On Pombo's Bullshit
For a while, I have been thinking about Pombo’s use of language to defend what ought to be indefensible. I have seen, for example, the similarities between Pombo’s language and the language advocated by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. For a long time I have considered Pombo’s use of language to be very Orwellian.
However, after Pombo’s recent Sac Bee op-ed piece, I came to think of Pombo’s language using a different word: bullshit.
I use that word advisedly, but I see a lot of parallels between Pombo’s speech and Harry Frankfurt’s scholarly treatise about bullshit. A reviewer of the book (see previous link) describes Frankfurt’s use of the concept this way [emphasis mine]:
The two sentences I emphasizes seems suspiciously close to the Grandma Pombo “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” motto. This is relevant because it’s much harder to reveal the true depths of bullshit than it is to reveal a simple lie. It’s not that Pombo does not lie. He does, seemingly without any qualms. But more perniciously, we often find Pombo mixing truths, half-truths, and falsities—not to mention strange definitions (e.g. “science” and “sustainable”), and bizarre leaps of illogic—in order to concoct his bullshit du jour. The result of this motley mixture is any number of rhetorical defenses such as “I did not mean X in that way,” “I did not say X” (when X was instead heavily implied), “what I said was true given my definition,” etc.
He [Frankfurt] argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, bullshit need not be untrue at all.
Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner's capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true.
For example, how do we deal with this part of Pombo’s budget reconciliation package?
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary of the Interior shall make mineral deposits and the lands that contain them, including lands in which the valuable mineral deposit has been depleted, available for purchase to facilitate sustainable economic development.I mean, this is clearly not a lie in any literal sense. One is not lying when one attempts something via a method wholly unsuitable to the purpose. For example, I am not lying if I propose to pick up girls by picking my nose in front of them. I might be an idiot, but I almost might be an earnest idiot. Now clearly, selling off land to be used in the extraction industries is paradigmatically unsustainable, and also more likely to lead to economic growth rather than economic development (although I suppose the definition of “economic development” is nebulous). But I’m not sure that any of this is per se false. Nonetheless, it reeks of bullshit.
The problem I run into is that explaining the bullshitty aspect of things like this to people who do not immediately smell the underlying bovine feces, is that the explanation usually involves a rather delicate balance of judgments, theories, and my suspicions about the world, economics, and the psychological motivations of one Richard Pombo. If someone is unwilling to grant that Pombo is being mendacious off the bat, then they are also probably unwilling to grant that Pombo does not believe what he is saying. And once you grant that he may believe what he is saying, suddenly his “beliefs” are afforded a respect that I know—just know goddamnit—they don’t deserve.
And so I find myself not being able to demonstrate why something is bullshit, but rather operating in a guilt-by-association mode. Richard Pombo gets a whole boatload of money from the energy industries, and not the clean ones. He gets a lot of money from land developers. Pretty much any type of corporation or voluntary association that would make a good villain in a Captain Planet episode gives him money. And though this works to some degree I yearn for the proof that will show, QED, the bullshit.
So I ask you my readers to help me in my quest. We can expose his lies and blatant falsities, but where oh where will we find a good Pombo bullshit demystifier? Short of a Federal Prosecutor I mean.