A few years sometimes make a big difference in human affairs. A few years ago an American President was put through the 18th century ordeal of impeachment, a vast, expensively-staged comic opera of white manes waving and grave baritones intoning, over a dribble on a dress and the lie he told to save himself embarrassment. Today we have a President who has hurled the world into two dirty, pointless wars after what undoubtedly qualifies as the longest sequence of public lies ever uttered in a free society, and yet in his homeland he remains popular and is collecting enough campaign cash to rival the Swiss bank balances of the Russian Mafia.
Leaders have always lied in times of war and when maneuvering for advantage in international affairs, American presidents, despite puffed-up claims to different moral standards, no less so than others. Usually the lies they tell are not understood until years later. The lies then often seem to become small, unimportant details in a history of big events. But Bush has lied daily, doing it so awkwardly at times that you might think everyone is aware of it, and it seems to make no difference to his political standing.
What will Bush do with all the cash he is hoarding for the next campaign? He will use it to practice the worst lying possible in a democratic society, lying that subverts the intent of democracy, replacing meaningful debate by the suggestions, half-truths, and staged images of advertising and marketing. Perhaps, I should correct that to the second-worst lying possible in a democratic society, for Bush, of course, entered office with the worst lying, claiming to have won an election he lost by any sensible reckoning.
Why are Americans not distressed at this? Because they live in an intense field, an electromagnetic haze, of marketing, advertising, and commercial propaganda twenty-four hours a day. Americans are so saturated with this stuff that they regard it as normal communication.
But it is not normal. It is deliberate and manipulative. At its very best, advertising is only ever half truth, telling a few favorable aspects of something that deserves greater scrutiny. At its worst, it is simply artful fraud and deception. But in no case is it truth or, perhaps better put since truth is a large and difficult idea, honest communication. Advertising, like its fraternal twin, propaganda, always has a purpose other than helping you understand something. This other purpose is its raison d’etre. Advertising wants to separate you from your money or, in the case of politics, from your vote.
I’ve often chuckled over the way Americans used to get so upset over the idea of Communist propaganda. While Americans decried that propaganda, they themselves lived in a dense fog of advertising and propaganda. Only the American stuff isn’t quite so obvious as the ponderous old Soviet stuff, at least to anyone immersed in it. It is far more artful and effective. That friendly well-known face on TV is speaking to me, being a friend to me in my isolation and loneliness, cares about me, why he’s even recommending something good for me. What a nice man.
In America, wave on wave of these smiling frauds sell floor mops, breath mints, female hygiene, Christ, cancer treatment, hamburgers, and presidential candidates.
An interesting story from Maine, a place that prides itself on tourist billboards as having “Life the way it should be,” shows, in another sphere of life, how people, responding to the intense environment of advertising and marketing, sometimes act with no examination of their actions. An otherwise very nice person was vigorously preaching one day some years ago to an associate at work about his not using a paper-recycling container in his office, an oversight that may have involved a few dozen sheets of paper in a week.
Now this “environmentally-concerned” preacher with her spouse had just built a large, brand-new house, a five-bedroom monster for two people with no children. And where did they build it? On the fringes of a suburban area that was already suffering from exactly the kind of hopeless sprawl afflicting every other part of the United States where life is not advertised as being “the way it should be.” They built on a one-acre site along a tiny road on the edge of a forest. And how were they getting to work? Why, each drove his and her own gasoline-wasting, road-wasting, polluting SUV.
An acre of land, of course, required a large, polluting rider-mower just to keep the grass clipped. Their long driveway required lots of private plowing in the winter. The small road leading to it required the sprawled-out town to plow regularly for the benefit of a fairly small number of people. So too for garbage pick-up, and indeed for every other public service. And five bedrooms use a lot of heating oil and a lot of air-conditioning. If these people ever do have children, they will require bus service along thinly-populated roads.
But in their minds they are doing nothing irresponsible. It is that fellow at work who refuses to use a re-cycling box that is irresponsible. Of course the amount of environmental stress and strain caused by their choices is at least a hundred thousand times greater than that caused by the man without the box, but no real analysis takes place here. They are immersed in suggestions of their lifestyle having an almost quasi-sacred character to it, being fulfillment of that unexamined advertising slogan, “the American dream,” and they equally are immersed in suggestions that things like recycling boxes in every office are very good things indeed.
I said this example was from another sphere of life, but really it isn’t. The energy to do all the things necessary to support their sprawl-lifestyle, multiplied by tens of millions of other Americans just like them, has to come from somewhere. Like Iraq or Iran or Saudi Arabia. Pick your troubled part of the world and add the cost of America’s belligerent policies to keep it in line. But Americans rarely see the results of these abhorrent policies, the mutilated children, for instance, of Iraq.
And the immense pollution generated by this lifestyle has to go somewhere, but who cares just so long as you don’t see it piled up on your front lawn? It all gets taken away, to dumps, somewhere. And the smoke from the power generators? Well, they don’t build those in areas like this. The green-house gases from burning all that gasoline and fuel oil and diesel truck fuel? The wind takes it off somewhere. The road salt. The insecticide. The weed killer. Well, they do their job and you don’t see the mess.
And that is the answer that explains America’s system of paid political lies: it does its job and you don’t see the mess, at least if you are not looking, and most Americans aren’t looking.
JOHN CHUCKMAN lives in Canada. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.