Hannah Arendt on lying

A bunch of people are sharing something about Hannah Arendt and lying in totalitarian systems. I have a couple of reactions–first, we aren’t in a totalitarian system, as she meant the term. What’s more relevant is what she said about propaganda (in any system), which is that it degrades truth by making people completely cynical. Second, I have a lot of trouble believing that she said fact-checking is just playing their game (for one thing, that isn’t a metaphor she’d use). I can’t think of any place she makes that argument, and it directly contradicts what she says in the essay she published about lying in politics.

Her “Lying in Politics,” originally a review of The Pentagon Papers, published in TNYRB, became a chapter in her wonderful (and underread) Crises of the Republic. Here are some quotes:

“Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling places in the domain of human affairs. From this, it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt.” (6)

“Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audiences wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.” (7)

“Under normal circumstances the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute: no matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough, even if he enlists the help of computers, to cover the immensity of factuality. The lair, who may get away with any number of single falsehood, will find it impossible to get away with lying on principle.” (7)

In a totalitarian system, the distinguish between truth and falsehood collapses, “truth that can be relied on disappears entirely from public life, and with it the chief stabilizing factor in the ever-changing affairs of men.” (7)

About the political advisers who lied for years about Vietnam: “In spite of their undoubted intelligence–it is manifest in many memos from their pens–they also believed that politics is but a variety of public relations, and they were taken in by all the bizarre psychological premises underlying this belief.” (11)

“What these problem-solvers have in common with down-to-earth liars is the attempt to get rid of facts and the confidence that this should be possible because of the inherent contingency of facts.” (11)

“In order to eliminate Trotsky’s role from the history of the Russian Revolution, it is not enough to kill him and eliminate his name from all Russian records so long as one cannot kill all his contemporaries and wield power over the libraries and archives of all countries of the earth.” (13)

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