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ALLY IN THE ACADEMY

Truth, lies, BS and the presidency

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By Trum Simmons

“It’s all bullshit and it’s bad for you.” That’s George Carlin—may he be resting in peace—in one of his last and best routines. He wanted us to know that much of what we’re told by our governmental and religious leaders is not true, but rather a mixture of lies and BS.

Is the United States the greatest country in the world? Is our capitalist system a wonderful thing? When people die do they go to heaven and meet their mom, dad and grandparents to enjoy one another in eternal bliss? It’s bullshit, and it’s bad for you, Carlin says.

During the British Petroleum (BP) massive oil spill in 2010 the company put out reams of information in an effort to reassure us that all was well. The Onion responded with a story under the headline, “Massive flow of bullshit continues to gush from BP headquarters.” This helped keep things in perspective.

Was BP lying? Yes and no. There were lies, sure, but much of their information was simply BS. They said whatever they thought could reassure us, which included some truth, some half-truths and some outright lies.

Now, speaking of BS, I think it’s safe to say that President Donald Trump is a master of BS. He may be Commander-in-Chief, but we can also call him Bullshitter-in-Chief. He is so good at it that his Twitter and campaign rhetoric has led to a resurgence of BS across the country—and not just from him, but also from his administration officials, his supporters and many religious leaders. This is not a good thing for the U.S.

But what is BS, anyway? Is it simply another term for lying? Not according to Harry G. Frankfurt in his wonderful little book On Bullshit (2005). Frankfurt, a professor emeritus who taught moral philosophy at Princeton, wrote a concise 67 pages in an attempt to define a word he maintains is not really understood, as it is used so often in so many different ways.

Frankfurt may be a scholar, but he echoes George Carlin on the first page of his book. “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,” Frankfurt writes. “Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.”

He continues, noting that “most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it,” As a result, he writes, we have no understanding of what it is or how it functions.

Frankfurt explains that BS is something other than a lie. Lies are falsehoods, whereas BS is “a matter not of falsity but of fakery. … Although it is produced without concern with the truth … the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony .”

In addition, the bullshitter  “misrepresents what he is up to,” Frankfurt writes. The bullshitter just wants to get away with what he says. But perhaps my favorite Frankfurt quote is this: “Bullshitting is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the bullshit artist.” Lying, on the other hand, is more of a craft than an art.

In Trump’s rhetoric we see a man who excels in salesmanship. And what he’s selling is Donald Trump. He wants you to buy his product, his brand. Is he really concerned about “Making America Great Again”? Does he really care about working men and women? We already know he doesn’t support LGBTQ rights, people of color or immigrants, so we don’t need to question that.

Nope—he just wants you to buy his brand and make Donald Trump greater than ever. You know he’s already great—he tells us that all the time.

Millions of people have bought Trump’s brand of bullshit and are busy spreading it far and wide. Thankfully, many more millions can see it for what it is. Other millions don’t know what to think. Again, this is not good for our country.

As Frankfurt says, each of us contributes our share of bullshit. And I believe those who advocate for social, racial, environmental and economic justice also need to be careful of this phenomenon. There is too much BS coming from those who are against equality for all, and we need to make sure we don’t add to the pile. 

After all, we all have been acculturated to American bullshit and, as George Carlin said—no matter who you are—it’s all bad for you.