Big Lies About the Big Lie Strategy
Last night Jon Stewart delivered a scathing rebuke to Representative Steve Cohen for his comment about 'The Big Lie." It was quite the lecture, serious, pointed and very aggressive. I know that I felt thoroughly chastised. After all, I've been writingabout The Big Lie for years, as have many other writers. In fact, anyone with even the tiniest bit of historical knowledge knows that if you write or talk about The Big Lie, you are referencing Nazi propaganda.
Here's the Wikipedia entry:
The Big Lie (German: Große Lüge) is a propagandatechnique. The expression was coined by Adolf Hitler, when he dictated his 1925 book Mein Kampf,for a lie so "colossal" that no one would believe that someone "could have the impudence to distort thetruth so infamously." Hitler believed the technique was used by Jews to unfairly blame Germany's loss in World War I on German Army officer Erich Ludendorff.
Later, Joseph Goebbels put forth a slightly different theory which has come to be more commonly associated with the expression "big lie." Goebbels wrote the following paragraph in an article dated 12 January 1941, 16 years after Hitler's first use of the phrase "big lie," titled "Aus Churchills Lügenfabrik" and translated "From Churchill's Lie Factory." It was published in Die Zeit ohne Beispiel.
That is of course rather painful for those involved. One should not as a rule reveal one's secrets, since one does not know if and when one may need them again. The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.
(It's quite revealing that both of them explained The Big Lie by attributing it to others. Projection seems to be in the DNA.)
Now some of us reckless liberals might have said, as Steve Cohen did, that the Republican talking point accusing the health care reform of featuring euthanasia was the perfect definition of a Big Lie, in exactly the way that Goebbels defined it:
The stubborn yet false rumor that President Obama’s health care proposals would create government-sponsored “death panels” to decide which patients were worthy of living seemed to arise from nowhere in recent weeks.
Advanced even this week by Republican stalwarts including the party’s last vice-presidential nominee,Sarah Palin, and Charles E. Grassley, the veteran Iowa senator, the nature of the assertion nonetheless seemed reminiscent of the modern-day viral Internet campaigns that dogged Mr. Obama last year, falsely calling him a Muslim and questioning his nationality.
But the rumor — which has come up at Congressional town-hall-style meetings this week in spite of an avalanche of reports laying out why it was false — was not born of anonymous e-mailers, partisan bloggers or stealthy cyberconspiracy theorists.
Rather, it has a far more mainstream provenance, openly emanating months ago from many of the same pundits and conservative media outlets that were central in defeating President Bill Clinton’s health care proposals 16 years ago, including the editorial board of The Washington Times, the American Spectator magazine and Betsy McCaughey, whose 1994 health care critique made her a star of the conservative movement (and ultimately, New York’s lieutenant governor).[...]
The specter of government-sponsored, forced euthanasia was raised as early as Nov. 23 , just weeks after the election and long before any legislation had been drafted, in an outlet with opinion pages decidedly opposed to Mr. Obama, The Washington Times.
In an editorial, the newspaper reminded its readers of the Aktion T4 program of Nazi Germany in which “children and adults with disabilities, and anyone anywhere in the Third Reich was subject to execution who was blind, deaf, senile, retarded, or had any significant neurological condition.”
Noting the “administrative predilections” of the new team at the White House, it urged “anyone who sees the current climate as a budding T4 program to win the hearts and minds of deniers.”
The editorial captured broader concerns about Mr. Obama’s abortion rights philosophy held among socially conservative Americans who did not vote for him. But it did not directly tie forced euthanasia to health care plans of Mr. Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress.
When the Democrats included money for family planning in a proposed version of the stimulus bill in January, the socially conservative George Neumayrwrote for the American Spectator: “Euthanasia is another shovel ready job for Pelosi to assign to the states. Reducing health care costs under Obama’s plan, after all, counts as economic stimulus, too — controlling life, controlling death, controlling costs.”
Ms. McCaughey, whose 1994 critique of Mr. Clinton’s plan was hotly disputed after its publication in The New Republic, weighed in around the same time.
She warned that a provision in the stimulus bill would create a bureaucracy to “monitor treatments to make sure your doctor is doing what the federal government deems appropriate and cost-effective,” was carried in a commentary she wrote for Bloomberg News that gained resonance throughout the conservative media, most notably with Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck.But Ms. McCaughey’s article provided another opportunity for others to raise the specter of forced euthanasia. “Sometimes for the common good, you just have to say, ‘Hey, Grandpa, you’ve had a good life,’ ” Mr. Beck said.
The syndicated conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote, “No one should be surprised at the coming embrace of euthanasia.” The Washington Times editorial page reprised its reference to the Nazis, quoting the Aktion T4 program: “It must be made clear to anyone suffering from an incurable disease that the useless dissipation of costly medications drawn from the public store cannot be justified.”
If that isn't The Big Lie at work in our time, in living color, I don't know what is. I'm sorry the term was coined by Nazis, but that's an inconvenient fact for those who use the technique. It wascoined by the Nazis, they did use it to convince the people that Jews were the reason for all their problems. These are just the facts. When you reference the Big Lie you reference the Nazis, whether or not you use the term or say the "H" word or bring up Goebbels. You can leave those out, but it doesn't change the fact that this is a Nazi propaganda technique .
Now, you can instead draw comparisons, as Jon Stewart did, to advertisements, saying they are "Big lies" as well, but there is a slightly different character to saying on floor of the House of Representatives that Health Care Reform will cause seniors to be put to death by their government than there is to claiming that your sheets will smell better if you use a certain detergent.
Remember, this is The Big Lie:
a lie so "colossal" that no one would believe that someone "could have the impudence to distort thetruth so infamously."
I don't think your average advertising campaign really fits that bill. Lying about the threat of weapons of mass destruction does ("we can't wait for a smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud.") Lying about the government planning to euthanize its citizens does. And there has to be a way to distinguish those kinds of lies from your average Viagra commercial. They are propaganda of adistinct sort, huge destructive lies that frighten people and whip them into a frenzy.
Now perhaps we can find new language to describe this phenomenon. But that won't change the meaning and it won't change the fact that Hitler and Goebbels were the ones who created the concept and used it to great effect. I suppose it will soothe all the well meaning liberals' feelings and make them feel much better about the fact that they are willing to whip their own into line and publicly chastise them for using the obvious and meaningful comparison. There's no reason that political correctness designed to protect those who have been marginalized and oppressed shouldn't be extended to those who lie and seek to dominate. We're nothing if not fair.
But let's not kid ourselves about one thing. Policing of the left by our putative leaders against those who are calling out The Big Lie will only result in liberals saying nothing while the right carries on with its program.
Perlstein wrote about the consequences of this a couple of months ago:
We live in a mendocracy.
As in: rule by liars.
Political scientists are going crazy crunching the numbers to uncover the skeleton key to understanding the Republican victory last Tuesday.
But the only number that matters is the one demonstrating that by a two-to-one margin likely voters thought their taxes had gone up, when, for almost all of them, they had actually gone down. Republican politicians, and conservative commentators, told them Barack Obama was a tax-mad lunatic. They lied. The mainstream media did not do their job and correct them. The White House was too polite—"civil," just like Obama promised—to say much. So people believed the lie. From this all else follows.
And it was all too predictable.
Consider February 24, 2009, when, after four glowing weeks in office, Obama delivered his first, triumphant, address to a joint session of Congress. Two weeks earlier, he had signed the $700 billion stimulus bill. This was his speech defending it.
That was the one in which Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, looking like a cross between a deer in the headlights and a 10-year-old delivering a prize school report, delivered the Republican response. You remember! He singled out for excoriation the $140 million in stimulus spending "for something called 'volcano monitoring'"; this happened to be about a month before a volcano erupted, releasing a 60,000 foot cloud of ash near—dot dot dot—Wasilla, Alaska.
On CNN, David Brooks followed Jindal. He called the governor's "stale, government-is-the problem" rhetoric "a disaster for the Republican Party," and excoriated those who insisted on hugging tight to it as "insane." The people appeared to agree. In a snap poll, 92 percent of those surveyed had a positive reaction to Obama's speech—68 percent a very positive reaction. Only 8 percent had a negative reaction.
The next morning I tuned in to Rush Limbaugh. I was fascinated to see how the hell he might respond.
Like a deer in the headlights? Not quite. The first caller, though a self-professed ditto-head, took objection to Rush's argument that Obama had revealed himself in the speech as a tax-and-spend liberal. The caller quoted Obama's words: "Because of this plan, 95 percent of the working households in America will receive a tax cut—a tax cut that you will see in your paychecks beginning on April 1." (Which was true: People did.)
Rush responded, fluidly and without a gram of doubt. "Pay no attention to what Obama says. He means the opposite in most cases. What he says is irrelevant."
So the guy to whom all Republicans must kowtow on pain of political death had just laid down a marker that everything Obama said was a lie.
What if the White House had in those months in early 2009 put in the rhetorical forefront a story about Rush's tens of millions of listeners, and all politicians who refused to denounce Rush, were effectively saying anything the Chief Constitutional Officer of the United States said was a priori a diabolical lie?
But Obama didn't. That would be the "old politics of division." Not Obama's bag.
This would have been one of many opportunities to wedge the opposition between the authoritarian nihilists and the "constructive" Republicans who had America's best interests at heart. Instead, the nihilists got to tell the story that endures in the day-after punditry from last Tuesday: that the electorate "rejected Obama's agenda."
The vector worked, and works, like this:
(a) A mountebank teaches his millions of followers that everything the president says is a priori a lie;
b) The mainstream media that acts as if anything his millions of followers believe is a priori deserving of respect as heartland folk wisdom (note the cover article lionizing Limbaugh in this week's Newsweek);
(c) The president unilaterally renders himself constitutionally incapable of breaking the chain between (a) and (b), such that, (d), the assumption that Obama raised taxes when he really lowered them becomes hegemonic for a majority of the electorate, and even a large plurality of Democrats.
Q.E.D.: Governing has become impossible.
When one side breaks the social contract, and the other side makes a virtue of never calling them out on it, the liar always wins. When it becomes "uncivil" to call out liars, lying becomes free.
So you find him at a press conference, the day after the midterm elections, saying with all apparent sincerity that he agreed the majority of Americans participated in a "fundamental rejection of his agenda"—who, that is, implicitly believe he raised their taxes.
When he really lowered them.
What Representative Steve Cohen did was point out that the Republicans had used The Big Lie on health care. This is indisputably true, as that article from the NY Times amply demonstrates. He attributed the concept to Goebbels and pointed out that the Nazis had used it to effect the holocaust, true as well. He didn't say that Republicans were Nazis, he said they were using Nazi propaganda techniques -- also true. But this is not allowed. You cannot say such things, and I'm sure that no liberal, not even a Jewish one, as Cohen is, will do so in the future. We have all been schooled: from now on, when they accuse us of trying to euthanize old people we'll just say they are "spinning" and that their "PR" isn't quite correct. That will change everything.
Now maybe someone would like to deal with this:
You'll have to pardon me for being a bit skeptical that Glenn and the boys will be so impressed with Jon Stewart's scolding and the acquiescence of good liberals everywhere that they will change their ways. But I live in hope.