This blog post was inspired by a question I was asked to answer on Quora by Robert Gluck, which consisted, in its entirety, of the phrase that makes up the title above. Herewith is my reply.
As has been pointed out by other respondents to this question, the phrase "the banality of evil" was coined by Hannah Arendt, as part of the subtitle to her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The book was her account of the 1961 trial, in Jerusalem, of Adolf Eichmann, who had worked during the Nazi era in Germany for branches of the S.S. dealing with "emigration," "relocation," and "evacuation" of Jewish populations across Europe. Many of these, of course, were convenient euphemisms for "extermination." By "banality," Arendt meant that, for people such as Eichmann who were part of the monstrous bureaucracy of death developed by the Nazis in the process of implementing their "Final Solution of the Jewish Question," dealing with matters involving the suffering and death of so many human beings became a mere matter of routine, "just another day at the office," as it were. (It is perhaps significant that Arendt herself later regretted employing the term, and noted that she would not use it if she were to write the book over again. By then, of course, it was too late, and had become a catchphrase.)
Eichmann, despite his many boasts to the contrary, was, it would appear, no more than a "middle manager" in this bureaucracy of death. He did not dictate the policies that were implemented; this was, of course, done, ultimately, by Hitler himself, and to a lesser extent by Heinrich Himmler, head of the S.S., and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Main Security Office, to whom he ultimately reported. Nor did he actually kill anyone; in fact, the one time he visited sites where the actual killing of Jews happened (once by firing squad, once in the gas trucks), he was sickened and shaken by the experience. Eichmann's chief concern was that of transportation, shifting Jews around from location to location, locating the trains needed to move them and making sure there were enough people aboard each train so that no trains were "wasted," and ultimately delivering them up for "resettlement in the East" (read: extermination at Auschwitz or one of the other death camps). He may have viewed the lives affected by these operations as no more than abstractions, numbers which had to be shifted around to meet the expectations of his superiors. (A similar attitude is expressed in a quotation famously misattributed to Joseph Stalin: "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." )
Edward Herman calls the development of this "banality" a process of "normalizing the unthinkable," in which, over time, terrible, murderous acts simply become "the way things are done." This was certainly the case for Eichmann as he was made responsible for the "relocation" of Jewish populations throughout Europe. The example of Rumania is perhaps relevant here: the Rumanians were so eager to comply with Nazi demands that their land be made judenrein (Jew-free) that they instituted their own bloody pogroms against their own Jewish population. Eichmann was forced to scramble, quickly arranging transportation so that the Rumanian Jews could be dealt with in the usual fashion. Even though the outcome was ultimately the same, he felt that the approach taken by the Nazis, the "way things were done" to which he had become accustomed, was more "civilized."
It's also true that people in this kind of situation may not be aware of the ultimate consequences of their actions, though Eichmann, at least in the latter half of his career, surely was. This may include, not only those such as the Nazis, but scientists involved in the development of potentially-destructive new weaponry. In the movie Real Genius, for example, Mitch Taylor and Chris Knight are college students engaged in developing a powerful laser merely as a research project for Professor Jerry Hathaway. After they succeed, and Lazlo Hollyfeld confronts them with the question "What would you use that for?", their friend "Ick" Ikagami deflects the question with a joke ("Making enormous Swiss cheese?" ), Knight brushes it aside, thinking only of his own situation ("Lazlo, that doesn't matter! I respect you, but I graduated!" ) and Taylor shrugs it off: "The applications are unlimited...let the engineers figure out a use for it, that's not our concern!" Only when further prompted by Hollyfeld, and upon returning to the lab to find out their laser has been spirited away for immediate military testing, do they realize the enormity of what they've done and begin working on a plan to sabotage it. Whatever "evil" they committed in the design of what proved to be a new weapon surely was "banal" in that sense, and acquired this quality chiefly by virtue of their own ignorance. The real evil, it might be argued, was Hathaway's, in exploiting their labor without informing them of the ultimate purpose, after having diverted funding for the laser project towards remodeling his house. This mirrors the way the Nazis engaged in division of labor to keep groups of people in their lower echelons focused on minor details of the Final Solution instead of on the "big picture"...and corruption was also endemic in the Nazi era as well.
Friedrich Hayek, in his book The Road to Serfdom, wrote, "Advancement within a totalitarian group or party depends largely on a willingness to do immoral things. The principle that the end justifies the means, which in individualist ethics is regarded as the denial of all morals, in collectivist ethics becomes necessarily the supreme rule." This is a contributor to the development of evil as a "banality," if it is viewed as something that one is merely required to do to maintain and advance one's position, such as Eichmann hoping for advancement in his post, or Knight getting his college degree. People are often willing to "go along to get along," as shown by Milgram's experiment and Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment, as well as by the Jewish Councils set up by the Nazis, which did much of the "dirty work" in selecting those who would be put on the trains for "resettlement," perhaps in the belief that they would avoid the same fate or worse thereby. (Ultimately, this would not be the case; many members of the Councils themselves were sent along to the death camps.)
So we have a number of conditions: the participants in evil acts are either ignorant of the consequences of their actions or are willing to suppress or "abstract away" what knowledge they have of them, their actions have been "normalized" by the organization they work in, and they view their actions as necessary to maintain or advance their own position, or to further their own goals. Under these circumstances, yes, evil can become quite "banal" indeed. It is worth noting, in closing, an observation that Isaac Asimov once made in recounting a conversation with Fritz Leiber: a truly "intelligent" villain never just shouts "I'm a wicked bad guy!", he is never a "villain" in his own eyes. Eichmann certainly was not; he even professed that he had been trying to save Jews by his actions, even as he acknowledged that he was to be made something of a scapegoat for the Nazi regime by his trial and execution. Even one of the most clichéd villains of all time, Darth Vader, would tell Luke Skywalker that his ultimate aim was to "bring order to the Galaxy," much as the Nazis wanted to bring "order" to the world. Their examples must stand as a cautionary tale for us all.
The second element of my "trinity" of symphonic metal hails from the Netherlands, which is home to a fair number of good symphonic-metal bands. Unlike Nightwish, they approached it from a gothic-metal background, but, like Nightwish, they've taken their art in a bit of an unusual concept-album direction. They're Within Temptation, they're the biggest band to come out of the Netherlands, and the fact that there's a couple at the center of the band should help ensure that they're around for a long time.
More below the fold.[Read More]
Over on the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler, DJ, who has been the resident "Loyal Opposition" for over ten years as well as contributing technical expertise to keeping the site thriving, has just announced that he has Stage III liver cancer, probably close to Stage IV. His estimate is that he has no more than a year left, unless he finds a donor organ for a transplant before hitting Stage IV, which even he admits is unlikely.
Please note that the link in the paragraph above is unlikely to be functional by the time you read this, as he has announced the intention to take the post down shortly. He has also disabled comments on the post. The reason?
Please understand as I am telling you this, I am NOT asking for your prayers or sympathy. I do not deserve either. I have known about this for about six months now, and since there have been a few of you asking after my health, I felt that I should come clean as much as I am comfortable with.
Please understand that I do NOT want your sympathy nor your prayers. I just want to be treated as I have always been. I only want to come clean and let you know that I am not going to be around too much longer.
When I read this, I have the uncomfortable feeling that DJ is selling himself short. Besides, regardless of whether he wants, or feels he "deserves," sympathy and prayers or not, he's going to get them anyway from his fellow denizens of the Rott. Including me. Because we're human beings first and foremost, no matter how far to the Right we are of his political positions.
And so I offer mine, with no Imperial Authority behind it, just one conservative geek among many raising a voice.
DJ, there is such a thing as a "Loyal Opposition." To a certain extent, we need having our beliefs and positions challenged on a regular basis, because that forces us to re-examine them, and help build them up and make them stronger. And your opposition is a lot more articulate than that of most of Ogabe's NSDWP minions, whose entire argument could be summed up in large part as "You're nothing but racist, sexist, uncivil bitter-clinger Visigoths who're being not helpful! WAAAHHHH!! MOMMYYYYYYY!!!" Don't think that goes unappreciated, as vehemently as we may argue against you. Besides which, as opposed as you are to the kind of opinions being expressed on the Rott on a daily basis, you've gone above and beyond the call of duty in keeping the site alive so that those opinions could be expressed...and, as a former manager of a virtual-community site myself, I do know something of what that entails, including things like checking in with the site while on vacation in Maui to make sure everything is copacetic. I doubt anyone could ever "replace" you in either of those two roles; they can only succeed you.
Cancer is a hell of a thing. Many of us on the Rott have gone through it, and/or had loved ones that have gone through it. For my part, my father had throat cancer back while I was in college, and has just recently been diagnosed with, and treated for, pancreatic cancer. An aunt of mine succumbed to breast cancer. My ex-wife had a hysterectomy years before I met her, due to uterine cancer. I would bet that not one of us does not at least know, on a clinical level, what happens as a result of this. We're all qualified to sympathize...and those of us who are of the sort inclined to offer prayers are not only qualified, but called upon to do so when "a member of the family" is in need. You may not believe that there's Anyone on the other end of those prayers to listen to them, and intercede on your behalf...but there may yet be. In an infinite universe, anything is possible.
In the same post, DJ has announced his intention to take a series of bike rides around the U.S. and Canada for as long as he is physically able to do so. To him, I will offer one final benediction:
May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be ever at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall softly on your fields,
And, until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of his hand.
Old Irish blessing
April 4, 2012
I'm still not quite sure how it happened. One minute, I was cruising up Colorado Boulevard, on my way to King Soopers to fetch a sandwich for Sabrina after getting off work. The next, the Ford Escape was stopped at the light at Amherst in front of me. I jammed the brakes to the floor, but not even the anti-lock braking system could keep me from striking the Escape.
The Saturn jerked to a stop; I could see the hood folded up and in on itself, but no other damage was apparent from where I sat, and the air bags, significantly, had not fired. I wasn't injured...but the car certainly was.
The first thoughts that went through my head were, "No, no, no, no, no..." Little did I know that, a week later, I would wind up, perhaps, better than I deserved to.[Read More]
The only universal holiday of the Internet is April Fool's Day, and this is when many sites bust out their best jokes. Here's a rundown of some of the stuff I've seen today. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
On a sad note, April 1 marks the end of Francis W. Porretto's long-running conservative blog Eternity Road, due to various technical difficulties and "personality differences with his Webmistress." However, he continues blogging, for the present, at Liberty's Torch. Make sure and follow him there.