‘Bullshit” is American English’s assertion, maximally succinct and vigorous, that a contention is factually preposterous or logically absurd. According to philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt, however, the “essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” His slender volume devoted to the subject, On Bullshit, invites us to think of a Fourth of July orator “who goes on bombastically about ‘our great and blessed country, whose Founding Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.’” The speaker’s point is not “to deceive anyone concerning American history.” Rather,
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 the mission of our country, who appreciates the importance of religion, who is sensitive to our history, whose pride in that history is combined with humility before God, and so on.
It’s difficult to banish the glum suspicion that life in the 21st century, for all its economic and technological benefits, necessitates putting up with much more bullshit than our ancestors had to.
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Frankfurt limits his discussion of bullshit to descriptive statements, analyzing and regretting our departure from the standard of truth. He does not take up the question of prescriptive statements, the mainstay of politics. Criticizing Republican proposals to cut spending on Head Start and other educational programs, for example, President Obama said, “We know that three- and four-year-olds who go to high-quality preschools, including our best Head Start programs, are less likely to repeat a grade, they’re less likely to need special education, they’re more likely to graduate from high school than the peers who did not get these services.” The first part of Obama’s statement is not bullshit, because it does nothing worse than employ the politician’s constant companion, the selectively revealed half-truth. Children who attend the best Head Start programs show positive results but, as we have seen, Head Start attendees overall are no better off than peers not enrolled in the program. Obama invokes the sunny side of the law of averages without acknowledging its grim side: If children who attend the best Head Start programs do better than their peers, children who attend the worst programs must, necessarily, have developmental problems even more severe than those afflicting children in a control group who never enrolled in the program at all.
The more interesting part of Obama’s statement, for our purposes, is the generic political prescription, the assertion that government program X will solve problem Y. Prescription lends itself to bullshitting if, following Frankfurt, the prescriber has a lack of connection to a concern with efficacy. Both kinds of bullshitters, de-scribers and prescribers, are more concerned with conveying their ideals, of which idealized understandings of their true selves are a central component, than with making statements that correspond scrupulously to empirical or causal reality. A bullshit description may be, at least in part, factually accurate, but any such accuracy is inadvertent. The accurate data were incorporated into the spiel not for the sake of correctness but because it helped express the speaker’s “values” or “vision.”
A bullshit prescription, by the same token, might actually work to some degree, but any such efficacy is inadvertent and tangential to the central purpose: demonstrating the depths of the prescriber’s concern for the problem and those who suffer from it, concerns impelling the determination to “do something” about it. As the political project that exists to vindicate the axiom that all sorts of government program X’s can solve an endless list of social problem Y’s, liberalism is always at risk of descending into prescriptive bullshit. Liberal compassion lends itself to bullshit by subordinating the putative concern with efficacy to the dominant but unannounced imperative of moral validation and exhibitionism. I, the empathizer, am interested in the sufferer for love of myself, Rousseau contended. Accordingly, an ineffectual program may serve the compassionate purposes of its designers and defenders as well as or better than a successful one.
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Conservative critiques of liberalism sometimes concede that liberals’ aspirations are laudable before insisting that the means liberals favor are insufficiently practical and at least potentially destructive. The way liberal compassion lends itself to liberal bullshit, however, argues for a less forgiving interpretation. Liberals’ ideals make them more culpable, not less, for the fact that government programs set up to do good don’t reliably accomplish good. Doing good is often harder than do-gooders realize, but doing good is also more about the doing and the doer than it is about the good. Too often, as a result, liberals are content to treat gestures as the functional equivalent of deeds, and intentions as adequate substitutes for achievements.
— William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books. This article was excerpted from his new book The Pity Party. © 2014 by William Voegeli. Reprinted courtesy of Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers