Trump, our Constitution and when bullshit runs wild
In August last year, CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria invoked a famous 1986 essay by philosopher Harry Frankfurt to describe Donald Trump. Frankfurt distinguished the liar from the “bullshitter”.
“But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.”
To an extent, the liar, according to Frankfurt, understands that there is a truth and hence deliberately seeks to eschew it. The bullshitter is not concerned with whether a truth statement exists; he or she is not concerned with reality, but only with how to bend a presentation to meet his or her overall political objectives.
Zakaria was seeking to provide a conceptual understanding of a man for whom accuracy of fact is irrelevant; only the argument buttressed by the claims is important – hence “alternative facts”.
Oddly, Zakaria’s comments did not elicit a Trump storm. So it was somewhat surprising that, when this newspaper’s columnist Eusebius McKaiser employed the same conceptual approach to President Jacob Zuma, it prompted a fierce reaction from the presidency. In itself, this response was ironic: it was Trump-like, and was launched against an article that had compared Zuma with Trump.
Leave aside the debate about the president. In an important way, the exchange highlights a significant, increasing and disturbing feature of the current South African political discourse: the widespread employment of arguments unhinged from any form of facts.
For example, it has now become an alternative fact that the Constitution is no more than a tool of “white monopoly capital”.
The Constitution in general, and the Bill of Rights in particular, promotes a vision of a social democracy in which the major concern is to ensure that all who live in South Africa can do so in dignity; this in turn compels a commitment to substantive equality. This fact about the Constitution is forgotten because it does not suit a particular political project.
In similar fashion, the fact that the majority of large corporations quoted on the JSE have as their major shareholders pension funds whose members are overwhelmingly from the working class is not convenient.
Hence, we need an alternative fact that allows for the capture of these corporations, not by workers but by a new comprador class.
Absa must “pay back the money”, we are told, even though the public protector is yet to issue a final report on the Bankorp/Absa bailout. But that is a fact and does not fit well with the narrative that, were it not for white monopoly capital, we would be living in utopia.
The skewed structure of the economy is a paramount problem. It remains a clear obstacle to the attainment of substantive equality as promised in the Constitution. But alternative facts are not being marshalled for the noble purpose of transformation – if they were, the focus would be on all forms of abuse of power, political and economic. Parliament would not be subjected to arguments that anticorruption legislation is at war with the transformation of the economy and that the Constitution must be scrapped.
South Africa was founded in 1994 on the basis of a constitutional system with, at its heart, deliberation and participation by all. This is the model of governance we chose. As recent developments in the United States show, democracy is seriously threatened when a narrative utterly divorced from reality is inspanned to promote a political programme that, ironically, is the very antithesis of what it is proclaimed to be by the purveyors of alternative facts.
Our Constitution was meant to ensure we never repeat our awful history. The apartheid government specialised in alternative facts, such as communist conspiracies and the superiority of white values, as well as the pernicious idea (much loved, too, by some market fundamentalists) that poverty is the fault of poor people. Likewise, Trump talks about the need to listen to the people when he actually means white people.
All of this discourse is incompatible with a society in which rational deliberation wins the day. So I leave aside who may or may not be a bullshitter. But the increase in bullshitting imperils the very structure of our democracy and, in particular, the ambition of empowering 50-million people.