lies and power

Truth in a time of bullies and proto-fascists

Russians RT interview 2 1800px
Lovers of medieval architecture. Source: YouTube screenshot

Lugging special equipment including a bone saw, 15 high-ranking Saudi operatives flew to Istanbul, murdered Jamal Khashoggi, and dismembered his body. Don’t like that version? Try this. The killing was an interrogation gone horribly wrong, and the crown prince had no idea. Or maybe it was, as Donald Trump suggested, the work of “rogue killers, who knows?”

Carrying the deadly Novichok poison, two Russian spies travelled to the British city of Salisbury and tried to kill a former Russian double agent and his daughter. Or not? Their presence was a coincidence, the two Russians (pictured) averred on state-run RT. They were nutritionists who happen to love medieval architecture and wanted to see Salisbury’s cathedral, but ran into bad weather.

Neo-Nazi mobs in Chemnitz “hunted” people who look foreign. Or perhaps those were isolated incidents taken out of context? Maybe most demonstrators were “normal” citizens protesting peacefully against the stabbing of a German by a refugee.

Truth has been a vexed subject ever since Homo Sapiens became smart enough to lie. First, truth is indeed occasionally relative, when people from other vantages perceive the same situation differently. Second, everybody lies sometimes. Third, it is not clear whether truth is subservient to power, or power to truth.

Jason Stanley, a professor at Yale University, thinks that this ambiguity is part of the “formula” for fascism. (By that he means everything from Mussolini’s prototype to today’s copycats in Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Myanmar and elsewhere.) The first ingredient, Stanley argues, is cultivating nostalgia for a mythic past: “Make America Great Again”; Ottoman grandeur; “Heimat”; et cetera. The second ingredient is division into us and them, where “they” can be Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, Rohingya, refugees, “cosmopolitans”, or what have you. The third is a blatant attack on truth.

This starts with planting fake news. It continues with calling real news fake, fake, fake. It extends to peddling conspiracy theories — that Jews poison wells, that a “deep state” is plotting subversion, that climate change is a hoax. Crucially, the purveyors of such lies neither believe them nor fear being refuted. Instead, they relish their power to lie, just as a schoolyard bully browbeats an underdog by pointing to a red lunchbox and repeating “That’s blue!” until the victim agrees.

This explains, for example, Vladimir Putin and that comical performance by his two Salisbury agents, argues Peter Pomerantsev at the London School of Economics, the author of “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.” Putin doesn’t care whether anybody in the West believes anything he says. He is simply displaying his power to ignore truth with impunity. So do other bullies who think they can get away with it.

In some schoolyards the bully wins and rules. In others, he doesn’t. Each democracy must decide which schoolyard it is to be.

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