My MinnPost.com colleague Eric Black recently posted a very well-researched piece, “Palin’s phony claim.” Eric’s analysis of GOP claims that Palin said “Thanks, but no thanks” to the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” takes us down into the weeds of the issue. Good reporting, but there’s a much larger issue with far greater ramifications than the truth or fallacy of Palin’s claim.
Eric may recall back in October of 2006, when he was with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he was interviewed by radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt. The topic was DFL congressional candidate Patty Wetterling’s campaign ad claiming that Republican congressional leaders had admitted to knowing about licentious email sent by Rep. Mark Foley to congressional pages.
Hewitt made the point that Wetterling’s statement was false, that no such admission had been made. Eric agreed, but said one couldn’t call Wetterling’s statement a “lie” (as Hewitt was) without knowing the intent behind it. At the time I blogged (which Eric may not remember) that Eric’s willingness to give Wetterling the benefit of the doubt on lying missed the point. Regarding Eric’s recent post “Palin’s phony claim,” he’s a lot closer to getting it right — but he’s not quite there.
What’s the intent?
The intent of the Wetterling ad was to heighten the impression of wrong-doing on the part of Republicans. The intent of the McCain campaign’s claim that as governor of Alaska Sara Palin “killed the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ project” is to heighten the impression of Palin as a maverick reformer standing against Washington pork barrel spending. In both examples, it ultimately doesn’t matter to either camp whether their statements are true or false. As long as claims are plausible, possibly even accurate (if not precise), and create the correct impression, they are justified. That’s neither lying nor being phony; it’s bullshit — and philosophically speaking, such B.S. is more dangerous to the truth than is lying.
Retired Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt has made a retirement career out of an insightful little book aptly titled “On Bullshit.” In it he writes B.S. is a misrepresentation short of an actual lie. To avoid the consequences of the truth, a liar makes a specific false statement, replacing truth with fabrication. A person cannot tell a lie unless he knows what the truth is and what its impact is. B.S. on the other hand, is indifferent to the truth. That’s what makes it so insidious.
Frankfurt is not advocating that somehow slinging the bull is morally superior to lying. Rather, he makes the case that B.S. serves a different purpose. Lying hides the fact that the speaker is not telling the truth. B.S. hides the fact that the truth is of no importance. A statement might contain fact, but the use of facts is meant to create an impression that is not necessarily connected with reality. The fault lies not in getting something wrong, says Frankfurt, but in not even trying to get it right.
Eric’s piece on the Palin claim to having stopped the “Bridge to Nowhere” gets close to that point when he writes:
“In the great scheme this is a small episode, and other examples of Palin claims to a reformer’s reputation are more substantial. But the McCainiacs’ continuing use of and defense of the phony bridge claim says something about Team McCain’s commitment to straight talk.”
But Eric weaves off track when he implies motives to the McCain campaign (as he was off track when he said one needed to know Wetterling’s “intent” before judging whether statement was a “lie”). He writes: “By doubling down and then tripling (with an ad) on a false statement, the McCain campaign seems to be saying: Let the fact-checkers, with their puny audiences, say what they want. We don’t need no stinkin’ facts. We have gross rating points.”
As Eric notes, the “Bridge to Nowhere” is a small episode. It’s not something worth lying about, and the McCain folks aren’t lying or thinking of it as a phony example. The fault of the McCain campaign in this instance, and one can find equally egregious examples in the Obama camp, is not that they got their facts wrong; it’s that they didn’t even think to get them right. And therein lies the particular insidiousness of B.S.
Not trying to get it right is what leads to “facts” that “justify” waging preemptive war and “statistics” that justify nationalizing the health care industry. A desired outcome is determined, and then facts are used like a drunk uses a streetlight — for support not for illumination. We have a political culture where politicians and policymakers don’t just get it wrong; they don’t even try to get it right.
And that’s why B.S. stinks, and that attitude, not the details of the death of the “Bridge to Nowhere,” is what needs to be exposed and cleaned up.