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Learning to Live in the Dark: Reading Arendt in the TIme of Climate Change

By: 
Wen Stephenson

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Writing in 1954, between the first and the significantly revised 1958 edition of Origins, she observed: “Insofar as [totalitarian] ideological thinking is independent of existing reality, it looks upon all factuality as fabricated, and therefore no longer knows any reliable criterion for distinguishing truth from falsehood.”

This is crucial, and not only as a premonition of the way today’s far right seems to adopt (and distort) postmodern theory to construct a world of “alternative facts.” For Arendt, it’s the key that unlocks the totalitarian mindset. Noting that “it would be quite possible for totalitarian rulers or the men immediately surrounding them not to believe in the actual content of their preaching,” she sees through the delusions of a new generation of leaders, which has somehow, it seems to her, “lost even the ability to distinguish between such believing and non-believing.” At which point, she draws the all-important line from belief in nothing to belief in anything: