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  • Truth and Politics
  • Linda Zerilli (bio)

“The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future.”

— George Orwell

A writer who made the problem of truth central to his literary and nonliterary work, George Orwell controversially captured the opinion of his generation of thinkers when he identified truth as the major casualty in totalitarian regimes. But if totalitarianism spelled the death of objective truth, the threat to truth was not restricted to totalitarianism. Most scholars of Orwell’s day blamed relativism, both moral and cognitive, for the rise of totalitarianism and the slowness of the allied forces to recognize the extent and nature of the threat.1 Relativism, as Peter Novick has argued, was seen by scholars during WWII as the equivalent of cultural and political suicide for Western liberal democracies. “Philosophers were urged, in the words of Arthur Murphy, to ‘surrender the shallow indifference about ultimate truth of the debased ‘liberalism’ of our recent past.’” Relativism was “debilitating,” he said, for it “robbed the American people of their convictions and their will to fight.” As another critic put it, cultural relativists “assumed implicitly that there is a kind of pre-established harmony of cultures that makes it possible for all to coexist in a pluralistic cultural world.”2 A consensus emerged among many liberal and conservative intellectuals that Western liberal democracies needed to affirm certain values as beyond dispute.

Needless to say, the idea that citizens in liberal democracies should put aside their differences of opinion and defend the “core values” of their society is alive and well today. In our post 9/11 political context, talk about the “clash of civilizations” has been used to undermine belief in the possible global coexistence of diverse cultures and to suppress plural opinions and political dissent within liberal democracies themselves. More to the point, the disdain for objective truth that Orwell ascribed to totalitarian societies but not to liberal democratic ones must seem misplaced given our current political situation. As the recent scandals surrounding the American-led invasion of Iraq demonstrate, such disdain is hardly unique to totalitarian societies. The certainty with which the Bush administration declared that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, ignoring the counter-evidence produced by its own intelligence agencies, may turn out to be just the beginning of a U. S. government sponsored program of mendacity.

In our current political climate it is easy to understand why citizens would fear that truth is quickly becoming a casualty of liberal democratic regimes, not just totalitarian ones. And it is easy to understand why the recent scandals and ongoing investigations concerning the truthfulness of those who claim to speak in our name would provide a strange solace. Although holding public leaders accountable for the veracity of their statements is surely important and indeed essential to our belief in representative government, the question arises as to whether democratic citizens are in a position to do something with the truths that come to light as a result of such investigations. And the thinker who helps us to pose and perhaps answer that question, I want to suggest, is not George Orwell but his contemporary, Hannah Arendt.

Although Arendt shares Orwell’s concern about the fate of factual truths in totalitarian regimes, her response to the political catastrophes of the twentieth century is not to insist on the defense of objective truth as such but to emphasize the ability to make political judgments. By contrast with Orwell and those scholars of her generation who decried relativism, Arendt worried about what the insistence on a singular idea of truth would mean for democracy. In “Truth and Politics,” for example, Arendt famously sets persuasive opinion against compelling truth and declares the former to be the proper mode of discourse among citizens.3 Plural opinions are the stuff of political judgment, Arendt argued, not absolute truth.

Arendt’s account of truth as hostile to plurality and all things democratic has led well-known critics such as Jurgen Habermas to declare her understanding of political judgment to be fatally flawed, for it...

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