JR'S Free Thought Pages
September 2007 Thoughts
I woke up early this morning thinking, as I frequently do, about the huge quantity of bullshit in the universe and decided that once again my spleen needed venting. I’ve removed my rose tinted spectacles so away we go…..I’ll focus on just a few instances that have lately pissed me off the most because the list of bullshit is seemingly inexhaustible.
Bullshit and the Contempt for Language
“Your call is important to us.”
“Have a nice day.”
It’s difficult to think of bullshit without reflecting on George Orwell who had an extremely low tolerance for the stuff. I start with a few quotes…..
The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.
We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.
Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.
In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act.
- George Orwell
The Myth of a Liberal Academia
As someone who has spent much of his life in academia and education, let me say that the right wing's claims about our institutions of learning are, as usual, greatly exaggerated. Humanities sympathies may lean left of the current American political dial, but the Noam Chomsky’s, Michael Parenti’s, Howard Zinn’s and Ralph Nader’s are few and far between. If you take a stroll over to the business or law schools of any major university, you will find an abundance of conservative acolytes and moles. The effort of the political right wing media to create a phantom demon in the form of a “liberal press” or a predominance of “leftist professors” in academia is not unlike the Christian right who continually rant about the “evils of secular humanism.” Bullshit! Balderdash! The Humanist Association of Canada has fewer members than most suburban Baptist Churches and its power to influence anyone or anything other than its own members is nil.
The reality most right wing pundits ignore is that universities have neither the time nor resources to be Marxist factories of indoctrination. Most professors are probably far more occupied trying to teach basic skills in grammar, composition and mathematics to semi-literate students, permanently wired to their I-Pods and cell phones, the ones who didn’t learn them in their underfunded public high schools. It’s a truism for anyone in academia as it is in the corporate world that any person who is trying to acquire tenure or a promotion is clearly not going to be successful in those endeavors by challenging power and the status quo. Ironically, the vilification of universities by the neo-conservative right is already starting to affect their own children's education. I recently read an article by a University professor who, having had the pleasure of teaching in the Jesus kingdom of the American south, wrote that his students told him that their church pastors and parents had warned them about university professors and their wicked, godless, freethinking and liberal ways. They were instructed to keep their heads to the grindstone, get good grades, and not listen to any of the liberal critical thinking rubbish their professors were discharging. If you check out a right-wing message board, like Free Republic, you’ll find similar advice. This sort of anti-intellectualism reflects the right wing's commitment to denying or stifling anyone who questions or applies critical thinking and skepticism to their world view. Does that mind set remind you of anything?
I find especially both the corporate and religious right-wing incursion into public school and university culture disturbing because I think that education, in spite of its serious shortcomings, is our only hope. The latest buzz word in education these days is “self-esteem”, a word about which there is an abundance of conceptual confusion. I can’t think of anything that would enhance one’s self image more than would the ability to express oneself clearly and logically and above all the confidence and ability to think independently. I can’t offer any simple solutions to the failures of our schools but if there is one thing that can stem the tide of bullshit, or reduce the deleterious effects of bullshit, it is a rational, skeptical and critical thinking populace, who know their own language well enough to realize when it is being abused and misused. Unfortunately our education systems have failed miserably in this regard and the publically funded private religious factories of indoctrination have discouraged free inquiry at every turn. But in spite of its failure to produce skeptical critical thinkers, education does facilitate income mobility thus helping to mitigate the huge increasing disparities in wealth between the privileged few and the working classes we have seen in the past few decades of unfettered free markets and de-regulation. Even the semi-literate George Bush admits this – although I doubt the sincerity of his utterance. During the presidential debates, when Bush was asked about income inequality, he immediately began talking about education programs, like the misguided Leave No Child Behind, as a panacea. This was another classic Bush swerve, back on to the crib notes, and away from the question he cannot answer, but there was a grain of truth in it. Education does help people move up the social ladder, provided they can afford the cover charge, which is becoming more onerous. Bush's rhetoric on education sounds noble, but his strategies have been under-funded and wrong-headed, forcing underpaid educators to teach to mindless multiple choice standardized tests. There are many reasons why Johnny can’t read or write which include a dumb down culture that “amuses people to death”, to use the eminent education critic Neil Postman’s* expression. But this kind of standardized test-based curriculum is just another of one of the main reasons why it has become necessary to teach freshmen at colleges how to write complete sentences, something Bush obviously missed out on. When people don’t learn how to read and write, and can’t effectively communicate in their own language, then they are seriously at risk to the huge volumes of bullshit from the three primary disseminators of bullshit: preachers, politicians and the business world.
The bullshit pandemic is not a mystery. We are under the rule of pusillanimous, self-serving prevaricators, and thus, pusillanimous, self-serving prevarication is the rule. There's unfortunately more shame and misery in being broke than in being bogus. Why not bullshit? If it's good enough for the religious proselytizers, the captains of industry, the titans of politics, the alternative medical establishment and the corporate media, then it must be good enough for you.
Major Purveyors of Bullshit
Harry G. Frankfurt, renowned moral philosopher and professor emeritus at Princeton, notes at the start of his best-selling book, On Bullshit: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”
Who can disagree? Any effort to record all the bullshit in our world would require far more than one of our measly human lifetimes so I’ll deal with just a few fragments that really tick me off.
I think its bullshit that if you call your organization a religion you can get away with almost anything including not paying taxes like everyone else and can use it as a front for all sorts of sordid perversions such as pedophilia like the fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I think its bullshit that any serious criticism of religion is considered taboo by the mass media, now monopolized by a half dozen fascist like multinational corporations, many of which operate like religions themselves. I think its bullshit that the high risk game of “faith” has been elevated to such a lofty position that it’s considered some sort of arcane virtue. I think its bullshit that “faith based” organizations have received huge concessions and grants from tax payers but yet continue to compromise science and free thought in our schools and elsewhere with their publicly subsidized private institutions of indoctrination and insistence on fairy tales to replace the teaching of evolution in the science class. It’s all so ludicrous and inane that perhaps humor is the only method of counter-attack to the absurdities of religious utterances. George Carlin, in his own irascible manner, does an excellent job of lampooning religion here:
I think its bullshit that private interests have eclipsed the common good and that privatization of everything in the universe is deemed a salvation plan for the human race by many of our pious right wing politicians. For the faithful, if that fails there’s always the “Rapture.” I think its bullshit that companies devote more time and money telling us how wonderful and beneficent they are and how desperately we need them, with ad after endless irritating ad and unrelenting PR stunts, rather than simply providing quality products and services. I think its bullshit that tax breaks and the fruits of the economic boom have gone largely to corporations, big business and the richest of the rich, and that the poor and powerless are once again left sucking royal ass. I think its bullshit that the law treats corporations as real people, granting them more rights and freedoms than real live human beings, allowing them to get away with schemes and tactics that real people with genuine moral sensibilities would never even dream of doing. This includes the moral indignation of even suing our various levels of government because polluting the environment and workers rights compromise profit, shareholder value and the bottom line. If that doesn’t work they simply move their operations to third world countries where workers rights and environmental standards are non-existent. Moreover, they register their corporate charters in places like the Cayman Islands and other tax havens to avoid paying taxes on income they earn in their home countries as the rest of us must pay even higher taxes to maintain the necessary infrastructure and social services. Along with politicians, these are the same hypocritical bastards that continually rant about patriotism – but of course that mindless sentiment is only for the ignorant masses as is the discipline of market forces. Increased wealth concentration and growing corporate power are the direct result of deregulation and generous tax concessions which began in the eighties under the reactionary neo-conservative regimes of people like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney. This process was launched with so-called sham called free trade agreements that had really nothing to do with free trade from the perspective of ordinary working people but was rather a huge transference of wealth into the privileged few that already have most of it. The masses had now gained too much of the wealth pie after 100 years of often violent struggle against unbearable working conditions and slave wages. It’s now time to crush unions, roll back wages, remove benefits and pensions and put the “giant beast” back in its place. These repressive policies are now maintained by lobbyists who are underwritten by financial elites and mega-corporations. The fact that government is bought and paid for by the fortunate few lead most of us to a deep cynicism and mistrust of politicians and a disengagement from the political process. Goodbye to democracy and welcome to feudalism.
I think its bullshit when business types and hard line free market libertarians pontificate about government staying out of business. Business is business and the government should operate like one too and allow the transcendence of the “invisible hand of the marketplace” to do its godly work. What’s good for General Motors is good for the country as some overpaid corporate drone once claimed. This is no better than theological nonsense. Then what is the reality? The reality is that none of these business types really believe that horse crap because neither corporations nor capitalism as we know them would exist without government. It’s the government that underwrites the charters of companies, provides all the socialism in the form of tax and other incentives, manipulations of interest rates, tax write-offs, bailouts and a seemingly endless list of hand-holding and spoon feeding mechanisms by Big Brother government. Yes – then there’s the inevitable bailouts when the crooks on Wall and Bay Street screw up! That’s what is expected by business when the excesses of the marketplace create havoc and catastrophes like the recent “sub-prime” credit squeeze we are experiencing right now whereby ordinary working people were royally screwed. No bailout for poor folks holding the bag who have been victimized by “creative debt instruments.” We still don’t know the magnitude of this real estate bubble phenomenon which is the result of years of de-regulation and excessive liquidity in the money markets. But when it went poof in their faces there were immediately heard the screams of fundamentalist capitalists for the Nanny State to intervene in God’s laissez-faire divine plan and come to their rescue. This is certainly nothing new because it happens on a regular basis. Most will remember the hundreds of billions of tax payers’ money that was used to bailout the S & L scandal during the Reagan years.
Government is also demonized by the corporate world and the rich because they know that government is the only available mechanism by which the working classes can appeal for any kind of just or civil society.
I think its bullshit that pharmaceutical, insurance companies and private utilities with revenues greater than the GDP of many countries have succeeded in privatizing public domains such as the power to heat and light our homes, water supplies and access to universal public health care by turning them into very valuable cash cows for private profit. It’s referred to by the self-contradictory expression referred to affectionately as business ethics: “profit before people”. Where is Tommy Douglas when we need him?
I think its bullshit when major retailers and other service industry titans go on and on as though business is all about the customer – the customer is Number One, the customer is always right, we really care about you, the valued customer. Did you get a strong whiff of that barnyard bovine excrement? Surely no one with a few neurons firing ever believes this claptrap. It’s all about the dual deities of greed and profit, the almighty bottom line than the time you the coveted customer spend holding the complaint line, listening to elevator music. But, but, but “Your call is important to us.”
I think its bullshit that discount shopping and phone service are how many of us spend our time and money, and that serving and waiting are the glorious employment futures for many university graduates. “Would you like to supersize that Sir?” I think its bullshit that so much of the news is so resolutely insipid and nothing more than useless drivel, particularly in a time where we are suffering no shortage of newsworthy events that really do impact our lives. More time is spent dwelling on the pathetic tedious personal lives of the rich and famous than on issues that are important to people. If I see another program on Lady Diana and how wonderful she was I think I’ll throw up. Lately it’s been all about O J Simpson. Why would anyone give a shit about this dirt bag?
Its bullshit when a person gets more valuable information about world events from five minutes of Jon Stewart than he does listening to the steady stream of misinformation, distortions and omissions and propaganda from sycophantic flag wavers like CNN or Fox for a month. The bullshit directed at the masses by Censored News Network and Fux in particular leading up to and during the Iraq War is as important to the military-industrial project as the guns trained on people in the Third World. The goal of that propaganda is to get people to believe a claim that is contradicted historical evidence, common sense and current experience -- that the objective of the United States in its military interventions around the world has been not to expand and deepen economic domination (which has been the goal of all other empires) but to bring peace, freedom, and democracy to the world. Prime cut Bullshit! U.S. officials are not the first in world history to assert such noble motives for such inhuman policies (just ask the Brutal Brits), but never has that claim been made so relentlessly, with so much help from allegedly independent dispassionate journalists. The reality is that the most insidious terrorists throughout history have been “good Christian European white men”. It’s been estimated by some historians that somewhere between 25 and 50 million indigenous people were slaughtered in the Americas from the time of Columbus to the onset of the twentieth Century.
A recent illuminating documentary by Norman Solomon called “War Made Easy” articulates well the extent of the collusion between the corporate media and government.
I think its bullshit that the first task of the American elitist political class is to hide the fact that its interests are different from and opposed to those of the vast majority of Americans or the rest of the world. It must neutralize public opinion and opposition by, says Noam Chomsky, “manufacturing consent” for “necessary illusions.” Then anaesthetize the masses with the banal and the mundane! Similarly, the sociologist Robert Putnam has argued, one of the effects of the modern American political system is to dissolve the important bonds of working class community and solidarity, from sports clubs and charities to labor unions that have been recognized as essential for democracy and a genuine sense of community. According to Solomon, “War becomes perpetual when it’s used as a rationale for peace,” Solomon says in the film, and then goes on to provide ample evidence of how the justification for perpetual war has been manufactured, packaged, and sold. If it weren’t such serious business, the producers’ collection of sound bites from presidents -- Democrats and Republicans alike, all mouthing some version of “We seek peace” -- would be comical. From Korea through every conflict up to Iraq, the rhetoric is remarkably similar, as are the real aims and the deadly consequences of the policy. Solomon’s target is not just the politicians, however, but the journalists who become the vehicle for selling that story. His work reminds us that even when journalists seem to be reporting critically about failed war policies, they almost always implicitly endorse U.S. officials’ underlying claim about the desire for peace and democracy. Solomon reminds us that for all the talk about precision weapons, the percentage of deaths that are civilians has climbed steadily from 10 percent in World War I to almost 90 percent in Iraq. He describes how “an acculturated callousness” to the effects of massive bombardment has built up in our society, facilitated to a large extent by journalists who are more likely to focus on how a weapon works than what it does to victims.
American big business and the financial and political elites that really control this country want you to “shop till you drop”, sitting in front of your TV or computer screen watching football or American Idol like a mindless turd, sniping an Ebay bid or watching the mind-numbing Oprah or Jerry Springer. It wants you to be completely atomized, avoiding solidarity with fellow wage slaves, docile and entirely divorced from the really important issues that affect your life. It certainly doesn't want you doing anything more political than printing an “X”, pulling a lever or touching a screen to ratify the rule of choosing essentially indistinguishable candidates -- who will follow basically the same policies that promote the interests of power and privilege.
I bitch and whine - but that’s because I genuinely care. Often when I try to engage people on the really crucial issues that affect our lives at the YMCA and other places I hang out most either don’t give a shit or are too self-absorbed, busy listening to their I-pods or perpetually masturbating with their RIM Crackberrys. I cherish my books, my comfy leather recliner, my computer and my decadent high definition LCD TV, my evening beer or glass of wine and all the other accoutrements of my plush and cushy decadent First World life even as I vent my spleen, rant and shake my fist at the ambivalence and stupidity of many people, risking a massive cardiac arrest. My eyebrows and wrinkled forehead are pooped out from all the contortions I put them through and my eyeballs are stressed from repeated rolling and I’m weary of responding to the news in the negative double affirmative: "Yeah, right, give me a break." No ad campaign, no wonder pill, no enlightening book, no blockbuster movie, no celebrity, no candidate, no entertainment complex, no edge-of-your-seat sporting event nor glorious sweet talk from New age gurus and politicians can compensate for the lack of trust and sense that everything is a scam or a sham and for the feeling that one is being conned and duped. I think I’d even be suspicious if the National Post or Vancouver Sun ran for the first time in their history an article sympathetic to working people or unions. It’s all about business, markets and chasing the almighty buck – and banal diversions like sports or the shallow contemptible lives of celebrities. The run for the almighty buck has resulted in a culture that lacks civility and a sense of community. Who has not been to a restaurant, bookstore or church where invariably some rude twit is blabbering on his cell phone? Driving is a hazard these days too because these same idiots are weaving all over the road while they talk on their precious cell phones or tinker with their text messenger. Even at the YMCA I see these addicts yakking on their cells while trying to do a push up.
Neat stuff and air-conditioned comfort are pleasing, but must they really come at the cost of feeling that one lives in a drowning swill of incivility, deceit and prevarication? Does our prosperity really depend on an edifice of hypocrisy, sanctimonious bullshit and insincerity erected by the fortunate few in their best interests? I hope not. Nevertheless, ads fabricate and fake, preachers preach, companies overstate and omit, governments euphemize and evade and our corporate media deliberately omits, distorts and offends the intellect as we are exhorted to smile, shrug our shoulders, replace our rose tinted spectacles and return to our regularly scheduled bright and shiny shallow lives.
This morning at 6:00 AM as I write, I await the next great wallop of bullshit from my morning corporate propaganda rag which has once again not arrived on time. Although it has great therapeutic value, one of the dangers of writing such deep cynicism and skepticism such as this is that one invariably is preaching to the choir. If you are still reading this rant, you were probably already ticked off at the world and I hope I haven’t elevated your blood pressure too much by taking you on my little roller-coaster ride of righteous indignation and diatribe against bovine excrement.
What is a liberal?
The declaration that the empire is creating its own reality, and that the rest of us can just take notes, is not just bullshit, but meta-bullshit, bullshit about bullshitting. The disdain for the reality-based community is merely the latest manifestation of a long and successful campaign of faith-based right-wing reality creation, and bullshitting about their own bullshit. For example, Bush and his ilk have done an excellent job of redefining certain words, like democracy, elitist, theory, fact, conservative, capitalism, and liberal. The list of Orwellian redefinitions* would require several pages. Elite used to mean somebody with lots of wealth and power, like, say, Dick Cheney or Bill Gates. Now elite means someone who is an intellectual who reads arcane philosophy and literature and indulges in “unpatriotic” social critique. By “unpatriotic”, I mean the depiction of anyone who challenges the legitimacy of power and the status quo. Bush and the gang are not conservatives in the traditional sense of an Edmund Burke, of having respect for established authority and tradition. They may be social conservatives, but more than anything else they are authoritarian inflexible free-market radicals and historical amnesiacs who dismantle long standing social programs. And an appeal to God is always on standby. Many of these conservatives on crack are Christian zealots and fundamentalists and some are clearly fascists as were many hard line right wing sympathizers of the Hitler’s Third Reich and Mussolini’s Italy during the Great Depression such as Henry Ford and Prescott Bush, the grandfather of George W Bush, who were both complicit in a planned coup to overthrow FDR.
*War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength – George Orwell
Even though the United States and Canada are founded on the liberal principles of the Enlightenment, like freedom and democracy, the word liberal has been hijacked from its classical or historical meaning in the tradition and spirit of enlightenment intellectuals such as John Stuart Mill; and curiously transformed into a synonym for godless flag burning commie America-hater. Bush's insistence that America was founded on Christian faith is historically inaccurate and prime cut bullshit, but this is a common perception by the masses which have been conditioned and convinced by the religiously dominated culture as they have been about their false perceptions of atheists and the foundations of morality and democracy. First, by their very nature all religions are authoritarian and undemocratic and second, most of the Founding Fathers of the US constitution were men of the Enlightenment, freethinkers and deists who put far more emphasis on science and reason than they did religion. Thomas Paine, for example, famously declared that the only church he needed was the one in his head. Jefferson edited his own Bible, which kept Jesus' practical moral teachings, and tossed all the dogma and supernatural events. Sure, some may have believed in a benevolent Creator, but they were also very adamant about the separation of church and state, for the benefit of both institutions.
After the 2004 election, historian Garry Wills wrote an editorial for the New York Times that the re-election of Bush marked a turn away from the tolerance, classical liberalism and free thought of the Enlightenment and a turn toward rigid theocracy, dogmatism and blind faith. His claim might be somewhat hyperbolic, but it is not without merit. Faith after all is a high risk game! Try using it on a used car lot. Bush's claim that freedom is God’s gift (the Christian one of course) skips a logical upshot in the old deist formula. Since God gives us the intellectual capacity to apply reason and evidence, we subsequently use those sanctified faculties to build political and social institutions that promote, tolerate and protect freedom and yes, question the veracity of religious claims. The Bible certainly didn't lay the groundwork for free and democratic societies. In fact in several passages, the Bible explicitly condones slavery and forms of punishment that can only be described as barbaric. Should we trust the religious to protect and preserve that precious legacy? I think not.
Some of you might remember the scene in the movie Zorba the Greek, based on the extraordinary novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, starring Anthony Quinn (who played Zorba brilliantly) where the Greek widow played by Irene Papas was stoned and then brutally executed by the men in the community. Her “sin” was having had an affair with Zorbas sidekick, a British writer played by Alan Bates. Adultery within the Greek Orthodox Church was taboo even when the husband had been long deceased. How was such savage retributive justice warranted? You have one guess.