The Bullshit Era
Calling it what it is will be an essential part of fighting back against it
In the middle of the Bush II Presidency, a literary classic was published: Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. Printed as an abnormally small hardback that was perfect for tucking into a pocket or for pulling out surreptitiously, the not-so-serious book adopted a serious approach to the topic of bullshit. We are now at the start of an era that sadly might be remembered by future generations, assuming of course that independent free thought survives, as the era of bullshit.
Philosopher Frankfurt distinguishes bullshit from lying, explains that “the essence of bullshit is not that it is fake but that it is phony,” and goes on to argue that the bullshitter’s “only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.” It is not an exaggeration to say that bullshit is everywhere. It can be seen when every five year old on a soccer team is given an end-of-the-season medal and when people agree to meet at seven for dinner, knowing full well they will not make it on time.
"Everywhere you look, there is bullshit and more bullshit. It is depressing, but we mustn’t lose sight of either how beautiful such an accurate word can be or the possibility of a political world where facts, motives, and qualifications matter." Bullshit also enjoys a privileged place in politics. The public should be forgiven for not knowing that the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act is in fact much better known for its bullshit name: U.S.A. Patriot Act. Or that “Right to Work” laws actually are ways of further crushing unions—as if that was needed. Both are examples of quality bullshit. But we are entering into an era of unparalleled bullshit.
Next semester, I am going to teach Housing Law and as preparation for the class, I put together a list of potential speakers. I contacted an anti-homeless advocate, a former HUD lawyer, and a civil rights litigator. I never thought to include a neuroscientist in the list. Yet, that is where we are at with the Trump Administration. And judging from media coverage, as a country we have not learned the importance of labeling things “bullshit” when they are in fact bullshit. Perhaps because we have become beholden to the idea that we are serious people and that our leaders should be taken seriously, we spend time debating the qualifications of Trump’s nominees and their relative merits. Instead of giving airtime or precious paragraphs to the views of Trump stand-ins and Republican apologists, it is time to recognize the word and concept that best applies is bullshit. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson in charge of Housing & Urban Development: bullshit! Racist Stephen Bannon as Senior Advisor: bullshit! Anti-public education hack Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education: bullshit!
Trump’s election should inspire angst, introspection, and certain degree of pessimism for progressives. Indeed, to cut the bullshit, Trump’s election should trouble well-meaning people across the globe. It certainly does not herald the start of a new period of enlightened leadership. But introspection and gloom only go so far, it can be quite refreshing to acknowledge the bullshit. Try it yourself. Say the word aloud. After all, Trump’s bullshit doesn’t end at the nominees. Denying climate change: bullshit! Using the Presidency to advance the Trump brand: bullshit! Nor is Trump the only bullshitter. The Democratic National Committee replacing Debbie Wasserman Schultz with Donna Brazile: bullshit! Paul Ryan vowing to solve poverty by replacing all entitlement programs with a single block grant: bullshit!
Everywhere you look, there is bullshit and more bullshit. It is depressing, but we mustn’t lose sight of either how beautiful such an accurate word can be or the possibility of a political world where facts, motives, and qualifications matter. It is foolish to imagine that bullshit will completely disappear—some of us live with our mother-in-law after all—but wouldn’t it be nice if American politics didn’t itself require that we take bullshit so seriously?