Sitting by the pool during summer office hours, Dr. Sj handed me the book she was reading and told me, “read the introduction. You’re going to like this.” The book was “The Gatekeepers” by Chris Whipple. She was right. I liked it. I only got as far as the intro before Dr. SJ took it back from me, but the seed was planted.
The book is about the role of White House Chief of Staff. It’s an odd position, in that there is no law establishing the post, it’s not subject to senate confirmation and there’s no requirement that it exist. Jimmy Carter had no chief of staff at the beginning of his presidency. But the intro is about 15 of the 17 living Chiefs meeting Rahm Emanuel* before Obama was sworn in to give him some advice.
It was a very curious crew, ranging from Dick Cheney to Jim Baker. Yet, they put politics aside, save for a few cutting jokes, and focused on the job. Regardless of where they stood politically, they understood that a failed presidency meant harm to Americans. They were bigger than that, even if they completely disagreed with the political course.
The point of the introduction was twofold: first that a president who lacked a good Chief of Staff was likely to fail. Second, and more importantly, the job of Chief of Staff was to be the guy who told the president when he was wrong.
In the book, the point was made that most people in the WH want to curry favor with the president, They will be “yes men,” maybe even sycophants. What they will not do is call bullshit. Without someone to call bullshit, to challenge thinking, bad things happen. Lies get believed. Bad ideas go unquestioned. Bullshit reigns and a nation suffers.**
This was a valuable message, but one that goes far beyond the job of chief of staff.
There was never a time when it was a pleasant task to call bullshit. Most of us would be far happier if we only spoke of pleasant things. But then, bullshit happens and you have a choice of being the nice, happy person who stands mute or the mean person who says something. The former is where most people come out; they’re disinclined to put themselves in the line of fire and they don’t see it as their duty to be the one who has to say something.
It’s like the five Florida teens laughing at the drowning man. They had no duty to save him, so they didn’t. And the guy drowned. We can all wring our hands about their lack of humanity afterward, but the guy’s still dead because none of them was willing to do something, to put his own ass on the line.
Of course, the platitudinous response is that one can disagree without being disagreeable. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. Sometimes, what’s at stake is far too serious to be tepid or wishy-washy, to offer moderated disagreement that fails to include the part where you say, “save the fucking drowning man,” or “stop killing black guys because they scare you.”
Other times, it’s because of a carefully constructed fantasy, backed up by a series of facile excuses that create an impenetrable circle of bullshit. There’s a lot of this going around these days, and it’s particularly appealing to the unduly emotional. They wear their bullshit like armor, protecting them from any disapproval that would harsh their delusion. And it’s been one of the most destructive things around lately.
I’ve been asked why I hate social justice so much, given my views toward criminal law and defendants. The answer is simple. It’s bullshit. But worse, the bullshit prevents us from fixing real problems based on real ideas and solutions. Indulgence in fantasy feelings is for children and fools. Real lives are harmed by cops killing people without reason, innocent people in prison, prosecution for contempt of cop, legal doctrine that enables cops to kill and walk away, search unlawfully and walk away, arrest and tune-up as payback for being mouthy and walk away.
Social justice won’t fix any of this. Lawyers who take the easy path of mindless emotions rather than hard thinking won’t fix any of this. Somebody has to be the one to call bullshit. Better yet, we should all learn from the chiefs of staff and have the balls to tell the president when he’s wrong. Do something worthwhile instead of whining about the misery of it all. Tell the truth. Nobody will thank you for it, but it needs to be done.
*Before being elected as mayor of Chicago, Emanuel served as President Barack Obama’s first Chief of Staff.
**And yes, the obverse is that a president has to be willing to listen to someone whose job it is to call bullshit. If the prez refuses to listen, then the chief of staff can’t do his job and the same harm ensues, Donald.