On Bullshit

by Harry G. Frankfurt
80 pages,
ISBN: 0691122946

Your Call Is Important To Us: The Truth About Bullshit

by Laura Penny
288 pages,
ISBN: 077107042X

Post Your Opinion
The Persistence Of Humbug
by Gordon Phinn

Surprising as it may seem, a seventy-page essay by a moral philosopher from Princeton has become something of a bestseller. Originally a paper presented at a Yale faculty seminar twenty years ago, Harry G. Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" eventually made its appearance in a journal, then in a 1988 collection of Frankfurt's work, The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays, and now as a handsomely bound pamphlet. It can be found almost anywhere the printed word is held in high regard.
As a brief reprieve from the endless reams of ChickLit, Harry Potterisms, DaVinci Code-itis and this week's masterful dissection of militant Islam, its calm, clear-headed deconstruction of everyday deceit is without parallel, unless you'd care to throw in my uncle Jim's all-purpose "an acute case 'o nae brains" as a counterbalance. The perfect antidote to our culture's daily dose of garish scandal and scatterbrained ideology, it can be happily devoured in an hour or so and its insights mulled over for weeks.
For a western intellectual, a clan not often noted for clear diction and straightforward thought, Frankfurt performs small miracles of deft deliberation. He introduces bullshit as that which folks used to call humbug, and moves smoothly from there to the notion that the bullshitter is not, per se, a liar, seeking to deceive us about "the facts", but is concerned about "concealing the nature of his enterprise", toward a radically smart denouement concerning the modern world's loss of faith in any absolutes and the resultant retreat from 'truth' to the embrace of mere sincerity. Since for Frankfurt our natures are "elusively insubstantial", we cannot actually come up with honest representations of ourselves, and hence our ideal of "sincerity itself is bullshit". It's a lovely tour-de-force, despite the uncredited reliance on dear old David Hume. Bravo!
Almost as incisive as Frankfurt's tiny diamond is Jim Holt's recent New Yorker essay on the whole shebang, "Say Anything", which not only includes a discussion of a little-known critique by G. A. Cohen of Oxford, "Deeper Into Bullshit", but also a slew of historically relevant chatter, from St. Augustine to Wittgenstein, and an admiring reference to Laura Penny's Your Call Is Important To Us: The Truth About Bullshit. To share such hallowed halls with a cast like that in the venerable New Yorker is no mean feat for a first-time Canadian author and one wonders how she will ever top it.
Although she claims to admire Frankfurt's work, Penny displays the one quality he ultimately derides: sincerity. Her version is comprised of the usual earnest lefty convictions; it's full of outrage, and striking blows against the omnipotent and uncaring empire. Through the book she faces down her Goliath with a canny admixture of slander, righteous anger and satire. Throw in a few ad hominem insults, the trash talk of tabloid journalism, unseemly lapses into barbarism (recommending the Enron execs for "stoning in lieu of jail time") and the now standard anti-capitalist, anti-globalist rhetoric, and by golly you've got a book.
The bearer of several degrees from institutions of higher learning, Ms. Penny has also, fortunately, been seconded into the labour pool from time to time, and it would appear that this aspect of her existence has powered both attitude and argument. What those poor schmoes have to put up with really is beyond the pale. She never actually thumbs her nose at the hoi polloi, but one does get the unmistakable flavour of relief at the prospect of college and publishing placing her safely beyond their grubby lives.
Penny is a sharp and effective stylist, whose slash-and-jab technique deflates many a pompous and pretentious target in public life, but who, like several of her Gen-X culture-critic comrades-in-arms, retains a dreary ability to parrot the obvious and pander to clichTs. That politicians prevaricate, corporations connive, and the military make waves only they can control, is nothing new. Everyone, from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, through Greenpeace, CSIS, McDonald's and the Anglican Synod, propagandises to prop up their agenda, impress their superiors, and to keep, if not increase, their market share. Being committed to your cause does not obviate the need for a paycheque-or a rationale.
Ms. Penny, like her colleagues, and many a child still shiny from kindergarten, has duly noted that the Emperor hath no raiment, and that his standard bearers themselves are somewhat threadbare. In this she is spot on, and often charmingly so. But to advance beyond her romantic cri de coeur, she must see over the wall of anti-establishment clichTs, personal prejudice and high-priced education to that formal, and perhaps stuffy, garden of eternal verities in which it is apparent that little has changed during the last several thousand years. The marketplace has always been the stage for lewd trade and sharp practice; power has unfailingly led to corruption. Greed never fails to tempt, whilst fear always feeds the lust for aggression. And, sadly, the most common tool arising from such exchanges has usually been wilful deceit. Fortunately, for all of us keen adherents to systemic checks and balances, sympathy and the charitable impulse have, during the same span, also gained a sizeable toehold. Personal acts of empathy and kindness, alas, tend to lack the wicked thrill of the seven deadly sins and doubtless go underreported in the media.
Penny's vague but tempestuous sloganeering ("Most of what passes for news is bullshit") is initially tempting as a joyously anarchic meltdown of all things pompous, pretentious and imperious, but it eventually wears down the attentive reader as it turns, ultimately, toward the demonising of all public utterance, an endgame as determinedly nihilistic and self-defeating as the onslaught of bullshit it attempts to disarm.
Now while the tear-away success of such works as The DaVinci Code has allowed Gnosticism a return through the back door, I suggest we should remain firm in our reluctance to embrace its vision of demons behind every earthly manifestation. There is more to public life than political manoeuvring and public relations, although one who daily immerses herself, as Ms. Penny repeatedly confesses, in the murky melodramas of the media, may lose the ability to make that distinction.
But being, as they used to say, full of piss and vinegar, at least as much as her sixties' predecessors, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman (Penny tags John Ashcroft as "that loon", Hoffman wrote that "President Johnson is a bastard"), and certainly not reluctant to add a goodly share of insult and cuss word to her brew, she's pretty well guaranteed a warm and uncritical reception on the youthful left. But for those of us who have already sat through cycles of disgust, rebellion, denial and sullen acquiescence and have tired of hair dye and painfully fashionable footwear, the parade of the usual suspects (Multinationals, Agribusiness, Big Pharma, Banks, and pretty much anything American) seems all too predictable and overly familiar to generate much more than a slightly embarassed world-weary shrug. And despite our embarassment, we recognise that piss and vinegar only go so far; after all that chirpy vaudeville the critic must offer guidelines for reconstruction. But Ms. Penny fails on that count, cheerfully admitting she has zilch to offer: "I've got nothing. I'm not a problem solver. I'm a crank." Such frank confession does not constitute a defense. It turns out that she is little more than an ironic observer of her own futility.
One returns from Penny to Frankfurt's calm deliberations with a palpable relief. Her persistent, widely-striking annoyance is like some contagious malady, and the reader reaches for the balm of philosophical reflection. I found mine in Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's 1997 Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed, for I realised at some point in Penny's frenzied assault on the bastions of bullshit, that she's assuming, as does everyone of her righteous ilk, that there exists a shared vision, and a community for which reality is regularly and rigorously filtered for all indications of untruth and misrepresentation.
Unfortunately for idealists of the sincerity school, there is no actual ground-floor agreement amongst all participants on the parameters of honest and ethical banter. The endeavour to detach the false from the true (or the willful exaggeration from the plain spoken) has been a global one, and has had, predictably, a lacklustre history of temporary consensus salvaged from the wrecks of previous years' much-vaunted paradigms.
Fernandez-Armesto does as fine a job as I've seen (terms like "marvellously compact" and "brilliantly incisive" come to mind) tracking this elusive treasure through the fields of anthropology, theology, philosophy, history and science, yet he can come no closer to his Grail than suggesting that despite all language being caught in some self-referential trap, the subjective limitations of perspectives can be overcome in the craft of rigorous compilation, which would bring us at least "a little closer to the truth". Only a little closer? Perhaps the compilation of all partial truths is a task fit only for a non-sectarian god and those who would subsume themselves in his speechless being.

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