lundi 8 octobre 2012

Bullshit Mitt

Everyone keeps harping on about Mitt's lies during the debate, which were delivered in a fast and furious style intended to dazzle the viewer. Apparently, many were hoodwinked. Sure, Mitt lied, in the sense that he said many things that just don't bear up to scrutiny. But I think the essence of the performance, which captures the essence of the man, is that he did not so much lie as bullshit for a full 90 minutes. And people lapped it up because bullshit is one of the most pervasive features of American life and culture, especially our political culture. Way back in 2005, professor emeritus of Princeton Harry G. Frankfurt devoted an entire treatise to the subject called On Bullshit, which begins in the most provocative and refreshing way: "There is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted." In a nutshell, Frankfurt gets at the heart of what bullshitting entails and how it can differ from outright lying. For one thing, bullshit is bullshit even if it happens to be true on some level. The difference between a liar and a bullshitter is the latter's complete and utter indifference to whether or not what he's saying has any bearing on facts or the real world. In other words, the bullshitter does not acknowledge the existence of truth at all: he ignores it. And this is precisely why bullshitters and their bullshit are more dangerous than liars and their lies. Any expsosure of the truth will just result in more bullshit. That's why Jon Stewart's Bullshit Mountain is so brilliant. Let's take just one example from Mitt's bullshit treasure trove. During the debate, he said that Obama's tax plan (which involves, among other things, letting Bush era tax cuts expire for incomes above a certain amount - for example, for a couple making more than 250,000 a year) would cost middle class folks an additional 6,000 dollars a year (or something like that). What he does not say is who he is referring to as middle class. You have to have been paying attention when he said weeks earlier that a couple making 250,000 dollars a year is middle class. It is true enough that those of us who are lucky enough to be in this category would see their tax cut expire. [My husband and I are in this category and thus would see our tax bill rise. And that's fine with us. We could never have gotten beyond high school without heavy financial aid. And we are grateful for our public school education and the everyday heroics of law enforcement professionals, firefighters and others. We think veterans deserve rewards.] It is tempting to cite other examples, in part because they are so plentiful. But I think this one illustrates the broader point. I don't think I am alone in feeling frustrated with and saddened by the inexorable expansion and rise of bullshit. How did it happen? Can it be combatted? Is a retreat into privacy the only consolation in a bullshit infested world? Frankfurt has some ideas about where the bullshit explosion originated, and his answer offers additional insight into Romney's brazen performance in the first debate. Professor Frankfurt sees the postmodern preference for subjective truth sincerely rendered over objective truth as the main cause. It is a form of narcissism, for sure. And, as Frankfurt concludes, "sincerity itself is bullshit." Bullshitters are interested in one thing only: advancing their agenda. In order to do so, they must persuade people, which they do by exuding sincerity and talking fast. One of Plato's most important Socratic dialogues, The Gorgias, is devoted to this very problem, which proves, among other things, that bullshitters and bullshit have always been with us. Socrates uses his famous Socratic method to demonstrate that the art or "knack" of the rhetorician, which produces verbal sophistry, is antithetical to both philosophy and the truth. But these days, those sound like such quaint concepts, don't they? Where have all the lovers of wisdom gone? Let's not end on a pessimistic note, though. There may be hope. The bullshit detecters may be slipping into active mode. The urban dictionary's primary definition of "mitt romney" is "to change your position in order to win favors or votes". The third definition is wonderfully apt: "Something Massachusetts is happy to be rid of", also known as "Mitt the Shit" or "Mittens".