Ali’s blog

Mostly quant stuff with occasional digressions

Systemic lying and the will-to-ignorance

Posted by alifinmath on April 9, 2008

Poor GWB and his henchmen have come in for a lot of flak over the last few years for the lies they told. I’ve always considered this simple-minded as telling lies is part of the job description for the president and his most senior cabinet officials. In Monthly Review we’re told:

It was discovered that eight top Bush administration officials (President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Rice, Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, and the two White House press secretaries, Fleischer and McClellan) together told at least 935 lies on 532 separate occasions over the two year period. The largest number of documented lies (260) came from Bush himself, followed by Powell (254), Rumsfeld (109), Fleischer (109), Wolfowitz (85), Rice (56), Cheney (48), and McClellan (14). Each of these false statements is shown in the report to have contradicted known intelligence at the time, evaluated on a day-to-day basis.

But of course these lies mean nothing if there isn’t an apparatus in place for disseminating and amplifying them. Again from MR:

As the Center for Public Integrity stated, the lies of the administration with regard to Iraq were “amplified by thousands of news stories and broadcasts…with the media coverage creating an almost impenetrable din for several critical months in the run-up to war…. Facts that the New York Times and other publications claimed were unknown at the time (such as the probable nonexistence, despite administration assertions, of functional weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) were in fact well-known to other, nonestablishment publications, which drew on more reliable sources such as the reports of UN inspectors. If nothing else this highlights the reality that the mainstream media, which was fully “embedded” even before the war began, sought for its own reasons to peddle falsehoods (whether those emanating from the administration or its own creations) in the buildup to and subsequent promotion of the war.

But we know this. Yet somehow the tacit assumption is that people want to know the truth and are systematically misled. This is difficult to agree with. Slavoj Zizek, in an essay in the London Review of Books a few years ago, mentioned the “will to ignorance”; it created an impression on me at the time. I haven’t been able to find the article but I have found some discussion here:

With all my admiration for Noam Chomsky, I partially disagree with him. It’s an underlying premise of his work that you don’t have to do any theory – just tell all the facts to the people. The way ideology works today is much more mysterious – not more complex, one can always say this, things are always more complex, it means nothing just to say this. People just do not want to know too much. There’s an active refusal to know. If you ask average citizens with enough of their own worries they’d say, “Don’t even tell me this. We pay taxes so the government can do all the dirty things that I don’t want to know about.”

The question isn’t of any real link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime. I remember a debate on TV where some viewers’ calls made their point clear, which is: we are not talking about empirical links. Both Saddam and al-Qaeda hate the U.S.. That’s enough of a link. You cannot really help by making factual refutations. The key factor is not that people are duped – there’s an active will not to know. Remember the Reagan presidency, when the media pointed out his factual mistakes. That only raised his popularity. This was the point of identification. With Bush, you have an almost ideal image for how things worth: a naïve, unknowing president, and a sinister figure of knowledge, like Dick Cheney, the operative, who really controls him. This is really quite a nice metaphor for how things work.

People like to identify themselves. “I can be stupid but I’m still at the top. The wiseguy is my vice, he is doing all the dirty jobs for me.” There is something appealing in this, I think. Again, my basic position is drop the point that people want to know; people don’t want to know. I’m not engaged in any conservative psychology of, you know, “People prefer ignorance, it’s only for us, the evolutionary or spiritual elite to lead them.” I’m not saying this is an eternal fact. I’m just describing how specifically today’s ideology works, through a direct appeal to the will of ignorance.

I should confess I’ve been buying Zizek’s books for years as I prize his counter-intuitive insights. I think he has something here about the will-to-ignorance. I see it in friends and family around me. Lies are soothing whereas the truth often requires an unflinching capacity for pain. Illusions are always more gratifying than the truth, which tends to be bleak and sombre.

A master conman always plays on his mark’s weaknesses, his ego, his vanity. In a sense the mark has to be a willing dupe. It takes two to tango. I see this exemplified in one of my favorite films — The Sting — where two conmen (played by Newman and Redford) play on the cupidity, vanity and hurt ego of their mark, who willingly walks into the con. It’s no different with the public at large. A master politician like Bill Clinton is a master conman, weaving fantasies and promises, playing on the foibles and credulity of his audiences. Would that the same could be said of the dyslexic and maladroit Bush, but then by the complicity of mass media these very weakness have been alchemically transformed into assets and he becomes a man of the people.

In a nutshell, the structure of deceit and manipulation will continue for as long as people are what they are. If people were an active and informed citizenry and wanted to know and were willing to act on that knowledge, no amount of manipulation or coercion could hold them back. Yet this sine qua non for a democracy never holds. 19th century political theorists — Pareto, Mosca, Michels — argued that every human society winds up as an oligarchy.  

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