Exhibit A is Elizabeth Warren, who has been able to withstand a barrage of documentary evidence casting doubt on her claim to be part American Indian by anchoring that claim not in genealogical fact but in family lore — in other words, by answering the charge that her Cherokee identification is probably false with the tacit admission that it is definitely bulls**t. Exhibit B is President Obama, who did us the favor of admitting up front that his 1995 autobiography is, at least in part, bulls**t, but who has managed to escape focused interrogation on this point eight years into his public life and three-plus years into his tenure as leader of the free world.
That identity politics is as festooned with bulls**t as a cow pasture in the full ardor of spring wouldn’t be so bad if identity politics weren’t also a powerful currency. I’m not referring just to the material benefits, in the form of professional distinction and book sales, respectively, that the successful marketing of Warren’s and Obama’s self-conceptions has accrued. Rather I have in mind things like the classic bulls**t move of calling a piece of legislation primarily about tort law the “Paycheck Fairness Act” and implying that it would somehow make it more illegal than it currently is for employers to discriminate against women in the workplace. Or the tortured bulls**ttery of what was billed as the president’s “reversal” on gay marriage. (Any statement that begins with “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think . . .” probably isn’t oriented toward truth.)
Politics as a whole is lousy with bulls**t, but what makes these avowals of identity politics the merde de la merde is that they are so blatantly intended to affect an audience’s beliefs not about the world but about the speaker — to demonstrate that the speaker is worldly or subaltern, that he cares deeply about women or gays, etc. — which, you will recall, is the primary motive of the bulls**tter. At the same time, there is nothing especially notable about these examples save their recentness. And though I write this, as it were, from right to left, there are undoubtedly countless examples of similar phenomena among conservatives. Everybody poops.
None of this is going to be sorted out with an iPhone, or a Wikipedia entry, or the gimmicky “Truth-o-Meter” of some fact-checking website. That’s because there is no new mode of information dissemination that isn’t also a mode of information dissimulation. There is nothing, in the relevant aspects, about the Internet that makes it any different from Gutenberg’s printing press, which was after all every bit as useful to propagandists as it was to truth-seekers. Technology is bulls**t-neutral. Lo, so many paragraphs ago I tentatively dubbed this thesis “Foster’s Corollary,” a name I’ll continue to use until some nerd with a BlackBerry points to an earlier elucidation of the same concept.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go edit the Wikipedia entry on Iván Rodríguez.