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  • A Lying World Order:Deception and the Rhetoric of Terror
  • Peg Birmingham (bio)

It is not often noted that the problem of deception occupies a central place in Hannah Arendt's analysis of totalitarianism. At the outset of Origins of Totalitarianism, prior to her analysis of anti-Semitism, imperialism, or radical evil, she raises the issue of deception, considering the difference between ancient and modern sophists and their relation to truth and reality:

"Plato, in his famous fight against the ancient Sophists, discovered that their "universal art of changing the mind by arguments (Phaedrus 261) had nothing to do with truth, but aimed at opinions which by their nature are changing, and which are valid only 'at the time of the agreement and as long as the agreement lasts,' (Theatetus 172). ...The most striking difference between the ancient and modern sophists is that the ancients were satisfied with a passing victory of the argument at the expense of truth, where as the moderns want a more lasting victory at the expense of reality".1

In these early pages of Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt claims that the characteristic that sets totalitarianism apart from tyrannical and dictatorial regimes is precisely the sophistic victory at the expense of reality, which she argues institutes a "lying world order" or what also might be deemed "radical deception." Indeed, her discussion of radical evil cannot be understood apart from her continuing preoccupation with the problem of this particular kind of political deception. When Arendt writes in 1945, "The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe", she is indicating in the strongest terms possible that the problem of radical evil is by no means eradicated with the defeat of totalitarianism, and this in large part because of its inseparable link to radical deception, which for her has nothing to do with what we understand by falsehood, error, or even the deliberate lie—the ways in which deception in all its guises is traditionally distinguished from truth. Falsehood and error are the opposites of truth, while a deliberate lie is the intentional dissimulation of the truth. Radical deception is something else altogether.2

Conflating reality with truth, Arendt argues that philosophy itself opens the door to the possibility of "a lying world order." In her essay 1945 titled "On the Nature of Totalitarianism," she writes,

If Western philosophy has maintained that reality is truth—for this is of course the ontological basis of the adequatio rei et intellectus—then totalitarianism has concluded from this that we can fabricate truth insofar as we can fabricate reality: that we do not have to wait until reality unveils itself and shows us its true face, but we can bring into being a reality whose structure will be known to us from the beginning because the whole thing is our product.3

Arendt makes the same point in another 1945 essay, "The Seeds of a Fascist International":

It was always a too little noted hallmark of fascist propaganda that it was not satisfied with lying but deliberately proposed to transform its lies into reality.... For such a fabrication of a lying reality no one was prepared. The essential characteristic of fascist propaganda was never its lies, for this is something more or less common to propaganda everywhere and of every time. The essential thing was that they exploited the age-old Occidental prejudice which confuses reality with truth, and made that "true" which until then could only be stated as a lie.4

Arendt gives an example of this confusion of reality and truth, namely, arguing with a potential murderer over whether the future victim is dead or alive. For the murderer to say that the victim is dead only requires shooting the person. She argues that counter-proposals are senseless because all the person has to do is to shoot in order to create the very truth that is being argued for: "This is the spirit in which the Nazis destroyed Germany—in order to be proved in the right: an asset which may be of the greatest value for their future activity. They destroyed Germany to show that they were right when they...


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pp. 32-37
Launched on MUSE
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