Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Truth

Yves here. I am treading on thin ice in commenting on Arendt and to tell the truth, having not read her (and yes, she’s among the too many seminal thinkers I have yet to get to). However, I am not as pessimistic as I understand she is about truth in politics.

On the one hand, there are plenty of topics where there is no shared experience among the citizenry, and therefore which “truth” gets told depends on who is in power. There are still people who genuinely don’t believe that people of color are in danger when they encounter the police, and “the speech” is necessary instruction. And even white people who recognize that policing in America is biased still likely find it hard to internalize what it means to be afraid of the police, how having to treat them as armed grenades is draining. Similarly, too many people have a self-serving belief in meritocracy, and trying to sell them on policies that treat the social order as more due to pre-existing advantage and luck will meet with considerable resistance.

On the other, there are lies in the public arena that it takes effort and costs to uphold, like a spouse trying to hide an affair, or a city trying to hide corrupt contracting, or CalPERS continuing to defend CEO Marcie Frost’s resume fabrications and its desperate claim that private equity outperforms. Those lies are vulnerable to “speak truth to power” efforts. Even if the official body wins against the outsiders in the short term, it has to keep investing in its spin efforts, and it gets harder to keep them up over time. But the wins in these campaigns are seldom terribly visible, which is too easily misinterpreted as not having happened. As commentor Richard Kline explained:

The nut of the matter is this: you lose, you lose, you lose, you lose, they give up. As someone who has protested, and studied the process, it’s plain that one spends most of one’s time begin defeated. That’s painful, humiliating, and intimidating. One can’t expect typically, as in a battle, to get a clean shot at a clear win. What you do with protest is just what Hari discusses, you change the context, and that change moves the goalposts on your opponent, grounds out the current in their machine. The nonviolent resistance in Hungary in the 1860s (yes, that’s in the 19th century) is an excellent example. Communist rule in Russia and its dependencies didn’t fail because protestors ‘won’ but because most simply withdrew their cooperation to the point it suffocated.

The times we’ve won with CalPERS (actually quite a few) have been like this. Except for highly visible blowups like the departures of former Chief Financial Officer Charles Asubonten and Chief Investment Officer Ben Meng, on plenty of issues, like implementing absolute returns, tracking carry fees, getting rid of published transcripts, and launching its barmy “private equity new business model,” CalPERS has simply gone into Emily Litella “Never mind” mode.

Now if I understand Arendt correctly, she would contend that “factual truth” like whether the world is round or not, is a social construct and hence is amenable to changing information flows. But in a time like today, where media fragmentation and open corruption have resulted in few sources being seen as authoritative, the result of efforts to manipulate “factual truth” seems likely to be competing truths. Look at Russiagate. Even though true believers seem to dominate, there are plenty of apostates.

By Samantha Rose Hill, the assistant director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and The Humanities, visiting assistant professor of Politics at Bard College, and associate faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is the author of two books on Hannah Arendt, Hannah Arendt a biography (forthcoming spring 2021 from Reaktion Books), and Hannah Arendt’s Poems (forthcoming winter 2021 from Liveright). Originally published at openDemocracy

…how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life; it is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes… (Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers.”)

When I’m lecturing on Hannah Arendt these days people usually laugh when I say that truth and politics have never been on good terms with one another, and that the lie has always been a justified tool in political dealings. Their laughter reveals something about the state of affairs we’re living in.

Fake news is nothing new in politics. For a long time campaigns have been run by Madison Avenue aficionados, so it shouldn’t alarm us that the lies have become so abundant and transparent that we almost expect them. Lies have become part of the fabric of daily life.

But part of Arendt’s point in writing her essays on “Lying in Politics” and “Truth and Politics” which are cited so widely today was that we’ve never really been able to expect truth from politicians. Truth-tellers exist outside the realm of politics. They are outsiders, pariahs, and like Socrates subject to exile and death. The lie has always been instrumental to gaining political advantage and favor.

Why now then, all of sudden, do we decry the emergence of fake news? Why are fact-checkers and fact-checking streams such a common feature of political debates? Why do we care about truth so much in this particular moment?

It isn’t because lying in politics has suddenly become a source of moral outrage – it has always been that. We care about truth because we’ve lost everything else. We’ve lost the ability to speak with ease; we’ve lost the ability to take opinions for granted; we’ve lost faith in science and experts; we’ve lost faith in our political institutions; we’ve lost faith in the American dream; and we’ve lost faith in our democracy itself.

And the sad reality is, truth can’t save us. We can shout truth to power all day long and it will never be heard, because truth and politics have never stood on common ground. This is Arendt’s argument. They do not speak the same language, but that doesn’t mean the two aren’t related.

In “Truth and Politics,” whenever Arendt talks about truth she always specifies what kind of truth she means: historical truth, trivial truth, some truth, psychological truth, paradoxical truth, real truth, philosophical truth, hidden truth, old truth, self-evident truth, relevant truth, rational truth, impotent truth, indifferent truth, mathematical truth, half-truth, absolute truth, and factual truth. There is no “the truth,” only truth in reference to something particular. The adjectives she attaches to truth transform the concept into something worldly.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, different forms of truth recur in reference to particular points that Arendt is arguing – that images distort the truth, for example, or that political rhetoric by necessity is an act of distortion, a re-figuring of our common understanding of truth. In politics one hears phrases like ‘the truth of the matter is…,’ or ‘just tell the truth.’ Truth is always expressed in terms of proximity, distance and nearness; we approach and depart from truth; ‘come close to it’ or say that ‘nothing is further away from it.’

Truth-telling is related to our understanding of the common realm of human existence, our ability to appear in the world and share our experiences with one another. The modern age has taught us that rational truth is produced by the human mind; that we should be skeptical, cynical, and suspicious, and not trust our senses – so much so that we can no longer rely on our own ability to make meaning from our experiences. The cost has been the common fabric of reality, the sense from which we take our bearings in the world.

Facts and events are the outcome of living and acting together, and the record of facts and events is woven into collective memory and history. These are the stories we tell and the traditions we challenge or uphold which give us a sense of durability in the world. We need this kind of truth in order to have a common ground to stand on, so that each individual can share their experiences and make meaning from them. These facts and events constitute what Arendt calls “factual truth.” They become the artifacts of living together, and it is factual truth that should most concern us.

Factual truth is in great danger of disappearance. It is engaged in a battle with political power, and it is the vulnerability of factual truth that makes deception possible. But this isn’t new either. Factual truth has always been in danger. It is easily manipulated and subject to censorship and abuse. Arendt cautions that factual truth is in danger of “being maneuvered out of the world for a time, and possibly forever.” “Facts and events”, she writes, “are infinitely more fragile things than axioms, discoveries, theories, which are produced by the human mind.”

Facts can change because we live in the ever changing world of human affairs. People can be written out of history books. Monuments can be torn down. Language can change, because meaning is malleable. None of this is new either. It has always happened and will continue to happen, but it shows “how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life…”

When Arendt wrote those words she was responding to the lies that were told about the Vietnam War by President Nixon and revealed in the Pentagon Papers. The lies we face today are both similar and different. One might argue that a little unraveling is necessary to weave together new stories, but Arendt’s conclusion is this: if we lose the ability to make meaning freely from our experiences and add them to the record of human existence, then we also risk our ability to make judgments and distinguish between fact and fiction.

This is the point of lying in politics – the political lie has always been used to make it difficult for people to trust themselves or make informed opinions based on fact. In weakening our ability to rely on our own mental faculties we are forced to rely on the judgments of others. At the same time, and as Arendt saw during the Nixon era, lying in politics also has the effect of destabilizing political institutions by destroying the ability of citizens to trust politicians and hold them accountable.

We need factual truth in order to safeguard humanity – like the knowledge of doctors who can help stop the spread of Covid-19. And we need to be able to take some of these factual truths for granted so that we can share the world in common and move freely through our daily lives. But today uncertainty is fueled by self-doubt and fear of self-contradiction. When we can no longer trust ourselves we lose our common sense – our sixth sense – which is what allows us to co-exist.

Truth isn’t political. If anything it is anti-political, since historically it has often been positioned against politics. Truth-tellers have always stood outside the political realm as the object of collective scorn. Socrates was sentenced to death. Thoreau was thrown in jail. Martin Luther King was assassinated. I think this is why people laugh when I repeat Arendt’s observation that truth and politics have never been on good terms. We know that there’s truth in that observation, yet we still hope that truth will save us. It’s a desperate cry and a plea for recognition – it is the sound of a democracy in mourning.

It’s important to remember that Arendt wrote “Truth and Politics” as a response to the reaction she received from publishing Eichmann in Jerusalem. What most worried her was a form of political propaganda that uses lies to erode reality. Political power, she warned, will always sacrifice factual truth for political gain. But the side effect of the lies and the propaganda is the destruction of the sense by which we can orient ourselves in the world; it is the loss of both the commons and of common sense.

As Arendt herself realized, telling the truth in the public sphere is very dangerous. She thought she was offering a record of her experience, and sharing her judgment in writing Eichmann. But what she received in return was an indictment against her personhood, and a litany of lies that responded to a book she’d never written. Nevertheless, the perennial danger of truth-telling made Arendt more, not less, determined to oppose lying in politics. She recognized that, if one starts denying people a place in the world based on their opinion or their lived experience of reality, one risks destroying the common fabric of humanity – the fact that we inhabit the earth together, and make the world in common.

Asked towards the end of her life whether she would publish Eichmann in Jerusalem again despite all the troubles it brought her, she was defiant. She invoked, and then dismissed, the classical maxim “Let justice be done, though the world perish.” Instead, she asked a question that seemed to her more urgent: “Let truth be told though the world may perish?”

Her answer was yes.

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  1. vlade

    A small correction – I believe Arendt would class “world is round” as a scientific (or rational) truth, not a factual one.

    Factual truth is the societal memory and perception of “outcomes and events” – for example, a classic example would be Civil War perceptions in the South (“Lost casue” and “it was never about slavery”), WW1 in intra-war Germany (we were betrayed), etc. etc.

    As you say, given the information overload we have and, unlike before “authoritative sources”, the factual truth becomes fragmented and contradictory, making politics of lies all that easier – because when the factual truth is fragmented, _some_ politician will comfort to a fragment that’s out there, and thus will appear truthful.

    QAnon is a great example of this IMO, but TBH, that’s just a particular application of the principle, which can be used by any side.

      1. vlade

        Ah, that’s something different though, because fundamentally world-is-flat is a statement where the truthfulness can be decided w/o existence of a man and re-discovered, unlike factual truth (which is always viewed through a society).

        That said, there are transitions where “rational truth” can become “factual truth” in a way (as you say world-is-flat is a good example, or these days climate change), but I can’t remember how exactly Arendt deals with the transitions.

        She does say that factual truth is much easier to manipulate by those in power, as for rational truth, even if supressed, most people who would really care could recognise it as suppressed, which is harder or even impossible for a factual truth, once supressed (or changed I’d say).

        The relevant quote is:

        “Facts [Arendt defines facts as results of human interaction] and events are infinitely more fragile things than axioms, discoveries, theories – even the most wildly speculative ones – produced by the human mind; they occur in the field of the ever-changing affairs of men, in whose flux there is nothing more permanent than the admittedly relative permanence of the human mind’s structure. Once they are lost, no rational effort will ever bring them back. Perhaps the chances that Euclidean mathematics or Einstein’s theory of relativity – let alone Plato’s philosophy – would have been reproduced in time if their authors had been prevented from handing them down to posterity are not very good either, yet they are infinitely better than the chances that a fact of importance, forgotten or, more likely, lied away, will one day be rediscovered.”

        1. Susan the other

          I haven’t read her either, but this paragraph makes her sound like an ideologue of grief; just plain dogmatic. Not that she didn’t have a good reason to be thinking this way. She certainly did. But to claim that once “facts” are lost to the human mind (immediate consciousness?) they are lost for good or at least for a long time just sounds way over the top to me. I believe (dogmatically) almost the exact opposite. That no “facts” are lost, never-ever. That we live in a perennial soup of facts and fragments of facts – some very, very old. And we pluck them out and dust them off as needed. The whole conversation makes me think that “facts” are relative because circumstances are always slightly different – yesterday’s lunatic fascists are tempered a bit; they’ve evolved; they’ve become politicians who spout “truthiness”. I’m old enough to actually be optimistic about the state of our truthiness. We can safely match it with “trustiness”. Ha.

          1. vlade

            A couple of simple ones.

            Ask a person born older than 70 years to reproduce, verbatim, their complete conversations from October 26 1960 (asuming they were able to talk at the time).

            All of those conversations were a fact. All of them had subjective interpretation (because all conversations do, some more, some less). All of them are lost to mankind short of an invention of a time machine.

            Another one:
            No-one knows how their ancestors of 1000+ years of _really_ looked like. Best, if they can be even identified, is some close model based on skeletons and some historical tibbits. Portraiting 1000 years ago wasn’t very good, and was often very subjective anyways.

            Yet their looks were a facts.

            Way more facts was lost than we can ever (re)discover – in fact, I’d even say way more of facts is lost every day than we can record. And since we have no idea what is an important or not fact until way later..

            Nevertheless, Arendt’s point is that facts can be supressed or even eliminated. If you eliminated the last storage of a fact, the fact is gone. You may try to derive it from clues around, but you’ll never know whether you really got the fact or some approximation, or something else. For example, we can decipher Linear B script, but will never really know what its real pronounciation was (which is a problem we have with much more recent languages), despite being able to have a good guess (which is fascinating on its own that we can do even that).

            On the other hand, axioms as she describes it are things that exists outside of any societal “storage” area, and thus can be rediscovered any number of times, by any number of people/societies.

            1. Susan the other

              I’d just say her “facts” become nested in her “axioms”. Kinda evolutionary meaning. But axiomatic language is not abstracted (imo) instead it is far more accessible than regular grammar. It’s like nested metaphor made grammar. Meaning is nested. And etc. So facts are pretty basic things that evolve – they are not eliminated. Like (forgive me my latest obsession) photons – they seem fleeting – but if we change our argument to meaning v. fact then meaning is never-ever “fleeting” – meaning is much closer to immortal. We might want to start a new branch of analysis of meaning which defines the evolution from fleeting to enduring. My personal opinion is that all the crap than happens is enduring. In some way. Even if I forget the beginning letter of the word.

      2. SOMK

        FYI/AFAIK/FWIW this is generally regarded as not the case by historians. Per historian Jeffrey Burton Russell…

        “no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat.”

        So given the fact of the fact people believed the earth was flat was almost certainly not the case (at least among the relatively small number of people who were educated), I would imagine this is the kind of general self-serving bias an age of self-defined rationality would make against an era of perceived irrationality, to serve the fact of intellectual/scientific progress. we self-identify as the rational animal, intelligence is our (self) defining trait, thus invariably we describe people who are ideologically opposed to us as ‘stupid’, everything that isn’t us takes that characteristic. Intelligence is the Ur human trait, but in our own individuality we are the Ur human to ourselves, we extend ‘humansess/intelligence’ to those who are most like us (or most like our ideal image of ourselves). The past, the other, anything that varies from us is in some way less intelligent than us and tropes like “people believed the earth was flat” help support that.

        Put another way if giraffes argued in English their main insult would be some variation of “short arse”.

        Ardent (who was close to Heidegger, who in turn wasn’t exactly stand off-ish with the Nazis) did something similar when she accused Eichmann of the ‘sin’ of unthinking, that is the sin she condemned him to death for. In so doing she she distanced not only herself, but other intellectuals from the possibility of such crime, years later it came out that Eichmann was far from disinterested with Nazi ideology and the characterisation of him as an almost accidentally genocidal bureaucrat was far from the case.

  2. vlade

    I’d put it differently. Politics was always about manipulating the “factual truth”. The factual truth used to be always written by the victors, and not just the military ones.

    Which is IMO where Arendth falls flat, because she invokes “the truth” even when before she is very careful to distinguish between the truths. And by her own definition, the “factual” truth is never going to be an objective truth, because it will always have to be seen via the prism of the society and its perceptions (or lack of, if they are writen out of history) of the events and outcomes.

  3. top

    The destruction of Yugoslavia by NATO just a few years ago in the middle of Europe is a very good example of the power of lies. Almost no one believes that this was a political act driven by Blair, Clinton and NATO, and had nothing to do with the Serbs. The successfull utter demonisation of Serbia is truly astonisihing, lies, lies and more lies, and it appears that no one is even vaguely interested in questioning the political narrative.
    I see no parallels with Richard Kline’s thesis, this is a complete re-writing of history and not some minor discussion about a single political or financial question.

    1. occasional anonymous

      The ‘destruction of Yugoslavia by NATO’? Oh please. No one who actually studies the Balkans believes for a minute that the breakup of Yugoslavia was anything but a fundamentally domestic affair. You can make an argument that NATO took advantage of it to give it an excuse to take action as a demonstration of its continued need to exist following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it didn’t cause the collapse of Yugoslavia. To claim that Yugoslavia didn’t eat itself alive based on fundamentally domestic forces isn’t much different from the Russiagate nonsense that pretends like domestic issues in the US are actually just the result of foreign agitation. You’re basically denying agency to the locals on a massive scale.

      Also the Serbs were in fact villains, though not the only ones. The Croats especially also committed numerous war crimes. Basically no one comes out of the events in Yugoslavia in the 90s looking good. Nationalism is a disease; in Yugoslavia you had the insane spectacle of a bunch of people who are to very large extent the same culture (some are Catholic, some Orthodox, some Muslims, but that’s all layered on top of a set of cultural attributes that are far more similar than they are different), and who all speak what is literally the same language, working themselves up into a fury convincing themselves that they’re actually unique nations different from their neighbors.

    1. The Historian

      + 100

      Hannah Arendt will always be my favorite philosopher, not because she tried to portray what humans and their institutions ought to be, but because she thought through what was and explained why.

      1. vlade


        I believe if we want a better civil society, we’d do much worse than teach Arendt. Not all of her works are easily accessible, but the main ideas are.

        1. The Historian

          True! One of the reasons I like the Hunger Games movies so much is that there is a lot of Hannah Arendt in them – from Eichmann in Jerusalem in what the gamemakers are doing to Origins of Totalitarianism in the actions of Snow and Coin.

          I don’t know if that was on purpose or not, but it does shine through!

  4. David

    The key is in this paragraph of the article:

    “…whenever Arendt talks about truth she always specifies what kind of truth she means: historical truth, trivial truth, some truth, psychological truth, paradoxical truth, real truth, philosophical truth, hidden truth, old truth, self-evident truth, relevant truth, rational truth, impotent truth, indifferent truth, mathematical truth, half-truth, absolute truth, and factual truth. There is no “the truth,” only truth in reference to something particular. The adjectives she attaches to truth transform the concept into something worldly” Though the writer seems to forget these distinctions as she progresses through the article.

    “Truth” as a concept, without these qualifiers, is essentially meaningless. Even what we think of as settled truths can be overturned. Scientific truth is always provisional. Legal truth may be overturned on appeal. Only religious truth, proceeding by revelation, is perhaps in a different category. But if expecting “the truth” in any context is excessive, expecting it in politics is quite unreasonable, since politics is about power, and facts are weapons used in the game.

    It’s useful here to distinguish between “truth” (or Truth) as an abstract metaphysical concept, and statements which are factually true, but limited in scope. (Perhaps we need Wittgenstein here, rather than Arendt.) In real life, any reasonably complex situation contains different factual truths that cannot easily be reconciled with each other in some transcendental version of Truth. Almost all political debates and controversies consist of statements that are factually correct (or at least not deliberately false), but the degree of importance that we attach to each, and the overall balance between them is something that depends on our personal prejudices and our political views. Having selected a group of true propositions that support the point of view we started with, we then accuse those who disagree with us of lying, being selective, leaving out things we think are important, or, if all else fails we revert to whataboutism. Your example of young black men shot by the police seems to demonstrate this quite well.

    But take a less controversial case: imaginary but realistic. The government claims that this year it is spending more to relieve child poverty than ever before. Opponents claim that this is just because there are more children in poverty than ever before. The government replies that the definition of child poverty has just been changed to bring it into line with UN guidelines, and according to the old guidelines the number of children living in poverty has gone down. Opponents counter by saying that prices for the poor have risen faster than the general level of prices in the economy so the spending is worth less. The government replies that this only applies to some small areas, and is compensated for by falls in prices elsewhere. At the end of the year opponents point out that actual spending was less than promised: the government claims that this is because of delays in bringing a new computer system into service. And so on. The point is that all of the above can be factually correct, but the different political objectives of a government and, say, anti-poverty campaigners, mean that the “truth” about whether the government is spending more on child poverty can never be determined.

    It’s the job of people working in government to help the government of the day put the best interpretation it can on a series of facts, just as lawyers would. Opponents will inevitably accuse you of lying, if they prefer another interpretation. I can’t speak for all countries, but in those I’m familiar with you don’t tell deliberate lies to the public or parliament, because it’s easy to be found out, and the consequences can be drastic. The problem these days perhaps is not “fake news” or whatever, but the fact that people are getting different types of truths mixed up. More and more, we privilege subjective personal, emotional truth over everything else, but because we feel uncomfortable about admitting that, and we go off hunting for bits and pieces of information, and factually true statements, to make us feel better about the conclusions we started from.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I think this is precisely the reason why the ‘truths’ we have to question most closely are those ones we most believe in. All of us are guilty of believing in things because they fit our prior prejudices or beliefs, but if we are to have any real credibility we have to constantly apply critical thinking equally. As can be seen in the current furore in the US over Twitter censorship, this is something the left and liberals seems to have largely abandoned.

  5. eg

    I’m not very familiar with either Arendt nor her works, but from the article and these comments it sounds to me like she has much in common with Eric Blair, with whose works I am more conversant, and which I believe to be terribly important.

  6. vlade

    “you don’t tell deliberate lies to the public or parliament, because it’s easy to be found out, and the consequences can be drastic”

    Unless you’re DJT or ABJ (I have a few other examples, but they are not as powerful).

      1. David

        As I said I’m talking about what I know. Trump strikes me as someone who can’t tell truth from fiction. Blair on the other hand was able to convince himself that what he was saying was actually true. In my observation he wasn’t consciously lying. In any case those examples illustrate my point about types and levels of truth.

        1. vlade

          ABJ = Alexander “Boris” Johnson.

          I’d believe that Blair was able to persuade himself to believe what he thought he should (and, TBH, don’t we all at times?).

          Johnson forgets the details, but he also lies when convenient.

          My point was more that the consequences of blantant lies aren’t when they used to be, when people at least were expected to pretend that they didn’t lie.

          1. David

            Got my As and Bs mixed up.
            I tend to agree about consequences , in a decaying political system, but it is also a question of types and levels of truth. For example, if Johnson was to say in a few weeks “we’ve got a terrific deal”, that wouldn’t be seen as a lie, but as a piece of self-deluding nonsense, at the extreme edge of the envelope of special pleading that is part of politics. Nobody assumes he means it’s literally true, nor that, in any event, its truth can be somehow measured. But if he says, for example, that fishing has been sorted out, and it hasn’t, that’s a lot more serious because it’s something that can be checked. And if he claimed, for example, that a meeting had taken place the it hadn’t, that would be a direct lie and would probably even now, result in him walking the plank.

            1. vlade

              Or you mean like claiming “there’s no press here” to the camera? (NHS visit some time back).

              I guess you could argue that none of the broadcasters are press but media..

    1. Carolinian

      Or Joe Biden–perhaps especially Joe Biden. But Trump too.

      The Jefferson quote about better to have a nation with newspapers and no government than vice versa came up recently and I believe what this founder/rationalist was saying was that we have narratives and fantasies but we also need facts. In the public sphere one of our biggest problems now is that newspapers have given up on facts and instead gone all in for narrative and story telling. There’s nothing to put the brake on inevitable political lying (except maybe sites like this one). Perhaps it will stop when TDS goes away but I fear that it will not.

        1. Carolinian

          Trump Derangement Syndrome is the one commonly in use around here. Our media are big time victims starting with Russiagate.

  7. Georgia Gearey

    Yves, this is probably one of your best ever essays, thank you.
    Now, given that “truth” is a construct and “it depends”, what does this say about our great (sic) economists and their great models (!) which every day drive billions and trillions of dollars around the world to asset classes like private equity or hedge funds? The lack of critical thinking about how we think about investment thinking is deeply disturbing. Most people in finance have drunk the Friedman Kool-Aid, what’s the antidote?

  8. Don Utter

    I well recall the original article by Hannah Arendt in the New Yorker. A house of cards of lies can collapse at any time. I thought that W Bush’s house of lies would collapse. It didn’t. What keeps Trump’s world from collapse?

    We have come to expect instant answers like the results of a search. 210,000 dead from the virus, thus the policy has failed. The argument is over. But this assumes a narrow rationality and a reliance on shared facts and shared values. That is no longer the case and the consequences are yet to be fully appreciated. Speech that is simply information transfer is inadequate for politics.

    Even scientists don’t practice a narrow rationality. To subsist, among their skills are to be literary and political figures. They write articles, apply for grants, debate theories, etc., to convince others.

    Politics has a different kind of truth. “I hear what you are saying” is a political statement that is not a simple rational statement. Water spoke. The water protectors represent a non-human entity and through their protests and speech acts have built a collective. That is a political act.

    Important work on politics has been done by the French Polymath Bruno Latour. Here is the abstract of an article

    Political enunciation remains an enigma as long as it is considered from the standpoint of information transfer. It remains as unintelligible as religious talk. The paper explores the specificty of this regime and especially the strange link it has with the canonical definition of enunciation in linguistics and semiotics. The ‘political circle’ is reconstituted and thus also the reasons why a ‘transparent’ or ‘rational’political speech act destroys the very conditions of group formation.

    What if we Talked Politics a Little?

    A theme of the article is “no issues, no politics.”

    Are we in danger of losing the political mode of existence?

  9. lyman alpha blob

    …if we lose the ability to make meaning freely from our experiences and add them to the record of human existence, then we also risk our ability to make judgments and distinguish between fact and fiction.

    Then we better get rid of social media in a hurry, and maybe the internet too. As the article notes, the record of human existence has always been subject to change. But if a publisher wanted to subtly change a new edition of the novel ‘1984’ for example to suit their own purposes, there would be thousands of people holding older versions who could then document the change and make judgements accordingly. But what if the only record is digital, as so much today is, and someone subtly changed that and there is no previous record to compare to? How would we ever know? Clearly this was a problem prior to mass printing, when written records were scarce and new copies made manually one at a time. So I found the essay really interesting in dividing up different types of ‘truth’ , and clearly there are some truths which will never be fully known.

    Side note: Let’s not feel too badly about the fate of Socrates. He was offered many outs to his death sentence, all of which he refused. And according to one of our modern truth tellers, I.F. Stone, Socrates really wasn’t all that Plato, one of the first anti-populists, made him out to be.* Personally, I’ve always found Socrates to be an insufferable blowhard and thought Diogenes got to the point much more succinctly.

    *based on written evidence manually copied through many centuries which has quite likely been corrupted from the original, so there’s that to think about when deciding the ‘truth’ of this matter…

  10. John Emerson

    “We’ve lost the ability to take opinions for granted; we’ve lost faith in science and experts; we’ve lost faith in our political institutions; we’ve lost faith in the American dream; and we’ve lost faith in our democracy itself.”

    What I think this means is that there is no longer a consensus. Going a consensus does not mean believing in it. It just means realizing that enough other people accept the consensus that defying the consensus would cause you too much trouble to be worth it. People are more willing to go along with a consensus when things are going fairly well for them and when they expect things to be getting better — why rock the boat? (I once defined consensus as “What people pretend to believe even if they don’t).

    One example is the New Deal consensus. Roosevelt’s 1936 landslide put the Republicans at a loss, and by nominating Eisenhower 16 years later, they gave in. When Goldwater defied the consensus he was badly beaten, and Nixon also returned to the New Deal consensus. Carter backed off from of LBJ’s Great Society but not from the New Deal, and Reagan worked to undermine the New Deal while piously proclaiming that he wouldn’t do that. And by now nobody younger than 90 remembers the Depression and the New Deal consensus is under open assault.

    But FDR only got 40% of the vote in his best year, and many of those people remained Roosevelt-haters after for the rest of their lives. For decades anyone who openly disagreed with the New Deal consensus marginalized themself, but a lot of them were still out there, stewing quietly and biding their time. Bill Buckley was an “out” anti-New Dealer, and for many years he was a figure of fun, but in his later years he was an elder statesman whose views had become mainstream. (The anti-racist consensus is newer, dating from the murder of Martin Luther King, and it was never as firmly established, and it is also under attack).

    How did this happen? It’s not just the passage of time. The anti-New Dealers were always there in the background, and after 1968 they realized that they could make their move. A lot of money shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans: oil money, Wall Street money, and later dot-com money). Goldwater was a false start, but Reagan came through. A lot of their success has come from buying up, buying off, or neutralizing the mass media. Everyone in the country is exposed to hard core right wing media, and there’s essentially no solidly liberal at all — much less progressive or radical media. And they have also funded hundreds of propaganda operations who share their wisdom freely with anyone willing to accept it. (They also have bought off much of the Democratic Party).

    And now the main point: the right wing successes from the beginning depended on dogwhistle racism and misogyny and overt homophobia. Their actual anti-New Deal program would never gain traction if it were honestly represented, and their national leaders never talk openly about their real plans. So a lot of the richly-funded rightwing media onslaught consists of deliberately spreading confusion. Knowing that they could not win straightforwardly, they set themselves to demoralizing, confusing, and also disenfranchising, the electorate. They have stopped trying to sell their program, and they are now trying to get it through “by any means necessary”, which in addition includes sabotaging the elections systems, the census, and the post office.

    Trump flourished in this demoralized electorate. At first the rightwing dignitaries thought he was a little too much, but only because they feared he’d lose, and he has outdone Reagan in deregulation, tax reduction, and sabotaging public services. He’s too weird on foreign policy, however, and he’s alienated and infuriated much of the general public (apparently deliberately, to make his base happy) , so they may be pivoting away form him (the Lincoln Project). But a new Trump will come along.

    A lot of my understanding of the shift away from democracy comes from “The Road From Mont Pelerin” , edited by Mirowski, which tells the story of the “freemarketer” right wing from the dark days of the late 1930s to the present. MacLean’s unjustly-maligned “Democracy in Chains” tells a key part of the more recent story, focussing on the Koches and the economist James Buchanan.

  11. Edward

    Abraham Lincoln addressed this question long ago: “You can fool some people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”. The essay focuses on the behavior of the rulers. In general, the rulers will do what they can get away with. I think the bigger question is what will the public let them get away with. So far the answer has been way, way too much. Now that the U.S. is in trouble the American public is starting to say “No”. Hill writes that “…the side effect of the lies and the propaganda is the destruction of the sense by which we can orient ourselves in the world.” I disagree; I feel if Americans are becoming skeptical of the propaganda that is positive. Basically, there is a certain amount of work one needs to do to keep the government honest. The quality of one’s government depends on how much work citizens are willing to do to keep politicians honest. There can be a dark side to this, too, though, if the public goes in a dark direction, as Nazi German demonstrated.

  12. Lex

    ‘There’s nothing worse than being ordinary’ – American Beauty

    A synonym for common is ordinary, plain, generic, routine, humble. In our private reality bubbles we’re above common, separate from the ordinary; we’re extraordinary. Special. Envied.

      1. Lex

        Yes, vulgar is good here, in that like ‘common’ it’s a dated usage: ‘characteristic of or belonging to the masses’.

  13. .Tom

    Gah! The timebase NC operates on can be punishing. I have so little time today but I want to read all this and see if I can relate it to my understanding of Sellars’ manifest and scientific images, the difference between data and information, and intersubjectivity, which seems to be important in political organizing.

  14. David in Santa Cruz

    Thank you, Yves, for publishing this thoughtful essay and for your comments. It’s going to take me all day to digest and I don’t want to be too hasty to comment, but we are surrounded by “little Eichmanns” everywhere.

    To them, we must be “protected” from “the truth,” because we “can’t handle the truth.” CalPERS “needs” the fake returns generated by private equity in order to hide under-funding after the Dot-Bomb “contribution holiday;” Hillary Clinton “needed” a hack-able basement server in Westchester in order to hide the solicitation of “donations” to her “foundation” from bankers and despots; Donald Trump “needs” to hide his tax returns in order to cover-up his gross incompetence.

    Be it under communism, capitalism, feudalism, or tribalism, the “truth” that we “can’t handle” always boils down to justifying the exploitation of — and expropriation from — the many by the few…

    1. David in Santa Cruz

      Comment in haste…

      Upon reflection Arendt’s critique of the “truth” behind Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem had nothing to do with the lies that Eichmann told himself in order to effectuate legalized mass-murder on behalf of the Nazi regime. The “truth” Arendt was calling-out was that Eichmann was kidnapped, tried, and executed by agents of a state that didn’t even exist at the time of his Crimes Against Humanity, in violation of the laws of the country where he was living and of international law. The response was that since Eichmann richly deserved to hang for his crimes, the ends justified the means.

      Isn’t this the heart of the Burisma scandal? Both Biden and Trump have attempted to use the color of their office to threaten to withhold congressionally-mandated foreign aid in order to coerce political and economic actions by an allegedly sovereign foreign government — yet each of their factions chooses a version of the “truth” exonerating their champion while demonizing his rival.

      Isn’t this at the heart of the lies told by CalPERS? That rules pertaining to conflicts of interest, full transparency, and even accurate arithmetic must be broken in order to protect the pensioners — and the state and local governments — who benefitted from the Dot-Bomb benefit increase and contribution holiday twenty years ago.

      When our politics become unhinged from the truth, all will continue to suffer.

  15. William Hunter Duncan

    Democrats seem of late to be repeating that Biden is a good, honest and decent man. My reply is, can you give me some example of why you think that? Such as, legislation he is responsible for. Usually, if people respond, they say thing like, he has suffered a lot of loss in his life, or, you have to make things up to attack him. If I respond with a litany of actual legislation which makes him look like a cold hearted killer, the response sounds a lot like, and sometimes is, that is Russian disinformation.

    It seems a potentially dangerous time. Dems are fixated on Trump and the far right. While I find the far right in this country to be quite dangerous, the Democratic party weilding the two swords of Russiaphobia and Critical Race Theory, with a willingness to silence anyone who questions Dem groupthink, seems to me as or more dangerous.

  16. boz

    Yves, my thanks also – a massive massive topic that I have been trying to puzzle though in my own little way.

    We are certainly in what Cory Doctorow calls an “epistemological crisis”. I had to look it up again to remind myself – a crisis in how we believe, and know things [to be true]. I don’t have the bandwidth to be the expert I need in every situation – which is why I gladly pay mechanics, plumbers, and many other people to be that authority I can rely on.

    Previously linked on NC: Cory’s paper

    However the sphere of truth and facts is something I am now extremely concerned about.

    The words of Louis Heren / Jeremy Paxman ring loudly:

    Why is this lying bastard lying to me?

  17. jpr

    Hannah Arendt had a few worthwhile things to say on topics that remain mostly unmentionable in polite company:

    1. Careerism
    2. Western Imperialism
    3. Zionism


    Other than that, apart from a few essays, her musings not rigorous enough to be taken seriously by scholars. As for the reading public “she is the beneficiary of the widespread belief that philosophical murkiness signals philosophical profundity.”


    She has also been criticized for her extreme Eurocentrism and “blindness” to the significance of race and racism in the West, most notably, in her “Reflections on Little Rock” where she sided with Southern racists resisting school desegregation.


    1. Basil Pesto

      It’s always fraught, not to say suspicious, when one relies on the written works of others to disseminate an understanding of the written works of someone completely different. I don’t want to portray myself as an expert on the works of Hannah Arendt – I’m very far from it. But by coincidence, the week before Yves posted this piece, I ordered Penguin’s ‘The Portable Hannah Arendt’. It arrived today and, my curiosity piqued by your post, I decided to check the introduction (which definitely does seem to be an example of a scholar taking her seriously, not that that negates Jacoby’s specific criticisms) and the Little Rock essay itself.

      The introduction explains that she was making a more nuanced political point than “racism is good actually” (in point of fact, after the essay is a response to her critics, and she describes the US’ anti-miscegenation laws as: “what the whole world knows to be the most outrageous piece of legislation in the western hemisphere”). I turned to the essay itself and while I’ve not yet read it, so I don’t yet know whether I’ll agree with her argument, her introduction ends (with a degree of humility that would seem to pre-empt the criticism in your last paragraph):

      Finally, I should like to remind the reader that I am writing as an outsider. I have never lived in the South and have even avoided occasional trips to Southern states because they would have brought me into a situation that I personally would find unbearable. Like most people of European origin I have difficulty in understanding, let alone sharing, the common prejudices of Americans in this area. Since what I wrote may shock good people and be misused by bad ones, I should like to make it clear that as a Jew, I take my sympathy for the cause of the Negroes as for all oppressed or under-privileged peoples for granted and should appreciate if the reader did likewise.

      Now, I can certainly understand that such a disavowal of racism might not suffice for a professor of critical theory, but it passes my smell test.

  18. occasional anonymous

    I confess I don’t know what kind of reaction Eichmann in Jerusalem got, what the criticisms of it at the time were. But the verdict of history has not been particularly kind to that book. Because it was, in fact…not true. Eichmann was not some disinterested bureaucrat, mundanely committing great evil. He simply took people like Arendt for a ride when he portrayed himself as such during the trial. The interviews he did with Willem Sassen totally shred that entire narrative. In fact what’s worse is that Arendt was partially aware of the contents of these interviews because excerpts from them were featured in Life magazine.

    The most generous interpretation I can give is that she was taking a hammer to the Eichmann case to make it fit the mold of her ‘banality of evill thesis. A thesis which definitely has a lot of truth to it, as a thing that can happen. But it absolutely was not valid in the specific case of Eichmann.

    1. Basil Pesto

      The reaction is pretty well documented in the introduction and preface to the Penguin classics edition of Eichmann, which I rely upon for this comment.
      Essentially (and perhaps this is overly simplistic or erroneous as I’m going by memory and opinion; I strongly recommend reading the book if you haven’t): people who hadn’t read the book criticised it as an anti-semitic nazi-exculpation and painted her a self-hating jewess, all of which are nonsense. The Jewish world was particularly uncomfortable about her writing about Jewish collaborators, including camp ‘capos’. Arendt did not of course make this historical discovery, and she relies heavily upon Raul Hilberg’s the Destruction of the European Jews for her history. It was controversial because 1) it scrupulously and in good faith adhered to the truth as she understood it (acknowledging that truth is a fraught subject etc etc) with respect to the information and historical sources she had at her disposal, as well as the trial itself, and 2) it didn’t really fit neatly into any of the neatly preconceived notions of Eichmann, or his behaviour, or the trial and its legalities.

      I’m not sure what you’re talking about re: the Sassen papers, which Arendt was aware of and whose author is mentioned in Eichmann no fewer than thirteen times. Indeed in her postscript she mentions that she had at her disposal a manuscript of seventy typewritten pages of notes Eichmann wrote in Buenos Aires, including those he wrote in preparation for the Sassen interview. That single primary source of manifestly limited value hardly negates the book, which remains a towering achievement, in any meaningful respect.

      Too much is made of the ‘banality of evil’ phrase, as though that is in and of itself the sum of the whole book. It’s a good turn of phrase, and that’s why it’s so imprinted on the culture, but it could readily be substituted with: ‘the mediocrity of evil’, ‘the unthinkingness of evil’, maybe even ‘the poshlost of evil’. Ultimately, in my reading, what Eichmann lays before us is Nazism in all its institutional breadth as the kind of culmination of the Flaubertian conception of European mediocrity: a continent full of jumped-up Homais’, all of whom are very keen indeed to earn the cross of the legion of honour. She does this, like Flaubert, with an astonishingly deft irony, which is remarkable given the subject matter and her personal stake in it. The Sassen interview hardly negates this: Eichmann’s comical (I might even say, CalPERSian/Frostian) mediocrity makes itself plain with his every utterance.

      1. Basil Pesto

        and here’s another illustration of what I mean, from this review of Stangneth’s book (which sounds interesting, though not necessarily dispositive): https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/17/eichmann-before-jerusalem-bettina-stangneth-review

        The book stirred up a storm of criticism, particularly though not exclusively from Jewish intellectuals in the United States. There were many reasons for this. Reflecting what was known at the time, and in common with other early historians of the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews, Arendt was highly critical both of the passivity of the great majority of European Jews in the face of persecution and extermination, and of the collaborationist administration of the Jewish Councils in the ghettos, whose tragic and impossible situation failed to arouse her sympathy.

        and yet, in Arendt’s own postscript:

        The controversy began by calling attention to the conduct of the Jewish people during the years of the Final Solution, thus following up the question, first raised by the Israeli prosecutor, of whether the Jews could or should have defended themselves. I had dismissed that question as silly and cruel, since it testified to a fatal ignorance of the conditions at the time


        She’s more equivocal on the Jewish leadership:

        Since the role of the Jewish leadership had come up at the trial, and since I had reported on it, it was inevitable that it too should be discussed. This, in my opinion, is a serious question, but the debate has contributed little to its clarification. As can be seen from the recent trial in Israel at which a certain Hirsch Birnblat, a former chief of the Jewish police in a Polish town and now a conductor at the Israeli Opera, first was sentenced by a district court to five years’ imprisonment, and then was exonerated by the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, whose unanimous opinion indirectly exonerated the Jewish Councils in general, the Jewish Establishment is bitterly divided on this issue. In the debate, however, the most vocal participants were those who either identified the Jewish people with its leadership – in striking contrast to the clear distinction made in almost all the reports of survivors, which may be summed up in the words of a former inmate of Theresienstadt: “The Jewish people as a whole behaved magnificently. Only the leadership failed.” – Or justified the Jewish functionaries by citing all the commendable services they had rendered before the war, and above all before the era of the Final Solution, as though there were no difference between helping the Jews to emigrate and helping the Nazis to deport them.


        So you can see, the reaction and criticisms have echoed over time, often in secondhand (although it does seem as though the book reviewer has actually read Eichmann, which makes his unfair representation more frustrating, but I’m starting to believe the number of good readers in the world is even smaller than I had previously imagined). In the first instance, his criticism is wrong. In the second, it’s a simplification of the historiographical debate that had been taking place at the time. I’m not an expert in the historiography of Holocaust studies by any means and I’m sure much has changed on that front since the early 60s, but there’s nothing to suggest her writing wasn’t an opinion formed in good faith based on her study of the history of the time, including as I mentioned with particular reliance on Hilberg (whose work also aroused controversy, but which I understand to be excellent scholarship). Again it’s worth mentioning, while this criticism was levelled at her, her criticism of the Jewish leadership in parts of Europe was not original to her, which begs the question of why she was attacked in public at the time as though it was.

  19. jpr

    @Basil, That scholar based in Hong Kong you cite also writes on “mystics” and polemical public intellectuals like Raymond Aron. Purely philosophical, topical (esp. of world of early 50s when millions were trying to make sense of the worldwide “ultraviolence” that had just ended), and literary essays (in the broader sense, and category that to me Arendt’s work falls in) are fine in their own right, but not exactly analytical breakthroughs that, say, “soft sciences” scholars can base their work off. A major idea associated with her writings, i.e. totalitarianism was used by politicos but was debunked 2 years after her work appeared when Khruschev denounced Stalin and his methods. There’s a whole shelf of work on how the concept falls apart under anything more than cursory scrutiny (e.g. by Sheila Fitzpatrick).

    The notion of Eurocentrism and “blindness” to racism isn’t just some temporary oversight on Arendt’s part, but was a major blindspot for almost all “New York Intellectuals” of her era (e.g. Podhoretz who wrote ‘My Negro Problem’). She did add a few disclaimers at the end of that essay that you allude to but sadly it’s not difficult to reach the conclusion that aspirations and suffering of non-European peoples–and the peoples themselves–were largely an enigma to this fairly ethnocentric intellectual product of Mitteleuropa. Quite a few white people can only associate “racism” with white sheet wearing Southerners chanting slogans, but it comes in quite a few varieties including “aversive racism”, “cultural racism”, and others which as Podhoretz’s account acknowledges was rampant in her milieu.

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