Tag Archives: Bullshit

What it takes to be a pundit

Outsourcing this week's blogging to Gawker.  Speaking of the value of political punditry, Hamilton Nolan writes:

But whereas the sports world, for example, boasts a class of professional commentators that have a legitimate claim to their positions—Jon Gruden can offer more genuine insight into football than your drunk friend in the Packers jersey—the same cannot be said for politics. The political commentator class is, for the most part, little more than a bunch of regular people like you and me who were lucky enough to land jobs writing down their thoughts on politics for money. It's not that there aren't truly insightful political experts in the world. Professional political strategists know tons about how elections are won, and philosophers and political science professors and economists at universities across the country can all offer fascinating and sagacious arguments on how and why various political positions are justified. But, with a handful of notable exceptions, these are not the types of people who compose our nation's political pundit class. Our political pundits are mostly just spitballing. You might as well just listen to yourself.

I'd take issue with the "regular people part."  Being charitable, I gather Nolan means "people with no special qualifications."  But that's not really true either.  They need to be confident that they have something to say.  And they need, most of all, to be immune from the tons of relevant, accurate, and devastating criticism.  That's what it takes.

Politics and bullshit

Daniel Foster at National Review Online has a well-timed piece on political culture and bullshit.  For the most part, it's a quick essay glossing Harry Frankfurt's views in his classic "On Bullshit".  He's got a few examples that aren't quite right, as his Marylin Monroe case is just one of lying, not bullshitting.  What's interesting, though, is Foster's extension of the bullshit point to what he calls "the politics of identity."  Now, this itself isn't new, as Frankfurt even ends his essay with the observation that "authenticity is bullshit."  But Foster's examples are worth a look. 

The first is Elizabeth Warren and her claims to be a Native American.  What Foster objects to is not the politics from the identity but the case made for her identity. 

Exhibit A is Elizabeth Warren, who has been able to withstand a barrage of documentary evidence casting doubt on her claim to be part American Indian by anchoring that claim not in genealogical fact but in family lore — in other words, by answering the charge that her Cherokee identification is probably false with the tacit admission that it is definitely bulls**t.

In this case, what's weird is not that this is identity politics, but the evidential conditions for claiming identity.  I think he's right about the fact that the Warren case is pretty pathetic, but I'd hardly call it identity politics.  Next up is the President himself:

Exhibit B is President Obama, who did us the favor of admitting up front that his 1995 autobiography is, at least in part, bulls**t, but who has managed to escape focused interrogation on this point eight years into his public life and three-plus years into his tenure as leader of the free world.

Again, this is likely right — that the book is trumped up. But how's that identity politics?  Is this a dogwhistle for the right? Sometimes, I feel, when reading stuff at NRO or on Newsmax, that there are words that mean more than I think they mean.  You know… welfare=brown people, crime=brown people, poverty=brown people, undereducated=brown people. Is this another case of conservatives using a normal word as code for something else?  Does it mean something different from what most people think that it means, roughly, people mobilizing political power for the interest of preserving or promoting an identity they share (racial, cultural, sexual, religious, or other)?  Now Foster is right when he says that

That identity politics is as festooned with bulls**t as a cow pasture in the full ardor of spring wouldn’t be so bad if identity politics weren’t also a powerful currency.

But I'm at a loss as to what he's saying to the readers at NRO, given his examples.  Is calling bullshit in some cases another case of bullshit?  Really, that's my sense of it here.  The "bullshit" charge was so powerfully wielded against the Bushies earlier in the 2000's, and the conservatives are looking to co-opt the charge as a weapon. But this looks exactly like a cooption, not a lesson. 

Who’s wearing the pants?

A student of mine read Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" a while back, and he came to me interested in thinking more about the phenomenon.  I'd suggested he read Gerald Cohen's "Deeper into Bullshit".  He liked the essay, but he was troubled because Cohen kept using a metaphor he didn't understand.  Cohen kept using expressions like:  "the bull wears the semantic trousers" and "bullshit wears the trousers, not the bullshitting".  My student had no idea what these meant.

The metaphor is an invocation of the old expression "Who wears the pants around here?" Which is supposed to invoke the natural superiority and sovereignty of men over women, especially in a marriage.  And so 'wearing the pants' means 'is the man,' which means 'is in charge'

This isn't to charge Cohen with sexism.  The funny thing is that the metaphor was totally invisible to me, too.  But to get the metaphor, you have to have been brought up in a language that uses that expression naturally.  How many other expressions with this kind of sexist heritage are still around in our language?  It seems a genetic fallacy to say that those who use them are sexist or that the language is sexist in its usage, but wouldn't we rather not have those sort of expressions?

I have to say, I am starting to feel the same way about similar animal-killing metaphors in ordinary parlance: More than one way to skin a cat, killing two birds with one stone, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush….