Letter from the Editor: Fall 2008

In On Bullshit, philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s splendid appraisal of the tendency, he notes that, unlike flat-out liars, who first must know the truth in order to obscure it, bullshitters disregard the question of truthfulness altogether; they aim to make a sale. “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as the essence of bullshit,” Frankfurt writes.

Frankfurt sees bullshit as an inevitable element of politics. But the everyday pollution of public discourse has become suffocating. Measured by the quality of its output, this is especially true of the vast Washington apparatus that churns out articles, reports, and think-tank memorandums on foreign policy. There could be many reasons for this. Today’s Wise Men don’t exactly rise to the level of their predecessors; research institutions and journals tend not to reward heresy; public intellectuals position themselves for maximum effect and, in any case, few believe their ideas will ever have any consequences. The temptation, then, is to skim over the latest “Whither China” article, and toss it. It is, after all, bullshit.

Yes, it probably is. So what’s the problem? It is that someone will mistake for wisdom the heat and noise generated by a provocative and ludicrous idea. That someone might pass the idea along to an editorial writer, who, in turn, might plant a seed in the brain of a White House adviser, who might then persuade the president, and on and on until the missiles start flying or, maybe worse, never launch at all. Inaction in Bosnia, action in Iraq: attempts to trace these and other decisions back to a single article or book may be cranky and obsessive, but that doesn’t mean the policies that resulted were constructed out of whole cloth. Small ideas, whether about counterinsurgency techniques abroad or broken windows at home, can have huge consequences.

Hence, the need to exercise at least the slightest measure of responsibility when putting ideas into play. No, really: is it still necessary to point out that, as a general rule, ideas that rely on something other than bullshit tend to produce happier outcomes? True, even this journal will publish the occasional snake-oil salesman. But, ideally, not so much to promulgate as to debate, scrutinize, and disinfect.

Barring that, foreign-policy types have a check on the impulse to bullshit in what then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton coined the “Dover Test”—referring to the Delaware airbase where America’s war dead return. Several years ago, I mocked the suggestion that foreign policy ideas ought to submit to such a test. But that was before two-years worth of reporting assignments in Iraq. Today, I apply the Dover Test to every idea I put on the table. I have far fewer of them.

— Lawrence F. Kaplan

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