Monday, October 6, 2008

What To Do About Weapons Of Mass Deception

One of the scariest things about politics these days is the sophisticated use of techniques of deception – better known under the euphemism of “spin”. Spin originally meant to “spin out a yarn” - to tell a make-believe story. But in the hands of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove it has become something far more dangerous.

In the twentieth century totalitarian regimes were masters of deception. In the former Soviet Union, the government tightly controlled information so that the public only got to see a glowing picture of Communism and a bleak picture of Capitalism. The British journalist George Orwell wrote his anti-utopia, 1984, about a totalitarian state which controlled the news, rewrote history, and constantly manipulated people's minds with slogans like “war is peace” and “freedom is slavery”.

1984 has come and gone a generation now and we are not living in totalitarian states yet. But, there are danger signs. The Bush regime convinced the American public to go to war with Iraq by falsely equating Iraq with 9/11. and then concocting false information about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. And, in the realm of science,the Bush government has altered testimony and blocked publication of information concerning global warming.

Two people that offer insight into modern political deception are author and scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson and billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Both, in various publications, but independently of each other, are telling us that our modern societies have become too tolerant of deception because we don't want to hear about painful truths. Soros calls America a “feel-good society” - a society where success is admired no matter how it is achieved. “Politicians do not aspire to tell the truth,” he says. “They want to win elections, and the best way to do that is to skew reality to their own benefit.”

In Unspun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation, Kathleen Jamieson agrees that deception is widely accepted and even admired in our society. She talks about the “I know I'm right syndrome” - our ability to deceive ourselves by consistently rejecting evidence that contradicts our belief system.

“There's real harm in pretending that there are easy solutions to big problems or that problems don't exist,” says Jamieson. “Accepting the spin means letting the problems fester. Meanwhile, the solutions become ever more painful, or the problems overwhelm us completely.”

In his essay “From Karl Popper to Karl Rove and Back” Soros argues that democracy is being abused by techniques borrowed from advertising and the cognitive sciences. “When emotions can be aroused by methods that bypass consciousness the public is left largely defenceless,” says Soros. But, he adds, “if the public is made aware of the various techniques it is likely to reject them.”

The key then, is to call politicians out on deception and to publicize examples whenever possible. As Soros says, “Politicians will respect rather than manipulate reality only if the public cares about the truth and punishes politicians when it catches them in deliberate deception.”

This is an important role for the media. It's heartening to know that in the United States in the 2008 Presidential Campaign some of the more egregious of the McCain campaign's attacks on Obama have been effectively challenged by the mass media. And, there are now reliable websites such as that help to sort out fact from fiction in American politics. In Canada, CBC TV has a welcome new feature called “reality check” that looks at the claims and counter claims between the various parties in the federal election.

Political discourse should be about reality. It should point to problems that actually exist and to genuine evidence of what works and doesn't work. When we are misinformed or denied pertinent information we are deprived of our power to choose and just as important, our ability to learn from experience. Deception undermines trust in democracy and ultimately makes it harder to govern.

This is why the Bush government had so much trouble convincing the American people to support a Wall street bailout package recently. Because they had been deceived about “The War on Terror” the American public was not ready to accept his recommendations on the financial crisis.

If you deceive people in order to get elected, then you end up continuing to deceive when you are in power and undermining the publics' trust. Let's hope that neither the Canadian nor the American election are won again this way.


  1. The ultimate deception, as I see it as a black woman, is racism.

    It's the worst for lies and what they call spin. Because the worst of the lies are the one that are not spoken but whispered or emailed or implied.

    Racism is the biggest lie but it allows people to believe so many things. Sadly racism is what America is based on. The fact that white is better than any "other" that white is the ruling class by default and that white is always right...

    I know this sounds like a Farakhan type rant but I truly don't mean it to be. It sounds...almost crazy. But I've made the argument before that what allowed us to go war against Iraq was that the lives of brown foreigners didn't mean much to white America. What allows people to pin the financial collapse on the "subprime mortgage crisis" - words that have become synonymous with giving black people or "white trash" loans they couldn't affod - is racism and classism in an ugly swirl. What allows their to be Katrina homeless three years later and tent cities the size of which we haven't seen since the 1980's is that we revere the rich and despise the poor.

    Despite the fact that some of these people COULD actually afford the homes and loans they were given at the time they were given them - something you never, ever hear mentioned in the news - and that it was a consistent round of greed and layoffs while CEO's collected record money for "outsourcing" and cutting costs at the expense of workers who would no longer be able to buy what they had to sell.

    Racism with classism running a close second (and they are not the same thing) is at the bottom and core of it all. The unspoken notion of some whites that they would truly rather see us all sink than allow anyone "other" to have what they have - is something you cannot talk about in America.

  2. Thanks for your comment Deborah. Please check out the documentary "Jesus Politics" by Ilan Ziv. One of the points that the film makes is that the US government enforcing school integration coincides with the start of the association between Christian Fundamentalists and the Republican party. I would add to this that Christian Fundamentalism is strongest in the American South which is also where the civil rights campaign was focused and where opposition was strongest. The whole thing about small government and "getting the government off our backs" which is what led indirectly to the sub prime crisis was originally seen as code for an agenda supportive of segregationism.

    Since Reagan, Fundamentalist Christians have been used by the Republican party as dedicated party workers who were key to getting out the vote. Abortion, and Homosexuality were and are being used as powerful motivators.

    Fundamentalist Christians are being used by the Republican party for purely political ends. These people - a huge fraction of Americans- are dupes and have been essentially hypnotized through clever manipulation of their own prejudices and dogmatic beliefs.

    A leader like Barak Obama is a great leader precisely because he rises above sectarianism. He seeks that which ties us together, that which we have in common. We build societies together and we benefit from a multiplicity of beliefs and viewpoints. Focusing on what seperates us and on emotional dividing lines like our country first is ultimately destructive to society.