“Big lie propaganda is comparable to judo or ju jitsu, in which the victims own momentum and exertions are used to defeat him . . .”
Department of the Army, Defense Against Enemy Propaganda (1963)
Big lies are designed to hoodwink little liars. Big lies work because little liars wrongly suppose that all lies are like their own picayune fibs, and because little liars lack the imagination to conceive of falsehood on a grand scale. Big lies work equally well on most honest men and women, since the lies these honest men and women pride themselves on not telling are, in most cases, picayune little lies.
I am not using the phrase little lies to indicate venial lies, or white lies. A little lie can be a moral monstrosity. I call a lie little when the deception has limited scope. A little lie is the extemporaneous invention of a devious individual. Little lies are told by little men who find themselves squirming in a tight spot. They are plausibly banal (my car wouldn’t start, I overslept, I have a cold) and the little liar earnestly hopes that they will be forgotten as soon as he has slipped out of the tight spot.
A big lie is a sustained propaganda campaign. Rather than being told by one little liar who is squirming in a tight spot, a big lie is told by a conspiracy of many people, many of whom do not know that they are lying. Rather than being told in the hope that the lie will soon be forgotten, a big lie is told in the hope that it will long be remembered. This is because a big lie is meant to permanently warp the understanding of those to whom it is told.
If an unfaithful husband explains his missing dinner with a false story about a flat tire, that story is a little lie that he hopes his wife will forget. He willingly tells the story of that false flat tire only once. If that same husband explains his regularly missing dinner with a false story about an imaginary friend whom he regularly visits at the old folks home, that story is a big lie that he hopes his wife will always remember. He will speak of his imaginary friend often.
The real novelty of the truly big lie is, however, its sharp departure from the little liar’s ploy of plausible banality. Little liars are timid and fearful of taxing the credulity of those they hope to deceive. Big liars are bold and confident that their audacious dishonesty will not be detected by the unimaginative fraud-alarm systems of little liars. You are more likely to believe an absent employee who tells you he has cancer than you are to believe an absent employee who tells you he has a cold.
Truly big lies are told by politicians in order to permanently warp the understanding of the plebian mob of little liars over whom they rule. The essential technique is repetition of the big lie by the politician, and echoing of the big lie by his conspirators. A plebian liar cannot imagine sustaining a falsehood for so long. He can only dream of a world in which the little lie he told his wife last night is echoed in the morning newspaper (“A lone motorist was spotted changing a tire on Highway 21 at 10:28 yesterday evening”). One reason a big lie is “big” is that you hear it again and again and again.
“They hammered away day after day, with the big lie technique.”*
Another reason a big lie is “big” is that it is what we call a “whopper.” I said a moment ago that you are more easily taken in by fictional cancer than a fictional cold. This is because you have at least thought of calling in sick for a day with a fictional cold, but lack the audacity to call in sick for a year with fictional cancer. I once had a colleague who very nearly got away with claiming authorship of fictional books. We were accustomed to discount little lies of petty boasting, of which we were all more or less guilty, but we were very nearly hoodwinked by these nonexistent titles because we could not imagine such audacity.
Politicians tell big lies about themselves, and also about their enemies. In the later case, seasoned big liars agree that groundless “whoppers” are by far and away the best. To return to the example of my audacious ex-colleague, it was harder to prove that he did not publish a fictional book with a fictional publishing house, than it would have been to prove that he published a real book, but with a less prestigious publisher than he claimed. Jerrold Douglas was a Roman Catholic reactionary in the first half of the twentieth century, and he explained that the political value of the groundless “whopper” is that it is harder to refute than the timid exaggeration.
“The big lie is much harder to dispose of than the small lie. If you exaggerate the execution of twenty people during a civil war into a massacre of 200 people you will be easily answered by a recital of the facts . . . . If you announce a massacre of 10,000 people where there has been no shooting at all, people simply refuse to believe a denial. There must, they say, be something, and something pretty substantial, behind such a story.”
Douglas’s last line points to the way in which the consciousness of little liars is warped by exploiting their “no-smoke-without-fire” principle. This is, of course, why politicians blow so much smoke. Many people are under the impression that Adolf Hitler invented the technique of the big lie, but Hitler tells us the technique is as old as lying itself. In his discussion of the big lie in Mein Kampf, Hitler explained that big lies are designed to hoodwink little liars, and to permanently taint and tar the person or party about which the big lie is told.
“The grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in the world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”
* * * * *
The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes is often told to illustrate the ridiculous end of a “grossly impudent lie,” but I think Hans Christian Anderson’s story has become part of the big lie that truth defeats power. As you surely know, the story ends with the bare naked Emperor mincing down the street of his capital city in what he has been told is a suit beautiful clothes. No one in the throng of admiring adults scoffs at this farce, for fear that by doing so he would “declare himself either a simpleton or unfit for his office.”
“But the Emperor has noting at all on!” said a little child. “Listen to the voice of innocence!” exclaimed his father; and what the child had said was whispered from one to another. “But he has nothing at all on! at last cried the people.”†
In reality, the father would have told his son, “shut up, smile and clap, or there will be a whipping and no supper for you.” If what the child had said was overheard and whispered through the throng, thy would no doubt have beaten him to a jelly and then thrown him down a well. That is what it means to have power. It means you can beat any truth-teller to a jelly and throw him down a well. It means that your big lie lives on.
*) Stanley W. Voght, The Last Frontier (1948)
**) Jerrold Douglas, The Future of Freedom (1938)
***) Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (1930)
†) Hans Christian Anderson, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (1837)