A lack of imagination on the part of democrats and liberals makes them easy targets for salesmen of lies. From Dennik N.

In August I found myself in northern Poland, surrounded by friends and beautiful landscapes. Our task was to discuss Vaclav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless.”

This time I read it with different eyes than before, and I was captivated by Havel’s analysis of the nature of the former regime: It was based on the ability to predict how a manipulated society would behave. That’s why the regime was so shaken by [dissident initiative] Charter 77. No one expected its creation. The Communists lacked imagination.

American historian Timothy Snyder took the floor and raised a rhetorical question: “What if our problem today is precisely that we – democrats and liberals – are predictable? That we lack the imagination that those dissidents had?”

Unequal Fight

I have been thinking about this ever since. I ask myself Snyder’s question virtually every day because every day I hear the echo of lies that I don’t even want to hear anymore, but that the people I meet persistently try to convince me are true. Don’t I know that Western governments have a plan to use vaccines to alleviate overpopulation? Don’t I know that people accused of corrupt schemes, who are now cooperating with the police, are just puppets serving today’s fascist government? And so on.

That’s when I realize that I lack the imagination to at least make them a bit uncomfortable. Logic doesn’t work. My arguments come back to me turned inside out; my questions are met with answers that make my head spin. That turns into helpless laughter on my part, which is then interpreted as mockery, and the resulting anger just strengthens the conviction that a lie is the truth.

It’s an unequal fight, because a lie has no moral inhibitions. Once you can say anything, the imagination of evil is given wings. That still takes me by surprise, every time.

On the contrary, we liberals and democrats are bound by morals, reason, and a respect for facts, which makes us predictable. Fascists, [former Slovak Prime Minister Robert] Fico, and a whole array of salesmen of lies know exactly how we will respond. They can anticipate our answers, which then become part of their imagination. We become their accomplices, whether we want to or not.

Nothing makes them happier than outraged or vulgar reactions on social media, politicians’ empty phrases, or critical headlines in serious media. They count on them in advance, so they can then say: See, we told you how they would react. We were right, which just proves we are also right about everything else.

We lack imagination about how to escape the trap of predictability. Even the complaint that we are at a disadvantage because of our limiting moral commitments just proves that we lack imagination.

I don’t know how to fight lies successfully, because I also lack imagination. But perhaps the first step in escaping from this trap is recognizing that we do lack imagination. The second step would be admitting that we are predictable.

That doesn’t mean we should abandon our moral limitations and a rational defense of truth and democracy. Because imagination also can be dangerous.

Lucky Germans

In the 1960s, Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill, young American writers and anarchists, decided to combat human stupidity by creating a conspiracy theory about the Illuminati, which they then started to spread in American alternative magazines.

They were convinced that the theory was so crazy it would force people to think and reject it, along with others they had believed until then. But their operation, “Mindf*ck,” (covered in detail by filmmaker Adam Curtis in the BBC series “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”) ended horribly. Many people believed the conspiracy theory, and today it is among the most successful of its kind.

Snyder raised his rhetorical question because he lives in America but also partly in Central Europe, that is, in parts of the world where conspiracy theories do particularly well. There are luckier countries, where democrats’ predictability is, on the contrary, a big advantage – as evidenced by the elections in Germany. Parties respecting reason and moral commitments won more than 80 percent of the votes there. They can use their imagination for political visions, not for fighting lies.

We are not so lucky. It’s our own fault, because we haven’t placed enough emphasis on education. That has left room for myths and conspiracy theories. Our democracy lacks imagination, just like the Communist regime did. It’s predictable, which makes it a welcome target for those who want to destroy it. It turns those of us who defend it into targets as well. If we admitted that we have to be more creative and discover imagination within us, maybe we’d have a better chance.

Martin M. Simecka is a commentator and editor with the Slovak news site Dennik N, where this essay originally appeared in slightly different form. Reprinted with permission. Translated by Matus Nemeth. Featured image: “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” by Francisco Goya.