Two of the most trenchant and enduring critics of authoritarianism, Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, were also both German Jews who emigrated to the U.S. to escape the Nazis. The Marxist Adorno saw fascist tendencies everywhere in his new country. Decades before Noam Chomsky coined the concept, he argued that all mass media under advanced capitalism served one particular purpose: manufacturing consent.
Arendt landed on a different part of the political spectrum, drawing her philosophy from Aristotle and St. Augustine. Classical democratic ideals and an ethics of moral responsibility informed her belief in the central importance of shared reality in a functioning civil society—of a press that is free not only to publish what it wishes, but to take responsibility for telling the truth, without which democracy becomes impossible.
A press that disseminates half-truths and propaganda, Arendt argued, is not a feature of liberalism but a sign of authoritarian rule. “Totalitarian rulers organize… mass sentiment,” she told French writer Roger Errera in 1974, “and by organizing it articulate it, and by articulating it make the people somehow love it. They were told before, thou should not kill; and they didn’t kill. Now they are told, thou shalt kill; and although they think it’s very difficult to kill, they do it because it’s now part of the code of behavior.”
This breakdown of moral norms, Arendt argued, can occur “the moment we no longer have a free press.” The problem, however, is more complicated than mass media that spreads lies. Echoing ideas developed in her 1951 study The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explained that “lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows.”
Bombarded with contradictory and often incredible claims, people become cynical and give up trying to understand anything. “And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.” The statement was anything but theoretical. It's an empirical observation from much recent 20th century history.
Arendt’s thought developed in relation to totalitarian regimes that actively censored, controlled, and micromanaged the press to achieve specific ends. She does not address the current situation in which we find ourselves—though Adorno certainly did: a press controlled not directly by the government but by an increasingly few, and increasingly monolithic and powerful, number of corporations, all with vested interests in policy direction that preserves and expands their influence.
The examples of undue influence multiply. One might consider the recently approved Gannett-Gatehouse merger, which brought together two of the biggest news publishers in the country and may “speed the demise of local news,” as Michael Posner writes at Forbes, thereby further opening the doors for rumor, speculation, and targeted disinformation. But in such a condition, we are not powerless as individuals, Arendt argued, even if the preconditions for a democratic society are undermined.
Though the facts may be confused or obscured, we retain the capacity for moral judgment, for assessing deeper truths about the character of those in power. “In acting and speaking,” she wrote in 1975’s The Human Condition, “men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities…. This disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction to ‘what’ somebody is—his qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide—is implicit in everything somebody says and does.”
Even if democratic institutions let the free press fail, Arendt argued, we each bear a personal responsibility under authoritarian rule to judge and to act—or to refuse—in an ethics predicated on what she called, after Socrates, the “silent dialogue between me and myself.”
Read Arendt's full passage on the free press and truth below:
The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.
via Michio Kakutani