Lying in politics, Hannah Arendt and me
A reader asked me the other day if it was stressful for me to write about politics.
There are many ways to take this question. I could have interpreted it as a dig into my column on Ray Fosse and Pete Rose; an insinuation that I was writing about insignificant things when I should be tackling the big issues of the day. (As if bluster and performative bluster weren’t among the most real and pressing issues of our time.)
But I don’t think he meant it like that, so I answered him as best I could.
To paraphrase myself: apart from the high pressure of deadlines, nothing about this job is so stressful. I don’t care about people disagreeing with me and saying mean things on Twitter. I often fear that what I have to say about politics is not very original or insightful. I’m not terribly interested in politics; I’m interested in writing compelling non-fiction.
If journalism is, as Carl Bernstein puts it, a quest for the “best possible version of the truth,” we could define politics in equally brilliant terms. What about the process by which we try to perfect our (admittedly imperfect) society? We need politicians and politicians, and they have their own ways of doing business.
We can be disappointed, but for them to be effective they must play the game in a more or less conventional way. Which means they can’t tell us the truth. Because, as Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Nathan R. Jessup once observed, we can’t deal with it.
Hanna Arendt beat Jessup to this conclusion.
You will recall the Pentagon Papers, the Department of Defense’s secret 47-volume history of United States political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 commissioned by Robert McNamara which, although the consensus opinion was that the Vietnam War was an unwinnable madness, at least three American presidents had secretly expanded the scope of American actions in Vietnam. Congress and the American people had been deceived in the name of political expediency.
A defense analyst specializing in nuclear weapons strategy and counterinsurgency theory named Daniel Ellsberg was among those aware of these documents, and he was shocked and horrified by their implications. So in 1969 he started photocopying the report; it took him 18 months to get a full set.
He then offered the report to several members of Congress – including Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas – in the hope that they would enter the documents into the Congressional Record. After they all refused to do so, Ellsberg—probably at the suggestion of Senator George McGovern of South Dakota—provided them to The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The publication of the Pentagon Papers could have worked to Richard Nixon’s advantage, as the report focused on the mistakes and deceptions of his Democratic predecessors. But Nixon was a paranoid beast, more concerned with detecting leaks and prosecuting leakers than stopping the publication of classified documents.
So his goofy plumbers ransacked Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to try and find something embarrassing about Ellsberg, a clumsy ploy that only succeeded in having a judge throw out the case of the government espionage law against Ellsberg.
Thus, Americans learned “the truth” about Vietnam, and the lengths our government was willing to go to enact a pious fantasy about American power. Arendt, a decade after covering the trial of Holocaust author Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker, was brought in to write an essay, “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers,” in which she observes “[t]loyalty has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been considered justifiable tools in political relations.”
(Serendipity alert: The day after my friend asked me to write about politics, “On Lying and Politics,” a new Library of America publication that bundles Arendt’s New Yorker essay with her previous essay “Truth in Politics” has arrived in the mail (will be published in September.)
Politics, Arendt argues, is a creative pursuit, and a “characteristic of human action is that it always begins something new… In order to make room for its own action, something that was there before must be removed or destroyed, and things as they were before are changed. Such a change would be impossible if we could not mentally withdraw from where we are physically and imagine that things might as well be. different from what they actually are. In other words, the deliberate denial of factual truth–the ability to lie–and the ability to change facts–the ability to act–are interconnected; owe their existence to the same source: the imagination…
“We are free to change the world and start something new in it. Without the mental freedom to deny or affirm existence, to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – not just statements or proposals for express agreement or disagreement, but to things as they are given, beyond agreement or disagreement, to our organs of perception and cognition – no action would be possible; and action is of course the very stuff of which politics is made.
“Therefore, when we speak of lying … let us remember that lying did not creep into politics by an accident of human sin. Moral outrage, for this reason alone, is not likely to make it go away.”
My point is not that politics is a vile pursuit – or that journalism is noble – only that human beings crave stories, and politics and journalism fulfill that craving. What I’m not interested in is convincing anyone to vote one way or the other; I have strong disbelief in our ability to make things better for much longer. It is a fallen world that will eventually fail, as all living things must. What we can hope for are incremental and temporary improvements. (So yes, you should vote, early and often if you can.)
The truth is that politics won’t save us, and journalists exaggerate its importance partly because politics is so easy to cover. Politicians want attention. Some of us develop symbiotic relationships with them; there is a semi-permeable membrane between politics that some of us come and go through quite easily.
I never got the thing. I’ve bought Tucker Carlson’s lunch a few times, had lots of friends who wrote speeches and drafted bills, but I’ve never really been tempted. Or maybe no one ever paid my price.
But I’m not a determined Menckenian to despise all the hustlers and the boys and girls damn happy to meet cha. They have their stories to tell, and I have mine.
I’m not interested in telling theirs.