Friday, October 06, 2006

Hastert's Defense: Humbug or Bullshit?

This is the deepest philosphical question raised by Dennis Hastert's press conference yesterday: "Was he was spouting humbug or slinging bullshit?"

What's the difference?
you ask. Plenty. Luckily for us, help is available. In recent years, humbug and bullshit have been the subject of serious inquiry by honest-to-goodness academic philosophers who worry over language and meaning.

The 'Responsibility' Fashion

Before we go further, let's take a moment to properly establish the context for the question. Jockey Street succinctly describes the underlying facts of the problem:
"So Dennis Hastert says 'the buck stops here.' He puffs out his chest, the sad suffering noble hero, and accepts responsibility for not doing more to keep Mark Foley from trying to get sticky with teenage boys. But then he tells us that he's done 'nothing wrong,' tells us that he has no intention of stepping down, and suggests that the responsible party is really the Democrats... ."
We've ranted before about the ubiquitous "fashion" of "taking responsibility." It's all the rage among alcoholics, drug addicts, sexual deviates, thieving corporate executives, and Republican congressmen -- after they've been caught.

As Martin Lewis writes this week in his latest essay at the Huffington Post:
'I take responsibility'... have become the cheapest three words anyone under siege in a crisis can utter.

"(The second cheapest set of words is 'I'm going into rehab.' But that phrase has a fourth word (quite pricey) and sometimes actually costs money. Depending how luxurious the chosen country-club hideaway is.)

"But that 'responsibility' phrase is now trotted out routinely by people using it as a 'get-out-of-jail-free' card. * * * It has been determined to be a courageous-sounding phrase that people in trouble HAVE to say. And it's easy. Because it is utterly meaningless."
So easy and so meaningless, in fact, that incurious stenographers in the press dutifully transcribe and repeat the words seemingly without a moment's thought to whether those words carry any meaning; or, if so, what follow-up questions should be asked -- questions such as any parent would demand like, "Okay, since you're taking personal responsibility, what are the consequences you think you should suffer?"

As " archy" the blogger points out, with the House "Page-gate" scandal Hastert has been allowed to entirely avoid the issue of consequences.
"Hastert's idea of taking responsibility has been to play down the seriousness of the crime, blame other congressmen for not telling him (they did), blame Bill Clinton and George Soros for plotting against him (they didn't), try and make a staffer take the fall (he refused), order an investigation of the press, order an investigation of the victims, and repeat that he didn't do anything wrong.
"In what way does any of that constitute 'taking responsibility?'"
The answer to archy's question is, of course, it doesn't. What do Hastert's words constitute, then?


For the answer to that, we turn first to the late Cornell University professor of philosophy, Max Black. Prof. Black would have called it "humbug." In his famous speech, " The Prevalence of Humbug," he offered this formal definition:
Humbug: (HUM-bug.) Deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.
"With humbug," the professor explained, "Often there is also a detectable whiff of self-satisfaction and self-complacency: humbug goes well with a smirk."

We ask you: looking at the image at the top of this page, is that a smirk over Dennis Hastert's gargantuan stomach? Or is he just being 'overly friendly'?

It's likely that others would argue, however, that what Hassert did yesterday goes well beyond mere humbug (which is "short of lying," in Prof. Black's definition). It's even worse than outright lying.

What the Republican majority's speaker did qualifies as pure bullshit.


The leading expert on this subject is Prof. Harry G. Frankfurt of Princeton University, author of the best-selling book, "On Bullshit." Frankfurt, too, is a philospher who takes words and the concepts behind them seriously. In an earlier essay by the same name which became the foundation for his book, Prof. Frankfurt reasoned that there is something more to bullshit than a 'deceptive misrepresentation.'
"However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity which resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline. "
In short, Frankfurt proposes that the difference between humbug and bullshit is "bullshitting involves a kind of bluff." Moreover, bullshit is worse than outright lying.
"What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to. [emphasis added]

"This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor conceal it."
That's an intriguing point. Hastert may not much care whether we believe him or not. Nor does he care if we think he's lying.

What he really wants is to "deceive" us about what he's really up to. What could that be?

What's to Cover-up?

Our neighboring blogger at Why Now? thinks it might be something so basic as the fact that when news of the first Foley emails was brought to Hasert, he "decided to ignore" long-standing procedures of the House Page Committee. In other words, Hastert acted incompetently. He ignored House Rules and the full Page Committee structure because he sees every problem through a partisan lens.

It's a plausible hypothesis, but we're still not convinced. Rank incompetence of the Bush administration's higher-ups doesn't appear to move many Americans. So why would Hastert suddenly be concerned? Even at Bush's latest low poll numbers showing a favorability rating around 38%, that equals millions of voters who continue to support a president they know bungles everything he touches.

We'd be looking for something else, something more consistent with other malfeasances of this administration. Something far more likely to pose potentially scary consequences for Hastert and lead him to start slinging the bullshit.

Remember, instead of disciplining Foley for his perversions or passing the page's complaint on to the full 'House Page Committee,' Hastert told only one other congressman -- Republican Tom Reynolds (R-NY) . Reynolds just happens to be in charge of the 2006 Republican reelection effort.

And, as a blogger from Reynold's own district points out:
"The next thing that happens didn’t involve Reynolds talking to the page or finding out from someone else what the story was -- instead, he told Hastert something (no one’s clear what), and he got Foley to contribute another $100,000 to the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee."
Now, that points to something Hastert really would want to hide under a load of bullshit. What if the truth is that Hastert did order the punishment of Foley? What if he 'fined' Foley $100,000?

In any other world, that would be known as blackmail. In Hastert's bullshit world, as the Abrahoff and Bob Ney and Cunningham and Halliburton scandals (etc. etc.) illustrate, it's just considered fair payment for services rendered.

Dept. of Amplification

Billmon is having similar thoughts that money was Hastert's real motive for letting Foley off the hook when he learned about that first email. With this congressional crowd, it's "Always the Dollars," he writes.


Gregg said...

Your analysis is thorough, but I ask what is it's relative value? In a world where 38% of the population will support a president who at best is incompetent and at worst is a lying cheating bastard, lengthy analysis is lost in the noise.

What are the sound bites that are meaningful?

1) Hastert did not follow procedure and commited violation of house rules.

2) Hastert handled the complaint by enlisting the help of Reynolds and allowing Foley to buy himself out of an ethics violation.

This business of verbally taking responsibility is insulting. I want to see actionable responsibily, i.e. the perpetrator removed from office pending investigation by an independent prosecuting organization.

Bryan said...

There's an old comedy routine about Nixon:

I take full responsibility, but not the blame. The difference is that people who accept the blame lose their jobs.

A clarification: Shimkus is an incompetent, but the total lack of paperwork screams cover-up. Who doesn't CYA with a memo when there's bad news for the people above you?

Ramey said...

After asking "do you take responsibility?" the next question should be "what are the consequences?"