July 19, 2023 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Recently, the AIER’s Senior Editor James Harrigan asked rhetorically, “When was the last time a politician of any description used the phrase ‘sacred honor’ with a straight face?” Jefferson, Harrigan pointed out, wasn’t “inventing the Declaration from whole cloth,” but instead, he was capturing “the American mind.” In his evocative Fourth of July essay “The Harmonizing Sentiments of the Day,” Harrigan concluded, “So we are left with one important question in our own time: What are the harmonizing sentiments of our day?”

Once foreign to the “American mind,” dishonor and deceit are essential “harmonizing sentiments” in totalitarian societies. In a society controlled by force, lying is a way of life for the government and its citizens, who harmonize to survive. 

The day before he was exiled from the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn released the text of his famous essay, “Live Not By Lies.” The Marxist doctrine that the state can determine our being will never be true, Solzhenitsyn explained, but its fallaciousness can be maintained by the lies of citizens. We live by lies, Solzhenitsyn spelled out, when,  

We have internalized well the lessons drummed into us by the state; we are forever content and comfortable with its premise: we cannot escape the environment, the social conditions; they shape us, “being determines consciousness.” What have we to do with this? We can do nothing.

“We can do nothing” is a lie. The actual truth Solzhenitsyn wrote is, “we can do—everything!—even if we comfort and lie to ourselves that this is not so. It is not ‘they’ who are guilty of everything, but we ourselves, only we!”

What we can do, Solzhenitsyn argued, is “Never knowingly support lies!” He explained the cure to overcoming the totalitarian harmonizing sentiment of deceit:

When people renounce lies, lies simply cease to exist. Like parasites, they [lies] can only survive when attached to a person.

We are not called upon to step out onto the square and shout out the truth, to say out loud what we think—this is scary, we are not ready. But let us at least refuse to say what we do not think!

Václav Havel was a dissident, playwright, and the first president of Czechoslovakia after communism. Havel echoed Solzhenitsyn when he wrote

Consciousness precedes Being, and not the other way around, as Marxists claim. For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better.

“Consciousness precedes Being” means we get the government we deserve. We can no longer pretend to be victims of the world we see.

When we choose to live in an inner world governed by our self-deception, we get a government ruling by deceit and vigorously stifling alternative views. In the American mind today, is the prevailing harmonizing sentiment inching dangerously close to normalizing totalitarian deceit? 

During COVID, particularly in the early days of the pandemic, the public was frightened. Many preferred to get with the program and eschew responsibility for their often difficult health decisions. They wanted no interruptions to their fantasy that their preferred choice was an easy decision. Yet life is messy; there are few one-size-fits-all answers. Unwilling to tolerate the inherent ambiguity in life, they willingly forfeited their freedom. They demanded a government that lied and deceived them.

Streams of orchestrated, hateful propaganda were directed against those who made different medical choices. These relentless attacks were designed to stir up an agitated population easily gulled into supporting attacks on constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. The result was predictable. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “The surest way to work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior ‘righteous indignation’ — this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.” Righteous indignation may be another prevailing sentiment in the American mind of our time.

We saw during COVID that many didn’t want to decide for themselves what was true. Misinformation came to mean even truths that disagree with the current official orthodoxy. Only 30 percent of Americans agreed “misinformation” about COVID vaccines is constitutionally protected speech. Why were 70 percent of American minds unconcerned about the government violating basic constitutional rights? Were they victims of a deceiving government, or did their self-deception create a lying and bullying government? 

In July, Federal Judge Terry Doughty issued a preliminary injunction barring the Biden Administration from bullying social media companies into censoring posts or deplatforming people. He ruled, “Each United States citizen has the right to decide for himself or herself what is true and what is false. The Government… does not have the right to determine the truth.”

Doughty wrote: “One of the purposes of free speech is to allow discussion about various topics so the public may make informed decisions… Without a free debate about these issues [vaccines, masks, closures etc.], each person is unable to decide for himself or herself the proper decision regarding their health.” (See also, “How AIER Helped to Hobble Fauci’s ‘Ministry of Truth”)

Dr. Aaron Kheriaty is one plaintiff that Judge Doughty ruled for. Kheriaty observed, “The common feature of all totalitarian systems is the prohibition of questions: every totalitarian regime first monopolizes what counts as rationality and determines what questions you are allowed to ask.” 

Kheriaty has it half-right. We were not allowed to ask questions because many didn’t want to hear unsettling answers.  

Of course, living with lies is not just about vaccines. Questions about the wisdom of transitioning children, via medical interventions, to another gender identity are not to be asked. In some circles, people prefer to be assured these surgical and hormonal medical procedures unambiguously save lives

The wisdom of the subsidized green economy can’t be questioned either. “They” must do something about the climate is a common refrain. Denied is the truth that problems are solved not by social planners but by individuals free to cooperate with others in the course of an emergent social process.

We can go on with other examples. But like a snow globe that settles if you stop shaking it, sanity returns to a mind that takes steps to reduce its agitation. Deceitful people demand a government that whips up constant agitation via “emergencies” and “crises, “ensuring their minds never settle down to reflect and come to terms with their self-deception. 

Imagine a world with 100 percent censorship. We don’t have to imagine, we have only to study history. In his memoirs, Hitler’s armaments minister, Albert Speer, observed, “In normal circumstances people who turn their backs on reality are soon set straight by the mockery and criticism of those around them.”  In totalitarian societies, there is no such correcting device. Instead, Speer continued, “every self-deception was multiplied as in a hall of distorting mirrors, becoming a repeatedly confirmed picture of a fantastical dream world which no longer bore any relationship to the grim outside world.”

If we have turned our backs on reality, no one and no event is coming to save us. We can temporarily renounce our freedom by our own lies, but as Solzhenitsyn warned, “if we shrink away” from renouncing our “daily participation in deceit,” we should “cease complaining that someone does not let us draw breath—we do it to ourselves!” 

In 2024, when deceitful liars are among our political choices, it is because we the people have not learned that we forfeit our freedom when we lie and demand lies. Truth may make us uncomfortable, but it will preserve freedom.

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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