The Convention season has unleashed an avalanche of half-truths and untruths. Some see this as politics as usual. Others claim we are living in a post-truth world. Stephen Colbert has long understood that our present condition has transformed truth into truthiness.
One response to our new practice of political lying is the rise of the fact finder. In general, I am all in favor of fact finders. When they labor in obscurity at, say, The New Yorker—or as I once did long ago at the Washingtonian Magazine—fact finders are supposed to check the facts referenced in an article and make sure that those factual nuggets are accurate: Does Mr. Green really live on 22 Wiley Street? Did he purchase a yellow car last year for $37,000? Is his house really worth $21 million? When I did this at the age of, I think, 18 before the Internet became what it is today, I spent my summer running over to the public records office and looking through the real-estate transactions of the rich and famous. We would not want to insult someone by saying he had paid less for his house than he really did.
Today, there is another kind of fact finding of increasing prominence: political fact checking. It is a different beast entirely. The most well-established of these is Politifact, which has the “Truth-o-Meter” that rates the truth or falsity of public claims on a spectrum that ranges from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” Other sites deliver similarly clever reports on the statements uttered by politicians during the course of the campaign. Part marketing and part well-intentioned policing of a discourse divorced from reality, these fact checkers are trying to bring sense and seriousness to political debate. What they are actually doing is making the problem worse.
The reason for this is that what is being checked today are less facts and more opinions. Take for example the recent anger over Mitt Romney’s advertisement and the continuing Republican claims that the Obama administration is trying to gut the 1996 Welfare Reform Law. Politifact and CNN and many other fact-check organizations labeled the ad a lie. Here is what Politifact said about it:
Romney’s ad says, "Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."
That's a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs -- HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law.
The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: "They just send you your welfare check." The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is "designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."
The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!
On the other hand, here’s what The Daily Caller’s Mickey Kraus had to say after he fact checked a CNN fact check that had come to the same conclusion about Romney’s welfare ad as Politifact had:
The oft-cited CNN-”fact check” of Romney’s welfare ad makes a big deal of HHS secretary Sebelius’ pledge that she will only grant waivers to states that “commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work.” CNN swallows this 20% Rule whole in the course of declaring Romney’s objection “wrong”:
The waivers gave “those states some flexibility in how they manage their welfare roles as long as it produced 20% increases in the number of people getting work.” Why, it looks as if Obama wants to make the work provisions tougher! Fact-check.org cites the same 20% rule.
I was initially skeptical of Sebelius’ 20% pledge, since a) it measures the 20% against “the state’s past performance,” not what the state’s performance would be if it actually tried to comply with the welfare law’s requirements as written, and b) Sebelius pulled it out of thin air only after it became clear that the new waiver rule could be a political problem for the president. She could just as easily drop it in the future; and c) Sebelius made it clear the states don’t have to actually achieve the 20% goal–only “demonstrate clear progress toward” it.
But Robert Rector, a welfare reform zealot who nevertheless does know what he’s talking about, has now published a longer analysis of the 20% rule. Turns out it’s not as big a scam as I’d thought it was. It’s a much bigger scam. For one thing, anything states do to increase the number of people on welfare will automatically increase the “exit” rate–what the 20% rule measures–since the more people going on welfare, the more people leave welfare for jobs in the natural course of things, without the state’s welfare bureaucrats doing anything at all. Raise caseloads by 20% and Sebelius’ standard will probably be met. (Maybe raise caseloads 30% just to be sure.) So what looks like a tough get-to-work incentive is actually a paleoliberal “first-get-on-welfare” incentive. But the point of welfare reform isn’t to get more people onto welfare .
How is it that Kraus and Politifact could have fact checked the same statement (with Kraus even claiming that he was fact checking the fact check) and yet have come to different conclusions? Why is that all the fact checking that is going on today is not leading to a more truthful debate? Why is it that Republican campaign operatives say they will not be governed by fact checkers? Shouldn't fact checkers be helping to keep political discourse grounded in truth? Actually, not.
The basic confusion here is that between a fact and an opinion. As Hannah Arendt argues in her prescient essay “Truth and Politics,” facts and opinions play very different and equally important roles in politics. Facts are essential insofar as they provide the ground and the sky on which and under which we live. It is crucial to have and accept common facts, for without agreed upon facts we cannot share a world with others. If I know that the President was born in Hawaii and you know he was born in Kenya (or doubt at least he was born in Hawaii) then we simply don't trust each other. We can't talk to one another. We don't share the same world. And we cannot politically live together in good faith as we try to actualize the common good.
Because facts of these kinds are so important, the rise to mainstream prominence of conspiracy theories that question the President's citizenship or insist that President Bush and his administration faked 9/11 are deeply destructive of our political world. Such destructive facts are always present in politics, and yet it is also the case that at certain periods they gain more credence and credibility than at other times. Now is clearly one of those times.
There are many reasons for the splitting of the common-sense world, but one at least is the speed and ruthlessness of change in our modern world. As people are dislocated, uprooted, and unsettled, they naturally seek certainty in what is increasingly an uncertain world. Arendt labeled this phenomenon homelessness and rootlessness.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explores how the spiritual and material rootlessness of the 20th century have made people today uniquely susceptible to grand narratives provide clear and simple explanations for complicated and often upsetting events. That Jews were the root of Germany's problems or that collective ownership in the Soviet Union could usher in a utopia were stories contradicted by myriad facts. One core element of totalitarian times is that people prefer the security of a coherent narrative to the uncertainty of reality. People latch on to ideologies because they provide meaning and security. What Arendt saw is that the uncertainties of the modern era have made people so needy for such ideologies that they will sacrifice truth to fiction.
There is no doubt that the Internet eases the dissemination and also the force of conspiracies, as people can click through hundreds of links and never leave what is in essence an echo chamber of ideological purity. When people fall into such rabbit holes, they are enveloped by a world that seems real and is difficult to penetrate from the outside.
For that reason it is important to starkly and loudly confront ideological fictions. President Obama was right to launch his "Fight the Smears" website in 2008 to contest and disprove the smears about his religion and citizenship. Many of the fact-checking sites that now exist emerged out of a similar initiative, and in this sense they are deeply important.
But these sites today have gone beyond their original mission of checking facts. It is a fact that welfare reform was passed. It is a fact that the President's administration offered waivers to states to change how the reforms are implemented. As far as I know it is a fact that Republican governors requested those waivers. Whether these waivers go against the spirit of the reforms and whether they are wise, however, those are matters of opinion. No amount of fact-checking can tell you whether what the President did “guts” welfare reform or strengthens it. These are opinions about which reasonable people can and do differ.
While facts are essential to provide us with a common world that we share and in which we can advocate for our particular opinions, opinions are the life-blood of politics. Politics is the activity of people who, while sharing a factual world, come together to talk and act in public. Since people are different, their opinions will differ and they will seek to persuade each other that one way of handling welfare is better than another. That is the beauty of politics, the incessant talking and debating and compromising and leading through which common decisions are made.
That we today seek to transform opinions into facts is, at least in part, a result of our desire for clear answers. We live in a time when we have little patience for meaningful public engagement. We want government to work, which means we want it to keep the roads safe and the borders sound. We want our water to be clean and our food to be safe. And we want children to be fed and the sick to be healed. We don't much care how this is done so long as we can live comfortably and securely and go on with what is really important, namely our private lives. In essence, what we dream of today is a technocratic government that gives us much and demands from us very little.
If government is to work like a well-oiled machine, we need to input the correct facts. This leads us to insist that there are indeed such correct facts, even when we are confronted over and over again with evidence to the contrary. If there is a totalitarian element of modern politics, it is the technocratic insistence that if we simply all agreed on the facts and analyzed them correctly, our problems would be solved. It is no accident that both Mitt Romney and President Obama are technocratic pragmatists. Romney may have more interest in the power of data, but the President has an equally profound faith in the power of experts. Both appeal to the technocratic demand of an electorate desperate for clarity, certainty, and coherence in at a moment of profound upheaval.
As important as facts are, it is just as important to remain clear about the border between fact and opinion. Instead of gimmicky truth-o-meters, which give the illusion that political questions have easy answers, we need to encourage people with different opinions to discuss them in good faith. But the plague of fact checking what are in fact opinions has the opposite effect, since it proceeds on the assumption that opinions are true or false and that one who differs from you is a liar. The effect of fact checking in 2012 is to further polarize discourse and make political discussion almost impossible.
Instead of naming opinions lies, we are better served by good investigative reporting and opinion journalism that makes sound arguments and clarifies the stakes. A well-reasoned article that seeks to argue pro or contra can offer a depth of opinion and insight that far surpasses the gotcha journalism of fact checking. What is needed is not a demand for simple factual reporting, but a willingness to read and talk with people with whom one disagrees.
The problem today is that when confronted with opinions we don't like, we demand not arguments and other opinions but facts and objectivity. Ironically, it is the very demand for facts and objectivity in politics that leads to ideological organs like Fox News and CNBC. Because people insist on technocratic clarity in the mess that is politics, they now gravitate towards those news organization, blogs, websites, and communities that deliver them coherent narratives.
—RB (with assistance from Josh Kopin)
“Factual truth is always related to other people [...]. It is political by nature.”
-Hannah Arendt, Truth and Politics
“Our inheritance was left to us by no testament”
-Hannah Arendt, quoting René Char, Between Past and Future
In his acceptance speech, the recipient of the 1997 Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought wondered why he of all people had been chosen for it. He was, he said, a pragmatist, a practitioner of politics, not a political thinker. At the time he was already a prominent figure in contemporary politics: as a courageous pastor in the GDR who did not shy away from conflict with the regime, as a participant in the freedom movement of 1989 which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, since 1990, as the Federal Commissioner for the newly created Stasi Archives, which was tasked with processing the history and crimes of the socialist dictatorship. This man, the winner of the 1997 Arendt prize, is the recently elected German Bundespräsident, Joachim Gauck . [Under the German constitution, the President is the country’s highest representative, while the Chancellor is the head of government and most influential political figure in the German parliamentary democracy (Angela Merkel currently holds the latter position).]
The connection between Arendt and the highest office of the German government makes sense only in light of its oddity and of the unorthodox character of Joachim Gauck. His comment in the acceptance speech that he is a political practitioner rather than a political thinker marks a striking difference between himself and Arendt. One could say, however, that Gauck’s political actions largely constitute the realization of a political understanding that Arendt herself theoretically and conceptually developed. Their shared center of gravity can be formulated in a sentence from Arendt’s “Introduction into Politics”: “The meaning of politics is freedom.”
It is fitting, in a certain way, that the intellectual correspondence between Arendt and Gauck is least to be found in his text Plea for Freedom. This small book, published shortly before his election, can be read as the manifesto of his presidency. The book, divided into the three chapters “Freedom,” “Responsibility,” and “Tolerance” preaches more than it reflects. Generalized talk of “the soul,” and of supposed anthropological constants such as “the human psyche,” or the universal desire for happiness and healing overshadows the knowledge upon which the book is based: that politics comes out of plurality and exists in the living modes of “relatedness.”
When writing serves to express a political program, it becomes a part of the process of political action. Action and thought cannot occur simultaneously, Arendt notes. Thought and consideration become possible only when action has become history-- that is, when it has been completed and can be retold as a story and reflected upon.
Joachim Gauck’s best texts are distinguished by the fact that they are written out of personal experience. They speak from the perspective of an “I” that knows that political speech must be concrete and therefore limited. The more I generalize, the farther I distance myself from the solid ground of the facts. For a theologian, this may not be self-evident. In his acceptance speech for the Arendt prize, Gauck does not pay lip service to the prize’s eponym-- as did so many of those to whom Arendt became “hip” after 1989-- by claiming her as the inspiration for his political actions during the dictatorship. Rather, he recognizes his own lapse in not studying Arendt’s texts at the right time. He sees it as a failure to confront the intuitive striving and fighting for freedom with “conceptual clarity and precision,” quoting Arendt’s On Revolution.
Does this lack of conceptual clarity point to a romanticization which placed (the self-perceptions of) personal actions in the world of wishful thinking instead of in the world of facts, Gauck asked? The question is directed at himself and his contemporaries. “Did it suffice to have an opinion about reality, whose facts I hadn’t thoroughly developed?” he reflects with reference to Arendt in his afterword to the Blackbook of Communism (1998). I individually can hold an opinion, almost like philosophically wise thoughts or words; facts, on the other hand, are political, since I always share them with others. Arendt formulated it thus in Truth and Politics: “Factual truth is always related to other people [...]. It is political by nature.”
This understanding of the eminently political quality of facts shaped Joachim Gauck’s work as the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi-Archives. Perhaps this constitutes the greatest accomplishment of his life: Gauck’s work secured the documents and archived materials without which the history of the SED-dictatorship and its repressive apparatuses could not have been written.
In the months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, hundreds of citizens and members of opposition groups occupied the headquarters of the state secret police in East Berlin and other cities of the GDR. The Stasi had already begun to destroy documents on a large scale. Approximately 130 miles of files were saved, where 3 feet of files could contain up to 10,000 pages. The Stasi had collected approximately 6 million personal files-- 4 million on citizens of the GDR, 2 million on citizens of the old Bundesrepublik. What was to be done with such a legacy?
Many demanded that the files be closed or even destroyed in the interest of “national peace.” One could expect such a vote from former GDR elites, who could be prosecuted or face moral discredit if the files were made public. But even reputable social-democratic politicians like Egon Bahr and, out of quite different motives, the West German secret service, wanted to prevent the Stasi files from becoming publicly accessible.
The “inherited burden of dictatorship,” Gauck called this legacy in his Memoirs (2009). It is an inheritance left with no testament, one could say with Arendt and René Char. It is an inheritance without precedent, for which a legal, political, moral, and historiographic procedure had to be found before any work could begin. Joachim Gauck, along with more than 3000 staff members, created the blueprints for dealing with the material. Since 1990, victims of Stasi persecution, as well as the media and researchers, are able to read and study the files of the state surveillance apparatus.
The fact that this is now possible cannot be taken for granted. Since the transition to democracy, other countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania have decided against opening their archives. In Germany, it’s one of Gauck’s major accomplishments to have successfully carried out the demand of the East Germany democracy movement to make the Stasi files publicly accessible.
The Federal Commission for the Stasi-Archives is now a permanent institution in Germany. The commission is internationally respected, and stands as a symbol for Germany’s way of dealing and coming to terms with dictatorship after 1989. The legal and administrative character of the commission, and the basis of its success, is largely thanks to Joachim Gauck’s capacity for political judgment, as he was the first director of the Commission from 1990 to 2000. Gauck, the unconventional political activist from the Baltic, recruited a legal and data protection expert from Bavaria as an administrator, to help carry out the revolutionary civil movement’s lofty goal of universal access to the records. The two persistently maintained this political demand in the face of the reservations and greediness of West German administration and political parties. Gauck recognized that the new Commission for the Stasi Archives would have to fit into the institutional structure of West Germany, and that this framework had to be confronted without naivete or arrogance.
During and since the first national elections in unified Germany in 1990, naivete and arrogance towards the power of established parties and institutions relegated almost all of the East German opposition groups to political meaninglessness. The widespread feeling that the momentum of political freedom was too quickly muted by, and swallowed up into the institutional structure of West Germany burdens the unification process to this day. The Federal Commission for the Stasi Archives is one of the few achievements in which something truly politically new came out of the momentum of freedom in 1989.
The election of Joachim Gauck connects the memory of this founding moment of political freedom with the highest office in Germany—which is delightful, but also feels incongruous. It may also appear incongruous to many that Gauck is the first nominee in Germany’s post-war history who was not elected President directly from another high political office. Since 2000, Gauck has worked for foundations, and as a free-lance writer and lecturer. He is less a man of the political class than a political man. This symbolic fact is one that might have interested Hannah Arendt.
with Anne Posten
Thomas Wild will begin teaching at Bard in the fall and will join the Hannah Arendt Center as a Research Associate.
The introductory lecture at the Arendt Center 2011 Fall Conference, "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts" from Arendt Center director, Roger Berkowitz.
Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts
It is well known that Iraqi's participated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States; that global warming is a myth; that childhood vaccines cause Autism; that President Obama is not an American; that a cabal of American Jews collaborated with the U.S. government to carry out the attacks on 9/11; and that the United States does not torture. These are acknowledged facts for millions of educated, indeed often highly educated, people.
Of course, I hope you will agree, these acknowledged facts are open to debate.
We face today a crisis of fact. Facts, as Hannah Arendt saw, are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.
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.
So what? Does all this lying, this blurring of fact and opinion, this creating of and defending of alternative and opposing realities --does it really matter? Isn't that what politics has always been about?
The answer, as Hannah Arendt argues, is that the loss of factual 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); instead she endorses the reformulation: Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus. Let Truth be done, though the world may perish.
Her point is simple: We cannot give up on truth—even if it means the end of the world! This is because the loss of truth leads to the loss of the world. 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.
Arendt's worry is that when truth is impossible, when truth disappears, when the world wobbles, the result is cynicism. 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 danger from a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will win out—that is highly unlikely. Rather, the danger posed by the demise of factual truth is the victory of cynicism, the belief that it is simply not possible to "say what is." What cynicism means is that the sense of factual truth from which we take our bearings in the real world is wasting away.
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 what America was. 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 now routinely 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. This is only more true today, as technology affords liars extraordinary means to alter the documentary past.
The mass manipulation of fact does not always aim at such totalizing lies. For example, there has been a concerted effort by some to refute the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the earth. Others seek to disseminate an image of America as a nation that doesn't torture. To be effective, such claims do not actually need to prevail. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to overcome the brute fact that we did, in fact, employ torture as a governmentally sanctioned policy. Rather, the purpose of the mass manipulation of fact that characterizes the modern lie is to sow doubt. Based in cynicism and yielding apathy, doubt immobilizes; thus does doubt neutralize the oppositional power of truth and doubt frees those who pursue naked power stripped from limits imposed by truth.
We must recognize is how profound and prevalent the confusion of fact and opinion is today. The truth is that 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.
Click here to read the full essay by Roger Berkowitz.
Ignore the facts. At least that is what Michele Bachman willfully does, according to her former Chief of Staff.
In today's Wall St. Journal, Bachman's former Chief of Staff Ron Carey has this to say about the current Congresswoman and Republican Presidential Candidate (Bachmann has won all the recent straw polls in Iowa):
"Another staff frustration, according to Mr. Carey and some other former aides: It was often hard to get Ms. Bachmann to stope repeating assertions shown to be false.
Ms. Bachmann earned headlines in 2007 when she claimed to have seen secret Iranian plans to carve a "terrorist safe-haven zone" from Iraq once U.S. forces left. She later said her remarks were misconstrued.
Last year she accused Mr. Obama of spending $200 million a day on a trip to India. The White House vehemently deinied the figure, which had surfaced in an Indian newspaper, attrtibuted to a questionable source.
For months, Mr. Carey said, the staff tried to get Ms. Bachmann to stop saying in speeches that Mr. Obama had added more to the federal debt load than all other presidents combined. "It was simply not true, and yet I could never get her to drop that line," he said.
Amazingly, these revelations are minor parts of the WSJ story and are barely commented upon. I gather this is because it is simply not considered news, let alone shocking, when a major political figure today continues to play fast and lose with the facts. That is just politics, or so it is thought.
Bachmann is not the only politician who seems convinced that if you repeat a falsehood often enough it becomes a valued opinion, if not a truth. Writing in the New York Review of Books 40 years ago, Hannah Arendt Arendt noticed that today unwelcome facts are tolerated only to the extent that they are consciously or unconsciously transformed into opinions. This tendency to transform fact into opinion, to blur the dividing line between them, has led to the now widely observed de-factualization of our world. In her essay “Truth and Politics,” she suggests that our de-factualized politics demands a pre-political discourse of truth-telling.
Without a shared factual world, we cannot talk, argue, or disagree with others; we are left with nothing to do but talk to those with whom we already agree. In a world without facts, we risk undermining the venture of politics as Arendt understood it: to create together a common world, one as unruly, disorderly, and argumentative as such togetherness demands.
Against the danger of de-factualization stands the truth-teller. The truth-teller, Arendt writes, takes her stand outside the realm of politics. The artist, the scholar, the scientist, the fool: the truth-teller shares their allergy to all political causes. What politics needs, in Arendtian terms, are institutions and persons dedicated to truth outside the scramble for power. In a time when everything is political, the demand for truth only grows more urgent.
It is clear that we face today a crisis of fact that is rotting the core of American politics. It is hard not to be struck by the ascendant stupidities that lately emerge under the umbrella of free speech: that global warming is a myth; that childhood vaccines cause Autism; that President Obama is a Marxist; that some members of Congress are sure he isn’t an American; that a cabal of American Jews collaborated with the U.S. government to carry out the attacks on 9/11; that many law-abiding liberals seem to have forgotten that illegal immigrants are here, as yet, illegally; and on. Even before the technologists have made good on their promises to provide virtual realities, we today have created multiple, insular, and conflicting manmade realities with nothing more than the internet, cable news, and human nature.
I think we can agree that our democracy needs rescuing, the question is how to do so. From all sides we hear two opinions:
1) Responsible political discourse begins with facts.
2) There is little or no responsible political discourse.
The first opinion is a fact. The second, need not be.
Which is why the Hannah Arendt Center is sponsoring a conference "Truthtelling: Democracy in An Age Without Facts" on Oct. 28-29.