On Bullshit

I recently found that T.S. Eliot wrote a throwaway poem, “The Triumph of Bullshit,” which many people consider to be the coining of the term bullshit as we understand it today.

Given our current political climate, i.e., the fact-free campaigns of many current political candidates in general and Donald Trump in particular, I was hoping Eliot’s poem would be a statement on the broader culture. Unfortunately it is not. The poem is a petty jab at female poetry critics with the refrain “For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.”

I’m a fan of Eliot in general. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is the founding poem in my origin story as a poet, the first poem that blew my mind and made me think about the world differently. But Eliot has characteristics that I find unseemly: he’s elitist, sometimes anti-Semitic  and given to some statements that people today would find extremist. For instance, in his essay on Baudelaire, he writes:

“So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing; at least we exist.”

This passage sticks out in my mind as the most bullshit statement in poetry that I’ve ever read. I’m using bullshit in a particular way, in this case, a statement made by a major figure that sounds like philosophy but is really nonsense. This sense is different from political bullshit, which I’ll get to later.

Eliot’s statement is ten kinds of bad. The argument relies on an either/or fallacy. As a human, if I’m sitting alone on my couch watching a rerun of Fringe and I sneeze, that sneeze is neither evil or good, it just is. I could imagine a scenario of an evil sneeze wherein I could sneeze extra loud to purposely distract a driver and cause a deadly car accident. But my solo sneeze just is. I suppose you could argue that an involuntary sneeze is not an act in the sense of “do”-ing. But come on. Not all acts are either evil or good. From that premise we get to the faulty conclusion that it’s better to do evil than nothing. Which I’m sure all sorts of evil people have used to justify themselves.

I can think of several caveats to defend Eliot’s passage. He his after all abstracting Baudelaire’s aesthetic from the man’s work, so you could say that this passage Eliot means to say that “In Baudelaire’s mind . . . .” Or you could say that Eliot means that this kind of thinking is endemic to human brains. But the rest of the paragraph says otherwise: “It is true to say that the glory for man is in his capacity for salvation; it is also true to say that his glory is in his capacity for damnation.” Again, this could be some kind of yin-yang, you-need-to-have-evil-to-have-good definition, a Blakean turning things on their heads along the lines of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Okay, but the conclusion I find problematic. I can think of a million cases where it is better to do nothing than to do something evil. So I call bullshit.

But it is erudite bullshit. I’d say a faulty conclusion, but based on extensive research and thought, perhaps due to some arrogance or hubris, but I don’t think it’s a lie, I think it’s what Eliot actually thought.

So it’s bullshit of a different order than Donald Trump bullshit. Trump’s bullshit is all about impressing us. Whereas Eliot is misguided, Trump is dishonest and self-aggrandizing. Here’s Harry Frankfurt on the subject

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

For a man whose attraction for many is that he “tells the truth,” Donald Trumps lies are clearly demonstrable. I mean, we have the internet now. We can look things up.

Besides the big lies, I’m struck by the blatant gaslighting. For example Trump was booed at an event, and on the way out told reporters, “those weren’t boos, those were cheers.”

But concerning the big lie, Trump’s recent call to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. is the biggest bullshit so far. In his announcement he cited two polls. First, a possibly non-existent Pew poll and another poll. He said:

a poll from the Center for Security Policy released data showing “25% of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as a part of the global jihad” and 51% of those polled “agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Shariah.”

He said this, reading from a printout, which is a sure sign he’s laying it on deep. Of course the Center for Security Policy is known to be an anti-Muslim think tank, but more problematically the data was gathered using a self-selected group of people who answered questions on a website. This, in social science, is known as a convenience sample. In academic circles, that’s shorthand for “totally worthless” and the number one warning against such polls is that they are absolutely not generalizable to any larger group. Fact-free bullshit, in other words.

But it doesn’t matter. If you criticize Trump, he deflects. On the morning shows today, he was pathetic. He tried to charm, bully, and red-herring his way out of the criticism, but at least Joe Scarborough stood up to him

Trump’s actually not hard to figure out. He lives by three principles:

  1. There’s no such thing as bad press.
  2. Say whatever benefits me personally.
  3. Never ever admit mistakes or apologize.

The rest, such as always speaking in superlatives, is style. Because he is fabulously wealthy, and therefore not dependent on campaign donations, this mix is toxic. Most people see through him as the great exaggerator, but if you take him at his word, he’s running for Dictator In Chief. It would require unprecedented power for a U.S. President to enact everything he promises he would absolutely do so fast your head would spin.

We’ve seen the pattern before yesterday’s proposed Muslim ban.   Outrageous statement, walking back and/or misdirection, new topic. Yesterday he called for “A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Today we find out he doesn’t mean American citizens, not exactly “total and complete.” I expect at one point for him to say “I never said ‘total and complete.’”

It’s kind of transparent, but even though he’s not hard to figure out, his staying power in this campaign is perplexing, unless you understand the power of bullshit, which is all but impervious to information.

I began my teaching career at the dawn of the internet as we know it today. I got my first real email address when I began my current job. At the beginning of my career I was frustrated by the amount of bullshit that my students were willing to accept and replicate, and I was also frustrated by the bullshit in the media, especially because I taught academic writing and argumentation. Because of the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle grading papers that contained bullshit required extra work. I hoped for the day when we would realize the information superhighway. I found my students alarmingly uninformed about many issues and thought if they had better access to information there would be less bullshit.

That did not come to pass. People are willing to believe bullshit now more than ever. In fact, what has happened is that people now have easier access to bullshit.   I don’t want this post to turn into a bunch of griping about students, but I am astounded at some of the things I hear a few of them say, such as the Civil War was not about slavery, or that the United States Constitution is based on The Ten Commandments.  It’s not just shocking that some students say these things, but that they say them when they carry around access to huge amounts of information in their pockets. It is a small minority of students who believe such bullshit, but it is also a minority of Americans who are true Trump supporters. I believe that most political differences come from competing values and most of those values are valid. But I have to speak out against fascism and xenophobia.

Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims is ten kinds of bullshit. For many reasons but for one that it is impractical. Again on Morning Joe, when asked how the government would know if someone was Muslim or not at the border he said they would just ask. Because no terrorist would lie about that. A sure sign of bullshit is that it lacks even superficial practicality (deporting all undocumented immigrants, building a 2,000 mile wall at no cost, etc.).

I believe that the greatest force on Earth is denial. People who might still support Trump are in denial of facts. They are understandably afraid of terrorist attacks and economic uncertainty, but when those emotions turn into scapegoating and hatred and support of fascistic ideas, the key ingredient is denial: denying both basic facts and denying other people of their basic humanity. When people cling to fear, they deny reality.  When this behavior accumulates, terrible things are possible, holocausts and pogroms and slavery. Us vs. them. A level of bullshit like no other. Evil bullshit.

For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass, Donald.