by Mary Chino Cherry
In a famous moment from The Blues Brothers, Elwood Blues breaks down a vital concept for his brother Jake. Jake has just accused Elwood of lying to him while Jake was imprisoned, and Elwood responds “I just took the liberty of bullshitting you a little . . . . It wasn't lies. It was bullshit.”
Americans are, of all variations of the genus homo, perhaps the most prone to—or adept at—bullshitting as a way of life.
Alexis de Tocqueville notes that, even in the 1830s, the people of these United States were constantly on the make, uninterested in philosophy for its own sake, but fascinated in all that might make material differences in their circumstances. Tocqueville's insinuation that this was a flaw is, perhaps, prototypically French, but the fact that he devotes considerable real estate in Democracy in America to exploring it implies the opposite. Indeed, no American would seriously criticize another for wanting to do better for himself, even if that American was already rich. “Excessively wealthy” must, then, be considered the default synonym for “successful,” “happy,” “satisfied,” or any other conceivable positive status.
That we Americans want philosophy to bend toward bettering ourselves by fattening our wallets may get us into trouble, but, importantly, it's a good benchmark by which our devotion to bullshit may be measured. Rather than let Christian traditions about the sacraments of giving and living simply get in the way, we have re-created the faith as the “prosperity gospel” without a single stammer or blush. Put simply, Americans have forged Christ Hisself in the image of the charlatan, the adman, the salesman, the motivational speaker, the bullshit artist.
Americans fall for marketing strategies, bald-faced hype, and clever ads not because we're gullible, exactly, but because these things are different passages from the same American scripture. We recognize in those who speak them the words of Our One True Lord. To not fall for the come-on, to call the salesman on his bullshit, is something just shy of blasphemy; doing so places the bullshit-caller-on-er squarely in the category of pessimist, destroyer of the American Dream. In a broad-based transvaluation of values, the American bullshitter has become the American plain-dealer. He is fair because he is playing the game as, it is understood, it ought to be played: an attempt to gain advantage is the only admirable quality in the continual tournament of self-interest. Woe be to she who walks away or refuses to play the bullshit game.
It is this ethos that allows the right-wing—which correctly does represent “traditional” American values—to denigrate all “bleeding hearts” and feminists, “do-gooders” and regulators alike.
There is little more sobering to the spirit of bullshitting than she who is unafraid to point out its obvious and overpowering stench.