On Liars, Politics, Michiko Kakutani, Martin Jay, and Hannah Arendt

A long piece by Michiko Kakutani on “the death of truth” is making the rounds. In it, she 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 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: 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 as we’ll see, Arendt also thinks there is a necessary dimension of factuality that also undergirds our political actions. And that it is part of our job to preserve that factuality. And that it is between these two dimensions—preserving factuality, opposing oneself to 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 almost autistic* 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.

* On a re-read of this post, I just saw that I used the word “autistic” in the way that I did. Were I to have written this talk today (remember, this was a talk I gave in 2008), I would never use the term in that way. I was clearly not sensitized to the issue, and the language, at the time: I was using the word to mean something like self-absorption, removed from the communicative reality of other human beings, which is one of the associations the word once had, but given our growing knowledge of autism, it seems highly inappropriate and wrong to use the word in this fashion today. I thought about taking the word out, but since I had already posted the post, that seemed dishonest, as if I were trying to hide what I did. So I’ve crossed it out, noting my failure here, without erasing its traces. My sincere apologies and regrets.


  1. eightnine2718281828mu5 July 15, 2018 at 2:51 pm | #

    if establishing your position requires 2996 words and the opposition needs 29, guess who wins the political debate?

    conservatives don’t win because they have better 5000 word essays.

    perhaps liberals could provide an executive summary along with their long form analysis

    it’s not either/or; you can appeal to both audiences

    trump uses twitter for a reason

  2. Glenn July 15, 2018 at 10:05 pm | #


  3. Chris Morlock July 16, 2018 at 1:59 am | #

    It’s interesting that much of the focus is on the Iraq invasion, and the framing of the narrative that WMD was the issue. It’s similar to the framing of most major historical facts in terms of politics. After analyzing the issue from an economic, geo-political, and regional historical perspective the conclusion that the issue in this war was if Saddam did or did not have WMD? That’s just a question of propaganda.

    If we can assume the vast majority of politics is consumed by the production and distribution of propaganda then this theory of truth makes sense. A “liar” is the one that recognizes that the vast majority of people can’t process complexities and therefore must digest them in a palatable state- so these kinds of “super arguments” come into existence to service a pragmatic need. The framing of the question of which is “true” or not: did Saddam have WMD or not, simplifies the overall complex constructs of why the US cared, and why two decades earlier he was their “man”, only to end up berating the “Shia” right before being hanged.

    The US spent 3 trillion dollars and possibly 1-2 million lives to produce this result (and practically nothing else), which then invalidated 30 years of Neocon theories about foreign policy. There is no shining democracy in the middle east and it’s less stable than it was before we got involved with the various truths and lies of “regime change”.

    Politics seems to be the simplification of that truth into something pragmatic that can be manipulated. It only appears like the work of “liars” when the original goal of the process is not met.

  4. Joe Lamport July 16, 2018 at 9:15 am | #

    Great article – thanks so much!

  5. Susanna Heller July 16, 2018 at 11:59 am | #

    It is even more relevant and crucial to read this article today. I thank you heartily for a profound and illuminating exposition of the intellectual and political situation we find ourselves in today. I’m just finishing reading Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt, the Shakespeare scholar, and old Bill’s descriptions would feel very familiar to you: I bet you’d get a kick out of this book!!

  6. Glenn July 16, 2018 at 2:49 pm | #

    Lies are the “truth” of the mob, around which a movement coalesces.

    A belief in a lie caries with it the force of truth.

    A belief may be true even if its object is not.

    But mobs like slogans.

    Experience the futility of trying to make this into a slogan.

    Words are the most deceitful invention of man.

  7. Roquentin July 18, 2018 at 1:29 pm | #

    Thanks for posting this. Your interpretations of Arendt at good and you obviously know her work very well. It pays to watch how you think her work has been misapplied or distorted in popular media.

    My attitude towards truth, lies, and propaganda has generally been more postmodern (almost a dirty word, in this day and age, but I’ll fall on that grenade). I mean that in the sense of Foucault, who in spite of narrow selection of historical events to back his arguments was basically correct about many…even most things. This is all a long way of saying that truth, power, and knowledge are totally inseparable. It just doesn’t make any sense to think of them independently. Taking that approach will inevitably send you down the wrong path. Truth in the abstract, divine, pure, impersonal sense simply does not exist. This is probably a correlate of my atheistic views on religion, but I digress. Ironically, I think this is directly contra to Arendt who criticized Marxism for turning any question of truth into a question of motive, but I have to side against her here. That sort of truth, free from motive, simply does not exist and never will.

    We have to think of truth in purely human terms, something which is ultimately produced in and by human beings within certain sets of practices, institutions, and theoretical frameworks. The idea of some kind of pure reality and truth connected to it which circumvents all that simply isn’t accurate. Whatever truth we have will always be processed through these things. That’s not the same as truth not existing, just that it’s purely a human endeavor. We produce the best truth we can with the means we have available, but this will always and forever be shaped by power, by the institutions and methods we use to produce it.

    Another massive influence on me was Ellul, whom I read mostly during Hurricane Sandy during that week where the power was out and no one went to work. It profoundly shaped my thinking on the subject. One of his big points was that facts serve propaganda just as well as lies. To think of propaganda simply as lies and falsehoods wasn’t accurate….at all. Propaganda was first and foremost a sort of assault by technology on the human senses (not unlike Marshall McLuhan’s famous “The Medum is the Massage”). I think the technological part of it gets left out of a lot of discussions, we’re assaulted on all sides day in and day out by media we have no control over. For Ellul, which I’ll also never forget, the ideas being promoted themselves were a sort of afterthought, a little addendum drug along after the fact. For him technology had rendered ideology almost obsolete, the mechanism behind it was what counted. Intentionally or not, this is pretty close to a materialist account of the media. I don’t know, I think about it all the time.

  8. Jeremiah Day July 23, 2018 at 8:47 am | #

    Thinking today about Assange, what strikes me is that the bi-partisan consensus to not deal with the Iraquis WMD lie, or the questionable elections (2000, Ohio 2004, Dem primary 2016), also employs massive organised lies as a central technique. As does Trump, in his own special and quite different way. Between the two systems we have a political elite who must dismiss a reform candidate as a fifth-column, and from whom the accusation of a crime seems to justify a death sentence (Assange). This is the part of Arendt you miss, as elaborated later in the talk Home To Roost, that the US has actually developed on the earlier models of organized lies into our own unique form of “image-making.” The remedy she proposes is uncomfortable – to make attending to facts central to thinking.

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