In his remarkable 1864 novella Notes From the Underground, Feodor Dostoevsky, a writer not particularly known for humor or irony, puts into the mouth of his narrator a most memorably whimsical statement: "Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too." To my way of thinking, Dostoevsky has, within a mere 61 words, given us the first - and perhaps best - example of what we shall call "honest bullsh*t." Yes, I know, honest bullsh*t does come across as a first-rate oxymoron - a marriage of opposites. And yet, considering the time and temperament of the age in which we live, it does carry a certain je ne sais quoi - an almost illusive, indefinable quality.
By now, it is an almost toxic truism that many public people and sources - from our current POTUS and his advisors to alternative truth purveyors and peddlers of hate are rarely on speaking terms with the truth. But referring to all of them as perpetual or pathological liars misses the mark by several important degrees. Donald Trump is not a liar; Breitbart News does not lie; Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are not liars. Rather, they are world-class b.s. artists - horses of a different and vastly more more pernicious color.
So what is the difference between a lie and bullsh*t - or between a liar and a bullsh*tter? Fascinatingly, the best answer comes neither from a late-night TV pundit nor a standup satirist. Rather, it comes from the pen of Henry G. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton University, who, in 1986, published an essay entitled On Bullshit in the prestigious Raritan Quarterly Review. In 2005, Princeton University Press issued it as in a small hardback edition; it quickly became a New York Times bestseller - - due mainly, I would imagine, to its most unique title. In his 67-page book which is really an extended essay on communication, Professor Frankfurt posits that lies and bullsh*t are both about deception, but while lying is a conscious act of obscuring the truth, bullsh*tting has no interest at all in the truth, “An indifference to how things really are,” is the way Frankfurt puts it. Examples of #45's penchant for bullsh*tting include him furiously insisting that, contrary to what Meryl Streep ("the most overrated actress in Hollywood") said at the Golden Globes, he "never mocked a disabled reporter," even though there is widely circulated TV footage of him doing just that. He has also insisted he can't possibly take responsibility for the number of racists who have supported him or committed crimes in his name, having apparently forgotten about the times he made racist remarks himself. Jump ahead to just the other day, and we have the POTUS claiming - without a scintilla of evidence - that President Obama ordered the bugging of Trump Towers during the 2016 presidential campaign. Without question, #45 knows whether this statement is true or false; the fact is, he simply does not care. That is the mark of a b.s. artist . . . or what our British cousins would refer to as a hoofwanking bunglecunt.
In these, and dozens of other cases, the president is interested only in his own self-promotion; he is not lying, because for him an objective truth isn’t even a consideration – he is bullsh*tting. Fascinatingly, when any of these things are pointed out by the professional press, Trump and his chosen team cry out "elitism" - billionaires all standing in front of the golden doors of Trump Tower. By now, we have gone well beyond a time in which facts matter. Indeed, we have even moved beyond a "post facts" period of time. Today we find ourselves in a reality in which its all about bare-faced denial. This is the culture of bullsh*tting in which expertise is both denigrated and spat upon. Why? Because expertise can actually provide a bulwark against nonsense. Today, it matters not a whit to the grossly, professionally uninformed that scientists have proven life existed billions of years ago or that global warming is a clear and present danger. To the purveyors of b.s., what the experts have concluded through rigorous and scientifically verifiable research is shund (Yiddish for "trash").
Today, we live in a blog/Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat culture where it’s pitched as a triumph of democracy that everyone can claim authority, which means anyone who says that, actually, there is an objective truth (i.e. 2+2=4) is condemned. Feelings rather than facts are what matter, these purveyors of bullsh*t claim, and the success of this, as Tom Nichols writes in his new book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, represents “the full flowering of a therapeutic culture where self-esteem, not achievement, is the ultimate human value, and it’s making us all dumber by the day.” No wonder America's elected a celebrity as President, rather than a seasoned public servant. Believe me: I grew up around a ton of celebrities and public people; once the lights and cameras go dark, they are about as insecure a group as God ever created . . .
The Republican Party was birthed by a man known as "Honest Abe." Its latest leader is a fellow who, in the words of Roald Dahl, might be best described as the "Oopma Loompa."
There is such a thing as objective truth. So far as "honest bullsh*t" goes, it is about as ephemeral and lacking in reality as Dostoevsky at his most ironic . . .
43 days down, 1,417 to go.
Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone