Monday, February 27, 2017

Hannah Arendt's prophecy of things to come, from 1967

Fifty years ago this week, the philosopher Hannah Arendt published an article, “Truth and Politics” in The New Yorker. When she published this, the President of the United States was twenty-one years old.

Arendt (1906-1975) was- and remains- one of the most challenging and relevant philosophers of her times and the future. I frame her work in that way because she set for herself a stupendous task: making sense of how civilization can oppose, and recover from, the horrors of totalitarianism visited on the world in her lifetime. Arendt spent the war years one step ahead of the Nazis; the cumulative effects of their atrocities- as well as those pioneered on the Left in the name of Marxist theory- are still unfolding.

Arendt led us as far as she could, and we have had to make our way forward without her for forty years now. But she remains a stern guide, impatient with our desires to give up the quest, to cavil and complain, to comply.

The full text of “Truth and Politics is here. It is a poor .pdf that, from sloppy formatting, makes Arendt’s detailed arguments harder to read, but it repays the effort (a precis by Nicolaus Mills is here; if you are a New Yorker subscriber you can see the original in their archives). I have taken the liberty to break the excerpted text into smaller blocks.

I have saved it to run now because I had a sense of things to come, which, while not fully revealed, are manifest enough. Here is an excerpt. See if it rings any bells.

We must now turn our attention to the relatively recent phenomenon of mass manipulation of fact and opinion as it has become evident in the rewriting of history, in image-making, and in actual government policy. 

The traditional political lie, so prominent in the history of diplomacy and statecraft, used to concern either true secrets – data that had never been made public – or intentions, which anyhow do not possess the same degree of reliability as accomplished facts; like everything that goes on merely inside ourselves, intentions are only potentialities, and what was intended to be a lie can always turn out to be true in the end.

In contrast, the modern political lies deal efficiently with things that are not secrets at all but are known to practically everybody. This is obvious in the case of rewriting contemporary history under the eyes of those who witnessed it, but it is equally true in image-making of all sorts, in which, again, every known and established fact can be denied or neglected if it is likely to hurt the image; for an image, unlike an old-fashioned portrait, is supposed not to flatter reality but to offer a full-fledged substitute for it. And this substitute, because of modern techniques and the mass media, is, of course, much more in the public eye than the original ever was. [. . .]

Moreover, the traditional lie concerned only particulars and was never meant to deceive literally everybody; it was directed at the enemy and was meant to deceive only him.

These two limitations restricted the injury inflicted upon truth to such an extent that to us, in retrospect, it may appear almost harmless. Since facts always occur in a context, a particular lie – that is, a falsehood that makes no attempt to change the whole context – tears, as it were, a hole in the fabric of factuality.

As every historian knows, one can spot a lie by noticing incongruities, holes, or the junctures of patched-up places. As long as the texture as a whole is kept intact, the lie will eventually show up as if of its own accord. The second limitation concerns those who are engaged in the business of deception. They used to belong to the restricted circle of statesmen and diplomats, who among themselves still knew and could preserve the truth.They were not likely to fall victims to their own falsehoods; they could deceive others without deceiving themselves.

Both of these mitigating circumstances of the old art of lying are noticeably absent from the manipulation of facts that confronts us today.

What, then, is the significance of these limitations, and why are we justified in calling them mitigating circumstances? Why has self-deception become an indispensable tool in the trade of image-making, and why should it be worse, for the world as well as for the liar himself, if he is deceived by his own lies than if he merely deceives others? What better moral excuse could a liar offer than that his aversion to lying was so great that he had to convince himself before he could lie to others, that, like Antonio in The Tempest, he had to make “a sinner of his memory, To credit his own lie”?

And, finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, if the modern political lies are so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture – the making of another reality, as it were, into which they will fit without seam, crack, or fissure, exactly as the facts fitted into their own original context – what prevents these new stories, images, and non-facts from becoming an adequate substitute for reality and factuality? [. . .]

Here, from a film on Arendt’s life, is a snapshot of the challenge she carried and has left to us.

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