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Friday, October 23, 2009


The reason for global warming should be obvious: the world is full of bullshit. There is more in the world now than there has ever been. We now have entire fields of study which are founded on bullshit, obtaining grants to collect and disseminate bullshit. We are now inundated with “information” which we call “data” but which is mostly bullshit. We have a proliferation of Art, 99% of which is bullshit. How much of the internet is bullshit? Are you kidding?

Even before the internet, there was already so much bullshit on television, radio, in newspapers and magazines that it was nearly impossible to discern what was not bullshit. Now, the static of bullshit pervading cyberspace boggles the brain.

All advertizing is bullshit. Large chunks of serious institutions have been taken over by bullshit. Government, The Law, Medicine, Sports, Literature, Art, Business, Education from top to bottom are infested with bullshit.

Religion, philosophy and “serious thought” are pervaded by bullshit. There are entire bullshit sciences: psychiatry, psychology, sociology, anthropology. Most history is bullshit. Take away the bullshit and you have a slim volume of commons sense known to anyone with an I.Q. higher than an imbecile (and, oh, the I.Q. test is also bullshit).

What do I mean by bullshit?
I mean garbage, waste, lies, dissembling, poses, self-serving nonsense, sentimental wishes, statistics, anecdotal evidence, anything said in a political campaign, most medical tests, all local news programming.

When the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s story saw the emperor parading naked, he should have cried, “Bullshit!”

Andy Warhol was a “bullshit artist” in both senses. So are all the cable talking heads, the Sunday pundits, the PBS experts (including Deepak Chopra, Suze Orman,). Talkradio is the font of more bullshit every day than was produced in all the books of every century before the Twentieth.

The Twentieth Century was the bullshit century. The greatest figures of the era were bullshitters of the highest magnitude: Mussolini, Hitler, Churchill, FDR, JFK, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton. Our heroes are mostly made of bullshit (“bravado” = bullshit). Bullshit is the definition of acting and accounts for most of what we are fascinated with about celebrities.

The cure for bullshit is simple. Skepticism — a state of mind which stands uncomfortably between cynicism and apathy — is the antidote. When you see it, doubt it. When it moves you to tears, proceed from the assumption that you are being manipulated. When it makes you angry, ask who wants you to feel that way. Who benefits from the news stories about crime? How did the latest subject on the gossip shows become an “issue.”

It is true that there has always been bullshit. Bullshit thrived throughout history. Myths, legends, superstition, the Middle Ages (the Age of Bullshit). The start of every war can be traced to bullshit, and most were won or lost by bullshit.

But we were led to believe that the modern age would distinguish itself by overcoming bullshit. In science and medicine, truth would triumph over ignorance for the betterment of mankind.

The Founding Fathers were products of an era historians call The Age of Enlightenment, when bullshit was recognized as the enemy of man. Having seen through such bullshit notions as “the divine rights of kings”, they hoped that an idea like democracy might work. The hypothesis was: “You can bullshit some of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.”

The plan required that th people would be educated and informed of the dangers of the bullshit-riddled future. It assumed that the people would choose to be guided by an enlightened and intelligent elite — a group not unlike, oh say, the Founding Fathers. They would be a cut above the people in the ability to reason, the eloquence to lead, and mostly, possessed of just enough independent wealth to allow them the luxury of expressing selfless wisdom to act for the common good occasionally — on the really important issues. Parenthetically, it should be noted that this has worked during our history. Noblesse oblige, the duty of enlightened wealth and upper classes to govern wisely and selflessly has provided many of our best leadership: the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Adamses, Byrds, Rockefellers, etc.

The U.S. Constitution stands as the most remarkable work of protection against bullshit ever devised out of a laboratory. The checks and balances every textbook so glibly mention are an ingenious expression of the anti-bullshit political theory. No one group is to be trusted not to bullshit the others.

Even so, Jefferson and some others still smelled bullshit. They didn’t buy the argument that individual rights would be protected against the greatly increased power of the new improved people’s government. The proponents argued that it was not necessary to enumerate individual rights into the document. Those rights were well understood by the founders who were English gentlemen by birth and lawyers by training. These rights were guaranteed to every Englishman through the English constitution, a conglomeration of written documents and laws, unwritten traditions. They had incorporate these rights into the charters of their colonies and now their states’ constitutions, and the states were to be independent and sovereign.

Besides, the clever argument ran, the mere definition of individual rights was dangerous. It would lead to the conclusion that the defined rights articulated the exclusive list of rights possessed by individuals. That was contrary to their intention. They meant the powers of government to be circumscribed, clearly defined and limited, with all the other powers, rights and residue belonging to the people. The argument was somewhat prophetic as throughout much of our history parsing of the language and divining of the intentions of our constitution has become a parlor game played by Supreme Court justices and law professors.

Jefferson the scientist remained skeptical. He felt more comfortable putting it in writing. The result was The Bill of Rights, which has become the model for every constitutional democracy.

So did it work? Did it prevent or at least restrain the bullshit? Let’s first admit that the odds were long. It is in the nature of things that most everything is bullshit. It is simply part of the nature of the human animal to survive by wits, which means learning to bullshit better than the next guy. Every baby cons its mother into attentiveness by tears and tantrums. Toddlers trick their peers away from their toys, the best students learn to fools their teachers, rites of passage into manhood and womanhood involve successfully duping members of the opposite sex as well as a large dose of self-deception for survival.

In politics, democratic leadership inherently requires bullshitting the largest numbers of people, persuading them to do what is right contrary to their self-interest, usually by manipulation and promises.

Jefferson pinned his hopes for bullshit detection on the concepts contained in one cluster of clauses of the First Amendment — no state religion, unrestricted freedom of speech and press, peaceable assembly, and petition for redress of grievances. The idea was that if given access to all points of view, the people would sort out the bullshit and eventually make the right choices. There would be no state religion, no one Truth about ultimate questions. Rather, there would be a diversity of theories to choose from. The same with political truths: let everyone state a point of view, try to prove it, argue it, print it, try to persuade others, march about it, get together with others of like mind, complain to the government about it. Eventually, right choices would be made.

But Jefferson never anticipate the power of Bullshit. The mass media and now the internet have produced volumes of misinformation. He never imagined how much misleading data would bury the people trying to sort out the few nuggets of truth from the piles of bullshit. The naked emperor in our world is hidden behind blizzards of bullshit.

Jefferson, the architect, botanist, agronomist, philosopher, historian, naturalist, and lawyer could never have foreseen that there would come a time when everyone became a specialist, when the educated elite, the best and brightest that he relied on, would be so overwhelmed in bullshit about their own field of study that they could not hope to lead others in general debate over diverse issues. The most educated of us are narrow-minded and suspicious, self-interested without pause. Doctors and lawyers hate each other; scientists learn government to milk it rather than check it.

The system envisioned by the founding fathers, of enlightened leaders followed by an educated informed people, foundered on the mass of bullshit.

What does that leave us with? The only hope was to educate the people to fend for themselves. The mass media promised to inform, but it deforms, manipulates, distorts by overemphasis, creates hysteria. The free press, conceived as protectors of dissent and a marketplace of creative ideas, has devolved into just a marketplace of shabby commercialism. Since first discovered by Hearst and Pulitzer to be a profitable consumable, the News Business, pandering to the lowest tastes regarding crime, scandal, or salable issues, is an industry captured by the compulsion to SELL, not to inform.

We had the hope that public education, free to everyone, would insure that all the people would be able to recognize the bullshit. But we are failing miserably, even to insure basic literacy. Educators focus on giving information (data, bullshit) rather than teaching how to sort it out. There are so many people to process and so much bullshit to plow through that teachers become buried under it and eventually give up or become part of the bureaucracy that cultivates bullshit for a living.

The result is a public mired in cynicism and apathy. Most people don’t bother to vote, too discouraged by the weight of bullshit. Those who do vote, increasingly and understandably, do so to express a narrow self-interest — an issue or small constellation of related issues they perceive as relevant to their lives — and even then, are easily manipulated into buying bullshit.


  1. This is one of your best posts. I am surprised that no one else has commented on it. I am not saying it to just compliment you. Unfortunately, I completely agree with everything you say. Most people don't have the guts to say that Andy Warhol is about bullshit (I always thought that about him). But he was also a mirror to the bullshit surrounding him, and made a good use of that. I often think that America is all about trends and marketing, and one's ability to make oneself appear important. Of course, this is not the only thing that America is all about:) but when it comes to what is considered great, and who becomes famous, it is, to a great degree, that. Marketing, magnification of one's peddled grandiosity, and networking with the "right" people - especially in L.A. It's not all doom and gloom, of course, but the nature of fame and the recognition of a genius have always intrigued me. They still do. Perhaps, this country is not the only one. There are others. When it comes to bullshit, it's all about the propensity for naming things. Once you name anything, you alter it. Russia is notorious for giving everything a name. Come to think of it, it's very much like this country, in a weird kind of way.

  2. Thank you, Rina. I didn't mean to single out Andy Warhol. I happen to like his art. He does grope for some sort of "truth" among the bullshit that he acknowledges is a big part of his work and pov. he makes fun of - while wallowing in - celebrity, pop culture, merchandizing, shabby kitch. it's all good. He knows that our culture could not survive without marketing. Look what caused the CRASH. People stopped buying on credit! YIPES!

  3. Mort, I didn't mean to single out Andy either:) I guess I don't fully appreciate his art, it's too reductionist for me. As to what caused the CRASH, have you listened to one of the Ira Glass' show episodes (This American Life)a few months ago? You can download his podcasts (can't remember what that particular one was called) where he tells the story about the Wall Street and how it all began. It started with some of the Wall Street people's indifference to the consequences. Actually Ira had a series of shows on the crash. He has a later one where he explains in popular terms what happened with the banks. And, on the other hand, it was a two-way street, because people shouldn't have been buying the houses they could not afford. Lack of responsibility, or, rather, foresight, on both sides. It almost feels like an elemental disaster, without particular conscious intent.

  4. I try to avoid people who are smarter than me - like Ira Glass, who even has a smart voice. Then too he either boils issues down to its simple and funny core; or he thoroughly explores an issue until my mind boggles at the complexity. And beside that, he is funny too. And that really galls me. I can't deal with people who write funnier than me. Maybe I'm too "reductionist" too. Sorry.

  5. Taking back what I said about Andy Warhol after seeing his "Last Supper." Completely stunned. It's at the Menil Collection museum in Houston.

  6. True bullshit, at its best is prevalent in all cultures, like whats in the water? Sleepy time chemicals or minerals that have been reduced by refinement. Less electrons around the center. Well we all cant be awake at the same time some believe that controlling the masses is the way not.

  7. Anonymous sounds like another victim of bullshit, a virulent form of it involving conspiracy theories. People who are not taught to logically separate pertinent credible facts and connections from irrelevant crap fall prey to these junk paranoid fantasies about our bodily fluids being destroyed by chemicals and electrons controlled by THEM.