Mind the Fact

IN 1968, HANNAH ARENDT had just begun teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York and was watching local anti–Vietnam War protests with abundant optimism. She published a collection of essays, Men in Dark Times; she began drafting a version of what became her controversial 1969 essay “On Violence”; and she was sketching her final book, The Life of the Mind. Strands of her thought from previous decades were coming together, sometimes uneasily. Her work of this era has serious blind spots when it comes to race, gender, and class, but I tend to think her most influential ideas—on being a pariah, on revolution, on statelessness—are presented with increased clarity, wit, and verve in Men in Dark Times. So while it was uplifting, in the wake of the past US presidential election, to catch flashes of The Origins of Totalitarianism on the subway and social media, I kept wondering whether this subsequent book might’ve been a better Arendt go-to. The collected articles on, well, mostly men—Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Bertolt Brecht, among others—are less theoretically dense than those in the Origins, yet no less powerful. What really hits home is Men in Dark Times’s staggering preface, which builds on her 1967 essay “Truth and Politics,” and predicts our post-truth moment. Her recurrent discussion of how historical records and rational truths can be manipulated by a community or administration into matters of mere opinion (through “organized lying”) speaks loud and clear to the rewriting of history, redacting of public information, and rejection of science and data we see nearly everywhere today.

Arendt’s focus was deeply informed by the Holocaust and other “monstrosities,” as she put it, of the first half of the twentieth century, which she had analyzed in depth in much of her work. But in Men in Dark Times she pointed to something subtler, harder to see, and foundationally carcinogenic: when lies overwhelm the truth. She witnessed this during the ruinous ’68 elections and the demise of the Democratic Party. The triumph of mendacity is the “catastrophe” she mulls over in the introduction: the tragedy she first witnessed during World War II, brought on by “the highly efficient talk and double-talk of nearly all official representatives who, without interruption and in many ingenious variations, explained away unpleasant facts and concerns.” A clairvoyant description of Trump’s obliteration of politics and ongoing denials when it comes to the rule of law? Maybe not the “ingenious” part.

She goes on: “Darkness has come when this light is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.” Arendt’s attention to lying, nonsense, and deception—i.e., alternative facts—as instrumental forms of political violence isn’t just clairvoyant. It’s chilling. On the flip side, she always searched for some kernel of cautious optimism, as she does throughout Men in Dark Times. In different ways, the people she profiles bring the light.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler is a senior editor of Artforum.