“All governments lie,” I.F. Stone said, and he was right. But they also do an awful lot of bullshitting.
Harry Frankfurt’s famous difference between the “liar” and the “bullshitter” is that a liar knows they’re saying something untrue, while a bullshitter simply doesn’t care whether what they’re saying is true. That’s an interesting distinction, but when it comes to government bullshit, we’re dealing with something slightly different: statements that may be technically true but are totally useless, evasive, and meaningless. In fact, government spokespeople are often extremely concerned with not saying anything provably false, which is why they end up using mountains of words that don’t say anything at all.
Everyone should watch a few government press conferences to see this in action. Interestingly, in 2024 we’ve actually come a long way from the Bush years, when journalists were insufficiently skeptical toward government claims. In White House, Pentagon, and State Department press conferences, journalists like Matt Lee of the Associated Press and Ryan Grim of the Intercept actually do a very good job of pressing spokespeople. But sometimes the response from the Biden administration’s press liaisons is such empty bullshit that it’s hard to see why the reporters even bother.
Take this recent exchange between a reporter and John Kirby, Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council. The subject is the U.S.’s suspension of funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Israel has alleged that a number of employees at UNRWA (approximately 12 out of the 13,000 that work for the agency in Gaza) participated in the October 7 attacks. In response, the U.S. and several other countries cut funding to UNRWA, which is highly controversial since its work is critical for Gazans, many of whom are desperate and now on the brink of famine. Here is the reporter’s question, and Kirby’s response:
Do you fear that suspending the American aid to this agency is going to deepen the humanitarian crisis in Gaza? Do you have a plan B, an alternative to bring aid to the Palestinians?
I think a lot of it is going to depend on what the investigation finds and what accountability measures and corrective measures UNRWA is willing to make as a result of what happened. I mean, these are serious allegations, even though it’s a small number, percentage-wise, of the—of the 13,000 who are on the ground in Gaza. I mean, this is serious, and they are taking it seriously. So, let’s see where the investigation goes. We understand that they are very, very dependent on donor contributions, and the United States has been the leading donor for many, many years. We have suspended our—our contributions to UNRWA pending the results of this investigation—all the more reason that, as I said, this investigation be credible, transparent, and thorough, and frankly, timely.
The first thing to notice is that this is a non-answer. The questions were: (1) Will suspending aid deepen the humanitarian crisis? And (2) is there any other way to get aid to the Palestinians? Kirby answers by saying that the U.S. is taking the allegations seriously, that they know the agency depends on its contributions, that “a lot is going to depend” on measures UNRWA takes, and that aid has been suspended pending the results of an investigation.
This is classic “government bullshit.” It leaves the central question unanswered: isn’t the suspension of aid going to worsen the humanitarian crisis? You can say that you might restore aid dependent on the results of the investigation, but that’s an answer to a different question (“What factors will determine whether the U.S. restores aid?”). Kirby has simply ignored the reporter’s actual question, which is about what the anticipated effects of the aid cut-off will be and what the plan is if the U.S. does not decide to restore aid. Unfortunately, while the reporter’s question was a good one, there was no follow-up pointing out that the answer was unrelated to the question. A follow-up wouldn’t have done too much good, though, because when a government spokesperson is committed to their line, they’re just going to repeat it over and over no matter what the question is or how many different ways you ask it. There’s no breaking through. They’re not going to suddenly go, “Oh, I’m sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were asking me if we were going to restore aid, when in fact you were asking me what the anticipated consequences of the cancellation of aid were.” They’re just going to keep repeating the same irrelevancies.
Here’s another slice of bullshit, this time from White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. The reporter asks a great question: why is it that when Trump promised to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border, Democrats called him xenophobic, but when Biden promises the same, Democrats defend him:
Q: Back in the winter of 2018 and the spring of 2019, President Trump vowed to shut down the border with Mexico, using almost the identical language that the president used on Friday. Many—many, if not most—if not practically all Democrats called that “xenophobic” and even “racist.” Why shouldn’t people make the same conclusion about this president’s threat to shut down the entire border with Mexico?
So, we believe the new enforcement tools that currently don’t exist, that will be—we believe that will be part of this bipartisan agreement—will be fair. We believe it’ll be—yes, it’ll be tough, but it will be fair.
The reporter then points out that Biden “didn’t say… ‘on day one, I will use enhanced enforcement to improve the processing of people at the border.’ He said, ‘I will shut the border down,’ which suggests a total rejection of all people attempting to cross the border.” The reporter pointed that this would be in “contravention to decades of international and U.S. law” and asked again: “why isn’t that the same thing that Trump did”? According to the official transcript, Jean-Pierre replied:
No, I understand your question. What I’m saying to you: The new enforcement tools—right?—that we believe—that do not currently exist, that will be part of this bipartisan agreement—there’s going—there are different—there are different definitions—right?—of what that looks like, of what actually shutting down the border looks like. Right? So, we’re going to let them work through it. We don’t know what that looks like exactly, right? What we are asking for, what the president wants to see is that we deal with the challenges at the border—right?—that we have an opportunity to deal with what’s going on, the security, and make sure that we have the funding and the resources to deal with what we’re seeing at the border. There are going to be different—there are different definitions to what that looks like. And so, we’ll see what—the text comes out of the Senate. And so, we will—we will make—we will certainly have a—I guess—a broader conversation once that happens. But we believe it’s going to be fair. It’ll be tough. It’ll be fair. They’ll have the resources available to deal with what’s going on at the border. And also, there will be some policy changes as well. But to say that—to define what that looks like right now, it’s getting ahead of the process. And we need to let Republicans as well as Democrats—there are Democrats up there, obviously, talking to Republicans. They are both having those conversations on what it will look like—a bipartisan agreement. And that’s what you need. In order to really deal with this issue, you got to do it in a bipartisan way.
The exchange continued, but didn’t get any more illuminating
I would describe what Jean-Pierre is doing here as “filibustering,” that is, saying a bunch of words in order to fill time, where the point is to say words more than to actually communicate anything meaningful. The question she was asked was specific and direct: how can a policy be bad when Trump does it but good when Biden does it? I sympathize with Jean-Pierre here, because there is only one direct answer to the question, which is the true one: Democrats like Joe Biden are hypocrites who condemn Republican policies opportunistically rather than on principle, just as Republicans condemn excess spending under Democratic presidents but not under Republican ones. “We are unprincipled and our criticisms of Republicans are not to be taken seriously, because we don’t mean them” is not, however, an answer that the president’s press secretary can give. (At least not if she wants to ever appear at that podium again.) So we get a heaping helping of vacuous waffle.
To the extent that there is anything approximating a real answer buried in Jean-Pierre’s monologue, it is that what Biden means by “shutting down the border” is not the same as what Trump meant by the term. She says there are “different definitions.” That would be a way to reconcile the apparent contradiction: maybe Trump was condemned not because he said he wanted to shut down the border, but because the thing he meant by that was something abominable whereas the thing Biden means is something totally different and more humane.
The only problem here is that that’s obviously not true, and the reason we can tell is that Jean-Pierre doesn’t give any explanation of how Biden’s definition of “shutting down the border” actually does differ from Trump’s. That’s because “shutting down the border” is not a very ambiguous phrase. You’re either letting people into the country or you’re not. If you are, then you haven’t “shut down the border.” If you’re not, then you have.
Here’s the mystery to me: who do these spokespeople think they’re fooling with this nonsense? Does anyone watch Jean-Pierre or Kirby and think they’re being honest and direct? Why do they even bother? Why don’t they just say “I don’t want to answer that question. Next.” Perhaps one reason is that, while the press ask tough questions, if you were to report on the Kirby answer in the typical style of the U.S. media, you’d probably write something like:
Questioned this week, the National Security Council’s John Kirby said that the U.S. understood the UNRWA was “very, very dependent” on U.S. contributions and the decision on whether to restore funding would depend on the results of the investigation, which he insisted should be “credible, transparent, and thorough,” as well as “timely.”
Whereas, if we were being fully honest, we’d write something like:
Questioned this week, the National Security Council’s John Kirby had no explanation of how Palestinians would avoid starvation now that the U.S. has cut off assistance. Asked directly if the U.S. had any plan for how to deal with the catastrophic fallout of its decision, Kirby simply avoided the question and answered a different one, making vague suggestions that some decisions would be made at some point on some grounds.
One reason they keep spewing this bullshit, then, is that even if the questions are tough, the punishment for evasive non-answers is insufficient. They get away with it. The press print the non-answers as if they’re answers. I think that might change if we had some more direct coverage, and immediately after Kirby’s nonsense there were headlines like “U.S. Essentially Admits It Has No Plan To Keep Palestinians From Starving After Aid Cut-Off,” even though “essentially admitting” there is no plan is precisely the correct interpretation of Kirby’s answer. (If there were a plan, he’d have no reason not to say as much, so there isn’t a plan.)
I’ve been seeing lots of these B.S. non-answers lately. I just watched a long exchange with a Biden administration spokesperson giving the usual reassurances that the administration “raises concerns” with Israel about things like shooting people waving white flags and blowing up a Palestinian university. The reporter was dogged in trying to prize something resembling a clear answer out of the spokesman. The answers are always things like: I can assure you that the safety of civilians remains a top priority of this administration. If you say, “well, why are you doing such a bad job protecting them?” the answer is always something like: we continue to have conversations with the Israelis about this and are committed to protecting civilians. Non-answer after non-answer.
I don’t think government (or for that matter, corporate) spokespeople will soon stop emitting reams of evasive bullshit. But if we are so skeptical of it, and loudly derisive about it, that there’s little benefit in putting it out, since it will just be derisively mocked, maybe they’ll think it less worth their while. I do think whenever they don’t answer a question, the equivalent of a buzzer should go off, with the reporter able to go “Bzz. Non-answer. Try again.” I doubt we’ll ever get simple honest truths out of the government, but it would at least be satisfying to watch the bullshitters be immediately and unremittingly called out on their bullshit.