Chávez and Gaddafi: The Axis of Unpaganda

After initially dithering, Hugo Chávez has now decisively taken sides in the rhetorical contest between Muamar Gaddafi and the Sane World. In the face of what is now surely overwhelming evidence from dozens of journalists (some of whose salaries he pays) hundreds of eye-witnesses and thousands of refugees, he remains adamant that there is no evidence that the Gaddafi regime has deliberately trained weapons of war on civilians.

Time and again, the Venezuelan government prefers to take the Libyan regime’s version of events at face value (though, for some reason, its credulity doesn’t extend to Gaddafi’s insistence that Al Qaeda is behind the rebellion.)

Chávez’s reflexive support for the pathological lying at the heart of the Libyan regime should give us pause. On some level, Chávez’s determination to deny Gaddafi’s attacks on civilians is made not despite the wall of evidence to that effect but because of it.

Because, as this terrific New Yorker piece by Andrew Solomon shows, the Libyan regime doesn’t lie like a normal government lies:

To contemplate the idea that there would ever be a correlation between what Qaddafi said and what he did is to miss the central tenet of his rule. Propaganda is, of course, a key tool of control over any large population. The difference between that process in Libya and other countries is that in Libya it has been unabashedly transparent. The objective of propaganda is, by and large, to convince people that something false is true. In Libya, there was never any meaningful effort to persuade people of the fictions spouted by the Qaddafi regime; everyone knew perfectly well how wide the gap was between what was said and what happened. Yet Qaddafi went on saying, almost as though it were a nervous tic.

He has long insisted that he is not actually head of state in Libya, that the country is ruled through his system of direct democracy. I met hundreds of Libyans at every level of the society when I was there, and I never met one who bought into this idea. Qaddafi often compared himself to the Queen of England, and said his role was ceremonial, but everyone knew that he was running the country. Stalin never said that he wasn’t in charge; neither did Hitler, or Honecker, or even Kim Jong Il. Being ruled over by someone who maintains that he isn’t ruling over you is a very surreal experience. In support of his position, Qaddafi has continued to style himself “Colonel Qaddafi”; if he’s a colonel, David Petraeus is a private first class.

Don’t think that Libyans believe “Colonel” Qaddafi’s ongoing broadcasts on Libyan state TV—which have said that he is not using air defenses or planes against Libyans, that mobs are celebrating his rule, that the rebels are all youth drugged by malicious foreigners. This is nothing as programmatic as propaganda; it’s a reflex system of untruths about things that aren’t worth lying about, and it aligns with a level of personal vanity that redefines the notion of solipsism.

(It really is worth reading the whole thing.)

Few Venezuelans will be able to read that without a shudder of recognition. Gaddafi’s brand of unpaganda – propaganda issued without any pretense of evidence or concern as to whether it will be believed or not – is startlingly familiar. Chávez may not share Gaddafi’s murderous insanity (por ahora) but he increasingly does share his nervous tick-like impulse to unpagandize.

Lying openly while denying the people around you any meaningful chance to call bullshit feels to them like ultimate power. It’s a power that may not quite extend to controlling reality itself but, to them, it sure feels that way.

When the setting is Poland and the time is 70 years ago, we have no trouble realizing that the determination to deny mass murders documented beyond any possibility of doubt is not just a loathsome but also a dangerous act, one that actively preconfigures and rationalizes future crimes.

So how about when the setting is North Africa and the time is now?

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