Friday, January 16, 2009


If America does not lead the cause of freedom, that cause will not be led.

It's never too late to learn. And if you're going to learn, why not learn from a master? In the art of bullshit, there are few who have attained the level of mastery achieved by outgoing President George W. Bush. And last night's farewell address was a classic example.

First, let us examine exactly what it is that constitutes bullshit. According to an article I read in The New Yorker, the term "Bull" predates the term "bullshit" by several hundred years. Since the 17th century, "Bull" has been used to refer to "pretentious, deceitful [or] jejune language" and was unrelated to the word "bull" as it applies to farm animals. (Pretentious, you know, like using the word jejune.) It wasn't until modern times that the term was transmogrified into the epithet "bullshit." (See, I can do it, too.)

In a treatise published several years ago entitled On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt, a professor emeritus from Princeton, comes to the conclusion that "bullshit" is distinct from lying in that a liar is specifically trying to lead someone away from the truth, whereas a bullshitter is not concerned with the truth at all. The bullshitter is concerned with achieving a certain goal -- whether he uses lies or truth to achieve it is not important to him. He chooses to say what he says because he thinks it will work, without regard for its adherence to, or deviation from the truth.

So what is President Bush's goal? Simply put, he wants to be right. One of the biggest decisions of his presidency was the choice to invade Iraq. Most Americans now think it was a bad decision -- that Bush was wrong.

But check out how Bush tells it:
"There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions. But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
This is the core of his argument, that by taking "the fight to the terrorists and those who support them" he has kept us safe since 9/11. (Never mind the fact that he failed to keep us safe on 9/11.)

Is it true? Who knows? Many argue that the war in Iraq and U.S. mistreatment of so-called enemy combatants has given rise to a whole new generation of America-hating terrorists, making the world much less safe than before. Would there have been another 9/11-style attack on U.S. soil if we had stayed out of Iraq? Maybe. But maybe not. There's no way of knowing. And there's no way of proving or disproving Bush's assertion.

And that's what makes it classic bullshit.

Bush's use of a quote from Thomas Jefferson underscores his lack of concern for what is true: "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." Of course, when Jefferson said it, he was referring to an idea of democracy that broke away from previous notions of governance. Notions that Jefferson knew and understood quite well. For Bush, however, the concept becomes almost a mantra for ignoring the realities of the past and simply making up whatever suits his fancy.

A perfect example is Bush's assertion that we can force democracy upon those who do not have it. He states that the war in Iraq is "part of a broader struggle between two dramatically different, a small band of fanatics [that] demands total obedience to an oppressive ideology," and another "based on the conviction that freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God, and that liberty and justice light the path to peace." Furthermore, "advancing this belief is the only practical way to protect our citizens."

Is Bush aware that no nation in history has ever opted for democracy as a result of the external influence of a "liberating" invasion by a foreign power? That the only stable democracies in the world have come about as the result of an internal political evolution driven by the will of the people? Does he care? Of course not. That's past history and past history doesn't matter. What matters is that Bush was right to invade Iraq.

As further proof, Bush claims that, "when people live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who pursue campaigns of terror." Yet when elections were held for the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006, the terrorist organization Hamas won a majority of the seats. Again, when the facts do not fit the agenda, ignore them. If you happen find some facts that do fit the agenda, go ahead and toss 'em in there.

But what raises Bush's rhetoric from ordinary run-of-the-mill bullshit to truly masterful bullshit is the way he connects his agenda to something bigger even than liberty and freedom. Because it's not just about making the world free, it's about the eternal struggle between Good and Evil, "...and between the two of them there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right."

Here we see one of the hallmarks of great bullshitting, grafting your argument onto another argument that is so fundamentally indisputable that yours becomes more legitimate by mere association. This technique was very effectively employed in the movie Animal House in the scene where Otter addresses the student council in defense of the Deltas:
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'll be brief. The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules, or took a few liberties with our female party guests -- we did.
But you can't hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn't we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn't this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg - isn't this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we're not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!"
Oh and, by the way, so far 98,400 innocent Iraqi civilians have been murdered in the advancement of Bush's ideology.

In her book, Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit, author Laura Penney describes Bush as a “a world-historical bullshitter.” She goes on to suggest that Bush actually believes his own bullshit. This, perhaps, is the special quality that makes him so brilliant at it. Because he has no relationship with the truth or historical fact, he is wide open to accept the bullshit that he himself promotes. And that makes him very, very dangerous.

I am reminded of what George Costanza told Jerry Seinfeld when Jerry was faced with the prospect of having to lie about watching Melrose Place while being subjected to a polygraph test.

George tells him: "It's not a lie, Jerry, if you believe it."

It's not a lie, it's bullshit.

1 comment:

Rebecca Loring said...

Hear hear! Great article. Thank God his reign is almost over.