Thursday, July 22, 2010

More on Liberal Bullshit

I suggested yesterday and the day before that the liberal community in general, and the community of liberal journalists in particular, are far too tolerant of bullshitting that advances their political agenda. I’ve been presuming that, if that’s so, it’s mostly a matter of liberals not living up to their own standards of intellectual rectitude and civic responsibility. That’s why I’d have expected any self-respecting liberal journalist to take genuine offense at being called a political hack and to experience at least a pang of shame at the suggestion of such hackery projected by the leaked Journolist emails. Yet I haven’t heard a single Journolist member concede that the emails raise even a fleeting appearance of impropriety, much less the real thing.

That prompts the following speculation. What if liberals are more self-conscious about their bullshitting than I’ve supposed? Maybe, taking the post-modernism that passes for common sense in elite universities to heart, they’ve decided that their core political commitments should take conceptual and practical priority over counterfeit standards of objectivity. Maybe they think that it’s a fool’s errand to try to make one’s core political commitments measure up to apolitical standards of objectivity when one should instead be unapologetically tailoring one’s conception of objectivity to a political ideology. Adroit political bullshitting, on this view isn’t a betrayal of authoritative intellectual or civic norms; it’s an expression of ideological solidarity that demonstrates discerning self-knowledge.

That possibility isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. It was contemplated over thirty years ago by my go-to authority on bullshitting, Harry Frankfurt. He suggested that the prevalence of bullshit in our culture is partly the consequence of bullshitters having lost “confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false.” Having concluded that there’s nothing much that’s objective to say about the world, they resort to bullshit to say something important about themselves (emphasis in the original):
“One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. . . . 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.” On Bullshit (2005) at 65-66.
That’s not a bad explanation of why Spencer Ackerman wasn’t at all reticent about proposing that his journalistic peers use their journalistic platforms to insinuate that any conservative who wrote politically inconvenient things about Jeremiah Wright is a racist. Perhaps that was his way of saying: “I am Liberal, hear me roar!”

Until a few years ago, I’d have dismissed this idea as science fiction. Now I’m not so sure. If you set your mind to it, you can find lots of evidence that liberalism is becoming less about applying purportedly objective intellectual and civic norms and more about expressing a core political identity. 

One of the main themes of this blog is that liberals should be resisting this development by holding their ideological comrades to fairly strict standards of intellectual probity and citizenship.  I sometimes fear that, when I drone on to that effect, I sound like one of those upright senior officers with the Oxbridge accent in old British war movies confronting a moment of crisis when the survival of His Majesty’s regiment hangs in the balance. The senior officer invariably demonstrates his mastery of his men, himself and their perilous predicament by slapping the face of the boyish second lieutenant (in whom we’ve come to take a paternal interest) after he loses his head and exclaims: “God help us. We’re all doomed!”

“Get a hold of yourself man,” the senior officer sternly responds. He immediately turns his attention back to saving the regiment because he’s confident that he’s in command of the situation. He’s certain that his interpretation of the norms of British manliness is authoritative enough to remind the second lieutenant what’s expected of him without further explanation. And he’s kind enough to change the subject so as to mitigate the shame the second lieutenant will experience upon regaining his composure. In the sort of movie I’m thinking of, the senior officer’s wisdom is immediately vindicated when the second lieutenant gratefully replies: “Thank you sir, I needed that.”

I haven’t given up hoping that I can occasionally get other liberals to say something to that effect. Yet it’s not hard to imagine a more up-to-date film in which the regiment was really in grave danger only in the senior officer’s Walter Mitty fantasy and the second lieutenant was just pulling the leg of a sanctimonious prig. When, to the second lieutenant’s amazement, his irony exposes him to an act of battery, he might have slapped the senior officer back or just warned him: “Keep your hands off me asshole or I’ll bring you up before the regimental ombudsman!”

On this blog, I’m casting myself in the senior officer’s role without being altogether sure what kind of movie I’m appearing in. I can’t help believing that liberalism would be in better shape if liberals spent more of their time calling out liberal bullshitters. But ideologies are social phenomena; I don't get to have one of my own.

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