Any analysis of fake news would be incomplete without a reading of Hannah Arendts magnificent essay Truth and Politics from 1967. Arendt, in this essay, examines carefully the relationship between truth and politics, and makes a few observations that remind us of why the issue of “fake news” is neither new nor uniquely digital. It is but an aspect of that greater challenge of how we reconcile truth and politics.
Arendt anchors the entire discussion solidly not only in a broader context, but she reminds us that this is a tension that has been with civilization since Socrates. “Fake news” is nothing else than yet another challenge that meets us in the gap between dialectic and rhetoric, and Socrates would be surprised and dismayed to find us thinking we had discovered a new phenomenon. The issue of truth in politics is one that has always been at the heart of our civilization and our democratic tradition.
Arendt notes this almost brutally in the beginning of her essay:
“No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues. Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s and the demagogue’s but also of the stateman’s trade.” (p 223)
It is interesting to think about how we read Arendt here. Today, as politics is under attack and we suffer from an increase of rhetoric and the decline of dialogue, we almost immediately become defensive. We want to say that we should not deride politics, and that politics deserve respect and that we should be careful and ensure that we do not further increase people’s loss of faith in the political system of democracy — and all of this is both correct and deeply troubling at the same time. It shows us that our faith in the robustness of the system has suffered so many blows now that we shy away from the clear-eyed realization that politics is rhetoric first and dialogue only second (and bad politics never gets to dialogue at all).
Arendt does not mean to insult our democracy, she merely recognizes a philosophical analysis that has remained constant over time. She quotes Hobbes as saying that if power depended on the sum of the angles in a triangle not being equal to the sum of two angles in a rectangle, then books of geometry would be burned by some in the streets. This is what politics is – power – and we should not expect anything else. That is why the education of our politicians is so important, and their character key. Socrates sense of urgency when he tries to educate Alcibiades is key, and any reader who read the dialogues would be aware of the price of Socrates failure in what Alcibiades became.
Arendt also makes an interesting point on the difference between what she calls rational truths – the mathematical, scientific – and the factual ones and point out that the latter are “much more vulnerable”. (p 227) And factual truth is the stuff politics are made of, she notes.
“Dominion (to speak Hobbes’ language) when it attacks rational truth oversteps, as it were, its domain while it gives battle on its own ground when it falsifies or lies away facts.” (p 227)
Facts are fair game in politics, and has always been. And Arendt then makes an observation that is key to understanding our challenges and is worth quoting in full:
“The hallmark of factual truth is that its opposite is neither error nor illusion nor opinion, not one of which reflects upon personal truthfulness, but the deliberate falsehood, or lie. Error, of course, is possible, and even common, with respect to factual truth, in which case this kind of truth is in no way different from scientific or rational truth. But the point is that with respect to facts there exists another alternative, and this alternative, the deliberate falsehood, does not belong to the same species as propositions that, whether right or mistaken, intend nor more than to say what is, or how something that is appears to me. A factual statement – Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914 – acquires political implications only by being put in an interpretative context. But the opposite proprosition, which Clemenceau, still unacquainted with the art of rewriting history, though absurd, needs no context to be of political significance. It is clearly an attempt to change the record, and as such it is a form of _action_. The same is true when the liar, lacking the power to make his falsehood stick, does not insist on the gospel truth of his statement but pretends that this is his ‘opinion’ to which he claims his constitutional right. This is frequently done by subversive groups, and in a politically immature public the resulting confusion can be considerable. The blurring of the dividing line between factual truth and opinion belongs among the many forms that lying can assume, all of which are forms of action.
While the liar is a man of action, the truthteller, whether he tells a rational or factual truth, most empathically is not.” (p 245)
Arendt is offering an analysis of our dilemma in as clear a way as can be. Lying is an action, telling the truth is most emphatically not, and the reduction of a falsehood to an opinion creates considerable confusion, to say the least. The insight that telling the truth is less powerful than lying, less of an action is potentially devastating – liars has something at stake, and truth tellers sometimes make the mistake of thinking that relaying the truth in itself is enough.
But Arendt also offers a solution and hope — and it is evident even in this rather grim quote: she speaks of a politically immature public, and as she closes the essay she takes great pains to say that these lies, these falsehoods, in no way detracts from the value of political action. In fact, she says that politics is a great endeavor and one that is worthy of our time, effort and commitment – but ultimately we also need to recognize that it is limited by truth. Our respect – as citizens – for truth is what preserves, she says, the integrity of the political realm.
As in the platonic dialogues, as in Hobbes, as everywhere in history – truth is a matter of character. Our own character, honed in dialogue and made resistant to the worst forms of rhetoric. This is not new – and it is not easy, and cannot be solved with a technical fix.