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Tuesday, 12 April 2005

bullshit

The people who listen to pundits such as Limbaugh are their choir. A recent study by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that, “Rush Limbaugh's radio show attracts a disproportionately conservative audience: 77% of Limbaugh's regular listeners describe themselves as conservative.” (http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?PageID=834) Similarly, the most popular TV news commentator draws an equally biased audience, “On television, the O'Reilly Factor draws a similar audience: 72% of O'Reilly's regular viewers are self-described conservatives.” (Ibid.) As Media Matters has extensively documented, the “facts” reported by these two individuals are often incorrect. Limbaugh and O’Reilly mislead their own base.

Many people, such as Al Franken, accuse right wing pundits of lying. However, something more insidious may be at work. Professor Frankfurt notes in his essay On Bullshit that liars presume to know the truth but choose to misrepresent it. By contrast, bullshitters have “a lack of connection to a concern with truth.” (p 33) He constructs a binary opposition, not between truth and lies, which he sees as having a concern for the truth in common, but between liars and bullshitters.

The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective falsehood me must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.

On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well. (p 51-2)

The fog of distortion surrounding pundits such as Limbaugh and O’Reilly is so thick that it seems more correct to label them as bullshitters rather than liars.

Those who trust Limbaugh and O’Reilly must necessarily distrust media outlets that report conflicting truths. This creates a lack of confidence in the media. Sometimes there exists a lack of confidence in reality itself. Ron Suskind of the New York Times reported in October 2004 on a conversation he had with an unnamed Bush aide,

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” . . . “That's not the way the world really works anymore,'” he continued.

(“Without a Doubt” emphasis added)

Reality itself is imperiled by bullshit. Frankfurter notes that “’antirealist’ doctorines undermine the confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and . . . false and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry.” (p 65) In other words, the right wing spin machine, backed by the White House, is destroying the very notion of news gathering and reporting. Frankfurt discusses the consequences of this state. “One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the idea of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity.” (Ibid. Emphasis in original.) To members of the reality-based community, the substitution of sincerity for reason is alarming. Bill Clinton famously remarked that Democrats win when people think. Bullshit in the form of right wing political discourse seeks to counter this by ridding the world of rational thought. This cannot be good public policy.

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2 comments:

goat said...

is that clinton comment famous? i saw him make it on a late-night talk show -- i don't think i've read about it elsewhere. course, i'm not always exactly with the program.

Les said...

it's famous if i don't want to find a citation