This essay, on bullshit in contemporary politics, was my Observer column this week. It was published in the Observer, 3 February 2019, under the headline ‘Bullshit, not lies, is the corrosive influence blighting our public life’.
‘Bullshit’, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt observed in a seminal essay on the subject, ‘is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.’ He wrote that in 2005. But he might have been watching recent episodes of This Week, BBC’s late-night politics show, presided over by Andrew Neil. Over the past two weeks, it’s thrown up two car-crash interviews that serve as textbook illustrations of Frankfurt’s thesis.
First, we had the rightwing writer James Delingpole waxing lyrical about a no-deal Brexit. If ever there were a case of someone talking without knowing what he was talking about, this was it. The simplest of questions reduced Delingpole, who clearly is as familiar with economics as Theresa May is with dancing, to incoherently mumbling: ‘I don’t know the answer.’ Michel Barnier could probably have made a better fist of arguing for Brexit.
Then, last week, we had the former London mayor Ken Livingstone eulogising Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro and their glorious efforts for the Venezuelan people. If it hadn’t been for US sanctions, Livingstone suggested, Venezuela would still be a socialist utopia. ‘When were oil sanctions introduced?’ Neil asked. Livingstone couldn’t remember. ‘I’ll tell you’, offered Neil. ‘They were imposed this week.’ That couldn’t be true, Livingstone insisted, it wasn’t ‘what the Venezuelan ambassador told me‘. And so it went on.
Delingpole and Livingstone are marginal figures in politics. But bullshit has become, as Frankfurt put it, ‘one of the most salient features of our culture’. You can barely cross the political landscape today without stepping in the stuff.
After his televised debacle, Delingpole wrote an article for Breitbart (of which he is UK executive editor), in which he tried to excuse himself, saying he is ‘one of those chancers who prefers to… wing it using a mixture of charm, impish humour and nuggets of vaguely relevant info’. It’s how Oxbridge graduates work, he suggested: ‘Their education essentially entails spending three or four years being trained in the art of bullshit.’
Delingpole may be right. But while British politics has always been dominated by Oxbridge graduates, rarely has it seemed so bereft of intellectual heft.
It’s not that academics don’t inform political debate. From Anand Menon to Mary Beard and Matthew Goodwin, researchers publicly share their findings far more than previously they did and they engage in debate. Yet there remains an abiding shallowness to politics.
Many locate the problem in Michael Gove’s infamous comment that people ‘have had enough of experts’. Gove’s phrase caught the zeitgeist because so many have become fed up with technocratic politics that appears to reject values and ideals in favour of data and managerialism and to elevate a narrow stratum of experts while depriving ordinary people of a voice.
The phrase has, however, become divisive in a tellingly unhelpful way. On the one hand, it has allowed many to dismiss those who cleave to values that liberal technocrats don’t understand as being driven by ignorance or a refusal to face the facts.
On the other hand, it has become an alibi for those who do dismiss facts in favour of prejudices. I took part, not long ago, in a debate about immigration. In response to the claim that freedom of movement from the EU had raised unemployment and reduced wages, I pointed out the research that suggested otherwise. ‘I don’t need experts telling me what the impact of immigration is,’ responded one of the other panellists. ‘It’s obvious.’
‘It’s obvious, so I know I’m right and neither fact nor reasoning matters’ is a sentiment that’s become increasingly pervasive. It’s the Twitterfication of politics.
The fact that Delingpole and Livingstone were publicly rinsed might suggest the limits to bullshit, and the importance of the media in calling it out. They were, however, easy targets, whose humiliation provided cheap entertainment. Media that care more about spectacle than clarity only encourage the culture of bullshit.
We live in an age obsessed by fake news and politicians’ lies. These are issues important to tackle. We should not ignore, however, the more insidious culture of bullshit.
A liar, observed Frankfurt, knows what the truth is and wants to conceal it. To that extent, he is ‘respectful of it’. A bullshitter, on the other hand, does not care what is true or false. That’s why, Frankfurt suggested, bullshitting, even more than lying, is what is truly corrosive of politics, of society and of truth.
The image is from the film on no-deal Brexit that James Delingpole made for This Week.