Indeed my opinion now is that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus over the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing.
-Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem
Recent commentators have marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr. Strangelove, by noting that the film contained quite a bit more reality than we had thought. While national security and military officials at the time scoffed at the film’s farfetched depictions of a nuclear holocaust set off by a crazed general, we now know that such an unthinkable event would have been, at least theoretically, entirely possible. Yet there is another, deeper sense in which Kubrick’s satire puts us in touch with a reality that could not be readily depicted through other means.
The film tells the story of a rogue general who, at the height of the Cold War arms race, launches a nuclear attack that cannot be recalled, which leads to the destruction of most of humanity in a nuclear holocaust. These are events that we would conventionally describe as “tragic,” but the film is no tragedy. Why not? One answer, of course, is the comic, satirical touch with which Kubrick treated the material, his use of Peter Sellers to play three different characters, and his method of actually tricking his actors into playing their roles more ridiculously than they would have otherwise. But in a deeper sense, Stranglove is about the loss of a capacity for the tragic. The characters, absorbed in utter banalities as they hurtle toward collective catastrophe, display no real grasp of the moral reality of their actions, because they’ve lost contact with the moral reality of the world they share. Dr. Strangelove, then, is a satire about the impossibility of tragedy.
In order to think about what this might mean, it’s helpful to turn to the idea, famously invoked by Hannah Arendt at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the banality of evil. As Arendt stressed in a later essay, the banality of evil is not a theory or a doctrine “but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps extraordinary shallowness.” Eichmann was no villainous monster or demon; rather, he was “terrifyingly normal,” and his chief characteristic was “not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” The inability to think has nothing to do with the capacity of strategizing, performing instrumental calculations, or “reckoning with consequences,” as Hobbes put it. Rather, thinking has to do with awakening the inner dialogue involved in all consciousness, the questioning of the self by the self, which Arendt says dissolves all certainties and examines anew all accepted dogmas and values.
According to Arendt, the socially recognized function of “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct” is to “protect us against reality”; their function is to protect us against the claim that reality makes on our thinking. This claim, which awakens the dissolving powers of thought, can be so destabilizing that we all must inure ourselves to some degree against it, so that ordinary life can go on at all. What characterized Eichmann is that “he clearly knew of no such claim at all.” Eichmann’s absorption in instrumental and strategic problem solving, on the one hand, and clichés and empty platitudes on the other, was total. The absence of thought, and with it the absence of judgment, ensured a total lack of contact with the moral reality of his actions. Hence the “banality” of his evil resides not in the enormity of the consequences of his actions, but in the depthless opacity of the perpetrator.
The characters in Dr. Strangelove are banal in precisely this sense. All of them—from the affable, hapless president, the red-blooded general, the vodka-swilling diplomat, the self-interested advisors and Dr. Strangelove himself—are silly cardboard cutouts, superficial stereotypes of characters that any lack depth, self-reflection or the capacity for communicating anything other than empty clichés. They are missing what Arendt called “the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results…” They also lack any contact with the moral reality of their activity. All of their actions takes place in an increasingly claustrophobic series of confined spaces carefully sealed off by design: the war room, the military base, the bomber cockpit. The world—Arendt’s common world of appearances that constitutes the possibility of narrative and story telling—never appears at all; reality cannot break through.
The presence of some of Arendt’s core themes in Kubrick’s film should not come as a surprise. Although she dedicated very little attention in her published works to the problem of nuclear war, in an early draft of a text that would later become The Human Condition, Arendt claimed that two experiences of the 20th century, “totalitarianism and the atomic bomb – ignite the question about the meaning of politics in our time. They are fundamental experiences of our age, and if we ignore them it is as if we never lived in the world that is our world.” Moreover, the culmination of strategic statecraft in social scientific doctrines mandating the nuclear arms race reflects on some of the core themes Arendt identified with political modernity: the emergence of a conception of politics as a strategic use of violence for the purposes of protecting society.
Niccolò Machiavelli, a thinker for whom Arendt had a lot of admiration, helped inaugurate this modern adventure of strategic statecraft by reframing politics as l’arte della stato – the art of the state, which unlike the internal civic space of the republic, always finds itself intervening within an instrumental economy of violence. For Machiavelli the prince, shedding the persona of Ciceronian humanism, must be willing to become beastly, animal-like, to discover the virtues of the vir virtutis in the animal nature of the lion and the fox. If political modernity is inaugurated by Machiavelli’s image of the centaur, the Prince-becoming-beastly, Strangelove closes with a suitable 20th century corollary to the career of modern statecraft. It is the image of the amiable, good-natured “pilot” who never steers the machines he occupies but is himself steered by them, finally straddling and literally transforming himself into the Bomb. It is an image that, in our own age of remote drone warfare and the possible dawning of a new, not yet fully conceivable epoch of post-human violence, has not lost its power to provoke reflection.
Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.
The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.
Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?
“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as ... actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”
Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?
““House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.”
Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:
“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.”
It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.
What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony. The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.
This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:
“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”
Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.
Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.
There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:
“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”
As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.
The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.
Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.
“There exists in our society widespread fear of judging…[B]ehind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done…Who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”
-Hannah Arendt, "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship"
It’s difficult to know where to begin to counter the errors, misreadings, and plain obfuscations of Arendt’s point of view in this essay by Richard Brody that appeared a few days ago in The New Yorker online. But perhaps the most glaring mistake Brody makes is to confuse what Arendt wrote about “thinking” with some form of “intellectualism.” To begin with, when, in her interview with Gunther Gaus, she makes the point that it was the betrayal by “friends” that she found most shocking this is not because she thought only intellectuals could think or were the only ones to have “ideas” but that they “believed”—without thinking!—the very “ideas” they had fabricated, without considering where these “ideas” might take them. They were “trapped” in their ideas, which is why Arendt, in the same interview, refused to call herself a philosopher, cut off from the world, and insisted she was a political theorist.
Thinking depends on letting the imagination go visiting, and Arendt argued it was Eichmann’s inability to think from the standpoint of anyone else that made him “thoughtless” and hence become unable to distinguish right from wrong. But the same could be said, for different reasons, of the “intellectuals” Arendt referred to and said she’d found so grotesque in the interview with Gaus. And, whether you like where it took her or not, thinking from the standpoint of others was exactly what she practiced in the case of her judgment of the leaders of the Jewish Councils. She imagined they might not have cooperated. Yes, they faced “fear and despair,” as Brody notes, but Arendt imagined it was still possible not to comply even in the face of significant threats and consequences. And the historical evidence indicates this to be the case: not everyone complied.
Yet nowhere does Arendt claim the ability to judge a situation means I myself (or she) necessarily would have done anything differently. The most chilling conclusion she reached from her reflections on the trial is that there are no guarantees “when the chips are down” that I will know the right thing to do, and just do it. And it was her confrontation with Eichmann’s banality—not what he did, but who he showed he was, and “how many were like him” during this time—that led Arendt to warn near the end of the book that once such crimes had entered the human experience it is entirely possible that “similar crimes may be committed in the future.”
In an interview with Roger Errera, from which Brody also quotes, Arendt remarked that her intention was in writing about Eichmann as she did was to “destroy the legend of the greatness of evil. As she was thinking about this issue she said she’d “found in Brecht the following remark: ‘The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.’ " And her “tone” in Eichmann in Jerusalem was an attempt to do just that: expose the criminals to derision.
It was the banality of the criminals—not the crimes they committed—that gave Arendt such a shock she responded with laughter. And it’s a shame Brody doesn’t understand what this signifies: the humanization of perpetrators actually serves to humanize victims as well. She did not equate the responsibility of “persecutors and persecuted” for crimes committed by the Nazi state, as Brody claims. But not to allow victims and perpetrators to occupy the same moral universe is to traffic in the dangerous idea that guilt and innocence are not the result of human behavior but exist somehow independent of what people do.
Let me close with an excerpt from my new book, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt:
Many people still find abhorrent Arendt’s claim that Eichmann, the man, was no monster. Everyone knows murder is wrong; certainly, then, murdering millions without a guilty conscience must be the classic example of monstrous behavior. Or madness. Surely only a monster or a madman could commit such heinous deeds. And that’s an understandable reaction. Most of us hold fast to a well-guarded belief that rules and standards used to tell right from wrong, rules we assume to be universal, cannot be easily discarded. Not I, we believers in our own inherent goodness insist; I would never comply with such an order. But Arendt wouldn’t let anyone rest on such a convenient way to avoid having to think for herself.
“The trouble with Eichmann,” she wrote, “was precisely so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied...that this new type of criminal...commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.
The idea that “an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong” defies any ordinary understanding of good and evil. And yet, Arendt observed, “without much notice, all [these rules governing right and wrong] collapsed almost overnight...What happened? Did we finally awake from a dream?” How had it become so easy for so many to behave like Eichmann and participate in carrying out these atrocities?
Arendt explained it this way: the Nazi state had generated a “totality of...moral collapse...in respectable European society—not only in Germany but in almost all countries, not only among the persecutors but also among the victims.” And at that sentence, many people throw her book across the room in disgust, perhaps missing the other point she made: not everyone complied with the system.
But Arendt’s writing has made me wonder why we need to believe a solid wall separates the performers of horrible acts from the rest of us? And what holds that wall in place?
“When I think back to the last two decades since the end of the last war,” she wrote in the mid-1960s, “I have the feeling that this moral issue has lain dormant because it was concealed by something about which it is indeed much more difficult to speak and with which it is almost impossible to come to terms—the horror itself in its naked monstrosity.” Trying to think the unthinkable—the horror of state-ordered, socially coordinated manufacturing of corpses in the twentieth century, or of other genocides in previous centuries and in this one—can take one’s breath away. Not even time’s healing power seems to bring relief.
[T]his past has grown worse as the years have gone by so that we are sometimes tempted to think, this will never be over as long as we are not all dead...This past has turned out to be ‘unmastered’ by everybody, not only the German nation.
Yet Arendt insisted on confronting those concealed moral issues even though they looked like “side issues...compared with the horror.” She pushed past the speechless horror to grapple with the moral implications of the “ubiquitous complicity” surrounding the Holocaust. Because not grappling with those implications would allow Eichmann to gain what the monk Thomas Merton, deeply influenced by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, would have considered a “posthumous long life,” making us all, like it or not, as Karl Plank observed in his essay about Merton, “vulnerable to complicity in deeds of destruction.”
-Kathleen B. Jones
It is now more than 50 years since Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem. It is neither her best nor her most important book, yet it does contain essential and important insights. Above all, it offers us the example of a man who, as Arendt saw and understood him, moved fairly seamlessly from being an anti-Semite to a genocidal murderer. Arendt asked: How is it that Eichmann and others like him morphed so easily from an anti-Semite to a mass murderer?
Arendt’s book is justly famous because it posed this deeply important question and offered an answer that has, over time, come to be seen as persuasively right. In short, it is the case that modern systems of administratively organized murder and criminality depend upon the collaboration and work of many people who, while they support the general goals of the regime, would not otherwise imagine themselves criminals and murderers. These people act out of conviction, but they seek to justify what they do in clichés and bureaucratic language. They take pride not only in their dutifulness, but also in their initiative and support for carrying out the goals of the regime. Ordinary in many ways and far from being cold-blooded killers, they nevertheless willingly and even enthusiastically participate in an administrative machinery of death. They are able to do so, Arendt suggested, because they close themselves off from others and come to think in an echo chamber where they hear and credit no opinions that challenge their own. This shallow thoughtlessness—Arendt elsewhere calls dumbness—is what she names the banality that allows modern regimes of evil to cause such horrifically and decidedly non-banal evil.
What amazes me is how the centrality of her insight is still clouded over by an exaggerated and misplaced anger and contempt. How is it that 50 years after her book appeared and 75 years after Kristallnacht, some American intellectuals still have little better to do than attack Arendt for the tone of her book, the offense of certain phrases, and her use of the word “banal”? Aren’t there more important questions than the ultimately unknowable question of whether Eichmann—the example Arendt used—was or was not truly thoughtless? There must be more important things for intellectuals to be indignant about.
A case in point is the two-part series of essays published by Mark Lilla in the last two issues of the New York Review of Books. Lilla, a distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University in New York, begins the second of his essays, “The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator,” with these reflections:
A half-century has passed since Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem was first published. Yet somehow we can’t escape it. Even today historians of the Final Solution do battle with her misguided thesis that Adolf Eichmann, the cold-blooded engineer of the Nazi killing machine, was himself but a cog in it, a self-deceived simpleton who made evil seem banal.
If Lilla is so upset that so much attention is lavished on Arendt’s book, why does he once again begin with it? Moreover, why does he insist on criticizing Arendt for things she never said? Let’s consider Lilla’s characterizations of Arendt’s arguments—characterizations that are tossed off, repeated by many, and quite simply are false.
Lilla first accuses Arendt of calling Eichmann “a cog” in the Nazi killing machine. This is a common complaint, one made famous by Deborah Lipstadt, whom Lilla cites approvingly. But where does Arendt say this? The simple answer is nowhere.
The “cog theory” comes up sparingly in Eichmann in Jerusalem, but wherever it does, Arendt decidedly rejects it. Consider this paragraph from section IV of her report, where she discusses what she calls “Eichmann's muddled general outlook and ideology with respect to “the Jewish question.”” She writes:
Eichmann admitted, as he had in the Sassen interview, that he “did not greet his assignment with the apathy of an ox being led to his stall,” that he had been very different from those colleagues “who had never read a basic book [i.e., Herzl's Judenstaat], worked through it, absorbed it, absorbed it with interest,” and who therefore lacked “inner rapport with their work.” They were “nothing but office drudges,” for whom everything was decided “by paragraphs, by orders, who were interested in nothing else,” who were, in short, precisely such “small cogs” as, according to the defense, Eichmann himself had been. If this meant no more than giving unquestioning obedience to the Führer's orders, then they had all been small cogs - even Himmler, we are told by his masseur, Felix Kersten, had not greeted the Final Solution with great enthusiasm, and Eichmann assured the police examiner that his own boss, Heinrich Müller, would never have proposed anything so “crude” as “physical extermination.” Obviously, in Eichmann's eyes the small-cog theory was quite beside the point. Certainly he had not been as big as Mr. Hausner tried to make him; after all, he was not Hitler, nor, for that matter, could he compare himself in importance, as far as the “solution” of the Jewish question was concerned, with Müller, or Heydrich, or Himmler; he was no megalomaniac. But neither was he as small as the defense wished him to be.
Arendt revisits the “cog theory in her postscript. Here is what she writes there:
We heard the protestations of the defense that Eichmann was after all only a “tiny cog” in the machinery of the Final Solution, and of the prosecution, which believed it had discovered in Eichmann the actual motor. I myself attributed no more importance to both theories than did the Jerusalem court, since the whole cog theory is legally pointless and therefore it does not matter at all what order of magnitude is assigned to the “cog” named Eichmann. In its judgment the court naturally conceded that such a crime could be committed only by a giant bureaucracy using the resources of government. But insofar as it remains a crime - and that, of course, is the premise for a trial - all the cogs in the machinery, no matter how insignificant, are in court forthwith transformed back into perpetrators, that is to say, into human beings. (italics added)
In the only mentions of the “cog theory” in her book, Arendt dismisses it as untrue and shows how even Eichmann rejected the cog theory and took pride in seeing himself as someone driven by conviction rather than by mere obedience. What Eichmann believed in is difficult to discern, which is why Arendt calls his thinking on the Jewish Question “muddled.” By this she means, it is unclear what were Eichmann’s real motivations. At times Eichmann spoke of helping the Jews emigrate (his first job from 1933-1939). At other times he said he “regarded the Jews as opponents with respect to whom a mutually acceptable, a mutually fair solution had to be found.” Arendt assumed he was an anti-Semite as well and discredited his claims of philo-Semitism. In the end, she found his thinking muddled. What was clear, is that Eichmann supported the Nazis enthusiastically. He was hardly a mere cog.
I hope we can put the “cog theory” to rest once and for all. It is repeated ad nauseum. But nowhere does Arendt embrace it. On the contrary, she rejects it.
Lilla also writes that Arendt “made evil seem banal.” One wonders what he means by such a statement. In fact, Arendt contrasts the horrific evil of the Holocaust with Eichmann’s inability to think from the perspective of others—banality not of what he did (evil), but of his person. When Arendt comes to actually offer her own opinion on what should happen to Eichmann—that he must be killed—she argues the true reason he needs to be executed is simply because of the extraordinary evil he has done.
That “evil violates a natural harmony” is, Arendt writes, the non-banal and “supreme justification” for why Eichmann must be executed. Against modern criminal law theories that see punishment as a response to the intent of the wrongdoer, Arendt argues the opposite: that Eichmann must be punished—regardless of his intent—because of the evil he has done. Here is what she says:
Foremost among the larger issues at stake in the Eichmann trial was the assumption current in all modern legal systems that intent to do wrong is necessary for the commission of a crime. On nothing, perhaps, has civilized jurisprudence prided itself more than on this taking into account of the subjective factor. Where this intent is absent, where, for whatever reasons, even reasons of moral insanity, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong is impaired, we feel no crime has been committed. We refuse, and consider as barbaric, the propositions “that a great crime offends nature, so that the very earth cries out for vengeance; that evil violates a natural harmony which only retribution can restore; that a wronged collectivity owes a duty to the moral order to punish the criminal” (Yosal Rogat). And yet I think it is undeniable that it was precisely on the ground of these long-forgotten propositions that Eichmann was brought to justice to begin with, and that they were, in fact, the supreme justification for the death penalty. Because he had been implicated and had played a central role in an enterprise whose open purpose was to eliminate forever certain “races” from the surface of the earth, he had to be eliminated.
The evil of the Holocaust was barbaric. It violated the order of the universe. To say that Arendt saw evil as banal is simply a willful misreading of her book.
The word “banality” appears once in a book of 250 pages that is filled with expressions of shock and horror at Nazi doings of evil. When Arendt does speaks not simply of the “banality of evil,” but of the “fearsome, word-and-thought defying banality of evil,” she refers to Eichmann and people like him who are able to justify their participation in truly evil acts by justifying themselves according to clichés, rationalizations, and deceptions. To do so, she argues, requires a lack of thinking, where thinking is understood as thinking from the perspectives of others. That is the kind of shallow banality that enables ordinary men to do evil. It is hardly to describe evil itself as banal.
Finally, in Lilla’s first essay on Arendt (thinly disguised as a review of the new film by Margarethe von Trotta), Lilla trades in the lately popular fallacy that newly discovered interviews of Eichmann by Dutch Nazi Willem Sassen prove Arendt mistaken about Eichmann. Lilla claims that a quotation full of ellipses offers such glaring proof of Eichmann’s thoughtful monstrousness that, had Arendt known this “new” information, she “would have to concede” she was wrong.
Here is the chilling quotation from the Sassen papers that Lilla offers.
The cautious bureaucrat, yeah, that was me…. But joined to this cautious bureaucrat was a fanatical fighter for the freedom of the Blut I descend from…. What’s good for my Volk is for me a holy command and holy law…. I must honestly tell you that had we…killed 10.3 million Jews I would be satisfied and would say, good, we’ve exterminated the enemy…. We would have completed the task for our Blut and our Volk and the freedom of nations had we exterminated the most cunning people in the world…. I’m also to blame that…the idea of a real, total elimination could not be fulfilled…. I was an inadequate man put in a position where, really, I could have and should have done more.
This quotation shows the ferocity of Eichmann’s character. It shows him to be fully committed to carrying out the Final Solution, which, of course, was one of Arendt’s main arguments—that Eichmann did not simply obey, but supported the Nazi regime. It shows Eichmann was not simply a cog, again a point made by Arendt. It shows that Eichmann put himself under his “Volk,” the German word for Nation or People. He repeats this point often in the Sassen papers, that he was prepared to sacrifice himself, his conscience, his morality, and his life for the good of the German Volk as articulated by Adolf Hitler. And it shows that Eichmann refused to ask for forgiveness for what he had done. He shows no remorse and even feels guilty that he did not accomplish the task eventually assigned to him after 1941, to help exterminate the entirety of the 10.3 million Jews in Europe. In short, these citations show Eichmann to be a god awful man.
Lilla offers this citation to make a different point, however, namely, to accuse Arendt, not simply Eichmann. It is intended to prove that Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. Because of this quote, “we now know [Arendt’s argument] to be utterly indefensible.” What is more, in an astounding act of ventriloquism, Lilla writes: “Arendt, [if] were she alive, would have to concede.”
The problem with Lilla’s assertion is that Arendt was aware of the material he quotes. Partial transcriptions of the interviews—including the quotes Lilla cites—were published in two volumes of Life Magazine in 1960. Arendt read those interviews; she suspected they were not fully reliable, but understood them to give a sense of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, his boastfulness and stupidity—all congruent with the 70 pages of Eichmann’s 1956 memoir written in Argentina that she also read. In short, Arendt had seen many of the damning quotes from the Sassen interviews and concluded that, if anything, they supported her interpretation. If Lilla wants to argue that Arendt got Eichmann wrong, fine: he should make his case on its merits, not on assertions of her ignorance of essentials of which she was not ignorant.
Arendt saw Eichmann as an anti-Semite. Might she have underestimated the extent of his hatred? Perhaps. Having read as much of Eichmann’s writings as I have been able to get my hands on, I am convinced that Eichmann was a virulent anti-Semite. So much so that it is clear to me that his hatred of Jews must have played some significant role in his willingness to participate in the Final Solution. But none of that in any way contradicts Arendt’s argument.
There is a difference between virulent anti-Semitism and genocidal mass murder. Both in Jerusalem and Argentina, Eichmann describes pangs of conscience—not about killing Jews, but about killing. The fact is that from 1933-1940 Eichmann’s anti-Semitism led him to enthusiastically support and carry out first the policy of helping Jews to leave Germany and second the policy of deporting them from Germany. After the Final Solution was decided upon, Eichmann expressed reservations about it in both Argentina and in Jerusalem. He made it very clear that he was against killing and that he never personally killed anyone. This point—as irrelevant as it was to the trial—was important to him. What shocked Arendt was how he so quickly overcame his conscientious resistance to killing. His anti-Semitism—clearly part of the explanation—cannot alone explain how, or why, he so easily overcame his initial resistance to the physical extermination of the Final Solution.
Arendt saw that Eichmann’s original reservations at being involved in mass murder dissipated quickly as he justified mass murder, consoling himself with clichés, and hoping others would understand and forgive him. This dumb shallowness is what Arendt called Eichmann’s banality. Arendt’s point was that Eichmann—beyond being an anti-Semite—thrived upon the power and meaning he got from being a Nazi. There is simply no reason to think that the quotations from the Sassen Papers that Lilla offers—quotations Arendt had read—would make her change her mind. To say they would is to free oneself from the obligation of understanding her argument.
Arendt asked how Eichmann morphed from an anti-Semite to a mass murderer. Her critics owe her the courtesy of engaging the depth of her argument, something Lilla’s false claims of superior knowledge free him from having to do. Fifty years on, it is time to get beyond “gotcha” accounts that dismiss the seriousness of her work and, instead, take Arendt’s arguments seriously.
When all this is said, there is much to recommend in Lilla’s two essays. Especially in his consideration of Claude Lanzmann’s film The Last of the Unjust—a spirited defense of one of the worst of the Judenräte Benjamin Murmelstein. Lilla displays good sense in questioning Lanzmann’s defense of Murmelstein’s rationalizations for his collaboration. Further, in his first essay, Lilla rightly considers and rejects the most slanderous and pernicious arguments that Arendt blamed the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. His discussion of Arendt’s account of the Judenräte is balanced and informative. He rightly sees that the anger over her characterization of the Jewish leaders was largely overblown, based on taking offending phrases out of context.
In the end, it is important to read essays like Lilla’s, if only to understand the liveliness of the sadly-continuing controversy around Eichmann in Jerusalem. Mark Lilla’s “Arendt and Eichmann: The New Truth” and his “The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator,” are your weekend reads.
What is the essence of corruption? This is a question raised by the recent Supreme Court jurisprudence around Citizens United v. FEC. For Justice Kennedy and the Court has concluded, as a matter of law, that only quid pro quo corruption is corruption. An out and out bribe is corrupting, but throwing a congressman a $100,000 party or treating them to fancy meals and trendy restaurants, that is just exercising the right to freely speak with one's elected representatives. That such lavish expenditures come with expectations is, the Court insists, improvable and simply part and parcel of our democratic system.
In Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It, Lawrence Lessig explores fully the impact of such "soft" corruption. He writes that the enemy we face today is not a Hitler or even the good Germans who would enable a Hitler. "Our enemy," Lessig writes, "is the good Germans (us) who would enable a harm infinitely less profound, yet economically and politically catastrophic nonetheless. A harm caused by a kind of corruption. But not the corruption engineered by evil souls. Indeed, strange as this might sound, a corruption crafted by good souls. By decent men. And women." Such a crime, he insists, is banal, but "not the banal in the now-overused sense of Hannah Arendt's The Banality of Evil—of ordinary people enabling unmatched evil (Hitler's Germany). Our banality is one step more, well, banal."
Lessig is right to worry that Arendt's phrase is overused, but what is more banal in the banality he so penetratingly describes in his book? In any case, his book better describes the kind of endemic corruption that infects our political system than any other. It should be read.
It is also important to remember that real corruption still exists in our world. It may be more a rarity at a time when one can accomplish so much corruption through legal means, but examples of bold and brazen corruption remain.
Lance Armstrong's web of corruption that silenced and intimidated dozens of his colleagues for over a decade is one example of how corruption can succeed, against all odds, but only for a time. Rumors of Armstrong's drug use floated around for a decade, and yet he still denies it. It took years for the web of deceit to break. As the NY Daily News wrote in an excellent review of the scandal:
The Armstrong myth was so lucrative that suppressing the truth came to require an endless behind-the-scenes campaign to bully and intimidate people into silence. Some of it bordered on gangsterism. Some of it was dressed up in the respectable wardrobe of elite law firms. But mostly it was just hot air - a fact that by 2010 had become clear enough to Floyd Landis that he stepped up and burst the bubble, blowing the whistle on the whole big fraud.
We tend to ignore corruption because it seems so inconceivable in our age of transparency. Corruption requires that the truth be kept hidden. This is extremely difficult and possible only through force and violence and even terror. But eventually, the truth comes out. As Hannah Arendt wrote in another context, "holes of oblivion do not exist." Eventually, the truth will emerge, no matter how many interests and how much money and violence is spent in the futile effort to prevent that from happening.
What brings to mind these brief reflections on the continued efficacy of corruption as well as its eventual failure is an article recently published in The Nation on the Hershey Trust. The author of the story is Ric Fouad, who is also a member of the Arendt Center's Board of Advisors. He is a graduate of the Milton Hershey School and together with a handful of other activists has been fighting a lonely battle against what he sees as the corruption of the Hershey Trust's Board, a fight that for him is inspired by Hannah Arendt's insistence on both truth, courage, and public action.
A little background. Milton Hershey was not just a brilliant chocolatier who had a radical vision of making chocolate—previously marketed only to the wealthy—available to the masses. He was also profoundly philanthropic. Unable to have children, Hershey left his entire personal fortune to the Hershey Trust, whose mission was to administer The Milton Hershey School, a school that Hershey founded to help and educate orphaned boys—the school is now coed and serves children with living parents. That fortune is now worth nearly $8 billion.
By his own account, Milton Hershey's life work would be to help orphaned children, whose plight touched him deeply. Hershey wanted his school to bring orphans into a revolutionary new kind of school, free from industrial buildings common to orphanages. The children were to live in beautiful homes in a bucolic paradise on 12,000 acres of land. They were to work on farms to learn character and attend a school that includes a vocational curriculum as well and have great teachers. It had all the potential to be an extraordinary facility set in truly magnificent settings.
So what is not to like? Well, for one thing, the Hershey Trust has been under investigation for six years, with no resolution and amidst plenty of accusations and charges about misspent funds and broken trust. The bucolic community-wide children's home was telescoped into a crowded centralized campus; the farms were all closed; the vocational program barely survives; and the poorest children, wards of the court, and foster care children came to be rejected in favor of what the administrators deemed a "better" class of child. Local developers made tens of millions in the process.
Tasked with administering the Milton Hershey School, the Trust's incredible resources enabled it to do much else besides. This could be an amazing opportunity to do good. It could also and become a magnet for powerful and connected people who finagled their ways onto the Hershey Trust board in order to access and control the vast wealth the Hershey Trust possessed. And that is what the article in The Nation, as well as numerous investigative articles here, here, and here, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, have alleged. You can also watch Ric Fouad's Harvard Law School lecture "Hershey's Broken Trust" here.
In Republic, Lost, Lessig writes:
The great threat to our republic today comes not from the hidden bribery of the Gilded Age, when cash was secreted among members of Congress to buy privilege and secure wealth. The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself.
As true as that is about government, it is also true for cycling legends and political clubs. When corruption of all kinds pervades institutions throughout our society, it is only natural that cynicism abounds and we lose faith in the process of government as well as in the integrity of business. It is time to take corruption seriously in this country, and not explain it away as something that happens elsewhere in less civilized and less democratic countries.
You can read an excerpt of Lessig's Republic, Lost... here, at Amazon.com, where you can also buy his book.