March 16, 2023


Big Lies: From Socrates to Social Media. By Mark Kurlansky. Illustrated by Eric Zelz. Tilbury House. $22.95.

     A fascinating and genuinely valuable book that tries a little too hard to be visually attractive, Mark Kurlansky’s Big Lies starts by explaining that “we humans are the most highly evolved liars” – but makes it a point to show that we are scarcely alone in shading (or evading) the truth, since he compares human lying to activities such as animal camouflage (lying through coloration about whether or not you are dangerous, blending into surroundings and thus lying about whether you are an animal at all, etc.). Kurlansky places human lies on the same scale as “bluffing, exaggerating, bragging,” and discusses their use as competitive tools; and he looks a bit at socially acceptable “little white lies” and at longstanding disputes about whether lies are ever permissible: Thomas Aquinas “believed that lies are permissible when told to be helpful or as a joke,” while Immanuel Kant insisted “that all lies are harmful, ‘for a lie always harms another, if not some other particular man, still it harms mankind generally, for it vitiates the source of law itself.’”

     Even religious traditions disagree within themselves about lying, Kurlansky says: in Judaism, “the Old Testament denounces all lying” while the Talmud “cites instances when lying is permissible.” And what of Socrates? He believed in a “grand lie which will be believed by everybody” and that can therefore be used to underpin national or civic identity. That concept gets closer to the majority of what Big Lies is about, since Kurlansky’s primary interest is about “public lies” that are “told to avoid responsibility, to win elections, to disguise true intent, to distract the public from things the liar wants to hide, to change our perceptions of truth, to create chaos and confusion, to gain and retain power and wealth.” These lies, Kurlansky asserts, are genuinely dangerous and “have never been more prolific than today.”

     And so he delves into social media, the reality that it is now “faster and easier to spread lies,” and the surprising finding that “most of the lies themselves aren’t new.” He shows that many current disputes in the United States date back to the nation’s beginning, to a founding using documents that drew on Enlightenment concepts that were deeply in dispute even at the time of the colonies’ independence. He shows what Russian rulers (the 300-year Romanov dynasty) had in common with the likes of Adolf Hitler when it came to anti-Enlightenment lies, and shows how deniers of evolution, climate change, and vaccine effectiveness all draw on anti-Enlightenment sentiment that remains essentially unchanged (despite having differing targets) after three centuries. In exploring the history of societal and political lies, Kurlansky unveils some fascinating material, such as the fact that the claim of insidious Illuminati running the world actually dates to the real existence of the Bavarian Illuminati, a secret society in the 18th century. Kurlansky shows how lies about this secret society were used to, among other things, condemn the Freemasons, another secret society – among whose members were Paul Revere, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington (and Kurlansky notes that the “mysterious pyramid with an eye on the top, featured on the dollar bill, is thought to be a Freemason symbol”).

     Along the way in his discussion of lies and liars, Kurlansky discusses the supposedly inherent antagonism between science and religion. But far from dismissing religion as a bunch of lies, many famed scientists saw their work as proof of the existence of God. Francis Bacon thought scientific learning confirmed the significance of what God created, for example, and Isaac Newton considered his laws to be proof of God’s existence.

     Kurlansky’s extension of his explorations into times closer to our own era turns up all sorts of interesting material, such as an 1894 cartoon attacking newspapers for publishing “fake news” (those exact words). Regarding more-recent times, he gets into such issues as the Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration and the Iran-Contra one during the Reagan years, calling that one “a trifecta of mendacity, a lie on a lie on a lie.” And Kurlansky has especially harsh words for the invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush. Readers already familiar with politics, to at least a slight degree, will likely notice that Kurlansky seems especially virulent in writing about Republican presidencies and quite forgiving of Democratic ones (“it is hard to find lies [Jimmy Carter] told as president, though there may have been a few”). This may simply be an accurate assessment, or it may be colored by Kurlansky’s personal viewpoints.

     The “personal viewpoint” interpretation is at least somewhat supported by some of the oddities of the book’s presentation. In addition to some typical-of-book-design boxes highlighting specific sentences, some illustrations by Eric Zelz, a few photographs, and occasional marginal discussions (some of which are fascinating, such as Kurlansky’s visit to the tiny island where Alfred Dreyfus was imprisoned in the late 19th century after being framed for a war crime), Big Lies includes two graphic-novel sections, one in five scattered chapters and one in four. The five-chapter one, “From Russia with Love,” has Russian disinformation about vaccines being disseminated in the United States. The four-chapter one, “The Prince of Real Estate,” is an extended and very obvious attack on former President Donald Trump – and its first part immediately follows a two-page section called “How a Stable Genius Lied His Way to the Top,” which is within a chapter called “Big Dictators and Big Lies.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with an author having opinions on any subject and any person. But the inclusion of the graphic-novel sections of Big Lies is already curious: the cartoon-driven chapters are preceded and followed by traditionally written ones, making for an inexplicably confusing layout. By the time “The Prince of Real Estate” begins, the graphic storytelling elements come to seem like the main point of the book. Indeed, the book’s final narrative page is the very last page of “The Prince of Real Estate.” So it is fair to ask whether Kurlansky himself is communicating or perpetuating any lies, big or small, about someone he vociferously condemns and heartily dislikes. Readers of Big Lies really should research this on their own and come to their own conclusions – indeed, Kurlansky himself wants readers to learn how to study statements by politicians and others and determine whether they are truthful.

     There is actually a subtle irony here: it was during the Trump administration that the vaccines against COVID-19 were developed, and those are the very vaccines that Kurlansky has the Russians trying to undermine in the first graphic-novel portion of his book, “From Russia with Love.” Kurlansky himself seems to have some blind spots – but to a large extent, his point in Big Lies is that everyone has them, and certain demagogues (aided in recent times by the ease of instantaneous communication) have found ways to tap into and exploit them. Big Lies is an intriguing blend of history with a cautionary tale, full of interesting facts and catchy writing, but with its own somewhat choppy presentation – in which the author’s own predilections (and thus, by implication, susceptibility to believing lies) come through from time to time. Written clearly enough for younger readers, but analytical enough and with enough care in its factual elements for older ones, it is certainly worth reading and thinking about in our own age – when, more than ever, we can understand the wisdom of what Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710 (in a passage that Kurlansky unfortunately does not quote): “As the vilest writer has his readers, so the greatest liar has his believers: and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”

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