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Pullin’ a Classic Off the Shelf

22 September 2009

If you are underage, or if your underage children are watching over your shoulder, cover the ears.


A couple of years ago, for reasons having more to do with unseasoned PhD candidates within my academic reach than with anything remotely political, qb ordered a tiny volume by a great Princeton sage, Harry Frankfurt.  Its title is wonderfully pithy:  On B[]llsh[]t.  E. B. White and H. L. Mencken would have been so proud, each for his own reasons.  Strange as it may sound, and ironical at too many layers to count, it is a fascinating and scholarly treatment of its eponymous, contemporary plague.  Read it for the truth; read it for the comic relief.  But read it.  Your first trip through it will take about 30 minutes, maybe less if you’re already attuned, maybe more if you keep spitting out your dentures in hilarity.


The glorious payoff:

For most people, the fact that a statement is false constitutes in itself a reason, however weak and easily overridden, not to make the statement.  For Saint Augustine’s pure liar it is, on the other hand, a reason in favor of making it.  For the b[]llsh[]tter it is in itself neither a reason in favor nor a reason against.  Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are.  These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully.  For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that b[]llsh[]tting tends to.  Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost.  Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game.  Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands.  The b[]llsh[]tter  ignores these demands 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, b[]llsh[]t is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Harry G. Frankfurt, On B[]llsh[]t (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2005), 59-61.


Just so.  And this, gentle reader, is where we are with the current Administration.  “Dissembling” is not aggressive enough; “lying” is too facile a term.  No, the phenomenon of today’s presidential b[]llsh[]t in the public arena is unique in both its ineffable qualities and in its malignity, both of which are made worse when the purveyor-in-chief is thought to be a messianic Demosthenes.

These are historic, heady, hilarious times that we are fortunate to witness…or we would be, if not for the disasters in the making.


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