On Bullshit/Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth about Bullshit
Nuttycombe, Dave, Mother Jones
On Bullshit By Harry G. Frankfurt. Princeton University Press. 67 pages. $9.95.
Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit By Laura Penny. Crown Publishers. 256pages. $21.95.
The Age of Discovery! The Space Age! The Enlightenment! To these glorious eras of history let us add the name of our own: The Age of Bullshit.
How can we see this time as anything but? When public disgrace and humiliation are but shortcuts to million-dollar book, TV, and movie deals; when a no-credibility chimera called "Talon News" is granted a seat in the White House press pool; when spinmeister Bill O'Reilly claims with a straight face that his show is a "no-spin zone"; when a war is launched and defended on blatantly fatuous claims and the perpetrators subsequently returned to office...well? Well, then we are much more than knee-deep.
So the appearance of two books on the topic of BS is more than coincidental-it is another scream from our collective unconscious that the Zeitgeist is polluted and everyone should get out of the même pool. Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit is a repurposed essay from almost 20 years ago, but its newfound relevance has earned its author invitations to appear on NPR and The Daily Show. Even the "family friendly" Washington Post felt comfortable printing its full title in a review. The other book, Your Call h Important Io Us: The Truth About Bullshit, is a tirade by Canadian professor Laura Penny. That a 76-year-old (Frankfurt) and a 30-year-old (Penny) both felt compelled to confront the same issue-and that a Canadian was moved to rant!-surely means we have entered L'Epoque Bullshit.
Frankfurt is most concerned with dissecting the word's meaning; Penny with examining the deed's effect. A Princeton philosophy professor emeritus, Frankfurt lays out a scholarly analysis of crapola. His tiny tome proceeds m a measured cadence, a "tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis." Penny's is a 256-page jeremiad about, as she calls it, "one of the erowth industries of the information age." She writes that "North Americans live at the intersection of too much and too little information," a state that encourages them to "speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant," says Frankfurt. Daily life in the information society does not keep muscles toned and backs strong and the four humors in proper alignment. No, our time is taken up by such passive tasks as emailing, which, a study recently determined, actually lowers IQ. And consider, says Penny, that the service economy is built on BS, that "a long, hard day of making things is bound to produce a different sort of person than a long, hard day of greeting folks in the foyer of the Wal-Mart, asking if they want fries with their burger, or conducting phone surveys."
Frankfurt makes an important distinction between bullshit and lies, which is that while bullshit does not have to be untrue, it is always phony. Bullshit is a process, the byproduct of a person's uncaring attitude toward the facts at hand. …