Denial is a happy place

Denial is a happy place July 13, 2004

From a report on President Bush's visit to Lancaster County, Pa., in Lancaster New Era:

Veteran Jake Caldwell, 42, of Lancaster, held up a sign that stated "Stop the war" as he loudly questioned the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"I feel the American public’s been duped," Caldwell said. "I think it's pretty obvious. If you don’t see that, I think you're in denial."

Caldwell's three points are all exactly right: 1) the public has been duped; 2) it is obvious; and 3) those refusing to accept this are "in denial."

But this is exactly the problem. It's never easy to accept that you've been duped — especially when you've been duped on a massive scale. And the fact that it's pretty obvious only makes it harder to accept. Thus the great allure — and the great power — of denial.

This is how con artists make a living. They rely on the fact that their victims don't want to accept even to themselves — let alone to the police — just how thoroughly they've been hoodwinked. Victims want to cling to their pride. They want to be able to look in the mirror and see a person who wouldn't have fallen for the ruse they just fell for. They refuse to accept that they are victims — even if that means embracing irrational explanations and shifting to a kind of unreality. They refuse to accept the shame that accompanies admitting "I was duped," and so they compound that shame by duping themselves even further.

Typical con artists prey on people's naivete and on human weaknesses like greed and a willingness to game the system for the promise of a free lunch. The Bush administration and the "Vulcans" and neocons who duped the American public into an unnecessary and costly war also preyed on naivete, but they also exploited some of the public's more admirable traits — their patriotism, their trust and their concern for security in a post-9/11 world.

Friday's Senate report was just the latest in a long line of harder-to-deny assessments clearly stating that, in Caldwell's phrase, "the American public's been duped." As The Washington Post's Milbank and Pincus reported:

Yesterday's report by the Senate intelligence committee left in shreds two of the Bush administration's main rationales for the war in Iraq: that Iraq had illicit weapons and that it cooperated with al-Qaida.

The conclusions are not earthshaking by themselves. Although President Bush and Vice President Cheney have not abandoned either rationale, both were already tattered after similar doubts were voiced over many months by U.S. weapons inspectors in Iraq, the commission probing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, CIA officials and others.

The question now — and probably the question on which November's election hangs — is how the American public will respond when confronted with these shreds and tatters.

Some will respond like Jake Caldwell. They will recognize that what they were told about this war beforehand cannot be reconciled with reality. And they will demand accountability for this mistake — the biggest mistake a nation's leaders can make.

But, as the Lancaster paper reported, people like Caldwell were outnumbered on the president's motorcade route. For many people — and perhaps for the majority of voters come November — the fantastic claims of Bush's con game will seem more pleasant than the uncomfortable reality that we were duped. They will conclude that the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee — like Hans Blix, Mohamed ElBaradei, the U.N. Security Council, the CIA, Anthony Zinni, Tom Clancy, Tom Kean, the 9/11 widows, David Kay, Richard Clarke, Jake Caldwell, Fred Clark and quite possibly you — are liars who hate America.

"It's pretty obvious," Caldwell said. It may be so obvious that it is impossible to accept.

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  • Legomancer

    Jonathan Swift is quoted as saying, “You can’t reason someone out of something they were never reasoned into in the first place.” I would disagree that conservatives are “in denial”. The biggest problem with the right wing, and the one that makes it so hard to counter them, is that they have left the realm of rational thought. For them, this is no longer about facts. The party that suppoedly thinks has become the party that merely believes. Notice how often Bush uses that word when talking about the world. It absolves him of needing a worldview that actually reflects reality as we know it. He simply believes what he wishes, and his followers believe him. There’s no denial, no contradictions, any more than there is for any other devoted follower of a religion. Meanwhile, on the left, liberals are sitting in a huge pile of useless mere facts that are no good against faith and belief.
    September 11th started a holy war, eventually pitting the right wing against the rest of the world. They may be outnumbered, they may be factually wrong, but they have belief and God on their side, so what does that matter?

  • Soundacious

    I know you weren’t trying to invoke Star Trek when you brought up “Vulcans”, but it jogged my mind and made me understand what we ARE dealing with in the Bush administration.
    Ferengi. They’re all a bunch of Ferengi.

  • Brandon

    Painfully accurate.

  • Denial

    Slacktivist offers a depressing explanation for why so many Republicans appear to be incapable of seeing how obviously and blatently the Bush administration has been duping us all – denial, of the same sort that law enforcement types see time…

  • Denial

    Slacktivist offers a depressing explanation for why so many Republicans appear to be incapable of seeing how obviously and blatently the Bush administration has been duping us all – denial, of the same sort that law enforcement types see time…

  • RichK

    The next phase in the cycle is creative scapegoating: Who Lost Iraq. It wasn’t the bunch of geniuses that got us into this in the first place. Like Vietnam, we’re going to use the Peter Pan theory and blame the people who didn’t believe hard enough.
    It’s very satisfying to do this, because it still gives you an excuse to be mad at the people who were right in the first place. I think Kerry is holding off on the really scathing criticism of the war until he’s just stating the obvious, because, as we saw with Dean, being right but too early means that you’re a party pooper and a smartass.

  • bellatrys

    Yeah, them calling themselves “the Vulcans” was just so weird and dumb. Vulcans they are not. Not even in the sense of Hephaestus, since he was the tech god, not the war-starting stragegos god nor the battles-n-blud god, either. I guess that they couldn’t really go with “Areans,” though. (And Athenians wouldn’t work for other reasons.)
    The book about this phenomenon that I rec to everyone is Thomas Hoving’s book False Impressions. It’s about art forgeries – the people who make them, hawk them, and get burnt by them. But it applies to so much else. He classes the three criterion: need, greed, and speed, that will guarantee you get burnt by a con. He explains the wooing that gets you to embrace the con and defend the crook. He even tells true stories on himself, too. *Everyone’s* vulnerable, and especially the people who shoild know best of all.
    One of the bits that really stuck with me is when he said, Everyone, everywhere, always has believed that there is hidden treasure out there just lying around for the taking.
    The corresponding aspect of this bit of human nature is that there are always people willing to sell you treasure maps. Like one Stickyfingers Chalabi.

  • lightning

    … we’re going to use the Peter Pan theory and blame the people who didn’t believe hard enough.
    I think of it more of a high school pep rally. Georgie Bush was a cheerleeded in college, after all.

  • Eli

    I don’t know about Smoketown, but Lancaster city – when I lived there in the ’80s – was a place where a Dukakis poster was considered more or less the same as a Soviet flag. A strange little guy in my high school, who thought of himself as a public-minded individual and is now no doubt some sort of Congressional aide, boasted about how the R.P. had him on the payroll to tear down Democratic signs. Members of the local Republican Party were granted exclusive rights to the center of town when J. Danforth Quayle graced us with his presence.
    So for a half-dozen or more protesters (one of whom is the brother of my 300th hopeless teenage crush… sigh) to make such a visible appearance, and be not only not beaten up but covered in a reasonably even-handed fashion in the press, is progress.

  • Steve

    Ditto to what Eli says…I grew up in Lancaster county.
    The county is especially ultra-conservative. Most people couldn’t understand that you could be a Christian and not a Republican, like me.
    A co-worker of mine recently left to become campaign manager for a republican state congressman. I asked him “campaign manager?!?!…is there ever a chance of losing an election as a Republican in Lancaster County?” His response: “The real campaign is in the primary.”

  • Eli

    Uh, I think I read that article a little too hastily the first time… so, never mind what I said about the protesters getting good treatment. For mooning the president, one guy was maced by police & the reporters took it upon themselves to publish his home address.

  • animus

    Ferengi. They’re all a bunch of Ferengi.
    The Ferengi always reminded me of 1930s anti-Semitic caricatures. (And not in a good way.) Oddly enough, some of the neocons have been quick to label their opponents as anti-Semitic.

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    OK, instead of ranting about what fools these Republicans be and/or what fools everyone can be under the appropriate pressure, how do you calm people enough so that at least some of them look at the whole process of getting fooled instead of just trying to avoid the feeling of regret?

  • Edward Liu

    In response to Nancy Lebovitz’s question, I think the answer with most con scams is to have the scamee lose so much of value that they have no choice but to own up to being fooled. Unfortunately, the parallel for the Iraq war is heartbreaking (the name Lila Lipscomb is popping to mind).
    Although, on consideration, I’m not sure if by “the whole process of getting fooled” you mean looking back at an event in the past, or looking forward at the possibility of being fooled in the future.
    — Ed

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    I meant that the only way to get oneself out of a scam is to admit that one has been fooled in the past.

  • Matt McIrvin

    One important thing is, I think, to lose the Calvinist notion that anyone who ever supported the war at one time is now revealed to be unredeemably evil or stupid. I’ve been reading a lot of this lately, especially in hard-left-versus-the-center-left bickering on lefty blog comment boards. That the situation is a horrendous, life-and-death one doesn’t mean that it’s especially important to count your friends only among those of pure and consistent opinions; in fact, the exact opposite is true.
    Which also means that it’s important for those of us who were fooled (and I was, oh yes) to be out in front arguing the case among the people who are still being taken in. We’re more likely to be effective at changing minds.

  • KnuckleheadsSister

    I grew up in Lancaster, as well.
    In reference to Eli and his comment that a reporter published the Lancaster mooner’s address in the newspaper. The police record is printed every Sunday in the paper, so anyone who has been arrested or cited thoughout the week will be listed; name, age and address. His address would not have been printed in an article regarding the incident.
    Public indecency is not free speech. Also, I am sure he was maced because of his beligerent behavior not because of the mooning. He was most likely drunk. Why do I know this? Because that knucklehead is my brother.
    I am so glad I moved across the country.

  • Steve

    Okay, this comment thread is very old, but a thought has been coming to me recently about the inability of people to accept the truth about Iraq and also Bush…and I remembered this post…
    I’ve read some comments recently from Bush supporters after the debates that sounded less than enthusiastic about him, even though they were still supporting their man. Just wondering: Is it possible that people won’t wholesale admit to Bush’s failures, but just be happy he goes away?
    I.e. People’s confidence in Kerry has increased dramatically through the debates. Their concern about Iraq is also on the rise. Maybe subconciously even many Bush supporters are starting to question his ability to handle the economy and Iraq. They are too loyal to turn against him–and it’s awefully hard to admit you were wrong–so maybe, Kerry will win, but there won’t be much of an outcry from Bush supporters. A couple months ago I would have expected a huge temper tantrum on the part of these loyalists who despised Kerry and couldn’t believe Bush could be wrong for the job, but now I sense a weariness about people’s support of Bush.
    Maybe many Bush supporters we’ll just be relieved the political fight is over and Kerry has to clean up the mess, and Bush will fade into the sunset.