Scapegoats and deceivers: where the loyalties of leaders lie

Ed Lake examines two books on leadership, one a scholarly frolic exploring the nature of subterfuge, the other a humourless sermon on the folly of persecution.

Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People
Charlie Campbell
Duckworth Overlook
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The most interesting observation in John Mearsheimer's latest book is that national leaders rarely lie to each other. This depends on the notion of lying being restricted to untruthful statements, excluding subtler forms of misdirection. Politicians quite often lie to their own people in this narrower sense. One might expect them to do it to each other, too: the very definition of an ambassador, according to the 17th-century diplomat Sir Henry Wotton, is "an honest man sent abroad to lie for the good of his country". Nevertheless, if one accepts that deceptions are hard to maintain in the long run, it is striking how many cases of domestic lying have come to light and how few cross-border whoppers ever do. Mearsheimer, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago, asked his colleagues to wrack their brains for cases of the latter: they could only come up with a handful of clear-cut examples.

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Those, intriguingly, are often between allies. When Greece was trying to enter the euro it was running a budget deficit far larger than the EU's three per cent maximum, so it just cooked the books. Israel lied to the US to conceal its own secret nuclear weapons programme. The principle may seem strange, until one considers that it's hard to con someone who doesn't trust you in the first place. In addition, the costs of getting found out tend to be lower when one's victim wants to stay on friendly terms.

These observations may also go some way towards explaining the prevalence of lies intended for home consumption: people by and large want to trust their leaders. And so we see that, in the run-up to the Iraq war, Saddam Hussein was actually telling the US the truth when he said he didn't have any weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, the US government told four big lies to its own citizens. It said it had cast-iron evidence that Saddam had WMDs, that it knew he was working with Osama bin Laden, that Saddam was connected with the 9/11 attacks in some way, and that he could avoid a fight if he co-operated more. In fact, the US had secretly committed to war quite early in its negotiations with Iraq.

The title Why Leaders Lie is perhaps misleading, if one hears a moral or existential note to its "why". Mearsheimer pays almost no attention to diagnostic questions. His book might better be called The Strategic Imperatives Under Which Governments Are Likely to Lie, and he itemises those circumstances from a position of worldly impartiality.

Both at home and abroad, it goes without saying that wars are a major cause of state subterfuge. Mearsheimer quotes a remark by the British politician Arthur Ponsonby: "there must have been more deliberate lying in the world between 1914 and 1918 than at any other period of the world's history".

States must lie to one another to protect their strategic interests, and such fictions tend to be sold on the home front too, if only to preserve secrecy. At the same time wars also involve a lot of lying specifically intended for the citizenry. Threats are exaggerated to make action seem more urgent, as in the Iraq war, or, more nobly, Roosevelt's stories about the German attack on the USS Greer in 1941, by means of which he hoped to galvanise the US into joining the Second World War.

It is common to cover up mistakes in order to maintain morale, and more generally to bowdlerise one's national history, to make it seem cleaner than it really is. After 1945 German leaders attempted to portray the Holocaust as an SS-only affair, so as to exculpate the bulk of the Wehrmacht, despite the fact that much of the German military machine was actively involved in the extermination of Jews and other despised groups.

In the same vein Mearsheimer mentions a law passed in France in 2005 requiring that school history courses must emphasise the positive aspects of French colonialism. One can multiply similar examples of parochial boosterism and blame-shifting almost without end. Likewise, the demonisation of enemies, designed to create the impression, so to speak, that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. Chauvinist myths come in three varieties, according to a line from the political scientist Stephen Van Evera, quoted here: "Self-glorifying, self-whitewashing, and other-maligning."

Mearsheimer makes an example of Israel on several fronts during his short book, but visibly struggles to maintain equilibrium recounting the way the state washed its hands following the Nakba, when it claimed that the expelled Palestinians had left their land of their own accord, in order to clear the way for an Arab invasion that would drive the Israeli settlers into the sea. The proximal target of the lie seems to have been Israelis. However, it was widely accepted "not only in Israel but also in the United States for about four decades", Mearsheimer writes, "and it played a key role in convincing Americans to look favourably upon Israel in its ongoing struggle with the Palestinians." The lesson there, perhaps, is that lies can take on a life of their own.

This is where Why Leaders Lie overlaps a little with another punchily named book to emerge recently. Scapegoat is the first book by Charlie Campbell, former books editor at the Literary Review. With its jovially awkward subtitle, A History of Blaming Other People, and the note that its author used to run the Bad Sex in Fiction award, immediately announces itself as stocking-filler, a cut below Mearsheimer's scholarly frolic.

And yet, despite the essential silliness of the undertaking - the impossible scope of the topic and its tendency to degenerate into a mere string of anecdotes - Scapegoat is an intensely humourless piece of work. It's a sermon, in fact, on the folly of persecution. "We still crave simple explanations of complex happenings," Campbell writes, more in sorrow than in anger, "[a]nd we cannot help but hold each other responsible when things go wrong." All that is left to do, then, is catalogue the especially grievous instances of scapegoating where they occur and hope for some amelioration of the species.

Campbell wheels out most of the cases you'd expect. He tells how the Easter Islanders destroyed their ecosystem by obsessively building stone heads to placate their deities, then destroyed the heads when it appeared their gods had deserted them. There's a long segment on the European witch-burning craze, which notes in a suggestive sort of way that witchcraft was treated as a crimum exceptum in the Catholic Church, meaning that because proof was so hard to find, "regular legal procedure could not be followed". The analogy with modern terrorism does not pass unremarked. There's a retelling of the Dreyfus affair, in which a young army officer in late-19th century France was falsely convicted, on anti-semitic grounds, of giving military secrets to Germany.

Strangely, the Dreyfus segment doesn't occur in the chapter titled The Jewish Scapegoat. Likewise, the witchcraft material features in a chapter called The Sexual Scapegoat, which announces misogyny as its theme. Yet it ends up recounting the extermination of the nonconforming Stedinger, the alleged lycanthropy of a 16th-century French woodsman named Gilles Garnier, and the execution of an 80-year-old male vicar by England's witchfinder general, Matthew Hopkins.

These are all good examples of anti-witch sentiment, but they aren't examples of misogyny at all, so far as I can see. Perhaps an argument could be made that it is the nature of scapegoating to fix on individuals rather than particular grounds of guilt, however weak. Rene Girard, the French critic, has explored this line of thought. Campbell doesn't, though, and so one is left with the impression of second-hand learning, disgorged without a plan. Each putatively recherche case seems really to have come from a popular book of the past 10 or 15 years, written by the likes of John Gray or Richard Dawkins or Frances Wheen. Who are Campbell's own guilty parties? Organised religion, hypocritical kings, misogynist mobs and the global financial system. Any reader of the British newspapers The Guardian or The Independent would have produced a similar list.

There's an irony in a Grub Street regular shaking his head at the herd instinct of his fellow man while scarcely referring to a source from outside the circuit of London literary parties. After a while the parade of bland, conventional judgements - "the scapegoat is the symbol for the part of us we most wish to remove" - calls to mind nothing so much as Flaubert's compendium of conversational banalities, The Dictionary of Received Ideas. There's no attempt to impose some larger pattern on the material, to bring it within the compass of theory or to point out how it overflows previous attempts at the task. Apparently Campbell doesn't like to stick his neck out.

Ed Lake is the former deputy editor of The Review.