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Amor Mundi: A Lying Reality

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

A Lying Reality

President Donald Trump delivers remarks on Wednesday, March 15, 2017, at the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Hannah Arendt argued that one of the central goals of totalitarian rule was to create a consistent lying reality. Only when the party in power can exercise total control over how people see the world can they exercise total domination over the world and its inhabitants. And George Orwell knew that whoever controls the past controls the future; and whoever controls the present, controls the past. Totalitarian thinking is predicated on the ability to make the facts fit an ideological view of the world. Which is why the enormity of President Donald Trump’s mania for lying is so dangerous. The President’s lies are so common and audacious that they can begin to blend into the background of a flickering reality. David Leonhardt, Ian Prasad Philbrick, and Stuart A. Thompson  have thankfully done the hard work of quantifying the President’s lies. The results are more than sobering.

In his first 10 months in office, he has told 103 separate untruths, many of them repeatedly. Obama told 18 over his entire eight-year tenure. That’s an average of about two a year for Obama and about 124 a year for Trump…. We have used the word “lies” again here, as we did in our original piece. If anything, though, the word is unfair to Obama and Bush. When they became aware that they had been saying something untrue, they stopped doing it. Obama didn’t continue to claim that all Americans would be able to keep their existing health insurance under Obamacare, for example, and Bush changed the way he spoke about Iraq’s weapons capability.

Trump is different. When he is caught lying, he will often try to discredit people telling the truth, be they judges, scientists, F.B.I. or C.I.A. officials, journalists or members of Congress. Trump is trying to make truth irrelevant. It is extremely damaging to democracy, and it’s not an accident. It’s core to his political strategy.

As for Obama: His falsehoods tended to be attempts to make his own policies look better or to overstate a problem he was trying to solve. In a few cases, they seemed to be careless exaggerations he avoided repeating.

The Forgotten

It is well known that Franklin Delano Roosevelt appealed to the “forgotten man” to justify the New Deal. But Lawrence B. Glickman reminds us that Roosevelt’s critics quickly imagined a new forgotten man, the taxpayer who works, prays, and also pays for those who are on welfare and neither work nor pray. And later still, the “forgotten man” was racialized as a white worker laboring to support minorities. Glickman argues that in invoking the “forgotten man,” President Trump is effectively appealing to only one of history’s forgotten men.

“In his April 1932 speech, Roosevelt referred to “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” proclaiming the need to rebuild the economy by working “from the bottom up and not from the top down.” In saying this, he was explicitly repudiating Yale professor William Graham Sumner, who originally coined the phrase in an 1876 essay, “The Forgotten Man,” often taken to be a prime specimen of social Darwinism. Sumner described the forgotten man as a productive citizen, overburdened by society’s demand that he support the unproductive: “He works, he votes, generally he prays—but he always pays—yes, above all, he pays,” Sumner wrote. Roosevelt’s critics took notice, arguing that he had distorted Sumner’s intention. If Sumner’s forgotten man was the taxpayer, they claimed, Roosevelt’s forgotten man was the one who lived off the taxes of others.

Soon after Roosevelt defined the forgotten man as a person whose economic position justified the New Deal, the meaning of the term changed again. This time it came to symbolize the person victimized on very different economic grounds. In 1934 Congressman James M. Beck called the taxpayer “the new forgotten man.” In 1940 another Republican representative, Bruce Barton, labeled the “middle-class citizen” the “latest reincarnation of the forgotten man.” By 1951 Northwestern political scientist William M. McGovern brought these two groups together when he spoke of the “forgotten man of the middle class” who was “rapidly being taxed out of existence.” Rather than the “fellow out of work,” argued Merryle Rukeyser in 1951, the label more properly belonged to “the taxpayer who pays the freight for the adventures of politicians.”…

What began as a critique of Roosevelt’s appropriation of the forgotten man turned into a vilification of the poor, the downtrodden, the outsider. In 1968 William Lowndes, president of conservative business lobby Southern States Industrial Council, brought the incipient racial and cultural inferences of forgotten-man rhetoric to the fore. He began by distinguishing the forgotten man from “the disadvantaged, the impoverished, the indigent, and even the indignant who prefer to remain indolent.” Lowndes then claimed that the forgotten man could not be defined by class: he was “a hardworking individual, whether he be executive or artisan.” Instead, what defined him was a white racial identity that was at its breaking point.”

Balancing Rights

Judith Butler argues that proponents of free speech need to take seriously the way technology has made it possible for speech to easily bleed into harassment. She offers the example of Milo Yiannopoulos’ talks in which he projects images of students and insults them. At one talk, he posted a photo of Adelaide Kramer, a trans student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, on the backdrop screen of his lecture and then not only jeered at her, but encouraged others to do the same. In such a situation, Butler writes, the First Amendment needs to be balanced against other Constitutional protections, like the Equal Protection Clause.

“The projection of the image of Adelaide Kramer was not done with her consent, and the appeal to audience members and those watching online to flood the email, expose personal information, and invade privacy seemed to many of us a problem.  What do we call what happened to Adelaide Kramer at Milwaukee, the trans student who found her image projected on the wall during the event, and then witnessed “in frozen terror” – her words –  as the speaker incited the audience to harass her. So I use the word “harassment” and so, too, did President Mone of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  Maybe we shrug our shoulders and say that this is expressive activity, but surely it crosses the line between expressive activity and threat; and that line was crossed in a new way – and is crossed all the time now in new ways – because of the way technology is now used to incite people to engage in cyber-bullying that did not exist before.  So the legal vocabulary we have for distinguishing expressive activity from actual threats, or an incitement to engage in illegal activity – those latter two are not protected as expressive freedoms under the First Amendment – changes when new technologies, or new uses of technology, produce new possibilities for incitement, harassment, and the commission of illegal activities.  We have to come up with new understandings of all those terms which are widely acknowledged as unprotected speech.  I am not sure which conservative viewpoints were being expressed at that moment: I could try to find propositional form for those actions, but would I then be generously and speculatively reconstructing those actions as the expressions of ideas, and so drawing attention away from this very specific form of targeting that included screening the image without consent, verbal incitement to harass that person, and calls to invade that person’s privacy?…

Dean Erwin Chemerinsky reminded us earlier this Fall of the accepted exceptions to free speech.  And incitement is one of them.  Some advocates of the First Amendment – and I consider myself to be an advocate – worried that the Berkeley faculty who had signed the petition had lost touch with key constitutional principles championed by the Free Speech Movement of 1964-65.  But I want to suggest first that we have a real and substantial debate before us now over what constitutes expressive activity and its limits in part because the character of expressive activity has changed with new technology, but, secondly, we have a problem as a community since we are taught that no student should ever be treated in the way that Adelaide Kramer was treated at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  When we take our mandatory anti-harassment course online, we learn about Title IX requirements, and so we learn about the conditions under which every student has an equal access to education, and how sexual harassment in particular can produce a hostile climate that undermines a student’s ability to complete an educational program. But we learn more, namely, that quid pro quo is unacceptable, and that it is our obligation to produce a classroom environment and a mode of engaging with students that does not involve discriminatory behavior of any kind.  Although a congressional statute, Title IX is not only compatible with the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, but claimants are since 2009 entitled to pursue claims under both provisions.  I say this because the 14th Amendment obligates us to oppose all forms of discrimination and to maintain an educational institution that embodies those values in its word and in its deed.”

War of Words

M.L.R. Smith argues that the free speech conflicts on campus are increasingly to be viewed through the lens of war and, therefore, are subject to analysis by the strategic thinking of Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz is famous for teaching that war is an  “act of force to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.” Smith argues that figures involved in the free speech conflict are seeking to win a war, and his example is Milo Yiannopoulos.

“What this underlines is that ‘war’ is an entirely appropriate lens through which to interpret what is happening. The growing use of threats and violent protest to disrupt speaking engagements or force the withdrawal of articles from journals illustrates that the conflict is real and that the notion of a ‘culture war’ is far from a euphemism. If the Clausewitzian concept of war is an accurate frame of reference, then what strategies, it may be asked, are being employed to counteract the rise in anti-free speech protest?

To consider this question we might examine the case of Milo Yiannopoulos. Known simply as Milo, he is a prominent personality in the American free-speech movement that has seen conservatives and libertarians pushing back at what they see as the political correctness and stifling leftist conformity on college campuses. Milo embarked on a lecture tour of U.S. universities in 2016 and 2017. His fruity language and willingness to face down audience disruptors won him a legion of fans in conservative circles on campus and on YouTube, whilst simultaneously earning him the villainy of many on the left. The mere prospect of his appearance on campus provoked the mayhem that broke out in Berkeley….

Earlier in 2017, Milo published his book, Dangerous. In this volume and his other media pronouncements it is possible to discern the stages of thought that inform his thinking about how to prosecute the culture wars:

1 – That the conflict should categorically be conceived in terms of war. Milo explicitly uses the term ‘war’ to frame his understanding of what he sees as the clash of values, a battle for the pre-eminence of ideas and arguments over what can and cannot be said in the public square.

2 – That the battle space is the cultural domain: that is, one that is concerned about the ideas, customs, and social behaviours of a particular society. Politics, he perceives, is downstream from culture (a view extolled by the conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart, the Breitbart news organization being Milo’s former employers). Once ‘politics’ begins to be framed in cultural norms – be it identitarianism, collectivist ethics, etc. – then the space for dissenting opinions is systematically constrained.

3 – That traditional conservatives – and especially establishment Republicans – have manifestly failed to engage in the cultural battle, ceding ground to the identitarian left without a fight, and retreating into a world that speaks only to itself. The lack of effort to persuade a wider audience, especially amongst the young, thus warrants a rejection of the conservative establishment and the embrace of new forms of resistance and leadership.

4 – That the key battlefield is the university campus, and the American one in particular. It is here where Milo holds that future opinion formers are indoctrinated by an academy that is increasingly imbricated in the ideas of a leftist cultural orthodoxy, which is antagonistic towards the notion of free speech.

5 – That it is therefore necessary to confront the opposition directly on the college green. ‘You have got to fight it where it lives’, he states. ‘And conservatives before me have failed to make significant inroads in culture because they haven’t shown up and fought where the enemy is’. ‘What I try to do’, he continues, ‘is go and park my glittery pink tank on the lawns of the enemy. Take the fight to them’.

6 – That the fight can be escalated and won with the application of humour. Indeed, laughter and ridicule are the principal means in his strategy. ‘They hate the sound of you laughing at them. They hate it more than anything else’, he maintains. ‘It’s why they hate me so much because I will just stand-up and crack jokes about them… They can’t bear being laughed at, and it is the most powerful weapon’.

Whether one finds Milo funny or entertaining is likely to depend on where one stands politically and what one understands to be the role and source of comedy. As a gay immigrant of Jewish background, married to a black man, he rejects the categories of victimhood into which – he argues – the social justice left classifies people like himself. It is this rejection that enables him to rile and bait his political adversaries mercilessly. There is no doubt that part of his modus operandi here is to use trolling tactics that initially aim to shock, exaggerate, and disgust with a view to opening up the space for ideological argumentation. In that sense, one can dispute any number of his positions. He claims, for example, that university subjects that end with ‘studies’ are all useless. Plainly, he’s wrong on that point (at least in one instance). To reiterate, whether one finds these assertions humorous is a matter of perspective and taste. It is nevertheless interesting to detect in the rhetoric the unambiguous articulation of the political context as war where words are intended, not as a prelude to physical violence, but certainly as weapons of provocation, as one Milo sponsored YouTube post starkly relays: ‘leftists want us silenced. We choose war’.

The teasing, jesting and trolling is not, however, seeking amusement for its own sake. Larking around is, pace Clausewitz, intended to fulfil a purpose. As Milo explains: ‘if you tell lots of good jokes, all of which contain a little kernel of truth, as I try to do, suddenly you find huge numbers of people reconsidering positions they have held for years and re-evaluating how they vote in elections, what books they want to buy and how they want to interact with other people’. Milo is, in this respect, conducting a war of the mind, aiming to change people’s views of the world. He is not, of course, the first to understand the potential power and political symbolism contained in comedy. As George Orwell noted, being funny can be highly subversive and a means of expressing dissent. A ‘joke’, Orwell said, can be a ‘sort of mental rebellion’.

The Social Media threat

James Vincent writes about a series of former social media executives who are now sounding the warning about the threat social media poses to society.

“Palihapitiya’s criticisms were aimed not only at Facebook, but the wider online ecosystem. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

He went on to describe an incident in India where hoax messages about kidnappings shared on WhatsApp led to the lynching of seven innocent people. “That’s what we’re dealing with,” said Palihapitiya. “And imagine taking that to the extreme, where bad actors can now manipulate large swathes of people to do anything you want. It’s just a really, really bad state of affairs.” He says he tries to use Facebook as little as possible, and that his children “aren’t allowed to use that shit.” He later adds, though, that he believes the company “overwhelmingly does good in the world.””

Posted on 17 December 2017 | 8:39 am

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