Democracy in an Age Without Facts.
By Roger Berkowitz.
TODAY WE FACE A crisis of fact that is rotting the core of American politics. It is hard not to be struck by the ascendant stupidities that have emerged under the umbrella of free speech: that global warming is a myth; that childhood vaccines cause Autism; that President Obama is a Marxist; that the President is not an American; that a cabal of American Jews collaborated with the U.S. government to carry out the attacks on 9/11; that water-boarding is not torture; that there was a genocide happening in Libya; and on. Even before technologists have made good on their promises to provide virtual realities, we have created multiple, realities using nothing more than the internet, cable news, and human nature.
The problem we confront is defactualization. And the danger is that facts are being reduced to opinions. The danger is also that opinions masquerade as facts. In other words, as fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. It is increasingly possible that the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.
For example, consider the truthers. The “truthers”—as they call themselves—argue that the U.S. government collaborated in the 9/11 attacks against the United States.. They believe that 9/11 was secret plot by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz to seize oil, gold, and gas. They believe, among other things, that American Airlines flight 77 did not actually crash into the Pentagon; that pre-planted bombs brought the World Trade Center towers down after the jetliners crashed into them; and that the heat of the explosions at the Pentagon could only have been generated by a government explosive called Thermite.
Who are the truthers? For the most part they are highly educated professionals. Many are liberals and some are motivated by a deep distrust of the Bush administration. Many are architects and engineers who believe they have discovered empirical evidence that the buildings could not have collapsed without governmental interference.
Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay has recently written Among the Truthers, a book exploring the way that conspiracy theorists are uniquely accepted in modern society. Kay claims that such conspiracy theories “erode…our society’ts collective grasp on reality” and represent a “nihilistic distrust in government.” At the core of Kay’s argument is his insight that in modern society, “everyone feels entitled to their own private reality.” Conspiracy theories are, Kay understands, rooted in the modern rise of identity politics.
One result of the rise of rise of identity politics and conspiracy theories is that members of different groups increasingly live in an internal world, an echo chamber of their personal views taken as truth. These groups listen to the same radio stations, watch the same cable television channels, and surf the same websites. They exist in a sealed universe of consistent facts and lies. And when they meet conflicting facts, they deny those facts which they assume are part of a conspiracy. For them, all other “facts” are just opinions, to be opposed with conspiracies and new facts. When one confronts a truther, there is simply no arguing with them. They live in a fully other universe, the existence of which is evidence of the breakdown of all common truths and of our common world.
ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF THE flight from facts in our politics is found in the health care debates. Buoyed by a long report from the pollster Frank Luntz—famous for his tagline, “Its not what you say, its what they hear”—opponents of the Health Care Reform Act began referring to it as a Government Takeover. A “Government takeover” conjures a European or Canadian approach where the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are public employees. Against this implication, the facts of the Affordable Care Act are the following: 1) Employers will continue to provide health insurance to the majority of Americans through private insurance companies; 2) The law does not include the public option, a government-run insurance plan that would have competed with private insurers; 3) The law requires the purchase of private health care and gives tax credits to people who have difficulty affording insurance, so they can buy their coverage from private providers on the exchange.
There is much one can disagree with in the health care reform that the Democrats pushed through over strenuous Republican opposition. The Affordable Care Act does increase government regulation of health care. It does offer a windfall to Health Insurance companies by subsidizing private purchases of health insurance. It does raise taxes to pay for these subsidies. It does require everyone to buy healthcare (something that one Appellate Court has ruled to be unconstitutional). These are all important and controversial points. It would have been good to debate them. Instead, the major point of national debate was around the question of a government takeover and even death panels, both of which were never at issue. The debate around the healthcare law existed in a netherworld of lies and innuendo, fully divorced from fact.
So what? Does all this lying, this blurring of fact and opinion, this creating of and defending of alternative and opposing realities matter? Isn’t that what politics has always been about?
Let’s stipulate, as Hannah Arendt wrote in her essay Truth and Politics, that truth and politics are not on the best of terms. Isn’t this just par for the course? Isn’t this just an example of a sound bite? Why should we be concerned?
The answer, as Arendt argues, is that the loss of 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): against Kant and others, she argues that it is simply untrue that life without justice is not worth living.
AND YET, SURPRISINGLY, ARENDT endorses the reformulation: Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus. Let Truth be done, though the world may perish. We cannot give up on truth—even it means the end of the world! The loss of truth, she writes, leads to the loss of the world itself. 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.
Take any contested issue today, for example, the Israel/Palestine conflict. Different groups in the region have different names for the same cities and buildings; they tell different histories. The same peoples are victims and oppressors. Who is right? To a large extent, it depends on whose facts one believes. The Israelis and Palestinians are living in a place and at a time where no one can “say what is.” Their world is divided. It wobbles. The loss of truth means that no common world is possible, that human life—which for Arendt as for Aristotle is life together, in a political space—is made impossible. For both sides, the loss of common truths threatens their existence in public as a people.
Arendt’s thesis, what drives her concern about the loss of truth in politics, is that when truthtelling is impossible, when truth disappears, when the world wobbles, the result is cynicism. If people begin to believe that there is no truth, that all is image-making and spin, that there is a loss of the common world, then there is no ground upon which a people in public can form a world together. That, for Arendt, augurs the end of man as a political animal.
1. The Reduction of Facts to Opinion
LET’S BEGIN BY LOOKING at Arendt’s Essay, Truth and Politics. According to Arendt, today we are witness to a “large scale” clash between factual truth and politics. This is true despite the fact that “no former time tolerated so many diverse opinions on religious or philosophical matters.” For despite our magnanimous toleration of opposing views, we confront an incredible hostility to factual truths that oppose our own views or interests.
Is Arendt right? Are we today hostile to facts that oppose our interests?
Arendt offers two kinds of examples of our hostility to facts. First, she cites the fact that in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia it was dangerous to talk about concentration camps and extermination camps, even though their existence was widely known. Discussing the Pentagon Papers, Arendt noted the divergence between the scandal their release created in government circles and the fact that for the people “the Pentagon papers revealed hardly any spectacular news.” We can see a similar dynamic in the Wikileaks publications, which caused convulsions amongst the government and elicited boredom amongst the public. And also in the release of the Torture Memos, confirming what everyone already knew, that the U.S. government at the highest levels ordered the use of torture. In all these cases the “people”—that is the public—know more than the officials want to officially admit and the official lies and cover-ups co-exist easily with the general desire not to think about the truth of what the country is really doing.
The second manifestation of our hostility to facts concerns the reduction of facts to opinion. “Even more disturbing,” Arendt writes, is the way that when we tolerate “unwelcome factual truths”, they are “consciously or unconsciously, transformed into opinions.” As though the fact that most German’s supported Hitler or the fact of France’s collapse before the German armies in 1940, or that the Vatican often looked the other way when confronted with Nazi atrocities, “were not a matter of historical fact but a matter of opinion.”
We have such non-facts today as well. It is well-documented that the United States systematically tortured prisoners and others in the war on terror, and yet we insisted then and continue to insist now that the United States does not torture and that the nation is an exemplary moral country. The very idea of torture has been turned into an opinion and rendered incomprehensible by a debate over its definition.
It is also a documented fact that numerous state and local public pension plans are radically underfunded. Many of the public employees—the policemen, firemen, and teachers—funded by these plans will not receive the pensions they are contractually guaranteed. And yet no one will talk seriously about this problem. One side demonizes unions and wants to do away with them. The other worships them, without acknowledging the impossibility of honoring extremely generous union contracts. Neither side addresses the problem.
It is a well-documented fact that President Obama was born in Hawaii. His birth certificate is now posted on the White House website. And yet just this week, in October of 2011, Texas Governor and Presidential candidate Rick Perry refused to say that he believes the President was born in the United States.
And of course, it is an open secret that the world is getting warmer and that global warming threatens our lifestyles. Whether we are Republicans who insist on denying this fact or Democrats who pat ourselves on our collective backs for admitting it, we won’t actually change our behavior in ways that would address it. There are no meaningful policy proposals being considered that would address global warming. We thus continue to lie to ourselves, insisting against all the evidence that denying global warming exists or believing beyond hope that buying organic foods and hybrid cars will somehow make a dent in global warming.
THE GLOBAL WARMING DEBATE is, in fact, a perfect example of our unwillingness to accept uncomfortable facts and our ability to turn uncomfortable facts into opinions. Nearly everyone accepts that the earth’s atmosphere is warming. But there is disagreement about whether this is caused by human activity, and about how fast it is happening. On one side, the vast majority of climate scientists cite computer simulation models to argue that human activity is behind the increased rate of planetary warming. On the other side, a small number of well-respected scientists (mostly but not all from fields other than climate science)—joined by a veritable army of bloggers and publicists—question these findings.
It is an unquestionable affront to the scientific method and to our contemporary scientific institutions to question whether human activity is the cause of global warming. It is simply ignoring the fact of overwhelming scientific consensus. Yet, skepticism about global warming remains strong. Gallup polling has shown a decline over the past few years in the share of Americans saying that global warming is caused by human actions—from a high of 61 percent in 2008 to 49% percent in March, 2011. A full 35% of Americans believe that global warming will either never happen or not occur within their lifetimes.
Are the skeptics crazy? Let’s recall that skepticism is a usually laudable characteristic. And in the field of environmental science, some skepticism is not entirely unjustified. On the contrary, skepticism is first skepticism of elites, always a healthy attitude in a democratic citizenry. Especially when those elites are using very complicated and untested modeling that is susceptible to error and deceptions. Second, skepticism results from the well-publicized errors that scientists have made. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on global warming claimed that Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. This estimate was way off, and actually comes from a misquoting of an original paper that suggested that the glaciers might disappear by 2350! Scientists have recanted it and claimed it was a single error, and they have admitted their mistake. Scientists cannot be perfect. It is also bad luck that this mistake was one of the most hyped in the global warming debates, thus fueling the opinion that scientists were playing loose with the facts for image and political purposes.
Finally, the suspicion that science has become politicized was fueled by the apparent cover-up of the East Anglia laboratory emails. One of the world’s premier climate science labs was unwilling to share information used to make its analyses. Its emails were hacked and some of them suggested that the scientists had repressed or manipulated certain data that raised questions about global warming. A number of scientific panels have cleared these scientists of wrongful actions, but the suspicion lingers that scientists are willing to fudge the data to conform to their views, which increases the skepticism of many who resent the scientific community. At least partly as a result of these missteps by the scientific community, a majority of the public now harbors some doubts about something that the overwhelming majority of scientists are sure is happening. The fact of global warming has become politicized as an opinion and most candidates from the Republican Party refuse to endorse it.
The utter refusal to believe established facts is not out of the ordinary today. Indeed, it is the new normal. We need to now confront and accept the new normal: that our democracy must operate now without even the basic expectation of factual agreement. We must confront this fact that facts, today, are politicized and thus reduced to opinions. That is Arendt’s point. She writes not simply to decry the decadence of politics, but to call us to face the facts about the loss of facts.
Why is it so important to follow Arendt down the road of facing up to our defactualized world? Well, for one thing, there are policy implications to our inability to agree on facts, like global warming, the unfunded pensions, or torture. Without facts, it is hard to have reasonable and adult arguments that might lead to solutions. The present environmental and debt crises are cases in point.
Beyond policy, however, there are also political implications of defactualization. What Arendt calls the “tendency to transform fact into opinion, to blur the dividing line between them,” raises the suspicion that “it may be in the nature of the political realm to deny or pervert truth of every kind, as though men were unable to come to terms with its unyielding, blatant, unpersuasive stubbornness.” In other words, when facts are unreliable, we lose faith in factual truth itself, in a common factual world. ”What is at stake,” Arendt insists, is not just one fact or another one; rather, at stake is “this common factual reality itself.”
2. Isn’t this an old problem?
HASN’T IT ALWAYS BEEN the case that people disagree about facts and that facts are turned into opinions? If one looks back in history, it is quickly apparent that dissensus is the norm, and consensus the exception. Many who bemoan the rise of Fox News and CNBC along with the decline of the New York Times and the network news as arbiters of a common sense forget that for most of American history workers and elites, blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, read different newspapers and inhabited very different worlds and held often contradictory ideas of America. From a historical perspective, it is actually the consensual politics of Post-World War II America that is the exception, not its gradual breakdown in recent decades.
So what is different in recent times? Arendt’s answer is that only beginning in the 2nd half of the 20th century do we encounter the mass manipulation of fact. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Soviet/Stalinist effort to deny that Leon Trotsky ever played a role in the Russian Revolution, to airbrush his images out of old pictures, and to re-write communist party history books. The lie that Trotsky was never a part of the communist party was what Arendt calls a “totalitarian lie,” a lie that seeks to re-create an entire reality. Already in 1950, she understood that such lies were now possible. With the tools of modern propaganda and technology, it is possible to lie in a way that revises all the records and creates new ones. This is only more true today, where one can destroy the evidence, rewrite the record on the internet, and create wholly fictional virtual and simulated worlds that are frequently more coherent and thus more believable than the true world.
When Arendt set out to write about totalitarianism as it emerged in the middle of the 20th century, she opposed those who saw the Nazi and Bolshevik movements as forms of tyranny or fascism; instead, Arendt argued that totalitarian government was something new and needed to be faced up to in its radical challenge to modern civilization. Specifically, totalitarian government was government founded up coherent fictions, mass lies that require violence and terror to maintain themselves. Similarly when Arendt focused her gaze on the American revolution, she insisted that the American revolution was distinct from the French, Russian, and other revolutions of the modern era, and she set about articulating the importance of those differences.
Similarly with lying. Historical perspective is certainly important. And lying has always been part of politics. For example, politicians have long lied for the common good. Arendt goes even further and writes that lying, insofar as it is a form of action that seeks to change the world, is at the very essence of politics. A lie is an effort to remake the world. Which is why lying has long been more at home in politics than truthtelling. Defamation, too, is nothing new, as anyone familiar with Benjamin Franklin Bache’s editorship of the Aurora during the 1790s can attest; Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin, was a radical anti-Federalist who harangued George Washington, accusing him of everything from conspiring with the British during the Revolutionary War to gambling and whipping horses. As repugnant as modern campaigns demeaning Senators John Kerry and Max Cleland’s war heroism and challenging President Barack Obama’s citizenship are, they have many precedents that haunt our nation’s past.
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE ONLY GOES part of the way, however, to understand the import of truth in politics. Equally important is the need to be alert to new ideas, new practices, and new societal forms that reflect profound and often dangerous transformations of our political world. The essence of the modern political lie is that it “addresses things that are not secrets at all but are known to practically everybody.” The modern lie, in other words, denies what is widely known. It requires the suspension of reality, a denial of fact, and it is enabled, first, by the blurring of fact into opinion, and, second, by thoughtlessness. When people repeat clichés and parrot expert opinions, they easily accept as true what they know to be false. This is why Arendt becomes convinced—after her experience covering the Adolf Eichmann Trial in 1961—that thoughtlessness was at the origin of totalitarian evil and that thinking—the habit and practice of setting up obstacles to oversimplifications, compromises, and conventions—was the only defense against evil.
As long as some thinking people continue to exist, the kind of full rewriting of history that totalitarianism aims for is not easy, and even is impossible. Pulling off the traditional political lie was much easier when it was not meant to deceive everybody, only one’s enemy. But when the modern political lie seeks to deceive everyone, it runs up against the fact that many people are witnesses to the truth. The falsehood “tears, as it were, a hole in the fabric of factuality.” This leads to holes and inconsistencies, and the lie will show up.
This is why Arendt is sure that totalitarianism, for all its dangers, is always a transitory phenomenon: the need for totalitarianism is oblivion, the creation of a totalizing movement that eliminates dissenting opinions and facts. But such total oblivion is impossible. Such “holes of oblivion do not exist.” As Arendt writes in Eichmann in Jerusalem:
The holes of oblivion do not exist.
Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible.
One man will always be alive to tell the story
[U]nder conditions of terror most people will comply, but some people will not…
Because it is so difficult to create totalizing lies and because the holes of oblivion do not exist, the chief danger we confront from defactualization today is not totalitarianism. And yet, even if the images created by media fabricators and fringe groups are not totalizing today—and they are not—they nevertheless have an important and corrosive effect upon our political culture.
THE IMAGE OF AMERICA as a nation that doesn’t torture, as a nation of human rights, prevails over the facts—that we have and do torture those who threaten us. The Image of America’s civility prevails over the facts—that implicit and barely veiled threats are seeping into mainstream politics. The image of America as a country of equality and opportunity prevails over the facts—that we now confront extraordinary divisions in wealth, reduced class mobility, and a crisis in our inner cities where nearly 1 in 10 African American men are incarcerated during their lives. In each of these cases, facts are overlooked; or, at least, images and spin sow doubt and blur fact into opinion. It is not so much that people deny that we torture and deny that there is inequality, but that they insist that there is not a simple factual truth; doubt and complexity have eroded out faith in factual truths.
Nowhere is the replacement of fact with doubt more visible than in the global warming debates. We tell ourselves, and others, that we refuse to act on global warming because the facts are suspect, even though the scientific consensus is crystal clear. Further, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have argued, the claims for scientific doubt are overtly politicized and deeply suspect. Nevertheless, these few scientific dissenters have succeeded at merchandising doubt.
Consider as well the image that the government is covering something up about its own involvement in 9/11 is rampant in our society—a 2006 Scripps-Howard poll of over one thousand American citizens concludes that 36 percent of Americans believe it was either “somewhat likely” or “very likely” that “Federal officials either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to prevent them because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.” The enormous output of blogs and videos and speeches arguing that the U.S. helped to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks support this belief, or at least foster doubt regarding the dominant narrative that Islamic terrorists brought down the World Trade Center.
What these and other instances of self-deception show is that we now face a world of multiple images and multiple realities, a world of fully-built echo chambers of monomaniacal self-certainty. And these various world-views, each hermetic, clash against one another whenever they are forced outside their internal world. The danger is not necessarily that one of these views will prevail—as soon as they gain a certain popularity, their internal inconsistencies begin to break down the overarching image. But the powerlessness of the images to triumph amongst their multiplicity does not mean that images and image-making are innocuous. The danger in the elevation of image over fact and the blurring of the line between fact and opinion is, Arendt writes, cynicism.
THE OVERALL POINT ARENDT worries about in Truth and Politics is not simply that one version of a lie will win out. Rather, the danger is that amidst the battle over facts, the very belief in the ability to “say what is,” to know the world, is put into question. Arendt’s worry is that the war over images leads not to the victory of one image over another, but to the victory in cynicism, to the belief that it is simply not possible to speak the truth and say what is. 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 result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth v.s. falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.
4. No Remedy for Cynicism
ARENDT ASKS THAT WE accept and confront the retreat of truth in the face of cynicism. The core of Arendt’s argument is that “There is no remedy for the blurring of fact and opinion and the resulting cynicism because at bottom, facts are contingent and vulnerable.” This means that we simply cannot secure truth. As Arendt puts it:
A teller of factual truth, in the unlikely event that he wished to stake his life on a particular fact, would achieve a kind of miscarriage. What would become manifest in his act would be his courage or, perhaps his stubbornness but neither the truth of what he had to say nor even his own truthfulness. For why shouldn’t a liar stick to his lies with great courage, especially in politics, where he might e motivated by patriotism or some other kind of legitimate group partiality?
It is just too easy to discredit factual truths. Much of factual truth comes from eye-witness accounts, which are notoriously unreliable. And documents can be forged. When a dispute emerges as to a witness or a document, there is no higher judge who can decide the matter. The settlement of facts is usually, in the end, a matter of majority decision.
Does that meant there are no facts, as many philosophers and no doubt some of you suspect? No. There are facts, as Arendt herself affirms. Of course it is true that facts must be interpreted. Selected. They must picked out of a chaos and formed into a story. And yes, every generation has the right to write its own history, selecting from chaos of facts. What no one has the right to do, however, is “to touch the factual matter itself.” And yet, it is that factual matter that is in danger.
To express the danger she diagnosed, Arendt appealed to her own experience, the reaction caused by her reporting in the New Yorker about the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Her reflections on truth and politics are, she writes in a note accompanying the essay, “caused by the so-called controversy” over her account of the Eichmann trial. It is that controversy that raises for Arendt two issues.
First, is it always legitimate to tell the truth? Arendt answers yes, even it is not always strategic. She tells the truth about Eichmann, that he was banal and not a monster. And she tells the truth about the Jewish leaders of the Jewish Councils, the Jüdenräte, who collaborated with the Nazis. These were truths that many Jews did not want to hear and some thought should not be told. But for Arendt, telling the factual truth—laying bare the factual record and confronting the truth about our moral world—is always valid. Truthtelling is necessary, she argues, as the only defense against self-deception, which enables evil by covering over our moral revulsion at wrongful action.
Second, the Eichmann controversy flamed in Arendt the desire to reflect on controversy itself. Why were so many lies told about what she had written? Why were so many lies told about facts she had reported? Arendt writes elsewhere that her first reaction was to dismiss the controversy. She did not choose to do so. Instead, she sought to draw lessons from it. One insight she gleaned was the fear of judging that infects modern society. As Arendt saw it, she had given a factual account of Eichmann and the trial. The problem was that the facts contradicted the dominant theory of evil, that evildoers like Eichmann were madmen and monsters. By looking at the fact of Eichmann’s normality and seeing his uniqueness in his banality rather than his monstrousness, Arendt challenged the easy assumption that the Holocaust was the result of a few deranged individuals. While the image of Eichmann as a monster was useful and comfortable, it belied the facts.
What Arendt saw was that her essay caused the uproar it did because it scared people. What people read into her essay–and not what she said–was that since Eichmann was banal and normal, that meant that anyone could have and, more importantly, would have done what he did under similar circumstances. Her discovery of the banality of evil was thought to mean, that if someone points gun at you and says kill your friend, you will do it.
This was not Arendt’s argument at all. She had merely stated the factual claim that Eichmann himself was banal. Arendt had taken for granted that not everyone would have acted as he had, and she throughout her book pointed to others who had thought about what they were doing and acted very differently. Pointing out Eichmann’s banality was a way of judging him, of affirming one’s own thoughtful humanity against Eichmann’s thoughtless banality. What Arendt hadn’t counted upon was the unwillingness of her critics to judge Eichmann, to affirm their own difference from Eichmann’s banal normality. What the critics wanted was to make Eichmann a monster. Apart from that, they worried that there was no difference between Eichmann and themselves.
THIS UNWILLINGNESS TO JUDGE became a theme in Arendt’s reaction to the controversy over her coverage of the Eichmann trial. Judging required the confidence that one would act better—something that Arendt was shocked to see many of her critics lacked. This is also the reason why Hannah Arendt never commented on the famous study by Stanley Milgram, a study that Milgram himself thought confirmed the view that most people today would act as Eichmann had. Milgram himself argued that his experiment showed that Arendt’s notion of the “Banality of Evil came closer to the truth than one dared imagine.”
What must also be recalled is that Arendt herself saw the controversy over her analysis was itself evidence that most people would act like Eichmann, something Arendt herself never said. Commenting on the controversy her analysis unleashed, Arendt wrote:
I had somehow taken it for granted that we all still believe with Socrates that it is better to suffer than to do wrong. This belief turned out to be a mistake. There was a widespread conviction that it is impossible to withstand temptation of any kind, that none of us could be trusted or even be expected to be trustworthy when the chips are down, that to be tempted and to be forced are almost the same.
For Arendt, Eichmann was evil, albeit banal, because he could not resist the temptation to evil. She imagined that most good and decent people should and would act differently. The anger aimed at her analysis, she wrote, was a result of people feeling they themselves might act as Eichmann had. And Milgram’s experiments seemed to offer a sad confirmation of the fact that the banality Arendt found in Eichmann is much more widespread than otherwise thought.
Third, and finally, Arendt concluded that the controversy over her coverage of the Eichmann trial showed that our age is in fact unable to establish and rely on facts. When controversies emerge today, there is simply no way to establish not only what ought to be done, but also what is. We are, she concludes, confronted by the fact of the loss of truth. We live amongst the victory of the image-makers.
Arendt’s project is to face up to this reality, to reconcile ourselves to it, but also to resist it. As she writes in another place, comprehending reality means “the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of reality—whatever it may be.” Only by admitting the fact of the loss of facts can we begin to respond in ways that might resist that loss, which does not mean denying the fact of the loss itself. What is needed is not the demand for an unrealizable politics based upon facts, but a willingness to think anew about how to practice politics in an age without facts. If political life—a common life shared together—demands facts, then in a world without facts, we need a new practice of politics, and that is what Arendt points us towards.
5. Arendt’s Response:
SHE DOES NOT, of course, offer a single answer. But Arendt does proffer one suggestion. In an age without facts, when facts and opinions blur together, what is needed is a truthteller.
The truthteller—in the ancient tradition of fools, artists, and scientists—must stand outside and above the political fray. Arendt’s response to Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy was simply to leave the discourse. For Arendt, the freedom to tell the truth and the authority to be a truthteller comes only to those who stand outside of society, who shun power and decline the pursuit of their interests. Only the truly free thinker has the freedom and authority to tell the truth.
Throughout her life, Arendt was obsessed with those people whose outsider status made them pariahs. She held, however, that being a pariah could be advantage if one consciously embraced that outsider role and became a conscious pariah, a rebel in the name of justice. Similarly, all those who want to tell the truth must, Arendt sees, adopt the role of a conscious pariah and abandon all claims to social and political success. The conscious pariah/rebel/truthteller must live in isolation and seek the truth outside of the public sphere.
What Arendt discovers is that modern democratic politics is simply incompatible with truthtelling. Without a traditional unity and truth that binds a people together, democratic politics cannot create a new truth. And yet, that does not mean that politics can do without truth. Instead, it means that politics must limit itself and establish spaces and realms free from politics where truth can emerge outside of politics. What politics needs is to guarantee the Realm of the truthteller.
Arendt is clear that the truthteller must stand outside of politics. She writes:
“To take one’s stand outside the political realm. This standpoint is the standpoint of the truthteller, who forfeits his position—and with it, the validity of what he has to say—if he tries to interfere directly in human affairs….”
The truthteller plies his trade amidst the solitude of the philosopher, the isolation of the scientist, the unique individuality of the artist, and the impartiality of the historian and scholar.
Yet none of these activities is easy and one thing that politics has learned over time is that truthtellers must be encouraged. What is required are institutions that protect and nurture the kind of independence of thought—what Arendt called Selbstdenken, or thinking for oneself—that exists outside of all social and political pressures and conventions. Politics, and the truthfulness it demands, needs a world walled off from politics. As Arendt writes: “The political realm recognized that it needed an institution outside the power struggle in addition to the impartiality required in the administration of justice.” What is required for truth in politics are apolitical “refuges of truth.”
The university has been one traditional refuge from politics. Since Plato founded his academy in a protected grove isolated from the affairs of the polis, the tradition of a group of scholars who join together in the pursuit of the truth has been as valued as it is noble. And yet, it is undeniable today that our universities have lost their once vaunted authority and status as bastions of the quest for truth. Beginning in the 1960s when students demanded that the universities take political stands and engage as agents of cultural and political change, the universities have increasingly become political players, and professors and administrators have lost their mantle of impartiality and aloofness. Conservatives have, with some justification but also with excessive scorn, condemned universities as liberal institutions. Further, as universities have come to serve ever more students and as they have become mainstream institutions, they have sacrificed their elitism and esotericism, which, for centuries, had inured them to the pressures of conformity and convention. Similar pressures have, of course, affected the arts, the sciences, and judges—three other institutions that have traditionally outside of and as limits to the realm of politics.
What is lost in the incorporation of these once-solitary and apolitical institutions into the mainstream of political and social life is the independence and authority of the outsider. There is, Arendt writes, something fascinating about someone’s being inviolable, untemptable, unswayable. Moreover, at a time when everything is demeaned by politics, there is also something deeply political about being above or outside of politics. As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “He only who is able to stand alone is qualified for society.” Similarly, Arendt argues that the politics must define its limits and preserve institutional spaces for non-political truthtellers.
Today we have a debate about what a liberal arts education is to be. On one side, some insist it is to be insulated from the world, an ivory tower of arcane knowledge. On the other side, college should teach engagement with the world, and students should be active in politics and social causes. What is needed, however, is neither and both. In the spirit of Arendt, we must reaffirm a liberal arts tradition that is engaged in the world, and yet from afar; we must teach and learn to think what we are doing, but to do so as conscious Pariahs, separated from the world. Only then can we find the distance and impartiality to look honestly at the world and ourselves, to see the world for what it is. And thus, at some point, to be able to say what is. The goal of a liberal arts education, in this sense, is to learn how to say the truth. The first step on that path is to recognize how incredibly difficult that is.
Roger Berkowitz is director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Ethical and Political Thinking and associate professor of political studies and human rights at Bard College. The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition, his first book, was recently republished in paperback.
This essay is an adaptation of a talk Prof. Berkowitz gave in August 2011 on “Language and Thinking”. It is also a longer version of the talk he will give today, 28 October 2011, as part of “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts” to launch the fourth annual conference of the Hannah Arendt Center. The conference will be simulcast live online and available for viewing subsequently. To see the conference agenda, click here. To view the webcast, please click here.