Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Bullshit That Civilly Dare Not Speak Its Name

(If Mark Halperin spouts bullshit in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, is it still the fault of the Dirty Fucking Hippies?)

There's a saying that, as scant as the truth is, the supply always exceeds the demand. When it comes to Beltway pundits – the chattering class, the Villagers, the Very Serious People – the truth is more like a strange, exotic alien speaking a foreign and incomprehensive tongue. (And seriously, who thought it a good idea to invite that Krugman guy to the party every Sunday? Blah blah facts blah blah. Doesn't he know there's a two drink minimum?) Ideally, truth should trump civility, and accuracy should trump politeness, but that is hardly the dominant Beltway style.

Ernest Hemingway observed, "The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector." When it comes to good political analysis – given the persistent fragrance of political discourse – what's specifically needed is a good bullshit detector:

I'm basically using Harry Frankfurt's definition of bullshit, in which a bullshitter may accidentally speak the truth, but simply doesn’t care whether what he says is true or not. As Frankfurt puts it, "It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as the essence of bullshit." Timothy Noah wrote a good 2005 piece on all this and noted, "Frankfurt's definition is provocative because it allows for the little-recognized possibility that bullshit can be substantively true, and still be bullshit." (I attempted to classify different levels of truth-telling and prevarication in "The Bullshit Matrix.")

Instead of a bullshit detector, the average pundit has a hypersensitive one of these:

Civility does have value, but how it's defined and actually observed (and enforced) can vary tremendously by community or venue. At its most basic, a civil discourse entails that each person gets his or her chance to speak without significant interruption and that needless personal attacks are avoided. A general ethic of cooperatively seeking the truth and exploring possible improvements to a given problem should also be in play. That said, among honest, sane, reasonably intelligent people, this standard is usually a given.

In contrast, in our national political discourse, the actual practice is that saying something that sounds harsh – even if it is factually, demonstrably true – is typically denounced as uncivil or otherwise rude, a breach of decorum. Newt Gingrich may be lying shamelessly, but the rules of the Beltway pundit game entail that calling him out as a liar is the true sin, not the lie itself. Rather than the hosts limiting the discourse to honest, sane, reasonably intelligent people (which necessitates qualitative judgment somewhere along the way), equal time – or rather, disproportionate time – is given to guests arguing in bad faith and/or with little to no expertise in the subject at hand. Consequently, civility as enforced usually does the audience a disservice.

To quote a piece from October 2012:

Funny, I'd say lying is rude.

Civility has its place, but honesty over civility, accuracy over politeness. Alternatively, if you define "civility" in part as showing respect for the truth, a liar has broken the implicit contract of the debate/discussion, and as a moral matter should be called out. (Not that that happens much in the Village, but boy, it's awesome when it does.)

I'm hardly unique in this take. One of the liberal blogosphere's key critiques of (and chief frustrations with) the corporate media is due to it oddly defining "civility" and exalting it above truth. See, for instance, the archives of Alicublog, Thers, TBogg, Blue Gal, driftglass, Digby, Atrios, Balloon Juice, Sadly, No and many more.

As we've discussed before, the Beltway establishment doesn't really care about "civility" per se, otherwise long-running, shameless bomb-thrower Newt Gingrich would be shunned, and certainly never put on the air so frequently. The Beltway version of "civility" is an odd construct, entailing that certain aspects of the establishment cannot be questioned, that Beltway Villagers in good standing cannot lose respectability, and that the socially-determined conventional wisdom reigns, no matter how false.

Similarly, now is the season for pundits and voters to bemoan all the negative ads. Who cares if an ad is negative? What matters is whether it's accurate or not. An honest ad will sometimes deliver a harsh judgment. That's as it should be. Ads should be accurate, and fair – in the sense that ads should provide relevant context and not be technically true but misleading. Voters face a decision, and any ad that is honest and fair helps them in that decision.

It can help to view political pundits through an anthropological lens; the majority of them define truth socially, nor empirically. Most of their views result from the almost unfailingly wrong Beltway Conventional Wisdom, built of reflexive, unexamined class biases. Pundits tend to have fine pedigrees (at least by Beltway standards). But for them, the benefit of, say, attending a genuinely good school or world travel sadly remains its value as a class marker. There's little evidence of the mind- and soul-expanding they could have experienced. They're rarely actually thoughtful. Oh, there may be a shred of that left, but they're terribly insecure (and often lazy), so they're anxious to follow the herd and not look like fools. (Actually caring about policies and their consequences to average citizens, the "real Americans" they claim to know, is a sure way to look like a rube in what Jay Rosen calls "the Church of the Savvy.") They wield decorum like a weapon. It's a defining feature of a fawning courtier class, establishment hacks and aspiring bourgeois authoritarians.

(Feel free to use alternative terms. Tom Scocca's piece on "On Smarm" covers similar ground, with "snark" being, at its best, the act of calling bullshit on deserving targets, while "smarm" is civility trolling.)

So sure, it's fine to have a civility meter, as long as you also have a bullshit detector and that takes the lead. Basically, it's also important to have a good one of these:

For example, maybe you sincerely believes that someone calling Dick Cheney a "war criminal" is distasteful, because, uh… he hasn't been formally convicted as such. Or it sounds harsh. Okay, but you should be more outraged by what Cheney actually did, his role in constructing a a torture program and his dishonesty in selling a war of choice. Don't agree with all of that? Fine. But the defining feature of civility trolls, the smarm patrol, the bullshitters, is that they're trying to shut honest discussion down. They don't want to investigate. They don't want accountability (not for their team, anyway). For example, there's a reason torture apologists steadfastly ignore all the accounts and mountains of data proving their claims false. Pick another issue if you like; the same dynamics often play out. For instance, pointing out that a climate change denier is completely wrong may lead to an awkward moment socially in the studio, but letting him spew falsehoods unchallenged does the audience no favors. The bullshit detector must take precedence over the (most popular Beltway brand of) civility meter:

When Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke in 2012, both devices should have sounded the alarm. But again, the problem wasn't solely that Limbaugh was rude, or a famous public figure punching down at a student who had the temerity to testify before Congress. Limbaugh was and is a grotesquely misogynist asshole, and that's far from incidental in this case. (As Aaron Bady pointed out, Limbaugh wasn't just ignorant about female contraception, he was "defending precisely his right not to know how it works.") Still, it's absolutely essential to note that Limbaugh lied about Fluke's testimony. He couldn't engage her on the merits, so he lied about her and attacked her personally. Calling out Limbaugh's viciousness and misogyny was deserved and valuable, but rank dishonesty remains a staple of Limbaugh's shtick even when he's (relatively) more "civil."

Basically, a civility meter can be hit or miss, but depends on how it's calibrated and who's wielding it. It can illuminate some issues, but will miss others, and when used by the Beltway's Very Serious People, it typically obfuscates the real problems. In contrast, a good bullshit detector is always valuable, and should be the primary tool.

Put another way, it's essential that one's outrage allocator is guided by a good one of these:

(Hat tips to Tildology and Entropy Zone for some of the art components above.)

Friday, July 04, 2014

Independence Day 2014

Happy Independence Day! I tend to rerun a mix of videos every year, and these remain two of my favorites:

Meanwhile, The New York Times has an intriguing piece about the possibility that a period was mistakenly added to the official transcript of the Declaration of Independence, significantly shaping its interpretation.