Let me propose a solution to a puzzle that has vexed all of us for nearly three years — since 9-11, actually. The puzzle concerns the sheer ubiquity of dissembling in the Age of Bush.
The crazy claims hit us every day: lies brazen, bold, and breathtaking in their degree of misrepresentation; assertions that are perfect inversions of what is true; claims so implausible that believing them would require a level of ignorance that no one who reads the daily newspaper could possess; analysis so twisted, it is a wonder that anyone could spout it without laughing.
Let me just offer a few to give you the flavor of what I mean:
- There was a conspiracy between Al Qaida and Saddam to attack the US.
- Iraq was a grave threat to the US.
- The US won a great victory in Afghanistan.
- The US invasion of Iraq was so beautifully done that it will go down in the history of warfare as a model and ideal of how to decapitate a nation.
- The US wants democracy in the Middle East.
- The Bush regime has done no harm at all to civil liberties or law-abiding Americans.
- The US is making a Christ-like sacrifice in bring liberty to Iraq.
- The terrorists hate us because we are good.
- Bombs, violence, and terror attacks are carried out by holdouts and a shrinking minority of people desperate to stop the inevitable victory of democracy and freedom.
- Saddam is hated by all Iraqis.
- The US government is loved by all but a few Iraqis who are Baathist holdouts.
- Iraq is better off today than two years ago.
- There is something backward and primitive in the Arab mind that resists Western values.
- Critics of the Iraq war are harming national security through their sympathy with terrorists.
We hear versions of these every day, though public-spirited writers of left and right labor to expose them. Indeed, you are as likely to read refutations of these claims on Counterpunch.org or Moveon.org as you are on Antiwar.com and LRC. A toast to those who work so long and hard to correct the record!
And yet, refuting these lies is like shooting fish in a barrel. Hundreds of stories from around the world appear every day that debunk the bunk. What is startling is how the claims keep coming back, as if the people who promote them have no regard for the truth at all, and have no shame whatsoever about mouthing falsehoods again and again.
Let’s try to imagine this same level of mendacity taking place at the local level: say in your hometown. Imagine there were two or three people who made a series of crazy claims about another resident: that Mr. Smith is building a bomb, or is a convicted felon, or is carrying a deadly disease, or plans to become a suicide bomber, or lacks the proper values to live in your community. People might listen to their shocking claims for a day, but they would be quickly be investigated and dismissed. The perpetrators would be disgraced and Mr. Smith rehabilitated. This, I submit, is the way outrageous liars are generally treated. Their fate is usually a sad one, as befits de facto followers of the Father of Lies.
So how is it that the relentless liars on US foreign policy and war are not outed and disgraced? Why are they permitted to socialize in polite company? Why are their columns carried in reputable newspapers and why do the networks continue to interview them as if they were serious voices contributing to the public dialogue? Why are they not shunned and rebuked the way systematic liars in private life are avoided and discredited?
The crucial difference is that they are lying on behalf of power. And not just any power. We are talking about the greatest centralized power on the globe, the world’s largest, most well-armed, and most dangerous government, the only government to have ever used nuclear weapons against civilians and the government that has invaded more countries than any other in modern times.
To lie on behalf of the local mayor affords you a bit of liberality. People will be more reluctant to call you on your claims. Every one knows this. But let the mayor be kicked out of office, and you are suddenly held accountable. Lie on behalf of your state’s governor and you are granted even more latitude and tolerance. People will give you the benefit of the doubt far more than if you were just some Joe on the street.
But lie on behalf of the global empire, and anything you say is treated as serious news, worthy of consideration and deference. The spokesmen for the regime — those who lend their voices to legitimizing the monopolists of violence — are always and everywhere granted credibility that they have not earned, if only because they have the power and you do not. So it has always been throughout history.
This, I submit, is the explanation for OpinionJournal.com, NationalReview.com, and FoxNews.com. They are all mirror sites of WhiteHouse.gov (where you find out that all is going according to plan in Iraq), and insofar as that is true, they enjoy all the privileges of power, including the privilege to spread radically implausible claims with surety and even arrogance.
None of which is to say that these lies are actually believed. Most people do not believe them so long as they are mouthed by someone employed by the White House. It is widely understood that part of the job of being in government consists of saying things that help the state and attacking those who are against the state. This is the work of the communications office in any government bureaucracy.
The silver linings in American democracy are the tell-all books that come out after the regime is kicked out. The books have a common thread: they expose the regime as fraught with liars. The liars will go back to private life, or, if they are good enough, they will be hired by the next regime.
The pundits are more problematic because they are not directly paid by the state to lie. They have signed up for a wide range of reasons, but mostly because they want to get ahead. To resist their prattle requires intelligence and critical thought. To refute them and swat down their lies is a difficult and sometimes tedious job, but it must be done. So long as there are empires, there will be ever larger lies to cover their cruelties, and a corresponding moral obligation imposed on those who care to advance the truth.
The moral of the story is this. If you love the lie, stick to the state as your cover. If you love the truth, you have to find it outside the halls of power.