I have long appreciated George Orwell’s little essay “Politics and the English language,” though I am not a fanatic about it, as some, I think mistakenly, are. What I admire about the piece is what I admire about a lot of Orwell’s writing: there is a willingness to see the fake pieties that we employ to hide ourselves from reality, and a fearlessness, on his part, at seeing through those pieties. A similar story can be told of Albert Camus at almost the same time, and also of Czeslaw Milosz just a few years after; some of Martha Gellhorn’s journalism has this courage, as do a number of William Hazlitt’s essays. W.E.B. DuBois, Vaclav Havel, Hannah Arendt, Zbigniew Herbert: others are nameable as well.
Like a lot of people, I suppose, perhaps the overwhelming majority of people even mildly attentive to the world who are not themselves committed to white supremacy, these are dark and depressing times for me.
I have repeatedly observed over the past couple years how deeply powerful the gravitational tug of bullshit is to all of us. By “bullshit” I of course mean what Harry Frankfurt meant by bullshit, in his old academic paper from 1986, which then he, and Princeton University Press—in an act which itself could be arguably described as “higher bullshitting”—published in 2005, the height of the Bush Administration, as an extremely small book.
Whatever you think about that commodifying choice—and I’m in favor of humanities professors making money however they can, if Frankfurt had gone into business as a lap-dancer I would have been equally accepting—we can admit that he makes some good points. Most especially he made a good point about the difference between “bullshitting” and lying. Bullshit is not just lying—in fact, it is quite different. When someone is lying, they are committed to misleading you. They care about the truth, and they don’t want you to have it. The danger of bullshitting is that it is, in the argot of our time, post-truth. It expresses a “lack of connection to a concern with truth,” an “indifference to how things really are.”
Bullshit is the exploitation of language for purposes beyond the communication of reality. Bullshit is the exploitation of language for the evasion of reality. It is pretend communication, when actually something else is happening.
What’s depressing me these days is the ease with which we all fall into bullshit.
Here’s what I mean. In Virginia in 2020, the election was not only about Trump, it was also about an amendment to our Commonwealth constitution on gerrymandering. The amendment was passed in a time when there was not a democratic supermajority in the Virginia state legislature, and so it involves some compromises with Republicans. However, my reading of the commentaries in the press around this suggested to me that it is a substantial advance beyond what we then had, and after all the Democrats had supported it prior to their gaining the supermajority. However, once they had a supermajority, various political actors recanted their support for it, and proposed that we start all over with a better initiative.
In the most charitable interpretation, this strikes me as making the best the enemy of the good. Or the merely adequate. More cynically, however, I suspected that in fact my party, having now achieved a kind of power that adhere to for lacked, decided to recant its previous and more noble interest in removing from legislators the capacity to pick their own voters. In the end, after a terrible process, the result, I think, turned out well—the state's districts don't seem to be skewed, they seem logical and intelligible, and maybe our process can serve as an example for others. Maybe.
The squabbles around this were a very small form of bullshitting. Of course the enormous mass of this – – probably somewhere between 85 and 92% of it – – in America today is flowing from the right. The GOP’s continued denial of reality is, I think it is fair to say, unprecedented in American history, in its quantity and quality. Donald Trump, so far as I can tell, is not actually a coherent enough person to understand what a conscience is, or even a stable self; but I had perhaps mistakenly assumed that Mitch McConnell was at least deliberate enough to be sufficiently coherent over time as to feel at least some faint twangs of guilt over his hypocrisy. I suppose now I realize I was mistaken; Mitch is such an opportunist that he cannot resist taking all the marshmallows. It will condemn him to an even deeper degree of ignominy and opprobrium from future generations of Americans, if future generations there are, then he had already ably earned for himself—a reputation along the lines of Richard Russell, or Harry Byrd, or maybe even worse.
So yes, the Republicans are worse. And others are worse as well. The Russians are worse. The Chinese are worse. Business people are the worst. Telemarketers are a special sub-class of the last class, anal polyps on the economy. Et cetera, et cetera.
But none of that means that we don’t need to watch lest we fall into bullshit too. None of that means that we shouldn’t tell the truth when we can. And that may mean telling the truth against certain maneuvers and chicaneries on “our side” of things. “The first casualty of war is truth,” is a modern bowdlerization of a line Samuel Johnson wrote in an article for The Idler. It’s a better version of Johnson’s meandering sentence, which sags with his Latinate diction. It’s not wrong. But it’s not inevitable, either. We can all do better. We don’t need to bullshit. We can tell the truth. It is the first step towards recovering some of the decency—however shallow and flawed and hypocritical it was—that we as a society today so manifestly lack.