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Why in the post-truth age, the bullshitters are winning

The key difference between the liar and the bullshit artist is that the liar has at least some regard for the truth.

There is a certain kind of stupid mistake that only smart people make, and that is to assume that a sober set of facts can step into the ring with an easy, comforting lie and win. We have entered a new moment in public and political conversation, a moment which many pundits have dubbed the “post truth” age. I prefer to think of it as the age of bullshit.

Consider, if you can bear to, the phenomenon that is Katie Hopkins. Hopkins is one of Britain’s best bullshit artists. This week the former Apprentice contestant and professional provocateur was back in the news for proclaiming on her popular LBC radio show that the word “racism” had lost all meaning, which is not at all true, but feels to a great many people like it ought to be true, and that’s what matters. Hopkins got what she wanted. What she personally feels about racism — or indeed about people who are neither white nor Christian — is of no consequence. The game is what matters to her. 

I’ve no idea whether Hopkins is a racist at heart, and it doesn’t matter, because like so many attention grifters, she makes a living saying and doing outrageous things that can have real consequences for real people. In December 2016, she was forced to apologise for falsely accusing the Mahmood family, who were stopped from visiting Disneyland by US authorities, of extremist links in a column for Mail Online. The Mail was forced to pay out £150,000 in damages to the family and Hopkins tweeted the published apology from her own account. 

What is bullshit, and how is it different from lies? According to the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt  the key difference between the liar and the bullshit artist is that the liar has at least some regard for the truth. The liar has a clear idea of what the reality of a situation is, and wants their audience to believe the opposite. The bullshit artist doesn’t care about truth at all — they have renounced citizenship of what the Bush administration infamously called “the reality-based community.” The liar wishes to conceal the truth. The bullshit artist, by contrast, wants to destroy the entire concept of truth, not to deceive but to confuse, confound and control.

This is what people mean when they refer to our political moment as a “post truth” age. It is not quite the same as lies, though lying may well be involved. “Post-truth” is closer to bullshit. It’s the “Hall of Mirrors” strategy perfected in Putin's Russia, where an explosion of fake news and cultured online trolling bolsters the regime not simply by pumping out pro-Kremlin propaganda, but by making it impossible for citizens to entirely trust anything they read or hear. This leaves them vulnerable to latching on to the ideas that simply feel as if they ought to be true, with no regard for objective fact, which has been devalued, along with the very concept of expertise and learning, across the world.

Bullshit is not simply a set of fibs, but an entire register of speaking. Bullshit is the language of business, which is increasingly the language of politics, but in business everyone knows the game. Everyone sitting around a boardroom table knows that everyone else is playing a game, trying to get away with as much as possible, and that makes the game fair, in its way. In politics, people don't know they're playing, and if you're involved in a game you don't know you're playing, chances are you're the ball.

The very word “bullshit” is uncomfortable. It’s crass, nasty and awkwardly American, all of which is appropriate. It also suggests an artlessness, a malodorous dumping of useless principle, but as Frankfurt points out, just because it’s bullshit doesn’t mean it’s not thought through. On the contrary: what makes some bullshit artists so successful, from salespeople and PR merchants to demagogues and doomsday cult leaders, is their ability to shape their rhetoric exactly to the outer edge of what is socially acceptable, and then reshape it as that edge moves further right. Hopkins has learned her lesson, but it’s not the one she was supposed to learn. Bullshit artists are trolls gone pro, and are infinitely more dangerous than your average racist.

Bullshit artists are far more threatening than true believers, because they are more adaptable. They will say whatever is necessary to win whatever it is they want, be it power, cash, attention or all three. They also have far less to lose. A high-stakes liar might risk everything if he or she is found out, but the bullshit artist simply moves on to the next sticky idea that floats through the howling moral vacuum behind their eyes.

Katie Hopkins is a bullshit artist. Donald Trump is a bullshit artist. Nigel Farage is a bullshit artist. These people are the faces of the age of bullshit, an age that defies any charge of hypocrisy, because the con is open and shameless. That’s why Farage can win a referendum by appealing to the “ordinary working man” and congratulate himself with a glitzy reception at the Ritz.

The thing about bullshit, as the term itself suggests, is that it's grotesque, and a little embarrassing. There's a certain hygiene to lies, in part because they're far harder to get away with. Bullshit, however, is a contaminant. It sticks to everything, suffusing culture with a paranoid miasma of ill health. There is less shame in being taken in by an outright lie.

Bullshit is hard to parse, but we must all get better at sniffing it out. The last, best trick in the bullshit artist’s reeking pocket is projection: to declare that the whole system is bankrupt, that they are simply making a rotten living in a rotten world. This would be the moment to echo the wisdom of children, who are uniquely difficult to con, who can sniff weaponised insincerity across a crowded playground. In the age of bullshit and rotten politics, it is often the case that he who smelt it, dealt it.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.