In Defense of Bullshit

On Bullshit, a hot new book-length essay by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, takes a useful pass at its subject but leaves a lot of work still to do. To Frankfurt, bullshit is a bad thing: “Lying and bluffing are both modes of misrepresentation or deception,” he says, and “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.”

Frankfurt muses, “The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides . . . is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him.” He adds, “Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.”

Frankfurt’s big mistake was not to see that bullshit, like many another natural force, is morally neutral. It’s no different than atomic power: it can be used for good, it can be used for evil.

I made a list of some aspects of bullshit that the author was overlooking. There’s the relativity of bullshit: a smitten poet explaining that her smile puts the sun to shame and her eyes outshine the starriest night speaks with utter sincerity to a maiden who, if she’s been once around the block, is thinking, “The same old bullshit.”

There’s positive bullshit. A coach inspiring his woeful team to take the field against the national champions will say things he knows aren’t true, but only to shore up his players’ confidence and self-respect.

And there’s the law. If there were no bullshit we wouldn’t be a nation ruled by law. We would be ruled instead by ideologies and passions. We would be at the mercy of our true believers. Supreme Court nominee John Roberts made our prevailing values pretty clear in last week’s confirmation hearing. When senators grilled him on forceful position papers he’d written for the Reagan Justice Department, Roberts reminded them he was serving a client. “As an advocate,” he said, “I’ve certainly been arguing deference to the legislature in appropriate cases. Other cases, of course, I was on a different side and arguing the opposite. . . . I’ve not only been in a position where I’ve been pressing arguments, for example, for the executive branch. I have been arguing cases against the executive branch . . .”

Cynics tell us that a lawyer will say anything, but they miss the point. A lawyer understands that “the truth about things” is no simple matter, that a courtroom is not the place to seek it, and that we should beware of anyone certain he’s found it. Here’s what lawyers see much more clearly than anyone else: behind every truth there is a contradiction that is just about as likely to be true. We are a stable society because our legal institutions recognize, embrace, and profit from that duality. For a lawyer, hiring out to anyone who’ll pay him is being “true to himself,” to reason, and to the law.

Roberts testified, “My practice has been to take the cases that come to me, and if the other side in that case had come to me first, I would have taken their side.” So Senator Richard Durbin asked him about his participation in Romer v. Evans, a 1996 case in which the Supreme Court protected gay civil rights legislation in Colorado. Roberts offered assistance to the legal team that was challenging a state constitutional amendment written to forbid any such legislation. Durbin asked, “If the other side had come to you first and said, ‘Mr. Roberts, we would like you to defend this state amendment that took away the rights of gays and lesbians,’ would you have taken the case?”

“I think I probably would have,” Roberts replied. He added, “I would have to look at the legal issues, and I have not and never have presented legal arguments that I thought were not reasonable arguments.”

Durbin must have been wondering, what in God’s name could be reasonable arguments for repressing gays? He asked, “Where are you? Is it important enough for you to say in some instances, I will not use my skills as a lawyer, because I don’t believe that that is a cause that is consistent with my values and belief?” In Frankfurt’s terms, Durbin was asking if Roberts ever found the truth about things too palpable and compelling not to be bound by it.

Roberts didn’t meet the question head-on. Actually, he didn’t meet it at all. He ducked it. Instead he said, “I had someone ask me in this process, I don’t remember who it was, but somebody asked me, ‘Are you going to be on the side of the little guy?’ You obviously want to give an immediate answer, but as you reflect on it, if the Constitution says that the little guy should win, the little guy is going to win in court before me. But if the Constitution says that the big guy should win, well, then the big guy is going to win, because my obligation is to the Constitution.”

The inadequacy of Frankfurt’s book can be seen in its failure to account for such a statement. It is careful, cadenced, and steeped in respect for the rule of law. It burnishes the claim of the man who spoke it to the highest judicial office in the land.

And it’s bullshit.

Right or Wrong, Bloggers Put It Out There

Journalism today teems with bloggers who incessantly sift the Internet for revelations. They post the wheat; they post the chaff.

In the wake of New Orleans, blogger Michael Petrelis decided to examine some key leaders of our crisis response teams. Everyone else was aiming at Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Petrelis looked past him to FEMA’s ten regional directors. He found their bios online.

Petrelis singled out as “worst of the lot” acting director Kenneth Horak of Region One in the northeastern U.S., who’d been a naval officer before joining FEMA. “His private sector professional experience includes business retailing and public relations consulting,” said his bio. That background didn’t impress Petrelis, but he missed something: Horak’s a careerist who’s been with FEMA since 1983. Almost all the regional directors are political appointees, including Edward Buikema, director of our Region Five, who directed the emergency management division of the Michigan state police before joining FEMA four years ago. (For better or worse, Buikema would have little to do with any sudden emergency in Chicago: he’s been detailed to Washington since last January.)

Petrelis noted that David Maurstad, director of Region Eight, used to be lieutenant governor of Nebraska and, according to his resume, created a program “to recognize young people for their achievements and personal courage.” There’s no mention of a background in disaster response.

“The most unqualified,” Petrelis wrote, might be Region Ten’s John Pennington, a former Washington legislator. Petrelis linked his blog to the Seattle Times, which on September 10 took a questioning look at their local guy. Pennington “ran a mom-and-pop coffee company in Cowlitz County when then-Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn helped him get his federal post,” reported the Times. Earlier, he “got a degree from a correspondence school that government investigators later described as a ‘diploma mill.'”

Petrelis moved on to the Department of Homeland Security, whose Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness it describes as “the federal government’s lead agency responsible for preparing the nation against terrorism by assisting states, local and tribal jurisdictions, and regional authorities as they prevent, deter, and respond to terrorist acts.” One of its jobs is helping critical ports like New Orleans defend themselves. Petrelis dug out the assessment that DHS’s inspector general made last spring of the office’s port security grant program. It sounds like a pork pie.

Of the $560 million awarded to more than 1,200 projects, almost 80 percent of the money remained unspent, the inspector general reported. But perhaps this wasn’t such a bad thing, as so much of the money had gone to the wrong projects. Instead of directing resources “toward the nation’s highest priorities,” grants had been made with the intent of “spreading funds to as many applicants as possible,” whether they deserved the money or not.

The office of state and local government coordination and preparedness is now headed by Matt Mayer, a 34-year-old attorney from Colorado. Colorado’s Republican governor, Bill Owens, a native Texan, and President Bush are buddies, and Mayer followed a political pipeline from Colorado to Washington that had been earlier traveled by Michael Brown himself and by Mayer’s predecessor, Suzanne Menzer. Mayer’s official bio identifies him as a former deputy director of Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies. Petrelis called him a “political hack.”

Petrelis linked his blog’s readers to newspaper articles and other cybersources that revealed Mayer’s past in bits and pieces. Other bloggers read Petrelis’s work and reposted it. One of them, known as Digby, added research of his own and posted a scornful thumbnail history. Mayer’s “a young Republican lawyer who graduated from law school in 1997 and worked on redistricting issues in Colorado in 2000,” he wrote. A year later the state’s Republican governor named him to a judicial-district nominating commission.

“Somewhere along the line,” Digby went on, “Mayer hooked up with a rising politician named Rick O’Donnell and ran his losing campaign for Congress in 2002. Shortly thereafter, O’Donnell was appointed to run a state regulatory agency where Mayer worked as his deputy.”

The problem with bloggers posting other bloggers is the echo chamber effect. A Denver reporter who’d actually seen Mayer up close once or twice told me he was “young, dynamic, incredibly knowledgeable. . . . He took books home and read them all night until he knew everything.” Another reporter said he’s “A plus.” As the first credential for any job is the capacity to learn it, I decided to call Mayer, ask him what he thought of what the blogs were saying about him, and make up my own mind. Instead, I got a DHS spokeswoman.

She talked to Mayer and called me back. I hadn’t even mentioned port security to her, but she told me Mayer had overhauled the program. He was a loyal Republican but he worked well with Democrats–she gave me the name of a Democratic lawyer back at his old firm. She gave me the name of someone at a children’s home where he was on the board.

It was clear that before calling me she and Mayer had scoured the Web for every insinuation about him that was now out there spreading from blog to blog. Michael Brown had disappeared in disgrace, and Mayer had just found out that he might be sucked under himself. It must be scary.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images.