Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
3Jul/130

The Banality of Butter

Darin Strauss has a thoughtful essay bringing Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil thinking to bear on the Paula Deen scandal, something we at the Arendt Center had thought very little about.

deen

She writes:

Here’s a relevant fact. We know that Deen said “n-----r,” owned permissive restaurants, about the lady’s crude humor. But we know something else, too. Deen wanted to emulate a party where African Americans — and only African Americans — were made, in a manner reminiscent of the antebellum South, to serve white guests. What’s relevant, what’s Arendtian, is: none of the Stand-With-Paula people dispute any of these facts.

Which is where Eichmann comes in. In Arendt’s most famous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, she argued that sometimes what we call evil — and what can bring about the most horrible outcomes — can often more accurately and simply be thoughtlessness of a sort. That is to say, people, and communities, are often no good at the kind of abstract thought that helps us understand the experience of others. (Which is a shame, because abstract thought is what separates us from iPhones and hamsters.)

The enlarged thinking by which we can think from the perspective of others is not, for Arendt, abstract thought. It is concrete and engaged thinking. But Strauss’ larger point is a good one. Eichmann’s banality was his unthinking commitment to the truth of the Nazi movement. It is evidence that people depend so strongly on their identity as members of movements or peoples that they will unthinkingly defend and prosecute the goals of that movement, even when those goals contradict their basic moral convictions.

You can read the rest of Strauss’ essay here.

-RB

6Dec/123

Holes of Oblivion Open Up in China

One central feature of totalitarianism is the desire of those at the top of the movement to retain full—that is, total—control of their people. Total control requires, at times, the ability to lie, especially when facts on the ground fail to conform with past and present pronouncements. The strength of any totalitarian system can, in part, be measured by how successfully lies can be maintained and how effectively the movement can lie in spite of the facts.

A story out of China this week offers great insight into the totalitarian ambitions of some in China’s government, but also the fissures in that façade. As is now well known, Chinese President Hu Jintao is resigning, leaving office voluntarily when he had been expected to seek another term in power. Moreover, Hu is not maintaining any significant position of power in the new Chinese leadership, something quite unusual. And now the reasons have surfaced.

It seems that Hu was brought down by the emergence of a cover-up orchestrated by his most trusted deputy, Ling Jihua. The facts are such:

Mr. Ling’s son crashed his black Ferrari, killing himself and injuring two young women he was driving with. One of the women later died. Even though the crash and the son’s death were reported in the press, Mr. Ling set about erasing that news and denying it. He admitted the crash, but insisted his son was still alive, even creating false social media posts from his son to “prove” that he had survived. In addition, a major Chinese bank with connections to President Hu paid hush money to the families of the two women.

What is surprising is not so much the cover-up, but that it failed. As the New York Times reports,

Under normal circumstances, party insiders said, suppressing such news to protect the image of the party would be a routine matter. But Ling Jihua went further, they said, maneuvering to hide his son’s death even from the leadership.

Against Ling’s heavy-handed efforts, Chinese bureaucrats fought back. Intentionally or not, the police recorded the name of Ling’s son as Jia, a word that sounds like the word in Chinese for fake, and also a word similar to a retired party leader. That leader was furious about reports of his ignoble death. This and other accidents led to increasing pressure on Ling, and eventually the cover-up unraveled, leaving Hu embarrassed and eventually allowing him to be pushed out of power.

The fascinating story is yet another reminder of one of the most optimistic of Hannah Arendt’s repeated claims, that “The holes of oblivion do not exist.”  In other words, no totalitarian system is perfect and no matter how sophisticated the lie, if the lie is big and important enough, the truth will eventually come out. As Arendt writes:

Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.

It is always good to be reminded of this basic fact of the human world, that as artful as humans may be at lying, truth is stronger than the lie.

-RB

 

26Oct/120

Corruption Takes Root

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.

-RB

20Jan/120

Leadership or Arrogance?

Have you not watched Newt Gingrich's take down of CNN's John King at the opening of the Republican debate last night? You should.

 

Gingrich's supremely confident critique of the media's obsession with personal issues certainly put the Republican contest back in play and may have set him on the road to the nomination. It is also fascinating in the widely divergent reactions it has spawned.

The Republicans attending the debate gave Gingrich two standing ovations within three minutes. Most commentators have concluded that Gingrich won the debate in the first five minutes. But reaction on the left has been contemptuous.

Andrew Sullivan has great coverage and collects the responses.

John Marshall marvels at his hubris: "Shameless, hubris, chutzpah, whatever. It was pitch perfect for his intended audience. He took control of the debate and drew down all the tension about when the debate would turn to the open marriage stuff."

Andrew Sprung writes of an "astounding display of the Audacity of Hubris."

PM Carpenter shouts that it  was "the most despicable display of grotesque demagoguery I have ever witnessed."

Tim Stanley (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan) has the best characterization of the rhetorical power of Gingrich's answer.

To understand the full power of Gingrich’s answer, you really have to watch him give it. The former Speaker has three standard expressions: charmed bemusement (“Why are you asking me that, you fool?”), indignant (“Why are you asking me that, you swine?”) and supreme confidence (“That’s not the question I would have asked, you moron”). Each comes with its own number of chins. For his stunning “No, but I will”, Newt employed the full dozen. He looked straight down them, with half moon goblin eyes. “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” By the time his chins unfolded, Gingrich was in total command of the debate.

The interesting question is: was Gingrich wrong to react the way he did? Did his angry and forceful response show hubris and contempt? Or is it the confident and powerful response of a true leader?

For years, liberals and conservatives alike have kvetched unceasingly about how the media cares more about scandal than substance.

What was John King thinking starting off the last Republican debate before a crucial primary with a question about marital infidelity from decades ago? One can of course argue that infidelity goes to character, and maybe it could have been asked about in some way. But is it really the most important issue of the debate? There are plenty of questions about Gingrich's character that are more pertinent to his ability to be President. Whether he once asked his wife to allow him to keep a mistress is not what disqualifies him to be President.

The reason Gingrich is still in this contest is because he has a supreme confidence in himself. He believes that he is the only candidate with big ideas, the only one willing to really buck the status quo. He styles himself a leader, and the strengths and weaknesses of his idea of leadership were on display in his answer to John King.

The strengths are clear. He elevated himself far above his questioner. He assumed a leadership position and pushed through without any self-doubt or self-criticism. Imagine someone like President Obama acting with such assurance? It is almost inconceivable. I can't imagine watching Gingrich and not feeling something like: Finally! someone has the courage to say what they believe and tell the media to get over their titillations and focus on the fact that this is the most important Presidential election in a generation.

Gingrich's weaknesses are clear as well. The man is imperious. He lives at times in a fantasy world of his own, one in which he is the philosopher king straining to keep calm and save the rest of us before he explodes at our idiocy. Nothing is more indicative of his hubris is his contempt for the Congressional Budget Office, the non-partisan body that Gingrich regularly assails and wants to abolish. Why that has never been asked about in the debates is a travesty, and in many ways supports Gingrich's tirade. In any case, it speaks much more to the question of character and leadership than his marital problems.

-RB