I am moved, first, to defend the facts. The prompt—the first few lines of Hannah Arendt’s essay—reflects not her beliefs but what she portrays as “current convictions.” Her own position was the opposite: Truth is the sine qua non of politics. When lies overpower truth, politics dies. When politics dies, our world collapses, and we humans die too—because it is only in the world, among other humans, that we exist.
I realize that the prompt was not designed to elicit a micro-treatise on one of my favorite essays, but this is what you get—in the name of truth and politics. Let’s begin with definitions of both politics and truth. When Arendt speaks of politics, she is referring not to the electoral process or a legislative process—the things we most frequently have in mind when we use the word “politics” in everyday speech—but to the process of human beings figuring out how we live together. For the purposes of the essay, Arendt adopts a distinction between rational truth and factual truth, and it’s the latter that concerns her. She believes that factual truth—things that we have observed empirically—is in more danger of being obscured by lies than rational truth, such as scientific theorems that are purely the product of the human mind. This may seem counterintuitive, but our experience has borne this out again and again: We have seen the lies of the powerful elide things that we know actually happened.
In her essay, Arendt uses the example of Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, whose name was, at the time of the writing, entirely absent from Soviet history books, reference literature, and textbooks. Another example is the existence of concentration and extermination camps in Stalin’s U.S.S.R. and Hitler’s Germany—facts, indeed publicly known facts, that were nonetheless risky to mention. Half a century later, these examples make for strange and depressing case studies. On the one hand, Trotsky’s name and the existence of concentration and death camps have been restored to history. On the other hand, that restoration required extraordinary efforts and the extraordinary event of the collapse of an empire—and still, historical memory wants to backslide. The ruling party in Poland, where most Nazi concentration and death camps were located, is pushing back the memory of the Holocaust—again. And just this month Russians unveiled two new monuments to Stalin.
Arendt warns that once a fact or a person has been elided from public accounts, it may be impossible to restore to common memory. We love to read books or watch shows that revise and correct history, but we also forget them immediately, and history regresses to the dominant narrative. In the best-case scenario, Alexander Hamilton acquires a second life as a show tune, and Monica Lewinsky amasses a genuinely sympathetic audience on Twitter—where she makes allies by making jokes at her own expense.
Arendt uses two terms to show the mechanics of suppressing factual truth: “opinion” and “secret.” Something that is publicly known—something that is empirically knowable—is downgraded to an opinion and then shamed as a secret.
Arendt uses two terms to show the mechanics of suppressing factual truth: “opinion” and “secret.” Something that is publicly known—something that is empirically knowable—is downgraded to an opinion and then shamed as a secret. Let’s take a more recent example. We have just commemorated the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Twenty years ago, the official line promoted by the White House, and backed by the force of mobilized public opinion, was that “cowardly” terrorists attacked the United States because “they hate us for our freedom.” The factual truth was that a group of determined and, one can conclude on the basis of their actions, brave men mounted a terrorist response to U.S. military and political interventions. Yet the force of the official narrative was such that this factual truth quickly became an unpopular opinion and then a secret in the sense in which Arendt uses the word: something that you can be punished for saying.
In the intervening period, we have seen many scholars utter this “secret,” and a few politicians have joined them; the mainstream coverage of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 generally acknowledged what used to be a heretical opinion. And yet, we have a museum at Ground Zero that treats the terrorist attacks like a force of nature or, perhaps more accurately, as an act of God, because forces of nature at least have physical explanations but the terrorist attacks continue to be treated as inexplicable. And then we have former President George W. Bush, the principal author of the lies about 9/11, make a facile comparison between those terrorists and domestic terrorists—and collect plaudits, when the comparison actually perpetuates the lie.
There are indeed several direct lines between 9/11 and our current predicament, though—and one of them is the argument we are having about what happened on Jan. 6. If you listened to our elected representatives, you might conclude that it was a matter of opinion whether what happened was an armed coup attempt or a humorous protest and tourist visit. We are in the same situation with the pandemic: One might think (if one were sufficiently isolated for a sufficient period of time) that whether the disease caused by the novel coronavirus exists, and whether the vaccine against it is effective or causes people to become magnetized, are questions of opinion rather than factual truth.
These contemporary arguments are strikingly different from the examples I used—whether 9/11 or Trotsky—in that they don’t pit a truth against a single political power. Instead, two halves of this country, give or take, are pitted against each other, one fighting for factual truth as though it were an opinion to be defended, the other fighting against factual truth as though it were an opinion to be defeated. We talk about polarization and the impossibility of dialogue, and what we mean is that we are no longer engaged in politics: We are not making a society together. This predicament is consistent with Arendt’s assertion that politics is impossible in the absence of truth.
Masha Gessen is a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of numerous books.