On Saturday, November 14, 2020, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, stood before reporters and declared that a million people had converged on the streets of Washington, DC, to protest the electoral fraud robbing Donald J. Trump of a second term in office. Trump’s presidency ended just as it began, in an alternate universe in which his press secretaries proffered outright lies.1 A presidency that cultivated and cherished brazen falsehoods culminated in an almost pitch-perfect performance of an authoritarian leader seeking to undermine an election. And by January 6, 2021, there was little doubt as to the power of such lies: demonstrators stormed the Capitol in a rally organized around the slogan “Stop the Steal.” They were there to prevent Congress from certifying a “fraudulent” election.2 Given a political climate in which outright fabrications are the name of the game, it is no wonder that so many on the Left have turned to analyze and contravene the dangers of “fake news” and “post-truth” publics. Black is white, up is down. How does one undermine the coercive power of Trumpian truths?3
While I recognize the ubiquity, significance, and political power of patently false claims, I want to explore a different configuration of a post-truth world—of knowledge and power—that also operates today. What if the lie or, for that matter, the secret is not the only way to undermine the power of “facts”? How else are (significant, foundational even) “factual truths,” the kinds of truths that exist in the domain of human action and are “political by nature,” rendered politically inconsequential?4 Put another way, given the now widely accepted aphorism that knowledge is power, in actual practice (how) does “knowing” inform politics? In this essay, I address these questions in the context of two settler, and self-avowedly democratic states, drawing on my work on U.S. militarism and the so-called forever wars on the one hand and the struggle over history in Israel and Palestine on the other. If, in the early to mid-twentieth century, fascism operated by producing a world in which there was nothing but propaganda, as Hannah Arendt has argued,5 the politics of late liberalism and the (proto)fascist movements it has spawned seem to operate quite seamlessly in the face of facts—facts of war and empire or of racism and economic deprivation—not because no one knows but because they might just not care.
Writing a book about the post-9/11 wars, I have sought to give an account of a particular political common sense in the United States today that the American public (as distinct from military personnel) has been barely engaged with, interested in, or even cognizant of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What explains that detachment? More specifically, what are the mechanisms, political practices, and ethical horizons through which public disengagement is produced and identified and, in turn, that felicitous forms of public engagement are fashioned and demanded? There is no simple answer, although the absence of a universal draft is a crucial element, even if in more complex ways than is often assumed: less than 1 percent of the U.S. population serves in the military. Combine that with the geographic distribution of those who “serve” and of military bases themselves, and most Americans have little contact with military personnel.6 Why would most Americans pay attention to, let alone care about, a war fought by so few so very far away? There is also a second oft-assumed and sometimes articulated reason for public detachment: it is not simply a matter of apathy; there is widespread ignorance of what is really going on. There are too many secrets. The WikiLeaks dump on the Iraq War and Edward Snowden’s revelation of the activities and reach of the National Security Agency on U.S. soil were born of that assumption, that fear: state secrecy is a radical threat to the possibility of democratic participation. Americans just don’t know what their own government is up to.
In The Theater of Operations, Joseph Masco explores the reconfiguration of the U.S. security state in an era defined by the threat of “terror,” and the impact of state secrecy is one thread of his analysis.7 Following 9/11 and the anthrax attacks carried out about a month later, as Masco documents, the federal government removed many declassified Cold War security documents from the public domain, now reclassified or, more often, categorized as “sensitive but unclassified.”8 What work does secrecy do, especially in a context in which many of these very same documents remain publicly, if only unofficially, available?9 What are secrecy’s “damaging domestic effects”?10 Masco argues, “Removing something from public view endows it with social power but … the object of secrecy—its information—is often less important than the organizational approach to managing it.” The “role of deception [itself is] … crucial to the transformation of a democratic state into a security state.”11 Drawing on Jodi Dean’s work,12 Masco explains, “Recognition of state secrecy—and the accompanying conspiratorial subtext to everyday life that it engenders—functions today to block political participation and curtail the possibility of truly democratic endeavors”; “the national security state’s system of compartmentalized secrecy produces a world in which knowledge is always rendered suspect.”13 What don’t I know?
Masco’s analysis offers insight into our political present, including in ways he could not have foreseen in 2014. If the expert in the know, and more specifically the authority of the national security expert, renders public knowledge suspect in Masco’s account,14 by the time of Trump’s rise to power, a different configuration of knowledge and power had come to the fore: a deep and abiding suspicion of “intellectual elites,” of “experts”—including, quite centrally, those very same national security experts who have access to classified information not available to the rest of us—and of the so-called deep state they are seen to represent and uphold. The relationships among expertise, secrets, suspicion, knowing, and state power endure, but there is more than one pervasive iteration of it, and each requires a different kind of critical response. Following the logic of Masco’s argument, countering the antidemocratic impulses of the antiterror state demands that we call into question the authority of national security experts and the secrets they presumably “know.” We must refuse to defer to their knowledge.15 But countering the Trumpian configuration in which the expert is herself the object of suspicion requires a very different move. Does she know secrets, or does she just lie? As the COVID-19 pandemic has made eminently clear, this critical project demands reestablishing the authority of (certain kinds of) experts and expertise: the public needs to believe that figures like Anthony Fauci actually do know.
The workings of secrecy and lies provide only partial insight into the crisis of contemporary democratic citizenship, however. What if secrecy and lies are less significant than analyses suggest? What else might be going on in the here and now? If one is concerned with the epistemologies of contemporary forms of politics, a focus on the function of secrecy, on suspicion and organized lying, and on the ever-proliferating rabbit holes of patently false claims may not produce an analysis quite up to the task of accounting for the operation of far-right nationalisms, let alone of the relentless militarism and the racial-settler democracies sustained by a far broader swath of citizens than those who have drunk from either the national security state or the Trumpian poison chalices. To return to the question of the American public’s apparent disengagement from and ignorance of the forever wars,16 I might ask—despite all the classification, despite all the state and military secrets, and, for that matter, despite the problems posed by the practice of embedded journalism—doesn’t the public know enough? That the American war in Iraq was launched on a lie? That the U.S. military has unleashed enormous harm on Iraqis, Afghans, and everyone else caught in the vortex of its violence? If those are secrets, they are secrets living in plain sight. If they are secrets, they are both “publicly known” and excluded from “public discussion and treat[ed] … as though they were what they are not—namely, secrets.”17 How might we address the problem of public secrets? And what if they are not secrets at all? I consider those questions via a detour through a foundational historical dispute among Israeli and Palestinian publics: What happened in 1948?
The war of 1948 is known as the War of Independence in Israeli society. Palestinians refer to it as the Nakba—the “catastrophe.” At least 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their villages and cities during the war, a reality widely dismissed in both Israeli society and the Euro-American world for decades to come. The land was empty; there is no such thing as a Palestinian; Arab regimes misled the Arab inhabitants of Palestine, telling them to flee Zionist forces that meant them no harm: the forms of denial were seemingly endless.
The late 1970s witnessed the beginning of a discursive shift. In 1978, the Israeli state declassified documents pertaining to the war, Israeli historians gained access to previously unavailable “official” sources, and a few began to rewrite the history of their state. They began to challenge hegemonic narratives regarding the state’s founding moment. State secrets were coming to light. Most fundamentally, such historians as Benny Morris, Simha Flapan, and Ilan Pappé rewrote the war of 1948; they documented that the vast majority of Palestinians on the land that was to become the state of Israel were expelled by Zionist brigades during the course of the war, even if their fate was sealed long before the first shots were fired.18 There were disagreements among these so-called New Historians and on the part of Palestinian scholars and others who challenged them: Was the expulsion intentional, planned, essential to the establishment of the Jewish state? Was it an “event” that unfolded during the chaos, or “fog,” of war? Nevertheless, over time the basic parameters of this “new” history, one known to Palestinians for decades, became widely accepted in the Israeli academy, even in the Israeli public domain. During its War of Independence, Zionist military brigades expelled the vast majority of the Palestinian population so that the Jewish state could be born, its borders established, and a Jewish majority ensured.
Two decades hence, in the early years of the new millennium, teams sent by the Security Department of Israel’s Defense Ministry began to pore over documents in Israeli state archives, removing some from the public domain. In an Israeli state veering ever closer to fascism, state secrecy was being reinstated: previously declassified documents having to do with the state’s founding were resealed into vaults of state security. Quite specifically, one of the main documents on the basis of which Benny Morris published his seminal 1986 essay, “The Harvest of 1948 and the Creation of the Palestinians Refugee Problem,”19 disappeared from public view. In recounting this project of reclassification, a reporter for Haaretz, the liberal Israeli newspaper, asked the former head of the Defense Ministry’s Security Department about the logic of the state secrecy project: Why remove a document whose content is so widely known? The former official responded: “If he quoted from it and the document itself is not there [i.e., where Morris says it is], then his facts aren’t strong. If he says, ‘Yes, I have the document,’ I can’t argue with that.… There’s a difference of day and night in terms of the validity of the evidence.”20 By the early 2000s, Morris himself had shifted from being a reluctant post-Zionist to a staunch defender of the Israeli state, although he still positioned himself on the liberal side of the Israeli political spectrum. In contrast to the state project, however, Morris didn’t need the document to disappear to make that political turn: All nations are founded in violence. Israel is no exception. It had to be done, he declared. Ben Gurion should have finished the job.21
Several years after Morris’s defense of the war of 1948, a prominent, left-leaning Israeli columnist published a book, part history of the Israeli state and part the author’s reckoning with the violence and ethnic cleansing on which his homeland was built. In the most widely cited chapter of My Promised Land,22 Ari Shavit recounts the war of 1948 through events that transpired in the Palestinian town of Lydda that culminated in the expulsion of the town’s inhabitants and in a massacre of those who had sought refuge in the city’s mosque. Shavit represents the story of Lydda as a tragedy, an inevitability not recognized by Jewish settlers until it was too late. “Lydda is our black box,” he writes. “In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda.… If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be.”23 With Lydda, Zionism lost its innocence, and not just because of the massacre. The massacre might have been avoided, but its conditions of possibility could not. “Do I turn my back on the Jewish national movement that carried out the deed of Lydda?” Shavit asks rhetorically.
Like the brigade commander, I am faced with something too immense to deal with.… For when one opens the black box, one understands that whereas the small mosque massacre could have been a misunderstanding brought about by a tragic chain of accidental events, the conquest of Lydda and the expulsion of Lydda were not accidents.… The choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.
Shavit chooses to “stand by the damned.”24
Shavit’s “reckoning” with the Nakba speaks to a particular kind of struggle over historical—and political—facts and truths. There is no outright denial here, no need for patently false claims, for secrets and lies. These are not even public secrets, facts widely known but taboo in the public domain. They are widely discussed, recognized as true, even if immediately set aside. Perhaps then this story troubles, at least a little bit, a widespread sensibility on the Left, especially among scholars, that recuperating (some sense of) the (historical) truth is not just ethically significant but also politically salutary. If this story suggests anything at all, it is that reading against or along the archival grain or, more simply, countering the outright lies on Fox News and spread on alt-right social media platforms may make little difference at all. And that may be the case even if one can come to some general agreement about the facts, that is, even if one interprets, at least in large part, “what happened” or “what is happening” in a similar way.
I do not mean to dismiss the significance of efforts to recuperate histories long repressed or forgotten or, for that matter, to fight against the saturation of the public domain with patently false claims. I just want to suggest that there is another configuration of a post-truth politics here, and it too demands analytic and political attention. To rely on a distinction made by the philosopher Stanley Cavell, “knowing” and “acknowledging” are not the same thing.25 In deciding to reclassify documents that revealed the “secrets” of 1948, the Israeli state may have been a little too frightened of the evidence. The history that the declassified (and now partially reclassified) documents tell is widely known. That genie isn’t going back into any bottle anytime soon. And what is more, that Zionist brigades forced the vast majority of Palestinians to flee during the war of 1948 is known, accepted even within the Israeli Jewish public and among the American liberal establishment that enthusiastically embraced Shavit’s book as a profound and admirable ethical self-reckoning by a liberal and deeply thoughtful Zionist.26 Those facts, however, are not acknowledged: the Nakba has not emerged as a matter of (urgent) public concern and action. In its current configuration of power (as distinct from the 1940s well into the 1980s), Israeli settler nationhood no longer depends on the suppression of the “truth” of 1948. Instead, it operates through the embrace of a far more brazen and explicit seizure of power and knowledge: Yes, the Nakba. And no, we—Israelis—don’t care. Rather than expressing a commitment to justice or to political and moral repair, admitting the facts—speaking that truth—emerges as a practice of late-liberal self-fashioning: in recognizing the tragedy and in narrating his own guilt and pain in facing it, Shavit represents himself as the ethical (and ethically pained) liberal subject (that his enemies, for the most part, presumably are not).27
This configuration of power and knowledge is prevalent in the United States as well: there are myriad protoauthoritarian and protofascist impulses in the present moment—the desire to wall in the southern border and to diminish voting rights and thereby save the nation for white Republicans are but two stark examples. Such impulses are grounded in the commitment to or, at least, the consent and complicity of a significant sector of the American public to a particular order of things. And (most of) that public certainly knows more than enough: that migrant children, separated from their parents, are being caged or deported to Mexico, even if they are not Mexican; that 750,000 and counting of their fellow citizens have died of COVID-19, a death toll that has been borne disproportionately by minority, immigrant, and Indigenous communities; that Black citizens are killed, repeatedly, relentlessly, and, thanks to smartphones, in full view of the American public by the police. And yet, they just don’t care (enough). Such truths do not rise to the level of public concern and action, at least not for a considerable portion of American citizens. And that may be far less about disagreements over the facts of the matter (Was George Floyd’s death a racist murder or merely a regrettable accident? Is the COVID-19 crisis really all that deadly?) than about who and what are considered worthy of attention, redress, and justice. While clearly ubiquitous, neither secrecy nor lies are the only mechanisms through which settler democratic nation-states, teetering ever more rightward day by day, reproduce the racial order of things on which they were founded. To focus on secrets and lies, on fake news and politics as outright fabrication, may be to let too many citizens off the ethical and political hook.
Nadia Abu El-Haj is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Anthropology, codirector of the Center for Palestine Studies, and chair of the Governing Board of the Society of Fellows / Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University. She is the author of Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society and The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology. Her third book, Combat Trauma: Imaginaries of War and Citizenship in Post 9/11 America, is forthcoming from Verso (2022).
Phillip Bump, “There’s No Evidence that Trump’s Inauguration Was the Most-Watched in History. Period,” Washington Post, January 23, 2017; “MAGA March: Kayleigh McEnany Falsely Claims ‘One Million’ Demonstrators in DC for Protest,” The Independent, November 15, 2020.
Embedded, season 11, episode 6, “January 6: Inside the Capital Siege,” NPR, January 15, 2021, https://
www .npr .org /2021 /01 /15 /957362053 /january -6 -inside -the -capitol -siege; Dan Barry and Sheera Frankel, “‘Be There. Will Be Wild!,’” New York Times, January 8, 2021, https:// www .nytimes .com /2021 /01 /06 /us /politics /capitol -mob -trump -supporters .html.
In Hannah Arendt’s words, “All truths … are opposed to opinion in their mode of asserting validity. Truth carries within itself an element of coercion.” Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” in Between Past and Present (1954; New York: Penguin, 2006), 235 (emphasis in the original).
Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” 233. Arendt draws a distinction between “rational truths” that are the domain of philosophy and “factual truths.” The latter depend on common agreement and are, thereby, decidedly precarious. Factual truth “is established by witnesses and depends on testimony; it exists only to the extent that it is spoken about, even if it occurs in the domain of privacy. It is political by nature” (233–234). Having said that, Arendt is not arguing for a subjective understanding of, or an “extreme… historicism” vis-à-vis factual truths (ibid: 235). “Even if we admit,” she writes, “that every generation has the right to write its own history, we admit no more than that it has the right to rearrange the facts in accordance with its own perspective; we don’t admit the right to touch the factual matter itself” (ibid).
Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (1964; New York: Penguin Books, 1977).
“By the Numbers: Today’s Military,” NPR, July 3, 2011, http://
www .npr .org /2011 /07 /03 /137536111 /by -the -numbers -todays -military. That number includes active duty, National Guard, Air Guard, and the reserves. For a more in-depth discussion of the demographics of military service, see Thomas Krasnican and Nick Paraiso, “Who Serves: Military Demographics in 2020,” Thank You for Your Service (podcast), February 12, 2020, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/who-serves-military-demographics-in-2020/id1441805414?i=1000465400000
Joseph Masco, The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
Masco, Theater of Operations, 113.
For example, Masco recounts, in search of a photograph “concerning a dismantled nuclear device known as the B61,” he discovered that the original image (of which he had a scanned, low-quality copy) “was not available for use in a scholarly project.” Masco, Theater of Operations, 115. An e-mail sent in response to his inquiry read: “‘In regards to the B-61 picture, after September 11, 2001, a review was conducted of our visuals library. As a result, some images are not being released due to security reasons’” (116). But the image is still out there, circulating in a book published by the Department of Energy in 1994.
Masco, Theater of Operations, 134.
Masco, Theater of Operations, 136.
Jodi Dean, Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002).
Dean, Publicity’s Secret, 135.
Dean, Publicity’s Secret, 134–136.
Jodi Dean has argued that the “secret” is and has always been constitutive of what she calls “publicity.” The public on which democratic politics supposedly rests is constituted through the secret—something that some know, and others believe because of those who know.
I write “apparent” because while the U.S. public might pay very little attention to what is going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere given the increasingly global footprint of U.S. military operations, the American soldier and veteran is far from absent in the public domain: on television, in movies, in novels, and, for that matter, in long-form journalism, memoirs, and literature, the American soldier, often he who suffers the trauma of war, is a ubiquitous figure through which the wars appear on the home front and in whose name, as I argue in my forthcoming book, contemporary American militarism is both fashioned and sustained.
Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” 232.
See Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (London: Croom Helm, 1987); Ilan Pappé, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947–1951 (New York: Taurus, 1994).
Benny Morris, “The Harvest of 1948 and the Creation of the Palestinians Refugee Problem,” Middle East Journal 40, no. 4 (Autumn 1986): 671–685.
Hagar Shezaf, “Burying the Nakba: How Israel Systematically Hides Evidence of 1948 Expulsion of Arabs,” Haaretz, July 5, 2019, English edition.
See Ari Shavit, “Survival of the Fittest? An Interview with Benny Morris,” reprinted in Counterpunch, January 16, 2004, https://www.counterpunch.org/2004/01/16/an-interview-with-benny-morris/.
Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013). The article on Lydda was excerpted in the New Yorker in advance of the book’s publication. See Ari Shavit, “Lydda, 1948: A City, a Massacre, and the Middle East Today,” New Yorker, October 13, 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/10/21/lydda-1948
Shavit, My Promised Land, 108–109.
Shavit, My Promised Land, 131.
Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (New York: Scribner, 1969).
See Leon Wiesseltier, “The State of Israel,” New York Times, November 21, 2013, https://
www .nytimes .com /2013 /11 /24 /books /review /my -promised -land -by -ari -shavit .html; Jonathan Freedland, “The Liberal Zionists,” New York Review of Books, August, 14, 2014, https:// www .nybooks .com /articles /2014 /08 /14 /liberal -zionists /.
There is a thread of the pain of having to face the truth that runs through Shavit’s account of Lydda and the positive reviews of the book. The very experience of guilt renders one a liberal, ethical subject, it seems, regardless of whether or not one does anything to make amends. For an incisive account of war, guilt, and the constitution of the liberal subject qua soldier (as distinct from the terrorist), see Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).