After watching three straight hours of TV on Thursday night, bullshit is very much on my mind. First came the GOP presidential debate, a rah-rah gladiatorial event featuring 10 men spouting a lot of the stuff, along with one, Ohio Governor John Kasich, whose responses steered rather remarkably away from bullshit and toward, gasp, authenticity. Next came Jon Stewart’s final episode of The Daily Show, the Comedy Central program he turned into a huge hit over more than 16 years at the anchor desk. “You’ve been a great gift to the country,” President Barack Obama said to Stewart, apparently sans bull, when he was a guest on the show in July. In his final soliloquy, Stewart offered a three-part analysis of the bullshit being slung in America today, along with a warning.
Some bullshit is innocuous, even benign. In Stewart’s words, white lies like, “Oh, what a beautiful baby” — when the baby is in fact a ghoul — are the glue that holds society together. They “provide important social-contract fertilizer,” he said.
But most bullshit, when flung by politicians and the media, has the potential to cause harm to more than our nostrils. And each type was on ample display in the GOP debate arena on Thursday night.
The first “flavor” Stewart identified is “making bad things sound like good things.” The Patriot Act, for example, sells better than “Are You Scared Enough To Let Me Look Through All Your Phone Records?”
Whenever something’s been titled Freedom/Family/Fairness/Health/America, take a good long sniff. Chances are it’s been manufactured in a facility that may contain traces of bullshit.
As an example, consider the cursed banalities coming from the mouth of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush in response to a legitimately good question from Bret Baier:
BAIER: Governor Bush, you have insisted that you’re your own man. You say you have a life experience uniquely your own. Not your father’s, not your brother’s.
But there are several opponents on this stage who get big-applause lines in early voting states with this line: quote, “The last thing the country needs is another Bush in the Oval Office.”
So do you understand the real concern in this country about dynastic politics?
BUSH: Absolutely, I do, and I’m gonna run hard, run with heart, and run to win. … I’ve got a record in Florida. I’m proud of my dad, and I’m certainly proud of my brother. In Florida, they called me Jeb, because I earned it. … I am my own man.
Rather than address the potential problem with dynastic politics in a country that was founded on principles of anti-dynasticism — a challenge that also confronts the Democratic candidate who seeks to become the second President Clinton — Jeb bullshitted his way through a mealy-mouthed response. It is protesting too much to keep saying “I am my own man,” particularly when the moderator’s question cited that very line. (Smacks of Stuart Smalley’s daily affirmation: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”) But in any case, Jeb needs to make a case for why future historians shouldn’t look back incredulously on three decades of American history that featured three leaders called “President Bush.”
The second odious varietal in Stewart’s typology is “hiding bad things under mountains of bullshit.” Those software agreements you click “Agree” to so you can just download the thing already, for example: Do you know what you’ve consented to? Or this answer last night from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker:
MEGYN KELLY: Governor Walker, you’ve consistently said that you want to make abortion illegal even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. You recently signed an abortion law in Wisconsin that does have an exception for the mother’s life, but you’re on the record as having objected to it. Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion, and with 83 percent of the American public in favor of a life exception, are you too out of the mainstream on this issue to win the general election?
WALKER: Well, I’m pro-life; I’ve always been pro-life, and I’ve got a position that I think is consistent with many Americans out there in that…
(APPLAUSE) WALKER: … in that I believe that that is an unborn child that’s in need of protection out there, and I’ve said many a time that that unborn child can be protected, and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother. That’s been consistently proven.
Unlike Hillary Clinton, who has a radical position in terms of support for Planned Parenthood, I defunded Planned Parenthood more than four years ago, long before any of these videos came out…
WALKER: … I’ve got a position that’s in line with everyday America.
A lot of words, but bullshit, pure and simple. Walker would let a woman die giving birth rather than permit her to have a medically necessary abortion.
Stewart’s third type of bullshit is the most interesting: “the bullshit of infinite possibility.” These are the “we can never be sure” positions regarding subjects like climate change or gay marriage. In the face of a wide scientific consensus that human activity contributes to global warming, Republicans often demur. “I’m not a scientist,” they say, in a chorus of disingenuousness. Or, arguing before the Supreme Court, former Michigan attorney general John Bursch speculated that if gay marriage were legal throughout the United States, children may start to worry that their parents are less concerned about them and more interested in each other for romantic reasons. Children growing up with the idea that marriage is about “keeping that couple bound to that child forever” will be happier and more secure than children whose parents tied the knot merely because they have an “emotional commitment to each other,” he said. “Ideas matter, Your Honors.”
Ideas matter indeed. But speculative ideas about how a right to marriage equality may trigger dangerous ideas and ruin a child’s life are, to put it politely, bull.
Loads of crap
Donald Trump, the brazen, laughing-post front-runner, has a unique relationship to the truth. He’s no ordinary bullshitter. Instead, Trump famously lets it all hang out, refusing to edit himself or even think before speaking. But the anti-bullshitter is still capable of spewing an impressive load of crap, as he did in this exchange with Kelly:
KELLY: Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women.
You’ve called women you don’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.”…
TRUMP: Only Rosie O’Donnell. …
KELLY: For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell.
TRUMP: Yes, I’m sure it was.
KELLY: Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?
TRUMP: I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.
I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.
And frankly, what I say, and oftentimes it’s fun; it’s kidding. We have a good time. What I say is what I say. And honestly, Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.
Credit Trump with owning up to his misogynistic fits. He said the stuff, and he isn’t about to deny it or walk back the insults. So there’s no bullshit to behold. But his defense of the indefensible — “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct” — does not pass any kind of test for reasonableness as an excuse for insulting the physical appearance of women, or suggesting they should consider performing particular sexual favors.
In light of the stinking mess of the Republican debate, and the antics of Democrats who are often co-conspirators in the bullshit campaign, Stewart’s parting words are wise: “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.”
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