Saturday, September 18, 2004

On Lying

"A characteristic of human action is that it always begins something new, and this does not mean that it is ever permitted to start ab ovo, to create ex nihilo. In order to make room for one’s own action, something that was there before must be removed or destroyed, and things as they were before are changed. Such change would be impossible if we could not mentally remove ourselves from where we physically are located and imagine that things might as well be different from what thy actually are. In other words, the deliberate denial of factual truth – the ability to lie – and the capacity to change facts – the ability to act – are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source: imagination. It is by no means a matter of course that we can say, "The sun shines," when it actually is raining (the consequence of certain brain injuries is the loss of this capacity); rather, it indicates that while we are well equipped for the world, sensually as well as mentally, we are not fitted or embedded into it as one of its inalienable parts. Without the mental freedom to deny of affirm existence, to say "yes" or "no" – not just to statements or propositions in order to express agreements of disagreement, but to things as they are given, beyond agreement or disagreement, to our organs of perception and cognition – no action would be possible; and action is of course the very stuff politics are made of.

Hence when we talk about lying, and especially about lying among acting men, let us remember that the lie did not creep into politics by some accident of human sinfulness. Moral outrage, for this reason alone, is not likely to make it disappear. The deliberate falsehood deals with contingent facts; that is, with matters that carry no inherent truth within themselves, no necessity to be as they are. Factual truths are never compellingly true. The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life; it is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs. From this, it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt – as secure and shielded against attack as, for instance, the statement that two and two make four.

It is this fragility that makes deception so very easy up to a point, and so tempting. It never comes into a conflict with reason, because things could indeed have been as the liar maintains they were. Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.

Under normal circumstances, the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute; no matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough, even if he enlists the help of computers, to cover the immensity of factuality. The liar, who may get away with any number of single falsehoods, will find it impossible to get away with lying on principle."

Hannah Arendt, "Lying in Politics," Crises of the Republic

This meditation on lying is as applicable to the drama whores of the JRRT fandom as to the profoundly mendacious US administration - both in their way commit violence upon the confusion of sheer existence by imposing a story upon it that makes sense, telling at least a certain portion of the audience what it wants to hear. They account for the sheer presence of facts. However, neither of them, petty grubbers in gossip or terrifying destroyers of nations, can account for everything, for facts, as Reagan reminds us, are stupid things. Facts do not understand the stories being told about them and have a disconcerting tendency of popping up at the worst possible moment. Then it is the tissue of the lie that is torn assunder.

Even so, the damage to the truth has been done. What has been done once is done forever. Something has been brought into the world at the expense of something else; coherent falsehood in place of messy and inconvenient truths. The lie that good boys did honorable serive in the National Guard vs. the messy truth that men of principle went to war, than came home to wage peace.

I will be dealing much with truth and falsehoods in the next few days.


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