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Truth, Politics, & Hannah Arendt

Published: Jan. 15, 2021


Marching behind the men in fight gear who were storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021 was a large crowd of ordinary people, some with children. Interviewed, they said the election was stolen. They were not wearing masks on principle. "Masks are evidence that they are trying to take away our liberty!"

A CBS interview with an earnest 30-something man who seeks out and passes on conspiracy theories was revealing. He thinks the mainstream media is in a cabal to create a structure of lies. QAnon, he believes. is saving everyone who are in The Matrix, and he said he would fight to the end for this cause.

This morning, I heard an interview with a nurse dealing with the Los Angeles surge in COVID cases, with so many people dying on her watch! How does she feel? "Betrayed! I come out of this to come home, and see all of these people around me not wearing masks!

Hannah Arendt wrote in 1967:

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 defined as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearing in the real world – and the category of truth vs. falsehood that is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.

Arendt had fled the Nazis and knew well the power of propaganda. Hitler's propaganda minister was Joseph Goebbels, who famously said that if you repeat a lie enough, people believe it is true.

Arendt said further, "[C]onsistent lying, metaphorically speaking, pulls the ground from under our feet and provides no other ground on which to stand. The experience of a trembling, wobbling motion of everything we rely on for our sense of direction and reality is among the most common and most vivid experiences of men under totalitarian rule."

She concludes that the keepers of truth, those independent of the political sphere, can break through this with stories grounded in facts and wisdom, for it is stories through which most people understand. And it is people such as artists, scientists, educators, investigative journalists, and philosophers who can tell them.

For instance, I suggested to our county's public health officer that the media should feature the fascinating accounts of diseases conquered by vaccinations, ones that I learned 70 years ago in a small-town school, and should still be common knowledge. This would counter the anti-vax notion that vaccines are insidious.

Truth, Arendt says, "is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us."

Hannah Arendt quotations are from "Truth and Politics," New Yorker,  February 25, 1967.

from Trudy Reagan, Palo Alto Friends Meeting (1/10/2021)