Political Lies, Myths and Deception are Good for You

When carried out by the great and powerful, lies are more than socially acceptable. They are essential to the rule of the many by the few. Indeed, myth and deception is the key to maintenance of unequal power relationships and economic injustice that underlie property rights, corporate profits, and shareholder equity.

Without lies and myth, governments could not govern, policemen could not investigate, lawyers and doctors could not practice licensed professions, and nations would disintegrate. Authority would just be ridiculous.

Lying, in itself, is not a crime. It is actually protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, according to the Supreme Court. Were it otherwise, rulers could not rule.

Justice Breyer summed it up, defending what he sees as the social benefits of the right lies, told by the right people: [Breyer, Concurring Opinion, joined by Kagan, United States v. Alvarez, 567 U.S. 709 (2012)]

False factual statements can serve useful human objectives, for example: in social contexts, where they may prevent embarrassment, protect privacy, shield a person from prejudice, provide the sick with comfort, or preserve a child’s innocence; in public contexts, where they may stop a panic or otherwise preserve calm in the face of danger; and even in technical, philosophical, and scientific contexts, where (as Socrates’ methods suggest) examination of a false statement (even if made deliberately to mislead) can promote a form of thought that ultimately helps realize the truth.” [emphases added]

That lying with impunity is a privilege of the elites who actually rule, of course, is a very old and time-worn idea. The concept of the “noble lie” arises in Plato’s Republic. Speaking through an imagined dialogue between Socrates and several other worthy philosophers of Athens circa 400 BC, Plato wrote that such a lie is a "form of medicine" that only a select few "doctors" (rulers) are qualified to dispense. (Plato 235; 389b) Thus, what I have termed "subversion from above" has been, going back to Plato, part of the prescribed practice of a ruling oligarchy: [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.01...

"[F]alsehood is in very deed useless to gods, but to men useful as a remedy or form of medicine,33 it is obvious that such a thing must be assigned to physicians and laymen should have nothing to do with it.” “Obviously,” he replied. “The rulers then of the city may, if anybody, fitly lie on account of enemies or citizens for the benefit34 of the state; no others may have anything to do with it, [389c] but for a layman to lie to rulers of that kind we shall affirm to be as great a sin, nay a greater, than it is for a patient not to tell physician or an athlete his trainer the truth about his bodily condition . . . “If then [389d] the ruler catches anybody else in the city lying, any of the craftsmen“ Whether a prophet or healer of sickness or joiner of timbers, ”Hom. Od. 17.383-384 he will chastise him for introducing a practice as subversive35 and destructive of a state as it is of a ship.”"

Medicinal Illusion, Fatal Truths, and the Construction of Oligarchy

Plato goes on to explain that The Noble Lie originates in the creation of a Foundation Myth by the ruling elite that justifies the rule of the lesser many by the annointed "Golden" few. A closer look at Plato reveals, in fact, he was no great fan of the actual democracy of Athens.

Plato's uncle, Critias, was the feared and despotic leader of the occupation regime, the Tyranny of the 30, that was briefly installed by Sparta upon the Athenian Republic after the latter lost a major battle of the Peloponesian War in 404 BC - the Vichy France of antiquity.

Rather than a defender of democratic self-rule, Plato imagined in The Republic that Philosopher Kings, men like himself, should rule the Idyllic City, as a ruling oligarchy, the One Percent of that day. Indeed, it was Critias who established the Oligarchy, a group of 500 trusted patricians beneath the 30, to administer and terrorize Athens during the occupation regime.

Significantly, Plato styles his Philosopher Kings on Critias and the Tyranny of 30, not on Pericles, the founder of democratic Athens. It is Critias and the 30 Tyrants who are the original "doctors" of philosophy. This switching of roles foreshadows the emergence in the 20th Century at the University of Chicago of an academic movement committed to a program and philosophy of subversion from above and the hollowing out of majoritarian processes of the pluralistic democratic state of the New Deal and its replacement by a core meritocratic elite of statisticians and business tycoons in the name of "democracy". A peculiar sort of democracy.

Perhaps, that is apt. Professor Leo Strauss, a leading German interpreter of Plato, became the leader of the Chicago School of Political Theory during the period, 1949-69. Strauss sat in his endowed chair during the rise of America as Cold War superpower, overseeing the Doctoral Dissertations that came out of that department. Among his most notable students -- Paul Wolfowitz, Abram Shulsky, William Kristol -- were to become the most notorious neocons of the early 21st Century. The Iraq War, like Athen's loss to Sparta and the Tyranny of the Oligarchs that followed, marked a turning point in the history of democracy.

While Strauss publicly endorsed a "a highly abstract and ideologized version of the United States", he actually condemned the secular, humanistic underpinnings of pluralist Democracy. He is also become identified as the intellectual leader of Neoconservatism, a doctrine of aggressive war waged by deceit. At the core of his doctrine was an intensely reactionary sort of conservatism, one that suspected that at the root of totalitatianism was modernism and the Enlightenment. The Straussians claim that historical progress is an "illusion" and that the fatal error of modern state is the abandonment of what they see as the permanent certainties, pieties, and authority of neoclassical antiquity.

Leo Strauss and the "Leocons"

Strauss wrote: when humanity is ostensibly freed of all "permanencies," such as knowing "the distinction between the noble and the base," then we are too apt to spiral into terror, as happened with Hitler and the Nazis. "It was the contempt for these permanencies which permitted the most radical historicist in 1933 [to gain power]." [Democracy and Dissent: Strauss, Arendt, and Voegelin in America, Denver University Law Review, Vol. 89, No. 3, 2012, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2566301]

A further striking irony in the back story behind Strauss' conception of The Republic is the fact that Plato's older relative, Critias, notorious as one of the Thirty Tyrants, was an atheist. He openly admitted that the concept of the Gods was invented by powerful men who wished to legitimize their rule and so concocted elaborate fables of supernatural beings who would reward or punish behavior of the lower classes of men. Power, he saw, is rooted in institutionalized superstition, and Plato later alluded to this in his Allegory of the Cave. Professor Thomas Mautner observes that Critias“ is the earliest statement on record that religion is invented by politicians in order to control the people” (116). "To Critias there are no gods or a single God; religion is simply a means whereby the strong and entitled control the weak."

Subversion from Above, Indispensable Opium, and the Doctors of Philosophy

In August, 2003, when the realization was finally dawning that the Bush-Cheney Administration had lied its way into the Iraq War, The New York Times published a remarkable essay about Strauss and his acolytes, many of them Neoconservatives who had taken position of power in the Pentagon and across Washington institutions. The neoconservative authors of the WMD fraud were traced back to a common source, Strauss, and the University of Chicago. In the "The Leoconservatives", Gerhard Sporl, wrote: https://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/04/international/europe/the-leoconservat...

They are viewed as a group of neo-conservative conspirators, as a small, elite order guiding the Bush administration - and when its path becomes crooked, providing it with a good conscience. They can be found among the justices of the Supreme Court, and they work at both the White House and the Pentagon.

Although most of them have learned their particular way of thinking from Strauss, they are more power-conscious than the master was. They want to change and not just interpret America.

The Washington branch of the "Straussians" recently met at a barbecue in a Washington park in July, as it does every year, to play baseball and chat about the past and present. More than 60 members of the inner and outer circles of the administration attended the event. Paul Wolfowitz, the Bush administration's hawkish idea man, was there, as was Abram Shulsky, a Pentagon intelligence expert who co-authored a book with Francis Fukuyama.

William Kristol, publisher of the "Weekly Standard," a paper with a circulation of only 60,000 but with considerable influence in Washington, was there, and so was Leon Kass, whom the President has commissioned to develop guidelines for stem cell research. They too are students of Leo Strauss.

Sporl goes on to observe about Strauss' core teaching about medicinal illusion, the opiate of the masses, and the State:

[W]ithout the inner cohesiveness faith provides, states could not exist. For this reason, according to Strauss, religion serves as a binding agent in a stable social order. It is, admittedly, the opium of the people, but it is also an indispensable opium. In Strauss' view, liberal democracies such as the Weimar Republic are not viable in the long term, since they do not offer their citizens any religious and moral footings.
The practical consequence of this philosophy is fatal. According to its tenets, the elites have the right and even the obligation to manipulate the truth. Just as Plato recommends, they can take refuge in "pious lies" and in selective use of the truth.

Of course, Plato insisted, the lesser men, "laymen", are forbidden to administer the “medicine” of lies. If a layman appropriates the privilege of telling lies, he must be punished for “introducing a practice as subversive and destructive of a state.” (235; 389d). According to Madeline Aruffo, "Problems of the Noble Lie": https://web.archive.org/web/20170517023931/https://www.bu.edu/av/core/jo...

Disruption or destruction would be the outcome, since [the common man] lacks the expertise needed to make good use of lies. The use of lies is forbidden to everyone but the expert “doctors.” When lies are used by the experts, Socrates and Glaucon agree that they would benefit the state, and therefore their use is justified.

Therefore, to challenge such lies becomes subversive, and sacriligious, which is self-evidently dangerous, as it is inherently a challenge to the power of state to create and sustain its own myths. Criticizing the untruths of state is treated as a crime of libel, a form of subversion akin to lying. Indeed, one of the charges against Socrates was that his teachings went against the received truth of the Athenian Gods.

Ironically, however, the object lesson of the Death of Socrates has been twisted to justify elite distrust of democracy rather than, more correctly, the injust wrath of pious authority. That confusion has led to telling of "Noble Lies" by generations of academics, most notably Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, perhaps the most influential professor of political science of the late 20th Century, who is widely identified to be the direct intellectual father of Neoconservativism. To question foundation myths of their making also risks attacks upon one's credibility and suspicion of vanity. Who would possibly be qualified to prove the experts, who are alone qualified to speak for the Gods, wrong?

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Granma's picture

Are good only for the people who tell them. Positively they are destructive of any sort of democracy, IMO.

Most people value honesty in others, and not just in politics. But I'm simple minded. Maybe I've missed understanding something.

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@Granma cease to believe the possibility of any truths. That, I think, is the strategy of both parties - our withdrawal from participation in politics out of sheer disgust and exhaustion of all belief in democracy. I hope we can prove them wrong.

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Granma's picture

@leveymg are disgusted and have nothing to do with it. I hope with you, that many of them will give it a try this year.

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ovals49's picture

Plato’s Republic is compassion and enlightenment. Absent these two things Plato’s Allegory of the Cave becomes a justification for sociopaths to take what they want, Devil take the hindmost.

The protagonist in the Allegory of the Cave peels away the layered illusions of life in chains, and eventually emerges from the darkness into the light of a deeper understanding. Remembering his fellow cave dwellers, he returns to exhort those still chained in the cave to free themselves and escape their life of illusion and misery.

I would claim that Strauss has turned Plato’s Allegory of the Cave on its head, perverting it’s meaning one hundred and eighty degrees.

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"An oligarchy of private capital cannot be effectively checked .....because under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information."
Albert Einstein

k9disc's picture

"Better watch out! That SHADOW is a DEMON! And your buddy who thinks they are just shadows is in league with the DEMONS... Just sayin'... I know these things. I went to the University of Chicago."

Another great piece, leveymg.

@ovals49

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“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” ~ Sun Tzu

@ovals49 attack, as it requires no creative effort on one's own part. Most negative political rhetoric is merely a projection of one's own wrongs onto the target of the attack.

Much of politics seems to be a sweeping away of rational persuasion in a tide of untruth. Eventually, all that is left is nihilism. Strauss recognized this in his dialogues with his contemporaries, Heidegger and Schmitt, both of whom became ardent Nazis.

One can see that process is at work with the Neocons, who seem to always be losing more rational footing with their every success.

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of the methods used
to rule the masses

if the delusional nonsense
can be so clearly exposed as such
we may have a hope at enlightenment

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May we be united and strong -- laurel