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[Back to Essays]

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 subhuman.

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 back down.

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 problems.

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 all people.

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 believe.

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.

  Last updated: December 13, 2004