On Lying and Politics: Michiko Kakutani, Martin Jay, and Hannah Arendt

by Corey Robin on July 16, 2018

A long piece by Michiko Kakutani on “The death of truth: how we gave up on facts and ended up with Trump” is making the rounds. In it, Kakutani quotes Arendt:

Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the 20th century, and both were predicated on the violation and despoiling of truth, on the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Arendt’s words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling description of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today…

This is an Arendt quote that gets thrown around a lot these days, for obvious reasons, but it gives a very partial view of Arendt’s position on truth and lies. Sam Moyn pointed this out on Twitter. Sam also urged folks to read Martin Jay’s book on the question of lies and politics, which includes an extensive discussion of Arendt.

I haven’t read Jay’s book, but I did read a draft of it, or part of it, for a talk he gave at Columbia years ago. It was the Lionel Trilling Seminar, and I, along with Princeton poltical theorist George Kateb, was asked to be one of the discussants. I remember being a little discomfited by Jay’s treatment of Arendt. So I dug up my comment, and thought I’d reproduce it below. I think it suggests why Kakutani’s gloss is too simple, but also why Jay’s gloss (at least the earlier version of it; again, I didn’t read the final book) may be too simple, too.

The bottom line, for me, about Arendt’s treatment of lies and liars is this: One of the reasons she was so unnerved by liars was that the way they did politics was so close to how she thought politics ought to be done. She wasn’t endorsing lying or embracing liars. She just thought the distinction between the liar and the truth-teller was too easy because opposing oneself to reality—which is what the liar is doing, after all—is part of what it means to act politically. Part of what it means; not all of what it means. For Arendt also thinks there is a necessary dimension of factuality that undergirds our political actions. It’s part of our task as political beings to preserve that web or ground of factuality. It is between these two dimensions—opposing oneself to factuality, preserving factuality—that the political actor, and the liar, ply their trades.

By the way, I should note the date of that exchange with Jay: October 2008. We were still in the Bush era. The entire discussion—of lies and facts, the disregard for facts, and such—was framed by the Iraq War and the epic untruths that were told in the run-up to the war. It should give you a sense that the world of fake news that so many pundits seem to have suddenly awakened to as a newborn threat has been with us for a long time. The Bush era may seem like ancient history to some, but in the vast, and even not so vast, scheme of things, it was just yesterday.

Here are my remarks about truth and lies, Arendt and Martin Jay.


In the fall of my senior year in college, I decided to write my thesis on the Frankfurt School. Then I read Adorno. In a panic, I ran to my adviser, who said, “Read Martin Jay’s little book on Adorno.” I did, and it got me through Negative Dialectics. In the spring of my senior year, I concluded that the Frankfurt School was a dead end, politically, but that Hannah Arendt could lead us out of the impasse. Then I read Arendt. I ran to my adviser again. This time, he said, “Read George Kateb’s big book on Arendt.” I did, and it got me through The Human Condition. This a long way of saying that I’m extremely honored to be sharing a platform with Professors Jay and Kateb, to whom I owe a great debt, which I hope to begin paying back tonight, and that I’d like to thank the Heyman Center, and Professor Posnock in particular, for giving me the opportunity to do so.

In 1935, Bertolt Brecht wrote an essay on telling the truth. Given his own troubled relationship to the truth, it wasn’t a natural or easy topic for him. Sure enough, he titled his essay “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties.” Tonight, Martin Jay offers us four defenses of lying. Five obstacles to the truth, four paths to lying. Those are some depressing numbers – until you consider the fact that when Montaigne thought about the problem of truth and lies, he could identify a hundred thousand paths to lying. So we’re doing better.

Even so, I’d like to take a closer look at – and perhaps complicate – one of Professor Jay’s defenses of lying: his third. It occupies a single paragraph in his text but, as we’ll see, a large part of his extremely stimulating argument.

The defense goes like this: Politics is a realm of dissonant opinions and conflicting interests. That is not a contingent or temporary feature of politics. It is a permanent and necessary condition, a reflection of the fact that we live among men and women who see the world from their own distinct – and often clashing – perspectives. Acting in such a world requires us to apprehend and incorporate those perspectives – not to issue diktats according to our inner lights or the light of truth. One does not – indeed one cannot – search for truth in politics. Truth is concerned with that which is, with what lies beneath the surface and cannot be changed, politics with flux and appearance. Truth is singular; politics plural. Truth is a monologue that demands silence and assent. Politics is a dialogue, which can only reach a consensus (and a provisional consensus at that) by assimilating the many, ever-changing opinions of its various voices. Once we recognize the inherently agonistic and dissonant nature of politics, we will see, in Jay’s words, that “sophistic rhetoric rather than Platonic dialectic is the essence of ‘the political.’”

So far, so Arendt. As Jay acknowledges, Arendt’s two essays, “Truth and Politics” and “Lying in Politics,” are the inspiration for his argument that truth and politics are in conflict, an argument that also underlies his second and fourth defenses of lying. But it is the last, almost unspoken, step of his argument – namely, that because politics cannot provide a home for truth, it should welcome lying as a returning prodigal son – that gives me some pause. For in making that step I wonder if Jay is taking Arendt somewhere she did not want to go and somewhere we may not want to go as well.

That last step in the argument – again, that because truth does not belong in politics, lying does – may conflate two types of truth that Arendt was at pains to keep apart: what she called rational truth and what she called factual truth. Although Jay briefly mentions this distinction, I’m not sure he gives it its full due.

For Arendt, rational truth – 2 plus 2 equals 4; Socrates’ maxim that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong; Kant’s categorical imperative – has all the characteristics of truth that Jay has so ably discussed here. For that reason it is, in Arendt’s words, “unpolitical by nature.”

Factual truth is different. Although it too is coercive and cannot be argued with – which hasn’t stopped some from trying – factual truth is, again in Arendt’s words, “political by nature.” To repeat: rational truth is “unpolitical by nature,” factual truth is “political by nature.”

Why is that so? While rational truths are derived by the philosopher in solitude and reflect his solipsistic desire not to contradict himself, factual truths are, according to Arendt, “the invariable outcome of men living and acting together.” Factual truths refer to events, past or present, which result from men and women acting in the world. In order to be recorded and remembered, factual truths require the testimony of men and women who have witnessed those events. Factual truths also inform, or at least should inform, the opinions of men and women. For all of these reasons, factual truths “constitute,” in Arendt’s words, “the very texture of the political realm.”

The essence of political action, for Arendt, is to begin something anew, to change something in the world. In order to change something in the world, however, there has to be a world to change. Factual truths are that world. While factual truths are resistant to change – they refer to events that already have occurred, to occurrences that cannot be un-occurred – they also provide what Arendt called “the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” In fact, it is only because factual truths are resistant to change that they give us a point from whence to begin and a destination beyond which we cannot go. Factual truth is the floor beneath – and the roof above – our actions. A house, if you will, or a home. Thus, where the coerciveness of rational truth is the enemy of politics, the coerciveness of factual truth provides a home for politics.

The opposite of rational truth is illusion or opinion, which finds its champion in the sophist. The opposite of factual truth is the falsehood or lie, which finds its spokesperson in, well, the liar. The sophist and the liar, in other words, are different animals, inhabiting different realms. Yet I worry that Jay may have melded them into one. And while it’s clear from Arendt’s essays that she had a soft spot for the sophist, for reasons that Jay has explained so well, she felt nothing but dread in the presence of the liar. Not only did she believe that he was the enemy of politics, tearing up the ground upon which we walk, but she also feared that he possessed two advantages in his war against politics, which might lead to his victory.

The first is that factual truth is more vulnerable than rational truth. While facts can be stubborn things once they come into being – it will always be true, for example, that Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914 – they remain permanently shrouded in the mists of contingency: Germany, after all, might not have invaded Belgium in August 1914; the United States might not have invaded Iraq in March 2003; Saddam Hussein might have possessed WMDs in February 2003. Factual truths never have to be what they are, and for that reason, are vulnerable to the liar’s claim that they aren’t. Factual truths also require the testimony of witnesses and the memory of men and women to remain in the world. Should enough people come to believe the liar’s claim, the facts about which he lies could be lost from the world forever. Not so rational truth: no matter how many of us come to believe that 2 plus 2 equals 5, it will remain true that 2 plus 2 equals 4, and it will only take some person in the future using his or her mind to summon that truth back into circulation.

The second advantage the liar possesses in his war against politics is that he himself is an actor and thus can easily operate behind enemy lines. He’s an actor in the literal sense, and politics, as both Arendt and Jay remind us, is a theater of appearances. But he’s also an actor in the political sense: he seeks to change the world, turning what is into what isn’t and what isn’t into what is. By arraying himself against the world as it is given to us, the liar claims for himself the same freedom that the political actor claims when he 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 the same creed.

It’s interesting that Jay does not discuss this aspect of the liar – his refusal to accept the world as it is and his effort to render it as he would like it to be – for it is the one element in the liar’s profile that actually fits in the world of politics. If one wanted to talk, as Jay puts it, about “the ways in which politics…has an affinity for mendacity” – one might have begun here, with the liar – like the political actor – opposing himself against reality for the sake of changing it. One might have cited any of a number of statements from the Bush Administration in the lead-up to the Iraq War, all demonstrating that one of the reasons the liar is so comfortable in politics is that it is in the nature of political action to oppose what is for the sake of what is not. Or, as this exchange between George W. Bush and Diane Sawyer after the Iraq War had begun reveals, to conflate what is not with what is.

Sawyer: But stated as a hard fact, that there were weapons of mass destruction as opposed to the possibility that he [Saddam] could move to acquire those weapons.

Bush: So what’s the difference?

A more perfect – and, ironically, more honest – statement of the creed of the liar/political actor – not to mention the doctrine of preventive war – would be hard to find.

But Jay doesn’t discuss this dimension of the liar’s craft. And I wonder if the reason he doesn’t discuss it has something to do with the conclusion he wishes to draw at the end of his talk, when he says that “the search for perfect truthfulness is not only vain but also potentially dangerous. For ironically, the reversed mirror image of the Big Lie may well be the ideal of Big Truth, singular, monologic truth, which silences those who disagree with it.”

Hovering around the edges of Jay’s conclusion, if I’m reading him correctly, are the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, which murdered millions in order to make the world conform to the way they thought it really was, to make the world conform to their idea of truth. Jay’s defense of lying is in part a defense of the pluralist, agonistic world – filled with illusions, distortions, flaws, hypocrisies, and lies, yes, but open to contestation and correction. However imperfect or ugly that world may seem, particularly to the moralist, it is infinitely more attractive than are these total and terrible regimes of truth.

But that only raises the question: in the end, won’t the liar be compelled to walk down the same road as the totalitarian seeker of truth? The liar, after all, is not really an enemy of truth; he’s a parasite on truth. When he falsely but deliberately declares x to be the case, he wants and needs his audience to believe that x is indeed the case. He wants and needs his audience to believe that there is something called the truth, that he is telling it, and that they should heed him. And if he wants and needs his audience to believe these things, not just today, but tomorrow and the day after that, he’s going to have to turn his falsehood into reality. He’s going to have to make his lie come true. Having declared that a man named Trotsky never made the Russian Revolution, he’s going to have the man named Trotsky murdered. Having staked his presidency on the claim that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, he’s going to have to wage war against Iraq in order to eliminate those weapons.

It’s this compulsion of the liar – that because he is a parasite on, rather than an enemy of, the truth, he will have to make his lie come true, often through violent and other nasty means – that makes him such a dangerous figure, next to whom the sophist is but a charming clown. And I fear that by conflating the two, Jay may have allowed the virtues – or at least the charms – of the one to obscure the vices of the other.



Alan White 07.16.18 at 3:55 am

Thanks for this commentary. I read Kakutani and thought it overall a reasonable analysis of how we have fallen prey to the unreasonable. But with respect to it–and your careful criticism–how does Frankfurt’s “bullshit”, and C L Stevenson’s account of manipulative emotivism (which seems to me quite compatible with Frankfurt’s bullshit) fit in here? I’m certainly not going to argue that Trump et al are engaging in emotivist bullshit in some deliberate way–that would give them far too much reflective credit–but in some de facto way, couldn’t one say that emotivist bullshit is more accurately an account of why and how issues of truth are just the disposable garbage of current politics? That would seem to be consistent with an account of other non-rational powers (plutocracy and associated egomania) that really seem to be driving things. (I’m an amateur here on the political side commenting as someone interested in philosophical explanations.)


Ray Vinmad 07.16.18 at 8:11 am

“Should enough people come to believe the liar’s claim, the facts about which he lies could be lost from the world forever. ”

This isn’t what happens, usually. When the interests connected to the lies change, then the truth is usually admitted. In the US, the truth often becomes irrelevant, even if real horrors are admitted to. Americans are fairly disinterested in the dirty particles of most of the nation’s past.

Once the facts aren’t a threat to power, they can generally be revealed.

That’s not to say that certain false narratives won’t be retained, but the revival of these is generally shaped to current interests, and even if lies are borrowed from the past, the main way they get a hold on the present is because they serve certain interests.

Bush appeared confident the facts won’t matter, after the invasion. They did matter–if you’re just talking about the truth. The non-existence of the WMDs wasn’t widely denied (though a few in the administration would try) –the fact was simply swept away because they weren’t politically relevant anymore.

In these cases, it seems that salience or irrelevance is a better way to understand what’s driving the weak practical impact of the facts rather than truth or falsity.

Isn’t that why everyone is saying we’re in a ‘post-truth’ moment? Trump’s trick is to make his story the salient story, and his denials have a way of disabling or thwarting action, even when people are fully aware of the truth. Except for the total fanatics, Trump’s enablers are vaguely or even completely aware they are operating on a lie. What matters isn’t that the claims are factual disprovable but that they drive action toward the pursuit of particular interests, and disable action that harms those interests.

Prior to this, an unsavory or humiliating or shameful or dangerous truth was extremely salient, and would be fuel for a response. It’s partly the power of gaslighting–denying the obvious creates a sufficient level of confusion to let you keep going when normally others would stop you.


bad Jim 07.16.18 at 8:31 am

The question of climate change has long since ceased to be a matter of contention among scientists, but that simple fact is not generally acknowledged. Even its partisans seem not to be aware of the strength of the consensus.

Kakutani didn’t need to bring up post-modernism to explain the loose relationship between evidence and belief, because it was never that strong to begin with. Narrative and testimony are always more convincing than careful experiment and observation. Science is a recent development, a hard habit to acquire, because the basic trick of not fooling yourself goes completely against the grain.


Faustusnotes 07.16.18 at 1:57 pm

There’s something odious and misleading in the way you distinguish between types of truth and their role in politics, though I can’t put my finger on it, and perhaps whatever error I can’t quite describe might explain why you fell for Trump so neatly, but perhaps part of it can be easily seen here:

Having staked his presidency on the claim that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, he’s going to have to wage war against Iraq in order to eliminate those weapons.

This gets the nature of Bush’s lies completely wrong. He wanted to invade Iraq and he knew he could lie his way into it because of the way American politics rewards muscular action and militarism, and because of the recklessness of his political supporters. He didn’t stake his presidency on a lie, he staked his presidency on a war and lied his way into it. In 2008 did you really believe bush had been sincere about his belief in wmds?

This definition of lies here seems weird and unnecessary.


Anarcissie 07.16.18 at 2:29 pm

I wonder if this problem might have something to do with sola fide, the doctrine that one is saved by faith alone, put forward by St. Paul and espoused by a great many other Christian bigdeals. Salvation by faith alone means that what you say and what you do don’t really matter; all that matters is thinking the right thing (with a special kind of thinking). The smarter, the more learned, the more philosophical people were, the more they would be attracted to such a view.


Donald 07.16.18 at 4:18 pm

I understand the difference between the two types of truth, truths of logic vs empirical facts that are contingent, but I think the difference between the liar and the sophist is mostly nonexistent. People who lie about empirical facts are also unwilling to follow chains of logic if they don’t want to accept the necessary conclusion.

That aside, I think politics is full of lies because the system collapses otherwise. I think this ties in with the endless debate people have here about Trump and Trump’s opposition. Like Hidari in the other thread, I think Trump’s war crimes ( listed below) are far more significant morally speaking than Russiagate, but in our political system collusion with a foreign power in dirty tricks during a political campaign is much easier to attack than war crimes and US complicity in genocide. Both political parties would collapse if we started holding politicians of both parties along with various government officials accountable. We have a functioning democracy by some definition of “ functioning” precisely because we allow the biggest crimes to be treated as policy choices and not crimes, while pretending that the worst crime an American politician has or could commit would be to collude with a foreign power in stealing some emails to embarrass the other party.

For those curious, Trump’s biggest war crimes are the bombing of civilians in Iraq and Syria and the assistance to the Saudi assault on Yemen. According to the Airwars site the killing of civilians by our bombs increased dramatically under Trump, probably because of loosened restrictions. The policy in Yemen continues what Obama did. In both cases it isn’t just the President who is guilty, unless Obama and Trump singkehandedly carry out all functions of our government in the Mideast. Holding them accountable would mean holding a lot of other people accountable.


Orange Watch 07.16.18 at 4:52 pm


You’re misreading or misunderstanding what was written. He staked his presidency’s credibility on the truth of a claim. He could not repudiate the claim without losing credibility, or at a minimum face – nor did he want to, ofc. Once the claim ceased to be useful, however, everyone who mattered could and did forget it – Republicans because there was no gain in admitting their proxy lied, and Democrats because they didn’t want to disrupt the status quo or appear “partisan” (and many didn’t really care that much anyway, or supported the consequences of the transparently false claim).

He didn’t stake his presidency on a war, and in any case he already HAD a war when he lied his way into Iraq. Invading Iraq was a policy goal from before he took office, and the paper-thin WMD claim was a tool to realize that goal. It was not something he staked his presidency on, it was something he wanted that he expended political capital and bipartisan nationalism derived from 9/11 to obtain, with his credibility as collateral.


michael 07.16.18 at 6:06 pm

This is the first intelligent thing Robin has written, in my view. It also helps me formulate more explicitly some of my longstanding discomfort with Arendt, which is rooted in the way her predilection for natality leads her to posit a rather simplistic political ontology. After all, we do not enter politics with a given floor and horizon; politics is about which floor and which horizon does and should exist. This is what makes factual truth coercive: not its validity, but its tendency to impose rather than set out from a set of political givens. Which is to say, natality is always already operating within the status quo; it is not introduced there by “politics.”


Orange Watch 07.16.18 at 6:17 pm


Relatedly, I see striking similarities between an awful lot of public/political morality and virtue ethics, particularly agent-based formulations.


bob mcmanus 07.16.18 at 6:38 pm

“Kierkegaard…believes in the “acceptability of a teleological suspension of the ethical.” …One can sense a few sparks of such a Jesuitic tendency very early in Kierkegaard’s life. He was…in his inclination to let the religious break through the common ethical sphere a born Jesuit, a Protestant one to be sure, who was his own pope but who never really doubted that the ends justified the means if it were a question of the highest possible goals.”

Quoted because the citation might be funny, besides ya know, “Truth is subjectivity”

This is from Judith Marcus Georg Lukacs and Thomas Mann, from Mann’s marginalia (a big exclamation point!) to Georg Brandes Skandinavische Persönlichkeiten

I think I like the framework of Instrumental and value rationality (Weber, Rawls, Sen) or more radically and negatively in the earlier Frankfurt School eg Horkheimer, “instrumental reason”.

This doesn’t directly (although does indirectly, justification) address the practice and taxonomy of lying, I’ll give it some thought, but I do have the Jay on my to-be-read list. A fan.


Hidari 07.16.18 at 6:41 pm

I know I have in the past quoted from Twitter (which would seem to be where the most interesting conversations are nowadays, as opposed to the blogosphere) but Branko Milanovic has some interesting insights (he also has the inestimable advantage of not coming from the UK/US/Australasia AKA the ‘Anglosphere’: he has more of a cosmopolitan sensibility).


His basic point is that you really can’t understand Trump unless you look at what came before his (Frederic Jameson: ‘Always historicise!’). Since Thatcher/Reagan (and Clinton and Blair were not really much different) we have been taught to look up to ‘entrepeneurs’ as ‘wealth creators’. Or, to put it another way, to obsequiously grovel to semi-earned wealth and power. But politics, we were told, floated above the grubby world of ‘material interests’ like a soap bubble.

Trump tears the veil aside. He doesn’t govern on behalf of capitalists as Thatcher/Blair and the rest did. He IS a capitalist. And he self-evidently became President to help his business interests (including, yes, those in Russia. But that’s probably as far as the Russia thing goes). This is terribly disturbing for liberals, who have been taught to see ‘capitalist’ (‘liberal’ is normally the euphemism) ‘democracy’ as being merely a neutral description of the ‘mode of production’ of our current set up, as opposed to being a harsh description of political realities: politicians are allowed to govern insofar as their policies benefit capitalists.

Hence to talk about Trump lying is like talking about an advert ‘lying’. Do adverts ‘lie’? Of course to a certain extent. But then they were never supposed to tell the truth. Their purpose is to sell a product. Truth is irrelevant.

Every word that comes out of Trump’s mouth is to help Trump PLC. It’s true (sic) that some of his statements are false. But to assess it in these terms is like to point out that Heineken is not, in fact, probably the best lager in the world, or that one should not, in fact, necessarily Drinka Pinta Milka day.

Again, I think this is what disturbs people. Bush et al, consciously lied. Trump…I don’t think he knows what truth is, and I don’t think he cares. What boosts profits…that’s what’s good and true.What doesn’t…isn’t good (or true).

But these are the value of capitalism, and Trump is, in this sense, the logical end product of where Western society has been heading since 1979 (1981 in the ‘States).


Faustusnotes 07.17.18 at 12:21 am

Orange watch, the order of the claim seems important to me. Stumbling into a war because you told a lie about a possible cause of a war Nd all the other options to deal with it dried up is one thing; setting up a war and lying your way into it is a different thing. Eg you decide to cheat on your wife and set up an incredibly thin lie to do it,versus you have a habit of lying to your wife that ultimately ends with you having a chance at an affair.

Also the empirical difference between these types of liar seems irrelevant. Everyone who lied about the true cause of the war also lied about basic facts like global warming. As the commitment to one kind of lie has grown so has the magnitude oft he other kind. Why waste time distinguishing? And why did Arendt? The liars of her time lied in both ways as well.


john c. halasz 07.17.18 at 3:46 am

Alan White @1:

C.L. Stevenson? I thought I dimly recognized the name. That was the positivist philosopher that Stanley Cavell thoroughly eviscerated 50 years ago in “The Claim To Reason” as not having the slightest clue as to what ethics and morality might be all about.


this is another prime instance of Faustusnotes, the self-appointed Dembot ward heeler on these threads, despite not actually being a U.S. citizens,. A while ago CT instituted a revised comments policy and I don’t see why Faustusnotes doesn’t repeatedly violate just about every rule, from strawman arguments or worse, to sneeringly insulting attitudes toward other commenters, to delirious confabulation of “facts” to an insistence on always getting in the last word, so over-commenting. In this case. C. Robin is accused of having fallen for Trump “so neatly”. Whatever my disagreements with the man, that obviously doesn’t fit his long-standing and manifest profile, and amounts to, well yes, an instance of political lying.

Michael @8:

I’m not aware that Arendt was doing “political ontology”. “Natality” was a counter-position to Sein-zum-Tod and probably should be interpreted somewhat loosely and metaphorically. She wasn’t offering a sociological account of stratification, nor reifying such an account, which seems to be your complaint. Rather IMO she was reviving, against political theorizing whether in Poli Sci or philosophy, a pre-theoretical notion of practical reason and her “topic”, regardless of ideological affiliation, was what it means to think and act politically, with both closely tied to public-political speech. Hence Politics, according to her, doesn’t begin from an equality of condition, but from a condition of equality.

This is a very good overview of her work from a left-wing POV:


tl;dr The best place to deal with her notion of political lying isn’t OT, which has been narrowly instrumentalized by Kakutani, but her later more mature reflections on the Pentagon Papers:


Looking back, at the end her conclusions about the (then) future of the American Republic seems far too sanguine.


nastywoman 07.17.18 at 6:22 am

And I try to say it again -(and hope this time it will get through)
The truth – or ”the fact” is that Trump has not slightest idea what he is talking about.
It is completely ”random” – what leaves his mouth – and where there are only random words – and where there is no consciousness there can’t be any:
“The death of truth: how we gave up on facts and ended up with Trump”

Or as some British demonstrators much better understood ”ending up with Trump” is like ending up with a babbling Baby.
And trying to blame US for giving up on facts in dealing with a babbling Baby – is like…? – like…???!

Well – I’m sure y’all find a ”cogent” explanation?


nastywoman 07.17.18 at 10:04 am

AND somebody -(even if it is ”not actually being a U.S. citizen) needed to point to ”the truth” of this:

”He wanted to invade Iraq and he knew he could lie his way into it” – as lying in politics is (sadly) nothing but ”another tool” or ”another strategy” to get what any -”political actor” (even some of the lesser evil) – want.

And the Sawyer-Bush example is about the best example for this fact:

”Sawyer: But stated as a hard fact, that there were weapons of mass destruction as opposed to the possibility that he [Saddam] could move to acquire those weapons.
Bush: So what’s the difference?”

For somebody who wants to start a war – or wants to become US President? – and who realizes that the best ”strategy” in ending up with ”a war” or ”becoming US President” -is lying -(day and night) – lying becomes just a… a very ”practical solution” –
-(especially if the liar is dealing with a bunch of people who might believe that ”France isn’t France anymore” – if just a Clownsticks tells them)

And I fear that by conflating the above described type of liar with ”the type of liars described in the OP – WE may have allowed the virtues – or at least the charms – of the ones to obscure the vices of the others.


michael 07.17.18 at 7:56 pm

@ john c. halasz

In “Lying in Politics,” Arendt writes:
A characteristic of human action is that it always begins something new, but this does not mean that it is ever permitted to start ab ovo, to create ex nihilo. In order to make room for one’s own action, something that was there before must be removed or destroyed, and things as they were before are changed. Such change would be impossible if we could not mentally remove ourselves from where we are physically located and imagine that things might as well be different from what they actually are. In other words, the ability to lie, the deliberate denial of factual truth, and the capacity to change facts, the ability to act, are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source, imagination.”

So she directly links lying to natality. And this paragraph, like much of her work, describes what she takes to be the ontological conditions of politics. That is what she is doing when she invokes “something that was there before,” furnishing the ground for action. And this in turn commits her to a view of the “already there” which is not itself political, as she herself defines the term.


Alan White 07.17.18 at 9:12 pm

JCH @ 13–

I completely agree that Stevenson likely has it all wrong metaethically. But my point was that I was offering an explanation to describe what Trump, Giuliani, etc. are engaging in, even if they don’t know they’re doing it. Emotivism is an attempt to explain what we usually denote as moral language and behavior. It maintains that moral language and action amount to the expression of emotional attitudes and nothing more. Therefore, beyond the fact that an individual or group has some attitudes, there is nothing left for morality to do but for individuals and groups to try and influence one another in attitude–to achieve agreement in attitude. Any means to do so–lies and bullshit–are legitimate to try and achieve agreement in attitude. Just listen to Trump’s crowds. They don’t care what he says, or what he does, they just feel that he “gets” how they feel–shared attitudes. If that’s the case, then the Trump phenomenon might be best explained as reflecting a practical embrace of such expressivism. Again, I have no claim to anything approaching political expertise here–I’m just advancing a way of looking at the Trump phenomenon conceptually to see if it’s at all helpful.


TM 07.19.18 at 9:24 am

16: “Such change would be impossible if we could not mentally remove ourselves from where we are physically located and imagine that things might as well be different from what they actually are. In other words, the ability to lie, the deliberate denial of factual truth, and the capacity to change facts, the ability to act, are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source, imagination.””

This reminds me a lot of modern management speak: “Everybody said it was impossible until someone came along who didn´t know that .. and just did it!”

To me, Arendt’s claim makes no sense. Yes, mentally removing oneself from reality to imagine a different one is difficult but it’s not lying, it’s not denial of reality. Imagination isn’t synonymous with delusion. I’ll counter this weird idealistic view with Rosa Luxemburg’s materialism (quoting Ferdinand Lassalle):
“Wie Lassalle sagte, ist und bleibt es immer die revolutionärste Tat: »laut zu sagen, was ist«”.

The most revolutionary act is to say loudly what is (what is true).

Btw Michael what do you mean by “natality”? It literally means birth rate, no?


J-D 07.19.18 at 11:52 am

Alan White

Any means to do so–lies and bullshit–are legitimate to try and achieve agreement in attitude.

It is empirically obvious that people use lies and bullshit in attempts to try and achieve agreement in attitude; but the statement quoted is made different from that empirical observation by the introduction of the word ‘legitimate’, which in this context is moral language. Those who affirm that it is legitimate to use lies and bullshit to achieve agreement in attitude reveal their moral bankruptcy. On an emotivist theory, that statement expresses my moral attitude; what I have to say about that is that yes, it does express my moral attitude, and if your moral attitude differs from mine on that point, what do you suggest we do about it?


alfredlordbleep 07.19.18 at 3:21 pm


Arendt’s NYRB piece, kindly linked @13, holds this very interesting nugget [for footnoting—see original]:
As regards the domino theory, first enunciated in 1950 and permitted to survive, as it has been said, the “most momentous events”: To the question of President Johnson in 1964, “Would the rest of Southeast Asia necessarily fall if Laos and South Vietnam came under North Vietnam control?” the CIA’s answer was, “With the possible exception of Cambodia, it is likely that no nation in the area would quickly succumb to Communism as a result of the fall of Laos and South Vietnam.” When five years later the Nixon Administration raised the same question, it “was advised by the Central Intelligence Agency…that [the United States] could immediately withdraw from South Vietnam and ‘all of Southeast Asia would remain just as it is for at least another generation.’ “According to the study, “only the Joint Chiefs, Mr. Rostow and General Taylor appear to have accepted the domino theory in its literal sense,”and the point here is that those who did not accept it still used it not merely for public statements but as part of their own premises as well.


john c. halasz 07.20.18 at 8:12 am

Michael @16:

I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at. It’s been prolly 25 years since I directly read Arendt, but I don’t recall her ever mentioning “ontological” conditions, rather than making some distinctions to delimit her own peculiar conception of the political. And of course not everything is political, which is why politics needs to be delimited from other realms and concerns. But there is “thrown-ness” which “gives” the prior contingent conditions in which we find ourselves. There’s nothing to say that that excludes prior history including political history, it’s only to deny that we begin ab ovo or ex nihilo as the quote you cite says. And there’s nothing in her conception of political “action” that dictates that such projects can’t address the remediation or overthrow of social stratification or institutional transformation in an egalitarian direction. What her conception does militate against is the notion that such matters are simply to be dealt with by technocratic administration without political participation. She could seem conservative, or liberal or leftist in her various pronouncements, but she wasn’t an ideologue; she was a republican in a distinctively German tradition and taken that way she can help to inform your judgments regardless of your ideological preferences or your agreement with her own predilections.

Alan White @17:

I live in VT where DJT got 30.5% of the vote. I’ve never met a Trump supporter as opposed to a “conservative” leaning person and I circulate amongst left/environmentalist people. But the same “emotivism” you identify amongst Trump crowds could be found here amongst the PC crowd: namely the notion that having the “correct” emotionally motivated attitude suffices to meet any ethical obligation. Nonetheless, there is a moment of truth (following Wittgenstein) in an otherwise mistaken account. I hold that emotions are relational rather than intentional structures and that ethics concerns actions and material and symbolic exchanges with respect to relations with others qua other, i.e. completely separate beings. So emotional responsiveness can and should be ethically informative. What is wrong is then to take that as meaning the such responses are determinative of the validity of ethical judgments or conduct. There might be many elements determining validity in an ethical situation, though they can’t be exclusively cognitive, since accepting the other qua other means that the other can’t be captured as a cognitive object. But leaving aside the confusion of politics with morality, which Arendt herself objected to, though it is a standard left-liberal trope, the instrumentalized manipulation of emotional dispostions, via sophistry and bullshit, in the manner of advertising and PR, which is mostly what passes for politics nowadays, in Arendt’s terms amounts to anti-politics, not exactly totalitarianism, but something insidious, the public impotence of tyranny.

TM @18:

I just have to question your interpretive skills. Maybe philosophical literacy is even rarer than whatever is included in the category of “transsexual”, but that bodies are particular spacio-temporal entities has been a truism since Kant, though there is a historical dimension also implied in the citation, and being able to detach oneself from that factual determinism via the “transcendental imagination” (Kant) is part of “freedom”, which can give itself equally to the truth or the lie. Citing Red Rosa, a personal “hero” of Arendt’s mother and Arendt herself, quoting Lassalle(!??!!) does nothing to obviate the basic point being made, which is obviously not to equate imaginative projection with lying, nor the deny factual material reality.

One last point. I picked up a book at a used book store maybe a dozen years ago by some young woman, – it was obviously a published graduate dissertation- which brought out well the element of estrangement in Arendt- (gated communities was one example among many). For all her affirmation of the political as the realm of worldliness that compensates for our mortality, etc., it’s useful to remember that she meant to allow us to detach ourselves from the received “wisdom” of politics as usually and conventionally practiced, (something TM apparently deems impossible), and to question it at cross-grain, which is the point of her supposed idealization of Periclean Athens, not as return to archaic “origins” but as a contemporary riddling device.

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