Hitler explained his strategy of The Big Lie in his book Mein Kampf (though he claimed to be describing the Jews’ behavior, not his own). He wrote,
All this was inspired by the principle— which is quite true in itself — that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.
J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI for 48 years, said something similar when he alleged that communists were plotting against democracy. Hoover said
Yet the individual is handicapped by coming face to face with a conspiracy so monstrous he cannot believe it exists.
Though we may be reluctant to admit it, Hitler was your cousin and mine, not some different species. Thus, what he did, a few other people will try to do. If our government were lying, would you know? How? When two groups of people are saying to each other
“You lie!” “No, you lie!”
can you tell which one is lying? Maybe it’s both of them.
I am a retired mathematician. In mathematics one can deduce truth and falsehood with great certainty, but there is no comparable way to straighten out history and politics. We all have different trusted sources for what we believe to be facts, and trust — like friendship — cannot be won through debate.
David Ray Griffin has spoken about different kinds of myths. One meaning of the word “myth” is simply “an idea that, while widely believed, is false.” But students of religion have another meaning for the word: A myth is “an orienting and mobilizing story for a people, a story that reminds them who they are and why they do what they do.” Such a story is “taken on faith. It is not a matter of debate. If some people have the bad taste to question the truth of the Sacred Story, the keepers of the faith do not enter into debate with them. Rather, they ignore them or denounce them as blasphemers.” Griffin explains that most Americans are unwilling to even consider the idea that 9/11 might have been an inside job, because of their religious belief in the essential goodness of the USA. These people will admit to small, isolated, occasional lies, but not to big lies, not to frequent lies, not to a pattern of consistent lying.
But in fact our government has lied to us, over and over. By now, some of the older lies have been exposed widely. For instance:
- Truman lied when he claimed that his nuking Japan saved lives. Truman knew that Japan was already negotiating surrender. Truman’s real reason was to demonstrate his new weapon to Stalin.
- Lyndon Johnson’s “Gulf of Tonkin Incident,” justifying the Vietnam War, never actually happened. Something like 3 million Vietnamese died without any good reason.
- And Weapons of Mass Destruction were never found in Iraq, so Donald Rumsfeld was lying when he claimed to know where they were. The Iraq War cost a million Iraqi lives, without any good reason.
Yet none of these people were ever prosecuted for war crimes. Life goes on, and “business as usual” continues, and the corporate news media don’t fuss about the past lies. This normalization process gives the illusion that monstrous lying was the hallmark of a past age, and that the present is more enlightened and civilized.
But our government’s structure has not changed significantly, nor have our methods for electing politicians. Objectively there is no reason to believe the lying has diminished. Actually, the lying becomes more frequent as business and government merge and become better organized. And so nowadays, on any new subject, I initially assume our government is lying, unless and until I hear strong evidence to the contrary.
George Orwell, in both his fiction and nonfiction, wrote about how the manipulation of our vocabulary affects what we are able to think. In 1984, the dictatorship’s military branch was called the “Ministry of Peace” (MinPax). Shortly after that novel was published, the US Department of War was renamed as the Department of “Defense,” to make it easier for USers to believe that their government was on the side of righteousness in every war. But I’m making a habit of using the quote marks, because I’m now convinced that the opposite is true.
The most effective lies are things that “everyone knows.” They are as invisible, unnoticed, and unquestioned as the air we breathe. Anyone who questions the “common knowledge” will immediately be dismissed by most people as a crackpot and conspiracy theorist. Some seeming crackpots do turn out to be crackpots, but others are wise dissidents. To pursue the truth, you must question everything, but then some people will call you a crackpot.
This world is not as it seems. And a very different world is possible, if more of us talk about it.
The 1999 science fiction film The Matrix was a great metaphor for our era. That film depicted a world in which nearly all the humans are asleep, sharing a common dream generated by an enormous computer to which they’re all attached. The main character awakens into a vastly different world, and it is a terribly wrenching experience for him and for the film’s audience.
But that film is only a metaphor. In our own real world, awakening changes not physical reality, but rather the significance of that reality. For instance, waking may not change your view of how many people died in the Vietnam War, but it may change your view of why they died.
Enormous lies are the basis of wars, poverty, and ecocide, which we see as interruptions in a good, normal life. But the BIGGEST LIE is our vision of that “good, normal life” itself. Though few people realize it, that vision is self-contradictory. As I have explained elsewhere, the so-called “interruptions” of war, poverty, and ecocide actually stem from separateness, hierarchy, and private property, which we have accepted as normal for 10,000 years; those three institutions are actually the foundation of our so-called “good, normal life.” If our species is to survive beyond a couple more decades, we will need a very different vision of “normal life.”
What can we do about all this? Keep telling the truth as well as we can, and hope that some of it gets through to people.
2020 Feb 6, revision 2.13. (Original version 2016 June 18.) Direct link to ending section.