Thursday, August 28, 2008

'Big Lie' Alive And Well In Post-Soviet Russia

The theory of the Big Lie is deceptively simple: if your story is so outrageous that nobody would make it up, people will buy it.

Take the story related by a Soviet émigré about his first time entering a grocery store in the West. When he spotted the aisle with the condiments, it didn't take long for him to end up his knees, weeping.

Buy, why, you ask?

In the Soviet Union, it was hard to obtain mustard. The reason had been clear for years: a worldwide mustard famine deprived the world of access, and only good Soviet planning made available the tiny amount that was to be had. If you weren't a Party official, though, you could pretty much plan to do without. It'd all been in the news for years, and the empty Soviet shelves bore the story out year after year.

Seeing one grocery store's condiment aisle packed with row after row of mustard containers, all different flavors -- he counted dozens of different brands of mustard before he broke down -- he realized that if his government was willing to lie about mustard then ... what might it not have lied about?

So, what's the news now? Putin says the United States orchestrated the violence in Georgia to manipulate November election results, though he's not saying in favor of which candidate, or even displaying any evidence of American involvement.

The story is crazy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Occam's Razor.

Occams Razor is the principle that the explanation that requires positing the fewest causes is the superior explanation. To accept Putin's proposed scheme, we need to accept (1) a U.S. desire to make war within a country that seemed poised to acquire NATO membership, (2) Georgian complicity with a U.S. military scheme -- a scheme so quiet that nobody's leaked it or evidence of it in either involved government or on the field of battle -- and (3) Russian zeal to protect its helpless allies in an autonomous zone recognized by Russia as autonomous only after it invaded. To accept the alternative that suggests itself, we need only accept Putin believes what he himself proclaimed: that the break-up of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century. Believing this, it's clear Putin would rather Russia invade Georgia before, rather than after, admission to NATO. Once you believe this, Putin's story falls nicely into the historical context of the Big Lie tradition long-exercised by the Soviet Union as a propaganda tool.

Will it fail this time? Russia offers the crazy story both for his own domestic consumption (where it could succeed nicely), for consumption by those inclined to latch onto anti-U.S. stories of all colors wherever they are generated and however implausible simply because they are eager to repeat anti-U.S. claims, and for consumption by United States voters who will receive good FUD tending to make voters nervous about the peaceful intentions of anyone even slightly tending to be labeled a hawk. The fact that most people don't buy it doesn't mean it won't have meaningful impact at the margins.

The Big Lie is definitely a solid basis for FUD for the masses.

The interesting thing about propagandizing the West is that for-profit media doesn't have a special bias toward viewpoints that are accurate. The bias in Western media is toward viewpoints that alarm people, and will keep eyeballs glued to the set long enough to show another commercial. Lying to the West is cheap, particularly if you are a high-profile personality followed by reporters precisely to get headline stories to sell.

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