On On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt

Paul R. Potts

This started out as a review intended for Amazon, although it doesn’t appear that I ever posted it on the Amazon web site. It was, in other words, produced only for the self-aggrandizement or gratification of the producer.

First, let’s clarify what this book actually is. It is a very small book, containing one short essay. The binding is dignified and elegant, in somewhat ironic contrast to the title. It is a short work of philosophical inquiry. It is not terribly dense or dry; you will not need an extensive background in philosophy to understand it, although you will enjoy it more if you have experience reading and unpacking the meaning behind essays. Critical thinking is required. It is not a comedy piece, although it is darkly humorous, but the humor will come from you, as you interpret the essay and realize the implications of what Frankfurt is telling you. Of particular value is the observation that the producer of said manure product is not lying in the usual sense, but producing something orthogonal to either truth or lies; it is produced only to the self-aggrandizement or gratification of the producer, be the producer bovine or human.

As I’m interest in politics and the criticism thereof, I immediately realized that Frankfurt’s essay is extremely applicable to politics, and more particularly to the politics of the latter quarter of the 20th century through the present, and even more particularly to the steaming heaps of useless words that come from the White House. In particular, I found myself immediately concluding that Reagan, who has somehow become an icon for all that was allegedly good about conservative politics, achieved his mythic status not because of his brilliant leadership or policies — are you kidding? — but because of the quality of the eponymous bovine bowel matter he so copiously generated; his could even be called gold-plated.

He was widely admired for this. Which leads me to consider the current occupant of the White House. Republicans and conservatives of all stripes are turning against the Resident, because he and Cheney are actually very poor at generating bovine fecal matter; the quality is poor. It is lumpy and irregular, and watery, a thin gruel indeed, too free of nutrition to sustain the cult of personality that buoyed Reagan. Bush can’t issue a single midirecting gold-plated turd without a smirk, and Cheney can’t do so without a snarl. Both appear constipated. Both could have benefited enormously either from active-duty military service, which would have immersed them in B.S., or a career in B-movies. We can only hope that our next president is either truthful, or maintains a high-fiber diet.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
March 30, 2007

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