“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”
So said the renowned moral philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. In 1986, he wrote an obscure but penetrating paper, On Bullshit, that attempted to analyze the social consequences of a diminishing respect for the truth in modern society. “The bullshitter,” he observed, “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 of the truth than lies are.”
Frankfurt brilliantly clarified and defined bullshit as simply a demonstrated “lack of concern” for the truth, stating that “indifference to how things really are . . . [is] the essence of bullshit.” Thus, the danger to society lies precisely in this indifference, this regard for truth as insignificant, as trivial, as irrelevant. Professor Frankfurt’s treatment of a vulgar, yet ubiquitous, expression exquisitely reveals to us that, if we really care about the truth, then we must condemn bullshitters even more than liars.
Like the Sophists of ancient Greece, what the modern purveyors of bullshit ultimately seek, through obfuscation and deceit, is power. Raw, naked power. Yet along the way, they debase the social discourse and degrade the public trust as the nation is subjected to an unrelenting stream of manipulative muck designed to mobilize the selfish and discourage the principled.
This, of course, is not to say that outright lies and liars no longer exist. One need only watch any interview of, say, Adam Schiff or James Comey to prove that point. In fact, witnessing them in action is exactly like watching hippos skillfully spin their tails while pooping in order to mark their territory and impress their friends by spraying dung everywhere.
As Frankfurt presciently noted, it is nearly impossible to escape the mountains of bullshit shoveled upon us every day by our modern media. Whether hearing about “Russian collusion,” the unquestioned “legitimacy” of our most recent election, the “peaceful protests” of Antifa and BLM throughout 2020, or how riots can either be the “voice of the unheard” or a heinous “insurrection” depending upon the ideology of the actors, facts and reality become utterly detached from, and irrelevant to, the preferred narrative. Perhaps it was not a gaffe when Biden proclaimed on the campaign trail that, “We choose truth over facts,” keeping in mind the infinitely malleable, postmodern version of the truth.
Yet just as the tactic of deploying bullshit pollutes and diminishes authentic truths, so too does it defile and corrupt its tacticians and sponsors. As reality and veracity are increasingly ignored or taken for granted, invariably so too are the institutions we once relied upon to defend and sustain universal principles. How many people today believe anymore that the FBI is the “finest law enforcement organization in the world,” or that our intelligence agencies exist solely to “protect Americans,” or, more fundamentally, that “we are a nation of laws, not of men.”
With each passing day, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there are two sets of rules for Americans. Those for whom President Lincoln described as “the plain folk,” and those for the elites, their cronies, and their chosen mascots, that is, carefully selected groups consisting of the victimized and oppressed in need of their perpetual care.
Traditional America willingly complies with endless pandemic requirements and decrees, while illegal immigrants at the border are unburdened with any legal or regulatory restrictions whatsoever. Our oil and gas workers—along with their secondary economies —are “cancelled” at the stroke of a pen, while their betters travel the globe on private jets to endlessly prattle on among themselves about saving the planet from climate change. Our military and law enforcement professionals are automatically suspect as crypto-insurrectionists or members of supremacist organizations owing simply to their traditionalism, while the privileged crust incessantly vilify them for their lack of gentility and nuance. Yet, mostly, the chosen few—the enlightened and progressive elites—continue to grow more powerful, more enriched, and more arrogant by manipulating and exploiting mainstream society through their constant excretions of deceptions and dishonesties, aka bullshit.
Aside from the persistent threat posed by the military-industrial complex (or, as Eisenhower actually wanted to call it, the military-industrial-congressional complex), perhaps the greatest example of that unholy alliance of bullshitters and politicians (forgive the redundancy) has been the pharmaceutical-medical-congressional complex in the ongoing slaughter of Americans with opioids. Thanks to the premeditated trivialization of the addiction and poisoning dangers of opioid painkillers by Big Pharma, we have endured the extinguishing of more than 750,000 lives since 1999, mostly fueled by a viciously greedy industry abetted by their equally avaricious political sponsors in both parties.
Although we are constantly told that Congress is beholden to, and petrified of, the evil gun lobby and their predatory contributions, our elected leaders actually sucked up eight times more in cash contributions from Big Pharma between 2015 and 2019, precisely when the overdose death rates in our country began to skyrocket.
Now, we are allowing them to copy from the same playbook, only this time with marijuana; or, as the weed lobby likes to call it in their pretentious pose—cannabis. Despite the overwhelming evidence that marijuana is dangerous to both the individual and society, there is simply far too much money to be made—and skimmed by the elites—to be bothered with the facts, or science. The recent blockbuster report by the Government Accountability Institute, appropriately titled Cannabis Cronyism, is devastating in following the money from the $21 billion marijuana industry to those who lobby on its behalf, who are then highly rewarded. From such diverse figures as former Speaker John Boehner to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, it is sickening to learn how such fantastic amounts of money have apparently turned formerly “principled” positions into irrelevance.
Ultimately, though, the demagogues and cultural swindlers can only continue to be successful in their slinging of bullshit if we allow it. It is up to us to push back and call BS when we see it; to hold our leaders accountable and demand they speak and act with integrity and standards. For a nation that has no standards, observed the great Edmund Gibbon in his magnificent Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “allows the insinuation of a slow and secret poison into the vitals” of its society.
As the intrusion of politics seeps into every aspect of our lives, and as the flinging of every variety of bovine excrement shamelessly becomes more expansive and normalized, the culture itself becomes increasingly contaminated and befouled as it “progresses.”
Much ink has been spilled and much hot air expelled in recent times over the use of the terms sham, hoax, and fake, as in, for instance, impeachment, collusion, and news, respectively. Yet in these contexts, each of them can more properly be classified as bullshit. And as the plain folks’ philosophy of Professor Frankfurt instructs us, it is the bullshitters among us who must be condemned even more than liars if we really care about the truth.
Jeff Stamm is a 34-year law enforcement veteran, having served as a Deputy Sheriff in Sacramento County, California and a Special Agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He is also the author of “On Dope: Drug Enforcement and The First Policeman.”