Friday, November 3, 2023

#307 / Opinions And The Truth

Hannah Arendt
Today, let me provide you with a "guest editorial." I have appended it below this introduction.

"Politics," as Roger Berkowitz says (and as Hannah Arendt says), is not about "the truth." "Politics" is about "opinions." Because of this, the essence of "politics" must be "persuasion." Let's not quickly dismiss this view!

If there is a political "Truth," somthing that is "right," and therefore something that is very different from all those other things that are "wrong," then Barry Goldwater deserves to be venerated for the following statement, undoubtedly the statement for which he is most remembered: 

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue! 

Totalitarianism, like "extremism," believes it knows the "Truth," and the fight against totalitarianism, and "extremism," motivated Arendt throughout most of her life. That struggle against totalitarianism and extremism informed almost all of her scholarship. 

Totalitarianism is based on an assertion (whether the assertion is made in good faith or not) that our world must choose to be governed by those who are on the side of what is "right," or be governed, instead, by those who are "wrong." 

If there is a "Truth," with a capital "T," then why shouldn't we eliminate all those who stand in its way? Why shouldn't there be total allegience to the "Truth"? Deference to legalities, to conventionalities, to votes are not to be tolerated if the effect of doing so would be to allow something that is "wrong" to prevail. 

Arendt barely escaped Germany's Nazi government. She made it to the United States, and her life story, and her writings on politics, are informed by an understanding of "politics" that profoundly rejects the idea that "politics" is where "Truth" is discovered - and enforced. 

Thinking about much of the political debate and discussion that goes on in the United States today, wouldn't you agree that it has a tendency (from all sides, I'd argue) to be preoccupied by debates about which "side" has the "Truth," instead of being characterized by a discussion about what we might, most of us, agree to "try out," to see if it works?

Read Roger Berkowitz, and click this link to hear what New York Times' columnist Ross Douthat has to say. We need a politics that has escaped from "extremism," and that doesn't pretend that it is all about the "Truth." 

I hope you are persuaded!


Roger Berkowitz*

At the very core of Arendt’s thinking about politics is her view that politics is about opinions and not truth. We all come to politics with opinions formed at times by prejudices and at other times by reason and judgment. Political decisions are not true, but they are compromises and the result of discussion, debate, and deliberation, as well as dogmatism, ideology, and fear-mongering. Persuasion is the coin of politics but it is not always rational; it is often emotional and raw. That is why Arendt understands that the primary activity of political life is to speak and act with others in public, even with others one finds wrong and at times offensive. Politics is not about convincing others that you are right, but about coming to listen and speak with others to find a lowest common denominator from which we can agree to build a common world. At its best, a politics of persuasion appeals to reason, thoughtfulness, empathy, and common sense. But even when it falls short of that ideal, persuasion aims to build a common world, to discover what we all share and build on that foundation. Ross Douthat, the sometimes conservative columnist at the New York Times, is one of the great advocates for this Arendtian ideal of persuasion. Isaac Chotiner interviews him and Sam Moyn here (emphasis added). 

Several times during lunch, I prodded Douthat on whether the right’s increasing distrust of liberal democracy is really the fault of liberal institutions. Perhaps a large portion of the right had turned into vaccine conspiracists who thought that Anthony Fauci belonged in prison not because of the failures of the √©lite, or because of natural human skepticism, but in part because of the media outlets that give airtime to Kennedy, or to Tucker Carlson? 
When responding to such questions, Douthat often seems sincerely interested—out of some combination of self-preservation and genuine thoughtfulness—in phrasing his answers carefully. After a pause, he said, “Would I say that the New York Times should pluck someone from obscurity to write an op-ed saying that vaccines cause autism, because we find that five per cent of our readers think that, and they need to be represented? No, I would absolutely not say that. But the people who are making the argument already have a platform and an audience, so you need a way to engage it.” Douthat continued, “I think a lot of people in the world of The New Yorker and the New York Times decided in the Trump era that they didn’t even want to know where these ideas were coming from. It was just enough that they were bad. And I think you do have to figure out where those ideas were coming from.” Douthat was getting more animated; he smiled broadly, and waved his right hand in the air to emphasize his points. “What liberalism—√©lite liberalism, whatever you call it—doesn’t have is just a theory of persuasion.” He paused again. “That’s why, I mean, maybe I am a liberal if I’m interested in theories of persuasion.”

* Roger Berkowitz is the founder and Academic Director of The Hannah Arendt Center, at Bard College. He presides over a "Hannah Arendt Virtual Reading Group," meeting on most Fridays (and that is meeting today to discuss Chapter 6 in Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism, "Race-Thinking Before Racism"). Check it out!.

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