“Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase…into the dustbin where it belongs.”
-George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”
I was rereading Orwell’s great 1946 essay this morning, as I prepare to be hurtled back across the continent and into that black miasma engulfing the Atlantic coast from the great belching factories on the Potomac. There is something in the air: the newspapers smack against doors a little harder, the grumble in the deli line is a little more fractious, and the smaller canines seem still more invested than usual in expansionist aggression against my outer territories. Perhaps it’s simply the first signs of the descent of winter, but I’m inclined to attribute the collective ill-temper to more political causes, and “Politics and the English Language” seemed as important as my totemic Emergen-C packets to avoid contracting anything unpleasant. Like much of the late Orwell, I find its linguistic politics slightly repugnant and its language an utter delight, an irony that would, I have no doubt, have the pleased the author.
I’ve known a number of professors of history and politics who make this essay mandatory reading before their classes, and despite my better graces I’m leaning towards the practice. The attraction for me is less the cantankerous attempt to ward off bad essay-writing than the fact that Orwell explains, in his inimitable way, something fundamental about the politics of language and the languages of politics, and that lesson is one that I think is particularly salient for the political moment. The second to last sentence of the essay (the first that opens the quotation above) is much quoted, and it finds the most powerful expressions of its searing critique of the political manipulation of language in 1984 and Animal Farm. Maybe the existence of this pathology of political language is the one great lesson we managed to learn from the twin births of totalitarianism Arendt diagnosed (I’m less sanguine about our memory in other arenas), even if treatment for the condition has not gone terribly well: we are all well-aware of, if not always well-attuned to, the nearly infinite capacity of our languages to bear and even beautify raw, enormous dissembly. And, as in 1984, the most powerful dissemblies of the blustery political day are the pithy little gems – “death tax,” “death panel,” “debt ceiling” (conservative politicians in particular have a perennial fondness for D) – which manage to imagine into being a crisis capable of paralyzing a state.
Nevertheless you almost never read anyone quote what follows after the political respectability of murder for Orwell, the thought that concludes the essay and explains its form. More’s the pity, because it contains a point that I think just might be more salient for the particular political crisis that gripped Washington and then whimpered off into the sunset (the night that follows is always a bit too brief, and is getting shorter). The question, for Orwell, is not whether political language lies, but what one does with the species of neologism – the “Achilles’ heel” and the “yellow peril” – which seems to all tempered response almost utterly devoid of meaning, and yet manages nevertheless to grip a (part of a) national imagination and twist it into factual destruction.
It was, to be sure, an imaginary crisis. But nearly all crises have to be imagined into existence before they can take those first few shaky steps towards disaster without their parents’ support. Imagining facts into the world, Arendt reminds us in “Lying and Politics,” is the entire point of political language. It exists to craft the narratives that move nations, and the power to imagine crisis is not one that we necessarily want to do without altogether (perhaps Churchill was an Arendtian before Arendt when he suggested that Chamberlain’s greatest political vice was an extraordinary lack of imagination). All crises begin with facts – there is after all such a bureaucratic thing as the fiscal limit called the “debt ceiling” – but facts, Arendt reminds us, can be remarkably impotent in the political world until we have spun them finely and woven them with enough meanings to make them live. The trouble with crises is not that they are imagined, but that after they have been imagined into the world, they are remarkably difficult to unimagine. If Boehner has learned anything about political language, this month, it is how little control we exercise over the neologisms we release into the world once they are in the mouths of others.
So what to do about these little political language imps, if they’re to be stopped before they wreck the political machines that spit them out? This is where I find Orwell brilliant as a political writer, a representative of a literary tradition that stretches from Chaucer through Swift to Burgess and Vonnegut. Orwell’s answer here, perhaps more recognizable in Burmese Days and Road to Wigan Pier than in their later cousins, is to jeer: in other words, to make language – and language, not speakers – an object of mirth. This impulse never left Orwell. For all that 1984 is decisively, almost irresistibly crushing, it is also one of the darkest, bitterest exercises in history of a political tool of the arts of language that has always thrived when the political world is at its worst: irony and mirth in the face of horror. We forget that about 1984, perhaps because the young are often assigned the book before our little burgeoning faculties of irony are fully sensitive to what Arendt calls a “vulnerability to human unsuccess”…or then again, perhaps the opposite is more true, that we understood it then, and forget as we struggle to shed that vulnerability Arendt describes as the killer of poets.
Some are suspicious of jokesters and satirists in moments of political crisis, on the one hand because they seem to rarely offer any positive way forward, and on the other because they work to make light of things that, in their graveness, ought not be made light of. Arendt herself emerged from the pale of the events that offer our best examples of horror’s power to make us resist its translation into humor (though it should be remembered that one of her first pieces after the war was the darkly witty “We, The Refugees”). In that, we risk becoming horror’s willing agents, but perhaps in some cases it has already won its victories and we can only subsequently mourn. It’s a difficult question, which terrible things can be made funny, and those who would play in the languages of politics should be granted a measure of leniency for those times when they traipse over the line. In their defense, that line is one that can never be drawn in advance, because it comes bearing ever-shifting whens and whoms that can always be pushed further back by an extraordinary gift that not even the most talented satirists can live up to in every moment. The line can be pushed back, and should be pushed back, because when undertaken by the most talented, satire and seriousness have never been opposites, but on the contrary are what allow each other to do the utmost that they can do. This is what made Orwell, for all his limitations, one of the great political writers of and on the English language: in the face first of empire and then of anti-semitic totalitarianism, he staked his artistic life on a faith in the power to express what is most utterly serious better through wit, to join the sustaining narrative power of sad mirth to the deepest and most inexpressible of pains. The lesson of “Shooting an Elephant” always seemed to me to be something along the lines of an idea that horror must be swallowed just long enough to give us sustenance, if we are to go once more into the breach against it. It’s a difficult and contentious thought, but worth swallowing.
This, in turn, is why the satire of language, in particular, does offer a way forward. It’s a case that Orwell makes and has been made brilliantly in a more American vein by Pryor, Carlin, and its modern geniuses Dave Chappell, Jon Stewart, and Tina Fey. If our morasses are mostly made of imaginings, in fact for better or worse must be, then the talent for jeering precisely those imaginative failings that turn crises into disasters is our best hope for sorting out in time what is more silliness than substance, what we should and what we cannot afford to leave to laughter. Orwell’s talent is one we should be paying more attention to as things get blacker, not less, because ungentle teasing by that gift’s greatest artists may be our last, best hope of sorting through a world of imagined politics and its deafening neologisms. The most gifted have unleashed some imps of their own: who will now forget poor Mittens’ binders full of women?
It is commonplace, on both sides of the political spectrum, to wail and gnash about the sheer irrationality of some ways of understanding America’s problems. But there are some forms of attachment, especially those that seem to inhere powerfully in these little language-imps, that the aesthetics of detached analysis and even fiery polemic are simply ill-equipped to combat. When debating has become shouting, neither louder shouting nor studiously detached sermonism are likely to have much effect. Sometimes, someone needs to kick out the soapbox.
We do need communities of analysis, communities of clear-eyed engagement in a political world so thoroughly fogged over with huff-puffery, and that will always give those like the author not blessed with the flair for jest something to do with ourselves (my closest friends assure me that I’m terrifyingly unfunny, and it’s true, but I’d like to still have something to do, even if it’s to be a lighthouse without a beacon or a coast). Fate save us, though, from ever being delivered wholly over to the hands of the terminally serious, because it might just be that the emotional sacrifices of our jesters that are our best offerings to appease the gods of democracy. As a public feeling powerless and deeply estranged from its state looks for ways “one can at least change one’s own habits”, a daily dose of satire with strong coffee may be better for political revival than what punditry and prognosis have on offer.
[T]here are, indeed, few things that are more frightening than the steadily increasing prestige of scientifically minded brain trusters in the councils of government during the last decades. The trouble is not that they are cold-blooded enough to “think the unthinkable,” but that they do not think.
-Hannah Arendt, "On Violence"
Hannah Arendt’s warning about the power of educated elites in government is one of the most counter-intuitive claims made by an irreverently paradoxical thinker. It is also, given her writing about the thoughtlessness of Adolf Eichmann, jarring to see Arendt call ivy-league graduates with Ph.D.s both dangerous and thoughtless. And yet Arendt is clear that one of the great dangers facing our time is the prestige and power accorded to intellectuals in matters of government.
Arendt issues her warning in the introduction to her essay “On Violence.” It comes amidst her discussion of the truth of Lenin’s prediction that the 20th century would be a “century of wars” and a “century of violence.”
And it follows her claim that even though the technical development of weapons have made war unjustifiable, war nevertheless continues for the “simple fact that no substitute for this final arbiter in international affairs has yet appeared on the political scene.” It is “under these circumstances” of extraordinary violence, Arendt writes, that the entry of social scientists and intellectuals into government is so profoundly frightening.
Whereas most political thinkers believe that in violent times we should welcome educated and rational “scientifically minded brain trusters” in government, Arendt is skeptical. Her reasoning is that these social scientists calculate, they do not think. She explains what she means writing that,
“Instead of indulging in such old-fashioned, uncomputerizable activity, [scientifically minded brain trusters] reckon with the consequences of certain hypothetically assumed constellations without, however, being able to test their hypotheses against actual occurrences.”
She has in mind those consultants, talking heads, and commentators in and out of government who create logically convincing hypothetical constructions of future events. This could be the claim, heard so often today, that if Iran gets a nuclear bomb they will use it or that Al Qaeda and terrorism threatens the existence or freedoms of the United States. For Arendt, such claims always begin the same way, with a hypothesis. They state a possible outcome of a series of events. They then discuss and dismiss alternative possibilities. Finally, this hypothesis turns “immediately, usually after a few paragraphs, into a “fact,” which then gives birth to a whole string of similar non-facts, with the result that the purely speculative character of the whole enterprise is forgotten.” In other words, we move from the speculative possibility that Iran would use nuclear weapons or that terrorism is a meaningful threat to the United States to the conclusion that these outcomes are facts. The danger of intellectuals in politics is that they have a unique facility with ideas and arguments that are quite capable of so enrapturing their own minds with the power of their arguments that they lose sight of reality.
When Arendt speaks about the danger of intellectuals in government she has in mind the example of the Vietnam War. In her essay “Lying and Politics”—a response to the Pentagon Papers—she hammers at the same theme of the danger intellectuals pose to politics. The Pentagon Papers were written by and written about “professional ‘problem solvers,’” who were “drawn into government from the universities and the various think tanks, some of them equipped with game theories and systems analyses, thus prepared, as they thought, to solve all the ‘problems’ of foreign policy.” The John F. Kennedy administration is famous, very much as is the Presidency of Barack Obama, for luring the “best and the brightest” into government service. We need to understand Arendt’s claim that of why such problem solvers are dangerous.
These “problem solvers,” she argues, were men of “self-confidence, who ‘seem rarely to doubt their ability to prevail.’” They were “not just intelligent, but prided themselves on being ‘rational,’ and they were indeed to a rather frightening degree above ‘sentimentality’ and in love with ‘theory,’ the world of sheer mental effort.” They were men so familiar with theories and the manipulation of facts to fit logical argumentation, that they could massage facts to fit their theories. “They were eager to find formulas, preferably expressed in a pseudo-mathematical language, that would unify the most disparate phenomena with which reality presented them.” They sought to transform the contingency of facts into the logical coherence of a lawful and pseudo-scientific narrative. But since the political world is not like the natural world of science, the temptation to fit facts to reality meant that they became practiced in self-deception. That is why the “hard and stubborn facts, which so many intelligence analysts were paid so much to collect, were ignored.”
For Arendt, the “best-guarded secret of the Pentagon papers” is the “relation, or, rather, nonrelation, between facts and decision” which was prepared by the intellectual “defactualization” enabled by the problem solvers. “No reality and no common sense,” Arendt writes, “could penetrate the minds of the problem-solvers.”
Arendt’s suspicion of intellectuals in politics long predates her concern about the Vietnam War, and began with her personal experience of German intellectuals in the 1930s. She was shocked by how many of her friends and how many educated and brilliant German professors, lawyers, and bureaucrats—including but not limited to her mentor and lover Martin Heidegger—were able to justify and rationalize their complicity in the administration of the Third Reich, often by the argument that their participation was a lesser evil.
Similarly, she was struck by the reaction to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which intellectuals constructed elaborate critiques of her book and her argument that had nothing at all to do with the facts of what she had written. In both instances, Arendt became aware of the intellectual facility for massaging facts to fit theories and thus the remoteness from reality that can infect those who live too easily in the life of the mind.
The Iraq War under George W. Bush and the war on terrorism waged under Bush and President Barack Obama are, today, clear examples of situations in which now two U.S. administrations have convinced themselves of the need for military action and unparalleled surveillance of citizens under indisputably false pretenses. Iraq, contrary to assertions that were made by a policy of elite of brain-trusters, had no connection with the 9/11 attacks and had no nuclear weapons.
Similarly, terrorism today does not pose a threat to the existence or the freedom of the United States. What terrorism threatens is the continued existence of the U.S. as the world superpower. What we are fighting for is not our survival, but our continued predominance and power. Some might argue that the fight for continued world dominance is worth the costs of our privacy and liberty; others may disagree. But we should at the very least be honest about what we are fighting for and what the costs of that fight are.
We see a similar flight from fact to theory in the Trayvon Martin case. Shameless commentators on the right continue to insist that race played no role in the altercation, ignoring the fact of racism and the clear racial profiling in this case. But similarly hysterical leftist commentators insist that Zimmerman killed Martin primarily because of his race. Let’s stipulate that George Zimmerman followed Martin in some part because of his race. But let’s also recognize that he killed Martin—at least according to the weight of the testimony—from below after a struggle. We do not know who started the struggle, but there was a struggle and it is quite likely that the smaller and armed Zimmerman feared for his safety. Yes, race was involved. Yes racism persists. Yes we should be angry about these sad facts and should work to change the simply unethical environment in which many impoverished youths are raised and educated. But it is not true that Martin was killed primarily because of his race. It is also likely that the only reason Zimmerman was put on trial for murder was to satisfy the clamor of those advancing their theory, the facts be damned.
If Arendt is justifiably wary of intellectuals in politics, she recognizes their importance as well. The Pentagon papers, which describe the follies of problem-solvers, were written by the very same problem solvers in an unprecedented act of self-criticism. “We should not forget that we owe it to the problem-solvers’ efforts at impartial self-examination, rare among such people, that the actors’ attempts at hiding their role behind a screen of self-protective secrecy were frustrated.” At their best, intellectuals and problems-solvers are also possessed of a “basic integrity” that compels them to admit when their theoretical fantasies have failed. Such admissions frequently come too late, long after the violence and damage has been done. And yet, the fidelity to the facts that fires the best of intellectual and scientific inquiry is, in the end, the only protection we have against the self-same intellectual propensity to self-deception.
Hannah Arendt alerted us to the tendency at a time of rootlessness and homelessness for people to seek meaning in movements. The effect is that people will believe the lying consistency of their movement even at the expense of basic facts, something that augurs the ever-present threat of the loss of a common world. The overall point Arendt worries about is not simply that one version of a lie will win out. Rather, the danger is that amidst the battle over facts, the very belief in the ability to "say what is," to know the world, is put into question. Arendt's worry is that the war over images leads not to the victory of one image over another, but to the victory in cynicism, to the belief that it is simply not possible to speak the truth and say what is:
It has frequently been noticed that the surest long-term result of brainwashing is a peculiar kind of cynicism—an absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well this truth may be established. In other words, the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth v.s. falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.
It is not hard to see Arendtian musings about cynicism and the loss of a common world in today's politics. Conservatives, as Sam Tanenhaus—the conservative editor of the NY Times Book Review argues in his book The Death of Conservatism—have taken on the trappings of a movement, valuing consistency and power of facts and political engagement in a common political world.
One example of a divergent reality that strikes me daily is that amidst the economic wreckage of the last 3 years, I personally know hardly anyone who has been permanently out of work for 2 years or more. I certainly know many who have lost their jobs and have suffered, but they have found new ones and generally they are still drinking lattes at Starbucks. The same is true for most of my friends—I ask and almost no one knows the legions of unemployed. In the neighborhoods I live in in NYC and in the Hudson Valley, the tony restaurants are crowded and the surfeit of shoe stores and banks are still in business.
George Packer offers an example of the other worldliness of our times in his good essay on the dueling realities in The New Yorker. Packer describes Danny Hartzell, out of work or underemployed for years, whose economic life has come crashing down around him and who is one of the 16.2% of Americans out of work--according to the more accurate "real" unemployment figures. Whole communities in parts of the country are struggling and suffering, and yet in the world of the highly educated, the recession is often simply a matter of changing jobs. In Washington, the debate surely shows which world the politicians are living in.
There is another way in which Packer's essay raises the specter of dueling realities. He invokes Max Weber's famous distinction between an ethic of responsibility and an ethic of ultimate ends, association the former with President Obama's pragmatic effort at compromise and the latter with the Republican's "raving mad" posture of "juvenile righteousness." Seems right.
Then I happened to find a copy of the Wall St. Journal at Starbucks, so I read it, the editorial inclusive. There I found the following points made:
1. The president "remains far more interested in maneuvering to blame a default or credit downgrade on Republicans than in making himself part of any plausible solution to a crisis he insists is imminent."
2. "it has long been clear that Mr. Obama isn't interested in spending reform. In February he proposed a budget that spent more than any in U.S. history. In April he demanded that Congress pass a "clean" debt ceiling hike that included no spending cuts whatsoever. Only after House Republicans unveiled their own sweeping budgetary reforms did the White House rush to also claim it wanted deficit reduction as part of the debt-ceiling debate."
3. "The President insists his party is offering serious spending cuts and entitlement reform. He also likes to talk about "balance," which to him means real tax increases immediately and speculative spending cuts some time in the distant future. Behind the scenes the White House has only ever agreed to token reform and cuts. Here's a number for the debt history books: Mr. Obama's final offer in the Biden talks was a $2 billion cut in 2012 nondefense discretionary spending. The federal government spends more than $10 billion a day."
Compare this with Packer:
President Obama, responsibly acceding to the reality of divided government, is now the leading champion of fiscal austerity,...
And compare it also with a recent NY Times editorial:
Mr. Obama, in fact, had already gone much too far in trying to make his deal palatable to House Republicans, offering to cut spending even further than the deficit plan proposed this week by the bipartisan “Gang of Six,” which includes some of the Senate’s most conservative members. The White House was willing to cut $1 trillion in domestic and defense spending and another $650 billion from Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security.
There are a few things I find interesting about these contrasting views.
1. Packer and the Times on one side (should I say the left?) and the WSJ on the right (admittedly so) are both claiming the mantel of centrist pragmatism, Weber's "ethic of responsibility."
2. Depending on whether you live in The New Yorker's and The New York Times' reality or the Wall St. Journal's reality, you probably see the real world quite differently. You actually see it otherwise, with different facts and different realities. The nation's two most respected newspapers and probably its most respected weekly present such completely divergent factual pictures of the world, that people who read the one can barely have a meaningful conversation with people who read the other.
3. To read both the NY Times and the WSJ on the same day is to have very little ability to tell which one is closer to a factual reality--it is, really, to enter a weird situation in which the claim of a common world begins to break down and the confidence fades that there is some truth, that someone can with authority say what is. The point is, that when facts become reduced to opinions, it is almost impossible to talk meaningfully with one another, let alone to have an intelligent political discourse. There is nowhere, it seems, to turn for facts when all facts are simply one sides' opinion. I can trust the NY Times more than the WSJ, or vice versa, but it is incredibly difficult to actually discriminate between fact and opinion. This makes a mature political discourse nearly impossible.
It is precisely the reduction of facts to opinions that Hannah Arendt so worried about in her essays Lying in Politics and Truth and Politics. And it is the question of how, and also if, we can re-animate a culture of fact in our world that underlies the Arendt Center's upcoming conference, Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts. You can see the program here. And register here.
In June of this year, Americans celebrated a curious anniversary. The Pentagon Papers turned 40. For Hannah Arendt, what struck anyone who would sit down and read the 47 volumes was the "quicksand of lying statements of all sorts, deceptions as well as self-deceptions." The untruths in the Papers included factual deceptions: Phony body counts and doctored after-damage reports. But these factual lies, Arendt writes in her essay Lying in Politics, were known before they were published in the New York Times. Like the recent Wikileaks release of US diplomatic cables that elicited a collective yawn from all but those who were caught with their feet in their mouths, the Pentagon Papers hardly revealed any spectacular news.
The import of the Pentagon Papers was not the sudden revelation of unknown facts, but the light they shone on the dangers of self-deception. The lesson Arendt drew was that highly intelligent problem solvers could so easily convince themselves of their technocratic ability to steer the war that, when the facts contradicted their theories and calculations, they concluded that it was the facts that must be wrong. What the Pentagon Papers showed, Arendt argued, was not the workings of cabal seeking to deceive others for some end so much as the powerful danger of lying to oneself.
In March of this year, The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College, in collaboration with the New School for Social Research, hosted Lying and Politics, A two-day conference asking:
What is the fate of politics in an age of Lying, Advertising, and Mass-Market Deception?
Speakers at the conference included:
•George Kateb,William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University
•Andreas Kalyvas, Associate Professor of Political Science, The New School
•Kirstie McClure, Associate Professor of Political Science, UCLA
•Uday Mehta, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, CUNY
•Roger Hodge, Former editor of Harpers Magazine.
Videos of the talks are available and we will be posting them over the coming days. You can watch Roger Berkowitz's Introduction to the theme of Lying and Politics here:
And you can watch George Kateb's Lecture (introduced by Jerry Kohn pictured below) "Democracy and Lying," here:
And here is the Question and Answer session for George Kateb's paper: