In 1925, the Eiffel Tower was a great topic of conversation among the Parisians. The structure was falling into disrepair, and the city found it excessively expensive to maintain. The newspapers published endless columns about this, mobilizing public opinion to the idea that the city needed to dispense of it. Amidst the debate, the government decided to sell the structure as scrap, and assigned the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs, Victor Lustig, the task of selecting the dealer to whom to transfer the ownership of the Tower.
Lustig invited a small group of scrap metal dealers who had the reputation of being the most honest businessmen in the city to a confidential meeting. He conveyed that the upkeep of the Tower was a huge burden to the City Exchequer, and the government wished to sell it as scrap. The businessmen felt a bit uneasy about a city landmark going down so unceremoniously, but they were satisfied by the assurance that the Eiffel Tower, howsoever popular, wasn’t as artistically iconic as the city’s other great monuments, such as the Gothic Cathedrals and the Arc de Triomphe.
Finally, an ambitious businessman, Andre Poisson, who had shown the keenest interest in purchasing the monument, was shortlisted for the final deal. M. Poisson, amidst feelings of acute “post-purchase dissonance”–the jittery feeling we experience while making a big purchase—walked into Lustig’s office to sign the final deal. As the closing meeting began, the Deputy Director General spoke of the hardships in his life as a government servant and the challenges he had to undergo to make ends meet. Poisson was too familiar with such conversations. His years of doing business with the government alerted him that Lustig was hinting at a bribe.
Not one to miss out on this opportunity, he greased Lustig’s palms sufficiently and walked away with the deal in his pocket. Such was the state of corruption in the French government in the early 20th century.
So, what happened to the Eiffel Tower? The story recounted here is not about corruption in the French government. Lustig was not the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. Victor Lustig is considered the biggest conman in history, and he has the unique distinction of having sold the Eiffel Tower, not once, but twice!
This story is no different than typical stories we read in newspapers, magazines, or journals. We do not always read with suspicion. We do not verify the truth of everything we read. We are not always expecting deception nor are we guarding against it. How many of your beliefs, philosophies, ideologies, and world views are unwittingly shaped by unsuspecting lies and half-truths?
With the truth of Lustig’s story known, it is now possible to determine which events in the story transpired naturally, and which of them he engineered. In the narration of the whole event, there isn’t any lie regarding the events that transpired. However, the narration does have untold truths about Lustig’s intentions. For example, Victor Lustig “posed” as Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs to the group of scrap-dealers in his “confidential” meeting, but the meeting itself actually happened.
That the Government wished to sell away the structure was a similar instance of manipulation, but that’s exactly what Lustig communicated to the invited group.
As a matter of fact, that these businessmen were short-listed for their “honest” background was the biggest of the lies Lustig told them–a familiar maneuver of using “flattery” so that individuals drop their defenses.
What tops it all is how Lustig acted like a “corrupt government official.” As Poisson got jittery about the expenses involved, with no way to validate the veracity of the deal, his anxiety caused him to doubt Lustig’s credentials and the authenticity of the deal. Lustig, the best conman in the world, sensed it instantly. An “ordinary” conman would have tried convincing Poisson about the authenticity of the deal and produced evidence. Not him. He was the master craftsman of his art. The best in the world. He spoke about the difficulties of his life as a government servant, leading Poisson to conclude that he was just a corrupt government official hinting at an underhand deal.
Identifying Lustig as a corrupt official also melted away Poisson’s doubts about the authenticity of the deal, and he signed the contract instantly. Retrospection is wise, but … with the right context in place, it is easier to read through a story and unearth the truths and the lies.
Realizing the relative ease with which deception might enter into our experiences, we find ourselves confronted with a number of insistent questions: What could you do when you do not have such context available? How could you prevent yourself from being influenced? How could you ever know if a story about world affairs is Truth, Half-Truth, or a plain Lie? How could you ever know if a story was written to inform you, entertain you, or simply manipulate you? In how many areas of your life are you the unsuspecting scrap dealers of Paris or a self-congratulatory Poisson, being led, manipulated, and maneuvered by a Victor Lustig all the way to his dangerous, lethal trap? How could you figure all that out?
In the world of mythologies, “Evil” had been ascribed powers of creating magical illusions. From golden deer to stunningly pretty damsels who could seduce kings at the snap of their fingers only to display their claws and fangs at the most opportune moments, the world of demons and monsters was full of mirages. Everything that was too beautiful was likely an illusion created to ensnare, trap, and destroy. How would life in that reality be? How would it be to go about living with an eternal anxiety about whether one is engaging with something real or a magically created prop?
We do not need to look that far to experience it. We are living in such a world right now. We dwell in a world where it is impossible to distinguish between the real and the illusory, the authentic and the fake, the Truth and the Lie. In this illusory world, Truth and Lies co-exist like identical twins, having identical faces, wearing identical costumes and accessories, looking absolutely inseparable and indistinguishable. In fact, the Lies are often dressed up to look more attractive than the Truth, and generate more affection, attention, and acceptance than the Truth. This is the hideous, dark world of Propaganda.
No conman walks around with his intentions written all over his face. The more successful a conman is, the more he knows the art of being perceived as the “Chosen” one. The lesser-known artists of deception use the crude means of coaxing, convincing, persuading, etc. as their tools of manipulation. The fine artists of deception function differently. They morph into figures and shapes that are stunningly authentic and real. They fit amongst us with ease, and hide behind humanitarian, kind, and compassionate faces. It’s only in Bollywood movies or Shakespearean dramas that the villain looks ugly, weird, and scary, and proudly proclaims–“I am a Bad Man.” In the real world, the villain is the most virtuous, most noble, and most humane, and it’s no surprise he is able to fool others so easily.
All propaganda is designed to sneak through our radar. It is deliberately and masterfully crafted to be non-recognizable from the Truth. That’s what makes this world such a dangerous place. Propaganda begins when the lines between the Truth and the Lies are blurred.
Propaganda may take a variety of shapes and forms: An appeal to higher, nobler human emotions, stimulation to deep intellectual thought, or the need for entertainment, humour, art, and creativity. A lot of propaganda is based on appeals to our sense of equality, liberty, humanity, kindness, compassion, non-discrimination, etc. A master propagandist could get an entire nation and the entire globe to discuss, debate, and argue humanitarian issues, cleverly planted as red herrings. While the world is busy debating which lives matter and which do not, those orchestrating the show conveniently fill themselves up with multiple helpings of deception.
Jokes are another effective tool of propaganda. Humor melts away all defense and unites us with those who make us laugh. It’s difficult to laugh together and think differently. It starts with finding it harmless to laugh at a joke, even one that is purported to be offensive. “After all, it’s only a joke.” As we keep encountering such jokes, the barriers to laugh at them keep dropping, until the day we find ourselves speaking the language of the joke.
It’s nearly impossible to figure out whether an appeal to higher values, an emotional touch, an intellectual analysis, or a hilarious joke is a natural, authentic expression or a plant designed to manipulate us into believing, saying, and doing what the propagandists want us to believe, say, and do. How do we identify propaganda? How can we stop being sold out to propaganda?
If, on Wikipedia or aother handy reference, you read the story of Victor Lustig selling the Eiffel Tower and compare that with the opening story and context in this article, you would know first-hand the difference between the structure of Truth and a Lie-Masquerading-As-Truth. The narration here is a perfect example of how well-crafted Lies sneak into our world, silently and subtly, manipulating us into believing and accepting them. Many of our thoughts, ideas, emotions, opinions, ideologies, and world views of which we are most proud have been subtly and silently implanted by master propagandists.
Propaganda might be easier to deal with if it were loud and explicit. It being subtle, silent, and sly makes it unassailably dangerous. In a world that is increasingly “woke,” being “awake” is not merely an option, but a clarion call to protect our existence.
Here we have identified the world in which we live as a grand illusion, where it is nearly impossible to distinguish between Truths, Half-Truths, and Lies. By its very nature, Propaganda is designed to make a Lie look, sound, and feel identical to the Truth, appear more authentic than authenticity, and more real than reality. Like the Eiffel Tower story, we rarely get to know if we are looking at a Truth or a Lie-Masquerading-As-Truth. To defeat this deception, we must cultivate the skills to distinguish Truth from Lies and go a step further by exposing the Lies for all to see. This begs a question that must be considered: What’s the way out for surviving in a world where Truth and Lies are inseparable?
Navin Sinha is a Computer Science researcher. His work in Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence coupled with his exploration of Indian Spirituality provided first-hand experience into the ways humans function, from the cognitive to meta-cognitive level. His company, ReInvent, examines how people think, learn, and solve problems. Deeply passionate about the world and how it is being shaped through propaganda and ignorance rather than through truth and wisdom, Navin has endeavored to explore and share the ways our minds respond to what we perceive. His blog series “Behind Pretty Masks” has been widely acknowledged for covering topics with candor and a commitment to truth.