“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.” —Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Princeton University
The world has always been a complicated place. But, until this century, few know much about what went on in the next town, let alone another country. The internet, affluence, cheap travel and smart phones have, in theory, changed all that. Trade, travel and media are all global: Apple and Amazon make Standard Oil look a pygmy; people visit New York for the weekend; California wildfires are headlining BBC News before local fire trucks can uncoil their hoses. We are all world citizens now, right?
We actually seem to be living a societal update of Desmond Morris’ seminal book “The Naked Ape” . Because our social habits and standards don’t seem to have kept pace with the torrid pace of globalisation of society in general. We buy Zimbabwean mange-tout and Colombian coffee with no clue about the circumstances in which they wee produced. We vacation in Tunisia or Phuket, gleaning nothing about their culture. Almost none of our high-tech toys and appliances are made in a country we’ve ever visited, let alone in our own.
There is a major question just how fragile and/or sustainable such a global society might be. But a more fundamental question is whether it is really functional in the first place. Society’s increased sophistication, the perceived shrinkage of the once-vast globe, the miraculous power of our devices and the ubiquity of media create a comforting impression of a world at our fingertips. Nobody, whether government, business or media, has any interest in disabusing us of this. But it is delusional.
Whereas even fifty years ago, the vast majority of people knew little, were aware of that, but wee nevertheless content with the relatively simple life to which it led. People knew their place and, because of a tight society surrounding them, were soon reminded of it, should they forget. But, as society became looser, as people moved about, their identity was boiled down into databases and credit scores. Beyond those, you could create who you wanted to be. While this freed many individuals to find their metier, it also created wide latitude for politicians, businesses and opportunists to fabricate a public image that bore little relation to the truth. The 21st century did not invent bullshit—but that’s when it came of age.
With control of modern media and people’s belief “if it’s on the telly, it must be true” allow tin-pot dictators from Mugabe to Kim Yong Un to survive indefinitely. By projecting a strong-man image that appeals to the Russian psyche, Putin leads his country with an authority that can sweep the corruption in and mismanagement of that great country out of public view. Venezuela, Nigeria, Syria, Iran, etc. are minor examples of the same liberal distribution of bullshit to the masses.
But, surely, this does not apply to the advanced and sophisticated West? It didn’t use to. say what you like of their politics but Thatcher and Blair, Bush and Obama developed and practiced a recognizable set of principles. Channel 4’s recent series tried to determine the great leaders of the 20th century. There was quite a selection from which to choose: Churchill or Ghandi; Mandela or FDR. Admiration for and faith in such people exists even today.
But, with us already a fifth of the way into this century, such heroes are lacking. Because somewhere around the millennium, we became global citizens and institutions of all stripes cranked up the spin to compensate for the increased sophistication. And, with a myriad of TV channels, Facebook and databases huge and refined enough to track everyone’s purchases, honest brokers are drowned out by a cacophony of spin doctors.
The ever-more-furious pace of our global lives (c.f. Alvin Toffler’s prescient Future Shock from the 1960’s) weakens societal roots, driving a compensating need to believe in something constant. Movements and prophets gain adherents. But, whether the Atkins diet or UKIP, their human origins lead to disillusion. Which leads to cynicism. And that gives an opening for real bullshit;
“Only 13% of people trust politicians to tell the truth, down from 21%, while 82% think they do not tell the truth, up from 73%”—The Guardian
This is not confined to politicians. But, because so much is at stake, because a no-longer-deferential media holds them in the public eye and because the now-cynical public requires impossibly angelic behaviour, evasive arrogance becomes the posture of choice. “Let me be clear about this” now prefaces bullshit as sure as dark follows sunset.
As long we were dealing with relatively minor mattes like train punctuality or projected costs for a new power station, this was regrettable, but hardly catastrophic. Even Churchill and FDR were guilty of being economical with the truth. But they knew what the truth was and did not lose their moral compass. But the last two years have seen developments. In Europe, despite the EU having brought decades of peaceful growth and comfortable lives to 300 million people, cynicism and xenophobia have brought a swing to the right in Poland, Austria, Hungary and Italy. The great hopes of Macron’s giddy ascent have been lost in a sea of abrasive gilets jaunes protests. Even Mutti Merkel’s long stabilising influence is ending.
More seriously, two years of Trump have left the American establishment utterly baffled and still unable to cope with the first American President who doesn’t act like one. From Pelosi on down, a Congress steeped in traditions and legal niceties is unable to cope with a man living on ego and arrogance, honed by decades of winning deals by bullying, ignoring conventions and, where required, bullshit. “Never explain; never apologise” is an aphorism that might have been invented for Trump. But “Baffle ;em with bullshit” would apply equally well. The CIA’s guiding principle for its covert operations of plausible deniability has been adopted by their boss with a vengeance.
Horror-struck Americans, whether Democrats or intellectuals o salt-of-the-earth citizens still don’t realise how well fearmongering about floods of lawless Mexican immigrants and Muslim terrorists or Chinese trade pirates plays among the rednecks and rich Republicans who voted him in. And, because America is still (but only just) the world’s biggest economy, they can ignore the damage being done to America’s international standing—at least until he completes his second term. Which he will. What kind of train wreck he will leave is unclear. Nobody has had the ego to run a great country on bullshit before. Trump’s base can’t see across the Potomac, let alone across oceans, to see the damage being done
Which brings us to Britain. Brown and Darling deployed bullshit in modest amounts to justify their splurging public money to bail out banks whose geed had sunk themselves in over their heads, without Fred the Shred or any other red-handed-guilty banker up by their thumbs. Cameron and Osborne deployed comparable amounts to justify imposing austerity on regular punters, while the Philip Greens sat it out on their yachts at Monaco. And, under pressure from the bolshy euro-sceptic prima donnas in his party, he ushered in three years of political self-immolation now coming to a head today (Jan 15th).
From the outset, the passive assumptions from Remain was swamped by clamouring alarm bells from Leave: we were being swamped by thousands of sponging migrants; we were suffering heinous iniquities under foreign laws; the NHS could be boosted by billions being squandered by Brussels bureaucrats. What grains of truth there might be were inflated to bullshit dimensions that Remain never bother to deflate. Boris, Gove, Fox, Davis—pick any you like. They were all guilty of simplistic Brexit visions, now seen to be bullshit. But they were never called on it.
That, however, set a precedence, hugely complicated by May’s horrible misjudgement about what the 2017 General Election might bring. It brought a political straitjacket, eased only by serial incompetence by Corbyn’s leadership. Carnage among a succession of Brexit ministers taught May that the easy exit promised by Leave would be anything but. And so two years of frantic negotiations with a disappointed but resolute EU was kept under strict wraps and the waiting British public fed a diet of reassuring non-statements that led to today’s political train wreck—a humiliating defeat. on a scale not seen at Westminster since Ramsay McDonald got thumped in 1924.
No doubt, May will seek to continue after this. She will put on a brave face, try to get the EU to shift and maintain the dignified consistency she has managed to date. But it is a dead parrot, no matter how much she nails its feet to the perch. And the bullshit involved in pretending otherwise continues to scupper any chance that the cynicism now rampant across the British public will make whoever has to sort out a future for them out of the impending Brexit train wreck will have their work cut out to be believed, let alone successful.