Rebecca Panovka in Harper’s:
In a 1959 letter to her friend Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt paused to commiserate on a harrowing experience they had in common: having their writing fact-checked by The New Yorker. In her previous correspondence, McCarthy had mused that the magazine’s checking department was “invented by some personal Prosecutor of mine to shatter the morale,” and Arendt shared her frustration. Fact-checking, she replied, was a “kind of torture,” a “rigmarole,” and “one of the many forms in which the would-be writers persecute the writer.” Arendt’s opposition to the practice of fact-checking ran deeper than personal irritation. Throughout her work, she was critical of the infiltration of scientific terminology and methods into all aspects of human life. Couching an argument in language that sounded scientific, she thought, was a way of claiming the ability to know or predict things that could never be predicted or known. Fact-checking was a part of that larger trend: the practice, she wrote to McCarthy, was a form of “phony scientificality.”
This Arendt—snide, melodramatic, disdainful of the concept of factual verification—is not quite the picture that emerged after the election of Donald Trump, when she was rebranded as something of a patron saint of facts. “Welcome to the post-truth presidency,” the Washington Post opinion editor Ruth Marcus wrote, crediting Arendt as the thinker who had “presciently explained the basis for this phenomenon.” Michiko Kakutani, in an article titled the death of truth: how we gave up on facts and ended up with trump, likewise cast Arendt as a prophet whose “words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling description of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today.” how hannah arendt’s classic work on totalitarianism illuminates today’s america, ran a headline in the Washington Post. In Arendt’s work, the scholar Richard Bernstein declared in the New York Times, “we can hear not only a critique of the horrors of 20th-century totalitarianism, but also a warning about forces pervading the politics of the United States and Europe today.” The think pieces proliferated, reciting the same handful of Arendt quotations from her 1967 New Yorker essay “Truth and Politics” and her 1951 opus The Origins of Totalitarianism. Soon enough, Amazon sold out of Origins. “How could such a book speak so powerfully to our present moment?” asks a blurb at the top of its product page.
Arendt was deemed relevant when Trump was elected, relevant when he refused to wear a mask, relevant even in his defeat—with each successive crisis cast as confirmation of the predictions extrapolated from her prose.