The Art of Lying in Politics
Corey Robin, while considering the recent jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas, argues that Thomas’ attempt to expand free speech rights for advertisers owes a debt to Hannah Arendt.
“When the First Amendment protects political speech — including, importantly, political speech that is false — it is precisely, Thomas seems to be suggesting, this dimension of speech that lies at the boundaries between fact and fiction that it is protecting.
At the heart of this kind of political action, then, is a straddling of that elusive space between what is, what is not, and what might be. Machiavelli understood that; Hobbes understood that (Leviathan’s massive power is generated in part, as I’ve argued, by healthy and alternating doses of illusion and reality); Nietzsche did, too.
In the modern era, however, no theorist explored that dimension of political action — in both its toxic and tamer variants — more than Hannah Arendt. The toxic variant was to be found in all manner of totalitarianism, as well as in the lies of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. The tamer variants, however, were found in that dimension of action that involved elements of novelty and initiation, in an appreciation that politics is not the realm of Platonic Truth, a deep structure of what is, beneath the surface or behind the scenes, but of multiple and dissonant perspectives on stage, which provide an occasion for persuasive speech and artfulness.
Though Arendt was not nearly as hostile to factual truth as some would have her be, she did offer, between the lines of some of her essays, an appreciation of the art of the liar, for she saw that art as related, in some ways, to the political arts more generally.
The liar is an actor, in the literal sense, and politics, as Arendt reminds us, is a theater of appearances.
But the liar is also an actor in the political sense: she seeks to change the world, turning what is into what isn’t and what isn’t into what is (this is the part that made Arendt so nervous, as it reminded her of the totalitarian ruler). By arraying herself against the world as it is given to us, the liar claims for herself the same freedom that the political actor claims when she brings something new into the world: the freedom to say no to the world as it is, the freedom to make the world into something other than it is.
It’s no accident that the most famous liar in literature is also an adviser to a man of power, for the adviser or counselor has often been thought of as the quintessential political actor. When Iago says to Roderigo, “I am not what I am,” he is affirming that the liar, the dramatic actor, and the political actor all subscribe to elements of the same creed.
The advertiser operates in a similar realm between truth and illusion. She, too, seeks to use the arts of illusion to create new realities. Thomas seems to be emphasizing that dimension of the advertiser’s art.”
Robin is correct that Arendt understands the political role of the liar. Politics for Arendt is about opinion and some opinions are absolutely essential to our liberal democratic world. For example, the idea that “All men are equal” is one of those lies, those fictions, that Arendt argues is a great achievement of modern politics. Of course not all men are equal in any factual sense. But the political conviction that we are politically equal underlies the possibility of politics. Such is the kind of political lying that Arendt recognizes as important.
As central as Lying may be to politics, certain lies corrode politics. The lies we should worry about, Arendt writes, are those active lies whereby facts are denied and alternative realities are created. When deception, spin, and propaganda become the driving forces of politics, facts retreat behind the need for consistent talking points and coherent narratives. The essence of totalitarian rule is the elimination of those facts and persons whose reality counters the coherent fiction underlying the state. And even in non-totalitarian states, the reduction of facts to simply another opinion corrodes the common sense and shared world that underlies a civil and engaged political sphere. The possibility of politics depends upon the continued availability of commonly accepted facts and pre-political truths that bind a polity together.
In a time of seemingly infinite information, we are experiencing unprecedented doubt about facts. All kinds of “authoritative” claims made by leading public figures turn out to be little more than thin air. Facts, as Arendt saw, are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.
While Arendt understood that lying could be useful and even was the essence of some politics, she also knew that the loss of factual truth in the political realm is an existential threat to politics and also to human life in general. Arendt rejects the classical maxim fiat justitia, et pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish); instead she endorses the reformulation: Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus. Let Truth be done, though the world may perish. Her point is simple: We cannot give up on truth — even if it means the end of the world! This is because the loss of truth leads to the loss of the world. Without truth, without the ability to say what is, there is no permanence, no common world. The danger is that when truth disappears, the world wobbles. We lose our bearings. We lose what holds us together — the common sense and common assumptions — that are the furniture and stability of our human world.
Arendt’s worry is that when truth is impossible, when truth disappears, when the world wobbles, the result is cynicism. As she writes:
“It has frequently been noticed that the surest long-term result of brainwashing is a peculiar kind of cynicism — an absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well this truth may be established.”
In other words, the danger from a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will win out — that is highly unlikely. Rather, the danger posed by the demise of factual truth is the victory of cynicism, the belief that it is simply not possible to “say what is.” What cynicism means is that the sense of factual truth from which we take our bearings in the real world is wasting away.
Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College