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The ambivalent virtures of mendacity by Martin Jay

or How Europeans Taught (Some of) Us to Learn to Love the Lies of Politics

Untruth and Consequences” screamed the headline on the cover of the July 21, 2003 issue of Time magazine, which dealt extensively with the then burning question “How flawed was the case for going to war against Saddam?” Once again, it seemed that an American president was in danger of losing his credibility and being excoriated for the sin of telling lies to the American people. Only a short time after his predecessor had been impeached for perjuring himself about his sex life, leaving, as the title of Christopher Hitchens’ nasty philippic put it, “no one left to lie to,”1 George W. Bush was struggling to parse his way out of the discrepancies between his statements about the imminent threat of Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction and what the evidence now seemed to show. Once again, outrage against political mendacity coursed, albeit variably depending on whose ox had been caught fibbing, through the American public sphere. Liberals like Al Franken could hit the best-seller lists by calling their polemics Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, in response to conservative rants like Ann Coulter’s Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right.2 And critics of Bush’s war on Iraq could name their books, with easy cleverness, Weapons of Mass Deception.3

Not surprisingly, a political culture that takes as one of its founding myths the refusal of its chief Founding Father to lie about the felling of a cherry tree and fondly calls its most revered leader “Honest Abe” has been especially keen on rooting out mendacity from the political sphere. In fact, American culture in general, as Michael T. Gilmore has recently reminded us, has been on a dogged quest for perfect legibility, fueled by a yearning for full disclosure that stretches from the Puritans’ anti-monastic insistence on “holy watching” to the widespread acceptance of psychoanalysis as a therapy of unconstrained candor.4 Although admiring “the arts of deception” in the popular culture of what has been called the “age of Barnum,”5 when it came to extending them to political discourse, strict limits were set. Not for us, Americans have prided themselves on believing, are the Machiavellian machinations of Old World politics with their haughty disdain for the transparency of democratic decision-making. Not for us are the even more dangerous deceptions of totalitarian ideology based on the imposition of the Big Lie on a supine populace no longer able to tell the difference between truth and falsehood. We are determined, as the reigning cliché now has it, “to speak truth to power.”6

In the academy, ever since Harvard picked its familiar motto, a comparable assumption has ruled that truth, or at least the quest for it, is an unimpeachable value.7 Interestingly, that motto was originally “"Veritas pro Christo et ecclesia" ("Truth for Christ and his Church"), but was shortened to allow other, more profane purposes to be served by that quest. When the secularization of intellectual life undermined appeals to divinely revealed truth, this often came to mean a surrogate faith in the scientific method, however that might be defined, as a viable alternative. Even when American Pragmatists questioned traditional notions of certainty and referential correspondence, they did not abandon the search for truth as the telos of inquiry and action. With the growth of departments of political science, often adopting the approach that came to be called behavioralist, the appeal to honesty in political practice could be reinforced by a comparable attempt to study politics in a disinterested and neutral way. At times, in fact, some came to believe that technocrats with the tools of political science at their command would be the best leaders of a polity that wanted to avoid the untidiness of ill-informed opinion and untested prejudice. During the Progressive era in particular, advocates of scientific administration like Walter Lippmann and L.L. Bernard advocated organization, efficiency and enlightened management.8 Truth in politics, it was argued, would be achieved by transcending the cacophony of competing voices and allowing those with the skills and knowledge to cut through to the core of problems and deal with them effectively.

At the heart of this project is a desire to strip political language of its irrational, emotive and ornamental excrescences and find a way to express ideas, arguments and motivations with full clarity and univocal meaning. Formal eloquence and elevated diction were stigmatized by being identified with a gentlemanly code of stuffy decorum that seemed outdated in the era of plain speech and colloquial idiom.9 If common men and women looked up to anyone now, it was the technical expert rather than the literary stylist. Even if this goal did not entail imposing a neutral scientific language on the messiness of everyday speech, it was still widely held to be a powerful tool in the campaign against mendacity in the public realm.

No more rhetorically powerful expression of this distrust of the dangers of unchecked rhetoric can be found than the celebrated essay by George Orwell that quickly established itself as a touchstone of political truth-telling on both sides of the Atlantic, “Politics and the English Language” of l946. Widely anthologized, incessantly taught in schools, and cited with numbing frequency, Orwell’s essay claimed that a debased, impure, inflated, euphemistic, pretentious, cliché-ridden language was more than symptom of political decline; it was one of its main causes. “In our time,” he lamented, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible….Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”10 Avoid stale figures of speech, unnecessarily long words, the passive voice, foreign phrases, and abstruse jargon, he urged, and perhaps the wind would die down.

When Nineteen Eighty-Four added a brilliant exposition of the ways in which totalitarianism depended on the deliberate lies of Newspeak and Doublethink, Orwell’s reputation as the saint of liberal democratic honesty was augmented. By l955, commentators like Lionel Trilling could describe him in worshipful terms: “He told the truth, and told it in an exemplary way, quietly, simply, with due warning to the reader that it was only one man’s truth. He used no political jargon, and he made no recriminations. He made no effort to show that his heart was in the right place, or the left place. He was not interested in where his heart might be thought to be, since he knew where it was. He was interested only in telling the truth….And what matters most of all is our sense of the man who tells the truth.”11

Although since Trilling’s time, Orwell has been subjected to considerable scrutiny, not all of it flattering, which has uncovered some of his own less attractive biases, his critique of linguistic obfuscation and its political consequences has become itself a standard trope in political rhetoric. For both the right and the left, his legacy has been a ready source of epithets against their allegedly deceitful opponents. In the words of Hannah Pitkin, he stood for the “truth of witness”12 in which it was incumbent on the reporter to tell the facts of the story as they are. It is thus not surprising to find that Orwell remains a heroic model for self-proclaimed scourges of mendacity in the public realm like Christopher Hitchens, who have bounced from one camp to another.13

But what has also occurred, and this is the main point of this paper, is a growing undercurrent of uncertainty about the wholesale embrace of the values of linguistic purification and unvarnished truth-telling, at least in the political arena. Much of that uncertainty, I want to argue, has been fueled by receptiveness to ideas from Europe, which have permeated at least a portion of the American consciousness in the latter decades of the twentieth century and which remain potent into our own. Broadly speaking, these involve what has been called “the linguistic turn,” which includes, inter alia, a new respect for rhetoric, an acceptance of the necessity of hermeneutic interpretation, and a willingness to tolerate the inconclusive deconstruction of univocal meaning.14 Because truth itself seems so difficult to attain, the value of truth-telling—truthfulness or veracity—is implicitly called into question, as inherently aesthetic notions of language as more a tool of imaginative fabulation than a means of referencing the real world come to the fore. Although many of these ideas have been associated with the so-called post-structuralist thought that emanated from France in the l970’s, variations on them can be discerned still earlier among that generation of Central European émigrés who so enriched American intellectual life during the Nazi era, and who have continued to exert considerable influence well after they passed from the scene. As survivors of the pervasive cynicism that pervaded the Weimar Republic, “the German Republic of Imposters,”15 as it has been called, they understood what might ensue once politics became thoroughly discredited, but they also had learned that the antidote was not self-righteous moralizing. In what follows, I want to concentrate on three in particular, who in very different ways have helped us reach a more complex understanding of the relationship between political life and mendacity: Leo Strauss, Theodor W. Adorno, and Hannah Arendt.

Their inclusion in the canon of political theorists has, in fact, had an impact beyond the halls of the academy, narrowly construed. This effect is now most self-evident in the case of Strauss, a number of whose neo-conservative followers have gained considerable influence in the highest reaches of American government during the presidency of George W. Bush.16 Perhaps most widely remarked of these is Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who did his doctoral work under Straussians at the University of Chicago, and is a major architect of the new recklessness in American foreign policy. One of its chief cheerleaders is William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, who served in the administration of Bush’s father as adviser to Vice President Quale.

Wolfowitz in particular is relevant to our theme because of his now notorious admission that the Bush administration’s hype of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction was designed to elicit the strongest possible popular support for a cause whose real motivations, still not very clear, lay elsewhere.17 For in this moment of candor, he betrayed one of Strauss’s most salient assumptions: that the masses need to be manipulated into following their best interests by an elite who are privy to the deeper truths of reality. Strauss, that is, was a believer in the possibility of knowing the truth, including the truth about the type of government that is objectively the best. He insisted that the modern age had lost its bearings because of its descent into relativist historicism, forgetting the truths, grounded in a proper understanding of nature, which the ancient philosophers had once possessed. But he also believed that the only way to regain them was to maintain a meaningful distinction between the esoteric knowledge of the few and the exoteric knowledge of the many.

Implicitly drawing on his experience of exile, Strauss argued that persecution had forced ancient thinkers to mask their true intentions in ways that required deciphering by disciples with the skills to read between the lines.18 What was a necessity became a virtue when it led to independent thinking, at least for the minority with the talents and tenacity to attempt it. It was for them, as he put it in his l939 essay on “The Spirit of Sparta or the Taste of Xenophon,” “a matter of duty to hide the truth from the majority of mankind.”19 The tradition of esoteric teaching had withered, Strauss claimed, in the Enlightenment, although its decline was already underway when Machiavelli made explicit the techniques of statecraft that the ancients had known must be kept as the private knowledge of rulers alone. The disappearance of the tradition, he lamented, roughly coincided with the “victory of higher criticism and of systems of philosophy which claimed to be sincere but which certainly lacked moderation.”20 Liberal notions of an egalitarian public sphere in which transparency and sincerity were the premises of enlightened political opinion were the sorry outcome of this betrayal.

Strauss, as might be expected, has been an easy target for defenders of rationalist liberalism as well as egalitarian democracy.21 And I am certainly not inclined to offer a defense of his explicitly hierarchical politics based on an allegedly natural order whose self-evidence neither he nor his disciples have satisfactorily demonstrated. But what has to be acknowledged is that his animadversions on the dangers of sharing truths with the uncomprehending masses has given legitimacy to the old Platonic idea of the “noble lie,” the gennian pseudos,22 to an important segment of the conservative intellectuals of our day. They, of course, would be disinclined to express their scorn for egalitarian democracy explicitly, but it takes no great exegetical skill to read between the lines of their texts—and observe their political actions--to come to this conclusion.

A very different, and much more oblique, defense of mendacity in politics, however, emerges if we turn to the next figure in our triumvirate, whose political agenda was very far from Strauss’s. Adorno, to be sure, also held on to a strong, “emphatic” notion of truth, often arguing, for example, for the “truth-content” of works of art against those who see the aesthetic as mere illusion or fabulation. As a result, he cannot be rightly assimilated to the Nietzschean poststructuralists, who take the linguistic turn to the extreme of questioning the capacity of words to refer without mediation to what exists outside the prison house of language. Nor, for all of Adorno’s putative elitism and disdain for mass culture, would it be correct to identify his position with a cynical defense of philosopher-kings who can tell noble lies to the herd unable to see through them. Underlying his radical politics was always a firm belief in the ultimate value of an enlightened democracy with citizens able to cast off the spell of ideological mystification.

If Adorno can be said to have contributed to the critique of traditional American notions of political honesty, it would only be indirectly, through his questioning of the premises of the conventional wisdom about language and truth-telling. Adorno, to be sure, never developed a sustained analysis of language, although it has been possible to piece together his thoughts from disparate sources in his vast oeuvre.23 What stands out is his distrust of easy notions of communicability, which assume the transparency of the current universe of discourse and the ability of individuals to judge freely for themselves what is fed them by the mass media. In the words of a recent student of the history of the idea of communication, “there was no more formidable critic of the commercialized culture of sincerity.”24 As a result, he has come to be positioned in accounts of current debates about obscure academic writing on the left as the anti-Orwell, the champion of the difficult, dense prose—stigmatized as “bad writing”--associated with figures like Judith Butler and Homi Bhaba.25

Typical of Adorno’s skepticism about transparent communicability were the bitter observations in one of the aphorisms in Minima Moralia, composed around the same time that Orwell wrote his celebrated essay, regard for the object, rather than for communication, is suspect in any expression: anything, not taken from pre-existent patterns, appears inconsiderate, a symptom of eccentricity, almost of confusion. The logic of the day, which makes so much of its clarity, has naively adopted this perverted notion of everyday speech….Few things contribute so much to the demoralization of intellectuals. Those who would escape it must recognize the advocates of communicability as traitors to what they communicate.26



Although agreeing with Orwell that stale clichés are the enemy of clear thought,
Adorno differed from him in stressing the value of difficulty and complexity, which defeated the effortless absorption of pre-packaged ideas. He also questioned Orwell’s desire to purify language of its ornamental excrescences, in particular foreign words. With a somber awareness of what a similar campaign had meant in the context of the country from which he had escaped, Adorno wryly noted that “German words of foreign derivation are the Jews of language.”27 That is, linguistic purification went along with cleansing of a far more sinister kind.

Adorno’s suspicion of the agenda behind purifying language of alien intrusions was of a piece with his critique of what he called “the jargon of authenticity” in a book of that name published in l964.28 Adorno’s ire was directed at the German existentialists, most notably Heidegger and Jaspers, who elevated the values of genuineness, authenticity and original meaning to normative status above the content of what was believed or meant. Aimed at overcoming the abstractions of reified life, they preached a pseudo-concreteness, which denied the historical reasons for the depredations of modern culture. In their hands, mere commitment, speaking from the heart, becomes an antidote to nihilism, no matter the cause to which the commitment is dedicated.29 The individual who makes that commitment is understood in possessive terms as entirely owned by the speaker, whose integrity and sincerity are favored over his mimetic relationship with others in the world. Likewise, language, purified of its historical accretions, should return to its archaic roots to regain its true meaning (a bit like Orwell’s preference for good old Anglo-Saxon words against their effete Latinate surrogates, although Adorno didn’t make the comparison).

Already in Minima Moralia, written in his exile years, Adorno had seen the political implications of the jargon, which were frighteningly regressive and xenophobic. The supremacy of the original over the derived, he warned, “is always linked with social legitimism. All ruling strata claim to be the oldest settlers, autochthonous.”30 Along with the striving for ultimate, original meaning went a suspicion of ambiguity and rhetoric, which meant a denigration of sophistry in both philosophy and politics. “With the assertion of meaning at all costs,” Adorno wrote, “the old antisophistic emotion seeps into the so-called mass society.” Ancient Sophistry, to be sure, had failed to fight against injustice in the name of truth, preferring to ratify whatever was the status quo. But when it is one-sidedly combated in the name of original, univocal meanings, sophistry’s important insight, that language is never fully adequate to objects or concepts either because it can’t express their full complexity or because it says more than it means, is sacrificed.

The same loss is suffered when clarity becomes a fetish, either in philosophy or politics. In an essay entitled “Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel,” published in l963, Adorno defended the notorious difficulty and opacity of that most obscure philosopher’s style.31 “Someone who cannot state what he means without ambiguity is not worth wasting time on,” wrote Adorno, contemptuously characterizing the current orthodoxy. “Like the desire for explicit definitions, to which it is related, this concept of clarity has survived the [Cartesian] philosophy in which it originated and has become autonomous.”32 Its survival has led to a preference for stability over flux, as objects are able to be clearly designated only when they stop moving and make themselves available to the scrutiny of the enlightened gaze. Absolute clarity also presupposes a non-dynamic subject whose use of language is no less reified. Philosophy, like that of Hegel, which incorporates movement into its own thought processes, at least offers some resistance to this condition, which is inherent in language itself. “The very form of the copula, the ‘is,’ pursues the aim of pinpointing its object, an aim to which philosophy ought to provide a corrective; in this sense all philosophical language is language in opposition to language, marked with the stigma of its own impossibility.”33

Adorno’s critique of straightforward clarity of expression based on the putative identity of word and thing is aimed at philosophical discourse, at least in this essay. But it is not hard to see its applicability in the realm of politics as well, where rhetoric, uncertainty and constant change play even more central roles. Indeed, Bill Clinton’s notorious defense of his deception that it all depends on “what the meaning of ‘is’ is” resonates with Adorno’s reading of Hegel’s refusal to be restricted by the identitarian implications of the copula. Adorno, to be sure, never praised mendacity as an actual virtue in politics, nor abandoned his hope in an emphatic concept of truth that would survive all ideological attempts to assume its mantle in the present. But by alerting us to the ways in which those attempts often hid other agendas, he made us aware that simple appeals to clarity, communicability, authenticity, and integrity could become obstacles to precisely what they purported to defend.

The third figure in our triumvirate, Hannah Arendt, is also the one who most explicitly addressed the role of lying in politics. Personally hostile to both Strauss and Adorno,34 she also disdained their belief that philosophers like Plato or Hegel had anything to teach those who were active in the realm of politics. The idea of the “noble lie,” she argued, was not only wrong, but also a misreading of the text in The Republic.35Although learning much from the Heidegger and Jaspers excoriated by Adorno as adepts of the jargon of authenticity,36 she steadfastly resisted their emphasis on the primacy of philosophy. Instead, she attempted to build a firewall between politics and philosophy, at least if the latter were understood as the search for eternal, universal essences rather than contingent, plural appearances.

In two essays in particular, “Truth and Politics” of l967 and “Lying in Politics” of 1971, Arendt drew radical conclusions from her idiosyncratic political theory for the issue of mendacity in the public realm. Occasioned by two controversies over lying, the first by her own work on Adolf Eichmann’s trial, the second by the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, these two essays provide a more fundamental challenge to the American quest for full disclosure in the public realm than anything written by Strauss and Adorno. Ironically, the first essay was stimulated by the charge that Arendt had unwisely told the truth about the Jewish role in enabling the Holocaust—or more precisely, that of the Jewish Councils--to the detriment of current political causes. She had, in other words, foolishly followed the dangerous principle of “fiat veritas, et pereat mundus.” Without denying that she was dedicated as a scholar to truth-telling, Arendt was moved to ponder the problematic effects of that practice in the political arena.

“Truth in Politics” opens with a direct and unequivocal challenge to the critical evaluation of those effects, which we have seen was so powerful a part of American conventional wisdom:

No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues. Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s and the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade.37

Indeed, lying itself was not considered a cardinal sin until modern times; Plato, for example, thought ignorance and error worse than deliberate mendacity. “Only with the rise of Puritan morality, coinciding with the rise of organized science, whose progress had to be assured on the firm ground of the absolute veracity and reliability of every scientist, were lies considered serious offenses.”38

Still, for ancient philosophy, the quest for truth was paramount, a truth that was understood in the Platonic tradition in terms of rational oneness. The realm of politics was far more messy and divisive, ruled by sophistic rhetoric and contingent doxa rather than dialogic ratiocination:

To the citizens’ ever-changing opinions about human affairs, which themselves were in a state of constant flux, the philosopher opposed the truth about those things which in their very nature were everlasting and from which, therefore, principles could be derived to stabilize human affairs. Hence the opposite to truth was opinion, which was equated with illusion.39


Rational notions of truth, Arendt argued, no longer hold much sway in the modern world, but they have been replaced by belief in the truth of facts, which is much more of a challenge to the political realm. For factual truth is dependent on intersubjective agreement and therefore is closer to political opinion than to deductive reason. But they are not the same, for all truth claims differ from mere opinion by the way in which they assert their validity, which has a moment of coercion in it. “Factual truth, like all other truth, peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life. The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering; they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking.”40 Political judgment is the ability to incorporate other opinions, producing what Kant had called an “enlarged mentality,” not the search for the one true opinion. Philosophy is an exercise in searching for a singular truth; politics is the interplay of plural opinions. Even the self-evident truths Jefferson declared to be the justification for declaring American independence were, after all, prefaced by the concession that “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” implying that contingent consent and agreement—the holding of the beliefs--rather than the coercion of the ideas themselves was the basis of the claim.

There is another consideration, Arendt continued, that makes lying itself a central dimension of political life. A lie “is clearly an attempt to change the record, and as such, it is a form of action….[the liar] is an actor by nature; he says what is not so because he wants things to be different from what they are—that is, he wants to change the world.”41 One of the main reasons truthfulness is not a genuine political virtue is that it doesn’t produce a desire for change, although, of course, it can contribute to undermining a status quo built entirely of lies. There is, Arendt went on to argue, a tendency in the modern world towards the systematic, organized mobilization of lying to create wholly fictitious political worlds, thus the adoption of the Big Lie in totalitarianism.

There is, however, a limit to the capacity of those who organize mendacity to keep truth entirely at bay. Thus, facts, as past events which cannot be entirely effaced, stubbornly resist the construction of a world of total untruth. And there are ways in which institutions like the judiciary, which are inside the political arena, and the academy, which are outside, do provide a check on the capacity of political mendacity to build a world entirely out of thin air. Politics is a limited realm, circumscribed by truths that it cannot undo, insofar as they involve a past that cannot be changed.

But to the extent that politics deals with the possible future, depends on opinions rather than hard facts, traffics in contingencies instead of eternal verities, mobilizes rhetoric rather than deductive logic, and is based on plurality rather than singularity, lying cannot be entirely expunged from its precincts. Thus, when it came to responding to the outcry against the mendacity revealed in the Pentagon Papers, Arendt, who had doubts about the foolishness of our intervention in Vietnam, was in a bit of a dilemma. “Lying in Politics” begins by rehearsing the argument of her earlier essay: “Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings…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.”42 Thus, moralizing about mendacity in politics is fruitless, as is the hope the contingent facts can ever achieve indubitable status.

But the Pentagon Papers, Arendt then conceded, introduce something new into the debate about lying in politics. In addition to lying for the sake of their country’s image, those responsible for American intervention were also active problem-solvers who prided themselves on the rational, unsentimental nature of their actions. For this reason, they attempted to import scientific reasoning into politics, substituting calculation for political judgment. “What these problem-solvers have in common with down-to-earth liars is the attempt to get rid of facts and the confidence that this should be possible because of the inherent contingency of facts.”43 But to impose their new reality entirely required the wholesale destruction of stubborn facts, which not even totalitarian leaders like Stalin and Hitler could accomplish, despite their will to do so. Ultimately, the architects of American foreign policy had to face the consequences of their deceptions.

But ironically, the reason for their downfall was less their reliance on mendacious image-making than their mistaken attempt to apply reason to politics rather than learn from experience. “The problem-solvers did not judge;” Arendt explained, “they calculated. Their self-confidence did not even need self-deception to be sustained in the midst of so many misjudgments, for it relied on the evidence of mathematical, purely rational truth. Except, of course, that this ‘truth’ was entirely irrelevant to the ‘problem’ at hand.”44 Here instead of being on the opposite side of the fence dividing politics from science, lying and rational theorizing worked hand in hand: “defactualization and problem-solving were welcomed because disregard of reality were inherent in the policies and goals themselves.”45

In the end, Arendt’s attempt to distinguish radically between politics and truth-telling rationalism was thus thwarted by the complexities of the case before her, just as her other categorical distinctions between the political and the social or the moral were also perpetually in danger of coming undone. Still, despite the difficulties she had in making a watertight argument for them, her insight into the fatal affinity between politics and mendacity, if added to those we have already encountered in Strauss and Adorno, make a suggestive case against any simple-minded critique of lying in the public realm.

For even if one rejects the idea of the Platonic “noble lie” as the elitist contempt for the idea of an enlightened public that it is, it is hard to dismiss the insights that Adorno and Arendt both supply into the ways in which language necessarily defeats any attempt to be utterly transparent and univocal in the messy realm of politics. Moreover, if we acknowledge that plural opinion rather than singular truth means that there will always be different interpretations of what is and what should be, we can relax our expectation that the conventional norm of political speech is limpid truthfulness and that lying is an aberrant deviation. It is perhaps better to say that spin, exaggeration, evasion, half-truths, and the like are as much the stuff of political discourse and the struggle for power as straightforward speaking from the heart. As we have come to know from experience, primary election opponents defaming their rivals miraculously unite around the victor and sing his praises, memoirs of statesmen acknowledge the duplicity of their negotiations, politicians give coyly evasive answers to probing journalists, laws are deliberately written with ambiguities that only lawyers can love, campaign promises are given with fingers crossed, treaties are written in deliberately vague language allowing each side to claim advantage, and so forth. Although it is certainly the case that the balance between truth-telling and fabrication, with all the gray area in between, is historically variable, historians would be hard pressed to identify any polity of whatever kind in which perfect veracity was the norm.

The fear that images have replaced substance or that the aestheticization of politics is a new departure ignores the extent to which politics, rhetoric and theatricality have always been intimate bedfellows. It also underestimates the extent to which the logic of politics is modal rather than propositional, that is, dealing with promises and plans about the future rather than statements about what is currently the case, with what should or ought to be rather than simple matters of fact. In addition, it fails to see that persuasion often works in politics through the power of narratives, which as Hayden White has made clear in the case of history in general, are always as much emplotted via figural tropes as referentially true.46 And insofar as such narratives always find their end point in a putative future, either to be realized or avoided, they contain an even stronger imaginative moment, a moment of fabulation, than is the case with those dealing only with the past.

Still another consideration is the role played by myth, or at least conceptual fabrication, in underlying even the most seemingly transparent of politics. One need not go all the way with Georges Sorel to acknowledge that even non-redemptive politics is based on certain notions that would not easily bear close epistemological scrutiny. Take, for example, the idea of “national interest,” which is so often mobilized as a cover for partial interests masking as general. Or even more fundamentally, consider the idea of “the people,” an enormously elastic term whose boundaries are never very precise and whose exclusions are rarely acknowledged.47 Those who claim to speak in the name of the national interest or the people are not necessarily lying—they may intend to represent the common interest these terms purport to embody—but a politics that is based on this kind of legitimation necessarily introduces a mythic moment into its discourse.

All this is not to say, of course, that truth-telling and wariness about falsehoods should simply be banished from the political realm, which is nothing but a contest of competing lies. Strauss and Adorno, as we have seen, hold on to an emphatic notion of truth, which stands apart from normal political life, while Arendt admits that at least factual truth is an inherent part of any political discourse. It would indeed be dangerous to allow cynicism to undermine entirely the indignation that should accompany any disclosure of outright deception.

What it does suggest, however, is that rather than seeing the Big Lie of totalitarian polities as met by the perfect truth sought in liberal democratic ones, a truth based on that quest for transparency and clarity in language we have seen endorsed by Orwell and his earnest followers, we would be better advised to see politics as the endless struggle between lots of little lies, half-truths and competing narratives, which may offset each other, but never entirely produce a single consensus. Although it is certainly the case that veridical discourses, such as the judicial where participants are sworn to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” do intersect with politics at crucial moments—as Bill Clinton can well attest—they never entirely subsume it. In fact, the great irony of the goal of absolute truth and truthfulness is that it mirrors the Big Lie and total mendacity of the totalitarianism it is designed to thwart. Both endanger the plurality of opinions and interminability in the fallible process of agonistic human interaction that has come to be called politics. Both enforce orthodoxy, the “making straight” of heterogeneous and unruly doxa. Lots of little competing fabrications, ironically, may ward off that enforcement more effectively than any attempt to establish and defend a single, universally shared truth.

These lessons have begun to permeate into our political consciousness. Although it would be wrong to exaggerate the effect of the three foreign-born theorists I have discussed—in what is perhaps the most influential general study of mendacity in recent years, Sissela Bok’s Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Strauss and Adorno are utterly ignored, while Arendt’s essay on “Truth and Politics” is cited in passing and with total disregard for its main argument48—it is at least arguable that they have provided us the tools to think more deeply than before about the issue. But let the last word go to another defender of the virtues of mendacity from abroad, Oscar Wilde. In his famous essay of l889, the imagined dialogue called “The Decay of Lying,” Wilde has one of his interlocutors denounce with mock horror the effects on American culture of our exemplary founding anecdote: “It is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry-tree has done more harm, and in a shorter span of time, than an other moral tale in the whole of literature.” And then he added with the brilliant irony for which Wilde was justly celebrated, “and the amusing thing is that the story of the cherry-tree is an absolute myth.”49


Martin Jay

History Department

U. of California, Berkeley



1 Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie to: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton (London, l999). See my review of this book and George Stephanopolous, All too Human, in London Review of Books, 21,15 (July 29, l999), where some of the issues of this essay are first addressed.

2 Al Franken, Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (New York, 2003); Ann Coulter, Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right (New York, 2002).

3 Sheldon Rampton and John C. Stauber, Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq (New York, 2003).

4 Michael T. Gilmore, Surface and Depth: The Quest for Legibility in American Culture (New York, 2003).

5 James W. Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, Mass., 2001).

6 This formula implies that only those outside of power can be truth tellers, a tacit admission that once you have the political clout to achieve anything, truth is harder to speak so unequivocally. The link between impotence and truthfulness was already apparent in C. Wright Mills, “The Powerless People: The Role of the Intellectual in Society, politics, I, 3 (April, l944), where the “politics of truth” is assigned to intellectuals as a kind of compensation for their powerlessness. I am indebted to Daniel Geary’s forthcoming dissertation on Mills for drawing this essay to my attention.

7 The official use of the motto did not begin, in fact, until l843, some time after Yale had adopted Lux et Veritas for its motto. See the discussion in http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/01_03/seal.html.

8 See David A. Hollinger, “Science and Anarchy: Walter Lippmann’s Drift and Mastery,” In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Bloomington, Ind., l985). He argues that Lippmann’s version was less technocratic and more democratic than Bernard’s. See also, Dorothy Ross,
”Modernist Social Science in the Land of the New/Old,” in Modernist Impulses in the Human Sciences, l870-1930. ed. Dorothy Ross (Baltimore, 1994), which argues that “mainstream sociologists developed a technocratic conception of science aimed at prediction and control.” (p. 187).

9 Kenneth Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, l990). He shows that the transition took place between l885 and l900.

10 George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” A Collection of Essays (New York, l953), p. 166 and 171.

11 Lionel Trilling, “George Orwell and the Politics of Truth,” (l955) reprinted in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four: Text, Sources, Criticism ed. Irving Howe (New York, l963), p. 226.

12 Cited from an unpublished talk in David Lloyd and Paul Thomas, Culture and the State (New York, l998), p. 175.

13 Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters (New York, 2002).

14 See, for example the essays in The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences: Language and Argument in Scholarship and Public Affairs, eds., John S. Nelson, Allan Megill and Donald N. McClosky (Madison, Wi., l987).

15 Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Elred (Minneapolis, l987), chapter 23. See also Helmut Lethen, Cool Conduct: The Culture of Distance in Weimar Germany, trans. Don Reneau (Berkeley, 2002).

16 The public appreciation of the influence of Straussians on actual policy only really emerged with the Iraq War. The extent of the discussion is apparent in websites like http??www.straussian.net, which has a section on Straussian in the news.

17 Wolfowitz’s admission was that “The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason.” Cited in the interview he gave Vanity Fair, where he also talks about his debts to Strauss and Straussians like Alan Bloom. See the text at http://www.scoop.co.nz/mason/stories/WO0305/S00308.htm

18 See in particular, Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe, Ill, l952). For a detailed account of the role of exile on Strauss’s thought, see Eugene R. Sheppard, Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile (forthcoming).

19 Leo Strauss, “The Spirit of Sparta or the Taste of Xenophon,” Social Research, 6, 4 (November, l939), p. 535.

20 Ibid., p. 535.

21See, for example, the chapter devoted to him in Stephen Holmes, The Anatomy of Illiberalism (Cambridge, Mass., 1993).

22 The precise translation of this phrase from The Republic has been much disputed, sometimes being rendered as “pious fraud,” “royal lie” and “bold flight of the imagination.” For a discussion, see Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York, l999), p. 306. She insists on the standard translation, arguing that it fits well with Plato’s defense of a natural hierarchy in which nobility of breeding excuses lying to those lower on the social scale.

23 For a very helpful overview, see Peter Uwe Hohendahl, Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno (Lincoln, Ne, l995), chapter 9.

24 John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago, l999), p. 221.

25 James Miller, “Is Bad Writing Necessary? George Orwell, Theodor Adorno, and the Politics of Language,” Lingua Franca (December/January, 2000). Interestingly, both men were born in l903, but into very different worlds.

26 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London, l974), p. 101.

27Ibid., p. l10.

28 Theodor W. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will (London, 1973).

29 In the empirical study he made in l943 of the American radio demagogue Martin Luther Thomas, Adorno saw the evidence for this danger: “his confessions, actual or faked, serve to satisfy the listener’s curiosity. This is a universal feature of present-day mass culture. It is catered to by the gossip columns of certain newspapers, the inside stories told to innumerable listeners over the radio, or the magazines that promise ‘true stories’.” The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses (Stanford, 2000), p. 2.

30 Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. l55. I have tried to develop the implications of the aphorism from which this citation comes, “Gold Assay,” at greater length in a forthcoming essay, “Taking on the Stigma of Inauthenticity: Adorno’s Critique of Genuineness.”

31 Theodor W. Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, Mass., l993). “Stoteinos” refers to the work of Heraclitus, who is opposed as the avatar of obscurity to Descartes, the modern defender of clarity.

32Ibid., p. 96.

33 Ibid., p. 100.

34 Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven, l982), p. 80 and 98. For comparisons of their work, see Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss: German Emigrés and American Political Thought after World War II, eds., Peter Graf Kielmansegg, Horst Mewes and Elisabeth Glaser-Schmidt (Cambridge, 1995) and Das Unmögliche Denken: Vergleichende Studien zu Theodor W. Adorno und Hannah Arendt, eds.. Dirk Auer, Lars Rensmann and Julia Schulze (Frankfurt, 2003).

35 Hannah Arendt, , “Truth in Politics,” in The Portable Hannah Arendt, ed. Peter Baehr (New York, 2000), p. 574-575.

36 Precisely what she learnt and how valuable were the lessons have been the source of considerable controversy, especially after the disclosure of her romantic attachment to Heidegger. For two opposing accounts, see Dana R. Villa, Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political (Princeton, l996) and Richard Wolin, Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Han Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse (Princeton, 2001). For her debts to Jaspers, see Lewis P. Hinchman and Sandra K. Hinchman, “Existentialism Politicized: Arendt’s debt to Jaspers,” in Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays, eds. Lewis P. Hinchman and

Sandra K. Hinchman (Albany, N.Y., 1994).

37 Arendt, “Truth in Politics,”, p. 545.

38 Ibid., p. 549.

39 Ibid. As Habermas has shown, however, the absolute distinction between truth and opinion began to waver in complicated ways with the rise of the bourgeois public sphere and the idea of “public opinion.” See The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Berger and Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), chapter 12.

40 Ibid., p. 556.

41 Ibid., p. 563.

42 Arendt, “Lying in Politics,” in Crises of the Republic (New York, l972), p. 4-5.

43 Ibid., p. 12.

44 Ibid., p. 37.

45 Ibid., p. 42.

46 Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, l973). This work has, to be sure, generated an extraordinary response, much of it dedicated to qualifying the radical constructivism of White’s argument. His central point about the ways in which rhetorical tropes inevitably inflect our telling of narratives about the past still remains standing.

47 See George Boas, The History of Ideas (New York, l969), chapter 8, for an excellent overview of the history and variable meaning of this term.

48 Bok, Lying, p. 142, where she cites Arendt’s critique of the “consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth” as causing the destruction of the capacity to tell the difference between lies and truth. This argument was aimed, as we have seen, against the totalitarian “Big Lie,” not the normal give and take of small lies in the political realm. Bok also claims that lying not truth-telling is ultimately more coercive, but doesn’t engage Arendt’s arguments to the contrary. But see Jeremy Campbell, The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood (New York, 2001) for a defense of deception in ways that indicate Bok’s position may no longer be unchallenged in mainstream considerations of the issues. Even more directly relevant to the issue of lying in politics is Ruth W. Grant, Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics (Chicago, 1997), which makes a powerful case for the inevitability of hypocrisy whenever dependency is a part of political life, including democratic dependency on voters and allies.

49 Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying,”in Aesthetes and Decadents of the l890’s, ed. Karl Beckson (Chicago, l981), p. 183.



The paper by Martin Jay, (2006) “The Ambivalent Virtues of Mendacity: How Europeans Taught (Some of) Us to Learn to Love the Lies of Politics” was originally given at the Ethics and Politics – Conference in Heraklion, Crete, 24 – 28 May, 2006. It came out in book form in 2010.

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