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We Live in an Age of Competitive Lying

Orlov is one of our favorite essayists on Russia and all sorts of other things. He moved to the US as a child, and lives in the Boston area.

He is one of the better-known thinkers The New Yorker has dubbed 'The Dystopians' in an excellent 2009 profile, along with James Howard Kunstler, another regular contributor to RI (archive). These theorists believe that modern society is headed for a jarring and painful crack-up.

He is best known for his 2011 book comparing Soviet and American collapse (he thinks America's will be worse). He is a prolific author on a wide array of subjects, and you can see his work by searching him on Amazon.

He has a large following on the web, and on Patreon, and we urge you to support him there, as Russia Insider does.

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His current project is organizing the production of affordable house boats for living on. He lives on a boat himself.

If you haven't discovered his work yet, please take a look at his archive of articles on RI. They are a real treasure, full of invaluable insight into both the US and Russia and how they are related.

No one has ever claimed that it is upstanding, sportsmanlike behavior to tell lies. Outside of some very special occupations—spy, special agent, etc.—lying is almost always a manifestation of failure.

Even in its relatively innocuous forms, such as braggadocio and puffery, showboating and grandstanding, it is a poor substitute for having a favorable truth to tell. Then there are the various types of dissimulation, misdirection, concealment and omission; whether motivated by the wish to spare someone’s feelings or to avoid a scandal, the decision to lie is rarely a happy one.

Finally, there are those who produce and circulate false and misleading information. When society functions normally, such people are caught, sooner or later, their reputations are ruined, their careers are terminated and the damage they caused is repaired. In a normally functioning society, enough of its members have a solid grasp of facts, are able to reason logically, and have sufficient faith in journalistic and other professional ethics, in the impartiality of public officials, and in the scientific method, to allow them to believe that truth does exist and that they are capable of obtaining it.

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But such normal, stolid, matter-of-fact forms of social behavior seem a bit boring, perhaps even fuddy-duddyish, and are unlikely to hold the attention of modern smartphone-addicted whipper-snappers. Wouldn’t it be a lot more popular, modern and fun if the manufacturing of lies for financial and political gain become an accepted form of public behavior?

What if lying become incentivized to the point where it turned into a national sport? Who needs journalistic and professional ethics when less then a third of Americans polled say that they trust the national media? Why should public officials remain impartial when everybody knows that the vast majority of politically engaged Americans have formed two camps that openly hate and want to subvert each other? And who needs the scientific method and other forms of objective inquiry based on empirical evidence when we can rely on rumors circulated on social media as the ultimate arbiter of truth—because of “the wisdom of crowds” or some such?

And here is the most provocative question of all: What if we are already living in such a world?

How would we know if that were the case? We certainly shouldn’t attempt to base our assessment on anything as unreliable as “known facts” or on our personal notions of what is true: if our world has indeed shifted into the mode of competitive lying, then there would be multiple sets of alternative facts floating about, all of them fake to one extent or another, and choosing one set over another could be regarded as a matter of personal prejudice.

Do you see the basic contradiction? The old methods of epistemological exploration would no longer apply to the new world of competitive lying. Therefore, we need to find a new method with which to ascertain whether the world we currently inhabit is the old one of indisputable truths, or the new one of competing lies.

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I would like to suggest that we need to stop looking at specifics and instead look at general, systemic behaviors. In the old world of epistemological exploration, theories and narratives are found invalid and dismissed when evidence is discovered that contradicts them. This is because an invalid theory or narrative is not seen as valuable; it is a mere encumbrance, and possibly an embarrassment. But in the new world of competitive lying, theories and narratives are neither valid nor invalid. You may think that the “flat earth” nonsense circulated on Facebook is preposterous, but it’s still popular with some people (I’ll explain later why that is) and therefore it persists.

Lies are no longer defective merchandise to be dumped; they are now stock in trade or an investment, endowed with valuable properties such as audience share and brand loyalty. Therefore, whenever some facts come to the surface that contradict one’s favored theory or narrative, the response is not to reexamine but to produce a flood of “alternative facts” (obtained, preferably, from some secret source, so that their provenance cannot be questioned) and to put some extra effort into making one’s theory or narrative stick.

In the old world, to be successful is to formulate theories and create narratives that are commonly regarded as true. This is how the edifice of the one and only consensual reality inhabited by all of the rational, sane people who are intelligent enough to understand them is built, brick by brick, leaving outside all of the irrational, insane, ignorant and stupid people (who may be numerous but who are successfully prevented from having much of an effect on society). But in the new world of competitive lying, success is defined as one’s ability to make one’s lies stick. And the best way to make one’s lies stick is, of course, by lying about them.

So much for theory; now, let’s look at a few examples. All of these mention Russia, because my privileged position behind the one way mirror that prevents Americans from seeing much of anything that goes on outside their own borders happens to be inside Russia.

1. While acting as Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton colluded with Russians as part of a corrupt scheme to give Russian interests a large share of the uranium market in the US. When she then ran for president, her campaign saw this collusion as a major potential problem, and hatched a plan to accuse the Trump campaign of colluding with the Russians instead, to draw attention away from Clinton.

To this end, her campaign purchased a fabricated dossier (the Steele dossier) which smeared Trump. This dossier was then used by the FBI to obtain warrants to spy on the Trump campaign, and to also appoint Mueller as a special investigator, to look for signs of collusion.

If we were in the old world, such evidence would quickly undermine the “Trump colluded with the Russians” narrative. But in the new world of competitive lying it goes merrily on because, facts be damned, it is so darn popular with people who hate Trump!

2. A certain character by the name of Rodchenkov once ran Russia’s anti-doping agency—until he and his sister got caught selling forbidden drugs to athletes. He avoided jail because he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had attempted suicide. Later he ran away to the US and became an FBI informant, spinning a tall tale about a Russian state-sponsored doping program.

Based on his “evidence,” numerous Russian athletes were (temporarily) stripped of their Olympic medals and (temporarily) banned for life from participating in the Olympics. These decisions were overturned due to lack of evidence. The International Olympic Committee chairman Thomas Bach then publicly deplored this decision—because lack of evidence is not a good reason to overturn a decision? Another IOC representative then gave an interview in which he defended the decision to not allow Russian athletes who are known to be clean to compete in the Winter Olympics in South Korea by saying that lack of proof of their guilt does not mean that they are innocent; they may still be suspect, he said—because they are Russian?

In the old world where the rules of evidence apply, such developments would be devastatingly embarrassing to the IOC, disqualifying many officials from holding their positions. But in the new world of competitive lying the “Russian doping” narrative still commands a considerable mindshare (among the most heavily doped population on the planet, one might add) and is being kept alive.

3. There is a certain country in the world that spends a huge amount of money on its military. Its military claims to be able to do a great many things, and to be able to train and equip other militaries to do a great many things. But the preponderance of evidence is that all of them are only capable of doing exactly one thing: drop bombs. Whatever else they try to do, they always fail.

That military is in the US. Just recently it obliterated two major cities: Mosul and Raqqa now lay in ruins. These are just two of the latest examples, but there are plenty of others. The US has dropped bombs on numerous countries—North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Serbia/Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan… probably more bombs than all other nations combined, including two nuclear ones on Japan—and based on all of this evidence it is impossible not to conclude that all that bombing is ineffective in achieving peace on terms the US would like.

The rest of the world knows this extremely well, and knows that there is exactly one defense technology that’s needed in order to completely block and paralyze the US military: area denial technology that includes electronic warfare and air defense systems which Russia is happy to supply. (Having a nuclear deterrent helps too, and North Korea knows this.)

The Americans know that they are facing complete military impotence and, as a Hail Mary pass, are getting ready to spend tens of billions of dollars they don’t have on tactical nuclear weapons, based on the faulty assumption that a nuclear attack can be anything other than suicidal. This evidence, overwhelming though it is, is blocked out by a massive façade of spit-polished, patriotic-sounding barefaced lies.

These lies will go on being forcefully thrust on the population until the US, along with its military, collapses in national bankruptcy.  

These are just three examples; there is a multitude of others. But they should be enough to sketch out the broad outline of this brave new world of competitive lying. The overall method is as follows: fabricate some fake facts; use them to concoct a narrative, or a theory (or both); then push it as hard as you can. When confronted with evidence that contradicts it, spew forth as many new fake facts as needed to drown it out. If you manage to make your lies stick, you win (for the time being). Of course, denying reality is never a good long-term strategy, but if you keep repeating to yourself that “in the long run, we’re all dead” (which is also a lie) then it sort of works in the short term.

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One problem is that even in the brave new world there may be some curmudgeonly people who remain sticklers for facts. These people are clearly behind the times and unfashionable, but they can still ruin the fun for everyone else. This is where flat-earthers, climate change denialists, people who believe that Jesus rode a dinosaur and other deluded yahoos are most helpful: they exist in order to prove that facts don’t matter. Instead of being quashed, they are amplified and empowered. They always win because any serious person who tries to argue with them ends up looking ridiculous—for arguing with imbeciles.

This situation may look hopeless, but don’t despair! The epidemic of competitive lying hasn’t engulfed the entire planet yet. Yes, it has pretty much swept over the US and Canada, and a large part of Western Europe seems to be in a bad way as well, but there remain some parts of the world where lying is still a sin and where irrational, insane, ignorant and stupid people are being successfully prevented from having much of an effect on society.

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