Monday, February 16, 2015

Elitism and bullshit

Jeff Sparrow gets on the elitism bandwagon - by which I mean treating elitism as a subject of political discussion all of its own - in examining recent literary ejaculations by David Flint and Nick Cater.
We’re now in a position to understand the relationship between elitist anti-elitism and the more recent anti-democratic turn. Almost by definition, elitist anti-elitism depends on external commentators like Cater or Flint to mystically interpret and convey the sentiment of the masses. If the man in the pub were to argue for himself – or, worse still, to agitate or organise – he’d immediately lose his authenticity. If he starts to talk, he’s half way to becoming one of those hated intellectuals.
Abbott saw no problem with knighting Prince Phillip, since he and Flint know in their bones that only elitists could hate the monarchy. The unpopularity of the knighthood doesn't change anything – it merely shows that the elitists have somehow corrupted the natural instincts of honest folk.
My initial reaction to the nonsense put out by Cater and Flint is to conclude that "elitist anti-elitism" is, not to put too fine a point on it, complete bullshit. Sparrow calls it "mythology", but my gut feeling is that it is just bullshit, plain and simple.

Lest you think I'm merely being scatological for its own sake, bullshit has become a subject for serious intellectual study in recent times. As a rhetorical technique, it has been defined as subtly different from lying and humbug. The difference between lying and bullshit has been summarised thusly:
The liar believes that A is the case, but he wants to convince you both that Z is the case, and that he believes Z is the case. The bullshitter, by contrast, wants to convince you that Z is the case and that he believes Z is the case, but he is indifferent as to whether Z is the case or not[.]
As for a delineation between these two and the concept of humbug, to me it seems committing humbug incorporates some level of pretence, insincerity and/or trickery on behalf of the humbug, but apparently it stops short of outright lying. In the above formulation, the humbug wants to convince you that Z is the case and that he believes Z is the case, but he is ambivalent about whether Z is the case or not. (Ambivalence and indifference can be contrasted by saying that indifference means you don't care, whereas ambivalence means you don't know).

So do Flint and Cater really believe their bullshit, or are they just humbugging it up with straight out lies? Which faith are they arguing in badly? This matters in the sense that it important that the right maintains some semblance of attention towards the truth, because Harry Frankfurt's message with his 1986 essay was that too much bullshit was toxic for the soul. At least if they are merely lying, they can eventually be proven wrong. If they have caught the Baudrillardian disease of forgetting to care about reality in the first place and immersing themselves in their abstracted truthiness, then we're in trouble.

I think, on reflection, that Cater and Flint are engaging in humbug. They have come up with a quasi-intellectual framework of post hoc justification for their identity politics, but they have done no academic work to put this in context of the rest of scientific thought on the issues. They just don't care about the reality of the situation, as long as they keep getting attention and/or cheques. The lies suit their purposes. Don't look behind the curtain, because there's nothing there except an old white man running a scam.

They are not as bad as the George W. Bush era's self-appointed creators of reality, though perhaps that's only because they are so relatively powerless. Thankfully.


  1. so we have elitists taking about elitists!

  2. David Flint would have to be the dumbest person in Australia.