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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

The Deep Dangers of Doublespeak

Updated: Aug 4, 2018

Hannah Arendt. Photo: Library of Congress.

Who actually sets American foreign policy nowadays—President Trump, with his off-the-cuff tweets, or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the administration’s more measured voices? It’s a question that won’t go away and The New York Times underscored in today's editorial, “When Trump Talks, the World Listens. Should It?”

White House double- or triple-speak on issues foreign or domestic is nothing new, and under certain circumstances may even be justified. When it becomes a default position, however, the damage goes deeper than simply confusing friends and foes abroad or interested parties at home about the administration's direction and resolve. It eats at the very core of our democracy.

No one limned the dangers of rampant obfuscation more astutely than Hannah Arendt. If “everybody always lies to you,” the political theorist and philosopher said in a 1973 interview, “the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all any more—and rightly so, because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, to be ‘re-lied,’ so to speak.”

"The moment the press is no longer free ... anything can happen."

Arendt knew the risks firsthand. She escaped Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s to eventually settle and teach in the United States and now, almost 43 years after her death, her ideas are enjoying renewed attention. This is partly due to the publication earlier this year of "Thinking Without a Banister," a collection of Arendt’s essays (as well as the interview quoted here) put together by editor Jerome Kohn. It’s likely no accident television’s chattering class has parroted Arendt, either consciously or not (lack of attribution can make it hard to tell), at a time when President Trump continues his attacks on the press, democracy’s indispensable defogging device, as the “enemy of the people.”

“The moment the press is no longer free …” Arendt told her interviewer, French writer and jurist Roger Errera, “then anything can happen. You know, what really makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other kind of dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed. How can anyone have an opinion who is not informed?”

Optimism requires that we work forward on Arendt's premise.

An unabashed fan of Arendt’s ideas and her courage as an independent thinker, I’ve had her in mind as I stitch together a lecture for one of my fall journalism courses at the University of Texas at Austin I’m calling “The Problem With Lies.” Arendt delivers the message about the risks of political lying with gemlike clarity:

A “lying government which pursues different goals at different times has constantly to rewrite its own history. That means that the people are deprived not only of their capacity to act, but also of their capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

In interviewing Arendt, Roger Errera pointed to the “wave of political violence” that had ripped through America in the 1960s and early 1970s, a period familiar to us for the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the pain of the Vietnam War and the press-White House showdown in the Watergate crisis. His question was why America could surmount searing experiences of a type that in Europe had derailed governments and worse.

Arendt answered: “As long as we have a free press there is a limit to what can happen.” Hers is fundamentally a statement of faith that in the long run the fog machines will splutter and fail. Today, optimism requires that we work forward on the premise that Arendt was right for our time, too.

(Correction: The last two paragraphs have been reedited for accuracy.)

Photo: Hannah Arendt. Source: The Library of Congress.

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