This is a response to Vladimir Golstein’s essay on “Politics, BS, and Ukraine”, originally at antiwar.com and now on our very own RI. A serious piece of thinking which I urge you to read right now (but do come back when you are finished).
The essay set me to thinking and I am hoping that my little effort will set up a discussion on these pages.
I re-read the original essay by Harry G Frankfurt which inspired Golstein. To my mind, this is Frankfurt’s key insight:
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false.
For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he 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 of 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.
He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
The official voice of the US State Department, Jen Psaki, is a outstanding practitioner of bullshit: “As a matter of long-standing policy, the United States does not support political transitions by non-constitutional means.” As a recent example, regarding what has been called “the most blatant coup in history“, Washington was happy to declare Ukrainian President Yanukovich illegitimate, gone, no longer President, despite the fact that none of the requirements of the Ukrainian constitution had been fulfilled. (Art 108: he hadn’t died, resigned, become incapacitated or been impeached). On the other hand, Washington still recognises the President of Yemen. Listen to Psaki here on video and in the text: after helpfully advising the questioner “to take a look at the Yemeni constitution if you’re interested”, she proceeds to say “I know you like to revise history here in this case, but I’ll just reiterate that president – that Yanukovych left his own country. We all remember what happened here. I’m sure we can provide you with the specific details if you’d like.” “Left his own country” – which in fact he hadn’t done at the time – where’s that in the Ukrainian constitution? What is her statement but the very perfection of bullshit? “Revise history”, “specific details”: the very perfection of perfection.
He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
The student of bullshit must acknowledge that Psaki is neither an idiot nor a liar; rather, she is a very highly skilled practitioner of bullshit.
Here is Marie Harf, her successor, and no mean successor, answering the same question. One must once again describe the question. Washington declared Yanukovich deposed because he fled the country. However, President Hadi of Yemen is recognised as legitimate by Washington despite having fled the country. You might see that as a discrepancy, for lack of a stronger word, but it is no such thing to the skilled bullshitter:
QUESTION: Yes. If you refer to a constitutional process, then you – obviously, you understand where I am drawing a parallel with. So the Ukrainians, right? Was the constitutional process observed in the Ukrainian case?
MS. HARF: I’m not going to draw parallels here. We’ve been very clear how we feel about Ukraine. And it was also – last time I checked, major parts of Kyiv weren’t being taken over by an armed rebel group when President Yanukovych left, so I think it’s pretty different.
I’m not going to draw parallels here. Perfection!
And it’s not just Ukraine that shows her mastery of bullshit: consider the fact that Washington is not evacuating its nationals from Yemen.
Well, we’re certainly not abandoning them, Elliot, but I think the challenge for us is that we have had very strict travel warnings in place for a decade now for Yemen, including multiple travel warnings telling people not to travel there and that if they do, the U.S. can provide only limited assistance, especially now given that our embassy is closed. So we certainly understand the challenge. We are looking at what our options are. But you have to balance what options we have for a possible evacuation against the security situation, against what is feasible, against what kind of assets could do this, and what the risk is to those assets. So it’s just a balancing act situation, and that’s what we’re looking at or the way we’re looking at it.
In short, if the Russians or Chinese don’t get them out, too bad for them. But we’re “certainly not abandoning them”. “Certainly” adds that little extra curl to the pile, don’t you think?
Bullshit abounds in Washington on the Ukraine issue. Here’s a classic example from the Baker of the Maidan, Victoria Nuland herself:
“even as Ukraine began building a peaceful, democratic, independent nation across 93% of its territory, Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine suffered a reign of terror.”
Just say it. Don’t pay any attention to poll findings that a huge majority of Crimeans are delighted to be in Russia, forget the shelling in Donbass (their children holed up in basements), ignore the neo-nazis (suddenly a former NATO cheerleader notices them), assassinations, parliamentary thuggery, the economic collapse. Just say it. Make it up. Whatever.
“He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
(Incidentally, I wondered about the 93%. As it happens, according to Wikipedia, Crimea, Lugansk Oblast and Donetsk Oblast are all about the same size with each constituting about 4.4% of the territory of “Last Summer’s Ukraine“. So all of Crimea and about half of the other two is close enough to 7%).
The essence of bullshit is that there is no truth value whatsoever; truth value is irrelevant. The liar knows, or believes he knows, what reality is: he just wants to persuade you of the reverse. The bullshitter doesn’t care – he has a purpose and whatever advances that purpose, or whatever he thinks will do so, he says. And that’s all there is to it. Ignore Ukraine’s constitution, follow Yemen’s: why? Because our larger agenda (which has nothing to do with Psakian bullshit about constitutionality) is that we want Yanukovich out and Hadi in.
But what we do know is that all this bullshit is emitted to distract the listener from the the one statement that the Psakis, Harfs and Nulands haven’t quite got the courage to come out with. And that is simply this:
The rules are what we want
Afterword: The above are examples of the most common form of bullshit: the flat assertion. Here is illustrated, perhaps – perhaps – another variant. Ask yourself this: is this guy just a dumb cluck: (whaddya mean NATO has moved its doorstep closer to Russia? I don’t unnerstand. Duh). Or is he a Zen Master of BS who has learned how to pretend to be a dumb cluck?
Frankfurt and Golstein have given us a powerful analytical tool and I encourage others to think about his observations. There is much more to discuss.
Especially this insight, from Golstein:
In other words, if we really want to debunk a bullshitter, we need to forget the concepts of lies or truths, and concentrate on the “nature of bullshitter enterprise.” Of course, people have been doing it ever since the proliferation of BS began. Such people are known as “conspiracy theorists.” One, therefore, can complement Frankfurt’s observation on the growth of bullshit with the parallel observation on the growth of conspiracy theories.
What is a conspiracy theory, after all, as not an attempt to decipher the nature of a bullshitter’s agenda?
Are we really daring nuclear Armageddon so that Joe Biden’s son can get a job?