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 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 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.
The structure of our government has not changed since the lies of Lyndon Johnson or Donald Rumsfeld. And yet, life goes on, and “business as usual” continues, and the mainstream media do not make a fuss about those past lies that are now known. This seeming normalcy convinces most people that somehow the lying has faded away, that we live in a different kind of world now, that such things could never happen now.
But in fact our government has lied to us, over and over and over. In fact, the lying has become more frequent, as business and government have merged. It’s gotten to where, whenever I hear a statement on a new subject, my initial assumption is 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 — though in many cases the reteller doesn’t give the matter much thought. For instance, government-friendly corporate newscasters repeat whatever the government says without ever questioning it. 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 totalitarian government’s military branch was called the “Ministry of Peace” (or MinPax, for short). 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. If anyone does question one of these things, you’ll probably dismiss that questioner as a crackpot and never give his strange beliefs another moment’s thought. To learn the truth, you must question everything — even things you have taken for granted all your life — some of them will turn out to be lies, but it will take you a while to figure out which. So perhaps you should listen at least a little to that crackpot — perhaps he has seen some truth that you have not yet seen. Or he may turn out to be just a crackpot — but you won’t know until you listen to him at least a little.
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 the 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 learn that the Vietnam War was fought for reasons entirely different from what we were told at the time.
Political awakening does not come easily. It requires imagination. It involves seeing the world differently from anything that you had imagined was possible. Perhaps the biggest change is in accepting that millions of people all around you are still asleep, and that now you are seeing something they’ve never seen.
The lies of war have cost millions of lives. I’ll tell you of a bigger lie, though perhaps you won’t believe me, for it is less visible and less noticed.
It is our acceptance of our current way of life. It is the most fundamental part of how we see the world.
I don’t mean all the war, austerity, injustice, and ecocide all around us. We see those as “interruptions” from normalcy. But if we could somehow end those problems, and get back to what we see as “normal,” what would that be like? What is the goal of all reformists?
It would involve living in separate houses, accumulating separate possessions, living separate lives, pursuing separate interests and careers. 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,” though we never notice it or think about it.
That separateness is neither necessary or desirable. And it is the cause of all the war, austerity, injustice, and ecocide. Thus our “normal” is self-contradictory: The “normal” is the cause of the interruptions to the “normal.” We need to replace it with an altogether different “normal.”
Perhaps, in those few lines, I have not convinced you of the need to end private property. But for now, I’m just trying to get across to you this more basic idea:
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.
2016 Dec 30, revision 1.26.