Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sneak Peek: The Daily Show & Philosophy

Some of you may have noticed, by glancing at my sidebar, that I'm currently reading The Daily Show and Philosophy. Those of you who are TDS fans, or those who are interested in the philosophy of language, communications and rhetoric, may enjoy this book. I'm currently reading a section that carries the provocative sub-title, Critical Thinking and the War on Bullshit. In light of the fact that President Bush will be delivering his final State of the Union address this evening, it may be helpful to consider distinctions between lies, bullshit and spin.

In a chapter that examines bullshit and political spin, Kimberly A. Blessing & Joseph J. Marren adopt Harry Frankfurt's (author of On Bullshit) position that, "In the case of a lie, the aim is to deceive people about what's true" (TDSAP, p. 142). What this means is that liars know what is true (or what they believe to be true), but want to lead their audiences to believe that something contrary to that state of affairs is actually the true state of affairs.

Blessing & Marren also agree with Frankfurt's position that "the bullshitter aims at deceiving the listener about what the bullshitter does or doesn't know, yet can succeed without actually going to the trouble of forming a belief either way" (TDSAP, p. 142). In their view, the bullshitter doesn't care, and doesn't need to care, one way or the other about what is true. Rather, the bullshitter's only interest is in selling his or her message to someone. He or she will say anything regardless of its truth value to promote whatever message is being sold. So, the difference between liars and bullshitters is in their stances toward the truth: liars must know the truth in order to compose their lies. Bullshitters do not face such a constraint.

Blessing & Marren part company with Frankfurt on the matter of spin. In an interview with Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, Frankfurt claimed that spin "is a form of bullshit" (TDSAP, p. 140). Blessing & Marren, contend to the contrary that, unlike bullshitters, spinners "must know what's true in order to spin it" (p. 142). They must start from something that they know is true, then proceed to "manipulat[e] a listener's opinion to persuade the listener that their spin is true" (TDSAP, p.142). So, spin is similar to lying in that it must take truth into consideration, and it is similar to bullshit in that it consists of twisting content to suit spinners' purposes. Hence, spin comprises a third category of falsehood, alongside of lies and bullshit.

Are people equally tolerant of all three of these forms of falsehood? More importantly, should people tolerate of all of them equally? Blessing & Marren contend that "Spinners are required to know what is and is not true and then try to color the (commonly known) facts; unlike liars, they don't try to use this knowledge to deceive us about what the facts are. Mere bullshitters would never even bother with the facts" TDPAS, p. 143). In my view, bullshit is the most dangerous of the three types of falsehood. Lies can be uncovered by fact-checking. Spin, being a version of truth, is often obvious and easily countered. In contrast to these, the bullshitters' lackadaisical attitude toward truth is pernicious, and it's often difficult to cut through their verbiage to ascertain which parts of their bullshit, if any, are true and which are false.

I'll conclude by referring back to my opening paragraph and reminding you that President Bush will be addressing the nation tonight. As you listen to him, amuse yourself by seeing if you can figure out how much of what he says is unvarnished truth, spin, lies or bullshit.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Book Review: The Final Curtain

Author: Judge W.O. “Chet” Dillard
Publisher: Outskirts Press, Inc.
ISBN: 978-1-4327-0443-8

Dillard writes from the unique vantage point of one who served for 45 years in the Mississippi state judicial system. This book is the third volume of Dillard’s account of pivotal civil rights events that took place in Mississippi, which may have been the most brutally oppressive of the Jim Crow states.

In The Final Curtain, Dillard focuses primarily on the legal proceedings related to the assassination of Medgar Edgars, the NAACP’s Mississippi field secretary, in 1963; the kidnappings and murders of three civil rights volunteers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, in 1964; and the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer’s home, in 1966. Dillard’s discussion includes information about the FBI investigations of these crimes, the agency’s use of Mafia informants to gather information and his personal insights into judicial theory and practice. The latter half of the book presents of many of the source documents that Dillard used in his research.

Dillard’s experience and research cover an immensely important era in American history. In fact, two of the cases have been documented in dramatic Hollywood films, a fact that Dillard notes in his book. The Evers assassination and the subsequent investigation and multiples trials of Byron de la Beckwith were portrayed in Ghosts of Mississippi. The case of the three collegiate civil rights activists was the subject of an earlier film, Mississippi Burning. It is probably safe to say that the Dahmer case is the one with which the American public is the least familiar. To my knowledge, no film about it has been produced, nor has it been chronicled in print as widely as the other two events.

In addition to providing some information that may not have been widely available previously, Dillard’s account includes interesting reflections on legal theory and processes. Dillard acquired these insights throughout a long and honorable legal career and they are valuable. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the book is badly marred by discontinuity. The book lacks any sense of narrative and scans like a disjointed memoir rather than a cogent account of significant and fascinating events. Dillard flits from chapter to chapter across themes that are strung together by weak transitional paragraphs rather than topical coherence. On occasion, Dillard’s text refers to the appended materials, but, for the most part, they are simply tacked onto the end of the book for readers to sort through on their own. He could have strengthened his account immensely by organizing his materials more lucidly and by integrating findings from his source materials more directly into the text rather than appending them. These two shortcomings detract significantly from the book’s appeal.

Aficionados of civil rights history in general, and events in Mississippi in particular, may find Dillard’s account a useful adjunct to materials they already have on hand. My advice to most readers, however, is to bypass this book and read some better-written alternatives instead. One such option that I recommend is John Dittmer’s Local People, an outstanding history of Mississippi’s civil rights movement that is more comprehensive, coherent and satisfying than Judge Dillard’s account.