In January of 2020 there were rumblings of change in the world. We were starting to hear about this “coronavirus” thing, and it was a bit unsettling. By February and March our worlds were turned upside down. Now, here it is two years later and the best thing we can do is pretend things are getting back to normal while scientists desperately try to keep up with a virus that eludes us at every step. We are taking every opportunity we can to claim, “soon it will be endemic!” But nobody really knows how far or near that stage is from us. And new variants are on the horizon and the arguments about masks and vaccines are reaching a boiling over point that is disrupting the economy – we aren’t sure how long we can go on like this.
What is more apparent on the personal level is the psychological toll all of this has taken on us. Here in America it seems as if we are just barely hanging on by a thread. We were already in bad shape because our fractured political state had left us battered and overwhelmed. The Trump years and their aftermath took a toll on the nation that is hard to describe. The country seems to be divided into two camps – those who are exhausted and just want to shut it all out, and those who are looking for a fight – constantly. On the one hand, we’re running out of steam, but on the other hand there are forces in this country that seem determined to re-shape it in their image from the ground up, and if you take issue with that you can’t sit idly by, no matter how tired you are.
These fights are showing up everywhere. In trucker convoys in Canada and school boards across the country. We are fighting over books and cameras in classrooms and masks in public and vaccine requirements. There seems to be no end to the conflict.
And COVID has made all of this doubly hard. We are at the end of our collective ropes. Between dealing with a lack of childcare, work creep, the strain of taking care of family, the stress of worrying about ourselves and those we love, teaching kids at home, trying to keep up with the latest science and guidelines, the extra work we put into keeping our families safe, and the general trauma of losing almost 1 million of our fellow citizens, we don’t really have the bandwidth for much more than scrolling through social media and zoning out while Netflix is on. We spent 2020 dealing with so many big issues. We read Stamped and How to be an Anti-Racist and devoted our mental energies to big causes and there’s not a lot left in the tank anymore. Which, of course, is just a marker of privilege because if you have the ability to ignore the big issues that means they aren’t affecting you.
We’re disconnected, disaffected, and looking for the nearest and best distraction. This is a time when the banal seems to be the most overwhelming. Right now some of our biggest fights are over the smallest things. Should there be masks in schools? Should this particular graphic novel be taught in 8th grade English? In the grand scheme of things, are these really the questions on which history will turn?
By some estimations these are small things, and we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. Let the little things go. But by other estimations the small things are where all the difference in the world is made. The devil is in the proverbial details.
For some wisdom I thought I would turn to one of the great political minds of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt. Arendt had a great deal to say on citizenship, the banal, and even evil, which seems pretty pertinent to the challenges facing us today in 2022.
Hannah Arendt, like so many major thinkers of the 20th century, was profoundly shaped by World War II, and the years surrounding it. Like Burke, a good deal of her intellectual career was devoted to asking, “what happened?” and “How do we make sure it doesn’t happen again?’ Which, if we are being honest, are good questions for us to wrestle with today, as well.
In 1933, the year Hitler came to power, Arendt was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo for performing illegal research into antisemitism in Germany. When she was released, she fled, and lived in Czechoslovakia and Switzerland before settling in Paris. When Germany invaded France in 1940, she was detained by the French as an alien, despite having been stripped of her German citizenship in 1937. She escaped and made her way to America in 1941 and settled in New York. With the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, her reputation as a thinker and writer was established. She continued to write, and published a number of works, including The Human Condition in 1958, as well as Eichmann in Jerusalem and On Revolution in 1963. She taught at many American universities, though she declined tenure-track appointments. She died suddenly of a heart attack in 1975, at the age of 69.
Her works cover a broad range of topics, but she is best known for those dealing with the nature of power and evil, as well as politics, direct democracy, and totalitarianism. Outside of academia, she is most well-known for the controversy surrounding the trial of Adolf Eichmann, her attempt to explain how ordinary people become actors in totalitarian systems, which was considered by some a defense of Eichmann, and for the phrase “the banality of evil”.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
Arendt’s political thought cannot, in this sense, be identified either with the liberal tradition or with the claims advanced by a number of its critics. Arendt did not conceive of politics as a means for the satisfaction of individual preferences, nor as a way to integrate individuals around a shared conception of the good. Her conception of politics is based instead on the idea of active citizenship, that is, on the value and importance of civic engagement and collective deliberation about all matters affecting the political community. If there is a tradition of thought with which Arendt can be identified, it is the classical tradition of civic republicanism originating in Aristotle and embodied in the writings of Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Jefferson, and Tocqueville. According to this tradition politics finds its authentic expression whenever citizens gather together in a public space to deliberate and decide about matters of collective concern. Political activity is valued not because it may lead to agreement or to a shared conception of the good, but because it enables each citizen to exercise his or her powers of agency, to develop the capacities for judgment and to attain by concerted action some measure of political efficacy.
While she is best known for her work on “dark times”, the nature of totalitarianism and evil, she imbued this with a spark of hope and confidence in the nature of mankind:
That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination might well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them.
In 1960, on hearing of Adolf Eichmann’s capture and plans for his trial, Arendt contacted The New Yorker and offered to travel to Israel to cover it. She was eager to test her theories, developed in The Origins of Totalitarianism, and see how justice would be administered to the sort of man she had written about. Also she had witnessed “little of the Nazi regime directly” and this was an opportunity to witness an agent of totalitarianism firsthand. In her later1963 report, Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the phenomenon of Eichmann. She was struck by his very ordinariness and the demeanor he exhibited of a small, bland bureaucrat, in contrast to the horrific crimes he was accused of. He was, she wrote, “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” She questioned whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions. Arendt’s argument was that Eichmann was not a monster, contrasting the immensity of his actions with the very ordinariness of the man himself. She pointed out that his actions were not driven by malice, but rather blind dedication to the regime and his need to belong, to be a “joiner.”
Arendt’s five-part series “Eichmann in Jerusalem” appeared in The New Yorker in February 1963 some nine months after Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962. By this time his trial was largely forgotten by the public. However, few other accounts of either Eichmann or Nazism have been so controversial. Prior to its publication, Arendt was considered a brilliant humanistic original political thinker. But her mentor, Karl Jaspers, warned her about a possible adverse outcome, “The Eichmann trial will be no pleasure for you. I’m afraid it cannot go well”. On publication, three controversies immediately occupied public attention: the concept of Eichmann as banal, her criticism of the role of Israel and her description of the role played by the Jewish people themselves.
Arendt was profoundly shocked by the response, writing to Karl Jaspers “People are resorting to any means to destroy my reputation … They have spent weeks trying to find something in my past that they can hang on me”. Now she was being called arrogant, heartless and ill-informed. She was accused of being duped by Eichmann, of being a “self-hating Jewess”, and even an enemy of Israel. Her critics included The Anti-Defamation League and many other Jewish groups, editors of publications she was a contributor to, faculty at the universities she taught at and friends from all parts of her life. Arendt was criticized by many Jewish public figures, who charged her with coldness and lack of sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust.
Although Arendt complained that she was being criticized for telling the truth – “what a risky business to tell the truth on a factual level without theoretical and scholarly embroidery” the criticism was largely directed to her theorizing on the nature of mankind and evil and that ordinary people were driven to commit the inexplicable not so much by hatred and ideology as ambition, and inability to empathize. Equally problematic was the suggestion that the victims deceived themselves and complied in their own destruction. Prior to Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann, he had been described as “the most evil monster of humanity.” As it turned out Arendt and others were correct in pointing out that Eichmann’s characterization by the prosecution as the architect and chief technician of the Holocaust was not entirely credible.
(See Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a full discussion of Arendt)
Now, all of that may seem a bit dramatic. What could that possibly have to do with the world we are living in today?
I think it comes down to how we see each other.
Burke described the way we see the world in terms of frames. He described tragic and comic frames. According to Catherine Helen Pasczewski, Richard Ice, and John Fritch these frames describe how your see your opposition. A comic frame means you see people as mistaken as opposed to evil. If somebody does something wrong the appropriate response is to correct them. A tragic frame is when you see somebody as evil as opposed to mistaken. If somebody does something wrong the appropriate response is to destroy them as opposed to correct them.
I think we are living in a tragic frame right now. People who are opposed to us don’t misunderstand the situation – they aren’t making an honest error – they are bad people.
And I’ll be the first to admit I fall into that category. There are people I disagree with that I think are morally reprehensible. And I’ll even stand by that. After Gregg Abbott’s proclamation about trans kids in the last week I feel comfortable saying he’s a monster. I have no qualms with that.
But is EVERY disagreement a clash between good and evil? Are we always locked in combat between the forces of the holy and the unholy? That seems unlikely. And kind of dramatic.
But at the same time, something got us to where we see the world in terms of this tragic frame. And it has happened on the left and the right, the religious and the secular, the urban and the rural.
And I think that is where Arendt comes in.
Arendt warned us that evil wasn’t this big, pernicious, looming monster – evil came in the form ambitious clerks and a lack of empathy. Evil is the everyday small things that seem innocuous but add up to a movement.
And that is what we are afraid of right now.
Does it really affect anyone what 8th graders are in Tennessee are reading in English class? No, not really. But it is these small things, these little, banal acts that chip away at history.
Does it really matter if 303 Creative makes websites for gay couples? Surely they can find a person who actually WANTS to support them and make a website for them, right? But this lack of empathy matters. It paves the way for the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation and Greg Abbott’s atrocious anti-trans actions.
Evil happens in small, unassuming things that craft a tapestry of horrors. So it’s hard not to think of the world in a tragic frame. Because we know that evil is banal. It happens on the small scale. The devil really is in the details.
The psychological toll this is taking on us can’t be overstated. We’re tired and horrified and we don’t know what to do or how to handle it all. But I think we need to remind ourselves that there is good in small things, too. There are many small acts of malice and signs that empathy is fleeting, but there are also many acts of charity and signs that empathy is restorative. For every censor screaming at the school board there is a teacher trying their best to reach children on a personal level and teach them about the fullness of history and literature. There may be challenges to books but there are librarians out there bringing the entirety of the world of words to kids. There is hate legislation out there, but there are caring parents doing everything they can to be and do the best for their kids.
It’s easy to get caught up in the tragic frame and see not just people who do these things as evil, but to forget to see anything other than evil in the world. And knowing how banal evil is makes that even easier. But that is the enemy of good. We have to believe that good can take root, too. We have to believe that our small efforts matter. There has to be a balance to all of this. Otherwise it is overwhelming.
So do something good. Show empathy. Be kind. Fight evil on the small scale so it doesn’t have a chance to become bigger. And always be aware of the banal.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.