Wen Stephenson is a frequent contributor to The Nation and the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Beacon Press, 2015).
What Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt Can Teach Us About Evil Today
By George Prochnik
Two catastrophes, planetary and political, converge; humanity approaches geophysical and social tipping points unimagined by previous generations. With the victory of the carbon-industrial machine, it is now clear, we confront corporate and political forces not only racist in ideology but totalitarian in mindset and ambition, if not as yet in methods. Unless, as to methods, it can be argued that to ensure the suffering and death of countless innocent millions, by means of lies and the obstruction of urgent life-saving measures, marks some kind of epochal advance in the art of administrative mass murder.
There are no borders in human history that are closed, no human experience walled off from an authentic human effort to understand. And yet I confess that when I try to make sense of this picture, to fit the facts we are facing, planetary and political — the true scale of the unprecedented crimes now unfolding — into any accepted category, I’m at a loss, the mind reels, and I reach for the past.
The mood is one of exhaustion, uncertainty, a dull and ever-present fear. “This moment of anticipation,”
“Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest — forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries.”
The kind of comprehension she has in mind, though, would come not by taking refuge in old “commonplaces.” It requires, she writes, “examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us — neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight.”
…reality, the forces that opened the abyss, could still be — had to be — described, analyzed, judged.
realized regimes, require the construction of a “fictitious world,” as seen in their “conspicuous disdain of the whole texture of reality.”
Insofar as [totalitarian] ideological thinking is independent of existing reality, it looks upon all factuality as fabricated, and therefore no longer knows any reliable criterion for distinguishing truth from falsehood.”
For Arendt, it’s the key that unlocks the totalitarian mindset. Noting that “it would be quite possible for totalitarian rulers or the men immediately surrounding them not to believe in the actual content of their preaching,”
“lost even the ability to distinguish between such believing and non-believing.”
Underlying these beliefs or non-beliefs […] is another belief […] shared by all totalitarian rulers, as well as by people thinking and acting along totalitarian lines, whether or not they know it. This is the belief in the omnipotence of man and at the same time of the superfluity of men; it is the belief that everything is permitted and, much more terrible, that everything is possible.
relationship between delusions of unlimited possibility and the need to fabricate a reality to fit the ideological pattern
…totalitarian leaders’ “faith in human omnipotence […] carries them into experiments which human imaginations may have outlined but human activity certainly never realized.” Meanwhile, “normal men,” those outside the totalitarian world and its mindset, “refuse to believe their eyes and ears in the face of the monstrous,” and engage in the kind of “wishful thinking” that only “shirks reality in the face of real insanity.”
…a system in which men are superfluous.” That is, a system in which human beings, both as individuals and distinct groups, become surplus, unnecessary, and unwanted, cease to have any intrinsic value as human beings — are dehumanized. When that happens, the standards by which human beings explain and judge relations among themselves fall apart, and we’re faced with something truly radical, incomprehensible:
Until now the totalitarian belief that everything is possible seems to have proved only that everything can be destroyed.
…] When the impossible was made possible it became the unpunishable, unforgivable absolute evil which could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power, and cowardice. […] Therefore, we actually have nothing to fall back on in order to understand a phenomenon that nevertheless confronts us with its overpowering reality and breaks down all standards we know.
With nothing to fall back on, no recognizable standards by which to comprehend and judge, anything can happen, anything might be justified, in the future. All bets are off.
What kind of mindset makes one’s own children and grandchildren, and everyone else’s, indeed all future generations, superfluous?
masses of people are continuously rendered superfluous if we continue to think of our world in utilitarian terms.”
“Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes.”
Arendt observes, that the “Rights of Man” require a polity to guarantee them.
“We became aware of the existence of a right to have rights […] and a right to belong to some kind of organized community only when millions of people emerged who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation.”
unprecedented waves of stateless people, who had lost the status of citizenship, and were left stranded by an international order that had no place for them.
“The conception of human rights […] broke down,” Arendt observes,
The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.
human rights have proven meaningless in the face of naked humanity — human beings stripped of community, of political and legal status, possessing only, as she writes, “those qualities which […] must remain unqualified, mere existence”
when the abyss has opened up, Arendt asks if truly nothing at all remains on which mere human beings may rely.
all that which is mysteriously given us by birth and which includes the shape of our bodies and the talents of our minds, can be adequately dealt with only by the unpredictable hazards of friendship and sympathy, or by the great and incalculable grace of love, which says with Augustine
, “Volo ut sis (I want you to be),”
“Volo ut sis (I want you to be),”
such affirmation, this grace beyond reason, can be surpassingly rare, unreliable, and unexpected, like a sudden flare, an unforeseen beacon, in the dark. And yet no less real for all of that.
I knew the absurd puniness of my gesture toward solidarity with the powerless and suffering. And as always, there was the question why — the question of whether such gestures still make any sense in the face of all we now know;
whether it’s time to accept the futility of actions that depend, for their effect, on the compassion, or conscience, or humanity, of those whom they address. Whether more force, more sacrifice, is now required. The question:What kind of resistance is possible against a world without mercy?
What kind of resistance is possible against a world without mercy?
Who am I to judge? Who the hell do I think I am? Am I not complicit —
because I was certain that jail was where I belonged. Because there, at last, in that dank, windowless cell, I was removed from my life in the world, from society, contact with others — so that, finally, to my indescribable relief, I was a danger to no one…as though, for those few hours, I could do no harm — to the planet, or to people.
As if, albeit briefly, I had somehow in my isolation disappeared.
As if, albeit briefly, I had somehow in my isolation disappeared.
“There exists in our society a widespread fear of judging that has nothing whatever to do with the biblical ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged,’” Arendt writes in the manuscript of a 1964 address. Rather, she notes there, “behind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence the doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done.”
As soon as anyone raises moral issues, she observes sharply, the one who raises them is met “with a kind of mock-modesty that in saying, Who am I to judge? actually means We’re all alike, equally bad, and those who try, or pretend that they try, to remain halfway decent are either saints or hypocrites, and in either case should leave us alone.”
Who am I to judge? actually means We’re all alike, equally bad, and those who try, or pretend that they try, to remain halfway decent are either saints or hypocrites…
…the distinction she draws between responsibility and guilt, and what she called the “well-known fallacy” of “collective guilt.”
“well-known fallacy” of “collective guilt.”
In a 1968 lecture, she puts it like this: “[T]here is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done; one can be held liable for them. But there is no such thing as being or feeling guilty for things that happened without oneself actively participating in them.”
“the cry ‘We are all guilty’ that at first hearing sounded so very noble and tempting has actually only served to exculpate to a considerable degree those who actually were guilty. Where all are guilty, nobody is.”
“Where all are guilty,
what she called the “phony sentimentality” of collective guilt,
“the cry ‘We are all guilty’ is actually a declaration of solidarity with the wrongdoers.”
Of course Eichmann’s defense, along with that of other senior Nazi murderers, was always by design, always part of the plan. One of Arendt’s darkest observations in Origins concerns the ways in which totalitarianism attempts to make all members of the society complicit, so that “the consciously organized complicity of all men in the crimes of totalitarian regimes is extended to the victims and thus made really total.”
“…the ways in which totalitarianism attempts to make all members of the society complicit, so that “the consciously organized complicity of all men in the crimes of totalitarian regimes is extended to the victims and thus made really total.”
Conditions are created in which “[t]he alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder.”
The conditions were created by someone: the victims were made victims before they were made complicit.
I sought cover and refuge, some sort of perverse comfort, in a collective guilt spread so thin that it evaporates into air and disappears; an escape, in which I sought to be unburdened of the responsibility to judge, and of the responsibility such judgment would place on me.
an escape, in which I sought to be unburdened of the responsibility to judge, and of the responsibility such judgment would place on me.
the carbon lobby and its apologists, even in elite liberal institutions, argue that not oil companies, their lobbyists, and the politicians who do their bidding are to blame, but that all of us as consumers are guilty — that it’s not, in other words, the oil barons and their craven servants who are guilty but “hypocritical” climate activists and struggling families everywhere, who rely on oil and gas to get to their jobs and to put food on their tables
not, in other words, the oil barons and their craven servants who are guilty but “hypocritical” climate activists and struggling families everywhere, who rely on oil and gas to get to their jobs and to put food on their tables
The Nazi system, she observes, “relies not on fanatics, nor on congenital murderers, nor on sadists; it relies entirely upon the normality of jobholders and family men.”
“for the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children, such a man was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honor, and his human dignity.”There was just one condition on which he insisted: “that he should be fully exempted from responsibility for his acts.”
“the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
banality of evil
whether evil intent is required in order for evil to be done —
that so many were like [Eichmann], and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
Eichmann actually was a calculating, virulently anti-Semitic mass murderer, regardless of whether he killed anyone, or directly ordered anyone killed, himself.
“evil intentions are not required for evil actions,”
without them [desk-perpetrators], the intentions of men like Eichmann would seldom bear fruit.
“[O]ur knowledge of how much evil can be done without intention makes the question of whether or not destruction and suffering were deliberate increasingly irrelevant. […]
Pointing to the reckless, even willful failure of government and industry to take the actions necessary to preserve a habitable planet, Neiman suggests that the terms in which Arendt spoke are entirely applicable.
“When human heedlessness stokes destruction, then leaves the world’s poorest people at its mercy, it isn’t merely tragic;
“nothing but the most banal of intentions is required for it to occur.”
all we have left at this late hour.
empathy, though much celebrated, is not always a reliable impulse toward moral action — that it can cut both ways.
…our natural inclination to empathize with the victims of crime and injustice, while generally a good thing, when mixed with our tribal instincts — our biases, conscious or not, in favor of people like ourselves, members of our own communities — can lead to a dehumanization of the stranger, the other, especially if that other is the perpetrator (or perceived to be) of a crime.
It’s easy to empathize with a victim, as one should; to empathize with a murderer — to see ourselves in another who violates our deepest values and taboos — is something else, something that may seem beyond our merely human capacity.
“All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice,”
“the nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves.”
These nonparticipants applied a different criterion, she writes: “They asked themselves to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds,” and thus in some cases, “chose to die when they were forced to participate.”
“…to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds,” and thus in some cases, “chose to die when they were forced to participate.”
“The sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who never made up their mind to be either bad or good.”
“most evil is done by people who never made up their mind to be either bad or good.”
…the internal dialogue with oneself that allows for questioning and judging, is a capacity shared by all, she goes on to suggest, not only an elite (who fail to exercise it as often as anyone, perhaps more). Nevertheless, such thinking “remains a marginal affair for society at large except in emergencies.”
…internal dialogue with oneself that allows for questioning and judging…“remains a marginal affair for society at large except in emergencies.”
“those who think are drawn out of hiding because their refusal to join is conspicuous and thereby becomes a kind of action.”
…the refusal to join or to obey, the active withholding of support, Arendt places among the forms of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience developed to powerful effect in the 20th century.
…the mere fact of being born. For each birth marks something utterly unique, never before seen in the world, the beginning of a new and particular human life, with the unique potential it contains for action —
“The life span of man running toward death would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction,”
Arendt writes, “if it were not for the faculty of interrupting it and beginning something new, a faculty which is inherent in action like an ever-present reminder that men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.”
“…action, Arendt writes, is “the one miracle-working faculty of man.”
…under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not. […] Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.
…what we now see, and what is coming, it’s no longer an academic question what kind of a government we will have, what kind of a polity we will form, as we enter an era of increasing global instability, ripe for all the varieties of political and social evil. Because what else to call a system and ideology seeking total economic and political power over the earth at the expense of unimaginable numbers of lives, in which whole populations are rendered superfluous? A mindset that warps reality to its all-consuming ends, as if to prove that everything indeed is possible, that the very laws of physics, of nature, can be denied?
…at the expense of unimaginable numbers of lives, in which whole populations are rendered superfluous? A mindset that warps reality to its all-consuming ends, as if to prove that everything indeed is possible, that the very laws of physics, of nature, can be denied?
There are crimes against humanity the magnitude and cold brutality of which cannot be understood, cannot be weighed or calculated on any scale or spreadsheet
crimes, the motives for which are as commonplace, as banal,
- as quarterly earnings and
- political careers.
- Crimes that will be answered finally by the earth itself,
when at last “omnipotent” humanity, or rather the heedless few, discover that while everything human, and much of the nonhuman, may be destroyed, not everything in the end is possible — regardless of what may or may not be permitted.
Crimes that will be answered finally by the earth itself,
What I fear most is that these crimes kill even the desire for, and possibility of, birth — of new women and new men, born not to die but to begin.
the unsurpassable affirmation, that grace beyond reason, without which no amount of illumination can survive.