Saturday, July 7, 2012

Poisoning the water

On lying in politics and in other places.

I have been reading an interesting book about the evacuation of endangered Hmong from Laos after the CIA's not-so-secret war there against the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao. It had a passage about the Pathet Lao's tactics:
"The Laotian Pathet Lao yesterday accused Defence minister Sisouk Na Champassak of the Right-wing Vientiane side of planning a coup d'etat in Vientiane, the Khaosan Pathet Lao news agency said... The agency charged that 'Sisoul Na Chamassak, Minister of Defence of the Provisional Government of Laos, and a number of high-ranking officials of the Vientiane side secretly met on May 3-4 at milestone 27 in Vientiane to map out a plan for a reactionary coup d'etat in the neutralized city.'" - quoted from the Bankok Post, May 11, 1975
This was as the Pathet Lao itself was overrunning the country after the US threw in the towel in Vietnam. My (maybe uninformed) reaction was this was classic propaganda and disinformation, throwing out wild lies just to stir the pot, cow the opposition, and keep everyone off balance. The Pathet Lao have been in power ever since, as have the communists in Vietnam, (and Cambodia, with interruptions), keeping Laos miserable and committing what appears to be ongoing gencide against the Hmong.

It reminded me of similar practices here in the US, where the right wing hate media cooks up toxic media messages, and then "sees what sticks". Which is to say, what outrages listeners more at the intended target ... than at the message makers themselves for their lying and extremism. The swiftboaters were notable examples from a few years back, but this time they are sprouting like mushrooms- Obama is a socialist, is muslim, is not born in Hawaii. Death panels, job creators, Gun walker coverup, lucky duckies, debt bombs and prairie fires. Jesus loves you. The list is endless.

Such messages "stick" far more easily in an environment where a segment of the population is systematically lied to by its primary media, (FOX and talk radio). In the conventional media, messages that reach a certain level of saturation in the fringe are treated as worthy of coverage, indeed of he-said/she-said "balanced" coverage, checking the reporter's brain at the door in an effort to "teach the controversy".

This is how our public discourse is debased, and the problem is far wider than politics. Religions lie to their flocks as a matter of course. We don't bat an eye. Corporations lie to us in every advertisement, and in as many other venues as they can manage, pushing the sexy wonder of cigarettes, the green jobs brought to you by the oil industry, the work of god being done by your local Goldman Sachs employee, or the critical importance of paying their executives like kings. Indeed, the TV show Mad Men stands as the culture's wink and nod to its own debasement.

It is, in short, an unpleasant atmosphere to live in, a fog of deceit that is one of those things making the West a less than shining beacon to humanity. Yet we are raised with higher ideals. All teachers tell us that truth is golden, that we must never lie, and that George Washington never told a lie. They paint scholarship as a high ideal, an endless and richly rewarded search for truth. And then we land in junior high school, where reality sets in. Cooperation hits its limits in a war of information and disinformation, whose aim is power, not truth.

The Martha Stewart prosecution was, to many, hard to understand in this new context. Aren't federal agents lied to every day? Aren't we lied to every hour of every day? What was the big deal? Isn't truth mine to know and yours to find out? Isn't this whole "under oath" stuff a little antiquated? Indeed, don't we live in a post-modern world where truth doesn't even exist, deconstructed by French philosophers to a story that just expresses subjective views and interests, whatever the "evidence" may say?

It shouldn't be that bad, obviously. Free market economists make a fetish of information & truth being the real currency of the markets, with firms facing ultimate truths in their success or failure. True enough, but the need for truth reaches far deeper. The Soviet Union found out that, after the naked truth of terror ebbs away, if all one has left is a pile of lies, the society can not function.

Perhaps I am overly sensitive to all this, coming from the culture of science, where truth is more highly valued than in, say, politics, business, or theology. Truth is not always the highest value, in deference to civility. But it should always trump incivility, corruption, inequality, fraud, laziness, and greed. Society is not going to work if we lie to each other all day long.

A young Hmong refugee made an astute observation quoted in this book (my emphasis):
"In the picture above, I am the tall young man with a backpack on. This picture was taken while we were fighting to get in the U.S. C-130 to flee to Thailand as a result of the U.S. withdrawal from the Indochina War, which was and is still or will probably be remembered as one of the biggest and most historic losses in U.S. foreign policy regardless of its status as a world leader. There are a few major factors that contributed to this loss for the United States and its three allies, South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. These major factors are corruption among all levels of government officials, lack of a solid and strategic national organizational structure, a wide gap between the rich and the poor people (which contributes to social, political, and economic injustice), and the lack of leadership with vision and wisdom who could understand world events and modify their policies accordingly for the good of the Indochinese and people around the world."

"One has to understand that the ongoing crisis is not a crisis of real poverty, but an organizational crisis. The world is like a ship loaded by the goods of life, where the crew starves because it cannot find out how the goods should be distributed. Since the depression is not a real poverty crisis, but one of organization, the remedy should also be sought through effective organizational work inside the apparatus of production and distribution. The great defect of the private capitalist system of production as it is today is its lack of planning, that is, planning at the social level."


  1. And of course scientists never lie.

  2. Hi, Darrell-

    Thanks for your comment. Scientists are certainly human, but is their system constucted in a way that exposes and minimizes lies? Your two example are interestingly distinct. The second is a garden-variety lie on the substance of science that was found out and corrected. A far more egregious example was the vaccine-autism connection story. A great deal of harm can be done. But do the lies continue for decades, indeed centuries? I think not. The culture of science has critical checks and balances (i.e. empiricism) that prevent that on any substantive topic.

    The first example isn't a lie on the scientific substance at all. Indeed, it was merely a subterfuge committed to expose the far more agregious lying being done by the institute in question- a flacking service for the corrupt deniers of global warming. Do you think that gobal warming is a hoax and lie as well? That would be a serious indictment to make.