A 34-year-old Iranian man living in Queens calls a Michigan cell phone every Thursday between 5 and 6 p.m. Is that statement a pure truth -- proveable, demonstrable, unambiguous, unassailable -- or, given a military overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, a budget stretched beyond its limits, a health crisis on the horizon, is that statement nothing more than a piece of utter meaningless bullshit?
That is the question with which I left a lecture this week by Harry Frankfurt, philosophy professor at Princeton and author of the essay-book "On Bullshit" (which I have not read). In his talk, Frankfurt made three basic points.
First, he defined bullshit as a statement without regard for truth made to sell something -- a commercial product, a political policy, or even the speaker himself. The key point here is that, for Frankfurt, while truthful and lying statements each recognize the existence of truth, either to express or subvert it, bullshit does not even acknowledge truth exists.
Second, he identified some of the wellsprings of bullshit today, including an advertisement-driven culture and media with pundits paid to talk, and talk, and talk. He also identified an interesting tension fundamental to democracy that may lead to bullshit: although few people have the time, talent, or desire to be students of government policies, it is expected that each citizen should hold an opinion on them in order to vote informedly.
Finally, he declared that bullshit is bad and suggested some means to stanch its seemingly-increasing flow in America today. I left the lecture troubled by these ideas, and struggling to pinpoint why they don't feel right.
Bullshit, to me, is not just self-serving dogma. As Frankfurt points out, we have words for that already: "advertising" and "propaganda." But I don't think of a mouthwash commercial as "bullshit." I was also troubled by the thought that Frankfurt's definition might include some of the activities of a lawyer advocating for her client, and that his cry to stamp out bullshit might (if everyone listened) undermine the American legal system.
I thought about what "bullshit" means to me, and on reflection found that it is not a measure of truth, falsehood, or disregard for either. It is a mesasure of pretense. Bullshit, to me, is the meaningless dressed in the clothes of the meaningful.
Thus, when the Secretary of State is preparing to go before the United Nations to present evidence that Saddam Hussein has been building weapons of mass destruction and in reviewing the draft shouts out, enraged, "I'm not reading this! This is bullshit!," to me he's not just saying "This is propaganda!" (although he could have said that); he's saying "There is no evidence here -- these are trumped-up photos and meaningless facts!"
When the President tells Congress, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," it is not a statement without regard for truth -- on the contrary, it has been minutely parsed in order to be truthful without being honest -- rather, it is a statement of meaninglessness (since the reports had already been discredited) pretending to be meaningful. It is bullshit.
This sense of "bullshit" also helps to explain two examples that befuddled Frankfurt. The first is a category of letters he got in response to "On Bullshit" suggesting that his book defines bullshit not as he intended, in words, but rather by example: that is, that he has provided a benchmark standard of bullshit against which all other bullshit can, in the future, be measured, something like the platinum bar in a Paris vault that for years defined the length of a meter. Since Frankfurt wrote the essay carefully and seriously, with highest regard for truth, this response insulted and perplexed him. But in the same talk he described his own response to the notion of repackaging the essay as a book: "But it's only about twenty-five pages!" "Don't worry," the publisher replied. "We can do things with margins, spacing, typeface." And that's just what they did -- published a twenty-five-page essay as a seventy-five-page hardcover book with lots of room to make notes. In this light, although the intent and content of the essay is honorable, one can understand that its packaging as a book might be regarded (even by its author) as bullshit.
The other response that Frankfurt couldn't explain was that of a scientist inviting Frankfurt to speak to her department. His views would be highly relevant, she wrote, since scientists are "the supreme bullshit artists." This notion put Frankfurt off his stride, he said, because he always viewed scientists as devoutly in service of the truth. It makes more sense with my definition. For what is an artist but someone who takes seemingly worthless materials and composes them to produce something of beauty and significance? And that is how scientists see themselves: the best among us take seemingly disconnected facts and apparently trivial observations, and with creativity and intuition we arrange them to a model of simplicity, harmony, and utility. We create the meaningful from the previously meaningless -- a kind of bullshit.
It becomes obvious then that not all bullshit is bad, and that in fact we may not all agree what bullshit is. If you are alone, penniless, without shelter, food or water, then the high-minded studies of a scientist or philosopher really are meaningless bullshit. On the other hand, if you are a dreamer concerned with how so many billions of people around the globe will live in happiness and prosperity over the next 100 years, then the misery of one individual today might seem like bullshit. What is the real source of meaning: the political fight of the French Resistance or the true love of Rick and Ilsa? Which is the hill of beans -- which is the pile of bullshit?
Bullshit need not be propagandistic, and propaganda need not be bullshit. The kinopravda documentary style of Dziga Vertov, for example, splices images out of context and mixes the real with the staged, manipulating the surfaces of reality in an attempt to expose underlying truth. Much of it is outright propaganda for communist Russia, but it is all beautiful and imbued with meaning. I would not call it bullshit.
Likewise, the truth of a statement does not immunize it against being bullshit. Undeniable facts -- phone calls made by an Iranian family, for example -- may be stark realities. But when I think of them I do not feel the "stubborn love for the truth" that Frankfurt professes. And when I think of the federal government listening in on those calls with no cause for suspicion, with no warrant, I do not respect their information-gathering as a zealous pursuit of truth. Instead I see nothing more than a putrid pile of meaningless bullshit.