Thursday, October 25, 2012

The 'Rolling Stone' Interview: Calling Romney Out

President Obama sat himself down and had a chat with Rolling Stone magazine a short time ago (the interview is online now, but it'll be in print on November 8th, apparently).  In it he said a few things, including this little nugget, for which I supply a bit of context:

As we left the Oval Office, ['Rolling Stone'] executive editor Eric Bates told Obama that he had asked his six-year-old if there was anything she wanted him to say to the president. After a thoughtful pause, she said, "Tell him: You can do it."
Obama grinned. "That's the only advice I need," he said. "I do very well, by the way, in that demographic. Ages six to 12? I'm a killer."
"Thought about lowering the voting age?" Bates joked.
"You know, kids have good instincts," Obama offered. "They look at the other guy and say, 'Well, that's a bullshitter, I can tell.'"

Now, dear reader, you can confidently expect a vast amount of couch-fainting-upon and pearl-clutching and smelling-salts-sniffing as a result of that statement, which seems to imply (and rather obviously) that Willard Romney is a bullshitter.

To a certain extent, I agree.

Romney's flipped and he's flopped and he's changed his positions so fast he even makes Etch-a-Sketches go, "Whoa, Dude, slow it down a bit."  

But is it . . . bullshit?

Or is it lies?

There is a difference, you know, and to illustrate the difference I call upon the author of what I think is the seminal work on the subject, Dr. Harry Frankfurt, the Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University:

"What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even pretend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

"This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose."

- On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt (Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 53-56.

 So you see, the crucial difference between a liar and a bullshitter is this:  A liar knows the truth - a bullshitter doesn't care.  This is liberating to the bullshitter, as he can now pull whatever he wants out of thin air and present it as truth.

So is Romney a bullshitter?  To a certain extent, yes; he has built his campaign around a pie-in-the-sky economic agenda that simply won't work.  Sure, he'll let us in on the details of his plan after we hire him to be our President, but for now we'll have to be content with the Underpants Gnomes' Business Model:

It works as well as anything else as an illustration of the basic Republican economic plans of the past 30 years, doesn't it?  All that "trickle down" stuff?  Well, folks, that hasn't been rain coming down on us - that's wee-wee, urine, piss, call it what you will, evacuated upon us from people who have reached the top and pulled the ladder up after them to bar the rest of us proles from following them.

I conclude by saying that the tempest in a teapot that is the 'bullshitter' comment will not affect the campaigns all that much.  Obama may apologize and truthfully say that he was talking about what a child might think of all this.  That won't stop the mouths of Rush or Ann or Michelle or Sarah or Sean or Whoever, but it'll be the truth.

As opposed to bullshit.


Blogger brite said...

Excellent post Walt! I will be referencing that definition of "bullshit" from now on.

3:36 AM EDT  

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