The Big Lie
Hitler actually 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.
Some monstrous conspiracies must exist. Indeed, though we may be reluctant to admit it, Hitler was your cousin and mine, not some different species. What he did, at least a few other people will try to do.
If our government were lying to us, would you know it? How would you know it? Are you sure that you are seeing things as they really are? When two groups of people are saying to each other
“You lie!” “No, you lie!”
can you tell which one is lying?
(As a retired professor of mathematics, and the author of a textbook on mathematical logic, I can authoritatively tell you the answer to that: In general, there is no simple and systematic way to tell which is lying. You’ll just have to form an opinion, based on whatever evidence you’re aware of, on a case-by-case basis. And keep in mind that we all have different trusted sources for what we believe to be facts, and trust — like friendship — cannot be won through debate.)
Our government has lied to us. By now, some of the older lies have been exposed so widely that anyone who studies history at all knows them to be lies. For instance, Truman lied when he claimed that he nuked Japan to save lives — he actually destroyed far more lives than he saved — his real reason was to demonstrate his new weapon to Stalin. Lyndon Johnson’s “Gulf of Tonkin Incident,” justifying the Vietnam War, never actually happened. And Weapons of Mass Destruction were never found in Iraq; evidently Donald Rumsfeld was lying when he claimed to know where they were. Yet none of these people was ever prosecuted for war crimes.
And those are just some of the better known lies. In fact our government has lied to us, over and over and over.
Life goes on, and “business as usual” continues, and the corporate (“mainstream”) media don’t make any fuss about those past lies. This normalization gives many people the feeling that those were ancient times, that somehow the lying has faded away, that now we live in a different kind of world where such things could never happen.
But our government’s structure has not changed. Our rules and methods for electing politicians have not changed. There is no reason to believe the lying has diminished. In fact, the lying has become more frequent, as business and government have merged, and as they have become better organized, with the use of computers etc. It’s gotten to where, whenever I hear a statement on a new subject, my default initial reaction is to assume that our government is lying, unless and until I hear persuasive evidence to the contrary.
The falsehood isn’t always a lie. In some cases, it would be better described as a mistake, because it is believed by the person telling it. On the other hand, in many cases the person repeating the falsehood doesn’t give the matter much thought, and doesn’t really care whether it’s true. For instance, government-friendly corporate newscasters repeat whatever the government says without ever questioning it, in order to keep their access, their prestige, their high-salaried jobs. In still other cases, the person telling the falsehood both believes and disbelieves it simultaneously, an instance of the “doublethink” that George Orwell described in his novel 1984.
In both his fiction and his nonfiction, Orwell also 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 US Department of “Defense,” to make it easier for USers to believe that their government was on the right side in every war. I’m trying to make a habit of always putting the word “Defense” in quotes, and I urge you to do likewise.
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 be dismiss as a crackpot without a moment’s thought. But to learn the truth, you must question everything, even things you have taken for granted all your life. Some seeming crackpots do turn out to be crackpots, but others may be visionaries who have seen a truth you haven’t seen yet.
This world is not as it seems. What is going on in this world has very different causes than you’ve been told. And a world very different from this one is possible, but first more of us must imagine it.
The 1999 science fiction film The Matrix was a great metaphor for our era. That film depicted a world which appeared much like our own to most of its human inhabitants — but actually that appearance was just a dream created by a great computer to which they were attached. The physical reality in which their bodies lay sleeping was entirely different. The awakening of Neo, the main character, was a wrenching experience.
But that film is only a metaphor. Political awakening in our own real world does not change the physical reality of the objects around us. Rather, it changes their history and their significance. For instance, upon waking, you might not change your view of how many people were killed in the Vietnam War, but you may see a new explanation of why it was fought.
Political awakening does not come easily. It requires imagination. It involves entertaining the possibility that the world is not as you had thought. And if you do accept a new view, you’ll suddenly be living in a world where most of the people around you are sleepwalkers; that’s a very strange sensation.
The biggest lie. Wars have cost millions of lives and are based on enormous lies. There is another lie that is even bigger, but less visible:
We see war, injustice, unemployment, ecocide, etc., as interruptions in normal life. But the biggest lie is in what we have been taught to accept as “normal life.” If we could somehow end the “interruptions” and get things back to “normal,” what would that be like? What kind of world are the reformists aiming for?
It involves living in separate houses, accumulating separate possessions, living separate lives, pursuing separate interests and careers, where a handful of people are rich and the rest of us are their employees obeying their directives. For 10,000 years, we’ve been immersed in a culture of separateness. I don’t need to care about you, and I can’t afford to care about you, because I must compete against you. That is what we see as “normal,” and we have been taught that it is both necessary and desirable.
But this separateness is neither necessary nor desirable. And it is the cause of all the war, injustice, unemployment, ecocide, etc. We need to replace it with an altogether different notion of “normal”: a more caring world.
2017 Oct 9, revision 1.28. Direct link to The Biggest Lie.