TUESDAY, MAY 4, 2021
Top journalists sift what you hear: In June of last year, several police officers in Loveland, Colorado executed a violent arrest of a 73-year-old, 80-pound woman who was suffering from dementia.
They arrested her "as she was plucking purple wildflowers and strolling back home" from Walmart.
As they sat around laughing about the arrest, the woman in question was sitting in a holding cell, for several hours, with her arms still handcuffed begin her. Videotape from that holding sell shows her shifting uncomfortably, with no surface to lean back on, attempting to compensate for the pain of the fractured arm and dislocated shoulder the violent arrest had caused.
While this tiny woman shifted in pain, the officers chuckled and exchanged fist bumps about the violent arrest. Anthropologically, we regard this videotape as extremely instructive.
The videotape of the officers called to mind a famous phrase from Hannah Arendt—"the banality of evil."
Most simply put, these officers didn't strike us as some type of standard-issue sociopaths. Instead, they seemed to be too dumb to understand the nature of the very strange event they were discussing.
They seemed too dumb to comprehend the problem with their own behavior. Having said that, we will also say this:
This dumbness seems to be everywhere in the modern life of Our Town. According to the major anthropologists with whom we consult, this banality may be what our species is wired for—the best our species can do.
To our own eye and ear, we now encounter this banality pretty much wherever we look.
Last evening, on CNN, Chris Cuomo seemed more like the classic stormtrooper. But for a glimpse of this modern banality, consider a certain front-page report in this morning's Washington Post.
In the front-page report, Meckler and Natanson discuss an array of current disputes about the ways some public and private schools are responding to issues of race. Hard-copy headline included, the front-page report starts like this:
In schools' anti-racism push, right sees a threat
The nation’s reckoning over race has reached thousands of U.S. schools, and so, too, has a conservative backlash.
Schools across the country are working to address systemic racism and inject an anti-racist mind-set into campus life. But where advocates see racial progress, opponents see an effort to shame White teachers and sometimes students for being part of an oppressive system.
In particular, conservatives have seized on the idea that schools are promoting critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that examines how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism. It holds in part that racism is woven into the fabric of the nation’s history and life — a product of the system and not just individual bad actors.
In this initial framing, thousands of schools across the country "are working to address systemic racism"—and this effort has produced "a conservative backlash."
Might thumbs already be on the scales as that framework emerges? That is a matter of judgment. We can certainly think of ways to introduce this topic which wouldn't perhaps and possibly seem to signal winners and losers to the extent that the Post's framework might.
That said, we had to sigh and turn away when we read the Post's account of a recent dispute at the Grace Church School, a high-end private school in Manhattan. In their early capsule reference, the Post reporters said this:
MECKLER AND NATANSON (5/3/21): The fight over what to do about [various racial concerns] is unfolding in public and private schools, in state legislatures and on school boards, in private Facebook groups and statewide curriculum committees.
At a private school in Manhattan, a teacher publicly complained about efforts to encourage White students to consider their privilege and affinity groups based on race. In Moore County, N.C., school board members are rebelling over state curriculum standards, which mandate history lessons incorporate the experiences and perspectives of marginalized communities.
And in Loudoun County, Va., the school system’s pursuit of equity initiatives such as anti-bias training for teachers has led conservative media and lawmakers to accuse the district of forcing students to learn about race too early and to view everything and everyone through a racial lens, sometimes basing conclusions on snatches of information, such as a short video clip of a lesson.
These conservatives today! They sometimes base their conclusions on snatches of information!
Also, a teacher in a private school "publicly complained about efforts to encourage White students to consider their privilege," whatever that new-fangled phrase might signal, suggest or mean.
We assumed the private school was Grace—and sure enough, it was! Later in the front-page report, subscribers were serviced with an account of what had happened there.
Below, you see the Post's full account of what happened at Grace:
MECKLER AND NATANSON: In Manhattan, the private Grace Church School had always seen itself as racially progressive. Then, in the aftermath of [George] Floyd’s murder, it heard from alumni posting on Instagram, saying they felt marginalized as students there. “It was a wake-up call that we were not doing as excellent a job as we thought we were,” said George Davison, the longtime head of school.
The school had already revised its curriculum. Then it hosted workshops on race and created affinity groups where students of different races could discuss their experiences.
At least one teacher, Paul Rossi, objected, both internally and, when he was not satisfied with the response, in public, including in an essay in the New York Post. He said the school requires teachers to treat students differently based on race and rejects dissenting voices.
“My school, like so many others, induces students via shame and sophistry to identify primarily with their race before their individual identities are fully formed,” he wrote. “The morally compromised status of ‘oppressor’ is assigned to one group of students based on their immutable characteristics. In the meantime, dependency, resentment and moral superiority are cultivated in students considered ‘oppressed.’ ”
Davison replied that no one should feel guilty about the circumstances of their birth. But he said students must face the systemic racism that surrounds them.
“Lots of people have, for a generation or two, said, ‘Well, I’m not a racist, so I have done all I need to do,” he said. “We have arrived at a point in our culture where we say you can’t be race-neutral anymore. Either you are against racism and therefore anti-racist or [you're] supporting racism.”
In fairness, the reporters included a substantial quote from Rossi. That said, they gave the head of school the last word.
(They also failed to report what Rossi said and did next. They failed to tell subscribers where the story went from there!)
In print editions and online, the report includes a pleasant photo of Davison as he "poses for a portrait in front of Grace Church School." It includes a second photo from Grace in which the Post appears to have found a pleasing irony.
In the part of the story the reporters discussed, Rossi said the school has been inducing certain reactions in students by use of "shame and sophistry." Davison said no one should feel guilty about their so-called "race," but he also said that students "must face the systemic racism that surrounds them."
Students should face the systemic racism that surrounds them? We feel the same way about the systemic banality which now surrounds us here in the streets of Our Town.
When Arrendt wrote about Adolf Eichmann, she referred to "the banality of evil." This formulation accepts the obvious idea that Eichmann's actions were evil. But his evil actions were permitted by his banality, Arrendt argued.
As we read this morning's Post report, a different phrase came to mind. We thought of "the banality of banality"—of the persistent moral and intellectual fail which now rules the streets of Our Town.
Cuomo seemed like the classic stormtrooper to us. Today's reporters do not.
That said, can a modern nation run on this fuel? On banality all the way down?
Tomorrow: The banality of banality (what happened next at Grace Church)