Lying In State - and Elsewhere

We need a phenomenology of lying. As the immanent and all-pervasive essence of our society, lying deserves no less; and it is time it got what it deserves. Let’s be honest about dishonesty. How do They dupe us? Let me count the ways.

Some forms of fraud, especially the face-to-face ones, are highly refined. A fine fog descends upon people conversing in any of various shared idioms who suppose themselves to be saying something when they are just emitting signals, like birdcalls, which elicit like responses. In truth it is nothing but noise. Advertising, New Age jargon, fern-bar pick-up chitchat, and the dialects of Marxism are familiar examples. Much more expression than communication, at best they say less than they seem to, and they’re rarely at their best. Most of the “gaps” in the Nixon tapes aren’t missing.

The epitome of consensual deception is the self-contradiction turned term-of-art, for example:

Open marriage

Revolutionary government

Law and order

Right to work

Liberation theology

Free schools

—and so forth.

At the other pole (General Jaruzelski, for instance) from sophisticated swindling is outright prevarication. Like cigarettes, but without the warning, these lies often come in packs. Politicians and priests afford the clearest examples — examples we clearly cannot afford. The business world (is there any other?) also contains entire occupations of mendacity professionals, like salesmen and lawyers. There are industries like nuclear power and “defense” which presuppose more than the low-level daze of the ordinary consumer, they fob off mega-lies on a bamboozled populace as a matter of business necessity. Still, politicians are the ideal-tripe liars. Lying (in addition to giving orders) is what we pay them for, or rather what they pay themselves for with our taxes. Diplomacy for instance is just formal-dress deception. When we say someone is being “diplomatic” we mean that he is telling lies to quiet some conflict. But in diplomacy governments are dealing with violence monopolies just like themselves and so they lie with more caution than they often take with the populations they control. Politicians are often ambiguous but rarely subtle. Why not neglect nuances when you have most of a country’s gunmen at your command?

A pristine and exemplary Big Lie is, for instance, built in to almost every public reference to “terrorism.” Properly the word refers to the use of violence against noncombatants for political purposes. The Central American death squads or the Soviet airdrops of explosive “toys” for Afghan children to maim themselves with are examples. The idea is to impose one’s will, not by direct coercion of those to be controlled, but by instilling fear in them, i.e., “terror.” No harm in having a word for an activity which, whatever its pros and cons, differs in some respect from war, crime, civil disorder, etc.

It is precisely these distinctions which the politicians and their academic and journalistic camp followers use the word to obscure. To them, all political violence, vandalism or even mere tumult is “terrorism” unless the terrorists wear uniforms. Governments therefore cannot engage in terrorism, no matter what they do, whereas anti-state violence is always terrorism even if it consists of attacks by one military force against another. The massacres conducted by America’s Salvadoran native auxiliaries; Israeli bombing of Palestinian refugee camps or kidnapping of Lebanese hostages; even the Cambodian and Afghan holocausts, so sanctimoniously bewailed, or South African jailhouse killings are, because they are state-sanctified slaughters, not terrorist. Terrorism is not so much a matter of mayhem and murder as it is of sartorial correctness. Soldiers are terrorists who were careful to dress for success. That is enough to let the managers of public opinion sleep soundly, if not necessarily for as long as the President did when, despite the blowing-up of Grenadan mental patients and the gunning down of Cuban construction workers, he reported that, as usual, he slept well.

It is remarkable how well this ploy works. The otherwise abused Sandinistas were terrorists till the magic moment they supplanted (as later they planted) Somoza. President Robert Mugabe was a black “ter” until his transubstantiation into a Zimbabwean statesman. When Shi’ites take American hostages they are terrorists. When Israelis take Shi’ite hostages it is — a violation of international law, perhaps, or cause for restrained criticism, but not by any means terrorism. Despite its hypocritical crudity, the terrorism hoax has gone over well. The G.l. Joe doll, mustered out of service for a few years after the War That Dare Not Speak Its Name, has made a comeback. Now he fights terrorists.

That the authorities, like the authoritarians who envy them, lie systematically is no news. Karl Kraus and George Orwell said as much. But they have refined or at any rate augmented their scams. Our complex society, resting on coerced consent, has come up with modes of manipulation so advanced that falsification can be minimized, even eliminated without the truth getting out. The system just overwhelms us with information so trivial as to deserve its washed-out word “data” until the few matters of real importance are leveled down and out of mind. The scale and structure of society prevent people from immediately experiencing it, or each other. Knowledge is fragmented into artificial isolates and assigned to endogamous experts. In academia these exclusivities deserve the sadomasochist connotations of what they are called, “disciplines.” The social division of labor — splintering integrally experienced life into forced-fit standardized “roles” — extended into awareness, reproduces itself while covering its own tracks.

Rules and roles render us as interchangeable as the commodities whose production is our destruction. No wonder that, as Karl Marx once remarked before becoming a politician, “the only comprehensible language we have is the language our possessions use together.” We need another one. And we need unhurried and unharried occasions of wordless repose. Revolution requires an anti-idiotic idiom expressing the as yet unspeakable. The love that dare not speak its name has the jump on the other one, libeled by labels, whose name is taken in vain and never returned to the rightful owners.

The corruption of language promotes the corruption of life. It is even its prerequisite. A first step toward peace and freedom — impossible now under class society and its business end, the state — is to call things by their true names. Thus the difference between the operatives of the military-industrial-political-journalistic complex and the small fry maligned by the media as “terrorists” is only the difference between wholesale and retail. War is murder. Taxation is theft. Conscription is slavery. Laissez-faire is totalitarian. And (says Debord), “in a world really turned on its head, the true is a moment of the false.”

Part III: Appeal To Treason