The Banality of "The Banality of 'The Banality of Evil'"

Even more annoying than the people who yammer on about “the banality of evil” are those who obsessively denounce the idea. “Oh, the banality of ‘the banality of evil,'" someone will say, exasperated that he alone holds people accountable while everyone else denies our capacity for moral choice and excuses mass atrocity. However banal the original insight might be, the comeback — that people make choices for which they are morally responsible — far outdoes it. Yet Ron Rosenbaum has been building this case for at least ten years. In 1999, he wrote that the banality cliché is “a sophisticated form of denial … Not denying the crime but denying the full criminality of the perpetrators.” Last week he repeated the charge. But one would think that a decade of cogitation would yield a more compelling argument than this:

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.

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. Recognizing this doesn’t undermine their culpability:

All the cogs in the machinery, no matter how insignificant, are in court forthwith transformed back into perpetrators, that is to say, into human beings. If the defendant excuses himself on the ground that he acted not as a man but as a mere functionary whose functions could just as easily have been carried out by anyone else, it is as if a criminal pointed to the statistics on crime — which set forth that so-and-so many crimes per day are committed in such-and-such a place — and declared that he only did what was statistically expected, that it was mere accident that he did it and not somebody else, since after all somebody had to do it.

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.

But I am even more puzzled that Rosenbaum found the material “shocking,” as he puts it. Rosenbaum writes, for example, that Arendt commended the work of “the leading Nazi historian Walter Frank.” But she was quite upfront and careful about this. Her first citation to Frank occurs on page 21, where she writes, “Frank, in spite of his official position under the Nazis, remained somewhat careful about his sources and methods.” She notes that the Frank article there under discussion quoted from other published sources.

Rosenbaum was also shocked by Arendt’s reliance upon J.A. Hobson, the socialist economist who was famous for his critique of imperialism. Hobson was no Nazi apologist; in 1938 he urged America to join World War II. Considering his vast influence, reliance upon his works is an odd indictment. But Rosenbaum is troubled by a passage in which Hobson referred to Jewish financiers “leaving their economic fangs in the carcasses of their prey.” This is “part of a passage that Arendt quotes with explicit and unironic approval, commending it as ‘very reliable in observation and very honest in analysis,’” Rosenbaum writes. That is not quite true, and again Arendt cites the material openly. On page 135, Arendt writes in a footnote:

It is interesting that all early observers of imperialist developments stress this Jewish element very strongly while it hardly plays any role in more recent literature. Especially noteworthy, because very reliable in observation and very honest in analysis, is J.A. Hobson’s development in this respect. In the first essay which he wrote on the subject, “Capitalism and Imperialism in South Africa” (in Contemporary Review, 1900), he said: “Most of (the financiers) were Jews, for the Jews are par excellence the international financiers, and, though English-speaking, most of them are of continental origin. … They went there (Transvaal) for money, and those who came early and made most have commonly withdrawn their persons, leaving their economic fangs in the carcass of their prey. They fastened on the Rand … as they are prepared to fasten upon any other spot upon the globe. … Primarily, they are financial speculators taking their gains not out of genuine fruits of industry, even the industry of others, but out of construction, promotion and financial manipulation of companies.” In Hobson’s later study Imperialism, however, the Jews are not even mentioned; it had become obvious in the meantime that their influence and role had been temporary and somewhat superficial.

So what Arendt regards as “very reliable” is Hobson’s “development” in abandoning the view that Jewish financiers were central when it turned out otherwise. One might say Hobson’s contempt for “international financiers” too easily falls into anti-Semitic tropes, but this citation by Arendt seems less than shocking — and certainly not a new revelation.

Rosenbaum blames Arendt’s supposed hostility to the Jews on “the desire for universalist approval,” asserting that she “felt ashamed” of her Jewishness “on intellectual grounds, so primitive, this tribal allegiance in the presence of intellects who supposedly transcended tribalism.” This strikes me as an unjustified slur. Arendt’s work was about the failure of universalism. She saw the experience of the Holocaust as evidence that human rights depended upon a national community (“Not only did loss of national rights in all instances entail the loss of human rights,” she wrote; “the restoration of human rights, as the recent example of the State of Israel proves, has been achieved so far only through the restoration or the establishment of national rights.”). She saw assimilation as a false hope (“If the Jews are to be able to stay in Europe, then they cannot stay as Germans or Frenchmen, etc., as if nothing had happened. It seems to me that none of us can return … merely because people again seem prepared to recognize Jews as Germans or something else. We can return only if we are welcome as Jews.”). She once said she didn’t “believe that I have ever considered myself a German — in the sense of belonging to the people as opposed to being a citizen”; as a writer, she retained her maiden name “because I wanted my name to identify me as a Jew.” And, as she put it, “I have refused to abandon the Jewish question as the focal point of my historical and political thinking.”

Even as she became disenchanted with Zionism, Arendt remained loyal to the early Zionist focus on Jewish self-criticism (about which I’ve written here). I suppose that might occasionally appear, to some, to constitute self-hatred, though arguments to that effect ought to be more than ad hominem or guilt by association.

Rosenbaum suspects that Arendt’s youthful love affair with Martin Heidegger explains her thinking. He dismisses any appeal Heidegger’s thought might have of its own merit with a reductio ad Hitlerum: Heidegger’s thought led him to Nazism, and you can’t separate the man from the work. But that’s not really a compelling argument for dismissing Heideggerianism’s appeal. Heidegger remains tremendously influential, and if his thought leads to Nazism or something like it, it would seem all the more important to pay attention. Though “there is a not altogether unrespectable justification for doing so,” Leo Strauss wrote of Heidegger, “the most stupid thing I could do would be to close my eyes or to reject his work.”

Heidegger pointed out that all thinking is done by a thinking human being, rooted in a particular time. We can’t get outside ourselves to engage in metaphysical speculations, so an authentic person confronts his own mortality and takes responsibility for the possibilities of human existence in his own time. Otherwise, he loses himself in “idle talk.” It’s no real surprise, as I’ve suggested before, that this view could lead Heidegger to throw himself mindlessly — without reference to a greater code of good or evil — into whatever around him seemed to promise vitality. But nor does his political activity mean the initial insight can be dismissed out of hand.

This is, again, the same logical error. That an author consulted disreputable sources does not mean her argument is ipso facto invalid. That an idea led to disastrous political results does not mean it has been discredited. Because these arguments are so closely tied to the possibility of evil, it makes sense to engage them in a serious way. Rosenbaum, in contrast, thinks evil is evil. We can identify it in people and its root in ideas, and hold the former accountable and the latter in contempt. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s pretty banal.