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The Danger of BS

A recent book explores America's propensity for bullshit -- now, let's apply this to Bush critics who say he lied about Iraq's WMD.
 
 
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Thankfully, there's this little book that was recently published by renowned Princeton philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt, titled On Bullshit.

And I do mean little -- 67 pages and small enough to fit in your back pocket. Frankfurt sets out to develop a ''theoretical understanding of BS,'' acknowledging at the outset that BS is often ''employed quite loosely -- simply as a generic term for abuse.''

Without any real body of literature from which to draw, Frankfurt relies heavily on the Oxford English Dictionary and Max Black's essay ''The Prevalence of Humbug.''

Humbug, he argues, is a ''more polite'' and ''less intense'' synonym for BS. Reflecting on Black's analysis, Frankfurt makes an important discovery about the meaning of BS; namely that while BS, or humbug, is essentially untruthful, it is still ''short of a lie.''

Take, for example, an orator on the Fourth of July going on about how this is the greatest country on earth and how the Founding Fathers were guided by God to create a new beginning for humankind.

''It is clear that what makes Fourth of July oration humbug is not fundamentally that the speaker regards his statements as false,'' he said. ''Rather, the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself.

''He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him. He wants them to think of him as a patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and mission of our country,'' Frankfurt explains.

With the help of Wittegenstein (the famed logician ''who devoted his philosophical energies largely to identifying and combating…nonsense''), Frankfurt manages to shine a light on the essence of BS and why it shouldn't be confused with lying.

A BS ''statement,'' he argues, ''is grounded neither in a belief that (the statement) is true, nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth -- this indifference to how things really are -- that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.''

To show what he means, he refers to several dictionary terms that are variations on BS terminology. A bull session, for example, which is essentially an informal chat among acquaintances with the main point being: ''to make possible a high level of candor.

''Each of the contributors to a bull session relies…upon a general recognition that what he expresses or says is not to be understood as being what he means wholeheartedly, or believes unequivocally to be true.''

Bull sessions are like BS ''by virtue of the fact that they are in some degree unconstrained by a concern for the truth.''

Frankfurt also notes how we generally have more tolerance for BS than we do for outright lying. He suggests this is because the BSer ''may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts, or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise…what he is up to.''

And therein lies the danger of BS. ''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 truth, while…the other defies that authority.''

The BS artist ''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, bullshit is the greater enemy of the truth than lies are.''

Now, let's apply this to Bush critics who say he lied about Iraq's WMD. Bush supporters disagree, arguing (against the available evidence) that he didn't lie but was mistaken. In any case, we can all now retrospectively agree that the WMD ''intelligence'' was BS.

Taking Frankfurt's analysis one step further, in a democracy where transparency is the only way ''the people'' can govern, it's better to have a liar in office than a BS artist who is indifferent to ''how things really are.'' Puts the phrase ''the lesser of two evils'' in a whole new light.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.