March 24, 2005

Bullshit Nation

Jonathan Lear explains.

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.

In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory...

...Frankfurt's theory is easy to state. Both the truth-teller and the liar have it in common that they care about the truth. The person who aims at the truth tries to figure out what the world is like and to communicate that to others; the liar attempts to deceive. But by his very attempt to mislead others, the liar betrays his own concern, however perverse, with how things are. As Frankfurt puts it, the truth-teller and the liar are playing opposite sides of the same game.

The bullshitter is in a different game altogether. He simply does not care about the truth or falsity of what he is saying. "The essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony." Consider this classic from ancient history: "I didn't inhale." I think the utterance was true, but it was bullshit nonetheless. If it had been false, the utterer would have said the same thing. For this reason, those who do not believe the statement also do not get to the heart of the matter when they say that the speaker is lying. In both cases, if what he said was true and if what he said was false, the president was bullshitting--for in neither case would the truth or the falsity of what he was saying have mattered to him. Frankfurt is correct to insist that it is a "fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit" that "although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong." [Clarification: Italicized portion is Lear quoting Frankfurt]

Read the whole thing. One reason Kerry lost per the article? He didn't bullshit well enough! So does all this mean Americans love a good bullshitter (Clinton is deified still in quite a few quarters from rural Arkansas to impressionable CFR-ites)? Well, maybe not. I think a big reason that non-ironic, conviction politicians like Reagan and Bush 43 have been so successful on the political stage is, in good measure, a good dollop of B.S. fatigue running through the polity.

Posted by Gregory at March 24, 2005 04:46 AM | TrackBack (3)

conviction politicians like...Bush 43

While it is clear that Bush is a man driven by his convictions, as a politician, he is not. One need only look at the blatant mendacity of his administration to understand this point.

Posted by: disappointed at March 24, 2005 07:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yes, but the point is that Bush talks like he really cares. "Conviction is vital to a modern politician. You have to fake that well, or you'll lose."

Posted by: J Thomas at March 24, 2005 10:37 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

C'mon, this doesn't even to the orthodox conservative take about Clinton, viz., that he was a liar (which is in Frankfurt's taxonomy in contradistinction to being a bullshitter).

Besides which, as a conceptual matter, "convictions" don't stand in the way of even the most incontinent bullshitting. Osama bin Laden is chalk full of convictions, for instance, but he certainly is no less a bullshitter for them.

Posted by: Strange Doctrines at March 24, 2005 05:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Bullshit never looks like bullshit to those who buy it, and that is always the name of the game. Which is why, as a rule, you should automatically distrust anything that any politician says, even if they say things you like to hear or if they're on the team that you prefer.

Posted by: fling93 at March 24, 2005 07:34 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The problem and paradox in that is, cynical people are astonishingly easy to manipulate.

People who distrust anything that any politician says are more likely to be attracted to candidates who deny that they are politicians. They are instead fighters for justice (Edwards), healers of the sick (Frist), decorated soldiers (Clark) and down-home plain speaking straight shooters (Bush). Every one of these guys drew substantial support from people who liked him because he did not seem like the typical politician -- an appearance rooted in reality, as each sought (or is planning to seek) the highest office in the land with a background in public life that might charitably be described as limited.

To their supporters -- between them well over half the voters in the country -- this is a good thing, indeed the best thing about them. It is also completely crazy. You'd never hire someone to paint your house, do your taxes or even groom your dog who boasted that he was pretty new to the job and not overly respectful of the people who were experienced at it. But people vote for Presidential candidates on that basis all the time.

Civic virtue -- an absolute prerequisite in a democracy -- demands trust of leaders. Failing that, it demands citizens have strong views of their own that they are able to compare to what aspiring leaders tell them. Cynical, knowing distrust prevents no evil and is a great advantage to the least worthy candidates for public office.

Posted by: Zathras at March 24, 2005 10:45 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Zathras: People who distrust anything that any politician says are more likely to be attracted to candidates who deny that they are politicians.

Well, not if they realize that the denial shouldn't be trusted either!

As long as you don't automatically react to their words in the intended manner, and analyze their words and actions deeply enough to find hidden agendas, you'll get past the vast majority of manipulation. Most voters don't bother to do that (and never will), so it's not worth the time and effort for politicians to go beyond that level. Much easier for them to just figure out what you want to hear and then say it, whether it's that they will stop outsourcing or will spread democracy.

Posted by: fling93 at March 25, 2005 12:03 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
Reviews of Belgravia Dispatch
--New York Times
"Must-read list"
--Washington Times
"Pompous Ass"
--an anonymous blogospheric commenter
Recent Entries
English Language Media
Foreign Affairs Commentariat
Non-English Language Press
U.S. Blogs
Think Tanks
Law & Finance
The City
Western Europe
United Kingdom
Central and Eastern Europe
East Asia
South Korea
Middle East
B.D. In the Press
Syndicate this site:


Powered by