by Walter C. Uhler
Posted 20 December 2007
In his thought provoking little book, On Bullshit, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University, Harry G. Frankfurt, cites an exchange between Fania Pascal and the renowned philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein: “I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called. I croaked: ‘I feel just like a dog that has been run over.’ He was disgusted: ‘You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.” [p. 24]
In Professor Frankfurt’s interpretation, Wittgenstein issued his harsh rejoinder because he believed Fania Pascal’s assertion was bullshit. In Frankfurt’s view, the essence of bullshit is an “indifference to how things really are.”
Thus, whereas people who tell the truth and people who lie are similarly concerned about the facts – in order to either expose or deny them – the bullshitter ‘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 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.” [p. 56] Consequently, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” [p. 61]
Using this definition, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Michael Savage qualify as world-class bullshitters. And so are the neoconservatives, whose ideological obsession with using U.S. military power, in order to extend liberty and democracy around the world, reeks with “indifference to how things really are” in such places as Iraq, Iran and Palestine.
Did President Bush and Vice President Cheney really care whether their assertions about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaeda described reality correctly? When, in the summer of 2002, Cheney exerted pressure on intelligence officials to withdraw their doubts about the ties between Iraq and al Qaeda, was it because he was searching for the truth or because he was determined to have his views ratified?
And if Mr. Cheney was interested in the truth, why didn’t he request a National Intelligence estimate (NIE) on Iraq? Why was it left to congressional Democrats to request such an NIE in September 2002? Granted, NIEs are rarely definitive, but they almost always yield more intelligence about a country than any single individual can possess. More to the point, NIEs are much more concerned with the true and the false than are bullshit politicians.
Take, for example, the November 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear program. New evidence provided by a senior official in the Iranian Ministry of Defense (who had defected to Turkey in February 2007) caused the intelligence community to reevaluate and then revise its earlier conclusion – reported in the NIE of 2005 — that Iran was determined to develop nuclear weapons. The new intelligence allowed the intelligence community to judge with “high confidence that in the fall of 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Thus, “Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.” [National Intelligence Estimate, “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” Nov. 2007]
It now appears likely that President Bush “knew about that intelligence as early as February or March 2007” [Gareth Porter, “Did Bush Get New Iran Intel Last Winter?” antiwar.com, Dec. 18, 2007]. Yet, on 6 August 2007 our Bullshitter-in-Chief falsely asserted: “After all, this is a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon.” And in October 2007, Bullshitter Bush asserted, “a nuclear-armed Iran might lead to World War III.” [“A Blow To Bush’s Tehran Policy, Washington Post, Dec. 4, 2007]
Such bullshit is reminiscent of the crap Bush was flinging in mid-2003, when questions began to be raised about the weapons of mass destruction NOWHERE TO BE FOUND in Iraq. Remember when the Bullshitter told reporters in mid-July 2003: “We gave him [Saddam] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in.” (In fact, Saddam did let the inspectors in.)
Remember, the Bullshitter-in-Chief’s interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer in December 2003? When Ms. Sawyer pressed Bush about justifying a war to the American public by stating “as a hard fact, that there were weapons of mass destruction as opposed to the possibility that he [Saddam] could move to acquire those weapons,” the Bullshitter responded: “So what’s the difference?” Perhaps, this is the appropriate time to reiterate what Professor Frankfurt calls the essence of bullshit: An “indifference to how things really are.”
The news media also propagates bullshit. Simply recall the so-called “reporting” about Iraq by Judith Miller of the New York Times; reporting that proved to be little more than stenography dictated by two incorrigible bullshitters, neocon Richard Perle and Ahmad Chalabi.
Or consider the recent column written by Kevin Ferris of the Philadelphia Inquirer (see http://www.walter-c-uhler.com/Reviews/morons.html). In that column, Ferris “gushes like a child and waxes euphoric about the ‘passion and enthusiasm’ of President Bush – as if Bush has ever been anything but passionate and enthusiastic, even as he has subjected the United States and the world to the most evil and error prone presidency in U.S. history.” Like so many Americans, Ferris not only believes that Bush is sincere, but also that sincerity trumps objective reality – which has been a disaster.
But, “sincerity” itself, as Professor Frankfurt tells us, is just more bullshit. “As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not particularly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.” [pp. 66-67]
Finally, I suspect that Charles Gibson has been flinging bullshit about the success of the “surge” on ABC’s World News. Except for a December 16th report about the British handing over control of Basra to the Iraqis — which contained a quote by Anthony Cordesman that “the British are putting a good face on what essentially is a very serious political and military defeat” and the observation by Terry McCarthy that “Britain’s non-confrontational policy in Basra left the Iraqi security forces simply unable to control the Shiite militias, who are making millions of dollars from oil smuggling” – Gibson has paid more attention to the short-term tactical successes of the surge than he has to the long-term strategic failures looming on the horizon.
First, the surge is going to end – probably before achieving its stated goal of providing a relative calm conducive to political reconciliation. Today we have relative calm in Iraq, but almost no reconciliation at the national level. Second, are the Sunnis, who we’ve have funded to fight al Qaeda, eventually going to turn their guns back on us? Or, as Douglas McGregor recently put it, “Is the Great Awakening inside the Sunni Arab community the road to Iraq’s stability, or just a pause for Sunni rearmament and reorganization.”
Mr. Gibson might have also assessed the tactical success of the surge in the context of increased Iranian influence in southern Iraq, in the context of Muqtada al-Sadr’s order to the Mahdi Army to stand down for six months (which ends in February), or even in the context of the increasing tension between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Iraq. He might have assessed the tactical success of the surge against the immense violence, death and destruction that the U.S. unleashed in Iraq since March 2003.
Similarly, Mr. Gibson might even have assessed the tactical success of the surge in the context of the number of close air support sorties that dropped a “major munition” on Iraq in 2007. According to Anthony Cordesman, the number increased from 285 in 2004, 404 in 2005, and 229 in 2006, to 1,119 in 2007 (Nearly five times higher than in 2006 as of 5 December).” Finally, he might have assessed the tactical success of the surge in the context of focus group analyses conducted by the U.S. military last month. As Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post reports on December 19th, “Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of ‘occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation.”
But Charles Gibson has failed to provide such context and, thus, might be suspected of bullshitting his viewers about the surge. Such suspicions are strengthened when his words of December 14th are considered: “Overseas this has been a remarkable day in Iraq. Our Baghdad bureau says there were no reports of any major outbreaks of violence anywhere in the country today. This is the first time we can recall this happening since the insurgency began.”
Consider that, on that “remarkable day,” “at least 25 Iraqis were killed or found dead and eight more were wounded,” that “in nearby Mansouriat Al-Muqdadiyah, three gunmen were killed and two villagers were wounded during a clash,” that “near the Syrian border in Anbar province, a suicide bomber wounded six policemen during an attack on their station” and that “Iraqi forces killed 14 suspects and detained 30 others during security operations.” [Margaret Griffis, anti-war.com, Dec. 14, 2007]. Unless one is inclined to bullshit about the success of the surge, like Charles Gibson, any one of these events would be considered a “major outbreak of violence,” were they to occur in the United States.
Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA).
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