Saturday, May 10, 2014

Hannah Arendt 
I'm still reverberating from the wonderful movie staring Barbara Sukowa.

In Arendt's provocative 1963 report in The New Yorker on the Jerusalem trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, she argued he was not the personification of evil, but a pathetic bureaucrat. 
Arendt coined the term the 'Banality of Evil', exemplified by Eichmann’s defense that he was simply following orders. She concluded this was not intrinsic evil, it was a failure to think and a repudiation of humanity.  Consequently, she was pilloried by many in the powerful New York Jewish community for being a 'self-hating Jew' and having no emotions over the suffering of millions of Jews in the holocaust. One contemporary neo-con accused her of showing a ‘perversity of brilliance’.

In the movie, Sukowa's Arendt convinces me; evil is banal. I think of domestic violence, the common ordinariness of perpetrators and the unthinking selfishness of their motivation. I think of Rolf Harris and his pathetic denials against the cascade of accusers.

In her youth Arendt was ‘Heidegger’s favourite student’, in fact his lover, and she managed to extract from him - the great philosopher - an admission of his political ignorance for his early support of Nazism. Heidegger was pivotal in Arendt’s intellectual development, but she later towered over him not least in courage. 
Until his death in 1976 Heidegger never apologized for his Nazi dalliance before the war, while Arendt engaged the might of New York conservative Jewry to defend her truth against mountains of trauma, anger and grief. She dared to name the Jewish leaders who assisted Hitler's 'ultimate solution', and said while resistance would have been futile, there is a lot of room between that and capitulation.

Arendt's critics accused her of failing to love ‘the Jewish people’; she agreed and said she loves her friends. A true agnostic, to me her critique of the concept of evil developed while watching Eichmann attempt to defend himself by sidestepping culpability for atrocity. Hers was an inspired observation that evil is not the opposite of the religious good, and yet perhaps the worst actions are committed by 'nobodies'. Instead of fighting evil perhaps the answer is to undermine it with the light of education and mindfulness.