Sacrificing the Individual for the Movement06-04-2012
From a humdrum life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History, as he understood it, namely, into a Movement that always kept moving and in which somebody like him—already a failure in the eyes of his social class, of his family, and hence in his own eyes as well—could start from scratch and still make a career.
-Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 33
Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolph Eichmann and his striving to redeem himself from his life continues to teach us an important lesson about our relationship to movements. This lesson is not that we are all potentially “evil” due to the banality of most of our motivations. It is rather that our standing with respect to any movement, for good or for evil, places us in a position potentially to be sacrificed to or effaced under the movement itself.
An illustration of this possibility that has for some time resonated with me is in a 2005 audio commentary by Mumia Abu-Jamal on the death of Rosa Parks. Here, he reminds listeners of Claudette Colvin, the teenager who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus nine months before Parks. He says,
People build movements, one by one, in tens, hundreds, thousands and eventually millions, and what if Claudette Colvin, this poor woman, lost not only her seat and her dignity but was later tossed in a mental institution. Few remember this woman’s name, but her contribution that would set the stage for Parks was immense...
We react very differently to this conception of “movement” than we do to the force that Arendt refers to in Eichmann in Jerusalem. We do not condemn individuals who become swept up in it, but rather praise and admire them.
What then differentiates the movement of the Third Reich from that of the American civil rights movement, other than the obvious? The former, according to Arendt, seemed to exist independently of individuals; it was a “History” with a narrative and direction all its own, not built by individuals, but rather itself building individuals. Adolph Eichmann tried to find in the History that the Nazi regime tried to bring about, a chance to acquire significance and visibility as an individual and to become, in a sense, a part of this history. Arendt makes clear the futility of such an attempt when she paints a picture of Eichmann not as a grand man, evil or otherwise, but as a banal figure who could not even interact intelligently with his interlocutors at the court.
When Mumia Abu-Jamal speaks of the civil rights movement of which both Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin were a part, he describes a force in which it is still possible to identify within it the individuals whose actions have contributed to it. This movement appears not as a force of History, but of individuals, each of who advances the movement in her own way.
But even in Abu-Jamal’s conception of movement and despite the justice of this cause, the individual becomes, in some sense, lost to the movement in a way that is reminiscent of Eichmann’s disappearance into History. Arendt’s description of Eichmann’s relationship to the movement of his time can make us especially sensitive to the self-sacrifice of Colvin in a way that Abu-Jamal’s recognition of her does not. Arendt helps us to see that any movement, whether for good or for evil, requires that one be open to the possibility of being sacrificed, of having one’s individual action become transformed into a “step” toward a larger goal. Every movement demands individual sacrifice, for as long as the goal of everyone’s actions is the common, shared one around which the “movement” itself is organized, none is wholly significant in his own right.
This does not mean that the sacrifice may not be worth it, as the sacrifices to the cause of civil rights in this country surely were. But it does mean that our relationship to and experience of being a part of a movement cannot, or at least should not, be unconditionally positive. We should instead be wary of the possibility that our participation may not always be personally empowering and not delude ourselves into upholding the movements we believe in as unqualified forces for good.
And this means that we should attend to movements, both as their participants and their spectators, with the heavy heart that is appropriate to the sadness that should accompany our acknowledgement that individuals will be sacrificed. Abu-Jamal almost does this when he characterizes Colvin’s contribution as derivative of having set the stage for Parks and her action. But he ultimately tries to eject from our minds the tragedy of her loss by impressing us with the justice of the movement itself. “What if,” he asks, “this poor woman…lost not only her seat and her dignity but was later tossed in a mental institution”? She had set the stage for Rosa Parks and for a critical success in the movement for the rights of African-Americans.
He is right. But to be significant in this way is still sad, because to experience oneself as being merely a stagehand for another’s performance is a sad and lonely existence. Colvin reports having mixed feelings about her role in the civil rights movement and its leaders’ pushing her to the sidelines. She does not seem enamored with the possibility of being swept up in a movement (as Eichmann was) and she acknowledges the appropriateness of the decision to pass her up for Rosa Parks with the resignation of someone who had no other alternative.
When we talk about the most prominent movement of our time—Occupy Wall Street—we often fail to acknowledge the necessary possibility of individual sacrifice. Yet at the same time we demand in some way such sacrifice from everyone who participates in the movements we believe in. We reject leaders who seem too egotistical and who seem to profit individually from their positions. The problem is not that we shouldn’t ask for these sacrifices, but rather that we fail to acknowledge their necessity and in so doing, become open to possibly sacrificing individuals with impunity or with even joy. That one would sacrifice oneself for a movement, either willingly or not, might be laudable, depending on the movement, and it is definitely necessary. But this should be a deeply sad occurrence that does not make our commitment to a movement less passionate or energetic, but certainly should make it more complicated and more attuned to the sadness and tragedy that accompany it.
It is not enough to try to lionize the sacrificed individual, for this only covers over the tragedy of the individual’s loss, attempting to recover the idea of the thorough, unconditional righteousness of certain movements. If, as some have claimed, there is any softness on Arendt’s part in her description of Eichmann, it is not because she sympathizes with this figure in any way or sees his actions as anything less than deserving of his execution. It is because she recognizes the tragic character of all movements. With her description of Eichmann’s longing to achieve personal success through the Nazi regime, she was, I submit, trying to alert us to the necessary effacement of the individual that is universally present in all movements. With respect to this goal, her tone is appropriately somber. And as such, even though our political condition is nothing like that of Nazi Germany and our movement nothing like that regime’s, there is still plenty to learn from Eichmann in Jerusalem when we think about the movements that we might identify today.