Saturday, July 04, 2009

Bernstein on Kolakowski's "Big Lie"

Richard Bernstein

I guess that mainstream media ain't dead yet, or I wouldn't be learning so much from it. Yesterday was Ignatius applying Dostoyevsky to Putin; today is Bernstein applying Kolakowski to Iran.

I first read Leszek Kolakowski in Martin Jay's U.C. Berkeley seminar nearly 30 years ago, and except for excerpts since then, I've read little . . . though I keep promising myself to read more because every time that I read words that he wrote, I feel that I've learned something very important, such as what he said about "the big lie" -- which Richard Bernstein summarized a couple of days ago in his New York Times "Letter from America" column, "In Tehran, Shades of Tiananmen" (July 1, 2009):
Years ago, the Polish-born philosopher Leszek Kolakowski explained the remarkable adherence of totalitarian dictators to the big lie, which Mr. Kolakowski distinguished from the ordinary political mendacity -- an excellent recent example of which was the claim by Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina that he was enjoying a respite by hiking in the Appalachian Mountains when he was with his mistress in Argentina.

The ordinary political lie, in Mr. Kolakowski's view, didn't seek to erase "the distinction between truth and falsity," while the totalitarian big lie does. It defines truth as what the holders of power say it is, and, in this sense, as Mr. Kolakowski wrote in an 1983 article in Commentary Magazine, it is "the very core of a political system, the heart of a new civilization."

"By training people in this confusion," Mr. Kolakowski wrote, "and by inoculating them to believe that nothing is true in itself" it will "produce a new 'socialist man,' devoid of will and of moral resistance."
Kolakowski was speaking of Soviet-style socialism of the totalitarian sort, but Bernstein wonders if the concept can be extended further, a question stemming partly from his conversation with a Yale history professor:
"The Iranians are telling medium-sized lies," Timothy Snyder, a professor of East European history at Yale said in a conversation this week. The main thrust of the Iranian propaganda is to blame external enemies for internal problems, a practice, Mr. Snyder said, that was first used on a grand scale in mid-19th-century Europe, well before the era of total thought control.

Still, there seem to be more than faint echoes of the classic big lie in the case of Mr. Ahmadinejad and the actions of the security services.

"One reason the lie has to be big," Mr. Snyder said, "is that people will feel that if their leaders must have a lot of confidence to tell a lie that big, they are either crazy or they have a powerful security force behind them."

This doesn't mean that the lies Iran’s leaders are telling are going to work. Indeed there are plenty of signs that they won't. At the same time, events in Iran have proved that the leaders are eager to control information and they do have a powerful and ruthless security force behind them.
I wonder if the big lie can ever truly work anymore. Contemporary media is making the control of information significantly more difficult. Even something as 'silly' as "twittering" turned out to play a serious role in relaying information through short "tweets." Imagine how much more the young Chinese today would know about the killing of demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in Beijing 20 years ago if the new media that we have now had been available then. I don't think that any totalitarian system can erase "the distinction between truth and falsity" anymore because such a system requires "absolute control over every living soul" -- as Leonard Cohen puts it in "The Future" -- and that sort of system cannot be maintained without enormous expense of wealth, time, and energy against the tides of democracy.

As for those of us who belong to the more sophisticated West, we disdain the crude attempts at an erasure of "the distinction between truth and falsity" used in Soviet Russia, Communist China, or Islamist Iran, for we've developed a far subtler, much more efficient means: a quotidian relativism of everyday life.

Paradoxically, then, the West is best. Relatively speaking.

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At 4:21 PM, Blogger Teacher Leo said...

Ah - truth. Truth, they say, is nobody's daughter. It is an inconvenient thorn in the sides of leaders, and, unfortunately, has been reduced to relativitism - what's true for me may not be true for you.
Nowhere did I experience this more profoundly than in Australia in 1970. You see, I was 16, a white South African, raised to believe in the dangers of communism, black power and godlessness. And then the family went to Australia for a year on an exchange program. And I didn't have to go to school, so I could wander around the city. And I met the exiles - the black, and brown and white South Africans who could not live with what their country was doing. And my truth changed and I saw the big lie for what it was.
And I saw the absolute truth - that evil is someone who cannot feel good unless they are abusing someone. And that remains true to this day, and through all history.

At 5:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Teacher Leo, for your own experience of inconvenient truth. The relativists of today might be taken aback to discover that their philosophy could easily lead to acceptance of Jim Crow laws or of Apartheid.

Jeffery Hodges

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