I've spent the past twenty years or so watching the culture of my birth from a distance. Whether that distance provides insight or just blurred vision is debatable, but from where I sit, I see one overwhelming crisis sweeping the nation: a growing inability -- or unwillingness -- to recognize and reject outright lies. Like so many problems we see as being specific to our age, I'm sure a greater historical understanding on my part would show me that this is an issue with roots deeper than I presently appreciate. But still, I think there's a case to be made that our production of Gross National Bullshit (GNBS) has been growing exponentially in the past few decades. And it occurs to me that nothing is so toxic to the health of the mind as being forced to swallow obvious lies.
Now, you might say that nobody's forcing anyone to swallow lies, but the fact is that any American not living in a remote Unabomber-style cabin is like a fish swimming in polluted waters. You can claim the fish isn't being forced to absorb the toxins, but it's an empty argument from the fish's point of view. If you own a TV, your house is full of BS. True, most of us know, on some level, that the vast majority of advertisements range from merely misleading to full-on deceit, but as Stalin or some other paragon of evil famously said (paraphrasing), "Just keep repeating the lie and it will become the truth." Pardon me for saying so, but how does most advertising and marketing differ from just plain repeated lying? In fact, it's arguably worse than quotidian falsity in that the aim is to not just to create false impressions in the mind, but false needs in the heart -- needs that, being illusions, can never be truly satisfied.
Psychology is deeply implicated in all this.
The greatest hero of American advertising was a man named Edward Bernays. He's the guy who came up with the concept of focus groups, the one who had the "brilliant" notion that women's yearning for justice could be used as a way to get more girls to kill themselves with tobacco: "You've come a long way, baby." Now suck on this.
He won every award and accolade there was for a man who lied for a living, artfully convincing people to pay to hasten their own deaths.
Sigmund Freud was his uncle.
The U.S. has more lawyers per capita than any country in the world. With all due respect, a lawyer's job, like an advertising executive's, is to lie for hire. Still, lawyers are due some measure of respect. There's an argument to be made that their lies serve a greater truth: justice.
But then there are the politician/lawyers. There's a good reason the vast majority of our politicians are lawyers: bullshit comes to them more naturally than it does to bulls. They read speeches (written for them by hired guns) as if the words were their own. We all know, on some level, that most of them sell their "beliefs" to the highest bidder and/or biggest voting block:
- The focus groups say people (and oil companies) want off-shore drilling? Then I'm for off-shore drilling and always have been (ignore the fact that I was against it two months ago and know damned well that it won't do a thing about gas prices).
- My consultants tell me I need to be tough on drugs? Then, by God, I'll lock em all up and throw away the key (despite knowing that marijuana is about as dangerous as jello and that all those kids we throw in prison will be ruined for life and cost the country billions in new prison construction).
- Terrorists want to disrupt the God-given American way of life? Let's pull out their fingernails and shackle them to the wall (abandoning international law that protected our own soldiers from barbarous treatment).
The corrosion of the American mind has progressed to the point where the Republicans think that by not having George Bush appear on the stage with John McCain, a significant part of the voting public will forget that they share a common political view. What are we, dogs? Do they really think we can be mislead so easily?
Yes, they do. And they're right.
Journalist Michael Kinsley, one of the few to call attention to these things, described a gaffe in Washington as telling the truth by accident. This is where we are now. Bullshit is so ubiquitous that the truth only slips out by accident -- a microphone accidentally left on.
Just this morning, I listened to two republican political operatives caught with their pants down, saying what they really feel about McCain's choice of Palin -- saying precisely the opposite of what they've said and written for public consumption. Will they be fired for lying to the public about what they actually believe? Don't be silly. That's their job.
A millionaire descended from generations of admirals can argue that he's a humble man of the people while painting the son of a single mother fed on food stamps as an elitist? Of course he can. GWB remember, is just a simple cowboy from Texas (ignore the truth, that he's a spoiled brat born into one of the most powerful and wealthy families in the United States). The divorced Ronald Reagan was a paragon of family values and the Contras we paid to murder women and children in Nicaragua were "the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers." I could go on and on with examples of tripe of this stripe.
How is it possible that the entire nation is not convulsed in one huge, simultaneous, spasm of disgust? Why are the streets not running with bile?
We've passed through the looking-glass, folks.
The dubious genius of Karl Rove -- raised by an openly gay genital piercing afficionado -- is to have finally established that shame has lost all relevance in American culture. The public intelligence, such as it is, can no longer follow a line of reasoning more than one or two steps, and has virtually no memory. Paris Hilton, who came to the attention of most of us when her self-made porn exploded on the internet, is now just another celebrity. The congressman who paid prostitutes to dress him up in diapers is still in office, co-sponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act (along with Larry "Wide Stance" Craig). The madam who employed the prostitute who changed his diapers is dead. Nobody ever explained how a male prostitute managed to get dozens of high-security passes to the White House and pose as a journalist under an assumed name. The so-called serious press let it drop without a peep. We all know about the BS that led to a war in which at least tens of thousands have lost their lives and we've all lost our national treasure.
Shame is for suckers. What used to be called bullshit is now just another opinion. Objective reality has left the building and American politics means never having to say you're sorry.
America's biggest export is bullshit. Soon, it'll be all we've got to offer the world.