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The Hannah Arendt Center’s seventh annual fall conference The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For? is upon us. The conference will run from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm on both Thursday and Friday, October 9-10 in Olin Hall at Bard College! Continue reading

Why the President Matters in the 21st Century-Mateus Baptista

We face a challenge of leadership; there is a void in our body politics that remains to be filled. First, expectations of the president need to re-evaluated. The public’s perception of the president is unrealistic and inflated. A CBS News/New York Times poll in March 2012 reported that 54% of people believe the president “can do a lot” about gas prices.

Our economic recession adds another dimension to the public’s bloated expectations. In the wake of the 2008 economic recession all eyes turned on what the President-elect would do once in office. People believed and still do that the President had the ability to fix the global economic meltdown. The public expected the President to solve our economic problem without understanding that in the globalized neo-liberal regime markets are highly connected. It is no longer possible for a single country to ameliorate the effects of an economic meltdown.

The president will only matter in this century if it is first addressed how we perceive the president. He is neither a deity nor a dictator. His actions in an increasingly filibuster-happy congress are limited. The public’s expectations must be re-evaluated and shaped to accept reality. The president cannot solve all our problems; the very fabric of the American constitution prohibits the president from securing more powers. The justified fear of an autocrat prohibits action. This tradeoff was accepted by the founding fathers and it must now be accepted again.

Once expectations are adjusted, how then does the president matter? The president will matter as long as he can engage citizens in our democratic process. The pervasive idea that democracy is simply voting has filled the minds of millions. The civic and democratic institutions lie asleep in times where the market prevails. People have given up on government; they see it as an artifact to be studied in history books. The president must see his role as protector of our democracy; he must be its biggest champion. This cannot only be done through rhetoric alone. The president must help foster an engaged citizenry that actively participates in our democracy.

The danger to our politics does not come from terrorist it comes from a citizenry that is not informed, does not participate, and could care less. When the media suggests the president must rise above politics the only way that can be done is to address the inherent problems in our current political system. It is to remind citizens of the price paid by their forefathers for political rights. The president must become the chief persuader thereby helping bring citizens into the political fold. The only way for the president to matter in this century is for people to see him as a protector of this great experiment and not merely as passerby.

These leaders will come from the left and the right alike, engaging citizens should not be a partisan issue. They must also come with a historical understanding of our democracy and American institutions. This does not mean they will rise from academia, but that their understanding cannot be informed by current political debates but rather by history. New political leaders must accept a non-politicized history that seeks truth.

Facts have become politicized, each side molding it to their own advantage. Objective truths are irrelevant because each side has been allowed to massage it. On August 28, 2012 New Jersey Governor Chris Christie lied by omission. He gave the keynote address at the Republican National Convention claiming that there has been a New Jersey come back. That his policies have worked and all it takes is serious leaders to tackle our problem. He claims he cut the state deficit while decreasing taxes. The governor forgets to mention he also cut pensions, teachers, firefighters, and many others. What is more glaring is New Jersey’s unemployment rate at over 9%.[1]  The myth is created allowing Governor Christie to become a hero in the Republican Party. The truth does not lie with either party. A new leader must inform citizens of the reality rather than try to score political points. This may be impossible but it is the only way that the president will matter.

People are tired of the partisan bickering; Obama’s unemployment rate is just as bad as Governor Christie’s and yet both sides claim victory. A president will not matter until he can acknowledge the fundamental problems at hand. For a leader to matter he must stand for something greater than his own party. He must stand for citizen participation and access to information. A leader would not claim victory but would relate to citizens the problems we face and the solutions they believe will solve it. They must acknowledge when those solutions do not work. It is a pragmatic president that will matter in this century, one who is willing to suffer the consequences of failed policies for democracies sake.

The Millennial generation will inherit a troubled world by the year 2040. Their ability to lead will prove extremely important. They will be the heirs to the American dilemma. The hope is that they rise and fill the leadership void not as past generations have done, but as new leaders different and emboldened by a fight for a vibrant participatory democracy. It is John Dewey that should inform what a new president needs to fight for. “[T]he task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.”[2]


[2] John Dewey, “Creative Democracy—The Task before US

Does the President Matter?

Does the President Matter? Consider this quotation from Jurek Martin in today’s Financial times:

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney may speak, sometimes even to real audiences but more often to fat cat fundraisers, but their words fall on deaf ears if not empty wallets. Lots of people speak for them, in the strange languages known to advertising and political consultants, but what they say is ephemeral and leaves, beyond the daily news fix, “not a wrack behind”, as Shakespeare put it. Yet they are fueled by piles of money, which means they speak more and more – to lesser and lesser effect.

Lawrence Lessig is of course right to worry about the corrupting influence of money on our elections. But the greatest effect of all this money is the drowning out of meaningful speech in a throbbing sea of money-driven sound bites, consultant-approved platitudes, and poll-tested attacks. Everyone must stay on message, which means that no one says or does anything. In such a system, how can the President matter or make a difference in the world?

If you have an answer, enter our 2012 Thinking Challenge by answering the question: “How might the President Matter in the 21st Century?”

Learn more here.

And the winners are…

The winners for the Arendt Center’s first thinking challenge have been chosen. The competition was fierce and we received a large number of high quality entries from many countries on four continents. But, these entries stood out to our judges:

WINNERS (in alphabetical order):

Jacqueline Bao – Click here to read Jackie’s entry, “Whistle-Blowers as Truth Tellers”.

J.P. Lawrence- Click here to watch J.P.’s entry, “Weaponized Words”.

Katya Lebedev – Click here to read Katya’s entry.

Our three winners will each be awarded $500, and have the opportunity to participate on a panel at our upcoming conference, “Truthtelling: Democracy in a Time Without Facts” being held on October 28-29, 2011. They will also receive a signed copy of Thinking in Dark Times.


Rezarta Seferi – Click here to watch Rezarta’s submission, “Who was Josip Broz Tito, and why?”


Steven Tatum – Click here to read Steven’s entry.

EARLY BIRD WINNERS (in alphabetical order)_

KELLY MCLAUGHLIN – Click here to read Kelly’s entry, “So Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes”.

EMILY PASCUAL – Click here to read Emily’s entry, “The Voiceless Generation”.

Our early bird winners will each receive $50.

Congratulations to our winners as well as all those who submitted entries. You should all be proud of the wonderful and thought-provoking work you produced.

Click here to see all of the entries.

Thinking Challenge Submission – Anonymous

Just picturing, imagining realistically the future of “democracy in an age without fact”, two strong, surging, upwelling feelings come to me. The first is an anxiety provoking grief, the feeling of being lost. The second, coming from under the first, behind it but driven more powerfully, is a complex vision of a better world, an enthusiastic hope.

            This essay will first examine the institution of fact, as a failed one; it will move on to see how this failure can bring about a positive change in ethics; and finally a project of thought will be proposed around the notion of personal interest.

            ‘Fact’, taken in its common usage of ‘scientific i.e. immutable’, aside from being a great human institution, through science has taken a particularly strong importance in the modern era. It connotes an unquestionable, certain truth entirely justified on a  human level – religion, chance or fate are not called on to justify this type of truth; it is a self-sufficient rock of man made creation on which we can found our conception of the world. Hence the blow, the grief felt, when this reliance on fact can be thought of as coming to an end. The foundations are taken away, a world is turned upside down, and we are thrown back into an ether of lack of conception. Thought relying on ‘fact’ will eventually end up in this state.

            Indisputable fact, surely enough, is not what it seems: in the vast majority of cases it is most definitely fallible, and at its best it can be said to be highly probable. Scientific facts are relative to context and can always be refined, and even mathematical certainties are not at the safety of being overthrown come a revolutionary discovery (such has happened a few times the last hundred years), or the invalidation of an axiom. David Hume proved this over 200 years ago when he said that the only reason we think we know that the sun will definitely rise tomorrow morning is our habit of it doing so, nothing guarantees that it will.  [necessary? If so explain better] So taking scientific fact as an unshakable base of thought, when it comes down to it, is a mistake, and also a bad move on the human level. Surely enough, when statements are pushed to this level of infallibility, when they become ‘fact,’ they are unquestionable laws, a modern type of dogma. Such dogma cannot be questioned or argued, it is oppressive, and going against it will provoke social punishments. Even the highest level intellectuals and scientists (the high priests of fact), must take the greatest care when questioning it, going slowly, and most definitely avoiding certain essential ones. Transfer this pattern to the life of an individual, and while fact may give him solid beliefs (and maybe a useful sense of security) it also closes his thinking, making him doomed to make certain mistakes over and over, and to missing the classes of truth in life that his facts have rendered improbable. This greatly hinders an individual’s liberty of judgment, a capacity not only needed to a happy life, but absolutely necessary if one wishes to satisfy more subtle needs and wants, the ones which mainstream wisdom does not know how to address.

             In short, the loss of the illusive fact, though disorienting, could also be a step towards a better life. Not to mention it is a step towards the truth, and just so in this aspect, desirable. It leaves us much freer to intellectual exploration; ideas and truths can be sought without the fear of outstepping accepted-as-indubitable facts. In a world with issues such as ours, this could prove essential. But still, as people, to be able to think effectively we do need a certain frame of thought. Fact has fulfilled this role, but if we are approaching “an age without fact,” we need a new, more solid and less oppressive, frame of thought. The dangers of not having one would be utter intellectual erring, or worse, the choice by default of an even worse frame of thinking.      

            In the light of our new freedom of thought, and to fulfill the conditions of a new frame of thought, I would like to see a habilitation of human facts as the center of our thinking. For the sake of explanation we can lump these into two categories, private and interpersonal truths. The first can be true for a person and not for another, they are private, and respectively can only have a corresponding level of validity, but which should nonetheless be respected. The second are true for pretty much everyone, but only in a human and non-scientific way. Interpersonal truths should have about the same validity as scientific truths do today, but of course, due to their interpersonal nature, would be prescribed in a different way. They are not strictly objective. These are the truths dictated by human nature, of human needs and desires. They include positive ones, like empathy and self-fulfillment, but also the negative ones, like hate and greed.

            This implies that greater trust must be given to individual judgment, as well as to the human intelligences which are usually repressed or hidden rather than understood. These include the various intuitions, emotions, spirituality etc; the capacities which as living beings are often our greatest source of intelligence. This is a re-centering of ethics around the individual, and not the fact. Though the fact is important, its prominence over the individual has attained a level of absurdity and so should be re-contextualized, and in any case, if a fact  is truly important to us, it is because it is somehow linked to certain human values. We implicitly function around human values today, but in too much of an indirect manner.           

            To prescribe the project I just described seems quasi-impossible, or at least incredibly vague. And I’m pretty sure that it is impossible to create a systematic implementation of it, even if it were clearly defined, because of its very human and non objective nature. It would have to respect each person’s individual freedom. In the mean time, in spite of this, I would like to attempt a step forward. We cannot aim directly towards a more human society, but we can make ourselves think in a more human way. Since such a human-centered system would emerge through the free choice of the collectivity of individuals, I think it would surely be  beneficial to rethink a big element in the directing of this choice, our private and collective notions of “personal interest.”           

            This notion which guides our actions and shapes the courses of our lives is generally misunderstood today, and thus wreaks havoc on our world. Thinking about it is easy enough and accessible to anybody, and its practical concreteness makes it a much more approachable project than the abstract human-centered society referred to earlier. In an idealist perspective, we can justify that if the greater good follows from everyone pursuing their profoundly best interest, logically, a project of clarifying these interests would be key to this greater good. In a practical sense, such a reflection would give people better awareness of their actions and goals, and hence the ability to choose them more carefully, and so if nothing else, greater personal awareness  and freedom. The feeling of personal interest is probably the oldest guiding thought of people; with the unprecedented level of material ease possible today it deserves some attention and maybe a bit of education (because it is still centered on survival, and maybe desire as a secondary one, not the notion of living a good life).

            Presently, particularly in America, this notion has been completely blurred and uniformized, and people are losing their freedom. Without a solid sense of ones personal interests, one will be misguided, attracted by empty or destructive goals, and with one’s energies so misspent it will be impossibly difficult to lead an ethical life. Too many people equate a desirable life with wealth, fame, or power, when the pursuit and even obtaining of such things will lead to unhappiness and pain for most people. This goes from people taking out gigantic loans to buy things that they don’t need; to wall street traders, whose intellectual capacities could probably do a good deal to make society better, but instead act as essential pivots in participating in making it more unstable; or the student chasing a career that he doesn’t really want or will even be suited for (hence, perhaps, a certain proliferation of bad doctors and unhappy dentists…). To generalize a bit, within the limits of American society, personal interest is dogmatically taken to mean ‘going up’ whatever that entails. To have another conception of personal interest is tagged “alternative” or deviant, is frowned upon or ignored from a distance; in any case it is socially excluded. The freedom of self-definition is replaced by the freedom to social mobility, and in becoming a norm (or a necessary goal) it becomes a limit to the freedom of the self.

            The pursuit of upward mobility as the guarantee of a good life (or happiness) is fundamentally flawed. First of all, individually, it will not satisfy anything more than the most basic material and social needs of a person; and second of all, collectively, the number of people at the ‘top’ of society never increases – and one going up generally implies another coming down: the number of people in desirable positions never actually changes, it is an empty promise for a better society. Also, more people in high profile, high paid positions, structurally implies more people in low profile and underpaid ones supporting their activity – let it be in poor parts of big cities, or on the other side of the world (behind each “Made in China” label there is a worker…).

            It should be noted that this essay does not intend or desire a kind of class revolution. The proposed project lacks this controversy. It should be offensive to nobody –it is adaptable to all non-controlling systems of thought, religions, social classes etc–, and even if it does not ‘solve’ any of the ills of society, it is hard to see how it could be unhelpful. At its most extreme, a rethinking of personal interest would entail a shift from directing life with explicitly external values (wealth, power etc), to personal ones (self-fulfillment, happiness, empathy etc). Practically, the values that would really matter are more along the lines of personal fulfillment, pleasure, integrity, self-respect, etc. Wealth or power, etc, would only be valuable in relation to the latter values, and to the very few people suited for such positions.

            I believe in the practical feasibility of this, that a person holds the notions of his fundamental personal interests inside of him, and that with proper research and guidance the individual can find them. This project requires solid guidance and education; self education at early stages of life can easily result in disaster. Guidance should be opposed to directing: to help someone find what is best for him rather than dictating it. The notion of personal interest itself has to be reconsidered for each and every person. Simply superimposing various pre-existing notions of personal interest is a mistake – a particular individual should require his very own one, and even if he doesn’t, he should at least be required to make the effort to find which one is his.       

            I believe that society today does not function properly. The desirable system of society, the one we’re looking for, is structuring but not controlling; it organizes people without preventing their well being and hindering their free will. The ability of the leading class to control its people should no longer be such an important value if we wish to attain a human-centered society. It seems like a safety net which we are stuck in. If each individual chooses what is profoundly best for him, the sum of these decisions is what can let a “better world” emerge. Controlled revolution, with its manifestos of predefined values seem like the reiteration of a bad idea. A rethinking of “personal interest,” while not a sufficient condition for a human-centered society (as opposed to economy centered, or ideology-centered ones), definitely seems to be a quasi-essential part of it. But if nothing else, if these goals are completely unrealistic, such a project would give people the added awareness of their own decisions without which they cannot be said to be free.




“Mis Mentiras” – Andres Martinez de Velasco & Loretta Lopez

Statement of Purpose

Mis Mentiras is a colaborative project built upon communication. Loretta wrote the poem in Spanish and as she searched for an accurate English version of her words, Andrés composed music for the Spanish version. Andrés’ music does not explain the poem, it investigates its core and expresses it as a reaction. His work captures the sentiment of Loretta ́s. It is not a translation but an invention in itself.

In the English translation of the poem, the words wrap the core predecessor. Like Andres’ music, Loretta ́s translation prioritizes the preservation of sentiment . It does not work on an entirely factual level, it chooses to understand a meaning and preserves the truth through further invention.

Mis Mentiras works on a principle of risk and creation. When we voice truth through art we engage in a simultaneous act of creation and loss because the accuracy of any medium is limiting and the extent of understanding indefinitely variable. Different understandings become part of the artwork, part of the truth, or a new truth.

-Andrés and Loretta

Song:  Mis Mentiras  mis+mentiras+mp3-2.mp3
Excerpt of score:

Lyrics in Spanish:

Mis Mentiras

He decido decir la verdad a través de metáfora.

Mis mentiras son de leopardo,

mi lengua es de colibrí,

se extiende hacia flores y agua de azucares para que los niños se asomen de sus balcones.

Me he abierto y cerrado tres veces pero no es ahí donde uno encuentra el misterio.

Ayer en sueños, nos sentamos en el piso azul de la cocina agachados enfrente del goteo,

me dijiste que solo me entenderías hasta el final, esto nunca fue un cuento, pero siempre lo será. Entiendo que recordarme es mentir. Derive un color del color original, agregando el blanco, seguí este movimiento y cada color nuevo se convirtió en el original. No hay un ancestro, mis hijas de amapola son los ancestros.

Las semillas muertas dan flor.

Somos abuelas sin nietos y líneas rectas desvaneciendo a la ausencia de oscuridad.

Hablemos ahorita para representar el olvido,

para impregnar estos cielos de montaña,

las estrellas siempre han sido la mas grande distracción al verdadero negro.

Realmente es el vacío que se refleja en esta laguna.

Construí mis propias lagunas donde se reflejan las caras de vírgenes adornadas en piedras falsas y chucherías de hogar,

tengo la adicción de representarme con estos objetos. Reconozco la inmoralidad de una mentira y lo tristemente ordinario de la verdad.


Lyrics translated into English:

My Lies

I will tell the truth through metaphor,

through leopard lies,

and my hummingbird tongue

that reaches into opening flowers and sugar water so children lean out their balconies.

I opened and closed myself three times but that is not where we find the mystery. Yesterday, in dreams, we sat on the blue kitchen tiles in front of a leak, you said you would only understand me at the end but this wasn’t a story—though it always will be.

Recalling myself is also a lie.

I painted you

deriving a color from the original color by adding white,

following this movement every new color became the original.

There are no ancestors, my amapola daughters are the ancestors and

dead seeds flower

we are the grandmothers without children and straight lines fading into the lack of darkness.

Let’s talk now to show our forgetfulness

and impregnate these mountain skies with this conversation.

Stars distract us from true blackness,

really it’s the void reflected upon the lagoon.

I built my own lagoon, it reflects the faces of virgins adorned in false gems and the knick knacks of a home.

Addicted to representing myself with these objects, I recognize the immortality of a lie and the commonplace sadness of the truth.

Truth-telling in the Age of Opinion-Laurel Harig

In the age of rapid- response media, truths are deployed like hard drives, consumed and then over-written by newer, faster, more expedient truths. We want instant insight and commentary, not hard- won wisdom. Contemporary journalism in the United States is broken when there is no culture of analysis to support it, when pundits offer pre-packaged opinions that are wielded with nonchalance by everyone from citizens to senators alike. Debate meanders circularly and there is no resolution because there are no facts or values held in common. This is how something like climate change which is recognized by 98% of scientists can become a matter for debate. The remaining 2% of scientists can become a credible reason for doubt. After all, truth is all in how you tell it, which facts you reveal and which you keep hidden, which are distorted and which are twisted beyond recognition by losing their context and history. The appearance of fact is enough in a timeless, soulless world. What is truth-telling in the age of opinion?

Listening to Syrian- American hip-hop artist Omar Offendum’s album, SyrianamericanA, throws into relief the tensions and richness of cross-cultural experience. The narrator is living a life that is familiar to those who cross between the Arab world and the West. Each verse becomes a meditation on colonialism, Orientalism, the nomadism of “success,” feeling torn between two cultures, two moralities, two inseparable, dissimilar lives. ” Look up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane,” he sings. “it’s an Arab super hero and he came to bring change.” The voices of truth-telling in the future belong to those who are caught, by chance or circumstance, in between two or more conflicting narratives of power– when ideologies are examined in the light of lives we must live, the story unravels and we can see beyond the frame.

Tunisian revolutionaries have expressed “we don’t want to be called by the names of flowers!” Especially after the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism has marketed the country for years as a land of exotic fragrances and accessible to Europe Mediterranean charm. The Arab revolutions, not “the Arab Spring,” or “the Jasmine Revolution,” offer new possibilities for speaking and thinking from and to the centers of power. Once ignored by the mainstream media, activists, in particular from the Egyptian youth movements, have been featured on Al-Jazeera and honored by establishments of “human rights.” With this recognition, however, comes an even greater challenge. The call by Egyptian activists at the beginning of the revolution was for each man, woman and child to come down into the square. Not only those who have access to blogs, Twitter or  Facebook, those who are young, globally connected, or connected to leftist politics were responsible for the events which are continuing to shake the foundations of the world we thought we knew. We all have a responsibility to the cities, the politics we find ourselves in. Hannah Arendt said famously that “freedom has a space, a place.” (The Promise of Politics) These spaces, Arendt says, are the heart of the city or polis and contain the essence of democracy. The Bahraini regime knew this perfectly well when they destroyed the Pearl Roundabout which had been the epicenter of demonstrations in March of 2011. Around the world, public spaces are being reshaped and reclaimed as spaces of dissent, debate and action.

These spaces are not given for free. Waves of development have ripped out the collective spaces from cities, turning historic neighborhoods into block of “luxury flats” or boutique hotels which cater exclusively to foreigners. Gentrification pushes families further away from the centers of cities into hard to access suburbs. Beirut’s cosmopolitan charm is largely a fiction invented by the tourism industry. Recently in Beirut, several friends have been wounded by thugs of the Syrian regime. People are pulled off bar stools for criticizing Assad’s regime and beaten up in nearby alleys. The freedom that we struggle for is not an abstract, but a daily sensous reality. It demands an awareness and a greater attention to the small politics of daily life. Sometimes a revolution can be a few previously unspoken words, sometimes it can be a look for or against what is easily apparent. At all times, it is the will to resist “the way things are.”

A friend of ours who was being prosecuted by a military court for his activism committed suicide last week in Beirut. “I die as I have lived,” he wrote, “a free spirit, an anarchist, owing no aliegance to rulers heavenly or earthly.” In the discourse surrounding his death, however, one truth risks being drowned out by the fervor to write his death as a heroic gesture, a revolutionary position. That truth, rather quietly, is that Nour had struggled for many years with severe depression. It seems wrong to paint him as a hero in death when he might have lived as a man. If we were to follow Nour’s example, we would work tirelessly and quietly for the causes we believe in. Truth, in the manner of an enduring wisdom, is always soft-spoken, always humble and often found in unexpected places.

The Truth Within the Fact in the Context of Politics-Blagovesta Atanassova

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”  

Hannah Arendt, “Origins of Totalitarianism”

What is truth? Is there such a thing as a universal truth or is truth something that is based on one’s belief? I was confronted with this question recently, in my Theory of Knowledge class, and my first reaction was: yes, there is such a thing as a universal truth! But as I got to think about it more and more, I came to realize that actually truth is what one makes it to be. For an example, it was a universal truth for many societies, including the Ancient Greeks, that the Earth was the center of our solar system. It was the logical thing to assume, since everyone could see that the Sun and the Moon circled our planet. But did that make the theory true? In the early 1500s, Nicholas Copernicus realized that, while the Sun might seem to circulate the Earth, it is, in fact, the Earth was circulating the Sun and the only reason it seemed to be the other way was because Earth was making circles around itself. Today, through modern technology we have concrete proof that the Earth truly circulates the Sun – and nobody would believe if they were told the geocentric theory.

The purpose of that analogy is to show that society can quickly be convinced based on what they see on the surface. For the early people, it was very clear that the Sun moved on the sky and that the Moon did so, as well, thus the Earth had to be the center of the universe. Similarly, in history and politics, sometimes people tend to be led by their beliefs rather than what is beneath the surface. Many politicians have for years believed that lies are not harmful when trying to achieve a great cause. Yet, that is not so. Perhaps, for those leaders who chose to lie, it is indeed not harmful, for they do tend to achieve their goals. All they need is the perfect circumstances, a few wielded facts and the right words. For the society which follows them blindly, the consequences are often much greater.

One great example in history would be that of the French Revolution. The time preceding the Revolution was that of a financial crisis. More and more people struggled to survive, having lost their jobs, living under miserable conditions and often unable to buy even a loaf of bread. As in many occasions in history, one man succeeded to make the best of the situation. Maximilien Robespierre was one of the many revolutionary leaders. He used the people’s desperation, and, using a language of hatred, inspired the people to rise against the government and overthrow the monarchy. In much what he said, Robespierre was right – indeed, the royal family lived an expensive life off of the money of the people. What he did not tell, however, was that, the royal family in France had always lived in the same way Marie Antoinette and her husband did – the difference was that the previous generations did not have to face the financial crisis the last French royal family did. Thus, by twisting what is now known as a historical fact and using the desperation of the French people, Robespierre created a truth of his own, which the people accepted and turned into a universal truth. That lead to Robespierre achieving his goal – he got power and became a leader. But those who had supported him, such as his fellow revolutionaries, suffered, for almost all of them followed the royal family on the guillotine. Robespierre’s reign of terror lead France into a different kind of crisis, and it was a consequence of the people’s folly. It took generations to achieve the ultimate goal of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood”. 

Of course, not all political figures twist the truth to achieve a greater good for themselves – in some cases; they do it believing that they would achieve a greater good for their country or even the world. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is, to this day, known as one of the greatest presidents of the United States. And, in many ways, he saved this country. But in order to do so, he had to make sacrifices. Sacrifices that cost others great pain. At the end of WWII, at the Conference at Yalta, a document known as the Declaration of Liberated Europe was signed by FDR, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. In that document, it was declared that after the end of the war, with the liberation of the countries influenced or occupied by Germany, free elections would be held, in order to establish new order. These words sounded very promising, yet there was a problem – they were very vague. At the time, almost nobody was able to see that. The war

had caused too much damage. All people wanted was a peaceful resolution. The prospect of free elections seemed wonderful, and everyone was too eager to believe there would be such a thing. I can testify for that, using the example of the country of my birth – Bulgaria. When the Declaration of Liberated Europe became a public fact, preparations for elections began in Bulgaria. Candidates were picked out, campaigns were started. Great was the shock of the people, when the government, which had been a communist-oriented one, with a prime minister close to Stalin, arrested everyone who had been pro-democracy and executed the leaders of the opposition. Not too surprisingly, the leaderships of almost the entire Eastern Europe, with the exclusion of Greece, turned red, or pro-Soviet. There was a purpose behind the vagueness of the Declaration of Liberated Europe – free elections, as far as Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill were concerned, meant elections in which Stalin’s post-war vision of spheres of influence in Eastern Europe would become a fact. In other words, the

Big Three knew that at the Eastern European elections, there would be no governments that would turn out as pro-democratic. FDR also succeeded to achieve his goals – there was peace, but he had to lie and sacrifice Eastern Europe for it. Citizens did not know that – they believed in what they saw on the surface, in what they heard from their leader and created a universal truth, which ended up hurting the Eastern European peoples.

History often tends to repeat itself, although in different forms. Today, I can clearly see a radical new movement in the United States – a country that has always symbolized freedom, democracy, and rational thinking. I angered to hear a statement that the newly popular Tea Party had made – they accused President Obama of being a socialist. I cannot be sure if it is the atrocity of this statement, or the amount of people supporting it that bothered me more. Ever since the Cold War, in the United States the term “socialist” had ben related to the Soviet Union and its dictators. I find it funny, knowing the true meaning of the term, how correct the Tea Party leaders are. For, the initial ideal of socialism is that all people would be equal. If one sees the term in this fashion, then yes, Obama is a socialist, for he wants all Americans to have equal opportunity, and he has been fighting for that with the Universal Health Reform and the plans for job opportunities. But I know that the Tea Party does not use it in this way, nor do their supporters see it as such. No, they use the term in a Soviet-related fashion, thus offending people like my mother, who lived in a communist state, experienced the transition, and came here from a post-communist society and knows what the true meaning of a communist dictatorship is. But the Tea Party leaders have found the perfect circumstances, hitting on a nerve in a time of deep economic and financial crisis and have used a hateful language to achieve their own purpose – to have power. Perhaps it is too early for many of their followers to see, but as I personally believe, American society is dividing and the people are suffering. The problem is, they believe they suffer because of the wrong person. They have created their own truth, a truth which for them is universal, like the truth of the geocentric theory or the free-elections of post WWII Europe.

No, there is no universal truth, there is truth based on the interpretation of facts. And it is the responsibility of society, the citizens and their leaders to overcome their bias and look beneath the surface, seeing the facts as they are.

A Show About Nothing: Addressing the Lack of Objectivity in the US-Pak Relationship – Saim Saeed

Within the context of the chronically unhinged US-Pak relationship, truth seems to have a Holy Grail-like existence, a perpetual not-being. Every aspect of this relationship seems to be based on projected motives, half-truths, distrust, covert missions, divergent interests and blatant lies.

I’ll lay out the perceived truths of the matter. America thinks: Pakistan is obsessed with India. Any weapons or military aid given to Pakistan will go to the eastern, rather than western frontier. Pakistan wants ‘strategic depth’ – it wants a friendly Afghanistan in case of war with India, in case of geographical, tactical and political maneuverability. It wants elements within the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network to be in power after the US packs up to achieve that friendly government. It is afraid of Indian influence in Afghanistan – Pakistan does not want to be flanked with hostile governments on both sides. Pakistan, hence, has an interest in fueling in the conflict in Afghanistan so that it could wield influence in ‘endgame’ negotiations. Hence, Pakistan, a supposed ally, is providing the very weapons and funds that the United States is supplying to Pakistan, to the people that the United States is fighting against.

Pakistan thinks: The United States is not to be trusted. They abandoned Pakistan in 1989, when the Soviet-Afghan war wrapped up, and this occasion will be no different. Pakistan needs to think of a post-US map of South Asia, getting as much influence, and as many concessions as it can before the withdrawal. As for Pakistan’s stance towards the militants, Pakistan is the biggest casualty in the War on Terror – a war not started by Pakistan. Pakistan has suffered thousands of military and civilian deaths at the hands of militants, and Pakistan has been stretched to the limit in fighting this menace. The Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network does not threaten or endanger Pakistan. Pakistan would be stretched even thinner, and be even more insecure if Pakistan expanded its theater of military operations. Furthermore, the United States does not respect Pakistan as an ally, expanding drone operations on Pakistani sovereign territory despite Pakistan’s continuous calls for the abandonment of the program. The United States consistently favors India over Pakistan, legitimizing, indeed enhancing, the former’s nuclear program, while constantly heckling the latter’s.


Where does this lead? Not anywhere desirable by either party. The United States assumes that the war in Afghanistan will carry on indefinitely until the security threat coming from within Pakistan’s borders is neutered. Pakistan will continue to try and muscle its way on to the negotiating table in Afghanistan and recreate a former sphere of influence. In real terms, therefore, when the matter is put in such terms, the Afghan war, drone strikes, terrorist attacks, occupation, and everything else that is ugly will continue to come out in news items, Twitter feeds and body bags – an inadvertent upholding of a status quo that nobody wants, except for militants. And like that, the interminability of it all evokes cynicism, despair, a gross acceptance of the atrocity that is war, and everything that comes with it.

There is nothing inevitable about the state of affairs between Pakistan and the United States. At the most fundamental level – and it is condescending to say so – there is a lack of empathy. The realities that Pakistan and the United States create for themselves are warped, subjective, narrow and dissimilar. They lack any objective truth, making any meaningful negotiation – even conversation – impossible. Pakistan and the United States, as political entities, are impossible to reduce to their tactical objectives. Furthermore, they both project what the other side wants rather than disclosing their own objectives. Finally, there is an expectation of deceit that renders any candor as insincere.

So why and how does truth matter? Recently, there has been a lot of academic interest in Pakistan. Journalists, authors and academics have spent time and energy to try and go deeper than simply talk across a negotiating table to better understand the dilemmas, the aspirations, the thorns in the hearts and minds of the people of Pakistan. They went to search for the truth. Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven is probably the most apt manifestation of this interest, in which he travels far and wide, interviewing day laborers, bureaucrats and army generals, painting a rich and complex canvas of a nation of a hundred and eighty million. The truth, especially in a country as multi-layered and multi-dimensioned as Pakistan, is never categorical and always nuanced.

That doesn’t suit power brokers very well. Things have to be suchandsuch in order for them to do soandso. When entities such as the Pakistani military are so fractured that one wing is Islamist while the other is secular, it is difficult to characterize the Pakistani military that takes into account such contradictions. Hence, either the secular side is pretending, or there must be two separate militaries. Pakistan’s obession with India is taken as a given, and it takes Aatish Taseer, the son of a murdered Pakistani governor to try explain why even that supposedly irrational position exists. Empathy is not extended to the other side either. The United States also has a need to have itself and its allies dissociated from any form of terrorist activity. This is not as obvious as it sounds. The United States, and most countries, have supported militant non-state actors in the past to meet particular strategic and tactical objectives, whether it be the Contras in Nicaragua, or the even the rebels in Libya in the present day. But the advent of Al-Qaeda has tempered this political phenomenon, making the United State particularly averse; a sensitivity that Pakistan does not appreciate.

I speak not of morality. I am not an idealist. I understand the strategic and pragmatic motives that compel states to act with each other with the ruthlessness and trepidation that they do, and that they are a symptom of the fundamental uncertainty that exists in international relations. What is evident, however, is the elementary mismatch of two countries trying to work together when there is nothing objective for them to work on. A comic example of this would be the meetings between Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart on their respective shows. Their summits tend to be cagey and volatile, where the presenters spend most of their time in holding their own, rather than trying to seek any kind of objectivity in the current American political framework. They cognitively treat as fact the notion that there can be no agreement between rival factions. By agreement I do not mean accordance. I mean an acceptance of certain political truths. For example, Republicans think military intervention is bad when a Democratic President does it, and for Democrats, intervention is bad when a Republican President does it. There is nothing categorically ‘bad’ or ‘good’ about interventions, according to politicians.

So when Jon Stwewart and Bill O’Reilly talk to each other, there is nothing objective being discussed at all; it is, all just an articulation of their own interpretations of reality that the other chooses not to accept.

Mr Lieven’s book to me, then, is the reality that best represents the objective truth in politics. In the case of US-Pakistan relations, it is the objective reality that needs to be considered by both Pakistan and the US so that at least they can talk about the same objects, rather than simply hurl vindictive, venomous accusations at each other.

I want to make this very clear.  This is not a case of ‘can’t we all just get along?’ That would be a patronizing – indeed, wrong – characterization of how international relations work. What I am calling for is the need for objective truth, an undeniable state of affairs, the undeniable object of negotiation, so that even in the case of diverging opinions, the fundamentals of what is being discussed is not in dispute. In American-Pakistani relations, and most international disputes, that is lacking. When the CIA itself says that there has not been “a single collateral death” from the drone strikes, while other reports say almost a third are civilians, then there is a fundamental need to have the truth about the drone program to assess its efficacy. Any discussion regarding the drone strikes is an exercise in futility since nobody, not even the CIA, has an idea of what reality is actually being discussed. Even if they did, it evidently is not being shared. And so, again, negotiation – discussion – becomes a tragic case of he-said-she-said – or he’ll-say-she’ll-say – that, inherently, is doomed to fail.

Strategic thinking is an integral part of politics; but when it clouds our basic fundamental interpretation of reality so much that we fail to recognize any empirical, epistemological truth, Afghanistan does indeed become a quagmire – just like it is in our heads.

A Devised Truth-Morgan Green

Truth is a political construction.  Last week, two women were fined for wearing burqas in a suburb of Paris.  This was the first application of a controversial law passed in France forbidding Muslim women from covering their faces in public.  Compulsory unveiling in France creates a narrative of a homogeneous French identity. In an age of mass immigration and turmoil between Islam and the West, the veil functions as a synecdoche for Muslim dissonance.  Cultural battles are often fought through the form of the female body, though the conflict is much deeper than a thin layer of fabric across the face.  Women are traditionally the mothers, home-keepers, and face of moral society, and therefore visually represent national ideals. A cultural battle is being fought through the body of the Muslim French woman, using her image to project political truth.

The right wing political pursuits in France have encroached on women’s right to freely practice their religion. While France claims to be in favor of women’s rights and freedoms, a woman’s right to identify with her religion, a precious freedom, is now forbidden.  The choice to wear a headscarf should be personal and not legal.  Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab believe that Islam liberates and empowers them, while the image of the veil challenges the Western notion of these words.

This ban is accompanied by a great ignorance that will not be recognized until the controversy is over.  This shrouding of the truth must be dispelled in the name of human rights.  Seeing a woman fully covered from head to toe can be discomforting.  From a Western perspective the covering of ones face can be interpreted as a refusal to exist, an erasure from society, an equivalent to silence.  Muslim women cover their face in order to be modest and diminish their publicly exposed sexuality, but when out of context as in France the veil intensifies sexuality in its excessiveness. It is conspicuous, and being so visible calls more attention to Muslim women rather than less.  There is mystery and fear of what is under the veil, and this ban is an attempt to control women, more so than the veil is misconstrued to do so itself.  Save for extreme circumstances in conservative Muslim countries, women choose to wear their head coverings and are not required to do so.

The only obligatory dress code for Muslims according to the Koran is to dress modestly. The Koran actually says in Surah XXIV Light “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only what which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosom”  It goes on to describe the close relations with whom the woman can share her

adornments.  There are no specifics about the hijab or burqa.  There is no sketch or diagram.  Covering the head is a cultural and personal choice in order to identify with faith.  Muslim women wear the hijab to feel connected with their faith and with their community, as well as to distinguish themselves from Western traditions.  Men are    [i]not limited in their choices. This tradition is not distinctly Islamic.  There are Hasidic Jews, as well as Amish men and woman who dress in a distinctive conservative style as well.  A headscarf can even be as secular as a fashion statement as seen above on the lovely Grace Kelly! France especially recognizes the power of clothes, where being fashionable and beautiful is an expression of patriotism.

Despite these truths, it is difficult to know a person without seeing their face. However, there is a difference between the burqa, which covers the entirety of the face, and the hijab, which leaves the face exposed.  The Muslim women in France who choose to wear the full burqa are a vast minority: about 3 thousand out of a country of 62 billion.  France, the most secular country in Europe, practices a strict separation of church and state.  So why should the government ban the religious choice of a small selection of their citizens?

The projected truth of what it is to be French was discussed in an official national debate on French identity led by President Sarkozy. Sarkozy’s attempt to define the national essence encourages a false ideal that all citizens must comply with the same set of values.  Hannah Arendt also sees truth as something that applies to all men, a universal fact. However, the French government is trying to enforce a truth of the French image, while discounting the realistic diversity in their population.

According to the French government, the veil undermines national unity and threatens community. The French Right sites the preservation of frenchness as its primary objection to the veil.   The veil has also become an issue of National Security. Muslim women must be totally visible in public.  It is not safe to drive with vision obstructed by the veil. The tradeoff of these precautions is encroachment on the freedom of religion.  Moreover, Muslim women have expressed the willingness to show their faces when legally necessary as in court, or at the bank.

The subject of women’s body as a form of political debate is not unprecedented.  Catholic missionaries attempting to convert and assimilate Native American women cut off their long dark braids.  Mini skirts in the late 60’s were measured with a ruler in schools for proper length.  My mother was sent home from higschool in Austin, Texas for having yarn shoelaces that dragged on the ground. While the French claim to be protecting the equality and dignity of women, they are in fact disrespecting women’s right to choose their own religious practice.

Kenza Drider, a conservative Muslim French woman, announced her candidacy for President the same day the women were fined for wearing their veils in a town hall.  She proposes to serve all women who are the subject of political discrimination, and though she has little chance to win the election she brings up the excellent point:  How does controlling what women wear protect their rights?

When I was in the West Bank for three weeks I was asked to cover my hair, which I found unpleasant.  Covering my latest haircut or dye job: both of which  have the power to transform and reinvent self-image, felt oppressive. I wore a scarf to and from the school where I taught and quickly tore it off the moment I entered my classroom. It is part of Western culture to celebrate the beauty of the female body, which consequently means to expose it.  This is something I believe in personally, and support the celebration of the female body.  However, my mind was opened when my students told me why they love their hijabs, and choose to start wearing them much earlier than they needed to. Generally girls adorn themselves with hijabs when they begin menstruating.  They said it makes them feel like more of a woman, and they are proud to feel that way.  I had never thought of it like that, but now see that this choice is strongly cultural and connects the fashionable young ladies with their community as well as their religion.  The choice is not unlike my own to begin wearing a bra and shaving my legs during those same formative years.


The choice to wear a hijab ties a young woman to their families as a representative symbol of societal values. This is not in accordance with the Western idolization of individualism, and therefore an essential difference between our cultures. By dictating how women can dress, France is dismissing differences in culture that it should tolerate rather than control.

France’s burqa ban oppresses women by banning an essential part of their religious and cultural heritage.  The ultimate right for any individual, man or woman, is choice. France’s nationalist battle of the veil prohibits this right.  French Muslim women should not have to choose between their religion and their country because their country doesn’t view their choices as French.  Does the narrative projected by the French government ring true, or is a woman’s right to choose the universal truth?  Though the collective nationalist brainwashing can be compelling, in the end there can only be one truth.  Either France is right and the burqa condemns the countries sense of self, as well as oppresses women, or Muslim women who freely choose to wear their burqas are the more free and liberated citizens of France.  The ban exemplifies the manipulation of truth for a political purpose, using the woman’s body as an illustrative tool for change.

[1] Iranian Painter: Afshin Pirhashemi

[1] Jananne Al-Ani, Untitled, 1996

[1] Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief 1995

[1] President Sarkozy

[1] Kenza Drider announcing her candidacy

[1] My English Class, Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative, West Bank

[1] Lisa Lyon by Robert Mapplethorpe

Thinking Challenge Submission- Steven Tatum

I would like to conduct a poll: “If you had to describe political life today with one word, what would it be?” My hunch is that popular responses from both sides of the isle might include variations on ideological gridlock, frustration, partisanship, self-interestedness and impotent.  In any case, with the approval ratings of congress at an all time low, there is a general sense that there is something seriously wrong with politics today.  I worry that we are growing increasingly tolerant of our dysfunctional at worst, frustrating at best, political life.  Is this just the way it has to be?

While much of Hannah Arendt’s essay “Truth and Politics” is devoted to an examination of the disintegration of political life that sounds all to familiar to a contemporary reader, she concludes by defending what she calls “the actual content of political life.”  For Arendt, associating with others in public with the goal of making something new together can give rise to feelings of joy and gratitude.  So what has gone wrong?  Why is it that any attempt at political engagement today leaves us frustrated, resentful, and cynical?

I believe Arendt makes a strong case that the quality of our political environment has deteriorated because of our understanding of what it means to tell the truth.  One easy way to see what Arendt is talking about is to consider comedian Stephen Colbert’s understanding of what truth is and where it comes from.  When he coined the word “truthiness” in 2005, he went a long way toward explaining our society’s attitude toward truth.  In Colbert’s satire, the proper source of truth is not reason or fact, but conviction and instinct, “know[ing] with the heart.”  Extending these themes in his address at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Colbert argues that truth exists only in the “no facts zone” of personal conviction.  By this definition, truth is no more than our personal understandings of the way the world appears and how it works.  In other words, truth is just a very strong opinion.

It is precisely this tendency to blur the lines between truth opinion that Arendt believes undermines the “common and factual reality” which gives meaning and balance to our lives together in public.  In a world where opinions are held to be true and truths debated with as if they are opinions, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the truth, and the common ground on which we stand erodes even further.  A disinterested truthteller, who tries to make facts known to the public with no motives besides the desire to establish the existence of a common world, finds him or herself in danger of being swept up into politics.  If one political group or another notices that the truthteller’s facts either to support or oppose their personal convictions, the facts themselves can be disagreed with as matters of political opinion.

Consider the climate change debate in this country.  When scientists presented evidence that the global climate is changing and that human activity is a main cause, liberal environmentalist politicians quickly adopted their findings as justification for regulation and investment in alternative energy sources.  When criticism of climate researched emerged in the scientific community the political right capitalized on the doubt, which is a normal part of the scientific process.  Once science blurred with political opinions, it was subject to debate just as any other political opinion, and we could no longer look to science as a source of unbiased truth.

To the extent that we locate the truth with one political interest or another, we find ourselves in danger of destroying the concept of truth altogether.  This is essentially what Colbert shows us.  Truth has disappeared from our world.  This should be shocking.  And yet when Colbert dismisses books and their cold facts and celebrates truth that comes from the gut, we laugh.  It’s as if we always knew that this was the case, but no one was audacious enough to say it.  When a funny guy on comedy television announces it point-blank to everybody, even to the White House Press Corps, he made us aware of our unconscious worry that politics was really a farcical struggle for power that had nothing to do with what was true. We laughed because he showed us we were right all along.

Hannah Arendt isn’t laughing.  She understands that people living in a political environment that is not grounded in apolitical facts will eventually lose faith in the existence of any truth whatsoever.  Without the firm ground of truth, we literally lose our bearings in the real world that we share with others.  In search of stability, we tend to strengthen our belief in a consistent narrative of opinions and lies that provides a satisfying explanation for the way things are.  Since, for example, many climate scientists found themselves sucked up into political debate and subsequently lost their authority as truthtellers, we are left to orient ourselves by whichever political ideology that matches what we want to believe.  In this situation, conversation between opposing groups becomes nearly impossible.  Without reference to a shared factual reality, and individual or group that is convinced of his/her/its political opinions literally lives in a different world than someone who holds a different opinion.

I believe this loss of the ability to communicate with one another is largely responsible for the loss of the joy and gratitude that political life offers.  As we feel more and more that we are living in differing realities, the opportunities for coming together, affirming the existence of a common world and taking action to make our new contribution to it become fewer and fewer.  By associating more and more with people who share our political opinions, we make it more difficult to exchange opinions with someone with whom we are likely to disagree.  How, then, in today’s political climate can we reclaim some of the joy in doing something together and gratitude for living in a world in which we act with others?

Obviously we won’t find that all our differences will vanish if we just start talking with one another.  The emphasis on civility in politics today may change the tone of debate, but it will not help us find common ground.  In fact, speaking nicely to one another may just make it more pleasant to stay in our separate worlds, convinced that our view is the right view, but polite enough to let others believe in their views.

One thing that can begin to reverse the trend of defactualization is increasing our awareness of the limits of political action and our sensitivity to the non-political experiences in our lives.  If we were a little more willing to lay aside our political views and temper our conviction enough to experience facts and events as they are without the filter of political interpretation, we would begin to recognize that however powerful our capacity for understanding may be, the world of facts and events that stretches into the past defies our attempts at total explanation.  Neither can we change or undo what has happened.  Ultimately this contemplation of reality leads to the experience of wonder at things as they are.   This experience of things as they are is the experience of truth.  We make sense of this experience by selecting certain facts and events to incorporate into our own narratives and opinions.  But the world as it is always serves as our starting point for political debate and the renewal of our world.

Arendt underscores the importance of maintaining institutions devoted to this contemplation of things as they are.  Philosophers, scientists, artists, judges, and reporters must forfeit their roles in political life in order to be faithful truthtellers.  But unless everyone cultivates their own sensitivity to the world that we share as it is, either through solitary contemplation or through dialogue with someone who has a different perspective, we will cease to live in one common world and all attempts at renewal will fail.  Nothing less is at stake here than the continuation of the world of human affairs.  As political debate reaches into more and more aspects of our lives, from health care and taxes to which television channels we watch and which newspapers we read, we lose more and more of the already rare opportunities to lay aside politics and be alone long enough to be overtaken by the world as it is.  If everyone experienced a little more non-partisan care for and commitment to the world and a little less conviction that we know what is best, we might rediscover the joy and gratitude that Arendt tells us are meant to come with the task of renewing our common world.


Steven Tatum

Whistle-Blowers as Truth-Tellers-Jacqueline Bao

The New York Review of Books first published Hannah Arendt’s Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers on November 18, 1971, after Daniel Ellsberg had leaked 47 sections of the document to the New York Times.  Originally commissioned in 1967 by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the Pentagon Papers was an effort to produce an “encyclopedic and objective”[1] report on the Vietnam War.  The report was an authenticated document that proved the American government was engaged in over a decade of deception and secrecy aimed at the public—the president had lied, the secretary of defense had lied—no one was telling the truth, and even worse, truth just wasn’t accessible to anyone but the insiders.

The term “whistleblower” acquired its contemporary meaning in the early 1970’s as “‘one who blows the whistle’ on a person or activity, especially from within an organization.” The colloquial saying ‘to blow the whistle’ is derived from the literal act, like when a referee blows the whistle on a foul play or a police officer blows the whistle to expose and halt a crime in a crowded street.  According to OED, the noun whistle-blower was first used in a contemporary, more figurative sense in 1970.  In 1972, one year after the Pentagon Papers were leaked, an onslaught of critical whitstleblowers followed Ellsberg and Russo’s lead: Peter Buxtun blew the whistle on the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, ending a four-decade syphilis “study” conducted on 400 poor black Alabama males.  That same year, Ralph Nader hosted the first organized conference on “professional responsibility,” later known to root the beginnings of corporate whistle blowing culture.  And most famously, W. Mark Felt (or Deep Throat) tipped off the arrest of five men in the Watergate democratic headquarters, leading to the Watergate investigations.  Whistleblowing would rise to become one of the prominent modes of truth telling in the increasingly withdrawing public sphere.

Forty years after the release of the Pentagon papers, WikiLeaks released “Collateral Murder,” a classified United States military video depicting soldiers firing indiscriminately at civilian targets, including two Reuters journalists. Private Bradley Manning was later charged and arrested for leaking half-a-million reports from the Iraq War, including the video “Collateral Murder.”  Unlike the Vietnam War, during which photographers and journalists had relative independence in reporting, beginning with the Clinton administration and continuing through the Bush and Obama administrations, severe restrictions were placed on media coverage for wars.  Truly authentic images of the war, as opposed to staged photo-press “opportunities,” surfaced mainly through insiders, amateurs, and whistleblowers.  For instance, the amateur shot images of Abu Ghraib exposed by Joe Darby became the most publicized photography to come out of the Iraq War because of their unquestionable authenticity.  The images proved and documented various incidences of torture, and what’s more, that torture was being inflicted on prisoners solely as a pleasurable pastime to fight the boredom of soldiers.

Hannah Arendt writes that secrecy has been a part and parcel of politics since the beginning of recorded time: “truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings” (LP4).  But within the last half-century, lying became so prolific within politics that it became an “adequate weapon against truth” (TP 232).  The fabric of our common reality, what Arendt defines as factual truth, began to erode.  Unlike rational truth, or the truths of the mind—those mathematical, scientific, and provable axioms and theories—factual truths are dependent on discourse between men and remembrance in history for its survival.  With the popularization and sharpening of organized lying, truth, exceedingly fragile in current affairs yet resilient in time, was lost in man’s present world.   Without factual truth, “we should never find our bearings in an ever-changing world” (TP 261).  Though the falsehoods of organized lying would never come to substitute facts, Arendt’s greater concern is that to live in a world without bearings means that men increasingly cannot move, act, and judge in the public realm; men lose touch with the world.

In the ‘ever-changing’ world where information cycles constantly—the 24 hours news circuit, twitter posts, and online media—more information often equates only to an increasingly defactualized world.  In a recent New York Times article on the global mass protesting occurring independently on the streets of India, Israel, Spain, Greece, and even Wall Street, young protesters indicated “they were so distrustful their country’s political class and its pandering to established interest groups that they feel only an assault on the system itself can bring about real change.”[1] Indeed, whistleblowing has always sought to ‘assault the system’ by exposing organized secrets to the public to bring forth real change.  But apart from the media outlets that they inevitably be dispersed in, does the leaked documents inhabit a privilege position to truth in our distrusting and cynical world? Or are these leaks just more organized lies atop a sea of deception.  The latter of this paper is dedicated to examining, albeit shortly, the specific whistleblowing cases of the Pentagon paper, Wikileaks and Julian Assange, and the photographs from Abu Ghraib and how they are relegated into the factual world.

Daniel Ellsberg was the first figure to be called a whistle-blower in American popular culture. The legitimacy of the Pentagon papers derived not from the innumerable facts of a 7,000 page report, which of course few can say have read in full even after it was officially declassified this summer, but from the fact that because it was officially mandated, it revealed decades of deception by the executive branch aimed at both the public and Congress.  In alignment with Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” Ellsberg’s actions voiced that it is a civil responsibility to disobey an unjust government and let truth be heard. What made Ellsberg a compelling truth-teller were the risks he took—ruining his career and ending his life as a free man—because it proved there could be no self-interest in the story and the interest really was simply telling the truth.

The ability to decipher what is real and what is a lie is continually being uprooted in our digital age as it becomes harder and harder to determine what documents are authentic.  And yet, the digital age has introduced new cyber spaces, which are opening up for action. Last year, with the publication of Collateral Murder,[1] it seemed WikiLeaks and its spokesperson/founder Julian Assange

affirmed Arendt’s optimism in human natality, as the small non-profit has reimagined the possibilities of political activism and created a new and aggressive approach to insert itself into politics.  Assange boasted that the organization provided ‘the world with more classified documents than the rest of the world’s media combined.’[1] However one year later, Assange is under trial for sexual misconduct, in process of being extradited by Sweden, and filing suit for the unauthorized publication of his autobiography.  WikiLeaks and Assange appear in the media much less for whistleblowing leaks, than for defaming law suits.  In a world where image is so pervasive, the defamation of Assange led to a discrediting of information provided by Wikileaks, despite the inherent truth or false value in them.

The Abu Ghraib prison photographs, released by Joe Darby to the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) and exposed to the public by Seymour M. Hersh in a New Yorker article, evidenced what is ‘torture’ by standard definitions occurring in the Iraqi prison.  The photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib are perhaps the most important images to come out of the Iraq War because unlike Collateral Murder, where content was edited, the photographs of Abu Ghraib spoke in totality.  The premiere intellectual debate to rise from the images was not one that questioned the photograph’s legitimacy, but one that questioned what the image depicted, mainly, was it “torture”?  To which Susan Sontag, the great cynic of photography responded “to refuse to call what took place in Abu Ghraib — and what has taken place elsewhere in Iraq and in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay—by its true name, torture, is as outrageous as the refusal to call the Rwandan genocide a genocide.”[2] Of course, the alterations of words—from torture to abuse—seek to shape and defactualize the truth of the image, alleviate the gravity of the crime. But whatever word chosen to replace the truth could never undermine the common sense reaction the photographs elicited: that it was wrong, it should be stopped, and it was hard for us all to witness.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag ends her essay: “it seems that one picture is worth a thousand words. And even if our leaders choose not to look at them, there will be thousands more snapshots and videos.  Unstoppable.”  The tenacity of images and their multiplication in digital world, mirrors the stubbornness of facts as Arendt affirms: “their fragility is oddly combined with great resiliency” (TP 259).  Though it is impossible to quantify the impact in each of the three whistleblowing cases, whistle-blowers force the public to endeavor in the hard task of bearing witness.  ‘Bear’ derives from the PIE root bher meaning to ‘give birth’ or to ‘carry the burden.’[1]  In bearing witness, we carry the burden of the unpleasantary of truths just as we give life to the permanence of the world by establishing a common reality: “what is at stake is survival, the perseverance of existence, and no human world destined to outlast the short life span of mortals within it will ever be able to survive without men willing to do what Herodotus was the first to undertake consciously—namely, to say what is.” (Truth and Politics, 229).

[1] Hannah Arendt, Lying in Politics

[2] New York Times,

[3] It should be noted that Collateral Damage was not

[4] Ted Talks, Julian Assange Interview

[5] Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others