BS Revisited – If Only I had Known in 2012!

The Brilliant Tome by Dr. Harry Frankfurt

“The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.”

When I started this blog in late 2011, I decided that besides reviewing bars and breweries, I would feature an interesting individual or group each quarter.  They might not have anything to do with beer or bars, but in my opinion they’ve made a meaningful contribution to society and their story should be told.

In almost every case, I have known the approximately thirty-two individual or groups I’ve since tried to recognize personally and they range from athletes, authors, media personalities, military heroes and even academicians (including my graduate school professor in Public Finance).   One of the few I did not know, but felt compelled to “honor” after reading his brilliant essay, was Princeton Emeritus Professor Dr. Harry Frankfurt.

One of my friends in the Schwabe law firm, when I was COO, gave me a hardbound copy of the professor’s 1986 essay On Bullshit – I think as a subtle hint to describe the information conveyed by firm management….  I couldn’t put it down, laughed out loud throughout and decided to make Dr. Franklin my second Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter.

As a lark, I looked up his contact info at Princeton and sent him an e-mail describing Thebeerchaser blog and his designation as B-O-Q.   I thought it would get caught in Princeton’s spam filter or that a person with this distinguished Ph.D.’s schedule would just ignore it..

So I was surprised and thrilled to receive the e-mail below several days later.   His cryptic reference in the last sentence also indicated that he read the very long post in its entirety.  (If you want to find out what it is, you should also……)

Sent: Monday, January 30, 2012 7:36 AM
To: Williams, Donald
Subject: RE: Hello Dr. Frankfurt

Dear Mr. Williams,

First of all, thank you for the honor of naming me the January 12, 2012 Beerchaser of the Quarter.

I have looked at the blog in which you announced my receipt of this distinction, and I was impressed by its wit, its charm, and its erudition. Also, I enjoyed the pictures. I intend to follow your blog regularly. I am especially interested in keeping up with the debate over whether to remove the letter M from the alphabet. I believe that, with regard to this issue, my mind is still completely open.

Anyhow, thanks very much for writing.

Sincerely,         Harry Frankfurt     

And I can say with some confidence that eight years later, few of us would believe that the level of BS pervading the airwaves and emanating from the Nation’s Capital would have far surpassed what even Dr. Frankfurt described.  So I decided to republish it – in some ways as a sad commentary on ongoing communication. 

A dramatic increase in BS percentage

I sent a copy to my late friend and author and another Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter, Brian Doyle, knowing that with his wit and appreciation of the written word, he would enjoy it.  His reaction was as follows:

“I read it (On Bullshit) instantly and was delighted.  In all my life, I never read such a careful essay on such a crucial subject and one with a humor so dry I was thirsty at the end and had a glass of the best.”

The narrative below will give you a taste (or sip) of what Brian described and I would recommend you purchase it.   Dr. Frankfurt is now fully retired at the age of 90, but his incredible perceptions on BS will be a lasting legacy!

The Original Blog Post – January , 2012

Although somewhat erratic in 2011, the intent of this blog is to recognize a Beerchaser of the Quarter four times each year.  The honoree, so to speak, may or may not have a direct relationship to pubs or beer.  When more indirect, I will attempt to explain the link, which is necessary for the January recipient.  Dr. Harry Frankfurt Ph.D., an author and professor at Princeton University, has shown wisdom and humor in promoting meaningful communication.

One of the reasons for thebeerchaser tour is to experience the ambiance unique to each bar, pub or tavern.  I would suggest that each ale house has its own character based, in part, on the conversations and relationships of its patrons.

The Yukon Tavern

Thus, by listening and interacting, I have gleaned pearls of wisdom from my visit to Joe’s Cellar that were distinct from Prost, the Yukon Tavern or the Twilight Room and other stops on my tour;

however,

All the discourse was worthwhile and sincere, which is not true of much of today’s dialogue – most notably in politics, government and law.  It seems fitting, therefore to start the New Year by acknowledging, Dr. Harry Frankfurt Ph.D., as the Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter.  He is the author of a brilliant 67-page treatise published in 2005 entitled On Bullshit.

As the esteemed Dr. states: (all quotes below in blue italics)

Unmitigated Bullshit

“The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.”       

 

In On Bullshit, Dr. Frankfurt, quotes from learned sources such as the Oxford English Dictionary The Prevalence of Humbug(an essay by Max Black 1985)   

The Economist,

St. Augustine

and ‘”Lying’ in Treatises on Various Subject in Fathers of the Church” by RJ Deferrari (1952) re. St. Augustine’s position on the  issue of lying.

Dr. Frankfurt’s stated purpose in On Bullshit will help you understand why this little book is so insightful:

“In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.  And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us.  In other words, we have no theory. 

I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory analysis…..My aim is simply to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not.”

Understandably, the professor agonized that, “Even the most basic and preliminary questions about bullshit remain, after all, not only answered, but unasked.” (emphasis supplied)  

Questions on BS??

With the Presidential election cycle upon us and the increasing use of the internet and social media for communication, On Bullshit becomes an invaluable resource to gauge communication….and character.

A recent column by The New York Times Columnist, David Brooks, entitled, “Behaving Badly in Cyberspace” wisely states:

“And if more people spent their evenings at least thinking about what exemplary behavior means they might be less likely to find themselves sending out emotionally stunted tweets at night.                                    

   ……The reason politicians behave badly these days is that we spend less time thinking about what it means to behave well.  This was less of a problem in past centuries when leaders, teachers and clergy held detailed debates over what it meant to have good character.” 

The New York Times David Brooks

Does the proliferation of e-mail and social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, increase the amount of bullshit in global society?  Dr. Frankfurt wrote his tome before the advent of social media and since then the number of talk shows and reality shows has also increased dramatically.

Is the Amount of BS – Time Relative???

Even in 2005, when Dr. Frankfurt wrote his book, he opined that the amount of BS was distressing:

“Why is there so much bullshit?  Of course, it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times.  There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased.”        

Perhaps it is nostalgia, but it would seem that some of the great statesman and intellects of the past were more direct and concise – essentially far less inclined to bullshit, than current dignitaries.    For example, let’s compare the wonderfully concise assertion of Henry David Thoreau in 1854, to former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s response at a press briefing in February 2002:

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” 

Henry David Thoreau – Thought a lot before he talked….

Thoreau said this even before some of the statements uttered by George W. Bush and Texas Governor, Rick Perry  (I wonder if they had a pub in the vicinity of Walden Pond?)  It also begs the question whether Thoreau was implying that Maine and Texas residents are bullshitters, which Dr. Frankfurt does not address in his book.

Known Knowns (Although Rudy has become a known unknown in 2020)

And now, Rumsfeld’s comment on why no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq:

“There are known knowns, there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Rumsfeld’s quote may typify government communication and reinforces the need for a new law signed by President Obama, effective October 2011 – “The Plain Writing Act” – perhaps more aptly described as the “Anti-Bullshit Act.”

It was prompted by such examples as the Pentagon 26-page brownie recipe which included a directive that “ingredients shall be examined organoleptically.”

Frankfurt would certainly classify that directive as bullshit. A pre and post – Act comparison is edifying:

Before –The Dietary Guidelines for Americans” recommends a half-hour or more of moderate physical activity on most days, preferably every day.  The activity can include brisk walking, calisthenics, home care, gardening, moderated sports exercise and dancing.”

After – “Do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week.”

A Stark Contrast – Does it Drive One to Drink?

To further the premise that communication has declined in quality and the bullshit quotient increased, we can turn to the contrast between Benjamin Franklin and current Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.  Perhaps dialogue was more meaningful, tempered and civil in Franklin and Thoreau’s time because they exerted considerable effort to make it that way.

Founder of The Junto

Franklin integrated his social and civic life with his business life.  In 1727, he formed a club of young workingman called, “The Junto.”     

When they met they discussed issues of the day, debated philosophical topics and devised schemes for self-improvement.  In a description of the goals of this group, Walter Isaacson, in his 2003 590-page book, Benjamin Franklin, An American Life states:

“Franklin stressed the importance of deferring, or at least giving the appearance of deferring, to others…… ‘When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him.’  

Instead, he would agree in parts and suggest differences only indirectly…. This velvet-tongued and sweetly passive style of circumspect argument would make him seem sage to some, insinuating and manipulative to others, but inflammatory to almost nobody.”

BS Trendline in Election Years

The contrast between Franklin and Gingrich’s demeanor and communication is striking.  Gingrich’s term as Speaker of the House, essentially marked the beginning of the end of bi-partisanship and civility in Congress.

Warning – BS Alert!!!

“I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words.

..There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”

The above is Newtie’s rationale for multiple marital affairs – BS so profound that it would astonish even Dr. Harry Frankfurt.  Perhaps the following excerpt from On Bullshit is particularly apt during election campaigns — especially in this era of concern about global warming:

“When we characterize talk as hot air, we mean that what comes out of the speaker’s mouth is only that. It is mere vapor.  His speech is empty, without substance or content.  His use of language accordingly does not contribute to the purpose it purports to serve. 

Hot Air!!

No more information is communicated than if the speaker had merely exhaled.  There are similarities between hot air and excrement, incidentally, which make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent for bullshit.  Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative content, so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed.”

While Franklin’s Junto may not have initially met in a tavern or alehouse, it would seem that this type of setting would have been appropriate.  Although it is a generalization, I have found that those who frequent pubs have a propensity to identify and refrain from drinking with bullshitters.  There is a certain authenticity and candor to bar-room rhetoric that is refreshing.

This is not to suggest, however, that a good bull session is out of place in the tavern setting.  It is critical to understand the distinction.   

“What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without it being assumed that they are committed to what they say. It is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they believe or how they really feel…..

Bull Session at Tavern

The purpose of the conversation is not to communicate beliefs.  Accordingly, the usual assumptions about the connection between what people say and what they believe are suspendedThe statements made in a bull session are different than bullshit in that there is no pretense that this connection is being sustained.

This resemblance between bull sessions and bullshit is suggested also by the term ‘shooting the bull,’ which refers to the sort of conversation that characterizes bull sessions and in which the term ‘shooting’ is very likely a cleaned-up rendition of ‘shitting.’  The very term ‘bull session’ is, indeed, quite probably a sanitized version of ‘bullshit session.’”

So let us embark in 2012 by toasting Dr. Harry Frankfurt and his essay – still available at Amazon.  Let us resolve to speak with candor and frankness, but with civility.  Let us not shy away from debating issues ranging from the Portland Trailblazers, to the Columbia River Crossing to the impact of eliminating the letter ‘M’ from the alphabet, in bull sessions.

But as we lift our mugs in 2012, let us at least attempt to avoid the furtherance of bullshit.

A Concluding Rhetorical Question from Dr. Frankfurt

Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob?  Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined?     The word ‘shit”’ does, to be sure, suggest this. 

Excrement is not designed or crafted after all; it is merely emitted or dumped.  It may have more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case, certainly not wrought.”

Happy New Year from Thebeerchaser

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s