Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Potter 3: Amanda, Arendt and The Banality of Evil

Darling Amanda rushes to the defence of Harry Potter. Plainly you should not read this for fear of making your brain turn to yoghurt. I didn't, but the last sentence caught my eye - 'I don't know if it was intended to read that way, but it did read that way, and the movie captured the whole banality-of-evil (right down to the way that torture suddenly seems justified overnight) theme to a T.' That phrase 'banality of evil' gets everywhere. People are drawn to it because, I suppose, it involves a kind of double vengeance - 'You - Hitler, Bush, Blair, whoever - are not only evil, you're also banal.' Evil is doubly condemned by being not only wrong but also in bad - or, at least, shallow - taste. The phrase was born in Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Arendt saw in Eichmann a dull deskman, just doing his job. He remained banal until his execution by the Israelis. He was banal but also evil and from this, she inferred, that evil itself was banal. Indeed, her later gloss on the phrase indicated that she thought a certain shallowness was the necessary attribute of the evildoer since deep thought would turn anyone away from evil. This is absurd. A deep thinker can obviously do evil. You may argue that he is being shallow when he does the evil, but that is to balance a very large upturned pyramid of assumptions and wishful thinking on a very small, fleeting and, in fact, impossible point of psychological analysis. What I think Arendt  - and all her casual quoters - actually mean is 'the evil of banality'. They don't like the look of what they see as banal, so they associate it with evil. This amounts to a domestication, a shrinkage, of evil, and it provides the satisfaction of a child when the monsters have been chased out of his bedroom. The success of the phrase, in short, lies not in its truth but in its offer of easy consolation. Or, to put it another way, if you think there's something banal about evil, you don't understand the word.

32 comments:

  1. 'whole banality-of-evil (right down to the way that torture suddenly seems justified overnight) theme to a T'

    This has to be my favourite so far. So many clichéd phrases coming together like a traffic accident.

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  2. she's a regular aunt sally, that one.
    (I don't mean she's a size 14, but she might be.)

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  3. Susan B., weighing in,July 18, 2007 3:07 pm

    I disagree with you. I think a great deal of evil happens in banal circumstances. Usually, it's a case of letting things go rather than actively investigating. Every time we put on a shirt made in China or Bangladesh, are we thinking about the people in sweatshops who made the shirt? The pittance they're earning per day, their living conditions? Of course we're not. We're on our way to the mall or the golf course or lunch. But we're participating in an evil system that continues because we buy those shirts. Ditto with African coffee, chocolate, and so forth.

    That's what she meant about 'banal.' Eichmann not investigating more deeply into the papers he was signing to see what was really happening. Banally, he just signed and got paid.

    Banality of evil is really the only thing that explains a whole nation of people going along like sheep while a Holocaust is happening among them. I do not believe all the Germans were Hitler's willing conspirators, or whatever that book calls them. They were looking the other way, not wanting to investigate too deeply for fear of what they'd find. Banal, sheeplike, not actively evil.

    On the other hand, I can't read Arendt without knowing her relationship to Nazi-boy Martin H., her lover and philosophy professor. I've always wondered if she wrote "Eichmann in Jerusalem" to try to make sense of him, her vain hope that his Fascist views were banal... though of course they weren't. How can a brilliant Jew like Arendt make sense of her own love for a Nazi? It must have riven her soul.

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  4. I agree, susan.

    what should I do? I need shirts, should I buy the cheap asian made ones or the expensive design house labels? help!

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  5. Susan b

    "Every time we put on a shirt made in China or Bangladesh, are we thinking about the people in sweatshops who made the shirt?"

    then:

    "But we're participating in an evil system that continues because we buy those shirts. Ditto with African coffee, chocolate, and so forth."

    Have you really thought this through? Unless you believe that the people making these shirts are captured, enslaved and forced to work under pain of punishment or death, which I don't think you do, then the alternative for them is a "pittance" or nothing at all. They clearly prefer a pittance.

    If we were to follow your putative ethical trading policy we would see the even greater pauperisation of these countries. Presumably the only people allowed to make them should be well paid workers in OECD countries, because they wouldn't get made in Bangladesh if theu had to pay western wages.

    Bryan: absolutely spot on.

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  6. i seem to recall Eichmann visited a camp once, and couldn't take it - Himmler too, i think. Still, there were plenty of nice SS boys who were untroubled by gore & blood. And people do get deconditioned very quickly, inhumanity enabling & encouraging inhumanity - so soldiers often desecrate the dead, because it's just 'meat'.

    As for our complicity in sweatshops etc: the problem with living in society is that you're always, however distantly, connected to injustice of some kind. Only someone living in a croft farm and not buying or selling anything might be said to be innocent. Just shopping in Sainsbury's, or having a bank account, is enough to be involved in injustice, somewhere. i think for us regular joes, there have to be degrees of participation, or of withdrawal.

    i haven't read that Arendt book but she's right that great suffering is often brought about rather casually, without trumpets & ominous Wagnerian drum rolls.

    But to say that all evil is banal is bull: people who have killed almost always acquire a peculiar 'aura', which can be felt as a sort of 'deadness', not a lack of life but some part of them seems dead, in a very forceful & alarming way. They can be nice enough, but i certainly wouldn't call them 'banal'. Of course, Eichmann just signed papers, he didn't pull triggers.

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  7. capitalism is a process perpetuated in a similar way to gambling: we all know people who've won and we all believe we're in with a good chance of winning. this time next year we'll all be millionaires! inevitably, in a game with winners, there will be more losers.
    the alternative, though moral, offers no such dreams of escape - though that probably is its only major failing.

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  8. Ian

    I think capitalism is like democracy: awful, except when compared to all the other options. I would be interested in what your alternative to it is. The one that, despite being moral(?), only has one drawback.

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  9. Recusant: Have you not seen the movie "Blood Diamond"? Of course many people working in African industries -- diamonds, chocolate, coffee plantations -- are, in fact, enslaved and working on pain of death. I don't think you've thought it through.

    Nor am I saying we can stop this system -- obviously half my clothes are made under it. Not sure what the answer is. In some cases (Mexico, case in point), people would rather work for that pittance than have nothing.

    Elberry, obviously not *all* evil is "banal" -- a great deal of it is aggressively, intentionally perpetrated. But there is banal evil of the type I've mentioned that many of us play into ... That's what Arendt was talking about, I believe, and her concept is worth considering.

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  10. democracy's failure is capitalism!

    okay, I'm making up slogans to write on the wall here. I don't want to suggest there's a viable alternative because I'm sure people have tried and failed, better minds than mine. Unless the whole human race goes into greed-sloth rehab it ain't going to happen. It ain't going to happen, we're doomed, I'm afraid. Even the christians fail to be christian, and they've got the love of god on their side!

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  11. okay, I give up. You've blogrolled her so what I want to know is how come her blog is so popular. not that I have a taste for sour grapes or anything, but I couldn't handle that much attention as I'm hyper-polite because my mum always told me to speak up when I'm spoken to. Frankly, I wouldn't find the time.

    What's her secret? there's no tits, or kittens, no fundemental evangelism of any sort, and it's politics-lite - is she on the telly or married to a footballer?!

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  12. A number of people have suggested that Eichman was merely a functionary, who took no deeper interest in what was actually being done. This is not supported by the facts - to take but one example the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoes, recalled Eichmann telling him not to feel pity for the children killed in the camp during an inspection tour. Eichmann could not have done what he did if he was not a committed Nazi.

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  13. Susan, almost all of the people making shirts in China are paid a decent living wage by Chinese standards. There are notable exceptions, but the fact that they are exceptions is precisely why they are notable.

    Ian, Amanda is famous for being infamous - she was fired by John Edwards because she could not resist writing epithet-ridden virulently anti-religious tracts on her personal website while in the employment of someone hoping to be the next President of the United States. As her name has been mentioned here, she will no doubt shortly make an appearance and say I got it all wrong.

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  14. She has appeared here many times, Ronin, but sadly I have failed to provoke her.

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  15. Amanda MarcotteJuly 18, 2007 6:32 pm

    I might be using the words under other different people's names to get my point across better than if under my own name where people would have pre-conceptions where they would be thinking oh this is Amanda so this is what she means regardless of whatever it is I might be saying even if different than what you might think I'd be saying based on who you might think me to be from before. Which is to say I'm not necessarily who I was when you thought I was what you thought based on what you thought I was saying. But looking at a bit of what I wrote in the piece I agree with some of it even if I didn't read much of it, only what the bits I did. But like I said how do you know I'm not the Duke of Zhou or Karl Marx or other people?

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  16. Susan, sorry, i didn't mean to say you were talking bullshit; indeed i didn't think you were saying 'all evil is banal', i was Don Quixote-like launching my raging phallus power at imaginary opponents.

    Amanda, have you tried writing Lit Theory? You really have the knack of it, you just need to insert a bit of 'ideological collateral damage' and 'Lacanian pseudo-meta narration' jazz, to appeal to the kids. They love that shit.

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  17. I. Ronin: I know two people here in America who were born in China. "Living" wage has different meanings different places. One of the two worked in a candy factory; she fell asleep at the end of a shift with some candy in her hand: She is missing part of a finger because a rat/roach/something bit it off.

    Happy to have a job, but....There are also tales of Chinese workers who, literally, died on the job -- worked to death. Better than starving, maybe.....

    Dunno about Eichmann. At this point in history, it's all kind of he said/she said, isn't it?

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  18. Evil is not good! SO THERE!

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  19. I don't need to use bigger words writing than I do when I'm talking, Elberry, to get across the meaning of the words I use more than the intellectual lit(literature) theory people's words which isn't to say I'm not "au fait" with the post-structuralist meta-phorical stuff because I am. The Lacanian stuff makes me say asshole when I see or think it in my head.

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  20. Susan, I've known hundreds, possibly a few thousand, people born in China who migrated elsewhere for one reason or another. (I speak two dialects of Chinese, butcher a third, forgot most of fourth. At one time, about half my clients were Chinese from China or Taiwan.) The standard of living there in 1976 or 1985 or 1990 was substantially different than it is now. While the threat of starvation remains a serious but unofficially acknowledged problem in the isolated rural areas of China, most of Chinese people are not living at subsistence level and have not faced such a threat since the Cultural Revolution. That may not prove true in the future, as the inevitable mechanization of agriculture threatens the livelihood of tens of millions.

    I also know three people who cut digits off in industrial accidents in the United States as well, but I don't draw general conclusions about the state of American industry from their experiences.

    Please don't mistake my comments as an unqualified endorsement of Chinese business practices, worker safety regulations, or, heaven forbid, food processing regulations, because none is intended. It does seem to me, however, that most of those practices today (with the notable exception of food processing) are well within the realm of normal for all save the highest ranking industrialized nations.

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  21. Wow, Ronin -- you are indeed a samurai who gets around.

    China's business practices are much in vogue these days among capitalists, largely because they have so little oversight and the rules governing workers change almost daily. I just wrote an essay that is (partially) about Gunther von Hagens. He's the German anatomist who has an institute -- for the processing of corpses, in which they are dissected and turned into specimens for med. schools and...other projects -- in Dalien, China.

    He loves China and is good to his workers -- does pay them a lot, for the area -- but he's really there for another reason. One can do certain kinds of business in China that would not be conscienced in the west. I wouldn't compare American and Chinese factory -- or other business -- practices, based on what I've read.

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  22. wow, Amanda, that's great! you could be George W Bush's speechwriter with a gift like that! - you sound just like him!

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  23. I'd be writing for the other side of that bit if I was writing for that stuff, Elberry, because thats not the side of thinking in words I'd be doing. Which isn't to say in principle I've anything against it if it's what it's supposed to be what it says it is, but we all know that's not the case, & these neo-conservatives should really be called neo-fascists because thats what they are.

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  24. I wholeheartedly agree with that last statement in particular, Susan! And the fact that regs. change daily, as well as having more than a little to do with who owns the business, is of concern. (The People's Liberation Army-owned and other government entity-owned corporations tend to get away with a lot, IMO.)

    On reflection, I should have been more succinct and just written that I think businesses in China operate about the same way they do in most of the world (bar highly developed economies), but the incredible growth of exports, and the massive numbers involved in those exports draw attention to their shortcomings in a way that similar practices in smaller nations never will.

    Perhaps some good will come of this unwanted attention both in China and the rest of the world. I doubt it, though.

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  25. Who could have thought in 1920, the use that IBM would be put to less than twenty years. Or who would have thought that IBM would continue to supply the German state all through the war with their copyright cards. Nor did the Germans try to break that copyright.
    Arendt was trying to explain what at the time was unexplainable, the extermination of a section of a country's population using the mechanisms normally designed to protect them. We in the English speaking world do not ask the obvious question. Given the same or similar situation, would we have acted differently to the German people. The French did not.
    Arendt, might have crafted that term in a better way. But given the banality of a civil service coupled with its use to collate and ship/transport entire peoples to their deaths. A better term has yet to arrive. To-day Whitehall does not treat the numbers attached to the ears of cattle any differently to NI numbers. To them 'its all just numbers'.

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  26. what's a decent living wage by chinese standards? these people can't afford the products they are making. can any of us not afford the products we are making? maybe not in a few cases, but I suppose you'd think nothing of it. it's natural order, right?

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  27. well I'm not convinced this is the real amanda marcotte posting here. It might be but I'm suspicious. anyway, posters shouldn't be naive to think blogger anonymity shields them from the law.

    thanks ronin. I'm still puzzled though but I'll try not waste any more time on it.

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  28. I always took 'banality of evil' simply to refer to the fact that evil can be casual, cold and nondescript, as well as overt and obvious.

    Very good, thought-provoking post however, Bryan.

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  29. Thanks, Brit. I think the discussion got a little bogged down - as did Arendt - about the distinction between evil and its attributes. Of course, evil can be done by banal people in banal circumstances. To say that is to say nothing. But to say that evil itself is banal is an abuse of language. Is good banal? And, if not, why not? The phrase created an entirely false debate. Of course, evil in itself is not banal, that is why it is so important.

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  30. Eichmann had many of the external attributes of the vacuum oil salesman turned thrusting young police bureaucrat, BUT, beginning with his initial SD desk dealing with Freemasons, and moving on to his emigrate/expropriate work in pre-war Vienna, it was the extraordinary malign fertility that strikes one most. The otherwise vacant ten hour day demanded it. A lot of what Arendt says in that book (which stemmed from magazine briefs) is of a provocative, attention-grabbing, nature, which has little to do with Eichmann. Ditto Gita Sereny's interviews with Franz Stangl. Its the hubristic belief that one can penetrate the minds of people whose lies have been well-rehearsed for interrogators, prosecutors, judges etc.

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  31. Yes, I think I see your point, Bryan. Unless 'evil' refers to something which is not banal - ie. something that is so much worse than simply 'badly behaved' that it is in another category - then the word is meaningless.

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  32. River of DeceitJuly 19, 2007 12:12 pm

    I believe that we're hard wired by human nature to be violent animals as opposed to the postmodernist blank slate theorum. However evil as an actual state or energy paramountly confuses me.

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