February 22nd, 2009 18:45 EST
Don't Forget What the Nazis taught Us
Perhaps the most troubling lesson of my life in journalism has been that knaves and fools often sound more convincing than truthsayers. They have the conviction of the corrupt and the ignorant, a deadly but charming combination.
Anyone who has seen Leni Riefenstahl`s Triumph of the Will knows what I mean. You can spend a morning at what`s left of Auschwitz, see Riefenstahl`s famous propaganda film in the afternoon and come away thinking Adolph Hitler was a sweetheart. You might change your mind after dinner, but your head will have been turned just long enough to prove Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels` infamous dictum: if you tell a lie long enough and big enough, people will believe it.
I was reminded of this morose fact last Monday, Presidents` Day, while watching the Sundance Channel`s history of the Iraq war. There was Donald Rumsfeld, Mister Didactic, mocking the media for exaggerating the looting that followed our toppling of Saddam Hussein when, if anything, its extent had been under-reported.
There was Rumsfeld`s aide, the unflappably wrongheaded Paul Wolfowitz, later to be awarded the presidency of the World Bank for his folly, assuring Congress that Gen. Eric K. Shinseki had been wrong to say several hundred thousand " soldiers would be needed to police post-war Iraq.
We all remember the swagger, the self-assurance, the contempt for critics these men exhibited. But do we all remember that they were full of it? No, not all of us do, because we nurse a fond nostalgia for the assurances of knaves and fools. We didn`t have to think, all we had to do was follow, as did the Germans before us. We keep forgetting that democracy is hard work, and the increasingly silly press does what it can to help us forget it.
I learned as a reporter to trust people who say they don`t know. I learned to distrust people who have an answer for everything. And I learned that people who mock other people, as Rumsfeld did so often, are not to be trusted under any circumstance. I learned that there is a vast difference between sure and cocksure, between leaders and damn fools "but that difference is disguised by our preference for theater, and this preference is nurtured by press as theater.
Why do we so consistently follow the hard of hearing, the blustering, the posturing who never flip-flop because they haven`t the intelligence or the decency to listen to anyone else? Why are they so appealing? Why are men and women who`re fortified by hubris against self-examination more attractive than students of events and students of themselves?
It`s not a problem limited to politics. It pervades life in every quarter. There are those who are good at getting ahead and there are those who are good at their jobs, and there is a chasm between them. There are those who do and those who politick. Our fate depends on our ability to tell one from the other. The knaves and fools give us fast food, candy, infotainment and all that is not good for us. The people who listen and think give us hard choices "and we don`t always cotton to them for it or reward them with our trust.