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Sorting Through the Bullshit in America

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. … The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.
     - Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy, Princeton University, author of On Bullshit

In a recent news story, a New York Times reporter referred to “the siren call” of ISIS propaganda that motivated three teenage Muslim girls to fly from Britain to ISIS-controlled Syria. The girls were clearly frustrated, facing anti-Muslim prejudice and cultural pressures unique to Muslim girls. They clearly found no solace in “the siren call” of western, market-worshipping consumer society. The New York Times reporter did not characterize western culture this way, but it might be so characterized. The so-called Free Market is becoming a sort of religion.

The girls seemed caught in a delusional double bind, driven by hope for more satisfying lives. “[T]he girls spoke of leaving behind an immoral society to search for religious virtue and meaning,” the Times story reports. At least one of the girls is now married to an ISIS member. The question that interests me is how much of the competing pressures working on such vulnerable girls amounts to what Professor Frankfurt calls bullshit.

Bullshit is taking over the world. It’s certainly become a staple of our culture. ISIS and other religious entities employ it masterfully, via social media. When the Times reporter uses the phrase “siren call” she’s using an antiquated, poetic term that carries some judgmental or patronizing spin. Reduced to its essence, the ISIS siren call would seem to be a form of what Professor Frankfurt calls bullshit, calculating statements and claims that exhibit no concern for the truth; influence and power is the goal. And as Frankfurt told Jon Stewart, the stuff is piling up higher every day. Marketing, advertising and public relations reeks of it. Religion makes it sound holy. In the struggle for the bottom line, bullshit consumes more and more of the informational oxygen in the room. Polarization is the rule everywhere, leading to factional struggles that assure bullshit an honored space, as a devotion to the serious search for truth becomes more a quaint and naïve posture. Well, that is, unless the intellectual search is in the service of business efficiency, technological advancement or profit. The fact is, bullshit rules.

In a recent essay in Harper’s called “How College Sold Its Soul … and Surrendered to the Market,” William Deresiewicz writes that what we used to call a “liberal education” — a curriculum that emphasized accumulating a breadth of knowledge and the capacity for critical thinking in order to produce a responsible citizen — is being winnowed out of existence and replaced by institutions that emphasize training to be a winner in what is called “neo-liberalism” — that is, market-oriented capitalism.

“It is not the humanities per se that are under attack,” he writes. “It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake.” As an example, he cites how Florida Governor Rick Scott “has singled out anthropology majors as something that his state does not need more of.” Scott has proposed raising tuition costs at Florida state universities for liberal arts majors. This hits close to home, since I graduated in 1973 from Florida State University with a major in English and Creative Writing, and a minor in Philosophy.

My alma mater, Florida State University, and two hit-n-run works by the anti-neo-liberal artist BanksyMy alma mater, Florida State University, and two hit-n-run works by the anti-neo-liberal artist Banksy

I can appreciate where Governor Scott is coming from. As a Vietnam veteran on the limited GI Bill, if I’d had to pay more tuition for an English degree than for a degree in Engineering at Florida State back in 1971, maybe I wouldn’t now be writing critical essays like this one about America’s need for serious change. Maybe I’d be designing robotic assembly lines to produce more useless consumer items with reduced labor costs. Maybe I’d be rich like Governor Scott, who founded a very successful private, for-profit health-care company. He resigned as CEO just before it was hit with 14 felony fraud charges and had to pay a record $600 million in fines. Scott came out smelling like a rose and went on to be a venture capitalist and governor of Florida. Now he wants to squash liberal studies.

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker, a presidential candidate, wants to rewrite the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin by eliminating references to “public service and improving the human condition” and the phrase “basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.” According to Deresiewicz, “The university’s mission would henceforth be to ‘meet the state’s workforce needs.’ ” It’s noteworthy that Walker is the rare politician without a college degree; he completed 94 of the required 128 credit hours toward a bachelor’s degree. Son of a preacher, he credits an American Legion sponsored youth leadership program called Badger Boys State with inspiring him to pursue political office.

(An aside is in order, here. The use of the term liberal can get a bit confusing. Liberal as in Bernie Sanders and liberal as in neo-liberal are, of course, contradictory. It reminds me of when I was traveling in Sandinista Nicaragua in the eighties how confused I was when I learned the bloody tyrant Anastasio Somoza had been with the Liberal Party, which was opposed to the Conservative Party. As one who “loves ideas for their own sake,” I soon realized it was good to be confused: It helped get beyond unquestioned assumptions and allowed one to analyze things on their own terms. Concerning Somoza’s father, also a Liberal tyrant, Franklin Roosevelt famously said: “He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard.” This is a key distinction to understanding American foreign policy. The elder Somoza’s career ended when he was shot in the head by a patriotic restaurant busboy who agreed with FDR 100 percent.)

It’s common knowledge now that politicians love to worship at the trough of the free market, since they must feed on its nutrients to run their ever-longer and ever-more-expensive campaigns. They live a paradox. As they pander to free-market “winners,” their real talents come to the fore when they’re forced to spread layers and layers of bullshit to appease the growing community of working class “losers” in our ruthless, neo-liberal free market. This pressure will only increase, as it has been suggested the rocket-like rise of technological advancement in the corporate workplace may make up to 40% of the current workforce superfluous in coming decades. Some of these neo-liberal-market losers will become immune to the bullshit. Some will turn to people like Bernie Sanders. Some will run amok with guns in huge macho trucks.

Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and a cheap wrestling shot to characterize the campaign seasonDonald Trump, Bernie Sanders and a cheap wrestling shot to characterize the campaign season

No one is better at bullshitting the TV-addled working-man and -woman than Donald Trump. Thanks to his personal billions, he’s not beholden to the usual fat cats, and his reality-TV instincts are impeccable. We know it’s all bullshit, but he’s so incredibly good and entertaining at it it’s impossible to turn away. Better than anyone, he knows that presidential election campaigns have become major American entertainment cycles. Celebrities gouging and biting to obtain Power: What better Reality TV could anyone come up with? Instead of a new car or a million bucks, the ultimate winner gets to be President of the United States. Benito Mussolini coined the term fascism from the ancient Roman magistrates’ symbol of power, the fasces, a battle axe surrounded by sticks that represented the people huddling up to his power. One man recently said of Trump, “He’s my microphone.” Accordingly, the Trump symbol might be a silver microphone surrounded by plastic cocktail stir sticks.

Deresiewicz again: “Neo-liberalism believes that we have reached the end of history, a steady-state condition of free-market capitalism that will go on replicating itself forever. …The world is not going to change, so we won’t need young people to imagine how it might. …All we need to do is … run faster and faster.” He tells how educating youth in ideas and thinking used to be considered a critical function of an evolving society. Then he concludes, “If there was ever a time that we needed young people to imagine a different world, that time is now.”

Today’s reality can be pretty demoralizing, which no doubt makes the likes of Rick Scott and Scott Walker dance in delight. Then someone like Bernie Sanders comes along, a man unafraid of ideas and open minded thinking and how they encourage change. Picture it: The once Socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, is drawing huge crowds. As they do with Trump, the politics-as-sports reporters and pundits all say Sanders will burn out and we’ll have to settle for someone like Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. Joe Biden! The guy who, when Reagan cleaned their clocks, saved the Democratic party from oblivion by colluding with Dixiecrat-turned-Republican Senator Strom Thurman to beef up America’s police forces and fuel the Drug War that has filled our jails to the brim with young black males. Joe, please go back to Scranton.

Deresiewicz cuts to the chase: “Instead of treating higher education as a commodity, we need to treat it as a right. …That means resurrecting one of the great achievements of postwar American society: high quality, low- or no-cost mass public higher education.”

It’s called leveling the playing field. Sanders would tax Wall Street to make a college education free for all Americans. This way, a young person can educate him- or herself, then go to work and build a family and a life without an oppressive lifetime debt burden to the neo-liberal market economy. It makes me think of that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song about a coal miner, “Sixteen Tons.” You may recall the line, sung to a dirge: “I owe my soul to the company store.” That kind of oppressive debt peonage would be lifted from our young citizens’ futures.

In Littleton, NH, where he is ahead of Hillary Clinton in the polls, Sanders urged the news media to focus on issues like jobs, income and wealth inequality, climate change, racism, college costs, retirement security, criminal justice and poverty in America. “What the American people want,” he told a large crowd, “is a media that looks at the real problems facing America and does not look at politics as though it were a football game or a soap opera.” You hear that, Chris Matthews? That’s almost as refreshing as Norman Mailer’s famous campaign line when he ran for mayor of New York in 1969: “Cut the bullshit!” It would be a powerful beginning if our media began to focus less attention on celebrity, money and winning and more on the richness of the ideas at play that include everything on Sander’s list, plus the repair and maintenance of public infrastructure, the improvement of public transportation and how to begin the difficult process of undoing the mass incarceration mess Joe Biden and Bill Clinton helped institute. Then there’s race. Many thought the election of Barack Obama meant the end of racial conflict in America. Not so. As someone recently pointed out, the Obama presidency was actually an important milestone that kicked off a new period of examination of race in America.

Donald Trump and his pallid-by-comparison Republican colleagues, would all make “America great again” by pumping up the military even more and further empowering the neo-liberal financial “killers” at the top — to borrow Trump’s favored characterization for dealmakers like himself. The difference is, the things that Bernie Sanders likes to talk about would actually accomplish it, would actually empower America from the bottom up and the inside-out to make America great again. The important point is, Woody Guthrie’s America would be included in the mix.

The choice is becoming stark: More of the same neo-liberal, free-market empowerment of the rich at the very top — or thoughtful, serious social reform for the betterment of all Americans. For me, it’s a no-brainer: It’s about more of the same bullshit … or beginning to talk real shit for a change.