Wednesday, July 29, 2009

William Kristol, the Bullshitter

William Kristol, in Harry Frankfurt's technical terms, is a bullshitter or bullshit artist. This means that Kristol has no interest in the truth; he is not even lying when he makes claims or arguments since to lie one has to care what the truth is and attempt to make someone believe its negation. Kristol has no interest in the truth at all; he will, quite simply, say anything at all if he believes it will benefit himself and his "side" of any particular issue. It is for this reason that Kristol should never be invited on any television program or to write any opinion article. It's not that he's wrong, disastrously wrong, a lying weasel, or complicit in the deaths of thousands of American troops or tens, or hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis. These are terrible and crimes against humanity. But the reason he should never be invited to speak in public is that there is no connection between things he says and any reason or fact at all. In order to be a positive contributor to the public discourse, and, therefore, in order for it to be reasonable for any television program, newspaper, magazine, blog or random-crazy-person-ranting-in-the-street, to rely on Kristol for anything--including not just expertise on issues but even opinion or contrarianism, it must be that such a person makes an effort to connect his/her assertions with some evidence, fact or reason. One need not believe everything one says in order to be taken seriously, but if there is no expectation that one's claims will have anything to do with reality, then we would all be better off generating statements from random word lists. At least those might have comedic value. The only value of seeing or reading Kristol is as an emetic. I am, of course, not advocating taking away Kristol's right to free speech. He is just as free as I am to blog or rant incoherently on the streets. I do object to anyone providing him a platform for his bullshit. And our entire media establishment seems hell-bent on providing him that platform despite his already having control of an influential conservative magazine.

The impetus for my writing comes from his recent appearance on the Daily Show ("a mouthpiece for the right") in which he claims an analogy between Sarah Palin resigning as governor of Alaska and Barack Obama resigning his senate seat in order to be President (and others taking other offices in the Obama administration--strangely I have never noticed Kristol taking Republicans to task for this offense). In other words, Kristol claims that accepting a promotion is the same thing as quitting your job.

This is obviously a false analogy, and no one with even a moment's thought or an ounce of integrity would make such a preposterous claim. This example alone ought to explain my attitude toward Kristol. There are, of course, an indefinitely large supply of similar examples even during that one interview. However, I should say precisely what is wrong with the analogy.

There is an implied contractual agreement among politicians when they run for office and the public who votes for (or against) them. Among the implicit agreements is the agreement that the public official will serve his/her designated time in office. And this explains the general disdain people have for Palin resigning. She had no adequate justification for stepping down; there simply was no reason for her to break this implicit contract. It is not enough that one want to earn more money or that one wants to avoid public criticism or that one wants to go on speaking tours or one wants to work less or avoid a place of work that one finds uncongenial. If Palin did seriously believe based upon good evidence, that she was simply incapable of functioning effectively as governor, for example due to ineradicable stupidity, then resigning would be justified. However, she did not appear to believe that, and, although the residents of Alaska will probably benefit by her leaving, they still should feel betrayed by her breaking of an implicit promise.

The implicit promise to serve out one's term in office, however, is not the sole responsibility one has as a public figure. One also has a responsibility to serve one's country and one's constituents as effectively as possible. It is as obvious as anything could be that Obama can serve the people of Illinois more effectively as President than he could as Senator. So, Obama's responsibility to his constituents outweighs his responsibilities as Senator. To belabor the point: if I agree to take my wife out to dinner, but, while I am on the way to the KFC, she goes into labor, I should not continue to act on my original promise but to drive to the hospital instead. So, Obama's taking a new job as President is acceptable.

It is a bit less obvious that, say, Kathleen Sebelius taking the job as Secretary of Health and Human Services fits this model of obligation. But I think a reasonable case can be made that this is a legitimate promotion in which position she could benefit her constituents and as well as other Americans. We have responsibilities to others besides the one we made our promise to, and those responsibilities can take precedence as well. So, if Sebelius had good reason to think that she could benefit others significantly in the new post, then she could have a responsibility to take a new job.

In short, accepting a promotion is not the same thing as quitting. Obama's and Palin's resignations are not the same; this meme ought to die painfully. And Kristol should stop bullshitting about it.

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