The deliberate falsehood and the outright lie, used as legitimate means to achieve political ends, have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.Hannah Arendt, Lying in Politics
As we dedicate much of the week to the relentless, systematic lies and falsehoods of Scott Morrison, it’s worth remembering that he is, in historical terms, an amateur — albeit a deeply enthusiastic and committed amateur. As Bernard Keane pointed out earlier this week, his lies are needless and inconsequential just as often as they regard serious policy matters. It’s interesting to contrast them with some of the biggest and most consequential lies in history.
By 58 BC Caeser had — after an election that was corrupt even by Roman standards — been elected consul. But he was deeply in debt, potentially facing prosecution for his conduct while in office and had seen his political alliances collapse. So he undertook a move that would become a go-to for struggling political leaders: he started a war. As Michael Kulikowski writes in the London Review of Books:
He needed glory and he needed cash. The quickest route to glory was beating up barbarians; stealing their wealth and selling their bodies into slavery got him the cash. And, as had long been the Roman way, he would justify his rapacity as necessary to defend the Roman state…
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It was all based on lies, and it lead to a genocide. Kulikowski continues:
With his political future at stake, Caesar had every reason to pick fights with Gallic peoples both friendly and hostile, to manufacture threats where none existed, and to allege the treachery of Rome’s allies … He also had every reason to maximise Gallic casualties, whether dead or enslaved, because even with ten thousand legionaries at his command, he could only control so vast a landmass by massacring those most able to resist.
While it’s impossible to know the exact figures, it’s estimated as many as a million Gauls were killed in these wars.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
While the “big lie” quote often attributed to Joseph Goebbels (“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”) was something he almost certainly never said, it’s hardly news that the very core of the Nazi party and their actions was based on categorical lies.
One of their seminal texts was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion — an act of forgery that purported to set out Jewish plots of world domination. Fabricated some time around the turn of the 20th century, it was published around the world (Henry Ford funded the publication of half a million copies in the US). Despite being exposed as a fraud as early as a Times of London investigation in 1921, excerpts were read to schoolchildren in Germany throughout the reign of the Nazi party, and it remains a popular basis for conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites to this day.
The Great Purge
Conservative historian Robert Conquest argued that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s lies went beyond show trials and the unexplained disappearances of public figures, but in the “invention of a factually non-existent society”.
For one example, the purges of the late 1930s were based on elaborate conspiracy theories, usually revolving around “fifth columnists” or anti-government forces who intended to assassinate him. Indeed, it’s been argued that the event that was used as the pretext for the first purge — the assassination of Sergei Kirov — was arranged by Stalin himself.
Again, it’s hard to assess exact numbers, but it’s estimated somewhere between 950,000 and 1.2 million people died in the purges.
Richard Nixon’s landslide victory in the 1972 US election points to a possibly intractable problem; even pre-Trump, lying didn’t necessarily lead to any real electoral consequences. It’s not as though “Tricky Dicky” had a reputation for scrupulous honesty prior to the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate hotel in June 1972.
Still, his denial of any involvement in or knowledge of the break-in was just the start of it. The vast conspiracy Watergate came to represent — the bugging of political opponents, the use of state agencies such as the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service as though they were party property — became clearer and clearer. On August 5, 1974, the White House released the “smoking gun” tape, recorded in June 1972.
It revealed Nixon did know about the break-in, directed the FBI not to investigate, and went on to lie about it. This convinced Republicans on the Judiciary Committee who had previously voted against impeachment to switch their votes. Nixon resigned.
The invasion of Iraq
Georgia Wilkins and Bernard Keane have already touched on Australia’s role in this most catastrophic of decisions. But no one in the “Coalition of the Willing” escapes judgement.
There is considerable evidence that then-US president George Bush and his vice Dick Cheney knowingly lied about Saddam Hussein’s possession and development of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). There is Bush’s assertion Hussein had a “massive stockpile” of biological weapons, or Cheney’s description of a meeting between Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent that he’d been told by the CIA and the FBI hadn’t happened, and many many others.
This has since been buttressed by statements of those in the rooms where these decisions were made, particularly former CIA officers.
Two former agents told Salon that then-agency head George Tenet briefed Bush that Saddam had no WMDs a week after 9/11, but Bush dismissed it because he’d already made his decision on going to war. The intelligence was omitted from the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, which stated that Iraq possessed WMDs.
Fomer CIA deputy head Michael Morell, one of Bush’s intelligence briefers, has also admitted Cheney fabricated claims about Hussein’s ability to acquire/reconstitute nuclear weapons (apparently it “wasn’t [his] job” to correct the record when it could have made a difference).
The Chilcot Inquiry paints a similar picture about the evidence, deliberately ignored, presented by intelligence agencies to then-UK prime minister Tony Blair.
This is to say nothing of the US denials that torture was taking place at Guantanamo Bay — couched in the argument that terror suspects weren’t covered by the Geneva Convention, which is the kind of thing you always point out when you’re not torturing someone.