Bush, Palmeiro, and belief as an act of will

On raising bullshit to the level of principle.

Sorry to be slow on this one, but I’ve been puzzling over Bush’s insane-sounding comment on the Palmeiro affair. Chemistry, after all, is a pretty reliable science, and there’s not really any room for ambiguity about flunking a drug test (if you’re rich and powerful enough to ensure that the lab actually tested the right sample, which Palmeiro obviously is). In addition, Jose Canseco apparently reports in his book having personally given Palmeiro steroid injections.

So when Bush said, of Palmeiro’s denial that he had ever used steroids, “I believe him,” he can’t have meant what philosophers, scientists, engineers, and other members of the reality-based community mean by “belief”: an opinion about the world-as-it-is, formed (at least in principle) after the weighing of evidence.

No, he meant more or less what adherents to religious creeds mean by “belief” or “faith.” In this usage, belief isn’t a cognitive function, it’s an act of will. In Bush’s mind, and the minds of his supporters, he wasn’t, other than incidentally, making a claim about the real world. He was, rather, taking a position, and a position loyal to his friend. See the reaction of the Freepers, though admittedly even some of them found this one too much to swallow.

Of course, all politics involves a certain amount of this sort of bullsh*tting, staring with expressing confidence that your party is going to win an the next election, or that some disputed empirical claim favorable to the bill you’re about to vote for is true.

But Bush has raised bullsh*t to the level of a principle. And doing so, though it makes him look silly to you and me, probably brings him closer to the average American voter. Of course Bush’s “loyalty to his friends” is just one more piece of Bush*t (as one of the Freepers points out, he dropped “Kenny Boy” Lay like a hot potato), but if Bush makes an absurd statement out of what looks like loyalty to a friend, most voters will approve of the loyalty more than they resent the absurdity.

However, that doesn’t make the voters incapable of seeing the absurdity: Palmeiro isn’t their friend, and Orioles fans are a smaller minority than Muslims. So it seems to me that it whenever Bush asserts some thing silly (about Rove or Iraq, for example) his critics ought to say “Yeah, just like Rafael Palmeiro didn’t use steroids.” Having a supreme bullsh*t artist as President isn’t so terrible; Bush’s problem, and ours, is that he acts as if he believes his own bullsh*t.

Footnote This is, of course, a separate question from whether androgens ought to be controlled substances (I think they should), whether their use in training for athletic competition ought to be forbidden by the governing bodies of the various sports (again, I think they should), and whether anyone ought to give a rat’s patootie whether baseball players use steroids (I doubt it).

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com