In the course of reviewing Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, Dan Neil proves the timeliness of the philosopher’s treatise by calling bullshit (and marking its appearance in his own review with an asterisk) on “fair and balanced” and a host of abominations. Neil is admiring of the book, but also critical:
Written in the elegant, balance-beam prose of a professional logician, Frankfurt’s book comes off at first as satire, but as the pages fly by there is a gnawing sense of earnestness about it. He spends many pages parsing the difference between “bullshit” and “humbug” — a word absolutely no one uses unless they are staging “A Christmas Carol” — and many more pages fencing with the Oxford English Dictionary on the nuance of “bull,” to wit: “…the OED suggests the following as definitive: ‘trivial, insincere, or untruthful talk or writing; nonsense.’ Now it does not seem distinctive of bull that it must be deficient in meaning or that it is necessarily unimportant; so ‘nonsense’ and ‘trivial,’ even apart from their vagueness, seem to be on the wrong track.”
Much of this, while fascinating*, seems a prolix path around the more important point that Frankfurt himself directs us toward in the first paragraph: We are drowning in bullshit. I mean, the Bush administration has practically made it a Cabinet position. And the most trenchant example Frankfurt can come up with is some crazy story about Ludwig Wittgenstein ripping a friend for saying, while sick, that she felt “just like a dog that has been run over.”
Though I’m not an emeritus anything, I’d like to help the professor out with a few more contemporary examples.
When ape-men such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — the latter having gained 50 pounds of gristle between college and pro ball — deny steroid use.*
When family-friendly NASCAR changes its policy on hard-liquor advertising because the spirits industry has “promoted responsible drinking.”*
When the makers of “JFK Reloaded” — a video game in which players occupy the sniper’s nest of the Dallas School Book Depository and try to cap Kennedy — claim they are helping students discover history.*
John Kerry duck hunting?*
Fair and Balanced? Total and unadulterated *** piled high and served as the blue-plate special.
All of these examples count on the naïve or muddled credulity of the listener, a faith too often rewarded. The quality of mendacity is not strained.
The word Frankfurt gropes for but never quite finds is “unworthy.” Bullshit is unworthy of the speaker, the listener and the argument. So when someone says, for instance, that America has the best healthcare system in the world — an assertion provably at odds with the facts — this is bullshit, not simply because it is untrue but also because it is so paltry and sad that people of a great and declining nation believe it.
(Emphasis added; via Moby Lives.)
One quick word in Frankfurt’s defense: as Scott McLemee noted in February, “the volume is simply a reprint — incorporating two or three quite infinitesimal changes — of a paper originally presented by Frankfurt, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, in 1986.” Thus the unfortunate dearth of contemporary examples in the book.