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The Lies that aren't Meant to Deceive Us

Column by China Miéville, November 2006

What should we make of ruling class stories that are so outrageous that no one could really fall for them?

On 9 June 2006 seven civilians were blown up on a Gaza beach. The footage of the sole survivor, 10 year old Huda Ghalia, screaming amid the ruins of her family was so unbearable that Israel even muttered some apology. But only for a moment. Almost immediately, defence minister Amir Peretz announced a "propaganda offensive" to prove that Israeli shells were not to blame.

The army said witnesses were mistaken or lying; the hospital computers wrong or falsified; the staff's claims fallacious or malicious; the analysis of crater, shrapnel and injuries by former Pentagon battlefield analyst Marc Galasco befuddled. Yes, Israel's apologists conceded, the army had fired six shells on and around the beach. And true, one of those shells was unaccounted for. But by sheer coincidence, at the exact time as that shell went missing, the Ghalia family trod on a mine - one single mine on the entire beach - that Hamas, in a lunatic break from its operational history, had planted.

How, the world asked in incredulous rage, can they possibly think this ludicrous scenario will convince us? The answer, of course, is that they don't.

There are various kinds of lie, with different strategies and purposes. This was a forthright specimen of a type increasingly common in modern politics: the lie you are not supposed to believe.

This type of lie was at the heart of the Iraq war. British and US officials' claims about an imminent threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were insulting mish-mashes of plagiarism, misrepresentation, insinuation and bullshit, that were not merely unbelievable, but actually not designed to be believed.

For the elite, this is uncontroversial. Here is the private geopolitical intelligence agency Stratfor, whose clients are big businesses and governments, calmly explaining:

"The key to understanding the situation was that Bush wanted to blackmail the Saudis, use Iraq as a military base and terrify Muslims. He wanted to do this, but he did not want to admit this was what he was doing. He therefore provided implausible justifications, operating under the theory that a rapid victory brushes aside troubling questions. Clinton had gotten out of Kosovo without explaining why signs of genocide were never found, because the war was over quickly and everyone was sick of it. Bush figured he would do the same thing in Iraq." (Of course Bush was wrong about that.)

So if these lies aren't intended to convince, what are they for?

First, to lay out policy. Bush, for example, did not seriously expect sensible people to believe that there was an "axis of evil". Rather he was announcing intent - explaining the terms, priorities and main targets of US imperialism.

Second, to muddy the waters. Political outrage is endlessly deferred by never ending fact-checking. There have been many sterling pieces researching and undermining Israel's Gaza fairy story, but even they are evidence that Israel has succeeded in setting an agenda. They answer the question, "Did Israel kill the Ghalias?" when the question should be, "What do we do about the fact that Israel killed the Ghalias?"

Of course, though the fundamental purpose of these lies isn't to be convincing, that doesn't stop some people being convinced. And as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, governments make the "reasonable assumption" that "public intellectuals" are the most gullible when it comes to propaganda. Witness, for example, David Aaronovitch's thunderous 2003 declaration about the legendary WMDs: "if nothing is eventually found, I - as a supporter of the war - will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US, ever again."

The "revelation" of official mendacity hasn't prompted Aaronovitch humble-pie consumption, but that may be a blessing. In some cases, the only thing more sick-making than a non-apology is an apology. When WMDs stubbornly refused to self generate, liberals were operatically aghast at having been hoodwinked. This culminated in the New York Times's mea culpa for having dutifully recycled official cant. For those millions of us who had not been taken in by claims never even really intended to take us in, this wailing and gnashing of teeth was merely risible.

It's often wrongly claimed that Lenin described pro-Soviet liberals as "useful idiots". Harsh it may be, but as far as our leaders are concerned, it's hard to think of a more apt term to describe those who not only obey instructions, but go the extra mile and heroically insist, against all odds, on being deceived. There comes a point where credulity becomes complicity.

And complicity with the ugliest agendas. Because sometimes, the most brazen lies are used deliberately to cow us. Not a risk-free strategy, this is indulged in only when rulers are at their most brutal and confident. In these circumstances, the more obvious the lie the better, because it is precisely their non-credible nature that makes them class-bludgeons. It is in insisting that two and two might be five, or three, or anything he says, that Big Brother shows absolute power over Winston Smith in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

A similar logic of bullying by absurdity informs the Israeli state's story of the Gaza beach. This ostentatiously outrageous lie reads not as evasion, but as a deliberate and cruel assertion of power, not only over life and death, but, at least in the Gaza strip, over truth itself.

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