Every human being is interested in two kinds of worlds: the Primary, everyday world which he knows through his senses, and a Secondary world or worlds which he not only can create in his imagination, but which he cannot stop himself creating. –W.H. Auden, Secondary Worlds
Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself. –Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Auden had in mind the secondary worlds of literature, but as the Arendt quote indicates, his idea has wider application. Seen in his terms, the recent Republican convention was the political equivalent of a secondary world. Of course, the essential difference between a novel and the convention is that whereas a novel is built on the premise, shared by author and reader, that none of it claims to be true, the convention was offered as a full substitute for the primary world of reality. Seen in Arendt’s terms, the convention was proto-totalitarian–an invitation to a still-free people not just to believe a few lies but to believe in what she calls a “lying world.” The attraction and power of such a bid resides in its totality, as if someone had disaggregated the dots in a photograph, discarded half, added new ones and then reassembled them all into a compelling new photograph. In Arendt’s words, such an effort requires “using, and at the same time transcending, the elements of reality, of verifiable experiences, in the chosen fiction, and in generalizing them into regions which then are definitely removed from all possible control by individual experience.” Not just one fact or another but the factual world is discarded.
It’s telling that the way to the convention was paved by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group whose mere title qualifies as a big lie, since its first ad, accusing John Kerry of lying to receive medals, itself contained brazen falsehoods, soon rebutted by all credible documentary evidence, eyewitness accounts and even some of the Swift Boaters’ past testimony. But more disturbing than these falsehoods, which Bush refused to disavow, was the effect in public opinion polls, many of which put Bush in the lead for the first time in months. This big lie had knocked a candidate out of apparent front-runnership for the presidency of the United States. The public’s appetite for political fiction had been powerfully demonstrated.
Then came the convention. For the unfaithful, watching it produced, as the Niagara of distortion poured out of the TV, a protracted, helpless, sputtering interior monologue of “buts”: “But what about…” “But last year you said…” “But that’s not true…”