Politics and bullshit

Daniel Foster at National Review Online has a well-timed piece on political culture and bullshit.  For the most part, it's a quick essay glossing Harry Frankfurt's views in his classic "On Bullshit".  He's got a few examples that aren't quite right, as his Marylin Monroe case is just one of lying, not bullshitting.  What's interesting, though, is Foster's extension of the bullshit point to what he calls "the politics of identity."  Now, this itself isn't new, as Frankfurt even ends his essay with the observation that "authenticity is bullshit."  But Foster's examples are worth a look. 

The first is Elizabeth Warren and her claims to be a Native American.  What Foster objects to is not the politics from the identity but the case made for her identity. 

Exhibit A is Elizabeth Warren, who has been able to withstand a barrage of documentary evidence casting doubt on her claim to be part American Indian by anchoring that claim not in genealogical fact but in family lore — in other words, by answering the charge that her Cherokee identification is probably false with the tacit admission that it is definitely bulls**t.

In this case, what's weird is not that this is identity politics, but the evidential conditions for claiming identity.  I think he's right about the fact that the Warren case is pretty pathetic, but I'd hardly call it identity politics.  Next up is the President himself:

Exhibit B is President Obama, who did us the favor of admitting up front that his 1995 autobiography is, at least in part, bulls**t, but who has managed to escape focused interrogation on this point eight years into his public life and three-plus years into his tenure as leader of the free world.

Again, this is likely right — that the book is trumped up. But how's that identity politics?  Is this a dogwhistle for the right? Sometimes, I feel, when reading stuff at NRO or on Newsmax, that there are words that mean more than I think they mean.  You know… welfare=brown people, crime=brown people, poverty=brown people, undereducated=brown people. Is this another case of conservatives using a normal word as code for something else?  Does it mean something different from what most people think that it means, roughly, people mobilizing political power for the interest of preserving or promoting an identity they share (racial, cultural, sexual, religious, or other)?  Now Foster is right when he says that

That identity politics is as festooned with bulls**t as a cow pasture in the full ardor of spring wouldn’t be so bad if identity politics weren’t also a powerful currency.

But I'm at a loss as to what he's saying to the readers at NRO, given his examples.  Is calling bullshit in some cases another case of bullshit?  Really, that's my sense of it here.  The "bullshit" charge was so powerfully wielded against the Bushies earlier in the 2000's, and the conservatives are looking to co-opt the charge as a weapon. But this looks exactly like a cooption, not a lesson. 

7 thoughts on “Politics and bullshit”

  1. Even more than coopting, it reads like he simply doesn't know what "identity politics" means, and is using it how he's incorrectly assumed it meant. 

  2. Yeah, mk.  There are points in the piece where he seems to be careful to distinguish lying from bullshitting, but all his cases are lying cases.  I have students do this in papers often — they, when explicating a view and looking at the texts they are explaining, get it right, but when they turn to engage with the view, can't say anything right about it.  Again, if bullshitting is a speech act without any objective of truth-telling but only to convey a sense of oneself, then 'calling bullshit' in these cases actually is itself bullshit.

  3. Identity politics aside, is Warren's claim "bullshit" in itself? If she misrepresented herself on an application, regardless of her intentions, is this not fraud? I know as a business owner, I have to be as diligent as I can to make sure people are who they claim to be. If they aren't. it's a fireable offense.
    As far as I can tell, conservatives are attempting to connect her claim of "Cherokee heritage" with her gaining some affirmative action advantage – tenureship, high salary and political power. Good luck proving that.
    However, is she not on record as saying she "wanted to be with her own kind?" Is this not at least on the path to "identity politics?"
    My home province of Quebec and its nationalism (who overtly express wanting to be with their own kind) is rooted in identity poltics so the Warren case intrigues me.

    <blockquote>"However, is she not on record as saying she 'wanted to be with her own kind?'"</blockquote>
    If that's a question, not that I've heard. If it's a statement, where?
    <blockquote>As far as I can tell, conservatives are attempting to connect her claim of "Cherokee heritage" with her gaining some affirmative action advantage</blockquote>
    Warren's critics are not trying to make a logical argument. The goal is to sidestep having to address her actual accomplishments by implying that anything she has achieved is because of affirmative action – and that she's worse than AA's other (implicitly undeserving) beneficiaries because her claim to be a minority was false.

  5. Aaron, thanks. 
    It's not where I originally read it. I also heard the clip on the radio a while back. You hear so many things in a day it's hard to pinpoint where you heard or read it. 
    May 2: Warren acknowledged that she listed herself as a minority in a widely published legal directory for nine years before arriving at Harvard in hopes “that I’d get invited to some lunch group or some – maybe some dinner conversation and I might find some more people like me . . . people for whom Native American is part of their heritage and part of their hearts.’’ The directory did not specifically list her as Native American."
    And here:
    Ok, my memory failed the exact quote!
    For your reading…pleasure?

  6. Okay, you have now taken us form from clarifying your misremembered comment by Warren to posting diatribes against Warren. Were those meant to illustrate my latter point?

  7. Aaron, please. You know what I meant. You hadn't heard about the quote so I gave the accurate one. But now they're diattribes? It's all in the same boat.
    I'm confused, Are quotes attributed to her always "diatribes?" When I heard the quote, it struck me as her wanting to be with "her own kind." Who thinks this way especially if she's not even a minority.
    I can only link to outlets that cover them, no?
    Here's another:
    So far, for me, this has been one of the better articles about Warren.
    More importantly, I don't mind being pasted for this, since I mostly use this blog to learn about critical thinking. It's something worth improving upon. So, what makes articles that carry a quote, build an argument around to make a point, a diatribe? What was weak in the argument?

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