Several years ago, philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote a fascinating book called, “On Bullshit.” Among other things, the book sought to draw a distinction between b.s. and lies, and at the risk of oversimplifying a sophisticated point, the key difference is considering the truth irrelevant.
A liar makes false claims. A b.s. artist doesn’t much care what’s true or false, because facts are irrelevant in the person’s larger agenda. Liars care what’s true and deliberately say the opposite; b.s. artists are indifferent to what’s true and tend to see facts as inconveniences that simply get in the way.
By evening, the ad had been attacked, derided, parodied, and ruled “pants on fire” worthy by Politifact. The Romney campaign could have cared less.
“We want to engage the president,” explained Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom in the spin room. “We look at him as our rival. It’s all deliberate; it was all very intentional.”
Romney adviser Ron Kaufman, an RNC committee member and longtime operative, simply said that the ad “worked.”
“They always squeal the most when you hold a mirror up to them,” he said, “and they overreacted, clearly. All they did was make the ad more effective.”
Just so we’re clear, Romney and his team lied. Then they got caught. Then they were pleased.
I suppose one could make the case that the leading Republican presidential campaign has a vaguely sociopathic appreciation for the public discourse, but I think Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” tells us all we need to know. Truth, facts, evidence, reason, decency, fairness — for Romney and his team, none of this matters. It’s not that they’re considering whether to be honorable; they’ve convinced themselves that the question itself is irrelevant.
What matters is what “works.” And what “works” is what gets aired on television. Usually, professionals are slightly embarrassed when they get caught lying, but the embarrassment is motivated by a sense of shame — the truth is good, being good is worthwhile, deliberately ignoring the truth is bad, and no one wants to be bad.
But there is no embarrassment when such moral niceties are thrown out the window.
This is, by the way, the very first ad Romney chose to run, setting the bar for how he and his team will conduct themselves over the next year.
Postscript: WMUR, the station airing Romney’s lie, has said it is legally prohibited from rejecting the ad over inaccuracies.