The truth; the truth we need to hear; the truth upon which our actions must be based.
This truth is an arranged and established thing. It is presented to us as something easily absorbed because it is consistent with our existing beliefs and value-systems. It is also presented to us to account for what we know about the world. Usually, it is presented to us through the very media through which we know what we know.
Let’s consider an obvious matter. If you read William Shirer’s Berlin Diary, you will find that the Germans were convinced, in August 1939, that Poland posed a threat to Germany, and indeed to the peace of the world, which deserved to be taken seriously. Poland was mobilising its army and had fortified its borders — including the “free city” of Danzig, the only substantial port in the East Prussian region, jointly ruled by Germany and Poland. Poland was ruled by a military dictatorship which respected only force.
Furthermore, Poland had refused to negotiate with Germany in order to discuss Germany’s grievances against Poland; particularly, the large number of ethnic Germans living in the areas of Germany which had been handed over to Poland by the Treaty of Versailles, which virtually everyone felt had been a one-sided treaty intended to harm Germany. The German grievance was being ignored. As it were, the Poles were humiliating the Germans by their contempt for diplomacy.
Meanwhile, Poland had signed military agreements with Britain and France suggesting an attempt to encircle Germany along exactly the same lines as those made under the Entente Cordiale between Britain, France and Russia, a military alliance which led directly to the First World War. Hence, Poland might not be significant in herself, but she was a major part of an attempt by the West to undermine Germany’s legitimate pursuit of self-determination, and perhaps even an attempt by the West to plot a massive war against Germany. (There were many voices in Britain and France, in and out of government, who were calling for regime change in Germany, and both countries were frantically building up their armed forces on a pattern obviously aimed against Germany.) In the background, Britain and France were also negotiating with the Soviet Union, which they had once fought undeclared war against — an act which, in terms of the official ideology of the German government, amounted virtually to a betrayal of everything which Western civilisation stood for.
Against such a pattern of events, it was natural that German newspapers should be broadcasting reports of massacres of Germans by Poles (even though this did not actually happen until after the war broke out, it was a plausible lie) and warnings of a Polish invasion of Germany (the Polish army was deployed along the German border in an offensive pattern). Germans believed this, naturally. Why should they not have done? They wanted to believe that Germany would be in the right in anything she did. Ultimately, they wanted the former German bits of Poland back, and they would have been quite happy to see Poland become a satellite of Germany into the bargain.
Berlin Diary treats things differently, of course. Shirer, who hated the Nazis, saw the lies perfectly clearly. He also saw that all these conventional notions boiled down to one thing: that the Germans had been conditioned into accepting aggression against Poland. It had been done, if anything, more effectively than it had been done the previous year against Czechoslovakia. The Germans also felt a continual resentment against losing World War I, which they felt they had deserved to win. As a result, they had developed the notion that, just as the Versailles Treaty had unfairly deprived them of territory, so something had unfairly deprived them of victory. (Some felt it was the Jews, some felt it was the Communists, some felt it was the liberals, some felt it was the capitalists — the Durchstosslegende, the story of the stab in the back, was so splendid a concept that it could be applied to any enemy you might wish to focus upon at a given time.) They actually wanted a re-match. What they did not want, of course, was to lose, which is why when war actually broke out the Germans were never very enthusiastic about it.
Now the point about all this is that Shirer was not coming from out of a German background, and could clearly see that the conventional wisdom which the Nazis were exploiting was a cobbled-together mass of half-truths and outright lies intended to promote a world-view which stroked the German collective egotism while simultaneously directing Germans to support the Nazi Party as the force which would further that world-view. Therefore he was horrified. He was right to be horrified, because the underlying passion which the most senior Nazis actually felt was for the creation of a world more hideous than almost any Germans, even Nazis, imagined; its climax being the actual experience of Nazi rule in Poland and the occupied parts of the USSR, and the “SS state” which developed in Germany itself from 1943 onward, in which human life literally counted for nothing and in which abstract concepts — often concepts with no counterpart in reality — overrode all other experiences. Yet this was the climax, not merely of Nazi ideology, but of conventional wisdom.
Yet Shirer could not see his own commitment to conventional wisdom; Berlin Diary is riddled with patriotic American nonsense which un-Americans can plainly see but Shirer couldn’t. (Often he is annoyed to find that the Nazis could see through him perfectly well on this count.) We should not ever imagine for an instant that we are free from conventional wisdom. What is more, conventional wisdom is a completely slippery slope which, once embarked upon, can take you slithering down to destruction.
Consider the United States in the early twenty-first century. The US believed itself to be the best nation in the world. Therefore, it had a moral duty to impose its superior culture on all other nations. (This is precisely the legitimating structure pursued by the Second Reich in 1914, and very similar to the narrative which Hitler used in Mein Kampf.) It also had developed the notion that the worst possible crime in the world was terrorism, which, as Noam Chomsky incessantly observes, actually means “violent, life-threatening acts committed by people of whom we do not approve”.
It had further developed the notion that there was one especially inferior culture in the world; not an ethnic group or a religious community, but a socio-political culture, namely the socio-political culture associated with Islam. This culture had shown its inferiority by repeatedly launching unprovoked attacks on the tiny nation of Israel, out of a racist desire to repeat the Nazi Holocaust by exterminating all the Jews in that country. While not all Islamic countries had directly participated in this aggression, all were implicated by virtue of the fact that in every Islamic country, people had spoken out in support of Palestinians, who were Islamic Arabs particularly concerned with the desire to repeat the Holocaust. Hence, in a sense, not only were Arabic and Islamic people natural terrorists, but they also potentially posed a threat to the world as great as Hitler did.
What was more, Islamic people were oppressive. They had authoritarian governments. They compelled their women to cover their hair, and sometimes their faces. They spoke in unfamiliar languages with strange wriggly script in their books. They worshipped the wrong God. What was worse, Islamic people were associated with the appalling culture of suicide bombing. No other culture encouraged people to sacrifice their lives for the greater good, which is an atrocious notion. As a result, it was clear that Islam could be deemed a cult of death (although it was also possible to argue, and many Americans did, that, properly organised, Islam could be as satisfactory a religion as any other). All this meant that Islamic people were potentially a direct opposition to the American civilising mission all over the world.
The United States had fought several wars to civilise Islam, and had also launched several campaigns to improve Islamic government in places such as Iran (the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossedegh) and Indonesia (the overthrow of President Soekarno and the subsequent massacre of the Communists). Of course, there were various good Islamic countries, such as Morocco and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; the former two might have indulged in wars with their neighbours or in imperialist enterprises which some might deem shameful, but they had served the greater interests of the United States and so they were good.
And then one fine day in September, the Islamists blew up a couple of buildings in the United States and killed nearly three thousand people. In consequence, the United States subsequently invaded Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan, overthrowing the governments of the first three of those countries and putting the government of the fourth under severe (probably terminal) strain. None of these invasions could possibly have happened had it not been for conventional wisdom, which declared that the United States was so splendid that hostility to it was illegitimate, that hostility to the United States posed a threat which the United States was entitled to meet with force, and that the greatest of this hostility came from the Islamic world. It goes without saying that none of these four countries posed any real threat to the United States, and nobody has ever shown that even the Afghan government supported the attack on the United States (the other three governments had nothing whatsoever to do with any such attack).
Conventional wisdom allowed the United States to behave almost exactly like the Nazis, invading countries and setting up brutal, remote-controlled puppet states through which to impose their will, adopting the Nacht und Nebel system under which enemies of the state (whom both George Bush and Heinrich Himmler referred to as “terrorists”) could disappear into secret concentration camps for torture and murder, wiping out whole villages and cities in reprisal for the killing of members of the master race by the untermenschen, and legitimating the whole sequence of crimes with a formidable but transparently dishonest structure of propaganda.
Conventional wisdom allowed it in the sense that it was not opposed. There was protest against Bush’s policies (at least in the case of Iraq) but it was mild by comparison with what it should have been. The Americans re-elected Bush the following year. In 2008, both of the candidates for the forthcoming election pledged themselves to continue Bush’s policies in a way which would win the global war which had been entirely created by the manic consequences of America’s own propaganda. The election provided a solid support for conventional wisdom and President Obama duly expanded the war to Pakistan, just as he had pledged in his campaign.
This is all, in a sense, a more horrible victory for conventional wisdom than the Nazi victory. Adolf Hitler, after all, did not go to the polls in 1939 on a promise of invading Poland; he just went ahead and did it. Nor did the Nazis permit the freedom of speech and assembly which the Americans permit. There is a wealth of factual evidence and intellectual debate criticising the conventional wisdom which underpins Bush’s and Obama’s global bloodbath.
Yet conventional wisdom triumphs — triumphs so completely that the Truther down the corridor from the Creator unshrinkingly supported Obama and all his ways in the 2008 election, and stands shoulder to shoulder with him in the grand campaign to eradicate evil in the world (in spite of firmly believing, on the basis of service in Vietnam, that the War on Terror is unwinnable, and the war in Afghanistan which is Obama’s special pet is a disastrous blunder).
What can we do about conventional wisdom, other than shrieking abuse at it?
Prisoners of the Truth (1I): The Conventional Menace.
The truth; the truth we need to hear; the truth upon which our actions must be based.