Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” pt. 3: Trump

Another in the series of posts applying Harry Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit”. If you haven’t yet read it, I recommend it.

Every week or so Donald Trump tweets something ridiculous, outrageous, or just plain trollish, and it drives people crazy. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to find these messages distasteful, and I usually do, but the reaction is usually way out of proportion. You could pick many examples, but the big one at the moment is this:

One of the reasons Trump (intentionally) drives people crazy with this kind of tweet is simple: he’s bullshitting, but they’re taking take it seriously. He knows how burning the US flag is constitutionally protected, and how successfully implementing this idea is completely infeasible. He’s a blowhard, not an idiot.

To recap what Frankfurt means by bullshit, it’s speech unconnected to truth value. A liar is still concerned with truth value. He wants his statement to be taken as true when it should not be. A bullshitter isn’t concerned with truth value one way or the other. (Note: bullshit is not necessarily always a bad thing. It depends on context. A lot of pleasant bonding conversation we engage in is bullshit, because in that case conveying truth is not the point and we don’t count on it. I think of how many amusing tall tales I’ve heard in bars through the years.)

Trump’s opponents get so riled up because they think he means what he says. He does this to agitate them, and it works. He’s both a lot more clever and a lot less ideological than they think. People will be able to respond more effectively when they realize he’s not serious about every bad idea he suggests.

It’s unbecoming and improper of a president-elect to bullshit on so grand a scale. Politicians bullshit frequently. They have to talk about a lot of things they aren’t experts on. It comes with the territory. But they shouldn’t go out of their way to do it. Trump is about to become the most powerful man in the world. That is serious business. He should not be trolling on Twitter. But his opponents have enough to be concerned about—his bullheaded rejection of the clear economic consensus about trade, his total lack of understanding of international relations, etc.—without adding nonsense to the pile.

It’s not just Twitter. During his campaign he said a lot of outrageous things. It’s not likely most of his supporters really thought he would impose a blanket ban on Muslim immigration, as if that were possible to get past Congress and the courts anyway. They knew that was bullshit. His opponents didn’t seem to. Merely suggesting it is a very bad and un-presidential thing to do and the fact that he did should worry us. But don’t think he’s going to do it. Focus on the things he can do.

This will be an especially difficult year for the media. The media model is designed for reporting news, and is not well-equipped to deal with bullshit. Presidents have told the truth and have lied, and the media can cover these things straightforwardly. A politician talking through his hat so consistently is confusing. Do they report it straightforwardly, taking the statements at face value when large parts of their audience know better? Do they ignore the more outlandish claims? Do they tell the reader “He said this but nobody could seriously think he meant it so let’s stop here”? What will rival outlets do? Sponsors pay for readers and viewers, not maturity. I said an especially difficult year because I expect they’ll adjust eventually. This assumes he doesn’t start acting presidential soon, although I would love to be wrong on that assumption.

So I’m not accused of ignoring the harm of inflammatory rhetoric, yes, even the mere fact of suggesting these kinds of policies, however unrealistic, is an antisocial thing for a person in his position to do that could give aid and comfort to the even more antisocial fringe. The point is that with better bullshit detectors we could stop being kept off balance by nonsense like this flag burning tweet, and focus on the times when he means it.


UPDATE: A little extra from a Washington Post article about a forum of campaign people, quoting Trump’s first campaign manager:

“This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” Lewandowski said. “The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”

The reports of the NFL’s death are greatly exaggerated

I keep seeing the meme all over sports media that NFL television ratings are down, as if this is a big deal, tied to scandals and hypermasculinity. I have little use for that line of thought, and there’s a better one.

In a recent interview with Peter King, Brian Rolapp, Executive VP of Media for the NFL, offered a few reasons for the ratings drop. First, presidential election years always have a dip in ratings. This is fascinating! Maybe the explanation is people getting serious once every four years, but I doubt it. The explanation that fits with my priors (and thus the clear frontrunner, right?) is that politics and sports are substitutes. Politics deals with serious issues, but many people consume it as entertainment. They pick teams and get invested in them in the way they do with football. This election was pretty unusual, too, which almost guarantees getting more eyeballs, even for neutrals, which means less attention left over for football.

Another point I thought was interesting was that the number of viewers hasn’t declined, they’re just sticking around less. This makes sense too. If the games are not fun to watch—neither is your team, the outcome is not in doubt—there are a practically unlimited number of alternative things to watch without moving out of your spot. The random variation in game quality week-to-week and year-to-year isn’t under the NFL’s control anyway. This is a big challenge for the NFL, and indeed for any media enterprise. By the way, college football ratings are not down. I think the identification people have with college teams is a lot stronger than with NFL teams, and the markets are not the same. There is a lot less parity in college football anyway, and there always has been, so bad games don’t turn people off as much.

The London games don’t help with domestic viewership either. Obviously they help with European exposure, but there’s only so much football a viewer can watch in a day. If your team plays in London (at 9:30am Eastern time/6:30 am Pacific time) you’re not likely to watch the rest of the games, and if your team doesn’t play in London you’re not likely to watch that game.

One year does not make a trend. I know media people have to talk about something, but we don’t have to take everything at the same level of seriousness.

Election 2016 thoughts

A presidential election is surely big enough to merit comment, so here’s what I’m thinking so far. I’m still digesting it. Consider it a public notebook. All of this is from a non-partisan standpoint. I drafted this a few days ago, didn’t add much, and finally figured it was time to pull the trigger.

First, I believed there were more “closeted” Trump voters than the polls showed—social desirability bias is real—but I was still surprised when Trump won. I thought it would be Clinton by a hair.

An explanation I’ve been telling myself for a few months now, I don’t know how seriously, was that Trump decided to run on a lark, probably just to promote his brand, and after winning a couple primaries by tapping into something began to see how far he could ride it. I don’t think he has a coherent mental framework that motivates his support for various policies. For all the fear of what his administration will mean for various groups, I doubt he has a lot of ideas he takes seriously one way or the other. I can’t imagine the day-to-day reality of being president will suit him, nor can I imagine voters giving him a second term, even calibrating for the fact that he won a first. There are secular economic trends at play that nobody is going to stop. Overturning Obamacare will be difficult with only 51 Republican senators. The mid-term elections could put more Democrats back into Congress. And it remains to be seen how much the Republican Party establishment will want to cooperate with the newcomer.

One of the biggest points is the protest vote against elites. It’s not part of the left’s self-image that they are a big part of “the system”. They tend to identify with underdogs. But Hillary Clinton is as close to royalty as the US has. The entire Democratic Party leadership treated the 2016 campaign as her obviously due turn. All living former and current presidents opposed Trump, as did the rest of the Bush clan, the Beltway Republican class, Hollywood, a sitting Supreme Court Justice, etc. At a broader level, the left controls so much of the cultural narrative that it’s like the air they breathe, no longer noticeable to them. The elites range in opinion from ignoring the rubes in flyover states to white hot contempt, and it came back to bite them when somebody at least pretended to take them seriously. I note with disappointment the first round of reaction articles doubling down on the contempt. It may be emotionally comforting, but will not help.

I can’t speak to Wikileaks’ end game (if they have one), but the inner workings of the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton campaign, and the Clinton Foundation were not pretty. Maybe everything at that level runs that way, and maybe in the grand scheme of things that’s acceptable, but there’s no hiding how distasteful it is to the average person.

It was obvious that the media were all-in for Clinton, and this ended up hurting her campaign. Most minds were probably made up when the news broke that Donna Brazile passed debate questions from CNN to Clinton’s camp ahead of time, but that was very illustrative. Trump did and said plenty of things to jump on fairly, but I know the man on the street saw it as much more than that. There were hints that Texas might have been competitive, for example, that were unbelievable and undermined media credibility. He said rude things to Alicia Machado, but when voters got a deeper look at her and it wasn’t helping she was dropped. It looked like they were out of touch at best and propagandists at worst. Plus, Hitler comparisons in the less-serious media, the kind that get shared all over Facebook, stop working when applied to, say, the relatively moderate Mitt Romney. You can only cry wolf so many times.

Trump’s understanding of economics is woeful, but it’s fairly common across the political spectrum. Honest-to-goodness free trade has very few supporters (outside of economics departments), and the insincere appeals to its merits by cronyists might be worse than no support at all. Politicians of all stripes are guilty for setting this stage.

Trump has some nightmarish supporters, no doubt about it, but lumping all of his supporters in with the fringe only made them angry and blunted the power of further smears. Nobody was going to reach my immigrant grandmother by telling her she was a misogynist xenophobe in voting for Trump, not the clever people at The Atlantic, and certainly not the hacks at Slate. I don’t deny racism and misogyny exist and motivate some people, but I think most Americans are not racists or misogynists and resent being labeled as such. Trump’s leaked comments about women were incredibly crass, but running against a Clinton took a lot of the power out of that angle. His statements about Muslims were shocking but were gradually walked back, and those plans were impossible anyway.

At the very least I’m glad the campaigning is done.

Experts vs. everybody else, pt. 71394587236

One of the things I find so interesting about the sociology of religion is the divide between scholars and non-scholars. Take, for example, this part of the introduction to the book of Judges from The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Revised Standard Version:

Despite the optimistic report in the book of Joshua that Israel conquered Palestine in a brief series of campaigns under a single leader, it is evident from the book of Judges that the process was not quite so simple. Chapter 1 says plainly that many parts of the country were never subjugated, while the rest of the book is largely an account of battles which had to be fought through several generations before the land was securely in Israel’s hands. The enthralling tales the book contains are traditions preserved by various tribes about the exploits of their particular heroes—the “judges” of whom the title speaks. An editor has given the tales a factitious unity by making all the judges national, instead of tribal leaders and by providing for all the events a moral and theological interpretation.

I think many Christians would balk at hearing this, but the editors of this version were committed lifelong Christians, and as far as I can tell, acceptably orthodox; see e.g. Old Testament editor Herbert May’s bio. (I am less confident in my ability to guess how religious Jews would react, although I imagine it is similar.)

Why this divide exists continues to puzzle me. I touched on it here but still don’t have a very confident answer.

The facts of life, political edition

The New York Times has a great piece by political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels about how support for a candidate and support for the candidate’s policy preferences don’t necessarily align. It’s specifically about Bernie Sanders, but the principles are universal. Sample:

Decades of social-scientific evidence show that voting behavior is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities and symbolic attachments. Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalize their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental.

That is one key reason contemporary American politics is so polarized: The electoral penalty for candidates taking extreme positions is quite modest because voters in the political center do not reliably support the candidates closest to them on the issues. (Mitt Romney is just the most recent presidential candidate to lose despite being perceived by most voters as closer to their ideological views than his opponent on a spectrum running from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative.”)

People who study public choice and political science (or at least take them seriously) often seem glum or snarky to others, if personal experiences on social media are any indication, but facts are facts. From the inside it seems incredibly important for anybody who cares about good governance to acknowledge these basic points about the system we have.

Oberlin, the canary in the coal mine?

The Atlantic has a fascinating piece I wish I’d seen before writing the previous post. It describes the dissatisfaction of left-wing student activists with Oberlin College and the confusion of their faculty members in response. The irony, of course, is that Oberlin is probably the most left-wing higher education setting in the country. Reading this piece one gets the impression that Ayn Rand was pulling punches in her caricatures. It’s hard to get the essence of the piece from any small excerpt. You should read the whole thing.

For our purposes we can jump ahead to a provisional diagnosis:

In “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” a study of political ferment in late-eighteenth-century France, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, in the decades leading up to the Revolution, France had been notably prosperous and progressive. We hear a lot about the hunger and the song of angry men, and yet the truth is that, objectively, the French at the start of the seventeen-eighties had less cause for anger than they’d had in years. Tocqueville thought it wasn’t a coincidence. “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested,” he wrote. His claim helped give rise to the idea of the revolution of rising expectations: an observation that radical movements appear not when expectations are low but when they’re high, and vulnerable to disappointment.

The second wave campus activist phase of history is still relatively new and hasn’t been subject to much real sociological investigation and explanation. (In another bit of irony the people who should be first in line to do so would be part of the subject of study, so don’t hold your breath.) But anybody who is interested in the academy should be paying very close attention. Oberlin is ahead of the curve, but not very far ahead. The trend towards letting activists dictate terms to professors, deans, and fellow students has been discouraging. If Oberlin is representative, it gets even worse.

Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”, pt. 2: useful conversation

There’s a lot to like in Harry Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit”. Briefly, for background, a lie depends on the truth, as the speaker of a lie intends to misrepresent something that is not true as something that is. In contrast, bullshit isn’t the misrepresentation of something false as something true. Truth and falsity don’t really enter into the equation. We usually, probably correctly, think of bullshit as an overall bad thing, but it isn’t necessarily always so. Frankfurt writes about a related phenomenon, the “bull session”:

The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life—for instance, religion, politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak altogether openly about these topics if they expect that they might be taken too seriously. What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without it being assumed that they are committed to what they say: It is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made for enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be encouraged to convey what is on their minds without too much anxiety that they will be held to it.

Each of the contributors to a bull session relies, in other words, upon a general recognition that what he expresses or says is not to be understood as being what he means wholeheartedly or believes unequivocally to be true. The purpose of the conversation is not to communicate beliefs. Accordingly, the usual assumptions about the connection between what people say and what they believe are suspended. The statements made in a bull session differ from bullshit in that there is no pretense that this connection is being sustained. They are like bullshit by virtue of the fact that they are in some degree unconstrained by a concern with truth. …

He later writes about a “fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false.”

Not all speech outside of the truth-falsity spectrum is undesirable, as the passage makes clear. Things get figured out that way in a low-pressure way, and even if they don’t it’s a fun way to pass the time. There’s something to be said for social cohesion, too.

Extending this, quite a lot of undergraduate life outside of the classroom is an extended bull session. I recall many speakers, films, flyers, protests, etc. competing for my attention and how these stimuli were important in helping me and my friends flesh out what we thought about the world and why. The current push to sanitize all aspects of campus life shuts people off from viewpoints they haven’t heard and should grapple with because it paints everything as part of a grand cultural battle. When every thought is part of a battle for the soul of humanity, the future of the planet, etc., we get a lot of stunted intellectual development. Often the ones who take the struggle most seriously suffer activist burnout. (Also, see The Onion’s take.)

Remember Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld giving up on performing for college audiences? From The Atlantic:

Two of the most respected American comedians, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have discussed the unique problems that comics face on college campuses. In November, Rock told Frank Rich in an interview for New York magazine that he no longer plays colleges, because they’re “too conservative.” He didn’t necessarily mean that the students were Republican; he meant that they were far too eager “not to offend anybody.” In college gigs, he said, “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Then, in June, Seinfeld reopened the debate—and set off a frenzied round of op-eds—when he said in a radio interview that comics warn him not to “go near colleges—they’re so PC.”

Comedy works because it’s obvious you’re not supposed to take everything so seriously; stand-up comedy is essentially a bull monologue. It’s no surprise colleges are the specific audiences Rock and Seinfeld avoid now. It’s not just colleges, of course, that’s just what most of the discussion in this vein focuses on. Our broader cultural conversation doesn’t let anybody try out a thought without having to be bound to it. (In politics this is desirable, but not elsewhere.)

What would make this post complete if it existed, counterfactually, is the actionable takeaway. But I see the problem more clearly now.

Rubio prediction: incorrect

Three years ago I predicted Marco Rubio would be on the 2016 Republican presidential ticket. Last week he ended his campaign after losing the Republican primary in his home state of Florida. In simple yes-or-no terms I predicted incorrectly, but how close was it?

I thought this would be the result of heavy support from Republican Party strategists and insiders. It turns out they did support him quite a bit, but only after it was too late, and more for his willingness to play ball than for other factors. I thought offering the first major-party Latino candidate would be too much to resist given the near certainty Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic Party’s nominee. (As of this writing the Bernie Sanders campaign is all over but the cryin’—unless she’s indicted soon.) Shortly after Obama’s second term began the Republican Party’s lack of engagement with Latinos was a significant theme but it’s been dropped from public discourse in the meantime. This is partly because American culture keeps evolving, partly because all political topics are ephemeral, and perhaps because Ted Cruz is another Republican candidate and Rubio didn’t seem special on account of his ethnicity anymore. Not to ignore the elephant in the room, the Trump campaign is the major reason, which nobody saw coming, and which was dealt with in an earlier post.

The Republican Party ran into a bigger problem than how to court (or at least how not to ignore) Latino voters: how to appease the base it already had. Their failure to do so, for whatever reasons, paved the way for what appears now to be the unstoppable Trump campaign. I expect Rubio to stay somewhat near the national stage for now; a Trump administration would have little use for him but as he’s not really a Republican most of them will be on the sidelines this round, gathering their strength.

Just why the issue of Republican engagement with Latinos went away as a major topic I don’t know yet, but it would surprise me if it stayed dormant more than a few years.

The Bigger Bully hypothesis

Warning: contains discussion of current political matters. I know, I’m not happy about it either.

Just like most Americans I’ve been watching the Donald Trump campaign with stupefied curiosity. Surely this is a joke, right? It’s going to end soon? And it keeps not ending. There’s a very real chance he could be the next president. What is happening?

While I was still trying to make sense of it all I came across a Daily Beast article that I thought was the best take I’d seen: How the P.C. Police Propelled Donald Trump. Excerpt:

It’s pointless to try to explain Trump in terms of political platforms because Trump himself is too stupid and too incoherent to have any kind of consistent political views about anything beyond hating minorities and immigrants. Nuclear weapons? “With nuclear, the power, the devastation is very important to me.” Drugs? “That whole heroin thing, I tell you what, we gotta get that whole thing under control.” A random word generation program could do better.

To understand Trump’s seemingly effortless seizure of the public spotlight, forget about programs, and instead zero in on the one complaint that seems to unite all of the disparate angry factions gravitating to him: political correctness. This, more than anything, is how the left created Trump.

The extremist adherents of this new political correctness have essentially taken a flamethrower to the public space and annihilated its center. Topics in American life that once were the legitimate subjects of debate between liberals and conservative are now off-limits and lead to immediate attack by the cultural establishment if raised at all. Any incorrect position, any expression of the constitutional right to a different opinion, or even just a slip of the tongue can lead to public ostracism and the loss of a job. (Just ask Brendan Eich.) There is a huge vacuum left by this leftist attack on speech, and Trump is filling it.

There’s more, and it’s worth reading, but I’ll cut it off there. I admit it’s an oversimplification, I don’t endorse it 100%, but it was the first thing I read that made any sense of the campaign’s success, and it was one of the first from a decent-sized media outlet that didn’t try to condescend as much as possible to its subjects—that would have been satisfying, perhaps, but not very useful. It led me to my current working hypothesis: Trump supporters feel bullied, so they rally around a bigger bully.

People will disagree with the statement that they are actually bullied. As with any social phenomenon it’s complicated: I think their belief is justified on some margins and unjustified on others. But that’s not even the relevant point. The point is they feel bullied. I can already see the reaction “Good, they should feel bullied.” That, too, is orthogonal to this discussion.

Let’s use an example that in news cycle time is ancient, but happened less than a year ago: the episode with the Indiana pizzeria whose owner’s daughter said it would refuse to cater a gay wedding. Remember that?

Kevin O’Connor, who owns Memories Pizzeria in Walkerton, Ind., with his two children, spoke with the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, shortly after his daughter’s comments to a local television reporter went viral and made his restaurant the latest battleground in the national dispute over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Critics have denounced the legislation, calling it an invitation for business owners in the conservative state to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Although he supports the legislation, O’Connor told The Times he did not make a public decree that he would not serve same-sex couples, nor did anyone ask him that question.

But in the television interview, which led thousands to attack his business on Facebook and on Yelp, his daughter Crystal said she would flat-out refuse service to a gay couple who asked to have their wedding catered.

You might remember the storm of criticism, calls for boycott, and threats made against the place. You’re less likely to remember the flood of donations the place got in response to the criticism. I bet Trump is picking up support from a lot of these donors who felt that a very common belief about the traditional Christian faith of their country was now under attack.* Again, I know a lot of people think this belief should be under attack, that religion is no cover for discrimination, etc. The trouble with governance is you have to work with the people you have, not the people you wish you had. Sometimes they need a push, but be careful lest they push back.

Moreover, opposition to gay marriage was very recently the Democratic Party’s position as well, and hardly any member of the left argued that President Obama early in his term deserved to be excommunicated from polite society for it. It’s like the mass of the cultural left thinks the cultural right doesn’t remember anything.

It’s not just gay marriage. I doubt Trump ever had strong feelings about it either way, though as a wealthy New Yorker who was at least nominally a Democrat he probably wasn’t dead-set against it. (Thankfully that’s a settled issue now anyway. Also, a surprisingly large percentage of its opponents several years ago supported civil unions, for what it’s worth.) It’s many things, but really it’s a feeling. That’s why the Trump campaign is so light on substance, even lighter than the usual fare for national political campaigns: they know substance isn’t the issue. The attitude that the candidate will speak his mind, no matter how stupid the rest of the world thinks it is, no matter what the actual question was, that’s the appeal. It’s why media takedowns of his ridiculous rhetoric don’t hurt his poll numbers. Of course the media would say that, his supporters think.

I can already imagine a reader responding that some things are bad and should be driven out of society. I agree. But the process matters. I’m sure if Georges Clemenceau could have seen the future he would have pushed for a less punitive settlement after World War I than he did. Fiat justitia ruat caelum is for the very, very exceptional case, not a recipe for ordinary governance.

I know this isn’t the complete explanation but the more I think about it the more sense it makes. Hopefully I won’t have to keep developing it for too much longer.


* Whether that belief about the Christian faith, that having said faith obligates one to oppose gay marriage, is true or not is a separate issue, although it certainly didn’t help that many non-Christians were at their condescending best explaining to Christians what their own faith really meant.

Insider art trading?

There’s a lot I don’t understand about the art world, but I’m very sympathetic to the critique that it’s more about status than about art per se. Add in some financial concerns and you’ve got a decent explanation. Here’s some interesting commentary from Robert Hughes in a piece published November 21, 1988 (emphasis mine):

But now we have a gush of posthumous Basquiat hype—a codicil, as it were, to the media overkill that surrounded the auction of his mentor Warhol’s chairs and cookie jars last spring. There are so many Basquiats floating out there that the only possible strategy for maintaining their value is to romanticize their author, loudly claiming him as a potentially “major” artist, a genius cut off in his first flower.

The New York Times, as one might expect, festooned his bier in column inches. “Martyr Without a Cause,” ran Peter Schjeldahl’s headline in 7 Days, treating Basquiat as a veritable St. Sebastian, bristling with syringes flung cruelly by the Zeitgeist. Comparing him to “a soft young African prince, imperious and wistful,” Schjeldahl invoked Cy Twombly and Franz Kline, claimed that Basquiat, like them, “seemed incapable of moving his hand in a way that was uninteresting.” Schjeldahl called for “a proper retrospective of his work.” Doubtless he will get his wish, given the Whitney Museum’s helpless commitment to the trendy and the number of its financial supporters who have been left holding Basquiats whose price needs to be sustained by that “proper retrospective.” Then the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles could do it too, because its trustees own lots of Basquiats as well. This is known as Postmodernist Museum Ethics. It’s how art history gets made, bub.

Here’s the rest.