Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
Henry Adams, 1907
The politician is an acrobat. He keeps his balance by saying the opposite of what he does.
Maurice Barres (1896-1923)
Political BS, a noxious blend of mendacity, manipulation, and meaninglessnss, is all around us, as it has been ever since we invented politics. So let’s try to understand what it is, the better to identify and resist it (this is knowledge that all middle-school graduates should have, but it is in the interests of the ruling classes that they not have it).
The subject has been voluminously treated (109,000 Google hits!). Here’s my brief overview:
“BS”/”bullshit,” despite its perceived vulgarity, refers to specific linguistic events and can be described in the same terms as other such events: who’s saying what to whom, in what context, and why?
The term covers several different linguistic events, none of them favorable, but all widely practiced. One is outright lying, often of an extravagant nature. Along with misrepresenting the facts, “BS” can refer to manipulating people with language designed to arouse them (e.g., name-calling), and speaking in language so emotional, abstract, or nonsensical that no one bothers to ask what it means or how the speaker arrived at his statements. Sometimes the utterance means nothing at all, and neither speaker nor audience seems to care.
Natural BS detectors
But wait: in ordinary conversation among equals, we have countless ways of signaling a rift n the dialog on exactly the above grounds: What? How do know that? What do you mean when you say…What does that even mean? What are you talking about? and many others, with the appropriate non-linguistic accompaniment — gesture, facial expression, perhaps even body language. All are challenges to the speaker to provide interpretation or verification.
BUT…when there’s a power difference (or at least equality) between BSer and audience, then the person can get away with it. Nobody shouts “bullshit!” in Congress the way they yell “rubbish!” in Parliament.
Today’s texts come from Joseph Robinette Biden (b.1942-). For the record, I think there’s more of a problem than the stuttering that’s the focus of a recent Atlantic article.
I recall the blatantly stupid plagiarism case that wrecked his first presidential campaign. How could he be so dense?
I listen to the man fail to construct meaningful, sequential utterances and create coherent impromptu discourse, even over a few sentences. Bill Clinton is a master at the mechanics of BS; Trump’s pretty good.
Pausing and formulating a coherent response is foreign to him (in fairness, politicians almost never answer the question that was asked). I think maybe he took too many head hits in his football days. Whatever the reason, there is something wrong with the man’s thought processes and language competence.
Trump vs. Biden??
But no matter. He can’t be nominated. Trump has a hundred times the rhetorical skill and quickness of wit – and can improvise — and the result would be horrible to watch.
But back to BS. The politician’s abuse of language goes unchallenged because (A) the audience is already convinced and/or (B) what comes out of the politician’s mouth does not accurately reflect reality, but everyone assumes it does, even if the reality it refers to is not immediately apparent – or not demonstrable at all – or (C) (this is the part that gets me) the utterance is not even uniformly interpretable at all. The result is manipulation by BS. This applies to the prefab answers that come out at debates and town halls.
I apologize for picking on Biden. All politicians (and advertisers and clerics, the two other major offenders) routinely engage in language abuse. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does it every time she opens her mouth. For calling America fascist, she should be deported to China (OK, just a six-month visit), where she can experience real fascism.
But if the words are presented as true by the appropriate person, they will be taken as true, at the corporate staff meeting, the State of the Union address, or any gathering in between.
If the boss says it, it’s true.
Sometimes political BS is so thick that no meaning emerges, even though the BS sounds good. Biden said, “We believe truth over facts.” The audience thinks “It must mean something because he said it, along with a lot of other ‘we choose X over Y’ assertions.”
But what does it even mean?
Who’s the “we”? And aren’t truth and facts supposed to be the same? Or does “truth” mean ‘adhering to the doctrines of identity politics’ (as the above-mentioned Congressperson said, there are truths more important being “factually or grammatically correct”). Maybe that’s what Biden meant: ideological truth over empirical facts. I thought we threw that one out about 500 years ago.
But it keeps coming back, e.g., in our second Biden text: “Workers are delivering more and they’re getting a lot less [he told the Brookings Institution]…There’s no correlation now between productivity and wages.”
He’s quoted in a column by Deroy Murdock, which proved the falsity of what he’s saying – I’ll come back to that. But did anybody at the Brookings Institution — or come to think of it, why didn’t they all — stand up and shout “liar!” and “bullshit!”
Fine spray of BS
This is BS in a fine spray of undefined, impossibly broad, and perhaps indefinable words – worker, delivering, more, getting, less, correlation, productivity, wages. Every word in that masterfully constructed slogan implies great, all-seeing wisdom but begs definition, and the three propositions – delivering more, getting less, no correlation – all need to be supported by data.
If Biden were an ethical politician instead of another BS merchant (who can’t even say why he wants to be President; that alone disqualifies him), he would put out a clearly written white paper with data that define and prove everything he says.
Redefining the “gaffe”
But he’s a politician, and politicians don’t deal in the truth. Murdock’s article provides actual data that show that Biden and the narrative he is peddling are lies. Contrary to what Biden says, income has grown for every income group.
Don’t be surprised – just skeptical. Remember that politicians engage in all manner of BS, as defined above, all the time. So a “gaffe” is redefined as ‘a politician slipping up and inadvertently saying what he/she really thinks.’
Be aware. Be very aware. #languageofpolitics