Arendt on lying and facts in politics

Hannah Arendt’s political thought reverberates as a timeless source of reflection on the conditions for political action, and the significance of the contingent and unexpected. Her less widely read discussion of The Pentagon Papers, published in the New York Review of Books in 1971, joins these facets. Revisiting it today shows how relevant Arendt’s arguments on lying and facts in politics remain.

Present debates on the role of knowledge in government could well use Arendt’s sharp analysis of the politics of lying. In the following, let me first outline the background of the paper; second, I present Arendt’s main claims; and third, I conclude with a discussion of what Arendt tells us about today’s battles for truth.

The Pentagon Papers

In 1971, RAND-employee and US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg released the so-called Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force in The New York Times. Now known as the „Pentagon Papers“ (henceforth PP), the release caused nation-wide controversy as it revealed that the Johnson administration had been lying systematically. Contrary to what had hitherto been assumed, US engagement in Vietnam had gone far beyond its known scope, including neighbouring Laos and Cambodia.

Arendt boldly opens her analysis of the controversy with a simple yet effective assessment: „the basic issue raised by the papers is deception“. She then moves on to purport that secrecy, be it as arcana imperii or as diplomatic discretion, has been with us basically forever. In fact, she argues:

„the deliberate denial of factual truth – the ability to lie – and the capacity to change facts – the ability to act – are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source: imagination.“

Arendt, H. (1972). Lying in politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers. In: Arendt, H. (1972). Crises of the Republic. San Diego: Harcourt; p. 5.

In this way, Arendt outlines the basic contours of her claim: lying is neither a disturbance of politics nor some unnatural deviation from it. It „did not creep into politics by some accident of human sinfulness“. Instead, and this is crucial: „Factual truths are never compellingly true.“ From the point of view of the historian, facts require testimony, and testimony requires credible witnesses. The trustworthiness of a witness, in turn, is a judgement that has to be made. Hence to Arendt, „no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt“.

Public relations and problem-solving

Against that background, Arendt identifies two groups of liars in politics. First, there are the public-relations folks. Trained in the logic of advertising, they view opinions as market goods that can be bought and sold, and their holders as manipulable consumers. Advisors to the president fall into this category, as they interpret the outside world „for him“.

Second, there are those who may be called „professional problem-solvers“ (a phrase Arendt borrows straight from the PP), drawn from universities and think-tanks into government. These are game theorists, systems analysts, rational choicers, and so on. Arendt joins in characterising them, though with a cheeky smile perhaps, as „men of great self-confidence“ who are „used to winning“. But crucially:

„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.“

Arendt, H. (1972). Lying in politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers. In: Arendt, H. (1972). Crises of the Republic. San Diego: Harcourt; p. 11.

Yet added to this quality was, Arendt posits, an intense inclination to model problems into formulae. „They were eager to find formulas,“ she writes, „preferably expressed in pseudo-mathematical language, that would unify the most disparate phenomena with which reality presented them“.

Dodging the contingent – only human?

Such a law-making approach, borrowed from the natural sciences, suffers from a problematic mismatch with the human affairs it seeks to explain. The essence of politics is, throughout Arendt’s work, the fact that it results from the human capacity, freedom, and will for action – and so does not fit the laws that may govern immutable objects.

Thus it is almost a sort of tragedy that reason comes nevertheless with an „aversion to contingency“, as Arendt puts it. In sum, we are faced with the problem of lying in politics in three principal ways:

  1. Lying by deception, or willed concealment. Arendt calls this „down-to-earth lying“.
  2. Lying by rhetoric, or manipulative communication. This is what Arendt means when talking about „men of public-relations“.
  3. Lying by aversion to contingency, or fitting facts to the model. Arendt ascribes this to the „problem-solvers“, the protagonists of the PP.

Where do fake news fit?

So what would Arendt have to say about alternative facts? Of course, any „what if“ question throws discussion into the fuzzy realm of mere speculation. Still, this can be a fruitful exercise. Not only to elucidate a given analysis by placing it elsewhere; but also to see how its key positions speak to other, related debates.

When I say alternative facts, I tend to think of the most recent trend of that term as it refers to Donald Trump’s infamous fake news campaign on press conferences and social media. Usage of the term during the Trump administration started famously with Kellyanne Conway’s claim at a press meeting that reports on the small size of the crowd to see Trump’s inauguration were false.

Responses at the time tended to be dominated by outrage and disbelief. It wasn’t long before comparisons with Orwell’s 1984 set the thrust of public debate. For the sake of argument, let’s agree to Arendt’s initial point that lying is no aberration from, but indeed inherent to politics. Then what exactly (apart from its unusual bluntness) made Conway’s exclamation so disturbing?

Facts in politics

What made it disturbing was, I’d argue, an underlying misconception of the role of facts in politics. In other words, we’ve been fooled by the notion of alternative facts into believing that it had actually something to do with facts. However, we don’t have to accept this invitation to a fight for ‚true facts‘. We may be better off deciding where we want to go before walking along. So where do we want to go?

Arendt’s account of lying in politics in her brief but powerful analysis of the PP is helpful in two ways. First, it offers a more honest account of the nexus between human action, politics, and truth; this tells us that lying, in its three principal forms, is an age-old part of politics. While this claim is left un-historicised in her reflection, it offers the insight that as political power seeks to convince, mobilise, and channel so as to guide action it may be inclined to presenting bent truths by default. This feature is precisely what motivated the Pentagon’s „problem-solvers“ to fit facts into the moulds of their models.

Second, Arendt illuminates (if briefly) the relationship between lies and facts. With the originality typical for her, she does this in a fundamentally non-dichotomous way. Facts and lies are no opposite poles in this picture, but well-acquainted neighbours. If „factual truths are never compellingly true,“ it no longer makes sense to speak of facts and alternative facts. All facts in politics are alternative facts.

Fact-based politics: a fantasy?

This would get us to a near-Nietzschean conclusion if left unqualified. So what else do we make of it? The point is that tolerating contingency doesn’t compel us to end up in total relativism. Truth and falsehood are distinguishable; facts can be identified as such. And yet contemporary calls for better protection of science in politics may be misguided.

If it is inherent to politics that facts are motivated, it doesn’t make much sense to demand a ‚more fact-based‘ politics. Ultimately, and this Hannah Arendt was quite clear about, politics is based on the human capacity to action. Action makes facts. Facts will be placed by judgement. And judgement is not a science.

Title image: Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth (1982). Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

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