The rules of logic and mathematics are not guarantees of anything more than their own consistency. They have no weight in ethical arguments, not even against illogic. The greatest achievement of human organization, one whose fragility is once more becoming apparent, is the possibility in liberal democracy of organizing a political marketplace in which ideas can be discussed and disputed in a more or less rational fashion, after which groups of citizens decide at different levels on who will represent them, on what laws to enact, and how the various powers shall be distributed.
We all know this, of course, but when the system works badly, there will always be those who long for a more decisive one, that of China for example, or that of ISIS. But although I find disturbing the rapidity with which the dominant voices in our intellectual world have turned their backs on compromise and demonized their adversaries, I also find encouraging that democratic means remain to right the balance. The November 2014 elections clearly showed that the public repudiates, if not all Democratic policies, then certainly the principle that those who stand by these policies should dominate the government. We have grown to expect the poor-sport reaction of the president, not to speak of the outright denial of such as Rep. Wasserman-Schulz, but sore losers are losers nonetheless, and we can hope that the damage so far done by the administration’s victimary stance to America’s international standing and influence remains repairable.
Yet I still have doubts about the long-term viability of our political marketplace. In the last Chronicle I alluded to the asymmetrical relationship between left and right as described by Charles Krauthammer: the right thinks the left is stupid; the left thinks the right is evil. Except that the first part of the sentence isn’t really true; conservative critics of the left see it not as stupid but as dogmatic and fanatical, not incapable of justifying evil acts in its moral arrogance. Let farmland be ruined for the sake of a protected fish, let Iraq be ruined for the sake of ending our interference in its affairs. The left-right opposition is that between morality and firstness, and since the two are not simply different values of the same parameter (e.g., “more or less government/regulation/taxation”) but two orthogonal values, compromise is always problematic. The victimary are moralists; they tend to see their adversaries as morally insensitive, or simply evil. In contrast, because the partisans of firstness, or “freedom,” are reacting against an excess of morality, their hostility is tempered by the impossibility of rejecting morality altogether.
Moralists revel in rejecting firstness, and not always hypocritically: think of the excesses of racial guilt described in the Dec 1 Weekly Standard article by Joseph Bottum, “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas.” Bottum is correct, of course, to see the Left’s passions as caricatural fragments of Christianity, but as with other conservative critics of the victimary, he is satisfied with the analogy without grasping the unity of the phenomenon, with its symmetrical hostility to Israel and to fossil fuels. The powers of antisemitism and victimary moralism in the West seem to be constantly on the rise, in tandem with the rise of militant Islam. Thus I cannot help wondering whether November’s election is a step on the path to sanity or just another pendulum swing within an overall movement toward self-destruction.
In some recent Chronicles (see especially Chronicles 429, 453, 454) I discussed the relevance of Harry Frankfort’s concept of bulls*** (hereafter BS; the text is online at http://www.stoa.org.uk/topics/bullshit/pdf/on-bullshit.pdf and elsewhere) to understanding the function of language in general. As I pointed out, while the very idea of identifying a variety of language whose use is fundamentally indifferent to its truth-value is a stroke of genius, the purview of this mode is much greater than its creator makes it out to be. Rather than seeing BS as a parasite on “healthy” language that, whether in the real world or a fictional one, normally makes a claim of verifiable truth, perhaps the simplest way of understanding how GA differs from “philosophy” is to realize that BS is the fundamental mode of language, and that the idea of determining truth-values along Parmenides’ “way of truth” is one of humanity’s great achievements. (Not the greatest, however; as Girard has taught us, we are Jews before we are Greeks, and the Oneness of God—even for those of us who don’t believe in God—defers our conflicts and provides the anthropological basis on which truth-seeking can lead to science and modernity. For if language is BS before it tells the truth, then we have to respect its non-truth element a bit more… than is implied by calling it BS, a dismissive term whose paradoxical relationship to the sacred is reflected in its obscenity.)
What Frankfurt seems to hint at but never makes explicit in his discussion of “BSing” is that BS works because instead of either trying to correspond with worldly truth or falsify it in a lie, it creates its own truth. As our increasingly cynical politics realizes a bit more each day, the important thing is the narrative. Language isn’t just a passive means of reflecting reality; we are not usually in a science lab where every assertion must be unambiguously verified. In situations of any complexity, language helps shape human reality to the point where it’s no longer clear what the “reality” would have been without the language. BS in our everyday social context is aberrant only in relying, whether cynically or naively, on its reality-shaping power to the point that the listener is led to believe it, at least for a moment, despite a lack of evidence and even an awareness of improbability. Whence various forms of “truthing,” Holocaust denial, and as I mentioned in a previous Chronicle, accusations of flying on broomsticks or bleeding children to make matzos.
Like all cultural categories, BS is both rooted in a particular social context and revelatory of the human in general. It is the double nature of such categories that inspired Hegel’s historical system in which the virtual becomes the actual, although there is no justification for assuming, as Hegel, Marx, Fukuyama and other Hegelians do, that there can ever be some final point when all of “being” or “the human” has been revealed that we can call the “end of history.”
In a transhistorical sense, BS refers to language’s primary function, deferring conflict by affirming shared meanings, “telling people what they want to hear,” collectively or individually. But the birth of this particular term, its easygoing and depreciative vulgarity implying no particular political position except a vague hostility to the normality that BS promotes, could only have taken place in an era of relatively uncontested normality, such as obtained toward the end of the Cold War. Frankfort’s essay dates from 1986, toward the end of Reagan’s presidency. It is doubtful that such a concept would have emerged in the more politically fraught 60s and 70s, and inconceivable that it would appear after 9/11 and the increasingly critical threat from Islamic supremacism.
The purpose of BS, in the broadest sense, is to tell people what they want to hear, that is, to achieve social harmony, or what Durkheim called “solidarity”—the point being, as Durkheim never points out, that this solidarity is not a steady state but that it is perturbed by our tendencies toward conflict, tendencies that may be summed up by the Girardian notion of mimetic desire. There are more or less anodyne forms of BS, and it is no accident that for his single even remotely concrete example, Frankfort chooses the particularly anodyne one of patriotic banalities at a Fourth of July speech, which evoke our shared American heritage. Such an attempt today would be likely to arouse in “progressive” circles an opposing discourse in which the American heritage is defined by slavery, dispossession of the Indians, etc. But clearly this oppositional language was not conceivable in Frankfurt’s scenario, where there is nothing controversial about the patriotic content.
As a mode of political discourse, BS in its basic sense presupposes a liberal-democratic system of government, the kind that for Fukuyama characterizes the “end of history.” In such circumstances, those of a near-universally accepted normality, the requirement that the expression of common values be uncoercive and give every appearance of reflecting sentiments already universally shared makes their official enunciation seem banal and superfluous, repeating expected clichés rather than either stating facts or imposing articles of belief. In order to generalize this lack of verified truth to a universal feature of cultural language, we must extrapolate from the specific “lightness” of such discourse, an artifact of the relative lack of social tension in classical liberal democracy, a point we might make more specific in reference to the conditions of American society in the immediate postwar period when such tensions were perhaps at their lowest. The success of the civil rights movement in the South, energized by postwar victimary consciousness, was a triumph of this national unity over the post-Civil War regionalism that had survived in “Jim Crow” and that those in the larger society could be made to see without much difficulty as fundamentally incompatible with its view of normality as embodied in the nation’s founding documents.
The normality that political BS expresses, which was introduced to those of Frankfurt’s and my generation in elementary school with Thanksgiving pageants, the Pledge of Allegiance, etc., seems to have gradually been all but eliminated from public discourse. Once the society as a whole no longer shares such core values, the category of (political) BS as in Frankfort’s example loses its viability and is transformed into something else.
BS falls from its naive state into the bad faith of what Barthes baptized back in 1953 as écriture (which is just the French word for writing, but also translates as scripture, as in les saintes écritures), where the presuppositions that unitary BS merely reinforced become specific items of propaganda that the BS’s function is to impose on the potentially recalcitrant. In contrast with BS, écriture, which Barthes associated above all with communist rhetoric, is not merely unconcerned with demonstrating its conclusions but dishonest in presenting as conclusions what are in fact presuppositions. Whereas BS’s reaffirmation of normality is typical of political discourse in a democracy, écriture (as Barthes’ original examples bring out) is characteristic of autocracies where the regime sets its opposition beyond the pale of common humanity. In totalitarian regimes, this establishes what presents itself as a realm of normality and is actually a reign of terror, the polarity of course admitting of intermediate degrees. The difference between the boring Independence Day speech and the boring article in Pravda is that although neither conveys real information, the second seeks to impose as universally accepted the values of the regime that its subjects are not likely to accept on their own, but to perceive themselves as obliged to affirm for their own safety. The left in recent times has tended to assimilate the old normal to this state, and by this means to undermine and largely eliminate it.
Whereas BS creates solidarity mostly by emphasizing the positive, écriture’s evocation of a spurious solidarity is characterized by an emphasis on combating the society’s enemies, or in Girard’s terms, its scapegoats. Although in both cases one is using apparently empirical discourse to comfort an audience, what is comforted by écriture is chiefly resentment. The old totalitarian regimes, Fascism, Nazism, Communism, engaged in écriture on a grand scale; Orwell’s 1984 saw “doublespeak” as these regimes’ essential mode of communication. As indeed it was, even affecting the natural sciences, as in the disastrous application of Trofim Lysenko’s “materialist” Lamarckian theories to Soviet agriculture. Meanwhile, these societies slaughtered those designated as “enemies of the state” on the basis of the same kind of murderous BS as the old accusations of Jews poisoning wells. To the extent that BS is “language you want to hear,” its accusations do not obey the laws of evidence: the BS-accusation is welcome, its refutation is not. Which is to say that although we can call it BS, those affected by it cannot; they are imprisoned in a world-view that cannot admit its arbitrariness—which is the effective definition of écriture.
Whereas the historically specific aspect of BS marks it as an expression of the terminal self-consciousness of a “naive” state of normality, historically best embodied in the 1950s, since the breakdown of normality in the late 1960s, the political debate in the US has moved increasingly into the domain of écriture, reflecting the lack of consensus as to its fundamental presuppositions. The two sides are not simply symmetrical; the right continues to assert the traditional norms with their prima facie acceptance of firstness (“freedom”), whereas the left extends its critique of difference ever farther into the previously unregulated domains of civil society. In the era of victimocracy, the old discourse of normality with its clichés has lost its legitimacy in the public forum (whence the contempt heaped on the “Tea Party” for continuing to defend it), and the “debate” such as it is pits an increasingly aggressive victimary écriture, for which virtually any interaction between hegemonic and subaltern groups constitutes at least a microaggression, against a defensive rhetoric of common sense. To the aggressive programs of agencies such as the EPA or the Holder-Perez plan to apply “disparate impact” theory to housing configurations, the right proposes inaction rather than a contrary plan. Disparate impact and microaggression may be taken as model forms of victimary écriture, since they imply that every disadvantage suffered by groups designated as victimary is a form of oppression, either collective or local.
The only real alternative to écriture today, one that is coming to attract an increasing number of adherents among the disaffected in the West, is that of dogmatic assertion as practiced by radical Islam. The non-empirical discourse of the sacred is the origin of BS and of all discourse, but insofar as it retains for the believer an explicit scriptural guarantee, it can be treated as BS only at one’s peril. Radical Islam’s popularity comes from its uncompromising insistence on the sacred provenance of its assertions, and on the duty of every Muslim to impose them on the world to the fullest extent of his ability. Of the three “Abrahamic” religions that rely on scripture, Islam in its radical, jihadist form is the most dogmatically scriptural in that its commands are not subject to the external interpretive criteria of “natural religion.” The “ten commandments” are part of scripture, but they are also part of an ethical discourse of universal human equality; this is not the case in Islam, where, for example, various injunctions to slay unbelievers, Jews, etc., are often quoted as absolutes, at the antipodes of the Christian explicit extension to all humanity of the Bible’s universal ethic.
“Normality” is not a well-defined category; it is a state of mind, real or enforced, and the past few decades lead me to think that the end of the quasi-consensus of the 1950s that allowed for the emergence of the category of BS marks the end of politically significant BS as well. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Can Western liberal democracy survive if even such corrective events as the recent national elections fail to restore the balance between difference and uniformity, firstness and moral equality, that it is the primary task of democracy to mediate? Faith in the system implies confidence that a way will be found, that new modes of “dialectic” will emerge to permit fruitful discussion and compromise.
As Marx (or Lenin) might have said, the swings of the historical dialectic are unpredictable, but the real question is whether their overall movement is in the right direction. As a Fukuyamist, I have seen no reason not to believe that liberal democracy in the broadest sense is the most advanced conceivable human social system; neither China nor ISIS is likely to prove me wrong. The real challenge to the West is not that Islamism threatens to build a more advanced society, but that it threatens to destroy advanced society, and if it can acquire sufficient weaponry, human life itself. The West cannot afford the complacency of being the “most advanced” civilization; we should not forget that the scientific and technological modernity we enjoy (as Marcel Gauchet has emphasized) is itself the product of a renascence from a previous decline and fall. A second such rebound seems unlikely.
Dreams of technological utopias and “personal immortality” tempt us to take our eyes off the ball. Whatever their greatness, civilizations, like the humblest human societies, survive only so long as they are able to outrun the resentment they generate, both within and beyond their physical borders. The Christian and Jewish societies in the Levant and North Africa learned this lesson the hard way in the 7th century of our era. Let us hope we don’t have to learn it again on a planetary scale.