Reflections on bulls**t at election time
PRINCETON University Professor Harry Frankfurt in 1986 wrote the highly praised thesis On Bulls—t.
It’s long, pompous - a fine example of what it’s trying to define, but I’ve taken to re-reading it during this election campaign.
The origins of the word are unclear. Some say it came from the mocking of 15th-century papal edicts called ``bulls’‘. Others believe it’s a reference to Obadiah Bull, a famously waffly Irish lawyer in the time of Henry VII.
“But it was only in the 20th century that the use of `bull’ to mean pretentious, deceitful, jejune language became semantically attached to the male of the bovine species - or, more particularly, to the excrement there from,’’ wrote Jim Holt (rather bulls—tilly) in The New Yorker in 2005.
Most people think they can spot BS from 10 paces, whether it’s spewing from a PR stooge, car salesman, late-night infomercial spruiker . . . or a politician. But even tribes deep in the Amazon jungle, not yet touched by modern civilisation, could tell you Australian politics lately has been one big BS party.
Tony Abbott believes the science of man-made climate change is BS.
And the Rudd-cum-Gillard Government has been trying to dodge their BS assertion that global warming is ``the greatest moral challenge of our time’‘. (Julia Gillard dedicated just 0.2 per cent of her Labor launch speech to the environment.)
Frankfurt says BS is more like a bluff than a lie.
Unlike plain lying, (bluffing) is a matter not of falsity, but of fakery. This is what accounts for its nearness to BS. For the essence of BS is not that it is false but that it is phony.
Liars know and care about the truth but deliberately mislead while BS-artists don’t even care what the truth might be, Frankfurt says. He just picks them out, or makes them up to suit his purpose.
Rudd’s now long-forgotten Monthly piece on how “Neo-Liberalism’’ caused the GFC rings a bell.
BS, also, is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.
Say, when Abbott tried to explain his alternative to Labor’s National Broadband Network.
BS was the thing that most affronted the undecided voters who I interviewed at The Courier-Mail’s People’s Forum on Wednesday night.
Even if they didn’t agree with the answer they received, the two leaders’ honesty was enough to satisfy them.
One Gen Y-er I talked to said Abbott’s answers on why he dodged an economic debate were “f—-ed’‘.
“Um, can I change that to BS or something so we can print that in the paper?’’ I asked.
“No, f—-ed is fine.’‘
Sadly, for many of us tomorrow’s vote will be about who we hate less, or who we think will BS more.
Oh democracy. You used to be cool.
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