I am not a patient person, even under the best of circumstances. I am frequently astounded, even overwhelmed, by the patience persons of my acquaintance will show as others around them are spouting the most unbelievably ignorant and fatuous nonsense imaginable. “No, no, Fred. You can actually go outside and see for yourself that, on a clear, sunny day, the sky is actually blue, not red. However, we can continue to discuss this, if you’d like.” To my way of thinking, once someone has demonstrated that their ignorance is not only beyond measure, but thoroughly willful, I am done investing my time and effort in that person. I make no pretensions that this is illustrative of any, much less a superior, virtue on my part.
Issues become more complicated when it is a group that is variously “gone over the falls,” as it were, especially when that group is one that you are inclined to identify with. So, for example, when Republicans and political conservatives demonstrate that they’ve abandoned even the pretense of reason, or even sanity, I’ll often just order a pizza, pour myself another glass of wine, sit back and watch the Klown Kar drive off the cliff. Some issues are obviously of great importance: conservative disregard of basic economic facts and/or climate change denialism, stand out as especially egregious examples. Other issues are merely outrageous. For example, as a veteran I am especially offended by Ben Carson’s blatant lie about having, as a young man, been offered a “scholarship” to the Military Academy at West Point. (Little of any consequence turns on this last, especially in light of the other sorts of twaddle Carson regularly spouts.) But there is something especially galling when bullshit comes from the political left, which then not only refuses to correct the error, but digs its heals in on the original nonsense.
First, though, a few words should be said about the concept of “bullshit”. Not everything in philosophy is as grand or pretentious as inquiring into the underlying nature of reality in itself. Much effort is invested in analyzing basic concepts, and using those analyses to get a cleaner, clearer sense of matters that are themselves often fairly mundane. An excellent example of this is Harry Frankfurt’s marvelous little monograph, On Bullshit. As Dr. Frankfurt observes, “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” [Location 16, Kindle edition.] (Yes, philosophers get to say things like that, and their professional respectability can increase.) But as Frankfurt goes on to note, despite there being so much bullshit, very little critical attention has been paid to it. We take it for granted, treat it as obvious, but like so many other concepts and realities that infuse our persons and societies from top to bottom, the presumptive obviousness means we’ve paid no effective attention to it.
Frankfurt – like any good philosopher – devotes considerable time and effort to examining alternatives and possibilities before finally presenting his firs positive statement on his topic: “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit.” [Location 182, Kindle edition, my emphasis.] By Frankfurt’s analysis, bullshit isn’t lying, because in order to lie, one must genuinely care about the truth, care enough that one deliberately misrepresents it in order to advance one’s own agenda. Bullshit, on the other hand, is not so much false as it is phony, it is an inauthentic representation of matters which can be true or false in its particulars, so long as the overall rhetorical project is advanced. While lies will tend to be sharply focused on specific facts, bullshit is more freewheeling and general in its intent.
Current events have quite outrun my intentions when I started writing this post. But since I’m already stuck in “catch up” mode, I will stay with my original plan and focus now on a particular misrepresentation that has enjoyed considerable popularity on the political left. In its basic form, it is a fairly easily correctable falsehood. But the life this item has taken on, and the intransigence with which some persons cling to it, even in the face of gentle but considered correction, has arguably elevated it to the scale of full-blown bullshit.
The item in question centers on the supposed quote by Mussolini (actually, Giovanni Gentile), “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism, since it is the merger of state and corporate power.” The quote is supposed to be from the Enciclopedia Italiana 1932, but in fact it appears no where in that document. (Unless one is fluent in Italian, the best bet appears to be to use the above term for a search on Google, and then use the translate function to see it rendered – poorly – into English. A somewhat more compact and edited, but competently translated, version can be found at Project Gutenberg.) The problem with the quote is not just that it is an inaccurate rendition of what was actually said, the word “corporatism” is reinterpreted as meaning business corporations, which is completely wrong. As can readily be seen simply by looking at the texts, the word “corporate,” and its various cognates, is much more along the lines of the Italian corpore, “body.” The fascists were referring to the various “bodies” of “the people,” including professional organizations. But even in these latter, the structure is more along the lines of Medieval guilds than “joint stock” companies that have been formed with an eye toward insulating investors from financial responsibility. (More discussion of the issue can be found HERE.)
Now, there is no question that fascists always closely aligned themselves with wealthy business interests. This is because money is where the power is and, as Robert Paxton has noted, fascism was always about getting and holding power; ideological positions were ejected without a first, much less a second thought, when the goal of power was ever in question. Indeed fascist “philosophy” was never anything for than a useful tool to gull the credulous with the patina of intellectual respectability.
All of this is straight forward enough. As originally presented, the “quote” is readily seen to not only be inaccurate, but a serious misrepresentation of what was said. Simple enough, one just stops making the claim. Except …
“We” don’t want to stop using it; “we” like the quote, and “we” like the story it tells about “them.” I have encountered a disturbing, and occasionally even aggressive, resistance among some people toward allowing the facts of the matter take precedence over the “just so story” they’ve adopted as the “TRUTH.” Now obviously my own experience is too limited to be representative of anything other than itself; perhaps I’ve just had some bad experiences and I am just being petty, making an issue out of what is in reality a pure triviality. If so, all the better! To the extent that it is genuinely trivial, the better will this example serve to make my point, because there won’t be any emotional investment in the matter such as will cloud judgment. The less investment people have in the example, the more readily they’ll be able to employ it as an analogy.
The point at which the tale about “corporatism” becomes more important than the facts, it ceases to be an error and becomes bullshit. And as Frankfurt points out, bullshit is worse than lying:
The bullshitter ignores these demands [of truth] altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are. [Location 320, Kindle edition]
It is not sufficient that we on the political left criticize right-wing extremists, tea-bagger ignoramuses, and others of that ilk, for their unreason if all we then do is commit that same unreason ourselves. Just because we’re waving a different colored flag from “those people” does not change the fact that all we’re doing is waving a flag.
Because regardless whose bull pinched the loaf, it is still bullshit.