It has been heartening to witness the recent runaway success of Princeton emeritus Harry G. Frankfurt’s latest book, On Bullshit. First published as an essay in 1988, Frankfurt’s splendid study is largely an effort to distinguish between lies and bullshit. A liar, Frankfurt notes, acknowledges truth-systems yet tries to pass off information that is not true. "Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth," he tells us, "are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game." The bullshitter, by contrast, fails to really acknowledge the validity of any truth-claims or truth-systems.
The author concludes that "the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it."
When applying Frankfurt’s useful distinction, we need, at the very least, to recognize that if something about a particular piece of bullshit happens to be true this does not make it any less bullshit, and that lies and bullshit are by no means mutually exclusive.
Enter L.A. tabloid editor David Horowitz, liar extraordinaire and author of the incomparable bullshitting manual The Art of Political War and Other Radical Pursuits (Spence Publishing, 2000). This book, much applauded by Karl Rove, promulgates a political endgame in which brute force triumphs over any notions of intelligence, truth or fair play. The author contends that "[y]ou cannot cripple an opponent by outwitting him in a political debate. You can only do it by following Lenin’s injunction: ‘In political conflicts, the goal is not to refute your opponent’s argument, but to wipe him from the face of the earth.'"
What, exactly, is he getting at in this passage? Since, on the home front, it would be illegal to actually liquidate the enemy, Horowitz does not want us to take Lenin’s apocalyptic injunction too literally. Instead, he believes you should drown your political opponents in a steady stream of bullshit, emanating every day from newspapers, TV and radio programs, as well as lavishly funded smear sites and blogs. He also thinks you should go on college lecture circuits where you can use incendiary rhetoric to turn civilized venues into the Jerry Springer show, and then descend into fits of indignant self-pity when someone responds with a pie to your face.
The only honorable way to combat Horowitz’s bullshit is by fully repudiating his modus operandi, and depending instead on the very wits, arguments and refutations that the Leninists repudiate. Indeed, these methods prove optimal for exposing any number of Horowitzian techniques, ranging from cooked statistics, race-baiting and guilt by association to editorial foul play and baffling logorrhea. But refuting Horowitz is not simply a matter of observing the tide and eddies in an unending stream of bullshit. It also means trawling through that same discharge in order to extract any number of dangerous lies.
Earlier this year, I spent a good deal of time refuting Horowitz’s so-called Academic Bill of Rights, and explicating the twists and turns of his instrumentalist version of "truth." In the course of our exchange, Horowitz spewed a lot of the usual BS, but he also floated some audacious lies. For instance he tried to convince readers that his conservative-funded bill -- basically just a guileful attempt to sanction the Fox News agenda in the nation’s universities -- was actually a non-partisan document with intelligent academic backing. To bolster his case, he tried to make us believe that three "left wing" professors (Todd Gitlin, Michael Bérubé, and Stanley Fish) and one avowed libertarian (Eugene Volokh) actually told him that they didn’t mind the bill.
After I debunked that lie (simply by asking the four professors what they thought about the bill), Horowitz went on to claim that neither Gitlin, Bérubé nor Fish "had any objection to the Academic Bill of Rights" even though I had quoted their extensive objections. (Who but a consummate bullshit artist could hope to construe the phrases "a bad idea," "a nonstarter" and "a disaster" as endorsements?)
Last Friday, in a lame provocation following a debate with me on PBS’s Uncommon Knowledge (a show destined to air, in a trimmed version, around June), Horowitz actually told the moderator Peter Robinson, in my presence, that the Academic Bill of Rights had met with the approval of Fish, Gitlin, Bérubé and Volokh. (Really? Robinson asked incredulously. No, not really, I said; I’ll send you a web link. Horowitz settled into his customary rage.)
During the filming of that segment, my rabid opponent recycled a much bigger and more dangerous lie about the American Association of University Professors -- one already published in the same smear in which he flaunted his imaginary supporters. There he states that "[t]he AAUP ... was silent or collusive in the face of the most brutal abrogation of First Amendment Rights in 50 years, when university administrations in the 1980s and 1990s instituted 'speech codes' to punish students for politically incorrect remarks. The AAUP has been silent on all ... infringements of free speech, or it has lent its support to the political thought police."
This is classic Horowitziana -- a complete lie mired in a mighty river of bullshit. Although the AAUP did take a few critical years to develop its policy against speech codes, for Horowitz to say that it supports these codes is no better than calling him a leading exponent of kitsch Marxism because he happened to be one for a decade or two.
By lying about the AAUP, Horowitz hopes to divert readers from the fact that this fine organization came out categorically against all university speech codes in a resolution approved in 1992. That document, reprinted in AAUP’s fully-indexed Redbook, unambiguously asserts that "[o]n a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden," and that "rules that ban or punish speech based upon its content cannot be justified."
Why is Horowitz so eager to make us think that the AAUP actually supports speech codes and "political thought police"? Mainly so he can then construe their reasoned resistance to his efforts to police knowledge and relativize truth as an unreasonable affront to student liberty. This rhetorical inversion of the truth is part of the larger strategy of doublespeak that leads him to couch his coercive speech legislation in the language of freedom and diversity, as if it were some kind of newly fortified version of the First Amendment. Like the line about his professorial support group -- a fiction designed to make a partisan power-grab look like a movement with mainstream academic backing -- these twistings of the truth are part of the same campaign of Horowitizian bullshit, lies and doublespeak. It’s a dirty job all right, but we need to keep exposing this fraudulent talk for what it is.