Oh, The Banality!


Ron Rosenbaum at Slate:

Will we ever be able to think of Hannah Arendt in the same way again? Two new and damning critiques, one of Arendt and one of her longtime Nazi-sycophant lover, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, were published within 10 days of each other last month. The pieces cast further doubt on the overinflated, underexamined reputations of both figures and shed new light on their intellectually toxic relationship.

My hope is that these revelations will encourage a further discrediting of the most overused, misused, abused pseudo-intellectual phrase in our language: the banality of evil. The banality of the banality of evil, the fatuousness of it, has long been fathomless, but perhaps now it will be consigned to the realm of the deceitful and disingenuous as well.


In a long, carefully documented essay, Wasserstein (who’s now at the University of Chicago), cites Arendt’s scandalous use of quotes from anti-Semitic and Nazi “authorities” on Jews in her Totalitarianism book.

Wasserstein concludes that her use of these sources was “more than a methodological error: it was symptomatic of a perverse world-view contaminated by over-exposure to the discourse of collective contempt and stigmatization that formed the object of her study”—that object being anti-Semitism. In other words, he contends, Arendt internalized the values of the anti-Semitic literature she read in her study of anti-Semitism, at least to a certain extent. Wasserstein’s conjecture will reignite the debate over Arendt’s contemptuous remarks on certain Jews who were victims of Hitler in her Eichmann book and in her letters.

Could these revelations help banish the robotic reiteration of the phrase the banality of evil as an explanation for everything bad that human beings do? Arendt may not have intended that the phrase be used this way, but one of its pernicious effects has been to make it seem as though the search for an explanation of the mystery of evil done by “ordinary men” is over. As though by naming it somehow explains it and even solves the problem. It’s a phrase that sounds meaningful and lets us off the hook, allows us to avoid facing the difficult question.

It was the banality phrase—and the purported profundity of it in the popular mind—that elevated Arendt above the ranks of her fellow exile intellectuals in America and made her a proto-Sontag figure, a cerebral star of sorts and a revered icon in cultural-studies departments throughout America. It was the phrase that launched a thousand theses.

To my mind, the use of the phrase banality of evil is an almost infallible sign of shallow thinkers attempting to seem intellectually sophisticated. Come on, people: It’s a bankrupt phrase, a subprime phrase, a Dr. Phil-level phrase masquerading as a profound contrarianism. Oooh, so daring! Evil comes not only in the form of mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash types, but in the form of paper pushers who followed evil orders. And when applied—as she originally did to Adolf Eichmann, Hitler’s eager executioner, responsible for the logistics of the Final Solution—the phrase was utterly fraudulent.

Adolf Eichmann was, of course, in no way a banal bureaucrat: He just portrayed himself as one while on trial for his life. Eichmann was a vicious and loathsome Jew-hater and -hunter who, among other things, personally intervened after the war was effectively lost, to insist on and ensure the mass murder of the last intact Jewish group in Europe, those of Hungary. So the phrase was wrong in its origin, as applied to Eichmann, and wrong in almost all subsequent cases when applied generally. Wrong and self-contradictory, linguistically, philosophically, and metaphorically. Either one knows what one is doing is evil or one does not. If one knows and does it anyway, one is evil, not some special subcategory of evil. If one doesn’t know, one is ignorant, and not evil. But genuine ignorance is rare when evil is going on.

Sonny Bunch at Doublethink

Steven Menashi at The American Scene:

Really? All evil comes from people who know what they’re doing is evil? In this account, a person who genuinely believes he is an instrument of divine justice or a savior of the fatherland or a dutiful soldier following legitimate orders cannot be evil. Rosenbaum suggests beliefs of this sort are rarely genuine, but is that entirely clear? A legal system should hold people accountable for crimes despite such beliefs, of course, but it does seem “important to the political and social sciences,” as Hannah Arendt put it, “that the essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.” And that people thus might perpetrate evil unknowingly or out of thoughtlessness or idiocy


At the same time, acknowledging that evil may be committed thoughtlessly as well as in full knowledge that “what one is doing is evil” seems better to equip us to guard against further atrocities. Not all evil is banal (In a postscript to her Eichmann book, Arendt emphasized that it was not “a theoretical treatise on the nature of evil,” but a report concerning a particular individual in a particular case), but “the banality of evil” at least captures the reality that people sometimes, if not usually, commit evils without the full knowledge that their actions are evil or the full intention to perpetrate evil acts — that often evil represents a failure of thought rather than its product.

Arendt, of course, did write a theoretical treatise. In his 1999 piece, Rosenbaum wrote of Arendt that “few would dispute her eminence as a philosopher, the importance of her attempt to define, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, just what makes totalitarianism so insidious and destructive.” Last week, however, he suggested we stop taking her thought seriously. What changed Rosenbaum’s mind were “troubling new revelations” that Arendt relied upon “anti-Semitic sources” when she wrote the Totalitarianism book. I’m not sure how the particular works Arendt consulted when composing an argument that Rosenbaum and others once found persuasive should now convince them that the argument was not persuasive after all.

James Poulos at PomoCon:

I woke up to discover that more or less everything I wanted to say last night about Ron Rosenbaum’s misbegotten hit job on Hannah Arendt and her conception of the banality of evil has been said this morning at length by Steven Menashi at the American Scene. (Extra fun: in touching on Carlin Romano’s recent hit job on Heidegger, Menashi makes the point which I noted had gone entirely unmade in the long, hysterical combox criticism aimed at Romano: even Strauss, Heidegger’s great foe, insisted we couldn’t wave him away. This is relevant even for those who think Strauss and Heidegger were merely the Spy vs. Spy of Nietzscheans.)

Lex at Blog On The Run:

Maybe Rosenbaum is right, but I never understood the phrase that way. I understood it as more of a warning that opportunities to commit evil could appear among the banal choices and duties of everyday life and that we must always be wary. I never thought that she thought she had the answer as to how or why this happened. (For that, we must turn to Stanley Milgram and others.)

And the warning is valuable in and of itself. In the past few years, we have seen literally life-and-death decisions about our captives reduced to games of legal and constitutional three-card monte.

For the sake of discussion let’s grant Rosenbaum his argument that Arendt was too close to Heidegger, that she allowed herself to be unduly influenced by both Heidegger and some of her own anti-Semitic sources, that almost to the end of her life she believed in some of the same Germanic notions that gave rise to Hitlerism. The idea that not all monsters have horns and tails is still worth keeping constantly in mind.

UPDATE: Freddie at The League


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