The main purpose of a lie is to deceive. And thus it is only natural to suppose that a lie will fail to accomplish its purpose if the person being lied to does not believe it. There is a certain species of lie, however, that manages to be successful even though it is not believed and the liar has no expectation that it will be. A good example would be that in which a husband emphatically insists to his wife that he has not been cheating on her even though she knows he has. Another would be the man who declares under oath that he does not remember something he could not possibly have forgotten. And an excellent example was provided recently by President Obama when he stated, “We are determined to realize a world free of nuclear weapons.”
Now, by way of contrast, just imagine if Obama had said, in a very different context, “We are determined to realize a nation free of handguns.” Such a remark would have caused a frenzy of political backlash by defenders of gun ownership, and that for two reasons: First, they would believe that Obama really meant it had he said such a thing; and second, they would believe that he might actually take steps to try to bring it about. After all, we have been reading for some time in the right-wing hysterical press that Obama is coming for our guns, causing gun sales to skyrocket. If the Republicans really believed Obama when he said he wanted to get rid of nuclear weapons, the uproar would be overwhelming. Donald Trump is presently accusing Hillary Clinton of wanting to abolish the Second Amendment. But we don’t hear him saying that Hillary, like President Obama, wants to get rid of nuclear weapons. Trump believes a lot of crazy things, but he is not crazy enough to believe that.
Obama does not believe there will ever be a world free of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, he knows that we do not believe him when he says that we need to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In fact, it is because this lie is told with no expectation of its being taken seriously that it is bipartisan. Ronald Reagan said pretty much the same thing in his 1985 inaugural address, and no one believed him either, nor did he expect them to.
The truth is, the world is a better place with nuclear weapons, but no politician dares to say so. Without nuclear weapons, the world have undoubtedly fought a major war sometime in the last seventy years on a par with World Wars I and II. “World War III” has always been understood to mean a war where America’s and Russia’s hydrogen bombs are unleashed. But a conventional World War III would have undoubtedly been fought by now, possibly on American soil with widespread devastation, had not the existence of nuclear weapons kept such hostilities in check. Who knows? We might even have lost that war and our whole way of life with it.
Let’s face it. To utter the truth, which is that we have no intention of ever giving up our arsenal, but we want to keep other countries from enjoying all the benefits of possessing nuclear weapons, would be a crude assertion of the will to power. Instead, presidents are obliged to say that all nuclear weapons are bad, even ours, and that we look forward to the day when there are no more nuclear weapons in this world. No one believes us, of course. But this lie must be functional in some way, or presidents would not keep saying it.
A similar kind of lie was told by the Bush administration regarding plans to build a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic to protect them from an attack from Iran. You see, if Iran is ever able to develop long-range missiles with nuclear warheads, they will send those missiles flying right over Israel and hit the countries of Eastern Europe, because Poles and Czechs are the ones they really want to destroy. Needless to say, the Russians did not believe this lie. Putin knew that plans for the missile shield were being made with Russia in mind. The American people did not believe that lie. Our allies did not believe it. And the Iranians just snorted. Moreover, George W. Bush had no expectation that anyone would believe it. I mean, our opinion of Bush’s intellect may be pretty low, but we know he was not stupid enough to expect anyone to swallow that whopper. And yet, the lie must have been functional in some way or else his administration would not have bothered to insist on telling it.
In part, the functionality of such lies is akin to religious utterances like “He’s gone to a better place” and polite expressions such as “We’ll have to get together sometime.” We know they are baloney, but somehow they make us feel better anyway. But another function of the lie no one believes is that it stops things from proceeding to the next step. If you insist on a lie, no one can make you confront the truth and all its implications.