Why do snake-oil salesmen and con men succeed?
Because human beings have a great appetite for horseshit.
Horseshit is a term that I learned from my grandfather, who was one of the world’s great artists of profanity. My grandfather taught me a lot of interesting things, for example, that H. was Jesus’s middle name. Like other men of his generation, grandpa distinguished horseshit from ordinary bullshit.
Kurt Vonnegut said that we prefer useful and comforting horseshit. Hemingway defined horseshit as abstract, metaphysical nonsense. Jack Kerouac warned that the world was trying to drown us in horseshit.
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt described bullshit as speech divorced from truth. Horseshit is like bullshit. But while bullshit entertains, horseshit seduces.
A story about the fish that got away is bullshit. A conspiracy theory is horseshit.
Horseshit tantalizes. It promises false nourishment. It’s dangerous because it’s trying to sell you something.
I used to hike with my dogs on a horse trail. They couldn’t resist the stench of fresh manure. They would gobble it up by the mouthful. And then they would vomit.
Human beings are similar. We swarm to warm piles of nonsense and gorge on garbage. We humans are not typically interested in truth. We prefer ideas that flatter and gratify. We want to be titillated and entertained. Truth is boring. We prefer strong and spicy narratives.
Malicious agents know how to manipulate this. They spread horseshit. And we buy it.
As my grandfather used to say, there are more horse’s asses than horses.
All of this helps explain the ordure oozing out of the White House. Courts and election officials have repeatedly confirmed the validity of the 2020 election. But Presidential power burnishes bullshit with the sheen of authority. Prominent Republicans refuse to point out that the emperor’s new clothes are stained with runny hair dye.
My grandfather would have asked a simple question about all of this. Which is more likely—that there is a vast secret conspiracy to steal an election in “the U.S. of A.” (I can hear him adding “for chrissake”…) or that Trump is spreading horseshit?
Horseshit is not unique to the Trump Era. In 2004, Ralph Keyes published a book called “The Post-Truth Era.” Keyes pointed out that George W. Bush lied and manipulated the truth about the Iraq war. But before Bush, Clinton lied, as did Nixon. And so on—back to Caesar and Pericles.
In a recent op-ed, Nicholas Goldberg reminds us that lying is part of the arsenal of authoritarianism. He cites George Orwell and Hannah Arendt to make his point. But horseshit is as old as Plato.
Plato did not like the bullshit stories of Greek religion. He thought those myths taught the wrong lessons to the gullible masses. Plato suggested that the philosopher-king should create new myths to manipulate the masses into buying his utopian scheme. Thus Plato suggested replacing ordinary bullshit with tyrannical horseshit.
Bullshit and horseshit have existed since human beings began talking. Hunter-gatherers told bullshit stories around the campfire. That is how art and religion were born. Bullshit became horseshit when the shamans began profiting off those stories.
Horseshit is meant to manipulate. The bullshit artist is a lightweight in comparison to the horseshit hawker. The bullshit artist is a good-natured raconteur. But the horseshit vendor takes advantage. Bullshit is playful and light. But horseshit is denser and tastier. It often even seduces those who sell it into believing that the manure they are spreading is true.
At some point reality bites back. But often it is too late. When your dog gorges on manure, he’ll eventually vomit. But it is better to avoid the binge and the purge.
The cure for all of this is fresh air and a good shovel.
To see beyond the horseshit, Kerouac climbed a mountain. There is wisdom in taking a moment to rise above the stench.
But you don’t need a mountain top to climb above the horseshit. You only need self-control and a skeptical spirit, critical thinking and the scientific method. Political checks and balances also help.
Stay focused on what is true. Attune your nose to reality. Feed your soul on nourishing ideas. And don’t let anyone sell you a load of manure.