Monday, December 06, 2004

Lying about the future

Last week I quoted Hitler with respect to the power of "the great lie". A friend commented that it was quite something for me to compare Bush to Hitler, but that it was probably okay, since Wonkette had just the day before compared him to Stalin. Another friend objected that Bush doesn't exactly lie so much as just make absurd claims. A couple of responses.

As to the Hitler comparison, I didn't actually compare Bush to Hitler, but rather said that the Bush regime practices an approach to deception that Hitler had described very well -- that is, rather than deceive about small things, deceive about very large things. In the passage from Mein Kampf that I quoted, Hitler explains that in many respects it's easier for politicians to get away with big lies than small ones, since really big deceptions have an awing quality to them. One thing I should have noted, however, is that if you read the entire passage in which Hitler makes this comment, it is quite clear that he is criticizing the practice and ascribing it to his political opponents. (That Hitler himself adopted the practice later is a different story.) The main point, however, is that Hitler achieved a fundamental insight into the political epistomology of mass society. Which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his political career.

As to the details of Bush's art of deception, Josh Marshall's take in the September 2003 Washington Monthly is unequalled. Marshall explains how Bush's scorn for expertise, in practice, amounts to a new form of lying. The Bush regime habitually makes statements about probable futures that so completely fly in the face of what the vast majority of experts on the subject claim (e.g., human activity is not causing global warming; mass tax cuts can be sustained without causing permanent mass deficits; touching genitals can get you pregnant; etc.) that its insistance on these positions amounts to a form of lying. Although ignoring massive amounts of contrary evidence thus functions as the logical equivalent of lying, because his statements typically refer to some as-yet-unrealized future state, Bush shields himself from the most obvious charges about lying.

To get a better sense of what I'm referring to, recall the classical Humean point about empiricism: just because the sun has risen on every morning we've ever known is no proof that it will do so tomorrow; it is, however, damn good evidence that it will. On many subjects, Bush is asking us to accept that by the application of enough will, perseverance, and faith, we can achieve results not much less fantastical than the failure of the sun to rise tomorrow. What would we make of Bush if he claimed that nay-saying physicists were just pessimistic liberal elitists? In claiming that things are getting better in Iraq, that the application of mass force to an entire city will quell the insurgency, and that democracy is on the march, Bush is making a claim that, in light of the historical evidence, is only marginally less preposterous than the one about the sun not rising.

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