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Ed Driscoll

The Evil of Banality

January 27th, 2014 - 8:24 pm


For about a month, I’ve had the Blu-Ray edition of the 2012 biopic Hannah Arendt from Netflix sitting on top of one of the home theater speakers in my den, but because of the Christmas holiday and trepidation about what to expect, I didn’t get around to actually inserting the disc into the player until this past weekend. Stunning picture in the Blu-Ray edition, handsome art direction which quickly evokes the feeling of New York intellectual life in the early 1960s with a depth missing from the TV-oriented production design of Mad Men – and more smoking than an entire season of Mad Men. I’m serious. This film does for Marlboros what the first Thin Man movie did for Martinis — Arendt, her husband, her sidekick Mary McCarthy, and just about everybody else in the film is smoking in seemingly every shot, with the exception of Eichmann.

Speaking of which, the one brilliant gesture of the film was, early on, to cut between reaction shots of actress Barbara Sukowa as Arendt, and the actual black and white kinescopes of Eichmann during his trial, which generates far more of an emotional kick in the gut than hiring an actor to recreate the trial as movie scenes.

As for the rest of the film, this article by Sol Stern from the September issue of Commentary accurately illustrates the movie’s intellectual dishonesty:

The film would have us believe that Arendt came to judge the Eichmann trial with no preconceived political views of the prosecution, that is, the state of Israel. This is not true. We know this to be untrue from letters she wrote at the time to friends such as Mary McCarthy, Karl Jaspers, and her husband, all of which became available after the author’s death in 1975 and were available to Von Trotta as well. They offer a glimpse into Arendt’s uncensored thoughts about Jerusalem, the people of Israel, and the trial’s protagonists. Her reflections can be described as bigoted, even hateful.

The Israeli police gave her “the creeps” because they spoke “only Hebrew and looked Arabic.” Jerusalem was “dirty” and as unpleasant as Istanbul. In one letter she wrote that “honest and clean people were at a premium.” She was disdainful of the “oriental mob” outside the courthouse. She expressed contempt for the black-hatted, ultra-orthodox Jews “who make life impossible for all reasonable people here,” and she expressed a hauteur about the unrefined Yiddish-speaking immigrants who had come to Israel from Eastern Europe. (In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she described prosecutor Gideon Hausner as a “Galician Jew who speaks without periods or commas.”)

Stern goes on to note that near the conclusion of the Arendt biopic, its eponymous subject is depicted being fired by the incensed regents of Manhattan’s New School for having dared to write Eichmann in Jerusalem, when in reality,  the far left New School offered her tenure because of the book. Similarly, conservatives who watch the film should be on guard for its sucker punch, about three quarters of the way through, against “Norman,” the one contemporary of Arendt whose last name wasn’t uttered in the film, likely because he’s alive and well – and so is his lawyer:

Podhoretz, at the time editor of this magazine, published his critique of Eichmann in Jerusalem in the September 1963 issue of Commentary. You can see why Von Trotta would have regarded this as a slam-dunk proof of her version of the Arendt controversy, the one in which the truth-telling and courageous Arendt is set upon by a collection of pro-Israel hacks following the party line as dictated from Jerusalem and the offices of the ADL. For of course, Podhoretz was one of the founders of the neoconservative movement in America—you know, those warmongers and “Israel firsters”—and Commentary was one of the movement’s headquarters.

But when he reviewed Eichmann in Jerusalem, Podhoretz was no neoconservative, indeed no conservative at all. Commentary had moved substantially to the left upon his ascension as editor in 1960 and had become known for publishing radical writers such as Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, and Staughton Lynd. Podhoretz had no particular connection to the Zionist movement, and as for his attitude toward Arendt, he admired her enormously and considered her a friend.

The near-radical Podhoretz wrote a tough and complex review of Eichmann in Jerusalem, raising serious factual questions about her allegations of betrayal by Jewish leaders under Nazi occupation, but he never accused her in any sense of betraying “her people.” For example, he wrote: “Since Miss Arendt wishes us to believe that the Nazis could never have killed as many as six million Jews without Jewish help, she tries very hard to convey the impression that what the Jews themselves did in any given country mattered significantly too. And it is here that she becomes most visibly tendentious in her manipulation of the facts.”

Much more after the page break.

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Top Rated Comments   
I'm with Fail Burton on his notion that elite institutions in America are far down the path of consigning those who don't share their views to "otherness." The German people either didn't care or feigned not knowing what was happening with the Jews and others because Nazi propaganda and Nazi controls over media and culture had turned the Jews and others into either something evil or into something not really human.

You simply CANNOT absorb the anti-male, anti-Christian, anti-conservative, anti-Republican, anti-business, anti-guns, anti-liberty propaganda that spews out of government, education, media, and popular culture without it having some effect on your views about same. Unless one is aware enough to fight off all the leftist propaganda, at best one becomes a believer in some sort of moral equivalency. My wife is a good example. She's a bright woman with long experience as a direct report to the appointee level of a state and now the federal government. When I or one of my friends complain of the IRS abuses, Benghazi, Fast and Furious, the DOJ war on the states, etc., she tells us we're just being Chicken Little and "they all do it, they've all done it, and the Country goes on." She believes that, but the reality is that NOBODY has ever done what this Administration is routinely doing and the whole apparatus of media, education, and entertainment is backing the Administration and justifying or even glorifying its actions.

I've never taken Arendt's use of the word banal as somehow making the acts of the Nazis less evil but rather that the evil acts had become so commonplace and either accepted or ignored that trains passing that were filled with something vaguely but not quite human weren't worthy of note. Nobody much noted an obscure filmmaker being perp-walked for the cameras to back up an Administration lie. Nobody much noted a conservative critic of the regime, also a film-maker, being perp-walked for an esoteric violation of campaign finance laws. The USDOJ has already proven with Sen. Stevens that there are plenty of juries in the US that will find you guilty and sentence you to prison for the crime of being a white Republican. So far, they've confined themselves to individuals; groups are next. If they can perp-walk, disband, or otherwise silence or eliminate groups without getting a serious counter-reaction, it will be open season on the "others," the bitter clingers who are impeding the way forward.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Arendt was a self-hating Jew who had adopted the German superiority belief, thinking of herself as German first and Jewish last. Her affair with her Aryan German mentor and teacher was as collaborative as any other fantasy she held that European Jews were somehow the cause of their own demise. She defines the term traitor and should be condemned for it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I don't think "the banality of evil" is a phrase that should be retired but one that should stand as an exemplar of the mechanisms by which such a mass murder can take place. I don't think the phrase discredits the idea that the leaders of such a thing are hateful psychotics. Nor does it absolve the followers involved of criminality.

What the phrase does do is point up the importance of hate-speech not only being accepted as normal when it is institutionalized, but even noble and just. Hitler and his cronies didn't launch anti-Semitic propaganda because they thought the nation was fully on board but because they felt the credibility of institutions of gov't and media would make naked hatred seem reasonable and even desirable.

It is not reasonable to assume an entire nation is psychotic, but it is reasonable to assume an insulated culture can be radicalized until millions engage in or support actions that are in fact psychotic. The difference from the outside is negligible. It is probably that lack of real difference that brought about the bombing of cities in Germany and Japan - all were held to be in some manner accountable.

For example Denmark, which had not been driven mad by its own culture, refused to go along with Nazi round-ups of Jews. "Normal" can be a funny word when put at the service of madmen in charge of entire nations or cultures. The deaths in Rwanda called for on radio and by gov't officials before the actual massacre occurred are further proof of that.

I have always felt that Germany and the Empire of Japan were nations driven mad by the provincial radicalization of their cultures. It is one thing to have disconnected individuals engage in racism and another when your own gov't propagates it as orthodoxy.

One couldn't put Jews on trains in Germany in 1930, but you sure as heck could 10 years later. It is crossing that gap that is the banality of evil.

It should be noted that a free-fire zone of "just" racial and gender bigotry has completely encompassed our Dem Party. If you wish to bear witness to crossing that gap and wonder why we so often characterize liberals as Orwellian madman, we'd better start thinking where our own bridge is leading us.

Our own gov't is currently institutionalizing and normalizing group hatred. Of that there is no doubt. What else is "white privilege" and a "cishetero patriarchy" but a clever and filthy re-imagining of Nazi propaganda? If you don't think our own DOJ has gone mad in precisely the manner I have described above, you aren't looking very hard.

Exactly what mechanism allows one to say a TV show is too white with no consequences whatsoever but with the end of a career in sight if one were to say a TV show is too black?

What is that? What is it when Geoffrey Dunne at the Huffington Post can say Carmel is "frighteningly white" to acclaim while anyone saying Atlanta is frighteningly black would be fired? What is that? Tell me what that is. It is blatant racism not only made to seem reasonable but just and noble.

What is it when the Dem Party laughs and cheers on the game of "negro spotting" at the GOP Convention while if I did the same, I'd be fitted with a KKK hood? Somebody please tell me exactly what that is and why it is orthodoxy within the halls of our federal gov't.

Why in 2014 is there a black, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific caucus while a white one is strictly taboo? What is that foul double standard stinking up this country that allows us to be inundated with "undocumented" who are not criminals by virtue of race? Didn't the Nazis themselves feel they had committed no crimes by virtue of race? WHO ME?

If you don't think half of America by way of institutions is indulging in suicidal psychotic behaviors unimaginable only 20 years ago then you're really not paying attention. 20 years ago, the idea of racists like Melissa Harris-Perry and Al Sharpton having their own TV shows outside anything other than a nut factory was laughable. Yet look where we are. And those sick people are considered voices of wisdom today by way too many people.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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The little man, sneering in his glass cage, was quite different from the Man in a spiffy SS Uniform, treating other people as though they were vermin. Eichmann was an entrepreneur, who managed to organize the slaughter of millions of Hungarian Jews AFTER D-Day, a deed that I don't think Arendt really considered in all its practicality in 1963.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
"State Department’s shameful refusal”

Absolutely. It is the obligation to take in every German (Jewish or not), Frenchman, Somali, Ugandan, Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Laotian, South African, Liberian, Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, Mexican, Guatemalan, etc. etc. who is threatened with persecution or destruction by their own country.

What else is the USA for?
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
“Since Miss Arendt wishes us to believe that the Nazis could never have killed as many as six million Jews without Jewish help, she tries very hard to convey the impression that what the Jews themselves did in any given country mattered significantly too. And it is here that she becomes most visibly tendentious in her manipulation of the facts.”

Last night, during President Obama's speech, my thoughts kept turning to this article. I've watched only the 1st, and now the most recent, SOTU speeches. I'm not a Jew and I'm only in my 50's, so all I can do is read and tease out something of the truth of the Jewish experience in the 30's and 40's. But last night I watched, praying for SOMEONE to speak out, a legislator, an audience member...nothing...and I thought of what was said of Arendt... and I thought of Obama's handmaidens in the audience, expressing their pleasure at the uselessness of their stations. So anxious to escape scrutiny and loath to
assume its proper responsibilities, congress gladly hands over the reigns. Not one, NOT ONE PERSON STOOD UP for the Constitution and in opposition to this tyrant. NOT ONE.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I saw Hannah Arendt up close and in person when I was an undergarduate in the 1960s. She did not look like the woman in the picture above. She looked like my Aunt Sadie. Dumpy, lumpy, and not like she had ever been attractive.

She slept with the Nazi "philosopher" Heidegger. And that is all you need to know about her. Like all the other "philosophers" of the last hundred years, her central object was to strew rose petals at the feet of tyrants. The sooner the whole enterprise is relegated to history, the better off we will be.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Socialism comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and doesn't move on.
— Apologies to Carl Sandburg
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment

"The terrifying aspect of "the banality of evil" is that once social norms, however monstrous, are established, the path of least resistance for all concerned is to follow them. One of the most unfortunate calumnies to which Arendt was subjected was that with the "banality" idea she had exonerated Eichmann for his crimes. On the contrary, she sought to make us vigilant lest we assume that we will find the evil of such as Eichmann overtly repellent in its Satanic nature. She wants us to be aware that Satan does not merely tempt us with power and pleasure; he tempts us most successfully with the comfortable feeling of banality.
"We might like to imagine that the great killers of old, the Attilas and Genghis Khans, killed for the mere pleasure of self-assertion. Perhaps a conqueror needs no supplement of resentful rage to realize that a pile of skulls is a powerful publicity device. But whatever Nietzsche willed himself to think of the matter, the monstrous exercisers of the will to power in the modern world, whether in Cambodia or Rwanda or wearing suicide vests, act quite transparently out of resentment. Which is to say that, far from indulging like the Marquis de Sade in the Satanic dream of seeing themselves as evil incarnate, they consider themselves not as oppressing, but as avenging themselves on their oppressor. The Nazis, in this regard, were merely responding to Edouard Drumont’s despairing call in La France juive (1886) for the "Aryans" to awaken to and from their despoliation by the Jews. No doubt it is easier to act out one’s resentment toward a helpless minority than to one capable of adding your skull to his pile. Jewish powerlessness, in conjunction with the Jews’ millennial survival on the sheer strength of their firstness, make up the fundamental configuration of antisemitism through the ages. It is not simply sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs that makes the existence of powerful Israel a scandal.
"Once the victimary paradigm has established itself, evil's sheer banality far outstrips anything known in Eichmann's day. The "objective observer" had little trouble after or even during the fact in grasping the moral monstrosity of the Nazis massacring the "parasitical" Jews, the Hutus slaughtering the "haughty" Tutsis, the Khmer Rouge exterminating their French-speaking or glasses-wearing betters. But in the realm of postmodern victimocracy, who is the victim and who is the victimizer is not so easily determined.

As always, the victim claims the right to be compensated for her victimhood. As did the Nazis, the Hutus, the Khmer Rouge, and La Fontaine’s wolf taking revenge on the lamb (Si ce n'est toi, c'est donc ton frère) for his persecution by the latter's human friends. Ah, say the victimocrats, but now, things are different. Now those who seek revenge against their oppressors are truly victims. After all, they belong to officially recognized victim categories. How could their cause possibly have anything in common with that of the great monsters of history?

We will never know how Arendt would have answered this question. But I hope that her probing analysis of the Eichmann trial, rightly understood, will help us to avoid answering it too quickly.,"
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
That last part is exactly right, and why anti-oppression victimhood narratives are so dangerous when it comes to them acting as surrogates for racist propaganda long after the fight is over. Both normalize hate speech. In fact one could say the Nazis cast themselves and Germany as victims.

In passing, it is interesting to note that the one group that has never taken advantage of a victim narrative to energize hate speech are Jews themselves. In that sense, it is interesting to contrast the loud screeching of modern radical feminists to that same lack of screeching from Jews, though it is self-evident which group would have the larger right to do such a thing. That tells you a lot about the true imperatives that drive modern feminism and in fact all anti-oppression movements in 2014.

As for ferreting out bigotry that masks itself in notions of justice, the simplest way to do that is to forget political or cultural identities and employ harsh principles that spare no one and give no one an edge.

In "1984" Orwell warned us that evil can and does look like anything, and it will employ whatever semantic gibberish it needs to in order to advance its true aim - hate.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
This is why I believe we need to teach our children that being a "victim" is a state of mind, and one that needs to be rejected and fought at every turn.

Today's "victimocrats" (lovely term; I'm unabashedly stealing it) operate precisely like a small child who persists in a behavior he knows will get him punished, simply because then he has an excuse to bemoan his "victimhood" after the punishment is applied. This is a common human behavior, but is usually outgrown by the time we reach 10 years of age or so.

Combining this immature behavior with cynical manipulation and encouragement of it is perhaps one of the more egregious examples of evil in our time. Rather, what needs to be encouraged is the idea that "you may kill me, but you will never conquer me - and I'll take as many of you down with me as I can even if you succeed in killing me."

THAT should be the "ordinary, standard attitude" of all Americans - NOT "victimhood".
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I don't think it is intellectually consistent to quote Rosenbaum lauding Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism and then deriding the Eichmann book in which she continues her thesis on totalitarianism.

Leaving aside her anti-Zionism and contempt for the Jewish leaders who, it is all too easy in retrospect, to portray as caught up in the totalitarian mindset, I find - I am currently reading the book - her portrayal of Eichmann as believable. Yes, of course, defendants in court cases can lie. But Arendt's portrayal of his behaviour in Jerusalem nonetheless makes sense - his sense of self-righteousness can not be seriously divorced from what must have been already present in his mind as a Nazi - and does buttress her thesis about totalitarianism. It is not an argument that turns on the possibility of lieing in court. She hardly portrays Eichmann as convincing or insightful. His delusion is clearly deep and integral to his identity, not just a show fro the court. The narrative Eichmann spins for himself would only be a "lie" if he were anticipating and playing to the Arendt thesis, which is hardly believable.

The problem off evil is not served by the facile assumption that people commit genocide knowing full well that what they are doing is evil. No, they do have to think that they are doing it for some kind of good, even if they have conflicting emotions. We live in an age rife with bureaucratic evil. I fail to see here an argument that would let me put to rest "the banality of evil".
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The case of Arendt is complicated, to say the least. She was not at her best in Jerusalem. As time goes on, the relationship with Heidegger looks more and more important. And what a tangle! He’s the most eminent German philosopher of his time; he’s both her intellectual mentor and her lover; he actually joins the Nazi Party; after the war, he’s in big legal trouble and his philosophical legacy is threatened; Arendt remains close to him and he remains unrepentant, as tdiinva rightly said. I can’t help but think that a major subtext of a lot of Arendt’s writing on the Holocaust was “… and so you shouldn’t blame Heidegger.”

Still, she remains a major figure, a powerful and serious mind; and she was willing to break with her circle when she thought she was right, which can be the most important virtue of all. Two glorious examples of that heterodoxy:

1. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she insisted on the essential similarity of German National Socialism and Soviet Communism. Virtually all her fellow German émigrés were then engaged in a furious (and largely successful; we live with it to this day) effort to convince everyone that Nazism was—despite the word “socialism” being right there in its name, and a wealth of other evidence—entirely and only a right-wing phenomenon, and thus nothing, nothing at all, like their own beloved left-wing movements.

2. In On Revolution, she argued that the French Revolution ended up a disaster, while the American Revolution was a success. Well! To say that that went against the grain of her time, place, and circle is an understatement. Even better, she pinpointed the French Revolution’s decisive error as the giving up of its commitment to liberté and going all in on égalité and fraternité; the American Revolution, in contrast, maintained its primary commitment to liberty and thus reached shore in good condition.

So in the end, like all people, mixed.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I do agree with Rosenbaum, "the banality of evil" is a poisonous phrase that substitutes banality for evil. Today we have dickheads like Jay Carney who issue such phrases on a daily basis. Not to mention Hillary's "What difference does it make now?" These are all failures to face the truth, and that is never good.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Arendt does not use the phrase in her book, it only appears in the subtitle. But to suggest she is substituting banality for evil is a misreading. Her point is that under totalitarianism, evil becomes banal, not that banality is not evil. Banality is the heart of evil, to Arendt. You do your work of organizing transport for Jews to death camps, and sleep sound at night. You know full well what you are doing, even as you also know full well all the bureaucratic language and euphemisms ("evacuation to the east") that make you feel the cause is righteous and you continue to adore Adolph Hitler. Killers do convince themselves what they are doing is right. This is an important anthropological point: it is impossible to do evil without thinking evil is good. We are by our human nature unavoidably focussed on some kind of sacrality, or good. Satanism becomes good, as any Satanist will tell you. Which is why cultural relativism is evil, not to mention banal in our times.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"For example, he wrote: “Since Miss Arendt wishes us to believe that the Nazis could never have killed as many as six million Jews without Jewish help, "

George Soros. And while I can understand somewhat the acts of a scared teen in murderous times, a failure to repent or at least regret from the safety of decades and billions of dollars later is very telling.

There were black slave owners in the Antebellum South as well, so there are always going to be a few who will cooperate with evil against their own larger interest.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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