One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. ... The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.
- Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy, Princeton University, author of On Bullshit
In a recent news story, a New York Times reporter referred to "the siren call" of ISIS propaganda that motivated three teenage Muslim girls to fly from Britain to ISIS-controlled Syria. The girls were clearly frustrated, facing anti-Muslim prejudice and cultural pressures unique to Muslim girls. They clearly found no solace in "the siren call" of western, market-worshipping consumer society. The New York Times reporter did not characterize western culture this way, but it might be so characterized. The so-called Free Market is becoming a sort of religion.
The girls seemed caught in a delusional double bind, driven by hope for more satisfying lives. "[T]he girls spoke of leaving behind an immoral society to search for religious virtue and meaning," the Times story reports. At least one of the girls is now married to an ISIS member. The question that interests me is how much of the competing pressures working on such vulnerable girls amounts to what Professor Frankfurt calls bullshit.
Bullshit is taking over the world. It's certainly become a staple of our culture. ISIS and other religious entities employ it masterfully, via social media. When the Times reporter uses the phrase "siren call" she's using an antiquated, poetic term that carries some judgmental or patronizing spin. Reduced to its essence, the ISIS siren call would seem to be a form of what Professor Frankfurt calls bullshit, calculating statements and claims that exhibit no concern for the truth; influence and power is the goal. And as Frankfurt told Jon Stewart, the stuff is piling up higher every day. Marketing, advertising and public relations reeks of it. Religion makes it sound holy. In the struggle for the bottom line, bullshit consumes more and more of the informational oxygen in the room. Polarization is the rule everywhere, leading to factional struggles that assure bullshit an honored space, as a devotion to the serious search for truth becomes more a quaint and naïve posture. Well, that is, unless the intellectual search is in the service of business efficiency, technological advancement or profit. The fact is, bullshit rules.
In a recent essay in Harper's called "How College Sold Its Soul ... and Surrendered to the Market," William Deresiewicz writes that what we used to call a "liberal education" -- a curriculum that emphasized accumulating a breadth of knowledge and the capacity for critical thinking in order to produce a responsible citizen -- is being winnowed out of existence and replaced by institutions that emphasize training to be a winner in what is called "neo-liberalism" -- that is, market-oriented capitalism.
"It is not the humanities per se that are under attack," he writes. "It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake." As an example, he cites how Florida Governor Rick Scott "has singled out anthropology majors as something that his state does not need more of." Scott has proposed raising tuition costs at Florida state universities for liberal arts majors. This hits close to home, since I graduated in 1973 from Florida State University with a major in English and Creative Writing, and a minor in Philosophy.
I can appreciate where Governor Scott is coming from. As a Vietnam veteran on the limited GI Bill, if I'd had to pay more tuition for an English degree than for a degree in Engineering at Florida State back in 1971, maybe I wouldn't now be writing critical essays like this one about America's need for serious change. Maybe I'd be designing robotic assembly lines to produce more useless consumer items with reduced labor costs. Maybe I'd be rich like Governor Scott, who founded a very successful private, for-profit health-care company. He resigned as CEO just before it was hit with 14 felony fraud charges and had to pay a record $600 million in fines. Scott came out smelling like a rose and went on to be a venture capitalist and governor of Florida. Now he wants to squash liberal studies.
In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker, a presidential candidate, wants to rewrite the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin by eliminating references to "public service and improving the human condition" and the phrase "basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth." According to Deresiewicz, "The university's mission would henceforth be to 'meet the state's workforce needs.' " It's noteworthy that Walker is the rare politician without a college degree; he completed 94 of the required 128 credit hours toward a bachelor's degree. Son of a preacher, he credits an American Legion sponsored youth leadership program called Badger Boys State with inspiring him to pursue political office.
(An aside is in order, here. The use of the term liberal can get a bit confusing. Liberal as in Bernie Sanders and liberal as in neo-liberal are, of course, contradictory. It reminds me of when I was traveling in Sandinista Nicaragua in the eighties how confused I was when I learned the bloody tyrant Anastasio Somoza had been with the Liberal Party, which was opposed to the Conservative Party. As one who "loves ideas for their own sake," I soon realized it was good to be confused: It helped get beyond unquestioned assumptions and allowed one to analyze things on their own terms. Concerning Somoza's father, also a Liberal tyrant, Franklin Roosevelt famously said: "He's a bastard, but he's our bastard." This is a key distinction to understanding American foreign policy. The elder Somoza's career ended when he was shot in the head by a patriotic restaurant busboy who agreed with FDR 100 percent.)
It's common knowledge now that politicians love to worship at the trough of the free market, since they must feed on its nutrients to run their ever-longer and ever-more-expensive campaigns. They live a paradox. As they pander to free-market "winners," their real talents come to the fore when they're forced to spread layers and layers of bullshit to appease the growing community of working class "losers" in our ruthless, neo-liberal free market. This pressure will only increase, as it has been suggested the rocket-like rise of technological advancement in the corporate workplace may make up to 40% of the current workforce superfluous in coming decades. Some of these neo-liberal-market losers will become immune to the bullshit. Some will turn to people like Bernie Sanders. Some will run amok with guns in huge macho trucks.