Bullshit: A Brief History

A little over a decade ago, I read a slim little volume called On Bullshit, in which philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt examined the phenomenon of bullshit and its role in our modern discourse. While it remains one of the most enjoyable and helpful intellectual efforts I've ever come across, at the time, I was primarily happy because it helped me to comprehend certain aspects of American politics that had been frustrating me; I knew, for example, that there was a difference between "I did not have sex with that woman" and "Mission Accomplished," but until I read Frankfurt's book, I couldn't quite put my finger on it.

The short version is that while both lies and bullshit are types of falsehood, they proceed from different assumptions about the truth. A lie is intended to obscure the truth--indeed, to replace it. Because it must withstand at least minimal scrutiny, a lie must be made to fit into the framework of the truth as well as possible; if a liar does not consider the truth when he is crafting his lie, he runs the risk of having his lie become visible, and that will defeat his purpose. In other words, the liar works to keep the truth hidden because he fears and respects the truth's power.

"I did not have sex with that woman" is a lie--a carefully constructed one, hewing as close to the truth as possible. Bill Clinton hoped to persuade people that he had done nothing untoward with Monica Lewinsky; knowing that his audience of Republicans would scrutinize his claim, and worried that his political fortunes would be damaged by the truth, he created a false statement. (Granted, you could consider it truthful if you define "have sex" specifically as penile-vaginal intercourse, but you can't count on even the most puritan Republicans to assume there are no other sexual acts, as the 2007 arrest of Senator Larry "Wide Stance" Craig proved.) Clearly, this lie was intended to prevent those who heard it from looking any further for the truth, and it was created by someone with a real concern for that truth, in the sense that he desperately wanted it to remain concealed.

By contrast, Frankfurt argues, bullshit does not have to be concerned with the truth, because the bullshitter has no respect for and often no regard for it. A bullshitter is not out to conceal the truth because he simply doesn't care about it. He doesn't even have to know the truth. He will say whatever is most convenient, not concerning himself with the scrutiny of his audience, because he believes the immediate benefits of saying it will outweigh any potential negative consequences if his falsehood is uncovered. And if what he says turns out to be true, well, that's okay, too.

"Mission Accomplished" is bullshit. When George W. Bush's administration put that banner on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in May of 2003, they knew the mission--the Iraq War--was far from finished. Though his government had been overthrown, Saddam Hussein was still at large and would not be captured until December. Post-invasion military occupation had been given almost no careful consideration, and it would be nearly two years before an Iraqi election could be held. American military personnel would remain in Iraq until well after Bush left office, with the majority of casualties among them taking place after the raising of the banner proclaiming the end of their mission.

This claim, however, is not intended to bear even the slightest scrutiny. As observers knew perfectly well, the banner was raised with US troops still fighting and dying in Iraq, with the long-term fate of the region still very much in flux; even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saw the phrase "mission accomplished" as "too conclusive," and took care to remove the phrase from his advance copy of Bush's speech, though the banner was still created and raised by White House personnel. In other words, "Mission Accomplished" wasn't intended to replace the truth, but to ignore it. The banner was a convenient fiction created to give Bush a political boost, and for purposes of creating a macho image, making a jet landing on an aircraft carrier to proclaim decisive victory over a tyrant is a pretty good visual. And given that the long-term consequences of the falsehood were minimal--Bush did sweep to re-election a year later, after all--the deployment of bullshit seems in this situation to have been a safe call.

There is, mind you, a certain degree of cooperation required when bullshit is used. It's a matter of definition that the bullshitter need not care about the truth, but bullshit creates no advantage when the audience does care. A sufficiently motivated audience will quickly uncover the lack of truth in the individual's statement, and their judgment may be harsh. 

If, however, the audience regards the truth with the same kind of apathy shown by the bullshitter, then bullshit carries the day. It will be used whenever the bullshitter feels the urge, since he knows that his audience has no interest in critically examining the bullshit he's serving up. And if the bullshitter is telling the audience what they want to hear, their interest in critical examination becomes even weaker.

Thus, one long-term consequence of the Bush administration's penchant for bullshit is that his supporters on the right were encouraged to disregard the truth about him. And their increased comfort with disregarding the truth has had some major impact during the Obama administration. Despite all factual evidence to the contrary--that the economy has improved markedly since 2008, with unemployment falling to 4% in my home state of Virginia, that health insurance is now extended to millions of people who didn't have it before, that the auto industry has been saved from the brink of disaster, that fewer American soldiers are dying in the Middle East thanks to a lie about WMDs--a startling number of people believe that our nation has been "destroyed." 

Obama's opponents have been so willing to hurl bullshit at him, with birtherism being the most notorious example, that they're not merely uninterested in the truth, but are actually hostile to it. The truth about Obama--that he's a pragmatic, moderately left-of-center technocrat with a definite willingness to cooperate with corporate interests--is not merely ignored by these people, but actively denied; he's not merely a Democrat, but an actual demon, working to bring down our nation, our faith, and our way of life, polluting our precious bodily fluids in the process.

And now there's Donald Trump.

Trump is a dedicated bullshitter. Even in the face of video evidence, he will flatly deny doing what millions of people just watched him doing. He doesn't care whether the falsehood is exposed or not. In much the same way, he doesn't care whether there's any actual way to do what he promises--to get Mexico to pay for a wall along its northern border, for example. He is a panderer par excellence, giving comfort those whose desire to deny the truth is now in conflict with the undeniable realities of the 21st century: that they are not the beneficiaries of the policies they have long supported; that they are no longer the arbiters of what America is; that those whose voices they have long ignored are speaking more clearly every day. 

This then, is the result of steady erosion: when the truth's power has been disregarded for so long, people no longer see any value in it. These folks are angry, and they're fearful, and the last thing they want to hear is the truth. 

What they want is bullshit, warm, fragrant, and plentiful. And Donald Trump is just the guy to give it to them.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on March 16, 2016 8:21 AM.

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