By The Landlord
“Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest - and you all know it! Please don't feel so stupid or insecure, it's not your fault." – Donald Trump
“I won't call a snap general election.” – Theresa May
“It is vital that there is a narrator figure whom people believe. That's why I never do commercials. If I started saying that margarine was the same as motherhood, people would think I was a liar.” – David Attenborough
Three statements. Which one inspires belief and trust, and which other two are total baloney? With the world continually tumbling into an ever wider abyss of bullshit, farce, fake news and chaos, and the UK entering into its final week before a general election, it’s time to step back, grasp some solid ground, and look at why some find it so hard to tell the truth. What is it in human nature, as well as the world at large that makes them do otherwise? How is the psychological, political and personal culture of lying expressed in song?
Of the three figures in the picture above, the one in the middle, and in context of the clowns around him, the comically serious face. George Washington is the one most associated with honesty (it certainly isn’t the other two). Why? Here as shown in an 1867 engraving by John C McRae, is the famous tale of a young George, axe in hand, being caught red-handed by his father, a moment when the future first US president became forever associated with scrupulous honesty: ”Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie: I Cut the Tree.”
Yet sadly, there is no evidence this happened at all, it is a myth, a piece of propaganda, one to enshrine the country with values that in reality, of course, it has rarely lived up to.
“The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda,” said the great photographer Robert Capa, And if we look at the picture of Donald Trump and Theresa May, you don't need to know anything about their politics, because instinct tells you there is something distinctly untrustworthy about these people. Look at the awkward false grins, and that grasping handshake. If you were an alien landing on Earth, asking to be taken to the leader, you’d simply laugh and say, “Seriously, not these two. You must be joking! Aren’t they what you humans call backstabbers?"
And if there was a campaign song for this election, perhaps this might be more accurate, climbing up the charts this week:
From weapons of massive destruction to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, in politics and finance, lying seems to be endemic. The Conservative MP Alan Clark was a strangely upfront liar, relishing his role as a bit of a rogue. In the Matrix Churchill trial he wouldn’t actually admit to lying, but that he had been "economical with the actualité" in answer to parliamentary questions about what he knew with regard to arms export licences to Iraq, caused the collapse of the trial and the establishment of the Scott Inquiry.
There is simply not time to go into the thick catalogue of political lies out there, May making more U-turns than a headless chicken in a hurricane, having suddenly called a snap election when she promised otherwise, and Trump announcing how his administration will be "the greatest ever" when it has seen a series of embarrassing resignations and unprecedented errors. Not to mention extraordinary corruption, appointing the White House with family members, then today pulling out the Paris Climate Agreement, perhaps the last chance to save the world from disaster. He even nominated Scott Pruitt, a man with deep ties to fossil fuels, as Environmental Protection Agency chief.
Trump is not only bad at being president, he’s not even good at lying, although his campaign staff certainly have been proficient at propaganda. Even his evil chief adviser, Steve Bannon, and architect of his election victory, put it this way: “Mr Trump... You've been in New York real estate and global real estate and the gaming industry and with politicians. You can't say, reasonably, that Ted Cruz is the biggest liar you've ever seen.”
So in the US, we seem to have reached a new age of propaganda, one where many voters somehow don’t seem to mind lies, but simply cement fixed views of who they support, independent of any facts or evidence in front of them. The winner seems to simply be the one who lies the most. “Success has always been a great liar,” said Friedrich Nietzsche, and Trump’s spin doctors Kellyane “alternative facts” Conway and Sean “Rabbit in the headlights” Spicer have taken propaganda to the level of surreal entertainment.
“Propaganda is amazing. People can be led to believe anything,” said the writer Alice Walker. It certainly can. But propaganda is a very nuanced form of lying, and can have a wide variety of purposes. It covers many forms inside, outside and linked to politics, but it is often and very much linked to big business.
Here’s more on the visual side from photographer Martin Parr: “Fashion pictures show people looking glamorous. Travel pictures show a place looking at its best, nothing to do with the reality. In the cookery pages, the food always looks amazing, right? Most of the pictures we consume are propaganda.”
So much of what we are entertained by, and buy, wear, or eat, is brought to use in a form of a lie through advertising, and PR. That is why the great David Attenborough quote at the top here is so telling. Margarine is sold as motherhood. But it is not, it's just a spread. Shampoo is sold as beauty, but it is just shampoo. And not so long ago, smoking was sold, not only as glamorous, but good for you too.
Edward Bernays was an early 20th-century Austrian-American pioneer in public relations. In its early days, PR was at the time known as propaganda (how honest!) and its history is brilliantly portrayed in the Adam Curtis documentary series The Century of the Self. Bernays was heavily influenced by his own uncle, Sigmund Freud, using an approach, essentially, from the standpoint that general public is irrational and subject to a natural herding instinct. So, backed by big business and politicians, including tobacco companies, he hired skilled practitioners who could use crowd psychology and psychoanalysis to control them in desirable ways, from why people should buy cigarettes to why inspire dark fears into showing communists as dangerous.
Propaganda is usually associated with the classic art of Soviet Russia or China or North Korea, and, if you can step away from all the hardship, death and hunger behind it, as well as the ideals, it is striking and beautiful.
And in the modern era, that style can be revisited to a different, more light-hearted perspective:
But propaganda is much bigger than that, a lie that is sometimes benign, sometimes evil, but certainly all-pervasive. So in the bar this week we have ushered in an astonishing number of experts and music artists eager to talk about this topic. First up, here’s Noam Chomsky: “All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”
Here’s Brian Eno: “When governments rely on increasingly on sophisticated public relations agencies, public debate disappears and is replaced by competing propaganda campaigns, with all the accompanying deceits. Advertising isn't about truth or fairness or rationality, but about mobilising deeper and more primitive layers of the human mind.”
Facebook campaigns, whether for products or political ends, staying within opinion bubbles, are very much part of the propaganda machine, and Evgeny Morozov, Belarusian writer who argues that, against what we all hope as a medium for free speech, the internet is really a tool that works against democracy, and claims that it “has made it much more effective and cheaper to spread propaganda".
So John Berger, who died last year, was right on the nose when he said: “Propaganda requires a permanent network of communication so that it can systematically stifle reflection with emotive or utopian slogans. Its pace is usually fast.” That’s certainly the internet, and sadly, as Harold Pinter points out, especially on Twitter and other troll-littered platforms, not to mention mainstream media, “It's so easy for propaganda to work, and dissent to be mocked.”
Yet propaganda has come through many other media. Bernie Sanders is in the house now, and says: “Progressives know there is something very wrong when a nation divided politically has one major network operating as a propaganda arm of the Republican Party and 90 percent of talk radio is dominated by right-wing extremists.” That is certainly true, shock jocks are always rightwing, it seems, but radio of course has been used by all sides, especially in the past. The writer and journalist Rebecca MacKinnon rightly points out that: “Radio was used powerfully by Josef Goebbels to disseminate Nazi propaganda, and just as powerfully by King George VI to inspire the British people to fight invasion.”
On the other side of the pond, the great singer Paul Robeson described the rise of McCarthyism and American paranoia: “The ruling class leaders of this land, from 1945 on, stepped up the hysteria and propaganda to drive into American minds the false notion that danger threatened them from the East.”
But who said this? “All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach.” It sounds exactly like the campaign strategy of the Trump administration. These words, though, were written though by Adolf Hitler. Coincidence? Unlikely.
On the Hitler front, British and American films made during the second world war were steeped in propaganda too. The Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone often ended with a speech, patched in incongruously, about saving England from enemies. Other shining war examples include the films Rosie the Riveter, and Mrs Miniver, but perhaps the best known is Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), the story of a Jewish barber who accidentally swaps roles with his doppelgänger, a Hitler figure (also played by Chaplin) and ends up making a stirring, and speech about freedom and democracy to the masses, and using propaganda in a clever and positive, if very serious way:
But can lies be small as well as big? “Everything is propaganda,” says Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, but what about the lies in relationships and infidelity?
And so now the bar is absolutely heaving with people who say they aren’t liars, or are, but how can we believe them? Is lying as natural as to the little child who pretends to be ill to bunk off school?
“Men are liars. We'll lie about lying if we have to. I'm an algebra liar. I figure two good lies make a positive.” jokes the comedian Tim Allen, or is he being serious?
And now who is this stumbling around, looking a bit lost? “To be a liar, you've got to have a great memory, and I don't have a memory,” says Ozzy Osbourne.
David Bowie’s here too, though I suspect he’s a bit more with it: “I change my mind a lot. I usually don't agree with what I say very much. I'm an awful liar.”
But surely creative people are often great liars, aren’t they? They are good at making things up. Here are some novelists at the corner table. The ever elusive JD Salinger is here, who mischievously remarks: “I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.”
“As a child I was a great liar. Fortunately my mother liked my lies. I promised her marvellous things,” says Günter Grass. “Lies can be wonderful things, and when a lie is told artfully, if it's done with a degree of craftsmanship, I can't help but admire the liar," says the Canadian author Patrick deWitt. Meanwhile Samuel Butler, who could certainly write endlessly, says: “The best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way.”
And over at another table, a bunch of actors have got together to talk about their lying skills. “If you have the ability to convince somebody of something that you don't necessarily think is the case, it's a valuable asset. Not that I'm, like, a pathological liar, but we spend most of the day not fully being honest, you know?” fesses up Leonardo DiCaprio. Cate Blanchett however, is more serious about her art: “People assume actors are born liars, but I'd argue the actor's job is to tell the truth. And I've realised I'm not a good liar.” Gliding by, and framing them both in his hand for a possible, shot, is Jean Cocteau: “The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth,” he remarks, philosophically.
And here’s the model and actor Janice Dickinson, who just puts it this way: “Hey, I fool the camera. I'm a liar, a magician.”
But now coming back to the table with a round in his hands, here’s Kevin Bacon, actor and mobile phone network salesman: “Oh come on guys! Show me an actor who doesn't want to be famous, and I'll show you a liar. Later, you realise that there's more to it than just the acquisition of fame, and money and girls. But that is what drives them and was what drove me, initially.”
“Yeah,” says La La Land (Lie Lie Land) star Ryan Gosling. “Show me a man who wouldn't give it all up for Emma Stone, and I'll show you a liar.”
And a couple of sports personalities have now wandered in. Orange juice for your guys? “Every forward is selfish, and any forward who tells you he is not selfish is a liar, grins with those big biting teeth, the not always honest with the rules of football and Barcelona forward Luis Suarez. Greg LeMond, former Tour De France winner, and a passionate anti-drugs campaigner, bemoans his sport: “It is cycling as a professional sport that represents the problem. It can transform someone into a liar.”
But now we round off with a couple of philosophical figures who can turn the whole lying thing on its head. “If you want to be thought a liar, always tell the truth.” says the essayist Logan Pearsall Smith. And a word of warning from Aesop, to all the liars and propagandists out there: “A liar will not be believed, even when he speaks the truth.”
So your song suggestions could equally touch on what drives people to lie to each other, to themselves and why so often, they begin to believe the reality they portray. Are we all being led into lies like a Pied Piper leads children, or simply leading ourselves?
Perhaps what we all might need is a lie detector:
And so then, who better to sort out the facts from the facade than our great umpire and magnificent maker of the Marconium, the one and only Marconius, aka Marco Den Ouden? By the way, his travel blog, The Destinations Guru can be found here. Place your songs in comments below in time for last orders 11pm UK time on Monday, in time for playlists published on Wednesday. I do not lie. The truth is out there, somewhere. And if you can't that, there are certainly plenty of songs.
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