Big Lies Are Big Truths With Small Lies
When we attack the big lies that move people to vicious acts,
we commonly underrate humanity. We assume that they are weak enough
or foolish or hateful enough to be moved to action by lies that
sound to us blatant and insane.
Most people are decent. They want to survive; they want others
to survive. They are not moved merely by stupidity and viciousness.
If we are not to fall once again into old lies, we must understand
the power of those lies. To understand Nazi Germany, Communist Russia
and the lies that hold our own society, at best, stagnant, we must
understand that it is truth that moves people. A big lie consists
of great truths warped by small lies, hooks in the rich bait of
truth. To understand the big lie, we must unthread its small lies
from its great truths.
It is easy to look at the results of such lies with contempt for
those who were taken in by them. How many of us have sneered self-righteously
at people who were willing to sacrifice liberty to have the trains
run on time? And how many of us would not, caught in the endless
creep of rush-hour exhaust, sell our souls for an efficient transportation
system? It is easy to be outraged by death camps, while swallowing
without protest daily instruction by the media on which groups are
"cults" and, therefore, not worthy of concern, somehow
It is not my purpose here to say that unlike things are alike,
to say that the killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers
in a recent war was, for example, the ethical equivalent of the
Holocaust -- only to point out that if we were now at the beginning
of a period of boundless viciousness, constructed of our own dearest
assumptions, perhaps we would not now know it.
Certainly few virtuous anti-Communist Americans of the 50's knew
how nearly their own agreements came to wiping out the entire population
of this planet in nuclear holocaust, vastly more destructive than
anything the Nazis conceived. We know this now, looking at the documents
of the Cuban missile crisis in 1963. Our assumptions about ourselves
and the Russians were in place -- a very elaborate set of unchallengable
assumptions. The game was about to play itself out. The inevitable
was narrowly averted -- largely because individuals on both sides
violated the rules, opened up live communications with "monsters"
on the other side -- and also because one of the monsters backed
down, despite the overwhelming big truth that it is disastrous to
There's an example of a "big truth" -- it is disastrous
to back down. The little lie is what is omitted: That sometimes
it is worse NOT to back down.
Nazi Germany lives on as the historians' favorite example, the
almost universally accepted exemplar of pure evil. But Hitler's
vision had the power to sweep tens of millions of people into the
storm of World War II. What great truths did Hitler bring to the
German people to move them so?
First, there's emotional truth. To people living in fear, rage
comes as truth, just as joy is truth to the conservative and stoic
conservatism moves the bored and lightly antagonistic -- just as
the outpouring of grief reaches one in stone apathy. Hitler's rage
and pain were real to Germans who were below rage. It promised the
possibility of action, of asserted rightness.
Apathy is nearer to death than grief, grief than fear, fear than
anger. If a cheerful person is overwhelmed and becomes, briefly,
apathetic, he will, as part of his recovery, pass through anger.
Anger is, then, on the road to life and recovery for those below
anger and nearer to death. The rolling boil is greeted with vast
relief by a people long simmering.
The little lie is in giving anger incorrect targets. When anger
fixes on wrong targets, it will be rebuffed, overwhelmed, knocked
back down to apathy, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills or the
drunk mad at his boss, crashing through the barroom mirror and taking
a swing at the cops when they arrive.
The big truth is that where a nation is fragmented, each alienated
from all others, it is necessary to give people something they can
agree about -- and also, that a nation must be a nation to survive,
must be united, must have agreed-upon goals upon which it can act,
that people who move together toward a shared purpose have great
power and love for each other.
The little lie is in the agreements themselves -- for example,
the agreement that the Jews were responsible for all of Germany's
That's obvious stupidity, you say? But see what a LITTLE lie it
is. What are a few Jews to a great nation's survival? We sacrifice
the rights of a few individuals to achieve a great universal truth,
the unity of a nation. The truth is of a higher order than the lie.
Not so, for the lie invalidates a higher truth, the unity of mankind.
It says that mankind is made up of true men and monsters. It says
that there shall be no unity among men, only endless war of true
men against monsters. Surely what holds for a nation holds for mankind:
We, like all people, achieve power and love for each other by acting
together toward shared goals. Surely the survival of mankind is
a higher-order concept than the survival of one nation, for if mankind
perished, all nations would perish. And by the end of World War
II, with the emergence of nuclear weapons, we knew that a failure
to achieve a unity of all people could lead to the destruction of
Of course, Hitler's rationale was that the Jews were a plague
upon the entire planet and that eventually all nations would join
Germany in eliminating them. He knew he needed to stretch his lie
that far to uphold, at least outwardly, the truth that a whole world
is greater than any of its nations, a truth he, himself, could not
The little lies that barb great truths are, themselves, loose
threads of even greater truths. Tug on the little lies, and the
universe begins to unravel.
It is more difficult to disentangle the great truths of Karl Marx
from its little lies -- or Freud's ball of thread -- or hardest
of all, one's own, the great truths and big lies by which each of
us lives. But one cannot live a lie. The lies give the illusion
of supporting life because they are wound like vines about the truths
that keep us going, truths that are strangled by the lies that pretend
to support them.
Each has his own dearest lies: They don't understand me. It doesn't
matter. You can't have everything. What I don't know won't hurt
me. It's not my problem. Nobody cares. I need to be loved. It's
a dangerous world. What's the use. They wouldn't get it. If I once
slow down, I'm finished. All blondes are whores. All whores have
hearts of gold.
Pervasive generalities based on old painful decisions persist
to color all our truths and slant them subtly -- even the craziest
lies lacquered in plausible rationales. We use them as a stay against
chaos, something to hang on to when the winds of chaos would sweep
us away. But often it is only the need to grow that threatens our
stability. Rather than confront what is before us and learn to handle
it, we cling to our lies. Thus, the little lies that hide within
our great truths (for example, the truths of our basic goodness)
keep us from growing, hold us fixed in one place.
One man with a great truth (for example, that freedom is proportional
to responsibility or that an economy prospers from fair exchange
or that we hate those we have injured) can create a civilization,
an economy, a relationship, but when sufficiently rebuffed and confused
by those who would counter him, falls back upon his little lies,
the limiters of his creativity, the still point of a spinning world
where he can stand still being right and making others wrong.
The spokesman for responsibilty confuses responsibility with blame;
the pursuer of fair exchange becomes infatuated with vengeance;
the guru of relationships insists we must love everyone. Each becomes
a parody of truth, frozen in an awkward posture.
Strip away the little lies from a big grotesque lie, and you will
find a great truth. Each of us is a great truth.