No Comment, Quotation — November 21, 2009, 12:39 pm

Arendt on the Political Lie

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[W]hen we talk about lying, and especially about lying among acting men, let us remember that the lie did not creep into politics by some accident of human sinfulness. Moral outrage, for this reason alone, is not likely to make it disappear. The deliberate falsehood deals with contingent facts; that is, with matters that carry no inherent truth within themselves, no necessity to be as they are. Factual truths are never compellingly true. The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life; it is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs. From this, it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt – as secure and shielded against attack as, for instance, the statement that two and two make four.

It is this fragility that makes deception so very easy up to a point, and so tempting. It never comes into a conflict with reason, because things could indeed have been as the liar maintains they were. Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.

Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics” in Crises of the Republic (1972)


What historical lessons can be gathered for the republic from the tragedy of Guantánamo? In a tribute to Hannah Arendt and her analysis of lying in politics, I say there are two. The original concept of a prison camp to hold the most dangerous prisoners of the war on terror was unobjectionable. The errors began when the United States abandoned its traditions and military doctrines, deeming them inadequate to the task. And it was compounded when political leaders, having failed in their objective of capturing the key Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, sought to cover this up with an increasing painful series of lies. My full analysis in the Twenty-Second Blaine Sloan Lecture delivered at Pace Law School in White Plains last Friday.


Listen to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102, in a performance by the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française under the baton of André Cluytens. Dmitri Shostakovich plays the piano in this 1958 recording.

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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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