“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows.
“And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.” ~ Hannah Arendt, quoted by James Fallows in The Atlantic
Arendt describes the condition that has gradually come about in the United States since the growth of the deep state after World War II. The two biggest lies during this era, of course, are the Warren Commission report and the 9/11 Commission report. In both cases, the president said, “Write me up some lies,” and the principals involved did. Other lies follow, whether it’s the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Hussein’s guilt as a 9/11 plotter, and others less consequential. Often government uses consequential lies to start wars.
Infamy, a book I wrote a book about JFK’s murder and 9/11, takes these lies for granted. That is, I took as a premise that government leaders lied about these crimes, and that, even now, our media and our school history books agree to treat official accounts as true. Ample evidence and a huge literature demonstrate this assumption of dishonesty holds for the case of JFK. The premise is safe for 9/11 as well. Few criminals hand you a smoking gun, then say, “Prove I did it.” The controlled demolition of World Trade Center 7 is the immediate, incontrovertible evidence that official accounts of 9/11 are untrue. Yet few people know enough about building 7 to reach independent judgments about the question.
Let’s say government lies about crimes it commits, or any time it perceives some danger from the truth. Then what? How do you make judgments in politics when government lies all the time? What resources of reasoning do we have in that kind of environment?
So people who read my book say, “This is a conspiracy theory book. Don’t books like this one persuade readers the conspiracy theories are true?” I say, “No, that job is already done. Other people make those arguments better than I can. Moreover, researchers have access to evidence and other material required to reach these conclusions, more than they did in 1963, when Lyndon Johnson persuaded Chief Justice Earl Warren to lie for him.”
My purpose is to ask, “Let’s say government lies about crimes it commits, or any time it perceives some danger from the truth. Then what? How do you make judgments in politics when government lies all the time? What resources of reasoning do we have in that kind of environment?” That is Arendt’s question. She is rather pessimistic in her response. I’ll have to say I see a lot of good reasons for her pessimism. I’ve argued we still have tools for independent thought, even if government and the press lie all the time. We can still reach judgments on our own.
As a first step, independent researchers must recognize that government and media are not trustworthy sources of information. The filters they apply to evaluate evidence and reach conclusions are not our filters. They do not generally test hypotheses. Even when they do, they do not test them against all the evidence available. When you compare what government and media say with what is obvious, you see they cannot tell the truth for the life of them. Once you tell a big lie, you have to keep lying, until dishonesty becomes part of your culture, and betrayal becomes a way of life. After you have betrayed someone, and escape any kind of punishment for it, you act without burden of conscience. Government and their allies in the media have no reason to become less dishonest.
I can tell you, if you stop trusting leaders and their allies, who hold themselves out as trustworthy, you will know what to think. You will be able to think for yourself if you become thoroughly skeptical about any information that has its origin in the public domain.
Because Arendt grew up in Germany before the Nazis took power, then escaped to the United States before the Nazis could kill her, she understands democracy and totalitarianism better than most. You can see from her comments above that she is perspicacious and smart. Fallows quotes her to conclude his warning that we can lose our democracy if we give currency to Trump’s accusation that a free press endangers the whole nation. Whenever journalists with the best motives plead a case for our democracy, I think, “We’ve already lost it. We lost it in 1963, when the national security state executed our president in public, and we did not object or do anything about it.”
Instead we trusted Lyndon Johnson, one of the most accomplished liars in the history of the republic. Because we did not object, we have gradually reached the place where we find ourselves. We have a strong man in the White House, and we do not know what to think. I can tell you, if you distrust public leaders and their allies, who hold themselves out as trustworthy, you will know what to think. You will be able to think for yourself if you become thoroughly skeptical about any information that has its origin in the public domain.
We still have our friends, we still have faith in ourselves, and most of all we can still reason effectively. Government can shut down a lot, but it can never shut down rational,free thought if we protect these non-political, community based domains of social interaction.
Disbelief in public information need not result in our inability to think and to judge. Thoroughgoing skepticism has that result only if we let ourselves become disconnected from other people, if we let the public domain so dominate our lives that we let personal bonds based on compassion become devalued, squeezed into tiny compartments along with religious faith and other non-political foundations of belief. We still have our friends, we still have faith in ourselves, and most of all we can still reason effectively. Government can shut down a lot, but it can never shut down rational, free thought if we protect these non-political, community based domains of social interaction.
I don’t want to discount Arendt’s warning that public lies make people disoriented and pliable. Public officials deploy these lies with a fair amount of confidence they will work. Yet these and other consequences of government dishonesty can only develop if we let them. Government may be able to take our money, but we cannot let its efforts to falsify its own history get inside our heads. As Arendt points out, governments have to lie constantly. How do you respond to people you know who do that? You ignore them.