Bill Kristol is wrong about things
by Sam Kriss
While the secret knowledge is only available to some members of the society, there is an ideology, an ethics, and a phenomenology of ignorance that is shared, to some degree, by all.
Jonathan Mair et al., ‘Making Ignorance an Ethnographic Object’
The respected American political commentator Bill Kristol is consistently wrong about things, and it’s funny, until you start seeing dead bodies on your lawn. This week, he predicted that Marco Rubio would win the New Hampshire Republican primary. He did not. Last year, he predicted that Joe Biden would be seeking his party’s nomination for President. He would not. Ten years ago, in the run-up to the 2008 Democratic race, he predicted that Barack Obama would lose in every single state. He did not. During the scheduled pregame session for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Kristol predicted that American forces would be welcomed as liberators. They were not. (Later he added that the war would ‘
This infinite capacity for stupidity on the part of Bill Kristol, his ability to bob against any prevailing wind, has led to a very predictable reaction from the liberal left. Sometimes his wrongness is the wrongness of propaganda or ideology, but most of the time it’s just naked and evident untruth. So they ask: why does this man still have a job? Why is he given a platform, why is he allowed to present his opinions to leaders and publics, when they’re not just incorrect but so utterly unhelpful? It’s the right question, but nobody seems to be willing to actually answer it. Well, why does he still have a job? The only possible answer is that his being consistently, spectacularly, demonstrably wrong is serving, somewhere, some kind of important function. Which has to change your view of things a little. The prevailing model of the planet is of a giant, floating information-processing machine. Market forces built the Earth of the Hadean era; a geological stock market distributed surging columns of lava and pockets of boiling slime. Later the emerging biosphere would form a part of this computational apparatus, each living being a data-point recorded in its index, their genetic share-prices occasionally misvalued, but still axiomatically true. And then there was human society, plugging in to the natural mechanisms of price and utility, producing information to be sorted and filed in the planet’s core. But while Bill Kristol lives, our planet is just a swelling bag of falsehoods; what really determines the value of things is not accuracy but idiocy. A world in which Bill Kristol is successful is wrong; not morally wrong, but factually wrong. Something like the revelation at the end of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle: the world we are living in does not, in fact, exist.
At first glance, Kristol isn’t that unusual; there are so many types of untruth. It’s not the absence of truth, depending on truth as its opposite pole, but a positive phenomenon in its own right, appearing as lies, ignorance, literature, pseudohistory, Cartesian doubt, and conceptual abstraction. Plenty of people are wrong about things; arguably, just about everyone tends to be wrong about pretty much everything. But nobody is wrong in the same way as Bill Kristol. It’s very easy to be wrong about the past or the present: these are grim and murky places where nothing really makes sense. But Bill Kristol is wrong about the future, and this is an entirely different kind of wrongness. Under the classical or correspondence model of truth, propositions about the future are impossible to evaluate: there’s no reality against which to measure any image, because it hasn’t happened yet. Any statement about the future will in a sense always be wrong: it sits there, trembling, waiting for the annihilatory incoming of the event, and there’s no way of distinguishing a true prediction from a false one until this takes place. Except for the fact that statements about the future are also actions in the present: one prediction might have eventually been fulfilled, until another is made that, while not itself being realised, alters events so that something else entirely comes to pass. Little eddies of chaos surround any prophecy; this way, any number of formally incorrect statements about the future can carry deep in their bowels a hideous, twisted kind of reality. After all, the thing about untruth is that it projects a different world. And always being wrong about the future grants someone incredible powers.
In 2006, Bill Kristol was kidnapped by a pro-Iranian guerilla group. Six masked men burst into his home; they pulled him naked and spluttering from his bed, beat him unconscious with the butts of their rifles, and dragged him into the back of a waiting van. They kept on pummelling him as the van screeched through midnight avenues, long after he’d passed out: black-gloved fists and chipped-black steel on his beige and spreading flesh, purple supernovae dancing through his hypodermis, flat white TV-teeth splintering into the jaggedness of a bombed-out city. Afterwards, in court, they had to explain this incredible brutality. It was his smile, they said. By the end Kristol was slipping at the edge of death. His face was a bulbous mess of bruises and lacerations; that raw-dough elasticity had finally come to snap, and it was only recognisable as human by a kind of gruesome pareidolia – but throughout he still had his smug, thin-lipped smirk, that knowing look of someone who is always wrong. The Iranians kept on trying to erase it with blunt force; it felt like being condescended to by a corpse. But they couldn’t. The newspapers report what happened next. Bill Kristol woke up handcuffed to a bed in an abandoned building somewhere in Washington DC, the floor thick with brick dust and piss, the windows grime-clouded or broken, the trees outside spindly black death’s-hands against a low and glaucous sky. A guard stood over him, rifle slung over one shoulder. ‘Oh God,’ whined Bill Kristol. ‘I’m not getting out of this one. I’m going to be trapped here for hours.’ And so twenty minutes later, they set him free.
It’s not clear whose side Bill Kristol is on, or even if the question makes any sense. Take the Iraq war. There’s an edge of malice throughout that whole disaster; all those neoconservative proposals that were for decades insisting that Iraq be split into three separate states, one Sunni, one Shi’ite, and one Kurdish, which is pretty much exactly what’s happened. Bill Kristol decided with all the rest of them that the United States would build a strong, stable, secular Iraq, with predictable results. At the same time he predicted with the total confidence of the inhumanly wrong that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction would be found. Does he only want death and mayhem? It’s possible, but it’s far more possible that to talk about Bill Kristol in terms of what he wants and doesn’t want is to put things in an unworkable frame. What does capitalism want? What does the planet want? To reproduce themselves, to continue blind and ravenous and not entirely real. The only truth – if that word can have any meaning – is that we are not free. We live only because Bill Kristol allows it. Because any moment he might take it upon himself to make another optimistic prediction for the sunny future of humanity. ‘We’ll do great,’ he says, lounging on his chair in the ABC studio. ‘The human species will carry on, today, tomorrow, and for all the days to come.’ Cut to black.
What a brilliant essay!
Great writing – superb post.
I had a weird moment of convergence between your argument above and something else I had been thinking about recently. In the Phaedrus, Socrates discusses Original Gangsta sophist Tisias, who taught his students that an untruth could be constructed in such a way that one’s opponent would be better off going along with what they knew to be untrue than to refute it. The example he gives is a person accused of assault. The defendant argues untruthfully that if he was involved, it was only as part of a group. He, after all, is a weak man, and his accuser is very strong. Now the accuser is trapped. In order to refute the untruth, he will have to publicly proclaim that he was beaten by a weaker man, or that he himself is weak. So the accuser goes along with the untruth.
Here’s the link. I think you are right, that to ask how Bill Kristol can exist presuming that he exists in a world where political decisions are made in deliberative, epistemic ways is a non-starter. Of course in such a world, he would not make sense. And yet here he is.
The point is this. The truth Kristol’s opponents can’t bring themselves to utter, the reason why such an obviously weak man in ability and record is able to beat the strong again and again, is that our public deliberation has become delinked over time in concrete and material ways from the institutional structures of power and decision-making. To confront and refute Kristol’s predictions is to presume that doing so matters–indeed to be convinced that one has an obligation to do so, to correct the public record so that we can make better decisions together. One would have to believe that one’s access to the truth makes one strong, and makes him weak. To counter him, one would have to admit that it is the other way around, that as you say, we’re living in Bill Kristol’s world. His predictions aren’t predictions, they are pronouncements of what has already been decided.
Zizek called this phenomenon the unknown known, the implied fourth epistemological category in Rumsfeld’s famous known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The unknown known is the thing that we know but can’t, for ideological reasons, admit that we know. We know that the existence of Bill Kristol strongly implies the inexistence of ourselves, but we cannot bring ourselves to say it.
you had me at “a phenomenology of ignorance”
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The point is this. The truth Kristol’s opponents can’t bring themselves to utter, the reason why such an obviously weak man in ability and record is able to beat the strong again and again
He did predict that Hillary would win