A Theory of Bullshit II: Serious Stuff

Serious Bullshit, I suggested previously,[1] was exemplified in the justification offered for the US-led destruction of Iraq. The specific lie deployed initiating it – concerning alleged WMD – has long since been exposed. But a particular lie may be merely an instrument for a more fundamental strategy of deception.

To achieve mass deception, it is not enough simply to invent a lie, since untruth always stands to be discovered; what matters is getting the relevant people to believe the lie, at least for as long as you need them to. The capacity to generate compliant beliefs on the grand scale can require an elaborate apparatus. Ordinary individual people do not command such a thing, but states and other powerful forms of organisation do. Such entities may develop strategies of deception for a variety of reasons. They can then produce serious bullshit.

Serious bullshit can involve years of advance planning, applying vast resources in preparing the ground, the actors, and the partner organisations. If you think that sounds conspiratorial and even far-fetched, bear with me. We can in fact consider a concrete illustration of such a strategy.


In a paper published in 2004, the American liberal Suzanne Nossel looked theoretically at how to achieve the ambitious task of deploying U.S. power so as ‘to promote U.S. interests through a stable grid of allies, institutions, and norms’.[2] This would embody liberal internationalist principles of ‘trade, diplomacy, foreign aid, and the spread of American values’. The use of power would have to be smart, Nossel emphasised, because not everybody would spontaneously embrace American values. In fact, she lamented the deterioration in America’s reputation under the Bush administration:

‘By invoking the rhetoric of human rights and democracy to further the aggressive projection of unilateral military power, conservatives have tainted liberal internationalist ideals and the United States’ role in promoting them. A superpower that is not perceived as liberal will not be trusted as a purveyor of liberalism.’

For America to achieve its international goals, it should become a trusted purveyor of liberalism. ‘Selective efforts to seed democracy and free markets in strategically important territories will always be dogged by perceptions of hypocrisy and narrow self-interest unless accompanied by a broader foreign policy that is viewed as genuinely liberal.’ Her emphasis is on how the policy is viewed. Accordingly, the goal would not be achieved by a genuinely liberal policy that was not perceived as such; but it could be achieved by an illiberal policy that was erroneously perceived as ‘genuinely liberal’.

In order so to be perceived, ‘Washington must reconceptualise the fight against terrorism and WMD as a sustained effort to expand freedom and opportunity.’

To support and promulgate this reconceptualization Nossel advocates a strategy that ‘recognizes that military power and humanitarian endeavors can be mutually reinforcing.’ Since there are suspicions abroad about America’s humanitarian motivations and intent, she understands, it is important to have credible reassurance about them from organisations that are perceived to be independent. But here is the tricky bit. If an organisation straightforwardly is independent, it may be unhelpfully sceptical about U.S. intentions. So what to do?

Here we turn from Nossel’s theory to her practice. For it is not her repackaging of the general idea of wrapping an iron fist of military force in a kid glove of humanitarian concern that makes her a person of interest in this context.[3] It is her remarkably practical way of ensuring that organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International would be on message for US foreign policy as required. (Nossel knew the message well, having worked in a senior position in US government before writing her 2004 paper.)  What more effective way to get it across than to become Chief Operating Officer of Human Rights Watch, as she did, and then Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, as she was from January 2, 2012 to January 11, 2013?[4]

During her sojourn at Amnesty International, Nossel engaged particularly in highlighting human rights issues in Syria. In her short time there she galvanised the organisation into campaigning vigorously in criticism of the Syrian government. The actual research her campaigning drew on was problematic – as has elsewhere been shown by myself, and others – but her focus was clearly on getting the message right, rather than the facts. Amnesty International continued doing some truthful reporting around the world, including some factual information about Syria, but its activities in relation to that country can be described as bullshit, according to the definition I gave last time, insofar as their concern is not whether what’s said is true or false but only whether it leads to achievement of the ulterior purpose. That purpose was to achieve a greater degree of public support in the West for what was planned for Syria than had been managed for Iraq.

That purpose was accomplished, insofar as wide acceptance was achieved for the version of events Nossel so aggressively promoted,[5] holding Assad’s government responsible for human rights abuses on a massive scale (without robust corresponding evidence) and presenting the problem of terrorist violence in Syria as minor by comparison (despite the horrendous evidence of it). With such a perception being supported by an organisation with a high reputation in the West, belief in a humanitarian basis for America to intervene militarily in Syria was quite firmly established.

We must remember, however, that it takes much more than a single opportunistic individual – or even a single organisation – to achieve such widespread dissemination of false beliefs. We should keep in mind that Nossel did not appoint herself to the prominent positions she has held in HRW, AIUSA and PEN. We have to infer that these organisations were already prepared to implement the strategy, of which she was a conspicuous advocate, at the time of her appointment. Within those organisations, it seems, there was already a commitment to a foreign policy agenda that had little to do with their ostensible concern to protect human rights. And those are by no means the only organisations that are so aligned.

Once we start examining serious bullshit, bullshit that spreads widely across the world’s media, we realise that it must have greater depth than we might at first have imagined. Next time, to get a better understanding of how we can get so misled as even to endorse  warfare that benefits no human being, we will have to dig deeper.



A Syrian refugee girl. (Photo credit: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)


[1] See my blog A Theory of Bullshit: Introduction https://timhayward.wordpress.com/2017/03/14/a-theory-of-bullshit-introduction/

[2] Suzanne Nossel, ‘Smart Power’, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2004 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2004-03-01/smart-power [quotations included in the text are from this webpage]

[3] The general concept of a Trojan Horse had not awaited her invention and the more particular ideas of what Jean Bricmont had called ‘humanitarian imperialism’ were already well-understood, as Noam Chomsky usefully discusses: https://monthlyreview.org/2008/09/01/humanitarian-imperialism-the-new-doctrine-of-imperial-right/

See also Patrick Henningsen on ‘Smart Power and the Human Rights Industrial Complex’: http://21stcenturywire.com/2016/04/19/an-introduction-smart-power-the-human-rights-industrial-complex/

[4] At the time of writing she is Executive Director of the American centre of PEN International, whose aims are broadly aligned with the organisations she previously worked at. For her summary CV see Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suzanne_Nossel

[5] For a critical discussion of her influence on Amnesty International publications during her year there see my earlier blog ‘How We Were Misled About Syria: Amnesty International’ https://timhayward.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/amnesty-internationals-war-crimes-in-syria/

This entry was posted in Amnesty International, bullshit, disinformation, human rights, journalism, media, political philosophy, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Theory of Bullshit II: Serious Stuff

  1. Pingback: Who to believe about Syria? | Tim Hayward

  2. Pingback: George Monbiot, about Syria… | Tim Hayward

  3. Pingback: A Theory of Bullshit: Introduction | Tim Hayward

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