New Jersey Governor Christie’s aid, Bridget Anne Kelly, is like so many other stuck at her level, always taking orders, never going anywhere. The stupid and spiteful act of the Fort Lee lane closures is typical of the bitter power-hungry people in middle management.These are the little bosses – the department heads and principals – the banal and evil ones, like the Third Reich’s Adolf Eichmann, who do everything within their power to ruin anyone in their range and pretend they were just following orders.These are the nothings behind the failures of banks, health care websites and gun control legislation, the sad and lonely that stop traffic because they can.
Hannah Arendt offers a devastating portrait of humanity in Eichmann in Jerusalem, an assemblage of five successive articles written in 1963 for The New Yorker. It is in this work that Arendt coined the phrase, “the banality of evil”, positing that the mass murder perpetrated by the Nazis was not as much a thing of malevolence as it was of bureaucracy. She explains how words were used as weapons, to indoctrinate and then engineer the mass murders. Death camp architect Heinrich Himmler referred to the Holocaust as follows: “These are battles which future generations will not have to fight again.” Eichmann believed the “battles” to be geflugelte Worte (meaning “winged words” or words from classic literature), when in reality they were only the tools of propaganda.
In other words, not only does Eichmann not acknowledge the evil of his work, neither does he understand how the evil was disseminated. Arendt goes on to cite a story of a leader speaking to Bavarian peasants in 1944: “The Fuhrer in his goodness has prepared for the whole German people a mild death through gassing in case the war should have an unhappy end.”
Arendt’s text reveals how the people of Germany were indoctrinated as a cult, who were willing to go to the bitter end to satisfy their leader not out of malice but because “honor is loyalty”. Therefore it should not come as a surprise that Eichmann maintained his innocence in the extermination of millions; he and his Nazi brethren were gassed by their own words.
New York can be a distracting place, a tough environment to imagine isolation and
silence, which is where my head is supposed to be these days. That said, New York is a very good place to find inspiration from others. While the constant flow of art and ideas can be numbing, it can also fit pieces in the puzzle as well. Last week, we attended the closing night screening of the New York Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center. The film was Hannah Arendt, an eponymous biopic directed by Margarethe von Trotta. The narrative is strong, as is the setting and atmosphere – more cigarettes smoked than in a season of Mad Men – but most memorable are the philosophical musings of Ms. Arendt. Credited with developing the idea of “the banality of evil”, Ms. Arendt’s pursuit of understanding is ferocious.She argued that the Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann was not so much an evil-minded villain as an unthinking bureaucrat only doing his job. Viewers of the film witness Ms. Arendt espouse her theories to attentive students, argue her points with colleagues, and most interesting of all, contemplate the complexities of humankind as she sits and smokes at home, staring into oblivion. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”