It’s Just That Simple

23:55 Mon 15 Oct 2007. Updated: 02:37 16 Oct 2007
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Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. …Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.
—Hermann Goering

Contemptible as he was, it’s hard to argue that Goering didn’t know what he was talking about here. Sadly those aren’t the words of a cynical theoretician, but rather those of a man who was part of a warmongering cabal who successfully manipulated an entire population into atrocities.

The prescription is simple, and while you do need some kind of propaganda machine to go along with it, that machine doesn’t have to be incredibly complex or developed. After all, the method has worked for thousands of years.

Why does it work?

Unfortunately the first answer that springs to mind is “because most people are idiots”, but that seems unsatisfactory—for one thing, it begs a lot of questions about intelligence, about how some people rise above, about how many in a society rise above that level of consciousness, and so on.

For another, that explanation also ignores the fact that this method works on populations who are avowedly cynical towards and distrustful of politicians. If most people have an inkling that the politicians are self-serving and mendacious, how could they fall for such a serious and obvious lie?

Fear is one reason. Propaganda causing fear in a population is quite effective in blocking rationality.

Another reason is something along the lines of “the cult of the warrior”. Most cultures seem to have powerful myths about those who “fight the good fight”, to the extent that the chance to do so, and especially to fight to “defend the homeland”, seems valuable enough to many to risk fighting a fight that’s not good at all. The romanticization of combat—hardly a new phenomenon—does powerful work in encouraging fighting rather than thinking about what’s going on. There’s never been any shortage of people who feel they lack something in “normal” life and that this lack can be met through exposure to “real” life in the form of war.

There is also the power of the Big Lie, where people simply can’t comprehend that their leaders would lie about something so colossal. Who would lie about something as dangerous, as important, as the safety of the country? Surely no-one would be so evil—hence the danger must be real.

Is the horror of realizing that the people running your country—a country you may well love dearly—care nothing for you, or for the well-being of the country as a whole, and that they have interests entirely alien to yours and values predicated on the pursuit of power and little else, is that realization more terrible to contemplate than a war? It appears to be so, for a great many people. Creating another horror seems preferable to grasping the truth. Perhaps this is because the necessary actions are clear in one case (go to war, or otherwise support the war effort in some way) and completely murky in the other (what are the alternatives? What political system would work better? Who can be trusted if the leaders are so corrupt?). In other words, faced with terror, confusion, and pressure, most people look to a clear course of action, and “fight the war” seems clear, while “change the system” seems so vague as to be meaningless. People are undone by their desire for clarity and certainty.

Is that the trick? Push people into choosing between facing a current horror with confusion and anxiety versus facing a later possible horror—one that only reveals its horror with experience, not with passing consideration—that has simplicity and definition, and be secure that they will choose the latter?

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