit is everywhere you look, everywhere you turn these days, making it very hard for people who aren't paying close attention to know what's true and what isn't.

Winn puts it thusly:

Frankfurt's thesis turns on the crucial distinction he draws between outright lies and b.s. The former, as he says, are conscious and calculated responses to the truth. When people lie, they acknowledge but "reject the authority of truth." B.s., by contrast, is motivated by a desire to wheedle or impress, to sell an image or maintain a mask of competency or control. B.s. may or may not be true, partially true or altogether false. The point is, it doesn't matter to the b.s.-er.

"He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly," Frankfurt writes. "He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose." B.s., Frankfurt continues a few pages on, "is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

That, in this philosopher's nutshell, may capture as well as anything the current sense of distress many people feel these days. As the Iraq mess and woeful response to Hurricane Katrina continue to gnaw away at out collective confidence, there's a growing sense of a White House up to the chair rails in its own b.s. Bad as it is to think of a government brazenly lying, there's something more insidious about one that seems downright indifferent to the truth, however it happens to fall.

It's that old "reality-based community" vs. the Bush administration conundrum: The truth is whatever the Bushists say it is. In the world of the right-winger, the reality of situations like the slow federal response to Katrina or the ongoing debacle in Iraq is immaterial; what matters is what spin is put on them by the people they trust, i.e., Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and the rest of that factually-challenged pack of hate-mongers. Thus, Cindy Sheehan becomes a "provider of aid and comfort to the enemy," and the Hurricane Katrina victims become "entitlist refugees," (from an email sent to me by a Republican friend) and "ungrateful for the help they've been given."

Because it's been so accepted for a number of years now, ordinary folks like our friend Lanz feel perfectly justified in spewing out whatever distortions or fantasies they can imagine to support their arguments without ever expecting to be called on their bullshit.

Winn, again:

As the Iraq war rationale shifted from weapons of mass destruction to the broader battle against terror, the narrower one of ousting Saddam Hussein and the quixotic one of spreading democracy dominoes across the Middle East, the reality of what was happening in the war zone, in the Muslim world and in the American state of mind has seemed increasingly distant from the presidential sense of purpose. The appalling performance in the face of Katrina's wrath -- from George W. Bush's belated, tone-deaf cheerleading to the amazing revelation that no one in the administration seemed to know about the widely televised nightmare at the New Orleans Convention Center -- confirms the point. Tuesday's "I take responsibility" speech was patent damage control for a president in a ratings meltdown. Bush's fabled incuriosity about the world has become a defining mode of governance. The truth isn't the enemy; it's just an irrelevant distraction to staying on an upbeat message.

There is no ultimate truth in the winger world, just as there is no ultimate accountability in the Bush administration. Attempting to call these people on their bullshit elicits not explanations or apologies, but surprise and dismay that their credibility could possibly be called into question -- and often, especially in the case of the current administration, an overt campaign of ugly lies and smears directed at the person who called bullshit in the first place.

When, in the comments section to an earlier post, I told Lanz that his credibility was now suspect in this space after he blatantly lied about me, he whined about not being afforded any of "that famous liberal tolerance and inclusion." Apparently in the winger world, you can read "liberal tolerance and inclusion" this way: "Well, gee, Alan Colmes always bends over for Sean and hands him the Vaseline without complaining, why aren't you giving me the same courtesy?" We're expected to just take it, to just roll over and allow these liars and bullshitters to say whatever they please about us and about current events without regard to what the truth of the situation might be.

Here at the Generik Brand, we don't go for that kind of turn-the-other-cheek behavior.

And I don't mean to keep singling out Lanz because he's a particulary unique or egregious example of this right-wing propensity for bullshitting, but rather because he's all too representative of the typical modern-day so-called conservative. There are thousands, millions of Lanzes out there, all of them taking their cues from a president who doesn't know or care what the truth is, but rather believes that the truth is whatever he wants it to be; and if that changes from day to day, well, so be it. These people live in their own carefully-constructed fantasy worlds, where a dim-bulb chickenhawk AWOL bully is a "man of courage and honor," and where all blame for the woes of our society can be laid at the feet of welfare recipients, war protesters, liberalism and Bill Clinton.

Now that's bullshit.
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