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By Frank Gruber
"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction." -- Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton Univ. Press, 2005) , page 55.
My wife teaches philosophy and a week or so ago when we were watching the seven o'clock rerun of "The Daily Show" she got all excited because Prof. Harry G. Frankfurt was Jon Stewart's guest.
Prof. Frankfurt is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton. He was on Stewart's show to promote a book version of an article he wrote some years ago called "On Bullshit." My wife kept pointing to the TV screen, exclaiming to our son and me, "He's a real philosopher, a real philosopher."
"He owns action theory!" she said.
I went out and bought Prof. Frankfurt's little book, which begins like this:
"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted sustained inquiry."
I read Prof. Frankfurt's sustained inquiry in the nick of time. After writing this column for more than four years, mostly criticizing politicians and other people who get involved in politics, but all the time loving and appreciating what and (mostly) whom I'm writing about, I'm starting to wonder what makes me so cranky.
Take last week's column: I criticized how the City has counted cars and conducted environmental review. But when you get down to it, no matter how phony what the City does is, mostly what should get built in Santa Monica, with some notable exceptions, gets built, and mostly what shouldn't get built doesn't, and, no matter what the nostalgists say, Santa Monica is a great place.
Now, with the benefit of Prof. Frankfurt's sustained inquiry, I know what bothers me.
What Prof. Frankfurt identifies as the essential characteristic of bullshit is that the bullshitter doesn't care about the truth. The bullshitter may even tell the truth. But the bullshitter deceives by making people think he cares about the truth when he doesn't. In the professor's view, bullshitting is more a threat to the truth than lying, because at the least the liar cares what the truth is.
For instance, when the City Council creates a bullshit rule about how to count cars, which two Planning Commissioners then use (under cover of "environmentalism" and "protecting the neighborhood") to persecute the developer of twelve condos on Virginia Avenue, the council's bullshit is a worse enemy of the truth than if the council had flat out lied by saying that building twelve condos would have a significant impact on the environment.
According to Prof. Frankfurt, the bullshitter does not care about truth, but he does care about "sincerity." How many people have you seen in City Council Chambers (both on the dais and before the dais) whom this quote describes: "One response to this loss of confidence [in the truth] has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity." (Page 65; emphases in the original.)
Prof. Frankfurt's article has been a great help in analyzing the contretemps at last week's City Council meeting that occurred when Bobby Shriver and Herb Katz objected to Ken Genser's saying that, "with the future of a neighborhood" at stake, they were engaged in "brinksmanship," and "playing games" with the "public's agenda." ("Sparks Fly at Council Meeting," March 25, 2005)
Let's face it, an outburst between Messrs. Genser and Shriver has been brewing ever since the latter joined the Council. Plainly, it irks Mr. Genser that Mr. Shriver is so good at wearing the mantle of "people's servant." Representing the "residents" has been Mr. Genser's rhetorical domain for so many years that he probably feels he owned it much as Prof. Frankfurt owns action theory.
But it's bullshit all around. Just what "residents," what "people," are they -- both Genser and Shriver and all those other egos up there basking in their humility -- talking about? These guys aren't representing some unitary body called the "public;" they're looking for a public that agrees with the views they already have.
Consider sumptuary, oops, I mean zoning, laws, like the R-1 down-zoning they were squabbling over last week: is the populi they're voxing the "neighbors" who don't want to keep up with the Jones' or the Jones' who want to add a couple bedrooms in a second story?
But then, nothing relating to the "emergency" ordinance that down-zoned Sunset Park and the North of Wilshire R-1 zones could not be bullshit. The whole interim zoning law at issue was conceived in bullshit, as all "emergency" legislation in Santa Monica (since the earthquake) has been.
What was the emergency -- defined as " a current and immediate threat to the public safety, health, and welfare" -- that the Council responded to when it enacted, without any of the process Mr. Genser now says is necessary to enact a zoning law, a serious down-zoning of Sunset Park and the R-1 district north of Wilshire?
As set forth in the staff report, which I commented on at the time ("WHAT I SAY: Take This Job," February 3, 2003), the emergency was that in the five prior years a grand total of 31 homes were remodeled in both neighborhoods. That was three per year in each neighborhood.
Bullshit; i.e., did anyone on the City Council who voted to find an emergency, or in the Planning Department who wrote the staff report, or in the City Attorney's office who drafted the ordinance, care about the truth?
No. But they were awash in sincerity. The council members wanted to show how sincere they were in their desire to "protect" the "neighborhood" and the City employees wanted to show the Council how sincere they were in shoveling bullshit where the Council told them to shovel it.
By the way, at the Jan. 28, 2003 meeting where the Council found the emergency and passed the ordinance the "people" consisted of an unscientific sample of nine speakers, of whom seven favored and two opposed the ordinance. In truth, what the "people" represented at that moment was every politician's instinctive understanding that you won't lose votes by catering to the interests of the resentful.
(To be clear, all the current Council members except Mr. Shriver, who wasn't on the Council in 2003, supported the initial finding of an emergency. Council members Katz and Bob Holbrook ultimately voted against the two-year extension of the emergency ordinance in March 2003; Pam O'Connor was absent for that vote.)
Conceived in bullshit, doomed to bullshit. Last week, amidst their holier than thou bullshit and their hurt feelings bullshit all the council members were bending over backwards to say how they wanted to protect the neighborhood -- but aside from the testimony of those seven people back in 2003, how do we know who wants these protections?
Certainly the residents who appeared last week to complain about dedicating 30 percent of their property to side yard setbacks don't support them. I've heard plenty agitation the past few years from residents outraged at how hard it is to add space to their homes -- and they're as mad as the people worried about McMansions.
Without the "emergency" a few more houses would have been remodeled, doubtless some in dubious taste, and new zoning would be under consideration in a regularized manner pursuant to the land use update to the general plan.
Instead, it's all . . . well, you know what.
[Readers who are interested in having their own look at this meeting and the late unpleasantness can go to the City's new online video archive. Click on the Mar. 22 Council meeting. You can skip to the relevant matter, 7-B, which starts around the four-hour mark. If policy bores you, forward to five hours, eighteen minutes for the excitement. But cover yourself with plastic sheeting.]
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If any readers have wanted to meet Renzo the truffle-hunting dog, they now have the opportunity. My parents, Jacob and Shirley Gruber, who now reside in Santa Monica, have donated a week's stay in their guesthouse in Italy to the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation to be auctioned (among many other wonderful boons and boondoggles) at the April 8 "For the Arts" fund raiser. Tickets for the fundraiser are $150 and include a reception at the SM Pier Carousel followed by a concert in the Arcadia nightclub, featuring local favorites Venice. Reservations are required due to limited seating. Call 310-450-8338 x395.
This is for a great cause and last year the party was
fantastic. And that's no bullshit.
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