A friend is on a conservative email list. The friend, at my request, now forwards to me these emails, which average four or five a week. Some are cartoons or videos—often quite funny. Some are straight-out opinion pieces. Others, however, are filled with purported facts. I have gotten in the habit of checking the “facts.” It takes little time to do this. Usually a few key words entered into a search engine reveal something about the assertions. More often they reveal something about the particular piece that was sent around because what is distributed is never anything original by the group, but always a forwarded article composed, often years ago, by someone outside the circle, although the original author of the essay is seldom given.
I started this process because often it seemed clear that an asserted “fact” could not be true, or was, at least, unlikely. Some were so obviously fishy that it surprised me that anyone could take the “fact” seriously.
My restraint in keeping the checking to myself was finally broken when a forwarded message purported to reproduce telegrams between General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman on the eve of the signing of Japan’s surrender at the end of WWII. The author of the piece was not given, but he authoritatively stated that the original telegrams were in Truman’s presidential library and not a word had been changed.
MacArthur, according to the account, sent a telegram to the President that contained what would now be considered racist terms describing the Japanese. Truman responded by telling the General that he could not use such terms with the press because the terms were not “politically correct.” MacArthur then expressed bewilderment at what “politically correct” meant, and Truman replied, according to this account, on September 1, 1945, writing, “Political Correctness is a doctrine, recently fostered by a delusional, illogical minority and promoted by a sick mainstream media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a piece of shit by the clean end!”
Do you wonder if Truman actually wrote that? You don’t have to be a genius to question it, but you do have to be a lot less than that to simply accept it. When did you first hear the term “politically correct”? When did you first hear the term “mainstream media”? I punched a few words from the supposed telegraphic exchange into Google, and I found that the inauthenticity of the telegrams had been exposed many times in the last few years. The words had not been written. The telegrams were not in any Truman archives.
I wrote to my friend who had forwarded me the message: “This is lame. If it is meant to be satire, it fails for lack of humor. If it is supposed to delude people into thinking it is true, anyone with a modicum of historical sensibility or of critical sensibility would never give this unquestioning acceptance. It is sad if this needs debunking, but apparently it does, and it has been debunked many times. For example: http://www.snopes.com/politics/quotes/trumanpc.asp.”
I also, however, sent it to recipients of the email that “reproduced” the MacArthur-Truman exchange. I got no response from anyone on that extensive list. Instead, the next email to this group started with an admonition that the emails should not be forwarded to unsympathetic people, and the addresses of the recipients were now blocked. Surprise, surprise! These people did not want to know if what they passed around had been debunked. They were indifferent to the truth. Or in Franfortian terms, they were content to eat bullshit.
This group is not alone in that desire. Many in our society are happy to receive bullshit. Even though it is often easy now to do some checking for accuracy, they don’t do it. They are, too often, indifferent to the truth. If many are willing to consume bullshit, it is not surprising that others are willing to provide it.
Of course, we get bullshit on many different topics—often about personalities in popular culture, for example—and there is bullshit throughout the political spectrum, but I don’t think it is bullshit to believe that never before have we had a President who has provided so much, so regularly. And perhaps we have never before had so many people not just willing to accept it, but seemingly to desire it.
This should lead us to think about what this pervasive political bullshit culture will do to our country as the steaming bullshit mounds will reach increasingly unprecedented heights in the coming years. For example, Frankfort maintains that cultural conditions and epistemological beliefs can help spread bullshit. It proliferates where it is denied that “we can have reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things really are.” But isn’t it also likely that the proliferation of bullshit and its acceptance will also lead to more people believing that there is no reliable access to an objective reality and no way of knowing how things truly are? And if that happens, haven’t we entered a bullshit spiral from which we might never escape?
And perhaps after discussing Frankfort’s On Bullshit, the time is nigh to discuss Aaron James’s book, Assholes: A Theory.