Monday, June 21, 2004

Arendt v. Strauss 

Billmon (who cranks out a couple of small masterpieces every day; if he would just stop sleeping, he could no doubt crank out a few more) here examines the many ways in which our leaders -- addicts of secrecy, and dedicated practitioners of the Noble Lie -- exploit and reinforce the American public's need for self-deception:
In her essay Truth and Politics, Hannah Arendt - the great philosophical opponent of Leo Strauss and the neocons - wrote that:
Only where a community has embarked upon organized lying on principle, and not only with respect to particulars, can truthfulness ... become a political factor of the first order.
For this reason, Arendt concluded, in a totalitarian state the primary target of the party's propaganda is never the external enemy (which, as in 1984, can be a convenient, even necessary, force) but rather the internal public, which must constantly be reassured that the artifical image created by the party is in fact reality:
What then happens follows almost automatically. The main effort of both the deceived group and the deceivers themselves is likely to be directed towards keeping the propaganda image intact, and this image is threatened less by the enemy and by real hostile interests than by those inside the group itself who have managed to escape its spell and insist on talking about facts or events that do not fit the image. Contemporary history is full of instances in which tellers of factual truth were felt to be more dangerous, and even more hostile, than the real opponents.
The act of deception, in other words, increasingly becomes an act of self-deception - or even a conscious supression of what public opinion (and, these days, that means the mainstream media) already knows to be the truth.

At times, this self-deception can be almost desperate - as when the conservative faithful cling to their fiction that the pain and death being administered in America's new gulag archipelago is actually just the work of a few "bad apples" at Abu Ghraib prison . . . .

Tilt the field far enough, and the system eventually becomes a closed loop. Propaganda becomes an all-embracing substitute for reality, requiring the party to eliminate any alternative sources of information. But, Arendt argues, such a system is inherently unstable, since the volume and complexity of the lies required to sustain it only increase as the propaganda image drifts further and further from reality. At that point, the sheer repressive force of the state is the only glue that can hold the image in place. The party, instead of creating belief, is gradually reduced to commanding silence. Or, as Bill O'Reilly might put it: "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"

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