A Chimerical Study of Contemporary Bullshit

WARNING: Some people are sensitive to pessimism. I understand completely. I appreciate people reading my stuff, but if you’re sensitive to pessimism, you may wish to visit somewhere else. But check back later, when I’ll be writing about “Petticoat Junction.”

Preface:

I think I’m usually polite here. Despite outward appearances, I was raised to be a gentleman. Therefore, I try to keep my language free of the little nasties.

So forgive me for using the word “bullshit.” But I can’t think of an appropriate synonym, or another word that has the right zing. “Egocentric duplicity” doesn’t cut it. “Bullshit” has a tart and lively consonant structure, and when properly voiced, the sound of the word effectively mirrors the emotional intent. So here goes:

The older I get, the more impatient I become with what I view as being pure, unadulterated bullshit. When I was younger, much bullshit went over my head. I just accepted things. I smiled while I drank my Kool-Aid® and Funny Face®. Adults were physically larger and knew more than me, so they must be right (right?).

Time flies. Recently, I learned I’m going to be a grandparent. After almost 60 years on this beautiful but increasingly scarred planet, age has driven home the reality that children are bullshit-free. It’s their parents and grandparents who are full of it. Children are untainted, until infected by their elders. As the great Indian actor and philosopher Hrundi V. Bakshi once said, “Wisdom is the province of the aged, but the heart of a child is pure.”

Children are so often lied to, tricked, and bombarded with sarcasm, hypocrisy, and false information, that it’s only natural they evolve into adults who either “sling,” or are easily susceptible to being slung at. Since I’m an adult, I’m vulnerable to bullshit as much as anyone else. It’s a two-pronged effort. While I’m oiling my detectors to defend against the bullshit in others, I try to be on guard for the BS in myself.

Muammar Gaddafi was a vicious tyrant, and it’s good that he’s gone. But he had admirable taste in national flags. From 1977 to 2011, the Libyan flag was the color green, the only national flag ever to be just one color. No bullshit.

Background:

History has seen a few great bullshit warriors. Philosophers, poets, writers, and musicians seem particularly adept at identifying bullshit. They have a talent for seeing through things to get to the crux of the matter. The Greeks, then the Romans, along with Eastern guys like Confucius, got the ball rolling. Then we had a rough patch called the Dark Ages, with lots of tribal warfare, land grabs, and religious crusading.

Then the sun came out and we had the Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, and rock ‘n’ roll. Shakespeare, Swift, Melville, Dostoevsky, Sitting Bull, Twain, Wilde, Kafka, Hemingway, Orwell, Salinger, Vonnegut, Guthrie, younger Dylan, Lennon, Zappa, Johnny Rotten… all battled the armies of bullshit with originality and grace (well, Zappa and Rotten weren’t always graceful).

Interestingly, a lot of these warriors also battled depression.

On the opposing side are those who have PhDs in BS. You know who I’m referring to. I’m sounding like a disgruntled peasant belaboring the obvious here, but the data I’ve assimilated reveals that the biggest bullshitters are not cab drivers or small farmers. The greatest offenders reside in high places, like government, large business, and the plush corner office just past the water cooler. The higher up the economic ladder someone climbs, the more proficient they become in hurling the sticky stuff ($$ x h/c = BS³, where c is a constant). In advertising, bullshit-slinging is the name of the game (proof: the number of people who dislike American football yet who sit through the Super Bowl).

With few exceptions, these lofty figures don’t have to battle depression. On the contrary, they’re usually laughing on their way to the bank. At least, that’s what my strictly monitored scientific method has shown.

You’re probably anxious to see a few examples of whom I view – rather, what my analytical data has shown – as being the most flagrant purveyors of bullshit. Or, maybe you’re not anxious. Well, I’m anxious, at least. I’ll skirt around politicians, because BS is mother’s milk to them, and I’d be writing about their bullshit until the cows (or bulls) come home. And since I’m an American and unfamiliar with the bullshit in other countries, I’ll stick with local bullshit.

Breaking Broken News: When a major news outlet feels compelled to assure viewers its news coverage is “Fair and Balanced”… you can bet it isn’t.

Analysis:

The American news press. If you’re a young person, you may not understand what I’m about to say: there once was a time when there was intelligent news, and only three TV stations. Scout’s honor! And America had talented news anchors with names like Murrow, Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, Chancellor, and Jennings. Most news then was reported with a degree of honesty and integrity.

Then, imperceptibly, a drift occurred. Maybe it was the success of “gotcha” journalism, initiated by the Watergate investigation in the 1970s (Specimen A: the offspring of Woodward and Bernstein). Coulda been the rise of trash TV in the 1980s (Specimen B: Morton Downey Jr. and Geraldo Rivera). Possibly harsh and one-sided conservative chatter that erupted in the 1990s (Specimen C: Rush Limbaugh and FOX News). Probably all of the above. But, today, journalism that’s responsible and relevant is the exception rather than the norm.

I’m not sure many Americans even recognize the difference between news and propaganda anymore. Or if younger people even know there’s a difference, or what the word “propaganda” even means. We regularly bathe in our tilted information of choice, then cackle what we just heard on our social medium of choice with our ubiquitous handheld computers.

I earned a bullshit (B.S.) degree in journalism, so I know a little about this stuff. And my recent and highly empirical studies show that – right, left, or indifferent – most news today is info-tainment that’s beholden to advertisers and, therefore, scrubbed or manipulated to appeal to a specific demographic. Loads of bullshit information conveyed… scant knowledge obtained.

American entertainment is also bullshit. Lynn and I occasionally watch those strange British shows on PBS (high-quality programming – check it out, before the Republicans destroy it). We’ve both noticed how physically ugly many British actors are. And if they’re not ugly, they’re very old. In other words: they’re real people.

Why can’t the U.S. have more ugly entertainers? The only ugly American entertainers I can think of are criminally untalented: bigots like Phil “Duck Dynasty” Robertson and congenital liars like President Tweety Bird. Not surprisingly, Robertson was the biggest celeb at Tweety’s convention last summer (I don’t consider long-forgotten sitcom actors like Scott Baio to be celebrities).

Religion. This is dangerous territory, I realize. But I’m feeling emboldened, so I’ll put my head on the block. And, let’s be honest, religion has, for centuries, vied with politics for the coveted crown of Emperor Bullshit.

U.S. politicians love to extol their religious (Christian) faith, and the popular tagline to speeches is “…and God bless the United States of America!!” Rhetorical bullshit, folks. Assuming there is a God… He or She or It probably doesn’t recognize geographic borders, and certainly doesn’t bless America for its treatment of the original inhabitants.

I believe anyone who believes his or her belief system, god or godless, is the only valid  belief system, is full of bullshit. As my philosopher friend Cecil responded when I saw him in the break room and innocently said “What’s happenin’, Cecil?”:

“Nobody knows! Many think they do, but they really don’t. It’s all a big guessing game!”

So, Tweety, kick those conservative, fundamentalist mock-Christians out of our house. Yes, the White House is our house, the people’s house. You’re just a temporary tenant the janitor let in. If there’s any justice in the world, you’ll soon be permanently privatized.

Conclusion:

My study findings probably make me sound like a cheap imitation of late comedian George Carlin. I definitely lack the eloquence of the individuals (except Johnny Rotten) that I listed at the top of this diatribe… I mean, study. My words are base and simplistic. But, gosh darnit folks, these bullshitters aren’t that smart, either! In fact, most are pretty thickheaded. They attain powerful positions because they’re specialists in one area, or were born into privilege, or have silver tongues and greasy palms.

“Make America Great Again”? More Bullshit (spelled with a capital ‘B’). “Hope and Change”? The change is being unraveled, and we’re looking more and more hopeless. Here’s my bumper sticker:

“Make America Bullshit-Free… For a Change.”

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Turning to Gray: Cam Ne, South Vietnam, 1965

50 years

safer in vietnam

The news today will be the movies for tomorrow
And the water’s turned to blood
And if you don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray

– Arthur Lee and Love, from their song “A House is Not a Motel”

At 6 PM EST on August 5, 1965, the report aired on the CBS Evening News. It was suppertime in America. Housewives were preparing or serving dinner. Husbands were relaxing after work. Children were tumbling inside after a day of play in the hot summer sun.

vietnam_war_mapThose Americans who’d tuned their televisions to watch CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite – “the most trusted man in America,” according to many opinion polls – would see something they’d never seen before.

WATERS TURNED TO BLOOD

In early 1965, CBS had set up a news bureau in Saigon, South Vietnam. A 33-year-old Canadian-American journalist named Morley Safer headed the bureau. He was one of the first reporters to be permanently assigned to cover the Vietnam War, which, by the end of 1965, involved 200,000 U.S. soldiers.

On August 2, Safer was in the city of Da Nang in northern South Vietnam. He heard about a Marine Corps mission that was being sent to a complex of hamlets located south of Da Nang, in a place called Cam Ne. This collection of peasant huts was inhabited by families who, for generations, had survived by subsistence farming in the many rice paddies in the region.

Marine private near Da nang

Marine private, merely a boy, near Da Nang in 1965. He may have been present at Cam Ne

Safer heard from one of the marine units that the mission planned for the following day was “search-and-destroy.” It was being referred to as “Operation Blastout 1.” Safer was asked if he wanted to come along… “Please come along,” said the marines.

The platoon left Da Nang early the next morning. It traveled in APCs (armored personnel carriers), and a few amphibious vehicles due to high water. Safer and cameraman Ha Thuc Can (“This wonderful man,” according to Safer) accompanied the troops. Ha Thuc Can was the only person who could speak Vietnamese.

During the journey, Safer talked to a captain. The captain told him that all the houses in Cam Ne were to be destroyed. The marines had supposedly been subjected to sporadic sniper fire from Viet Cong entrenched in Cam Ne, and the captain said the marines were now going to “really tear it up.”

Safer thought the captain was exaggerating. Never before had he heard of a “search-and-destroy” mission, against civilians, executed by a ground strike. Before August 3 – at least since Sherman’s torching of Southern homes in the American Civil War – such missions were directed at confirmed enemy targets and involved either artillery fire or air attacks.

When the marines arrived at the first “village,” they immediately began setting fire to the huts, which were made of thatch. Some used flame throwers, and others used cigarette lighters (later, some marines boasted they were the “Zippo brigade”). Other marines fired their weapons, although the only Americans shot at until then were struck “in the ass” from friendly fire.

zippo 2

Marine using lighter on thatched roof at Cam Ne

One marine aimed his flame thrower down a hole in the dirt floor of one hut. Ha Thuc Can pleaded for him to stop. Ha Thuc Can bent over the hole, speaking quiet Vietnamese into the darkness. He eventually coaxed out a family of six, including an infant child. The family was in tears and, says Safer, “frightened stiff.”

Safer reported that, by the end of the day, one baby was killed, three women were wounded, one marine was wounded, and 150 houses were destroyed. He sent his report by telex to his bosses back home.

THE NEWS TODAY

When CBS News President Fred Friendly and anchorman Cronkite reviewed Safer’s report – which included filmed footage of Cam Ne’s destruction – they became very nervous. They knew this story would ignite controversy. Friendly contacted Safer twice to confirm its veracity. And, twice, Safer confirmed his story.

When Safer’s news report was digested by American families, perceptions of the Vietnam War changed:

I think [viewers] saw American troops acting in a way people had never seen American troops act before, and couldn’t imagine… This conjured up not America, but some brutal power — Germany, even, in World War II. To see young G.I.s, big guys in flak jackets, lighting up thatched roofs, and women holding babies running away, wailing — this was a new sight to everyone, including the military, I suspect.” (Morley Safer)

After Cam Ne, the Pentagon wanted Safer fired. The Defense Department began monitoring TV news broadcasts. President Johnson told CBS President Frank Stanton that CBS had “shat on the American flag.” He was convinced that Safer was a communist. When told that he was Canadian, Johnson replied “Well, I knew he wasn’t an American.”

cam ne villager

Morley Safer and elderly man at Cam Ne

The marines felt that Safer’s story was distorted and didn’t convey that Cam Ne had been fortified by the Viet Cong with trenches, underground tunnels, punji stakes and booby traps (though the VC had withdrawn by the time the marines arrived). They felt he downplayed sniper fire and (their contention) that the villagers were hostile to American troops. Initially, they claimed that only a few houses had been destroyed by artillery. “It was just blatant bullshit,” says Safer.

TURNING TO GRAY

But the legacy of Cam Ne has less to do with Viet Cong hostilities than with how the Vietnam War was being fought by the United States. And, as Safer observes, perceived by Americans at home. Things became murkier, more nebulous. American boys were, suddenly, no longer shining white knights fighting to protect freedom (however that concept may be defined). And, only a few years later, the ugly reality of Vietnam would come crashing home after the massacre of unarmed civilians at My Lai, South Vietnam.

Today’s operation shows the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him we are on his side.”

Safer was correct on all counts except one: there was no American military victory.

(Note: Morley Safer has been a “60 Minutes” correspondent since 1970 and has received numerous awards. His story on Cam Ne was voted by fellow journalists as one of the top 100 journalism works of the last century.

________________________________________________

Sources:

http://www.pbs.org/weta/reportingamericaatwar/reporters/safer/camne.html

http://www.historynet.com/what-really-happened-at-cam-ne.htm

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNYZZi25Ttg

Da Nang 1965