Monday, November 2, 2009

Revisiting the Banality of Evil

Some time ago I read Hannah Arendts Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil and described my impression: and .

Someone just sent me an article by Ron Rosenbaum that takes a different view: . Rosenbaums article is entitled,The Evil of Banality, Troubling new revelations about Arendt and Heidegger.

I don’t think Rosenbaum understood Arendts book. I dont know who he is, and no doubt he has the intelligence to understand Arendt, but he didnt read the book with sympathy, that is he didntsuspend disbelief while reading it.

I doubt that Rosenbaum read Amos Elons introduction to the 2006 Penguin edition of Arendts Eichman in Jerusalem. In it Elon writes (to quote from my first post on this subject) that Arendt was bitterly criticized for this book. For one thing she exposed the Judenrate, the Jews in Germany who facilitated the collection of Jews and their transportation to such sites as Auschwitz. She was also critical of Ben-Gurion for creating a “show trial.” But the key point for which she was criticized was implied in her subtitle, namely that this evil epitomized by Eichmann was banal rather than demonic. Her opinion didn’t fit the preconceptions and conclusions held and formed by many prominent Jews (especially in America) and Israelis of her day.

I thought Arendts description far worse than the description Rosenbaum would prefer: Fascism as demonic. For if it is Demonic then it itsout there and while it may indeed overwhelm us, it is not us. But Arendt argues that it is us, or that it could be. We are all capable of this sort of evil, of going along with a horrendous brutal ideology.

Well, perhaps not all. Some would prefer to die instead of going along, but the numbers would be very small. Interestingly, the numbers were probably small in Stalins Russia as well. Im reminded of an operation to remove a cancer from the leg of my dog, Trooper. They had to cut enough healthy flesh around the cancer to make sure the cancer wouldnt return. The cancer, in other words, might have infected the healthy flesh in ways the vet couldnt see, so she cut into healthy flesh. Stalin did that too. He didnt just cut away known enemies. He killed, or sent off to Gulags millions who might in anyway have beeninfected by any sort of resistance against what Stalin wanted. Those who remained in Russia, were submissive to Stalin. We see the effects in Russia today. The typical modern Russian reveres Stalin. Why should he not, anyone who might have taught him differently was killed or sent to a Gulag.

In regard to the term which so offended Rosenbaum, The reaction to her book (to quote from the second of my posts referenced above) did cause her to want to explore the concept more fully. Eichmann to her was obviously banal, but not so to her interlocutors who preferred seeing him as the epitome of demonic evil. . . in her introduction to Thinking, she wrote,

“The immediate impulse [for writing this book] came from my attending the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. In my report of it I spoke of ‘the banality of evil.’ Behind that phrase, I held no thesis in doctrine, although I was dimly aware of the fact that it went counter to our [I take her to mean “Western” rather than Jewish by ‘our’] tradition of thought – literary, theological, or philosophic – about the phenomenon of evil. Evil, we have learned, is something demonic; its incarnation is Satan, a ‘lightning fall from heaven’ (Luke 10:18), or Lucifer, the fallen angel (‘The devil is an angel too’ – Unamuno) whose sin is pride (‘proud as Lucifer’), namely, that superbia of which only the best are capable: they don’t want to serve God but to be like Him. Evil men, we are told, act out of envy; this may be resentment at not having turned out well through no fault of their own (Richard III) or the envy of Cain, who slew Abel because ‘the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.’ Or they may be prompted by weakness (Macbeth). Or, on the contrary, by the powerful hatred wickedness feels for sheer goodness (Iago’s ‘I hate the Moor: my cause is hearted’; Claggart’s hatred for Billy Budd’s ‘barbarian’ innocence, a hatred considered by Melville a ‘depravity according to nature’), or by covetousness, ‘the root of all evil’ (Radix omnium malorum cupiditas). However, what I was confronted with was utterly different and still undeniably factual. I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer – at least the very effective one now on trial – was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or of specific evil motives, and the only notable characteristic one could detect in his past behavior as well as in his behavior during the trial and throughout the pre-trial police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidly but thoughtlessness.

The writing style of Ron Rosenbaum strikes me as being very like that of Carlin Romano; so one can understand why Rosenbaum admired him. Neither has advanced or, indeed, seems capable of advancing a coherent argument to support their hostile rants.

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