I’ve had a serious case of potty-mouth lately.
Well, I’ve always been prone to swearing. I blame my f- er, my parents, pious people who never let propriety stand in the way of a good goddamn. Of course, their efforts to sway me from vulgarity failed miserably.
But my recent bout of blasphemy comes by way of author Geoffrey Nunberg, whose Ascent of the A-word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years I reviewed for Las Vegas Weekly. Early on, Nunberg mentions a book by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, and that intrigued me enough to read it, too. It’s barely more than 60 pages, so a quick take, but a learned and serious one nonetheless. Frankfurt examines the history and meaning of his title word, mainly because we live in a world bursting with it. For Frankfurt, bullshit is not lying but rather a fundamental disregard for the truth. At the very end — spoiler alert! — he ties this to the contemporary fetish for sincerity. Not the sincerity we normally associate with truth, but rather the variety that results from our assuming objective truth does not exist. Instead, we value being “true to oneself.”
Polonius’ aphoristic speech to departing son Laertes has been quoted so often it has taken on the sheen of nobility, glossing over Shakespeare’s portrait of the factotum as a dope. Being true to yourself is no assurance that you “canst not then be false to any man”; it is the most likely guarantee that you will be. Sincerity to self shapes that essential indifference to truth that spawns bullshit.
Nunberg takes a similar tack with “assholism.” After tracing our collective history of embracing vulgarity and the related etymology of “asshole,” he examines its development as a social phenomenon. Unwarranted entitlement is the hallmark of the asshole, Nunberg reminds us. And what does entitlement expose but excessive self-regard? Nunberg does not say it directly, but in politics, the asshole is a bullshitter — so true to oneself, and thus so negligent of truth, that one will say whatever sounds right, whatever strokes the faithful.
I’ve already touched on this here. The GOP’s willful twisting of President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” is an excellent example of assholism/bullshit, as Bill Keller complains (less vulgarly); washingtonpost.com’s Fact Checker Glenn Kessler also tackles it, and quotes a Romney aide saying, “Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.” Thoughts and beliefs: true to yourself. Facts, and fact-checkers, do not matter. To stress his objectivity bona fides, and those of Politifact and FactCheck.org, Kessler notes how quickly Romney’s campaign has seized on their assessments of the Obama campaign’s fact-stretching about Romney.
Nunberg is similarly bipartisan in his bestowal of asshole credentials –Berkeley liberals and Keith Olbermann get it along with right-wing bullshit artists ranging from Donald Trump to Rush Limbaugh — although he argues conservatives tend to assholism because they value loyalty.
It’s easy to concede that liberals blaming conservatives for using battle metaphors is just as asshole-ish as the converse. And slathering Romney in the tar sticking to Todd Akin might just be unfair, too, as a majority of voters says in a new CBS News poll. But it’s not assholism to remind voters that his party platform takes the same anti-abortion stance and that voting for Romney just might result in Akin’s views becoming law. That’s a fact.