Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Politics, Bullshit, and Ukraine by Vladimir Golstein -- Antiwar.com

Once in a while a book appears that forces us to rethink the previous cognitive patterns. To use the celebrated phrase from Thomas S. Kuhn’s influential, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), it introduces the paradigm shift. Kuhn’s explored scientific revolutions and the shifts produced by, say, Newtonian or quantum physics. The realm of social ideas is not immune to similar breakthroughs. In the twentieth century, Orwell’s analysis of a doublespeak and the mutual corruption of politics and language has clearly changed the way we look at modern politics.

Recently, Harry C. Frankfurt’s little pamphlet, with its beguilingly simple title, On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005) has pushed Orwell’s insights into a higher degree of conceptualization. While written in Orwellian vein and addressing the abuse and manipulation of language, Frankfurt’s analysis offers a new way of looking at the old problem. The book open with the following, by now well-known observation: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows it. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.”

Without proper understanding of its functions and purposes, we are left, frankly, unarmed to confront and understand bullshit, despite our confidence to recognize it. For Frankfurt, BS is a greater enemy of truth then a lie because a liar does care about truth and thus tries to pass falsehood for truth, while BS artists do not really care about the truthfulness of their statements – they just make assertions to impress, while disguising their real agenda. There are obvious mechanisms to challenge lies: just produce facts. But how does one challenges bullshit and understands its secret agenda? There is no cognitive frame, no intellectual traps into which the bullshitter can be caught.

Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, the novel written at the height of Stalin’s bullshit, reveals Bulgakov’s awareness that one, in fact, needs to possess supernatural abilities to expose it. Devil, called Voland in the novel, visits Moscow and appears to be scandalized by the amount of “claptrap” (“bullshit” would surely be a better term) that he encounters. A liar himself, Voland does show a peculiar fondness for facts. It is the bullshitters with their blatant disregard for the very concept of truth, that illicit Voland’s particular ire. Such is the barman, Andrei Fokich, whose head is clawed by a demonic cat, and who is punished by the factual, nonnegotiable knowledge of his impending death from cancer. One of the barman’s crimes was to sell “the sturgeon of the second degree of freshness.” Second degree of freshness is a misguiding concept deliberately intended to deflect the accusations of lying, while achieving the goal of selling rotten product.

Complete story at - Politics, Bullshit, and Ukraine by Vladimir Golstein -- Antiwar.com

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