A lot of people are quoting Hannah Arendt lately…. (More)
“What can be done to … restore facts and truth as guiding lights in democratic discourse?”
But the arrival in the White House of Donald Trump, who seems to lie as reflexively as other people breathe, has stopped me cold. Trump’s presidency, and the way it’s being reported in the media and perceived by the public, has led me to ask some basic questions – about my profession of journalism, the relative power of truth and lies, and the very future of democratic self-government in these United States. Does truth even matter in covering this president? Is Trump and his proclivity for telling falsehoods the problem, or is he merely a symptom of a deeper affliction in our political-economic system? Above all, what can be done to remedy this situation – to restore facts and truth as guiding lights in democratic discourse and make official lying the scandal it deserves to be?
More on why Lewis’ question begs a question below. But he begins by quoting journalist and philosopher Hannah Arendt, and many other journalists are quoting her too. Yale philosopher Jason Stanley quotes Arendt in his New York Times essay titled “Beyond Lying: The Authoritarian Reality of Donald Trump,” and the Washington Post‘s Margaret Sullivan quotes Arendt in her piece celebrating the Post’s sniffing out a clumsy Project Veritas scam. Her colleague Greg Sargent doesn’t quote Arendt, but he made the same argument yesterday:
But such incredulity misses the deeper significance of this stuff. The brazenness of it is the whole point – his utter shamelessness itself is meant to achieve his goal. In any given case, Trump is not trying to persuade anyone of anything as much as he is trying to render reality irrelevant, and reduce the pursuit of agreement on it to just another part of the circus. He’s asserting a species of power – the power to evade constraints normally imposed by empirically verifiable facts, by expectations of consistency, and even by what reasoned inquiry deems merely credible. The more brazen or shameless, the more potent is the assertion of power.
They’re all quoting or paraphrasing this passage from Arendt’s 1978 interview with the New York Times Review of books:
The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie – a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days – but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.
And Arendt’s words do support their conclusions … to a point.
“I fear that fact-checking, essential as it is, will not then suffice to change minds”
But first, back to Lewis’ question-begging-question: “What can be done to … restore facts and truth as guiding lights in democratic discourse?”
The classical meaning of “beg the question” refers to an implicit premise that should be examined before considering what was actually said or asked. And Lewis’ question includes a very big implicit premise — that there was a time when “facts and truth” were “guiding lights in democratic discourse.”
If such a time existed, I certainly don’t remember it. Had “facts and truth” been “guiding lights” for George H.W. Bush, he would never have agreed to serve as Vice President for a man whose core policies Bush called “voodoo economics.” President Reagan’s facile “Mistakes were made” response to the Iran-Contra scandal was hardly a testament to “facts and truth,” nor was President Clinton’s “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” The Center for Public Integrity and their partner, the Fund for Independence in Journalism, tallied 935 lies told by President George W. Bush and his top aides in selling the Iraq War.
Indeed we could go back to the drafting of our Constitution and the phrase “three-fifths of all other Persons,” which explicitly recognized legal slavery. That “peculiar institution” would never have been permitted had “facts and truth” been “guiding lights in democratic discourse.”
“Facts and truth” never were and never can be those “guiding lights,” as Arendt scholar Elizabeth Minnich explains:
I actually think that the key issue is one of meaning, as distinct from truth. We must deal with truth and lies in public life or, ungrounded, we will have nothing but dicta from above, and/or babble. But we must also talk together about what we mean, about what gives meaning to life, about something more than the first necessary questions that fact-checking can answer. Maybe this: if we have been “post” something, it may be meaning. Having only superficial substitutes, some of us may have developed a desire for Colbertian “truthiness” – ungrounded assertions that feel like the certainty, the binding clarity of truth. And since those have been very much on offer, perhaps too many of us have lost or dulled the ability to discern a meaningful truth from a statement that makes us feel rooted, a statement from someone who acts certain. I fear that fact-checking, essential as it is, will not then suffice to change minds: it feels cold, a bit mean, and sort of rude. To re-open space for truth, we probably need some real help speaking with each other about our shared and differing meanings.
It’s easy enough to prove that the British hate videos retweeted by the God-King yesterday were false. It’s more difficult to challenge the excuse offered by Outhouse Sewer Spewer Sarah Huckabee Sanders: “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real.”
That isn’t a claim about “facts and truth;” indeed she declares such questions irrelevant. To challenge her response, we need the capacity to “discern a meaningful truth from a statement that makes us feel rooted, a statement from someone who acts certain.” The search for meaning, as Minnich describes it, is less about whether those videos are factually accurate – they aren’t – than about whether “the threat [of Islamic terrorism] is real.”
That is a much more challenging dispute. It opens questions “about what we mean, about what gives meaning to life” that require more research, reasoning, and judgment. Simply saying “Those videos were lies!” ducks the devilishly difficult questions of how “real” the threat of terrorism is, how to weigh that risk in public policy, and the benefits and consequences of the answers we propose.
“The evil of banality”
Arendt is best known for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on The Banality of Evil, and Minnich accompanied Arendt to many conferences where that subtitle was hotly debated. Arendt finally stopped even trying to defend it, but Minnich believes she might have had an easier time had she reversed the words:
It struck me then that it might help people hear her if she spoke of “the evil of banality,” rather than “the banality of evil.” She never did, but the reversal stayed with me and I began my research, years ago, into the thinking, and non-thinking, of perpetrators in quest of whether, why, being banal – superficial, clichéd, conventional – makes one more capable of doing horrific harm to other people, if indeed it does. After years of research into genocides but also other horrific systems of harm-doing, it became evident to me that, “People who are not thinking are capable of anything”. And then, of course, I had to make clear to others what that actually meant; why it is the case; and, happily, why it is also the case that there are always some who resist.
The real danger in retweeting those videos is not that they are false – they are – but that both the videos and Sanders’ defense of them are “superficial, clichéd, conventional.” And so are rebuttals that begin and end at debunking the videos, without addressing Sanders’ claim that “the threat is real.” The God-King lies so often and so shamelessly that “Trump lies again!” has become banal — “superficial, clichéd, conventional.”
You really should read Minnich’s entire interview with Skye Cleary. Minnich’s contrast between “extensive evil” and “intensive evil” – between horrors committed by “ordinary people doing its daily work” as sanctioned by cultures and/or political systems, and horrors committed by deranged individuals – is an important distinction.
We ask how Republicans can be so cruel as to push a tax cut bill that will strip health care from 13 million people. But that question seeks an “intensive evil” answer for an “extensive evil” phenomenon. They’re not thinking “Ooh goody, this will take away 13 million people’s health care.” They’re thinking “What procedures can we use, what deals must we make, to pass this legislation?” Such focus on procedural and technical details is how “ordinary people [do the] daily work” of “extensive evil.”
Simply, they do it without thinking about its meaning.
“Resistance is about integrity, the core of identity”
Yet Minnich finds people who rise above banality:
History will focus on heroes, organizations, and movements. That’s what it does. But the worst things are often stopped before they require struggle, by people refusing to carry out orders, and we rarely hear about that. An example from my book: librarians under president George W. Bush simply refused to report what people were reading to an over-reaching “security” apparatus. Similarly, all those people who went to the New York airport to do whatever they could best do to stop the harm of an unjust executive order. “That’s not who I am” and “That’s not who we are”: resistance is about integrity, the core of identity. It is grounded in how we lead our lives.
And she finds reason for hope:
Fortunately, we have in this country many seasoned activists, organizations, strategists, and even more who refuse to stop thinking, speaking, acting, and creating. There are many who know the history of extensive evils and know that they must be stopped on time. And we have new ways of thinking emerging, relatively few people stuck in only one way, one analysis, or one vision. All this is unusual, and so hopeful; in times of stress and risk, clichés usually spread along with alienation so all relations become more superficial, providing just the kind of soil extensive evil needs. Hopefully, not this time.
May I also suggest that we should be wary of the repeated calls to stop being “so divisive,” to “restore civility”? When deep differences are out in the open and there are already serious harms being done, civility is really not the primary need, let alone a return to banal politeness. Great care is needed, but that is entirely different.
I dare say that complaints about “civility” have become the epitome of banality. They focus on the process of debate to the specific – indeed pointed! – exclusion what we’re debating. They demand that a dialogue about white supremacy be held with the same indifference we would expect in discussing favorite brands of ice cream. “Respect those with whom we disagree!” – even when they promote hatred – is a case study in “superficial, clichéd, conventional.”
Yes, the God-King is an authoritarian at heart. Yes, he’d like to declare that reality is whatever he says it is, day to day, Tweet to Tweet. But we can’t expect to stop that with fact-checking alone, because mere “facts and truth” never were and never will be the “guiding lights in democratic discourse.”
True “democratic dialogue” requires something far more rigorous: actions and discussions that are “about what we mean, about what gives meaning to life.” Without those, we slip into “the evil of banality.”
Photo Credit: Hannah Arendt Private Archive
Good day and good nuts