Friendship Versus Banality06-04-2017
Friendship Versus Banality
George Prochnik explores the deep friendship between Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem. "WHEN GERSHOM SCHOLEM, the humanist scholar of Jewish mysticism, first met the philosopher Hannah Arendt in the 1930s he was bowled over by her intelligence and delighted by her character. To Walter Benjamin, he wrote excitedly that Arendt was rumored to have been Martin Heidegger’s most brilliant student. To another friend, he described Arendt as “a wonderful woman and an extraordinary Zionist.” He was moved by her work as director of the Paris office of Youth Aliyah, which helped refugee Jewish children from all over Europe get to Palestine. The fact that Benjamin — Scholem’s intellectual idol, the man he would later say taught him what “thinking really means” through his own “living example” — came to value Arendt’s writing and conversation imbued her with a special aura of intellectual gravitas." After Arendt published her essays on Adolf Eichmann, Scholem could not forgive her. And yet the depth of their friendship allowed them to have an extraordinary exchange of letters exploring Scholem's disdain for Arendt's belief in the banality of evil. Prochnik sees deeply into the depths of their disagreement:
"Nestled inside Arendt and Scholem’s discussion of the nature of evil is a controversy over language. Scholem implies that the cool note of urbane wit Arendt employs not only fails to capture the essence of the event she is witnessing, but actually contributes to the project of dehumanization that Eichmann helped actualize. She loses sight of her subject in the sparkling exercise of her own cleverness. Ironically, in accusing Arendt of practicing facile mockery at the expense of real engagement with the events in Jerusalem, Scholem is charging Arendt with the flipside version of the crime she pins on Eichmann himself: thoughtlessness. Only in Arendt’s case it is an excess of linguistic dexterity that fouls up her thinking rather than the deficit she perceives in Eichmann. Arendt’s diagnosis of Eichmann’s banality was not intended to minimize the harm he inflicted, as she attempted repeatedly to make clear in response to attacks against her work, but to underscore his mediocrity. In Arendt’s view, Eichmann’s astonishing superficiality, on display throughout his trial, could be understood as even more ominous than the character of some classic satanic figure since it represented an easily communicable strain of wickedness. Eichmann’s banality underscored the susceptibility of unremarkable men and women to becoming collaborators in spectacular crimes under pressure of the right kind of leadership and within the self-contained moral universe of bureaucratic systems that enabled perpetrators to shuck off their sense of personal responsibility. As Arendt wrote Scholem, having watched Eichmann in action she had ceased to believe in the idea of “radical evil” that had been part of her philosophical lexicon in her earlier work on totalitarianism. Evil, she now proposed, had no depth, “and therefore has nothing demonic about it. Evil can lay waste the entire world, like a fungus growing rampant on the surface.” Face to face with the phenomenon of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt became convinced that his actions betrayed not a monstrous personality, but a total inability to think for himself. And her principal evidence for Eichmann’s cognitive ineptitude was his spluttering language. Over and over, Arendt marvels at the stupendous infelicity of Eichmann’s word choices and his reliance on stock phrases. “Dimly aware of a defect that must have plagued him even in school — it amounted to a mild case of aphasia — he apologized, saying, ‘Officialese [Amtssprache] is my only language,’” Arendt recounts at one point. However, she continues, “officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché.” The ghastly incoherence of Eichmann’s hackneyed speech reflected the unoriginality of his mind, a thought process fatally clogged with grandiose, vacuous slogans."Scholem overlooks that Arendt did not write the slogan "the banality of evil." She wrote a book about what she called the "fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil." For Arendt, evil is rooted in an attack on the depth of language that disarms thinking. Scholem took Arendt's analysis of Eichmann as intellectual gymnastics. Prochnik disagrees with Scholem. He also understands the weaknesses of critiques of Arendt's book by Bettina Stangneth and others that Eichmann was a frothing anti-Semite. Prochnik rightly sees that Stangneth's book does not succeed in making that case. But Prochnik argues that Arendt has made a different mistake:
"What Arendt missed above all was the possibility that mediocrity could be performed, and that the man under trial for his life might be a versatile shape-shifter, constantly adjusting his clown act to make his character appear — not innocent of the acts he was accused of — but potentially exculpable by virtue of inanity."We may never know if Eichmann's mediocre simplicity was real or feigned. But we do know that simplicity has the power to do great evil. We also have an extraordinary example of the depth of thinking in the letters between Arendt and Scholem, edited by Marie Luise Knott. A translation of these letters is scheduled to appear in October.Form more information visit: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/gershom-scholem-hannah-arendt-can-teach-us-evil-today/
[caption id="attachment_18939" align="alignright" width="300"] By Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0[/caption] Masha Gessen has a simple insight. President Trump's attraction to many is his simplicity, his refusal of intellectual or nuanced opinions, whether feigned or real. For Gessen, simplicity "is one way an autocracy can come into being. In other words, it is Mr. Trump’s insistence on simplicity that makes him want to rule like an autocrat. Militant incompetence and autocracy are not in opposition: They are two sides of a coin." Gessen, who will be a speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Crises of Democracy," understands that autocratic leaders are popular because they excel at telling stories that are desirable as they are simple.
"We imagine the villains of history as cunning strategists, brilliant masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined. Historians and their readers bring an unavoidable perception bias to the story: If a historical event caused shocking destruction, then the person behind this event must have been a correspondingly giant monster. Terrifying as it is to contemplate the catastrophes of the 20th century, it would be even more frightening to imagine that humanity had stumbled unthinkingly into its darkest moments. But a careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world. Modern strongmen are more obviously human. We have witnessed the greed and vanity of Silvio Berlusconi, who ran Italy’s economy into the ground. We recognize the desperate desire of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to be admired or at least feared — usually literally at his country’s expense. Still, physical distance makes villains seem bigger than they are in real life. Many Americans imagine that Mr. Putin is a brilliant strategist, a skilled secret agent turned popular leader. As someone who has spent years studying Mr. Putin — and as one of a handful of journalists who have had an unscripted conversation with him — I can vouch for the fact that he is a poorly educated, under-informed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world. To the extent that he has any interest in the business of governing, it is his role — on the world stage or on Russian television — that concerns him. Whether he is attending a summit, piloting a plane or hang-gliding with Siberian cranes, it is the spectacle of power that interests him.Form more information visit: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/02/opinion/sunday/trumps-incompetence-wont-save-our-democracy.html
[caption id="attachment_18940" align="alignleft" width="300"] By Cascadiaresearch - I took this photo of Micah, CC BY-SA 4.0[/caption] Eric Westervelt interviews Micah White, one of the original founders of Occupy Wall Street who has come to argue that protest is not the way to make political change. Rather than protest, White argues that the best path revolutionary change is through running for Mayor in rural America.
"I ran for mayor (in November). It was probably one of the most fascinating experiences in my life and it was a huge growing experience for me. Nehalem's a microcosm. The reason why I lost the election I think is so much tied in to what's going on nationally and globally right now. First of all, just to give people a sense of what happened, I got 20 percent of the vote which I think is actually pretty amazing as someone who's a black American in rural white Oregon speaking about revolution. I wrote a book with revolution in the title, I'm a former Occupy guy. Still, one out of five people voted for me. The basic platform wasn't vote for Micah White. It was instead this idea of, "Let's create something called a Nehalem's People's Associations and before each city council meeting let's go to those people's associations, let's get together with our neighbors and let's talk about what city council should do the following day. Let's move power away from city council to these Nehalem People's Associations." I told people, "If I'm elected mayor, then I will basically abide by the decisions of the people who come to these meetings." I had five of them before each city council meeting over the course of five months. There were so many people who showed up. We passionately debated things. People were on both sides — against and for. It was like the first time, I think, that people from across the political spectrum who live in this tiny town sat in the same room together and debated things like, "Change is happening in our community. How do we navigate it? What do we want it to look like in the future?" and all this kind of stuff. It was really beautiful. What did the opposition do? It's the same thing that happened on the national level. All of a sudden I was hit with fake news. All of a sudden there's these rumors going around. People started asking me, "Are you a satanist?" I was like, "Whoa. First of all, what is even a satanist?" People literally believed I'm doing Satan worshiping exercises somewhere. I had no idea how to respond to that. It was like Pizzagate, if people remember that. All of sudden people were convinced that there was a child pedophilia ring in the basement of a pizza place in D.C. It's like that. They were just convinced I was a satanist!"Form more information visit: http://www.npr.org/2017/03/28/520911740/occupy-activist-micah-white-time-to-move-beyond-memes-and-street-spectacles