Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Stop making sense

Matthew Yglesias has an interesting essay on Trump and bullshit at Vox, but I think he goes too far in his attempt to explain what's going on. Here's an example:
When Trump says something like he’s just learned that Barack Obama ordered his phones wiretapped, he’s not really trying to persuade people that this is true. It’s a test to see who around him will debase themselves to repeat it blindly. There’s no greater demonstration of devotion.
This makes Trump sound like a kind of genius. He doesn't just get people to demonstrate the loyalty he craves. He has the greatest way to get them to do this.

Admittedly, this genius might be accidental. Yglesias says of Trump that, "His flagrant lies serve as a loyalty test," which is different from saying that they are intended as a loyalty test. But there is still an implication here that there is something to be explained, namely the function of Trump's bullshit, and that Yglesias has the explanation that enables us to make sense of it all. But why suppose that it makes sense in the first place? It's not as if Trump is a great success. If he had built his wall, imprisoned his electoral opponent, and banned Muslims from the United States then we might wonder how he had managed it all (as well as why, of course). But he has done so little that there is little to explain. (He has emboldened white supremacists and hurt people of color, but not as much as he tried to, and it's not clear that is exactly a conscious goal of his anyway. Nor is there any mystery about how someone could get this done.)

In other words, Trump might be an evil genius bullshitter, but he might just be confused and floundering. He could also be both. Perhaps he has found bullshit to be useful in his career. That doesn't mean that he wields it skillfully or knows what he's doing at any given moment. He might sometimes know just what bullshit to spout, or lie to tell, to achieve his particular goal. Or he might just spout and spout and hope it works out. My impression is that he is so used to getting what he demands (even if he doesn't always get what he demands) that he has very little sense of himself as answering to an objective reality. Frankfurt says:
Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite.
Trump's bullshit seems to stem from, or at least reflect, his lack of thoughtful attention to detail, his lack of discipline, lack of objectivity, non-acceptance of standards and limitations, his selfishness, and his insistence on indulging impulses and whims. His is not the "carefully wrought bullshit" that Frankfurt describes (along with the other kind). The opposition between truth and (not falsehood but) ego here is worth noting.

So Yglesias seems to see sense, something intelligible, even intelligent, where there may well not be any such thing. There is still something to explain, though, namely why so many people accept this bullshit. Partly, no doubt, 'twas ever thus. Partly, also, people accept it because it is in their interest to do so: they work for Trump or they would be embarrassed to back down from supporting him, for instance. Partly, perhaps, we are more used to bullshit than we used to be because we suffer from an overload of information. This quote from T. S. Eliot has been doing the rounds on Twitter lately:
The vast accumulation of knowledge — or at least information — deposited…have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance.  When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields…in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every man knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.  And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.    
Maybe he's right.

And, finally, maybe there's a sort of culture of bullshit in the US. I'm hesitant to suggest this, because I don't think that any large group of people is really smarter or dumber, better or worse, than any other. If there is a culture of bullshit in the US there may well be a similar culture in other countries. But the creation of certain sacred cows is highly visible in the US in a way that it doesn't seem to be in other countries. The flag, for instance, is idolized in a way I've never seen in any other country. Religion (of a particular, and particularly American, kind) is used to justify denial of scientific facts. The Republican Party has managed to attach itself to the flag and to this kind of religion, making itself almost an idol of sorts (and support for Democrats pretty much unthinkable for many people).  
But (still finally) there is also a history, especially in the South, of lying about the Civil War, and teaching these lies to children. When your parents as well as your teachers lie in this way, as is often the case (although maybe I shouldn't call the sincere repetition of a lie lying), then you are going to have a hard time accepting that it is a lie. Then people who tell (what you may or may not recognize at some level as being) the truth will come across as enemies of your family, your educators, and your culture. (It ought to be possible to insert something here about Wittgenstein and certainty, but I won't.) White Southerners have a huge psychological incentive to reject numerous truths and truth-tellers (as well as the psychological incentive to admit the truth, which, however painful, surely makes life simpler in some ways). If they do opt for such rejection, then more bullshit won't be such a big deal for them to accept. It might even feel like home. 

I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but this is the essay by John Stuart Mill that I have in mind when I talk about lies about the Civil War. I'll quote some of the relevant bits here:
There is a theory in England, believed perhaps by some, half believed by many more, which is only consistent with original ignorance, or complete subsequent forgetfulness, of all the antecedents of the contest. There are people who tell us that, on the side of the North, the question is not one of slavery at all. The North, it seems, have no more objection to slavery than the South have. Their leaders never say one word implying disapprobation of it. They are ready, on the contrary, to give it new guarantees; to renounce all that they have been contending for; to win back, if opportunity offers, the South to the Union by surrendering the whole point.
If this be the true state of the case, what are the Southern chiefs fighting about? Their apologists in England say that it is about tariffs, and similar trumpery. They say nothing of the kind. They tell the world, and they told their own citizens when they wanted their votes, that the object of the fight was slavery.
This was written in 1862, and the same lies and half-beliefs are still very much around. Here's more from Mill:
Let me, in a few words, remind the reader what sort of a thing this is, which the white oligarchy of the South have banded themselves together to propagate and establish, if they could, universally. When it is wished to describe any portion of the human race as in the lowest state of debasement, and under the most cruel oppression, in which it is possible for human beings to live, they are compared to slaves. When words are sought by which to stigmatize the most odious despotism, exercised in the most odious manner, and all other comparisons are found inadequate, the despots are said to be like slave-masters, or slave-drivers. What, by a rhetorical license, the worst oppressors of the human race, by way of stamping on them the most hateful character possible, are said to be, these men, in very truth, are. I do not mean that all of them are hateful personally, any more than all the Inquisitors, or all the buccaneers. But the position which they occupy, and the abstract excellence of which they are in arms to vindicate, is that which the united voice of mankind habitually selects as the type of all hateful qualities. I will not bandy chicanery about the more or less of stripes or other torments which are daily requisite to keep the machine in working order, nor discuss whether the Legrees or the St. Clairs are more numerous among the slave-owners of the Southern States. The broad facts of the case suffice. One fact is enough. There are, Heaven knows, vicious and tyrannical institutions in ample abundance on the earth. But this institution is the only one of them all which requires, to keep it going, that human beings should be burnt alive. The calm and dispassionate Mr. Olmsted affirms that there has not been a single year, for many years past, in which this horror is not known to have been perpetrated in some part or other of the South. And not upon negroes only; the Edinburgh Review, in a recent number, gave the hideous details of the burning alive of an unfortunate Northern huckster by Lynch law, on mere suspicion of having aided in the escape of a slave. What must American slavery be, if deeds like these are necessary under it?—and if they are not necessary and are yet done, is not the evidence against slavery still more damning? The South are in rebellion not for simple slavery; they are in rebellion for the right of burning human creatures alive.
It will take a long time to wake up fully from this nightmare. And perhaps human beings are never fully awake. In the meantime there are going to be mixed beliefs, half-beliefs, lies, denials, and, perhaps more than anything else, confusion. Dawning consciousness, too, we can hope. But certainly confusion. And nonsense. And bullshit. Its acceptance doesn't need any special explanation.


  1. I wish reporters would stop with the mind-reading and stick to reporting behavior, no more fake news....

    1. Mind-reading is tricky business. To be fair to Vox, their job is explaining the news rather than reporting it. But it's worth keeping in mind the fact that some things just don't make sense. Not every evil person is a genius.

    2. they just ignore Trump's very public past, he really is just a conspiracy/simple-minded asshole, they ignore the political machines and focus on figureheads, good for gossip I suppose but not for making sense of elections and or governance.

    3. Yes, that just about sums it up.