On her death anniversary, remembering how Hannah Arendt anticipated fake news and authoritarianism

The personal life of Hannah Arendt lends even more credence to the analogy with the prophets. She was born Jewish in Germany in 1906 and had to flee her homeland to the United States (US) to avoid the Holocaust.

Once there, she wrote many groundbreaking texts, including The origins of totalitarianism (1951) where she analyzed the roots of the totalitarian Nazi and Soviet states as well as their hold on the minds of the citizens, only to have her work gradually be ignored by powers that are like the warnings of the prophets.

However, this does not mean that the prophecies have turned sterile.

Consider, for example, these lines from the opening paragraph of his essay “Truth and Politics” in 1967, where Arendt states that there has never been a time in history when “factual truths are attacked with such zeal and efficiency whenever they stand in the way of advantage or the ambition of one of the countless interest groups ”.

Around the world, hand in hand has supported Arendt’s assertion in this essay that “what is at stake here is factual reality itself, and it is indeed a political question of first order ”.

The remainder of the essay attempts to explain how this war on reality is perpetuated by the “imaging” skill of modern propaganda machines, and the demagogue’s use of “deliberate and consistent lying” as an antidote to unwanted “facts” which cannot be rejected by them and the wishful thinking of their supporters.

To be clear, Arendt separates “facts” – contingent statements such as “Hitler invaded Poland” which could have been, in principle, otherwise – “truths” of the form 2 +2 equals 4.

Likewise, it separates error and lying from deliberate lying, where the latter, as an attempt to alter existence, constitutes a deliberate action that destabilizes both past and present facts.

For a lie to appear as a “fact” in the present, its context in the past must first be created, for example, in history books, political speeches and other forms of propaganda.

Likewise, when a lie needs to be replaced with a new one, the same must be done all over again.


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