When Gershom Scholem once wrote to Arendt that her phrase the “banality of evil” was a cliché, her response was swift: As far as she had known, nobody had ever used it before. The banality of evil was no common formulation worn meaningless by overuse. When she coined the phrase, it was a searing and dangerous provocation to thought, a warning to all those who in the face of horrific crimes carried out by bureaucrats would seek to transform those bureaucrats into monsters. To make people like Eichmann into radically evil monsters is, Arendt argued, to mistake an even greater and more insidious fact about evil: that in the modern context of bureaucratic governance, evil depends upon banal people who allow themselves to participate in evil because they are thoughtless and lack the clarity of mind or the courage of conviction to stand up to the mechanized and bureaucratized doing of evil.
One can disagree with Arendt’s thesis, but it was hardly a cliché. Unfortunately, too often today it is used as the cliché Scholem feared it had already become. A case in point is an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by James Taranto.
Taranto is discussing a current case in which Dr. Kermit Gosnell is on trial for murdering seven viable fetuses.
Three associates have pled guilty to third-degree murder and five others have pled guilty to other crimes. Gosnell faces the death penalty. According to the New York Times, whose account Taranto refers to,
Reporters heard testimony from the Philadelphia medical examiner about unsanitary, even filthy conditions at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, from which the remains of 47 fetuses were removed, some in a water jug, a juice carton and a pet-food container.
In earlier testimony, according to several news reports, an unlicensed doctor said that Dr. Gosnell, 72, showed him how to cut the necks of babies born alive to make sure they died, and a young woman who worked at the clinic as a teenager said she assisted in abortions in which she saw at least five babies moving and breathing.
The details are grisly. The main thrust of Taranto’s article is that the liberal media is ignoring the case because it upsets their narrative that abortions are clean and easy. According to experts cited in the Times article, it seems that conservative media outlets have ignored the case as well, and that the Times actually had given it more coverage than more conservative papers, but I will leave that argument to others.
What interests me more is Taranto’s sudden invocation of Hannah Arendt and her thesis of the banality of evil. The context is the guilty pleas of the eight employees of Gosnell’s clinic. They included an unlicensed doctor and untrained aids who worked under difficult and unsanitary conditions where they were trained how to break the neck of living fetuses. An Associated Press wire story described the fate of these workers and concluded: “But for most, it was the best job they could find.” This is what leads Taranto (through the route of a reader’s comment and a 1999 essay in the New York Observer) to compare the AP’s account of eight medical technicians with Hannah Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann.
It is not at all clear whether Taranto has ever set eyes upon Arendt’s book, for he cites only an essay on the book. It is, of course, the height of cliché to speak about books and ideas from second or third hand sources. But that is what Taranto does. He repeats the following claims from the 1999 article, all false: first, that Arendt believed that Eichmann wasn’t anti-Semitic (she reports his claim, but dismisses it as unbelievable, a fact all-too-often forgotten); that she offered the banality of evil as an “overarching theory”; that she “took him at his word” that he was just following orders; that she was a philosopher; and that she was the “world’s worst court reporter”—as if that is what she were.
But what is truly mind-boggling is that after dismissing Arendt’s thesis based on second-hand accounts, Taranto then comes to agree with her. He writes:
And while Rosenbaum [the author of the 1999 article] seems correct in rejecting "the banality of evil" as an overarching theory, surely it has some explanatory or descriptive power. "Faceless little men following evil orders" surely is a fitting characterization of the Pennsylvania bureaucrats who, because of a mix of indifference, incompetence and politics, failed in their oversight of Gosnell's clinic and allowed it to keep operating for decades.
It's also true that banality is a tactic of evil, a method it employs to make orders easier to follow. One of Gosnell's employees might have blown the whistle on him had he expressly commanded them to slash babies to death after they were born, rather than to "snip" them after they "precipitated" to "ensure fetal demise."
All too often we see this approach to Arendt’s book and thesis. She is excoriated for getting Eichmann wrong and for having the temerity to suggest he wasn’t a monster. And then we are told that actually, she was largely right, and that there is something fundamentally true about the idea that evil is done and made possible as much by thoughtlessness as by fanaticism. In other words, she was right in general but not about Eichmann.
Such an argument has become popular in the wake of David Cesarani’s book on Eichmann, which simultaneously says that Arendt under emphasized Eichmann's anti-Semitism and then accepted her argument about the banality of evil. There is a legitimate debate about how Arendt perceived Eichmann. It is wrong to say that she accepted his claims of being a friend of Jews and it is simply inaccurate to think she thought he was not an anti-Semite. That said, there is evidence of his later anti-Semitism expressed in Argentina that Arendt had not seen. Does that evidence impact her thesis? I don't believe so, but if she had had access to it and included it, such remarks would have given a fuller appraisal of Eichmann. In any case, few who repeat Cesarani's argument have read him or for that matter Arendt herself.
To reject and embrace the banality of evil in the same essay is too simple. It is easy to repeat Arendt’s insight but then protect oneself from the unsettling implications the weight of her thought must bear. To do so, sadly, is to treat the banality of evil as a cliché. She and her work deserve better.