Published on Thursday, August 26, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
What Would Machiavelli Do? The Big Lie Lives On
by Thom Hartmann
There is nothing new about the Swift Boat ads.
German filmmaker Fritz Kippler, one of Goebbels' most effective propagandists, once said that two steps were necessary to promote a Big Lie so the majority of the people in a nation would believe it. The first was to reduce an issue to a simple black-and-white choice that "even the most feebleminded could understand." The second was to repeat the oversimplification over and over. If these two steps were followed, people would always come to believe the Big Lie.
In Kippler's day, the best example of his application of the principle was his 1940 movie "Campaign in Poland," which argued that the Polish people were suffering under tyranny - a tyranny that would someday threaten Germany - and that the German people could either allow this cancer to fester, or preemptively "liberate" Poland. Hitler took the "strong and decisive" path, the movie suggested, to liberate Poland, even though after the invasion little evidence was found that Poland represented any threat whatsoever to the powerful German Reich. The movie was Hitler's way of saying that invading Poland was the right thing to do, and that, in retrospect, he would have done it again.
The Big Lie is alive and well today in the United States of America, and what's most troubling about it is the basic premise that underlies its use. In order for somebody to undertake a Big Lie, they must first believe Niccolo Machiavelli's premise (in "The Prince," 1532) that the end justifies the means.
Hitler, after all, claimed to have based everything he did on the virtuous goal of uniting Europe - and then the world - in a thousand-year era of peace, foreshadowed in the Bible. If you believe that a thousand years of peace is such a noble end that any means is justified to reach it, it's a short leap to eugenics, preemptive wars, torture of dissidents and prisoners, and mass murder.
Believing that the end justifies the means is the ultimate slippery slope. It will ultimately kill any noble goal, because even if the goal is achieved, it will have been corrupted along the way by the means used to accomplish it.
In fiction, it's the story of Mary Shelley's good Doctor Frankenstein's attempt to conquer mortality, of Darth Vader's misuse of the Force, and of the tragic consequence of the inquisitive Dr. Jeckyll's attempt to understand good and evil going tragically wrong when, as Robert Louis Stevenson notes, he wrote, "I had gone to bed Henry Jekyll, I had awakened Edward Hyde."
In real life, it's the story of the many tinpot dictators around the world who quote Jefferson while enforcing a brutal rule, of power industry executives pushing for lax mercury rules to "help the American economy," of the legion of lobbyists who work daily to corrupt democracy in the good name of GMOs, pharmaceuticals, and the insurance industry (among others).
Gandhi, Jesus, and Buddha all warned us about it, as did Tolstoy, Tolkien, Hemmingway, and Kafka.
Be it "small sins" like Nader getting into bed with Republicans to get on state ballots, or "big sins" like George W. Bush repeatedly asserting that he had to invade Iraq because of WMDs and because Saddam "threw out the weapons inspectors" (something Saddam never did - inspectors were removed by Clinton in 1998 and by Bush in 2003), trying to accomplish a "good" by using the means of an "evil" like a Big Lie inherently corrupts the good.
Now the Bush campaign and its allies are encouraging a new series of Big Lie techniques to assail John Kerry's Vietnam War record. With a smug assurance of damage done to the enemy, George W. Bush refused to address specifically the misrepresentations in the ads, and called for "the end of all 527s," a goal he cynically knows unachievable in this election cycle.
Defenders of the Bush campaign are overrunning the media, trying to imply equivalence between the Swift Boat ads and the many "attack" ads run by anti-Bush 527 organizations over previous months. But the Bush campaign has never disputed the truthfulness of charges against him (loss of jobs, ruinous Iraq policy, environmental despoliation, etc.) in previous 527 ads.
Thus, there is no equivalence between the MoveOn (and other) ads and the Swift Boat ads, moral or otherwise. Truths and issues - however unpleasant - cannot be weighed on the same scale as lies and character assassination, explicit or implicit.
This is why the Kerry campaign is not complaining about attacks per se - those are to be expected in politics - but about Big Lie techniques used in these particular attacks. Techniques, interestingly enough, that have an uncanny resemblance to character smears used by the Bush family against Michael Dukakis in 1988, against Ann Richards in 1994, against John McCain in 2000, and against Max Cleland in 2002.
Lee Atwater, on his deathbed, realized that the "ends justifies the means" technique of campaigning he had unleashed on behalf of the Bush family was both immoral and harmful to American democracy.
"In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I 'would strip the bark off the little bastard' and 'make Willie Horton his [Dukakis'] running mate,'" Atwater said. "I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not. Mostly I am sorry for the way I thought of other people. Like a good general, I had treated everyone who wasn't with me as against me."
But Atwater's spiritual and political protégé, Karl Rove, soldiers on. Big Lies are emerging from Bush allies with startling regularity, and old Big Lies are being resurrected almost daily, most on right-wing talk radio.
The most alarming contrast in the election of 2004 isn't between the conservative Bush and liberal Kerry. It's between those who will use any means to get and hold power, and those who are unwilling to engage in the Big Lie.
History tells us that, over the short term, the Big Lie usually works. Over the long term, though, the damage it does - both to those who use it, and to the society on which it is inflicted - is incalculable.
Thom Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com) is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show. www.thomhartmann.com His most recent books are "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight," "Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights," "We The People: A Call To Take Back America," and "What Would Jefferson Do?: A Return To Democracy."