The question raised by Saletan and Weisberg (see previous post)– Is George W. Bush better described as a pathological liar or as someone dangerously unhinged from reality? — has two faces: one descriptive, one tactical.
Which description is more nearly true doesn’t tell us much about which description is more likely to be believed by persuadable voters, and to move their votes.
But after a little reflection, I’m not convinced that the descriptive alternative they pose is well-framed. After all, it’s hard to believe that anyone could be that disconnected from reality on an outpatient basis, or alternatively that anyone that committed to a policy of telling the opposite of the truth could have stayed out of jail this long. (I’m still somewhat convinced that participation in the contemporary American media/politics world tends to lead people toward a kind of informal postmodernism in which the regulative authority of primary reality is devalued — “fantasy world of spin” captures this concept perfectly — but that sort of thing can only go so far as an explanatory schema.)
Leaving aside fancy ontologies, there’s another choice besides “liar” or “lunatic.” And it’s a choice that naturally comes to mind when thinking of GWB: bullsh*t. (Or, as is sometimes said, Bush*t.)
Much political discourse is indeed bullsh*t in Harry Frankfurt’s precise sense: false statements offered unseriously, not really meant to be accepted as true, but made for well-understood social reasons. Polite lies (“a previous engagement”) are bullsh*t, but so are hyperbolic statements designed to convey that the speaker has appropriate sentiments (“My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world” or “Indiana is the greatest state in the union”).
From there to “We are winning the war in Iraq” isn’t really such a stretch.
And note that to some extent Bush signals that what he says is Bush*t in the way he criticizes those who disagree. When John Kerry says that things are going badly in Iraq, and cites evidence, Bush rarely if ever responds by citing counter-evidence or by making arguments. He just restates the proposition (sentiment) that things are going well, and then criticizes Kerry for denying it and thus demoralizing the troops and emoboldening our enemies: that is, for a culpable failure to bullsh*t.
As Frankfurt’s Wittgenstein story illustrates, intellectuals tend to be unusually hostile to bullsh*t. Ordinary folks take it more in stride, at least in its place. That may account for the fact that almost everyone you know hates Bush with a purple passion, while most of the country doesn’t: your friends hate bullsh*t to an unusual, perhaps abnormal, extent.
But the elision from bullsh*t to lies is an easy one, as much sales talk, and much political talk, illustrates. A certain amount of polite b.s. is part of a politician’s job description, but a reputation for persistent insincerity about large matters is still a negative. People who bullsh*t for a living, as salespeople and politicians do, are regarded somewhat askance prescisely because they can’t be relied on to keep the b.s. in its place.
Even people with a high tolerance for bullsh*t about the small stuff don’t enjoy being bullshat about the big stuff.
Kerry’s problem, and ours, is to bring that submerged discomfort to the surface.