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.