A load of old bull? No, new bull too
Politicians, the media, and even the author of this book are involved in a phenomenon that is known the world over, but understood by no one.
"On Bullshit" by Harry G. Frankfurt, Princeton University Press, 67 pages, $5.97.
After the initial shock is replaced by a little smile, the next thing you notice about Harry Frankfurt's book when you take it off the shelf is how small it is. It could easily fit into your back pocket. But this diminutive book, with its saucy title, "On Bullshit," emblazoned in white letters on a red background, has stirred up quite a commotion in the United States.
No, it is not a work of satire, and the author is far from being a comedian. Frankfurt, 76, is actually a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, and he approaches "bullshitters," as he calls them, with such utter seriousness that one wonders if it isn't some kind of joke after all.
As befitting a person who is sick and tired of bullshit, he gets straight to the point from page one: "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 sustained inquiry."
Frankfurt's book, first published as a scholarly article in 1986, has created a rather odd problem for the American media. Most of the daily newspapers and TV stations, with their vestiges of Puritanism, will not print curse words or say them aloud on air. So write-ups and critical reviews of the book appear as "Bull***," and radio and TV broadcasters use initials only, referring to the book as "BS."
In the wake of this book, responsibility for producing an excess of bullshit is being laid at the door of the media. With the tremendous and incessant demand for information, there is simply not enough truth in the world anymore. High-speed Internet access, hundreds of television channels airing programs 24 hours a day, thousands of advertised products, political rhetoric, professional lobbyists, PR campaigns, media spin, pop culture - bullshit is everywhere, no question about it.
Frankfurt's publisher was thus convinced that "On Bullshit," even though it was written 19 years ago, is as relevant as ever. When he suggested publishing it in book form, the elderly professor replied: "What are you talking about? It's a 25-page essay, how can you bring it out as a book?" "Well," said the publisher, "we can do lots with margins, and types of fonts, and page sizes." And they did.
But enough with the bullshit. How does Frankfurt explain a phenomenon that is known the world over but understood by no one? He says his theories go back to the days of Plato, when a differentiation was made between philosophy, which explores the truth, and sophism, which abandons the truth in order to win the debate.
The first part of the book is a kind of etymological discussion of the history and origins of the word, followed by a comparison of synonyms like "humbug," "balderdash" and "horseshit." Apart from slight variations in meaning, "bullshit" is different because it is both a noun and a verb - "to bullshit someone." From this standpoint, at least, the word "bullshit" resembles the word "lie" - a lie, to lie. When you bullshit someone you create bullshit, in the same way that when you lie, a lie is born.
But is every bullshitter a liar? Not necessarily. "It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it... [The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy than lies are."
Frankfurt goes even further than that. He describes bullshit as a threat to civilization. He says that bullshit is an inevitable product of public life, "where people are frequently impelled whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant." In our day, this seems to be the case more and more.
What we don't get in this book are examples of bullshit from everyday life. But in whenever forum "On Bullshit" is discussed, one of the names that always comes up is that of U.S. President George Bush - a bullshitter par excellence. Back in 2002, Michael Kinsley, editor of the online magazine Slate, wrote that "Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven't bothered." If Frankurt's conclusions are anything to go by, Bush is not a pathological liar. He's just a bullshitter.
But not only politicians are guilty. Why do advertisers need a Scandinavian model to promote an Israeli orange drink? Why do reporters sit outside the courthouse all day waiting to see Michael Jackson emerge from a black Jeep, shading himself from the sun with an umbrella? Why is Paris Hilton's dog, Tinkerbell, being touted as the author of new book? This is the type of bullshit that we get everyday on Jon Stewart's satiric news program, "The Daily Show," which has now reached Israel. But interviewed on "Sixty Minutes," even Stewart admits to being a bullshitter: "[There's an actor sitting here] and I'm saying, 'And I saw it and you were magnificent. I think you took 'Garfield' to the next level!' You know, it's absolutely bullshit."
Ultimately, the publication of "On Bullshit" is as market-oriented as anything Frankfurt excoriates in his book. As the book climbed the charts, Frankfurt, too, joined the great American bullshit parade, agreeing to wear make-up and enter TV studios to the sound of raucous applause. He started with Stewart's show, and after an interview on "Sixty Minutes," he shot up to first place on The New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction. To date, he has sold more than 200,000 copies.
Who buys it? "I don't know. I think that there's a lot of impulse purchase," says the publisher, Walter Lippincott. "When you go into a store and you see a little book that says 'On Bullshit,' you say, 'I just know who I'd like to give this to.'"
Speaking to The New York Times, however, Frankfurt is more thoughtful: "When I reread it recently, I was sort of disappointed. It wasn't as good as I'd thought it was. It was a fairly superficial and incomplete treatment of the subject." What continues to bother him is why bullshit gets off so lightly. "Why is lying regarded almost as a criminal act, while bullshit is sort of cuddly and warm? It's outside the realm of serious moral criticism. Why is that?"