Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Harry Frankfurt "On Bullshit" and the Dog Whisperer

Mulan is asleep. It’s ten thirty p.m. and I should be getting to bed. But I just watched such great television tonight, I had to comment on it. First of all, I watched “The Daily Show.” Which, as should come as no surprise, is my very favorite show on TV. Mulan thinks Jon Stewart is the president of the United States. Some people cynically pointed out that much of the American youth gets their news from The Daily Show, but I have to say, I do, too. And I think it’s the only truthful news show on TV right now.

So, Jon had on this wonderful guy, Harry Frankfurt, who wrote this book called “On Bullshit” which I bought and read a couple of months ago when it came out. It’s actually an essay he wrote in the early eighties that they just published this year. It’s very short, and the book is so small, it looks like a children’s book. But it packs a powerful message. I loved the essay. It really helped me to solidify the distinction between bullshit and people who lie. His premise is that liars actually have a measure of respect for the truth, liars know what the truth is and intentionally distort it. But bullshit is different. It’s more insidious than that. Bullshitters have no regard for the truth. They have a goal, and they will say anything that suits them without any regard to what is true or what is not.

Harry was so engaging, so endearing, so present and direct and without nervousness. He seemed sincerely happy to be on the show. And I just fell for him. What an amazing man. I loved his essay, and he wrote another book too, “The Reasons Of Love,” which I just ordered from Amazon.

Anyway, after The Daily Show, I watched “The Dog Whisperer” which is now the one show that Mulan and I watch together at night. What I mean is, when The Daily Show is on, she usually goes to her own room and plays with her dolls, but then when “The Dog Whisperer” comes on, she comes back. I love this show so much. There’s this guy, Cesar Millan, who lives here in L.A. apparently, and he goes to people’s houses and helps them with their dog problems. And frankly the problem is always the same thing. Which is that the people are not behaving in the alpha role, and the dog is taking over that role. Person after person, who are mostly women, try to change the behavior they don’t like by loving the dog more, which only leads the dog to think that the behavior he is exhibiting is good, so he does it more. This is something I did at first with my dog, Arden. But now I really let him know whose boss, and I do not give him constant affection. He eats only after Mulan and I eat. When Mulan comes out in the morning to get a “morning cuddle,” Arden does not get to be part of that cuddle until I say so. This might seem like small potatoes, but for me, this whole this is transformative. It’s really hard for me to be the boss and I’m not generally good at it. I do not give clear signals for my expectations and now I’m learning to do this. It’s really sort of fun. A whole new way of behaving that has all kinds of other ramifications in my life. And now I am relating more to Mulan this way, saying things to her like, “When we go in to violin class I expect you to pay attention the whole time and not lay down on the floor in the middle of the lesson.” And mostly, sort of, pretty much, it’s working. Yippee!

Wow, I was so raised to be submissive and not assertive. I really learned to get my needs met based on circumventing direct action. I think this is probably true for most women, since we are typically the nurturers and mostly smaller than men, I think we evolved to learn how to get our needs and desires met while we were being so “sweet” on the surface. I don’t even mean we learned to be deviant, but like, for me – and I’ve heard this from a lot of women – we don’t even know what our needs or wishes even are. We just want to be loving, or nice, or sweet. That’s the main thing. And then it’s only later when we figure out what we really want. In that way, it makes the behavior more bull-shitty than outright lying. Anyway, here I am in my forties, and I’m just learning to figure out what I want and then try to get it overtly. From my dog, and from my kid. And it’s working, everything is much clearer. The real hard part is figuring out what I want, making it clear in my own mind exactly what I want. Which takes a lot of thinking. I used to think, “The hardest part of life isn’t in NOT achieving your goals, it’s just having the goals to begin with.” And that is really true, not just professionally. Anyway, blahdittyblah.

In spite of my newfound behaviors and relationship with my dog, I’m thinking of finding Arden a new home. I know, it’s sort of silly, I mean now I have him so much more under my command than I used to. It’s because…well, he needs so much exercise. And he really has to go to Runyon Canyon every single day and he’s even restless if I go around the canyon only once instead of our usual twice. Once is two and a half miles. And I love our hikes, but I just cannot do it every day. And I am really trying to reduce expenses, so the idea of hiring a dog walker, which is $25 a day, is unappealing. He needs a cattle ranch. He needs a real job. One that he was bred for. In fact, on “The Dog Whisperer” last night, Cesar told a couple who had a cattle dog that the dog needed much, much more exercise and that he should really be on a ranch. And the people said, “No! We are already in love with our dog!” And I was thinking, “Yes, let’s find him a cattle ranch!” So, there’s a guy at the gym I go to whose father owns a cattle ranch near San Louis Obispo and he’s going to ask him if he can take Arden. This way, our cat Val could move back in the house. For now, she basically lives on the roof of the garage and I have to feed her up there!

I figure, whoever gets Arden gets a great dog. Plus, he’s about to be famous. I wrote an article for Playboy that comes out in the May issue (yes, I finally get to say I’m appearing in Playboy!) and it’s all about Arden. Well, mostly about Arden. The editor called me a few weeks ago and said, “Your dog is about to be famous.” Ha.

Okay, I have to go to bed so I can get up and write and write and write. I have to finish this book and turn in a draft by the end of next week! But then I expect I will be working on it for about two months more after that. Maybe even longer. We will see. I have so much writing to do, it’s ridiculous.

I went to that TED conference and had such a great time. It was really stimulating and fun. Each lecturer was so wonderful, it was almost too much for me. I felt I had to lie down after every other speaker and just absorb what they said.

So, I’m closing my show, for sure, for sure, for sure, on Memorial Day. And I’m going to stay in L.A. for the time being and not go to New York with the show. It’s just…too hard. Mulan is in a great school now and it’s just too complicated to change things. So, now I’m focusing on getting the book done, and then filming the show – perhaps in the fall or some time in the next year. In the meantime, I think I’m going to make myself available to go to colleges or universities and do the show. I think it would be a perfect show for a university and there could even be a question and answer session afterwards or something. I dunno. We will see, there are all these other possible job things happening so I guess I just have to see how things go.

I’m letting my assistant Pam, go. This is sad, but necessary. All expenses are being reduced to a minimum. I should feel scared about money, but for some reason, I’m not. I’m just getting more in touch with what I spend and what it takes to run my life. And what really matters and what doesn’t, or what I can now do myself.

So, here’s some excerpts from Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit.”

“Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.”

Here’s another excerpt:
“One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.”

Oh! I love that so much! Here’s another excerpt that deals with people, like that woman who came up to me after the show and said, “I think that this is true for you.” Like there is no objective reality and something can be true because someone believes it, but not true for someone else because they don’t believe it. This just drives me nuts! Okay, here it is:

“The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence 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. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.”

“But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”

Wow, that’s a lot to think about.