The House of the Lie

Naturally, the educated man does not believe in propaganda; he shrugs and is convinced that propaganda has no effect on him. This is, in fact, one of his greatest weaknesses, and propagandists are well aware that in order to reach someone, one must first convince him that propaganda is ineffectual and not very clever. Because he is convinced of his own superiority, the intellectual is much more vulnerable than anybody else to this maneuver, even though basically a high intelligence, a broad culture, a constant exercise of the critical faculties, and full and objective information are still the best weapon against propaganda.

Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, p. 111.

Once upon a time, as I sat in my place around the big square table at the Jesus Seminar, my suspicions were confirmed. Was the goal of this think tank really to arrive at the facts about the ostensibly historical Jesus? If you looked at the trees, the answer would be yes. The discussions of individual sayings and stories were certainly attempts to whittle away anachronistic and tendentious embellishments of the Jesus tradition. But if you stepped back to look at the forest as a whole, it did sort of look like somebody had yet to learn the lesson of Albert Schweitzer’s magisterial book The Quest of the Historical Jesus: that Jesus researchers, despite their efforts to cast off the blinders of ancient dogma, had raised from the tomb of the past a Jesus that fit their theological and political preferences strikingly well.

The nature of the cheat in politically correct Jesus scholarship is this: the “dangerous supplement.” Derrida explained how someone proposes to add some insight that will fill a gap in some traditional understanding or institution, as when astronomers corrected the earlier belief that the orbits of the planets were perfect circles, showing instead that the planets journeyed around the sun in elliptical paths. Okay, just a helpful correction. But the “dangerous supplement” turns out to be much more. The suggested “modification” in fact overturns the whole apple cart, supplanting the old way, replacing it. One of the chief forms of this dangerous supplementation/supplantation is the attempt to critique culture in the name of nature: “from the beginning it was not so.”

You saw this, e.g., when anthropologist Margaret Meade criticized the “Puritanical” sexual norms of the West in light of her field studies of primitive peoples in New Guinea, whom she depicted as noble savages practicing Free Love. But it eventually developed that she had reported on these people as she imagined them, not as they were. What had happened (in this as in many other cases) was that culture was not so much being criticized in the name of nature as it was on behalf of counter-culture. Marx’s primal classless society: was it a historical account of the natural state of humanity before private property ruined everything? Or wasn’t it merely a function of his theory? “On my projection (or retrojection), it would have, must have, looked like that.” On and on it goes: was there really a primordial Matriarchy ruined by men, and to which we ought to return? Or isn’t it just mythicizing propaganda?

Historical study of the life of Jesus began in the eighteenth century as a rejection of the hidebound orthodoxy of the Christian churches. No more would biblical critics rein in their research according to what Christians were supposed/required to believe about Jesus (e.g., he was sinless, believed he was the Second Person of the Trinity, performed supernatural feats). They were rejecting “culture,” in this case an edifice of theological speculation, in favor of “nature,” the simple “facts of history.” But instead, they were champions of a counter-culture, seeking to replace the traditional Christology with a new one. You just cherry-pick a different set of gospel verses on which to base your new, improved “historical” Jesus.

I suspected this was what I was seeing in the Jesus Seminar, and finally I heard Bob Funk and others admit that their goal was to come up with a new Jesus figure(head) appropriate to the twenty-first century. I recall Karen King admitting there might be some space between demonstrable fact about Jesus and a Jesus-picture necessary to inspire Christians to engage with the progressive agenda the Seminar espoused. I had to say something. I asked her why that was any better than the fraudulent mythology of Afrocentrism? Face it: the ancient Egyptians were not black Africans, so the attempt to build up black kids’ self-esteem by teaching them such fantasies was building a house on sand. (I’ve always wondered why schools don’t teach about the glorious African civilizations of Songhay, Mali, Ghana, Benin, etc.? I learned about them in Bloomfield High School.

We live in Orwellian times today. The value of a statement is thought to consist in the usefulness of that statement in order to secure some socio-political goal. “Hands up, don’t shoot” is such a false but useful slogan. Michael Brown’s death was not a martyrdom. He did not surrender to police who shot him anyway. But the agitators don’t care about that. It is a useful lie if one’s goal is to undermine the effectiveness and even the legitimacy of the police, a major goal of anarchists. The notorious but phony campus rape cases constitute another major example.

But what these liars forget is that their lies are counter-productive. You remember the fable of the boy who cried “Wolf!” He had a good laugh every time he got all the villagers roused up, but when one day a wolf actually appeared, nobody heeded his call, this time an earnest one. Eventually, people are going to hear accurate reports of police brutality and campus rape and shrug their shoulders. The liars will have demonstrated only that they lie.

Remember the urgent claims that heterosexuals were just as liable to contract AIDS as were homosexuals? It was a lie designed to prod heterosexuals to find a cure for AIDS, which it was assumed they would not bother to do if AIDS were a threat only to (pesky, expendable) Gays. Remember the lies in the 1980s about homelessness? That Middle Class folks were in imminent danger of becoming street people? They weren’t. Street people are mainly the insane dumped out of mental health facilities, and that should have been the problem to attack, not Reaganite economic policies. In any case, AIDS activist and reporter Randy Shilts finally admitted he was inflating his statistics, as did homeless advocate Mitch Snyder.

Frankly, I am utterly baffled that fans of certain political candidates and office-holders who are known to be pathological deceivers are not daunted by their favorites’ penchant for prevarication. Don’t they see the obvious? The liars are not going to change their habits when they gain power. It has already come to the point that one simply cannot believe anything any government spokesperson says. It is just like the Iron Curtain countries before 1990: the people constantly heard glowing progress reports from the Ministry of Truth about economic progress, quotas met, battles won, etc., and not only did the weary populace not believe the propaganda; it no longer even occurred to them that it might be true. Language had lost its informative function and instead become simply a tool to manipulate the hearer. And thus words lose their power even to manipulate. When we hear the next cry of “Wolf!” we aren’t going to look up from our TV screens.

So says Zarathustra.

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