Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, Fake News, and Hope

It is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp Bergen- Belsen. There is much talk of cruelty, asking how people could have done such horrible things. But it was not cruelty, at least not in general. It was simply elimination of that which had no humanity, part of the totalitarian plan that, as Hannah Arendt describes in *Totalitarianism*, must always have an enemy to be eliminated. Not just in Hitler’s Germany, but also in Stalin’s Russia,. And later, after she had written this, her analysis applied to Mao’s China (see the superb non- fiction *Wild Swans* by Jung Chang). There was no pragmatic plan, no cruelty at the heart of those deeds, though there was plenty of cruelty from some of those involved. It was the totalitarian ideal that led to the horrors.

Arendt analyses not only the bases of totalitarianism, as opposed to dictatorships and other forms of government, but how totalitarianism begins and sustains itself. Some of what she says seems to apply to the talk of some of our leaders now. Here are some quotations from that book (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951-1968).

Like the earlier mob leaders, the spokesmen for totalitarian movements possessed an unerring instinct for anything that ordinary party propaganda or public opinion did not care or dare to touch. Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption. p. 49

The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. Repetition, somewhat overrated in importance because of the common belief in the masses’ inferior capacity to grasp and remember, is important only because it convinces them of consistency in time.
What the masses refuse to recognize is the fortuitousness that pervades reality. They are predisposed to all ideologies because they explain facts as mere examples of laws and eliminate coincidences by inventing an all embracing omnipotence which is supposed to be at the root of every accident. Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency. pp. 49-50

In other words, while it is true that the masses are obsessed by a desire to escape reality because in their essential homelessness they can no longer bear the accidental, incomprehensible aspects, it is also true that their longing for fiction has some connection with those capacities of the human mind whose structural consistency is superior to mere coincidence. The masses escape from reality is a verdict against the world in which they are forced to live and in which they cannot exist, since coincidence has become its supreme master and human beings need the constant transformation of chaotic and accidental conditions into a man-made pattern of relative consistency. The revolt of the masses against “realism,” common sense, and all “the plausibilities of the world” (Burke) was the result of their atomization, of their loss of social status along with which they lost the whole sector of communal relationships in whose framework common sense makes sense. In the situation of spiritual and social homelessness, a measured insight into the interdependence of the arbitrary and the planned, the accidental and the necessary, could no longer operate. Totalitarian propaganda can outrageously insult common sense only when common sense has lost its validity. Before the alternative of facing the anarchic growth and total arbitrariness of decay or bowing down before the most rigid, fantastically fictitious consistency of an ideology, the masses probably will always choose the latter and be ready to pay for it with individual sacrifices–and this not because they are stupid or wicked, but because in the general disaster this escape grants them a minimum of self-respect. p. 50

A mixture of gullibility and cynicism has been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an every-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible, and that nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough, because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire their leaders for their superior tactical cleverness. p. 80

It seems, then, that I and others have been wrong to think that if we could just educate enough people to think critically (my *How to Reason*), the world would be better as more people can reason to good decisions. No, more is needed, much more: good goals in the service of which good reasoning can aid. If we do not help those who are so distressed and harmed by the constant and overwhelming changes in our world–not just poverty, but dislocation, lack of community which many attempt to recreate through virtual experiences, “homelessness” as Hannah Arendt terms it–we cannot expect that they will respond “rationally”. Fear is the great factor motivating them, and that can be overcome only by hope, which we all must offer to one another.