Condemning lying politicians is now a spectator sport. If politicians have always lied, it does seem that the danger of deception has intensified. Consider: In Afghanistan, the US military reported that helicopters were shot down by small guns fire rather than heat-seeking missiles originally supplied by the United States. Members of the U.S. government claimed that Iraq was involved in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. They asserted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They insisted that all the prisoners held in Guantánamo prison were hardened terrorists. They swore that the United States does not torture its prisoners. What is striking in all of these claims is not that we now know them to be false. Rather, it is that at the time they were made, repeated, and accepted, facts already existed that showed these assertions to be false.
Hannah Arendt helps us to see that these lies were not like the lies a President tells when he conceals information to avoid a panic. Such lies are important to politics. Nor were these post-9/11 lies along the lines of Lincoln’s claim that the Civil War was fought so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.” Such a lie exemplifies the grand and dignified freedom of human beings to change the world for the better. It reminds us that it is the great liars who are remembered as the great politicians.
The political lies Arendt worries about are not mere falsehoods. They are political acts in which facts are denied and alternative realities are created. In denying facts, the political liar acts to change the world, to make reality anew so that it conforms to our needs and desires. In this way, lying is at the essence of political action.
In its hostility to facts, however, the modern political lie opens the door to a politics that not only denies facts but works actively to disempower facts, thus enabling the creation of a coherent albeit fictitious world. The danger inheres in the utter logicality of the fictional narrative. To preserve the fiction, facts that contradict it need to be eliminated.
Join us for a two-day conference that asks the question: What is the role and danger of lying in politics today?
The conference is co-sponsored by the New School for Social Research in New York City and will take place in New York City.
Watch video of a panel on Lying in Politics held at Bard College in 2009, featuring Verity Smith (Bard College) and Julia Honkasalo (The New School for Social Research).
Read "Lying In Politics," Arendt's Essay from the New York Review of Books that Inspired this conference.