Three Perspectives on The (D)evolution of Rightwing Lies

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Oct 11, 2009 at 15:30

Don't look now, but conservative lying has just jumped the shark, "big time", as America's #2 war criminal would say.  Fully getting a handle on it involves a three part process, as this diary will explain.

Part One: Conservative Identity Uber Alles

On Tuesday, I posted a Quick Hit about conservatives' newfound discovery that Bible is full of liberal bias, and therefore must be rewritten more along the lines of Atlas Shrugged.  Later that day, Mike followed up with a frontpage diary. Maybe I'm just imagining things, but I think I see a pattern here, a definite progression of the crazies. Just before that, you'll recall, there was the widespread outbreak of glee that America had lost the bid for the 2016 Olympics.  And since I began working on this diary mid-week, Obama won the Nobel Prize, leading to another round of conservative frenzy.  So, knee-jerk patriotism and Biblical literalism are suddenly out on the right.  That's got to be big news.

Now, I fully agree with Chris that the US didn't really deserve the 2016 Olympics, and that Rio, as the First City of South America certainly did.  (I also think that the Nobel Prize would have done a lot more good going to some frontline activist.)  But that sort of clear-eyed realism about the Olympics is a long way from cheering America's loss of them-particularly because the likes of Chris and I are known for our nerdy reality-based ways, while those wildly and mindlessly cheering America's defeat are known for wildly and mindless cheering for America--even when what they're cheering for (such as the war in Iraq) has a really nasty downside to it.  And the right complaining over Obama winning the Nobel Prize today makes me wonder where they were when Kissinger won it way back when.

In short, the disconnect is particularly strikingly.  That is, until you take a step back, and see the underlying consistency: to the conservative America-haters: in their minds, they alone are America.  If they're not running things, then it's not America.  It's just that simple. Which is why it's fine to talk about secession as soon as they lose an election, and to make a hero out of a racist backbencher who disrespects the President during a joint session of Congress by screaming out a lie, accusing the President of being a liar.  If you are the real America and everyone else is not, well, then, you can do pretty much whatever you want--and do it all in the name of America.  You can destroy America--just like the South tried to do during the War of Southern Aggression--and if you can do that, then you damn sure can cheer your heart out when America loses in some international competition, even one that brings a lot of jobs with it during a recession.

The same logic applies in rewriting the Bible.  If you're the only real Christians then the Bible says what you say it says, period.  "Who are you going to believe--me or your lying eyes?" becomes, "Who are you going to believe--me or your lying eyes when you read the Bible?"  They've been telling us to ignore the Gospels and think only of Leviticus, Deteronomy and Revelations for decades on end now.  As with their America-bashing, this is merely the next logical step.

Paul Rosenberg :: Three Perspectives on The (D)evolution of Rightwing Lies
Still, if there's an underlying consistency to the logic here, there's also something to be said for the gut-level sense that some sort of line has been crossed.  Somehow, precisely because there's no overt politics involved, the cheering over Chicago losing the Olympic bid is more shocking to many than the widespread support for secession revealed in polling several months ago, in the wake of the teabagger's parties.  A line has clearly been crossed, even if most folks aren't precisely sure just what that line is.  

And that's the message as well, behind the new conservative call to re-write the Bible. Conservatives have never had any legitimate claim to be Christians in the original sense of the word.  Christianity grew as the religion of the Roman Empire's underclass.  The moment it was adopted as the Empire's official religion, it was fundamentally transformed from an alternative worldview to a subsidiary, reinforcing one.  Within a few short years, it was being pressed into service to justify war.  Even then, however, compromised as it was, Imperial Christianity was a far, far cry from fundamentalism, which is a thoroughly modern development, as Karen Armstrong explains in The Battle For God.

Before the modern era, it was taken for granted that there two types of knowledge--mythos, knowledge of the eternal, inner, psychic/spiritual world--and logos, knowledge of the ever-changing, outer, physical world.  It was also taken for granted that mythos was superior, far more important and reliable.  It was the dramatic advances of science and technology that helped birth the modern world which changed that balance, so that modern fundamentalism emerged out of the failed faith in mythos--the actual basis of religion--and the felt need to proclaim the lie that religious truths were matters of logos instead.

Having based their entire faith on such a basic misunderstanding, it's a relatively minor matter for rightwing fundamentalists to go about rewriting their sacred texts--except, of course, from their own literalist worldview. But they've a lot of practice in it over the years.  For example, you know where Jesus says that it's as hard for a rich man to get into heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle?  Well, according to rightwing fundamentalist lore, the "Eye of the Needle" is the name of an actual passageway that's quite, quite narrow--but not too narrow for the right sort of camel to pass through!  It's all balderdash, of course.  But good practice for the wholesale rewriting that's now being proposed.

In short, what I'm arguing is that there has been a fundamental shift into realms that were once taboo, but that there's also been significant prep work leading up to this.

One more example, before moving on to the next stage of analysis, just to illustrate that it's really a broadening trend, not just focused on Obama and the Bible.  Earlier this week, Digby highlighted a column by Thomas Franks puzzling over yet another inversion of the traditional conservative stance--the re-presentation of robust private enterprise as 97-pound weakling:

What makes government predatory, Mr. Grassley seems to believe, is its public-mindedness. Were government to offer health insurance to everybody without the industry's many devices for excluding risky individuals, some seem to fear, it might be able to offer consumers a price too fair for the profit-minded sector to match.

This is a curious reversal for a movement that ordinarily celebrates Darwinian struggle and the destruction of the weak by the strong. Just think of the conservative caricatures that must be inverted for this argument to work: All those soft liberal bureaucrats? Ferocious man-eaters. The welfare state? Law of the jungle.

And the actuarial-minded hardliners of the insurance biz, the ones who deny your claim or cancel your policy? A gentle but endangered species that needs our nurturing, sort of like panda bears.

With these examples in mind, we turn to another perspective.

Part Two: The Mad Men Progression

So that's one perspective on how conservative lies and propaganda have recently jumped the shark.  The next one comes from David's diary Mad Men 2.0, about his column this week, where he says:

In Mad Men's early 1960s, the dark art of selling and spinning were being perfected and modernized. Before television, advertising was largely based on the repetition of anodyne fact-the theory being that if you simply hard-sell a product's virtues, ingredients and effects, that product will eventually fly off the shelves. In the television age, as Americans became more media literate and thus cynical, vendors began using ad firms to sophisticate their pitches with subtlety and insinuation....

A half-century into the information revolution, we grasp how all of those subjectivities conspire to influence us.

Not surprisingly, that mass psychological maturation is once again inspiring those with a vested interest in controlling information to develop new techniques. Thus, even as Mad Men grabs audience share with its potent retrospective on the original revolution in contemporary advertising, the business of information packaging is now experiencing a second revolution-a conversion to Mad Men 2.0. And this time, that business is following the worst lessons from its past.

Dan Draper to Donald Rumsfeld

In the last decade, America has witnessed the evolution of the head-pounding hard sell and brain-massaging soft pitch into what can be called "outraged denial." Its key component is replacing spin-the artful highlighting of partial truths-with a total rejection of all facts.

This PR device is based on the theory that in a post-Watergate, post-Monicagate world, the public will view spinned parsings as admissions of guilt, yet accept enraged refutations as ineluctably true. Through decades of commercials, congressional testimony and political punditry, we've been taught to believe that institutions and individuals may evade and prevaricate, but they will never defend or promote themselves with brazen, up-is-down fabrications because they know such lies can be easily exposed.

Of course, this expectation of minimal honesty is precisely why we're moving from the Don Draper zeitgeist to the Don Rumsfeld paradigm-that is, from finesse to outraged denial.

When a company's safety standards or earnings reports are criticized, the corporate parent today inevitably denies all charges with gusto, knowing we have trouble believing an angry denial isn't at least somewhat true. When a political figure is asked about sex with an intern or prior knowledge of a terrorist threat, he doesn't acknowledge any of the verifiable facts-he angrily rejects the entire line of questioning as irresponsible conspiracy theory, knowing that we don't want to believe he could lie so brazenly.

What we have here is a description of totalistic denial-which is perfectly matched to maintaining a posture of super-patriotism while cheering the loss of the United States, or a posture of Christian fundamentalism while rewriting the Bible for political convenience.  This is how David's perspective matches with what we've been witnessing recently.

While I agree whole-heartedly with what David is arguing here, I think it's just one part of the picture.  The individual company or politician engaged in outraged denial is easier to get our hands around, but it's really only own example of a broader phenomena in which outrage is often entirely absent.  Indeed, wholesale denial of facts coupled with a perfectly calm "totally objective" façade is part of the same cultural development, and can be seen as evolving much more gradually out of earlier practices.

Think, for example, of the panel of cigarette CEOs lying to Congressman Waxman's panel during the beginning of the Clinton Administration.  Think of how George W. Bush's dereliction of duty with the Texas Air National Guard was prevented from becoming a serious story, despite irrefutable evidence that he was AWOL at the very least, if not a deserter, and that he received substantial assistance from a shadowy old-boy network in getting off scot-free. Think about how we still don't have an accurate account of what happened on 9/11.  Or how we were lied into war with Iraq, and how no one has been called to account, despite the Downing Street Memos' release several years ago. Or the endless repetition of the same old global warming lies, over and over and over again.  Or the "Wedge Strategy" to replace evolution with creationism, without all that messy science stuff getting in the way.

In short, total denial of reality is not something new, but it has become increasingly central to our political culture over the past two decades or so.  Outrage is an effective adjunct for denial in some situations, and therefore it is used in them. But it is only one weapon in the attitudinal repertoire.

What's more, I don't think it's quite the whole story to say that "the public will view spinned parsings as admissions of guilt, yet accept enraged refutations as ineluctably true."  While this certainly may be the result, I would argue that many people in the public are quite aware of what's going on, whether they'll say so openly or not.  There is a dimension of psychological collusion involved that's very important.  Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their sort lie outrageously to their audiences, and many who listen raptly know at some level that they're being lied to-indeed, that is why they listen, to hear the lies they want others to validate for them.

This was clearly visible in the original era that Mad Men deals with, as I argued in a comment to David's diary where I comment on the show itself:

Implicating The Marks

One aspect that's particularly prominent with Draper is the role of tacit implication--and how implication of meaning leads to another sort of implication.

Draper is above all a visual man: lay out a tableau, and let the consumer's mind fill in the blanks--with a fair mix of forbidden (or at least somewhat disapproved of) impulses and desires moving things along.  Words merely serve to further what the imagery has set in motion.  And the tacit sharing of that "forbidden" implication draws adman and mark together.

Updating to today, the same principle still holds--an outraged denial that's known (or at least sensed) to be untrue, or at least somewhat misleading (at whatever level) implicates those who buy into it in the lie behind the outraged denial.

That's why merely exposing lies has limited impact: the first response is denial born of the fact that those who believed the lie did so knowingly at some level, and have no desire whatsoever to admit their own culpability--particularly when what's being denied is something as sordid and discredited as racism.

Of course, this also shows why the likes of Limbaugh and Beck attacked Obama as "racist" in the first place.  They and their audiences knew they were headed into tacit racist territory, and the best defense was an offense--so before doing anything else, they'd start off by claiming that Obama was racist--which, of course, was also an example of the same sort of outraged lie that David's talking about, even though it's not framed as a denial per se.

It would all be so much easlier if all the lying were going on "out there".  But of course, it's not.

Part Three: The Meta-Minsky Truth Instability Hypothesis

A third perspective comes from lifting the abstract structure of a model from Hyman Minsky's Financial Instability Hypothesis, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, in "Understanding the Financial Crisis: Hyman Minsky's 'Financial Instability Hypothesis'" Just as Minsky identified three different types of financing, whose balance shifted as the financial system changed, I believe a similar analysis can be applied to types of lying and/or propaganda.  

As long ago as the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, it struck me that politicians lie in very different ways.  In fact, I penned a lyric related to this:  "George Washington couldn't tell a lie/Richard Nixon couldn't tell the truth/And Ronald Reagan couldn't tell/the difference 'tween the two..."  Somewhat more rigorously, it seemed sensible to distinguish between pragmatic liars (those who lied for very specific reasons) as opposed to pathological liars (those who lie compulsively whether they need to or not) or bullshitters (those who simply say whatever's convenient or whatever pops in their head, truth, lies, it's all the same).  Pragmatic liars, in turn, could be divided into tactical liars and strategic liars, though it was clearly possible for someone to be both.  And these could also be divided into offensive vs. defensive liars-again with the caveat that one can easily be both.  It seemed to me that virtually anyone in politics was bound to be a tactical defensive liar-caught in a bad situation, virtually anyone in politics will lie out of sheer self-preservation. But there's quite a difference between that and someone who builds a career on a long-term premeditated strategy of lying to people, and another larger difference between that and someone who is seemingly incapable of every telling the truth.

I shared these thoughts with others over the years, mostly in bits and pieces, but in thinking about Minsky lately, I was struck by the thought that something much more worthwhile might be said about kinds of liars, drawing on an analogy with Minsky's kinds of investors.  Here are his three types as he described them:

Three distinct income-debt relations for economic units, which are labeled as hedge, speculative, and Ponzi finance, can be identified.

Hedge financing units are those which can fulfill all of their contractual payment obligations by their cash flows: the greater the weight of equity financing in the liability structure, the greater the likelihood that the unit is a hedge financing unit. Speculative finance units are units that can meet their payment commitments on 'income account' on their liabilities, even as they cannot repay the principal out of income cash flows. Such units need to 'roll over' their liabilities (e.g., issue new debt to meet commitments on maturing debt...

For Ponzi units, the cash flows from operations are not sufficient to fulfill either the repayment of principal or the interest due on outstanding debts by their cash flows from operations. Such units can sell assets or borrow. Borrowing to pay interest or selling assets to pay interest (and even dividends) on common stock lowers the equity of a unit, even as it increases liabilities and the prior commitment of future incomes.

The most direct translation of this would be to day that just as a greater flow of investments can cause an asset bubble, which leads to the situation in which ponzi investors can temporarily thrive, so, too, the flow of assertions--purported,  but not verified data-can lead to the situation in which similarly speculative traders in myth can also thrive.

These are only preliminary thoughts, but they seem promising to me.  The idea at this point should be stated quite generally, Just as with Minsky's different kinds of investors, there are different kinds of liars, and just as the fates of different kinds of investors are intertwined, so too as the fates of different kinds of liars.   David's description of the evolution of advertising sells suggests another way in which we might think about different kinds of lying operating in dynamic balance with one another.  This is just an embryonic idea at this point, but one that I felt might develop more quickly if I shared it with others.

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Reading this (4.00 / 5)
made me think frequently of Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism. The Big Lie (propagandistically better than parsing half-truths), accusing the enemy of exactly what you're doing (Obama's a racist), the ideological followers and also parts of the masses recognizing the lie and admiring its cleverness, the seductive thought that all truth really is mutable if you simply lie enough in quantity and quality....

Big lies (4.00 / 1)
With televisions in every home and waiting room in America constantly blaring big lies, is it any wonder that lots of people can't figure out the truth? The easiest form of propaganda is simply to state a bald-faced lie and then repeat it endlessly and have every other pundit on TV repeat it endlessly. It is hard for most people to accept that everyone on TV is a flaming liar, so they think there must be some truth to it.

With so much attention devoted to it, the Big Lie drives all other discourse off the map. We can't even talk about important things because the Big Lie must be discussed, defended, and refuted. But then as soon as one Lie has been finally refuted, another takes its place.

We need a McCarthy moment, when someone finally says "Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" and it sticks. And we need to take the media back so that Big Lies aren't broadcast 24/7 as if there was some truth to them.

[ Parent ]
On Bullshit (4.00 / 6)
For those that haven't read it, Princeton professor of philosophy Harry G. FrankFurt's On Bullshit is worth the read, despite the funny title.

I once downloaded it as a pdf, but that doesn't seem legal anymore, so no links along those lines, unfortunately.  The academic paper was released in paperback during the Bush years, for obvious reasons.  It is only 21 pages long:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In  consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis...

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These "anti-realist" doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

If this were to ever happen... (4.00 / 1)
Prof. Frankfurt:
I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis...

If we do this, then in 20 years, we'll have bullshit grad students writing bullshit papers for bullshit professors on bullshit theory for bullshit doctorates.

I don't think irony even comes close to describing whatever this is.

Health insurance is not health care.
If you don't fight, you can't win.
Never give up. Never Surrender.
Watch out for flying kabuki.

[ Parent ]
Yeah, I Haven't Read That In A While (4.00 / 4)
But it strikes me that one can very well describe the conservative movement as having the generation of bullshit as one of its primordial functions.  They are profoundly anti-realist, and narcissistically obsessed with their own nature, which they presume to be far superior to mere mortals worrying about mere facts.  So the fit is a very natural one.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Outsmarting oneself (4.00 / 3)
Is a lie a complete defense against the truth? Ordinarily, no, it isn't. For that you need to control entire industries, and even then, you're sometimes kept awake at night by the thought that somewhere, sometime, there'll be someone who'll dare to say no to you, and that like some pandemic disease virus, such antisocial daring might spread.

While you're focused on eradicating the truth, which looks perfectly possible, once you hunt down every last person who might be remotely capable of naysaying, you tend to ignore, or let yourself forget the fact, that reality has its own sort of rules, and doesn't like to endure having them permanently bent.

There's a mythos as well as a logos which governs what happens next. Even those who can't solve fourth-order equations in their heads, or manage even a moderately-sized secret police agency are capable of reading the bible. In Slashdot and the New York Review of Books the other day, I was introduced to the NSA's million square foot data warehouse, under construction in the Utah desert, which will store yottabytes (10 to the 24th power bytes) of data, and require 65 megawatts of electrical power to operate when completed.

Yes, it's all secret, but the story of Babel isn't. Not for those with eyes to see, and ears to hear.

A question that's not at the heart of this piece... (0.00 / 0)
Before the modern era, it was taken for granted that there two types of knowledge--mythos, knowledge of the eternal, inner, psychic/spiritual world--and logos, knowledge of the ever-changing, outer, physical world.

Maybe this is just my old deconstructive training speaking up, but that I'm not sure how that binary opposition holds up when John 1:1 reads, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" -- and "the Word" is a translation (and not a very good one) of "ho logos".

Isn't "ho logos" the privileged part of the binary opposition, then?

Surely You Know About Polysemy (0.00 / 0)
One word, two or more meanings?  Applies to almost every word ever known?

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
I don't think that's exactly the point here (0.00 / 0)
I'm talking about the meaning of the word logos in the particular context of the Western philosophic/theological tradition (dominated by Christianity and Christians' interpretations of Greek philosophers).

I haven't read Armstrong's book, so I'm basically asking a question about it based on your summary.  "Logos" is, according to John, a privileged concept that is, in some sense, identical with God Himself.  That's not "the ever-changing, outer, physical world."  En arche ein ho logos doesn't make any sense there if logos means "the ever-changing, outer, physical world."  In fact, it seems a lot closer to the definition above of mythos.

As I said, this isn't really that important in the context of your piece, it just struck me as contrary to the work I've read about the Western philosophic concept of logos and was curious about whether I'd misunderstood Armstrong's point.

[ Parent ]
Mmm youre nickname makes me hungry :) n/t (0.00 / 0)

End this war. Stop John McCain. Cindy McCain is filthy rich.

[ Parent ]
Pasta con Pesto, presto! (0.00 / 0)
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves, washed and well drained
1 cup grated Romano cheese, plus additional cheese if desired
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup melted butter
6 large cloves fresh garlic, crushed

Place basil, cheese, oil, butter and garlic in a blender.  Begin blending turning motor on and off. Push Pesto down from sides of the blender with a rubber spatula and continue blending until you have a very coarse puree.  Serve tossed over your favorite hot pasta. Makes 1 1/2 cups of Pesto.

Well, I have to admit, for me, being a lazy male single, this is too much action, getting all those ingredients and blending them. I use italian spaghetti, boil them for about 5-6 minutes with salt and oil, heat ready made Pesto in some olive oil (extra virgine), add some freshly grounded pepper, and that's it! I always have spaghetti and at least one glass of Pesto in the cupboard, so I don't have to go shopping with a hungry stomach. Preparation takes less than ten minutes, and then YUM!

[ Parent ]
I think you need some pine nuts in that recipe, Gray! (0.00 / 0)

[ Parent ]
Hmm, right! What the eff? What kind of a recipe is that? (0.00 / 0)
Good find, Pesto, I must have been blind not to see that! There sure are pine nuts in my ready made stuff from the supermarket. Pesto without nuts really sounds nuts.  

[ Parent ]

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