Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Liberal Bullshit

As yesterday's updated post suggests, I’m not sure that the Daily Caller’s revelations about emails posted on Journolist are the makings of a real scandal. The only thing I find scandalous about them is the possibility they raise that bullshitting has become too respectable a journalistic practice in liberal circles.

As far as I know, it’s undisputed that: (1) at least one Journolist member was proposing that all the other members use their journalistic platforms to bullshit about Obama’s conservative critics in order to divert public attention from his twenty-year association with Jeremiah Wright; and (2), that no one else on Journolist pushed back at all strenuously. Together those facts suggest (although they don’t prove) that there’s an unseemly tolerance of bullshitting among accomplished liberal journalists. If that suggestion is accurate, we have to ask how much of it has to do with their being liberal journalists.

When I speak of “bullshitting,” I’m not trying to be fashionably vulgar. Bullshitting is a distinct way of speaking (or writing), luminously analyzed by Harry Frankfurt (my emphasis):
“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 truth nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on 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.” On Bullshit (2005) at 55-56. 
Calling any conservative who wrote about Jeremiah Wright a racist whether he is or isn’t, then, is a species of “bullshitting” in Frankfurt’s precise sense. It’s particularly telling that some liberal journalists were ready to resort to bullshit to conceal Obama’s relationship to Wright inasmuch as Wright’s a consummate bullshitter, and Obama did some spectacular bullshitting of his own to justify sitting in his church for twenty years.

Wright’s far too intelligent a man to have believed some of the factually challenged things he said from the pulpit (e.g., that “[t]he government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.”). When he said such things he was neither making a mistake nor lying. He was bullshitting and surely most of his congregants knew it perfectly well.

Wright’s statements about AIDS weren’t meant to be taken literally, and weren’t so taken by the people to whom they were addressed. They were his way of saying, and his congregants’ way of affirming, that they aren’t ready, and black America at large shouldn’t be ready, to acknowledge white America’s good faith on public issues bearing on race relations. As far as Wright and his more devoted followers are concerned, because it’s still unreasonable for blacks to expect fair treatment from whites, ours isn’t a government capable of making legitimate decisions affecting the black community. The bit about the origin of AIDS was just poetic license.

Consider, however, how Obama explained his relationship with Wright in his much-touted address on race in America in the spring of 2008. While he deplored the “divisiveness” of Wright’s rhetoric, he excused it on the ground that it was the expression of the heartfelt anger of a black man who’d come of age in racist America. “That anger,” Obama conceded, “is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems.” But he refused to renounce Wright because the stories he told from the pulpit about the struggle of African-Americans in America conveyed an important truth about America’s racist origins:
“I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
Obama’s not believing the bizarre factual predicates of Wright’s sermons didn’t stop him from being receptive to the stories Wright told: "Those stories -- of survival, and freedom, and hope,” he acknowledged, “became [black people’s] story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.” Seeing a part of himself in these stories is what drew him to, and kept him within, Wright’s church.

No one denies that a well-designed fiction can convey important truths. But that doesn’t relieve the audience of the intellectual responsibility of remembering that it's a fiction. Obama’s  account of his loyalty to Wright was yet another fiction, artfully constructed to conceal the crucial differences between his pastor and his devoted grandmother. On the occasions when she succumbed to racial stereotypes, she was making the mistake of attributing things that are true of a small subset of black people to the whole set. Her grandmotherly regard for Obama is evidence enough that any burden her prejudices imposed on black people was a matter of negligence on her part, not design. The cure for her prejudice is better information that might have persuaded her that the stereotypes she reflexively embraced are wrong.

When Obama characterized Wright’s words as “not only wrong, but divisive,” he made it sound like the factual inaccuracy of Wright’s half-baked AIDS theory and its divisiveness are entirely separate things. Yet it’s not as if Wright was making an honest mistake about the origin of the AIDS virus that also happened to poison relations between the races. He was willfully publicizing a slanderous fiction precisely because it’s divisive; if he didn’t think his AIDS story would divide his flock from white society he wouldn’t have included it in a sermon. Wright makes divisive stuff up just in case his congregants’ collective outrage over real acts of racism has diminished sufficiently to enable them to take their place in our polity as conscientious citizens willing to treat their white compatriots fairly in the expectation that they’ll be treated fairly in return.

The cure for Wright’s brand of racism isn’t more and better information; it’s ideological comrades who call him on his bullshit. What better evidence could there be that Obama hasn’t been that kind of comrade than his sitting in Wright’s church without complaint for twenty years? And what better evidence could there be that Obama and Wright aren’t the only liberals with too high a tolerance for bullshit than the fact that a prominent liberal journalist seems not to have raised an eyebrow among his professional and ideological peers when he proposed that they all do some journalistic bullshitting to conceal the fact that Obama was bullshitting about his relationship with an inveterate bullshitter?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I tend to believe Chait's argument that no one responded to the "let's call them racists" comment because (if I may paraphrase unfairly) "the guy's a nut, no point in responding". That fits with my experience of message-board discussions -- everyone quickly learns not to "feed the troll", as they say.

However.

This whole JournoList thing, while surely not the scandal it's been made out to be, nevertheless makes me very uncomfortable. Even the more level-headed of the JournoList posts that we've seen still conveyed something of an "us against them" attitude (where the "them" is viewed more as a crafty enemy, and less as differently-minded colleagues). Maybe I was simply naive for not realizing until now that journalists are human. But I guess in some sense my bubble has been burst, and overall I'm reevaluating my view of the press.

(For what it's worth, I wish the rest of the press modeled its attitude after this blog. There's nary a demon or a straw man in sight.)

Anyway, here's my takeaway on this JournoList story:

It's been said recently that although the Tea Party is not racist, it has racist elements and so must denounce and purge them. (To my ears, this is a mealy-mouthed way of saying "hell yeah the Tea Party is racist", but hey, to each his own.) It now feels like the conservatives are similarly attacking the entire JournoList community for its few bad apples.

In both cases, we as observers should be careful not to tar a whole group based on the actions of a few. But having said that, I think the more important lesson is for these two organizations: Each must learn that in order to to maintain public trust, they need to keep their houses in order, and that requires proactive pruning of their uglier behaviors.