Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Big Lie?

My main preoccupation in this blog is working through the thesis that the culture of liberalism is no longer operating as an effective medium of rational deliberation about public affairs. I think liberals have a problem in this regard that’s all the more acute for their being oblivious to the possibility that they have a problem. The best evidence for my thesis are examples of smart and well-informed people saying utterly improbable things in liberal circles to which other liberals nod their heads in reflexive agreement. Occasionally you run across examples that are emblematic of liberalism’s sorry intellectual state.

Consider this obviously heartfelt explanation of Obama’s political troubles from Andrew Sullivan:
“It seems to me that the last year or so in America's political culture has represented the triumph of untruth. And the untruth was propagated by a deliberate, simple and systemic campaign to kill Obama's presidency in its crib. . . .

“Every one of [Obama’s signature policies] could be criticized in many ways. What cannot be done honestly, in my view, is to create a narrative from all of them to describe Obama as an anti-American hyper-leftist, spending the US into oblivion. But since this seems to be the only shred of thinking left on the right (exacerbated by the justified flight of the educated classes from a party that is now openly contemptuous of learning), it became a familiar refrain - pummeled into our heads day and night by talk radio and Fox. If you think I'm exaggerating, try the following thought experiment. . . .

This is the era of the Big Lie, in other words, and it translates into a lot of little lies - "death panels," "out-of-control" spending, "apologies for America" etc. - designed to concoct a false narrative so simple and so familiar it actually succeeded in getting into people's minds in the midst of a brutal recession. And integral to this process have been conservative "intellectuals" who should and do know better, but have long since sacrificed intellectual honesty for the cheap thrills of enabling power-grabs.”
I know that Sullivan occasionally still calls himself a conservative, but here he’s reprising a familiar liberal theme, viz., that Obama’s current political troubles are largely a function of willful Republican/conservative disinformation. Sullivan embellishes this liberal cliché with a phrase, “the Big Lie,” coined by Hitler as a description of Jewish treachery and operationalized by Goebbels as a propaganda technique. That’s an apt comparison, as long as you don’t get hung up on the actual meaning of the words “big” and “lie” and aren’t distracted by how the practice of lying actually works.

To lie is knowingly to say something false with the intention of deceiving the person you’re saying it to. We’ll avoid getting hung up on the alleged liars’ motives by stipulating that, although they say that Obama’s “an anti-American hyper-leftist, spending the US into oblivion,” they really believe in their heart of hearts that he’s a right-wing proponent of American exceptionalism, balanced budgets and supply-side economics.

Let’s focus, instead, on the fact that, as a matter of logic, the possibility of lying depends on the liar’s knowing things that the person being lied to doesn’t know. That means that controlling the victim’s access to information is a necessary feature of lying. Sometimes that’s just a matter of the liar uttering a falsehood with an innocent expression. But getting away with a Big Lie, one that durably deceives a large public as to a fact of vital political importance, demands that the liar block the public's access to information that would expose the falsehood. That was the secret of Goebbels’s success as a propagandist. From his perch atop the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda he maintained a regime of strict censorship that deprived the German population of disconfirming information.

So the credibility of Sullivan’s story depends on his alleged liars having something like Goebbels's iron grip on the channels of communication. Do they? Not exactly. It turns out the closest thing to a Goebbels in Sullivan's story are a bunch of guys writing articles about American exceptionalism in National Review. Let’s generously add the usual suspects to Sullivan’s roster of conservative/Republican liars (Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin the opinion journalists on FNC, et al.). Add anyone else you like and then ask yourself:  how much collective control do these people exercise over the torrent of political information that’s now poring out of not only non-conservative daily press, the television networks and the cable outlets like CNN and MSNBC, but proliferating alternative news sources like the Huffington Post and the Daily Dish? I wouldn’t know exactly how to quantify my answer, but “approximately none” sounds like a safe bet.

There’s never been a less auspicious place and time for telling Big Lies than here and now. Yet a guy as smart and well-informed as Andrew Sullivan isn't joking when he talks about Big Lies as a way of consoling himself and the people he’s addressing aren’t laughing. That must mean something.


Anonymous said...

Bravo! Once again Mr. Replogle, you seem to have ferreted out the liberals' biggest problem. If liberals could only look at themselves in the mirror and watch themselves eat this pablum.

Dave said...

Agreed with Anon above. You hit the nail on the head.

I'd like to believe that that particular column from Sullivan isn't so much an emblematic representation of "liberalism's sorry state" as it is a horrific caricature of the worst that liberal thinking has to offer. I say I'd like to believe that: but do I? I honestly don't know.

The question, I suppose, is whether it's true that (many/most) liberals "nod their heads in reflexive agreement". Does the failure of other liberals to laugh at this kind of nonsense indicate their tacit agreement with it; or, perhaps, are other liberals widening their eyes in alarm as they back away, slowly and cautiously, from this frightening little corner of the liberal cocktail party?

Mean Voter said...

The more I read this blog, and some of the ridiculous columns that Mr. Replogle quotes and links to -- case in point Andrew Sullivan's silliness about the "Big Lie" -- the more I think that columnists - on the left and right - just say outrageous things to get likeminded readers jazzed up and opposing thinkers equally frenzied. I'm not too sure that, in response to Dave's comment, one can make generalizations from any of it. All we can ever truly know is what voters say on election day. Last week, voters said a lot.