BULLSHIT NATION ( We may be floating in it, but we don’t have to swallow it!)
One of the recurrent thoughts that enter my mind almost every day (it’s one of my favorite subjects) is that in the modern United States of America, we Americans are collectively so far out of touch with the least vestige of solid reality that we might as well all be virtual holographic projections, rather than actualised, sentient creatures of living flesh and blood who are capable of reflecting on the quality of the lives we lead.
It’s a sad fact, but yes, each day we swim in such vast seas of endless bullshit that we’ve completely lost our ability to figuratively wrinkle our noses with recognition of all the social and cultural effluent that a ‘day in the life’ requires us all to not just swim through, but to stay afloat in.
Not too long ago several books appeared dealing with exactly this theme: that bullshit has become so common to us all as to almost be as elemental as air and water to our whole existence. One of these books was actually titled ‘On Bullshit”, by (Professor) Harry Frankfurt. Another was titled “Your Call is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit!”, by Laura Penny. Both are available on Amazon Books and both are recommended reading to gain further understanding of how severely distorted our collective awareness of reality has become, thanks almost entirely to the rampant free-market commercialism that dominates (nay, subjugates) American social and economic culture today.
How did all this come to pass, one can’t help but muse when the whole awful impact of this sea change in America’s socioeconomic and political reality finally registers on our collectively over-distracted, dangerously fragmented awareness of the quality of life we all lead?
Our nation wasn’t always like this, of course. Only when the Industrial Revolution first prised ajar the gates of free-enterprise hell did the situation really begin to develop with logarithmic urgency, but it remained for the electronic and media revolutions of the post-war ‘boom’ era to hasten the growth of the ‘Bullshit nation’ we all live in today. That isn’t to say that the American Yankee spirit of entrepreneurialism is a new phenomenon, of course, since Americans have been trying to attain personal success and gain fortune for themselves since the day the first Europeans set foot on the shores of this continent. Back in those earlier times the broader negative impact of widespread, unconstrained self-acquisitiveness was constrained by natural limiting deficits in existing communication, transportation and data/information infrastructures, but as science and technology (quantum-boosted by post-war (WWII) developments and advancements resulting from the war) began to catalyse startling progress in all these systems, unfortunate collateral effects were no longer isolated or safely segmented within the American mainstream. In the 1980s and 90s, as American commerce and corporate entities began to operate on a global scale, such was the resulting adverse impact on the world that a sneeze in New York could spread a cold (figuratively speaking) in Shanghai virtually instantaneously.
At admitted risk of being dismissed as an out-of-touch unreconstructed Luddite (I am, of course), the truth of the matter is that once strategized and developed on a global basis, American style corporate capitalism has become the prime enabling viral agent of all that is deceptive, devious, misleading and patently false in our lives; “bullshitism”, if you will, is the Frankenstein’s monster of a corporate commercial philosophy that deliberately alters reality for the sole purpose of exploiting ever-gullible human nature. The definition of “bullshit”, within that contextual frame of reference, quickly becomes “unreality”, that may in turn be understood as a niceified synonymic substitute for the less politically correct phrase ‘gotcha, ya dumb sucker!’
It helps to remember that religion was and has always been one of the principal motivating factors prompting immigrants to settle the North American continent. Not just of the original European immigrants (who founded the original 13 American colonies), but of each successive wave of immigrants have sought refuge on our shores in an effort to obtain religious freedom. Once arrived, they must have looked about with semi-amazement and realised that not only were they free to believe in the God of their choice (in theory, at least, since events tend to suggest otherwise far too often to lend functional credibility to theoretical entitlements), apparently in this new society everyone was encouraged to chase after his own personal dream of prosperity and wealth with precious little regulatory interference. It must have been a startling epiphany of realisation for most, but predictably, shortly after setting foot on American soil, each new immigrant was deliriously scurrying after his own personal interpretation of the vaunted ‘American Dream’. For escapees from harsh autocratic or tyrannical regimes this must have seemed like a dream come true and there is no arguing that this spirit of personal gain contributed immensely to the emergence of America as a world power without peer. With apparent unlimited resources available for exploitation and in the absence of any uniform governmental oversight concerned with regulating this multi-faceted scramble for personal wealth, America grew over succeeding decades into the most powerful nation the world had ever seen.
The economic and social progress was enormous by anyone’s standards, but that was back in the days before the emergence of science and technology as the willing cohorts of corporate commercialism. Together, commercial entities, granted the same constitutional rights of individual citizens under the incorporation laws, applying marketing methodologies fostered by state-of-the-art science and technology, used their privileged circumstances to create the rapacious, greedy and heartless monster we today know as the commercial corporation. This was back before the electronic and media revolutions became the further enabling symbiote of today’s massive multinational corporate power to determine and engineer virtually every single aspect of the quality of the lives we all lead.
I suppose I should point out that I have been referring, up to this point, to the enabling mechanisms that have brought bullshit into prominence, in an effort to provide a sort of contextual background (fertilizer?) upon which to better understand how truly insidious and corrupt the spirit of bureaucratic corporate bullshit forced upon all of us has become. In a relatively short period of time and largely due to American laissez faire regulatory attitudes that encourage businesses to maximise profits however unscrupulously, America eventually transformed from a nation of economically clever and religious freedom seeking private individuals (with modest hopes and ambitions) into an anonymous mass of people (a nation?) whose entire justification for existence has been defined as serving as a captive resource for exploitation by monolithic corporate commerce.
Bullshit as a way of national life has thus developed almost side-by-side with the rise of these corporate powers in reference, although it should in all fairness be noted that exploitation of the weak by the powerful has been going on at least as long as the human race has been in existence; the difference today is that the tools available to the exploiters have grown exponentially into fiendishly sophisticated weapons of absolute attitudinal subjugation. Bulleshit (in the form of rhetoric, advertising, and so called 'public relations' spin-mongering), therefore, has arisen as a co-convenient tool to better enable the utterly powerful to dominate the utterly weak (minded). As the nation’s aggregate wealth has further polarized the rich and the poor and as traditional social influences of family, community, and religious belief have given way to the modern mass electronic media of collectivist commercialism, bullshit has assumed the role of a chief weapon in the armory of powerful forces wielded by corporate power to dominate and subjugate consumers.
Perhaps at this point I should explain why I, an avowed ‘free-thinker’ (read: atheist), am giving credence to the importance of religion in helping protect us, the ‘common people’, from bullshit? Because (at least in theory) one of the most central tenets of any conventional Western religion is honesty. Striving for honesty, ethical and moral purity, and refraining from hypocrisy are uniform requirements levied upon adherents to just about any religion involving an omni-powerful deity (i.e. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, all forms of naturalistic worship, etc.). Back in the days (and not too long ago) when religion still exerted a substantial influence on most Americans, few people could stray far from the direct jurisdiction of the local pastor/priest/deacon without being reminded of the importance (to God and therefore to parishioners) of honest interactions with one’s fellows as a guarantor of one’s soul in the final accounting (e.g. fear of God’s wrath, etc.).
Unfortunately, common human nature is such that qualities like greed, envy, desire, hate, and acquisitiveness will not remain long under willful control, regardless of religious influences (even when regularly and forcefully applied). Once profit becomes a dominant part of one’s daily life, things like honesty and moral rectitude tend to get shaken off in a mad scramble to gain personal wealth, power and influence over others. It’s simply the nature of the ‘beast’ (human though he may be) and for this reason, given the relative shallowness of most people’s reflective abilities, there has always been a need for religion to help control these factors in almost two thirds of any given population group.
I say that not without a huge amount of reluctant irony, given that I myself am a non-believer who subscribes solely to the conviction that we and we alone are the arbiters of responsibility for our earthly actions and should be quick to dismiss any effort to place responsibility for our human affairs in the hands of an unseen, mystical ‘outside’ imperative (e.g. ‘God’). However, I also recognise that the vast majority of one’s fellow human beings are neither gifted with intelligent reflectivity nor noted for their intuitively wise insights. Therefore, religion’s continued existence is probably justified to help forcibly kick the ordinary individual’s butt into maintaining some sort of proprietary standard of socially acceptable moral behavior in his life.
That said, religion has today been supplanted and often entirely replaced (as the old fire and brimstone preachers frequently lamented) by worship of ‘false gods’ (read: rampant materialism) and in the institutional processing of philistine obsessions with money, power and influence over others, the stage has been set to employ highly sophisticated techniques to effectively enable corporate commercialism to deceive and dupe unfortunates on a hitherto massive and unprecedented scale.
Any attempt to analyse this phenomenon, of course, would of necessity have to draw attention to the monumental influence of modern television media that virtually enslaves us all with its obscenely skewed version of commercially engineered pseudo-reality, almost every moment of our lives. Think of this as audio-visual bullshit, if that helps. We have corporate commercial marketing and advertising to thank for it, since the barrage of alluring commercial images each of us is exposed to each day has about as much to do with actual human reality as a wet dream. Yet this is the new normative socialisation standard that teaches all of us how to act, how to behave, what to lust after, what to desire, and what to value. In previous eras this critical instruction on how to develop an actualised, balanced outlook on life came from the family and from the schools. Today, parental inputs are so minimal, diluted as they are by careers, occupational demands and wage earning activities, that most children no longer ‘learn’ the difference between fantasy and reality. Their concept of what constitutes bullshit becomes so complexly swirled together with swarms of commercial media ‘messages’, images, and symbolisms that the word bullshit has become an entirely amorphous concept, devoid of any fixed meaning except that which commercial media choses to infuse it with. Viewed within that reference, bullshit therefore ends up meaning both ‘nothing’ and ‘everything’ simultaneously. Wow. What a potentially crazy-making dynamic that is! Fortunately, hardly anyone concerns themselves with this paradox or we’d have an entire nation full of severely psychologically disturbed individuals (DSM diagnosed individuals, that is, since as things now stand everyone is crazy, but they just aren’t aware of it yet!).
I am sure some of you may be on the verge of dismissing this hypothesis as so much paranoid ranting, but before you do, please stop and consider the following. Take your average television corporate commercial. Does anyone ever stop to reflect that every single one of these ‘virtual people’ you see acting in television commercials have deliberately contrived affects carefully titrated to produce a specific consumer response? That’s NOT reality. Take motion pictures and television dramas. Ever stop to reflect on the fact that all the men in them are, as Lake Woebegone’s Garrison Keeler is fond of noting, all ‘beautiful’, that all the women depicted are both beautiful AND intelligent, and that all the children are above average? That’s NOT reality. Did you ever wonder why it is that almost every beautiful female actress in these dramas is purportedly a doctor (or have some extraordinarily advanced academic provenance), why every male actor is either stunningly handsome, alpha-male rugged or charmingly disarming, or why no one in them is ordinary, ugly, average, or otherwise blemished? Unreal! All of these are aspects of the bullshit dynamic that corporations use so successfully to manipulate us, our thoughts, our feelings, our impulses, our behavior, our spending tendencies, and yes, even regulate our bowel habits.
Ever wonder about all those friendly and spry oldsters that are featured so commonly in advertisements aired during the major network news programs each evening? The ones falling over and unable to get up, the ones with every disease or physical affliction in the medical catalogue, yet somehow always benefitting from some new medicine hawked by a TV doctor (“Hi. I’m not a real doctor, but I play one on TV.”). How about all those endless advertisements selling useless exercise machines that promise you in the small print at the bottom of the screen that “Result are not typical; your experiences may vary”? Bullshit, bullshit and more bullshit. And these are just a few teensy-tiny examples of the pervasive stink of manufactured corporate bullshit that surrounds all of us in America today.
To suggest the present situation is dire is to considerably understate things, in my opinion, but the entire process is so subtle, so massively funded by expensive, elaborate marketing research that most of us don’t even stop to think critically about any of these things any more. Because of this inescapable daily immersion in incredibly sophisticated corporate bullshit, we are all on the verge of being utterly incapable of making rational determinations about what differentiates truth from fiction, from alluded-to half truths, from partial truths, or from outright total deception. There are few if any unchanging standards of valid reality left to avail in our lives, but the most profound tragedy is that most of us simply don’t care that we are daily being emotionally and intellectually raped! Most of us are too distracted by the latest surfeit of electronic gizmos, gadgets, personal communications devices, et al, to the extent that that there simply aren’t enough unoccupied brain cells left over to think critically with.
Now that’s clearly an exaggeration, but I hope the point is clear despite my resorting to gross generalizations. We…MUST…MUST…MUST stop being led about by the nose by corporate commercial interests and must start exercising our inherent powers of critical thought in our daily affairs. The outcome otherwise may be seen in countless Hollywood films about a future in which all humanity has been enslaved by powerful individuals through use of thought control processes. If that image causes you to chuckle, consider if you will that the present Pavlovian knee-jerk consumer behavior Americans demonstrate only varies from that horrific future sci-fi scenario by a matter of degrees!
I mentioned Hollywood earlier and it might be productive to return briefly to that place and examine the impact of film fantasies on American consciousness over the decades. Certainly all human beings enjoy fantasy and one could almost convincingly argue that fantasy (as it relates to that accursed aspect of human existence we call ‘hope’) is a necessary part of every individual’s life. Given that we are who we are, whether born into wealth or abject poverty, fantasy is the universal balm that can confer a certain measureable amount of comfort and fulfillment (no matter how inconsequential or brief it may be) on just about anyone, even under the most dire circumstances. In that context, fantasy often serves a positive or beneficial purpose, since even the most miserably unhappy person may be momentarily sustained or temporarily buoyed up by hopeful fantasy. But when fantasy is applied to those individuals who are already fairly well-off (at least not starving, homeless, or lacking the basic comforts of ‘regular’ life), fantasy can and has become a monster in contemporary circumstances. Hollywood, as a purely entertaining activity is a relatively innocuous institution as long as no attempt is made to manipulate its fanciful imagery for the purposes of marketing commercial goods and material products. Once that fragile line between the real and unreal has been seized and demarcated by corporate marketing forces, all bets are suddenly off and bullshit becomes the important lubricant that greases up the skids of the commercial exploitation process. Regrettably, corporations have long since advanced beyond mixing hard-sell marketing psychology with innocent entertainment and the result is frightful beyond belief to those of us who are still able to see and understand the process in its full, disingenuous entirety.
Regardless of these considerations, the important thing to focus on is that in order to maintain emotional stability and psychological sanity in life, one can never…EVER…allow one’s self to confuse fantasy for reality. The distinction MUST remain crystal clear at all times in the minds of those of us who are not starving, homeless, or miserably destitute in concretely measureable ways. When confusion of that sort does arise, the entire matrix of society begins to spin rapidly out of control, although the effects may at first be subtle. As soon as bullshit becomes the norm, traditional values disappear entirely or at least become smothered in a flood of existential relativisms. Before long, instances of random violence may occur as people lose their firm foundations of understanding (and thereby lose their sanity). Gratuitous acts of physical barbarity and emotional sadism start to emerge from the shadows and begin to systematically destroy everything we have achieved in our lives, even possibly ending eventually in the complete disintegration of our culture, our society, and/or our vaunted ‘land of the free and home of the brave’. It isn’t all that far off-base to project these effects into our immediate future, should fantasy and reality continue to polarise on a sufficiently broad scale across all parameters of our culture. If you need any concrete examples of any of these effects, just look about you. Gang criminality, drive-by shootings, workplace violence, shooting incidents in schools: people ARE coming unstuck everywhere.
Yet, bullshitism is all around us, an ominous, if figurative warning sign not unlike the characteristically sudden receding of ocean water on a shoreline that is about to be overwhelmed by a massive tsunami. Regrettably, in our national haste to embrace all of the many subtleties of cultural diversity simultaneously (without irritating or angering anyone) we too often choose to ignore or otherwise refuse to recognise patterns in our behavior that may carry the most sinister long-term consequences. Bullshitism is one of those major sea-changes in the American cultural milieu that may (and arguably do) have a profoundly untoward effect not just on the quality of our collective lives as individuals, but on the very nature of our national life, as we continue to perversely allow ourselves to be rapaciously manipulated by the bullshit of applied, coldly calculated and deliberate deception.
As the annual holiday season approaches, like so many I have found my mailbox flooded with the usual plethora of corporate consumer goods catalogues (Land’s End, Woolrich, L.L. Bean, Cabellas, REI, to name just a few). In going over some of these, I find myself struck by the prettified uniformity of the male & female models used to display clothes. All the women are perfectly beautiful, radiantly smiling with a toothy enthusiasm that would make a Great White Shark envious. Ditto for the men, who are all ruggedly handsome, all smiling from ear to ear and coated with a two-day stubble that seems to be in vogue among male models presently. The children are all perfect little angels, all cute and beaming happily as their fake model ‘parents’ smile down on them in these catalogues. Bullshit! None of us are like that in real life. It’s enough to make me retch, but it’s the norm employed by all commercial advertising (and seems to always have been). I should mention in fairness that there IS a new trend emerging among commercial advertisers to use ‘ordinary’ people as models, since someone, somewhere in the corporate advertising world apparently decided that the universal ‘toothy happy look’ was starting to wear a bit thin, even among the prefrontally lobotimised Walmart shopper crowd (whose awareness is usually only broachable with a direct hit in the cranium by a blunt commercial message). We’ll see how this goes, but I highly suspect it will only be more bullshit, served steaming (as usual) perhaps, but in only a slightly different form.
Coincidentally, as I sat here reflecting on the epidemic bullshitery that passes for reality in modern America, I happened to catch an article on the front page of my media nemesis, the Wall Street Journal…that right-of-center bastion of conservative corporate economic philosophy that I so thoroughly despise (I read it at the office each day since it’s provided us free, being too cheap or lazy to buy a regular newspaper). The article that caught my eye dealt with how modern digital media has come to be employed in the ongoing effort to convince children that Yes, Virginia, there really IS a Santa…
In this article, parents are cited as going to absurd lengths to either produce fake video footage of the jolly elf’s visit, or they are ‘Photo Shopping’ images to produce the same ‘factual’ evidence. On one level it’s an amusing story, but on another it’s greatly disturbing, especially since the WSJ journalist himself poses the critical question: where is the line drawn between ‘harmless fibs’ and outright deception? Especially since we’re messing around with immature little human minds that are extremely vulnerable to bullshit and are yet unable to discern the subtle difference between shades of gray. The journalist’s point is well taken, but it’s a question that corporate America has long since passed beyond and relegated to the dust bin in their relentless efforts to con the gullible consumer (about two-thirds of the population, if certain statistics are to be believed) and manipulate the proletarian hoi poloi. Yet, viewed within the greater problem of how completely bullshit has become the new normative standard of truthfulness, it simply subsides into the greater, pungently aromatic pool of effluent we all are madly trying to stay afloat in. Glub!
It’s a recognised fact that truth and moral ethics are all on the endangered qualities list, as bullshit becomes a substitute form of reality across the broadest spectrum of American life and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand this. What does take a bit of intelligent reflection is how dangerous and destructive this trend is in the conduct of American affairs, personal, national and international, and to the perpetuity of our higher founding ideals and ethics.
For my part, I make a point of putting this problem into proper perspective every time I encounter it, each day: I either say aloud or silently mouth the word B*U*L*L*S*H*I*T. It may not change anything, but at least it makes me feel a bit better about the whole matter. Read the two books I referenced at the start of this. I think you’ll find them at least as useful (perhaps even more so) as that series of maudlin feel-good books (‘Chicken Shit for the Soul’, etc.) that were so popular a short while back.
In the meantime, may a passing reindeer on industrial strength laxatives take a HUGE dump on that inflatable, aluminised outdoor plastic Christmas decoration set your neighbor filled his entire front yard with this week…oh yes, and have a happy Winter Solstice!
[As I used to wish my friends, back when I was an insufferable little miniature human myself, "MERETRICIOUS!"]
NOTE: Perhaps one of the best motion pictures ever made about bullshit was Joseph Heller's famed jewel of WWII sociopolitical satire, CATCH-22. The book is seminal. If you've never seen the movie version of it, you must watch it; it's a visual American icon of what the foregoing paragraphs strive to convey. Available in DVD at Amazon, of course.
The following books are BS-1 Core Curriculum:
ON BULLSHIT, by Professor Harry Frankfurt
YOUR CALL IS IMPORTANT TO US: THE TRUTH ABOUT BULLSHIT, by Laura Penny