MONDAY, MAY 3, 2021
Banality, silence and script: Long ago and far away, Hannah Arendt wrote a controversial, high-profile book. According to the leading authority on Arendt's life, the book touched off something approaching a "civil war" among New York intellectuals.
The book was built around a phrase which has become iconic. As for Arendt herself, that same leading authority describes her as "one of the most important political thinkers of the 20th century."
Her book was published in 1963. Two years earlier, Arendt had gone to Israel as a correspondent for The New Yorker. She'd gone there to witness the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the leading functionaries in the Holocaust.
Eichmann was found guilty on fifteen counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people. He was executed on June 1, 1962.
Arendt's account of the trial appeared in serial fashion in The New Yorker in early 1963. Later that year, the reports appeared as a book—a book which carried this title:
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
That key phrase, "the banality of evil," remains well-known to this day. But what did Arendt mean by the phrase? Here is the leading authority's thumbnail account:
Most famously, Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe the phenomenon of Eichmann. She, like others, was struck by his very ordinariness and the demeanor he exhibited of a small, slightly balding, bland bureaucrat, in contrast to the horrific crimes he stood accused of. He was, she wrote, "terribly and terrifyingly normal." She examined the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions.
As noted, Arendt's account of the Eichmann trial touched off a wave of controversies. A German Jew who had been forced to flee Germany in 1933 and France in 1940, Arendt had even challenged some of the ways the Israeli government had conducted the trial.
At this point, it may not matter whether Arendt's various observations and claims were fully well-founded. It doesn't matter whether Eichmann was a standard sociopath or was, instead, "terrifyingly normal" in certain basic ways.
We only mention Arendt today because her famous phrase lives on—and because a recent news event has brought her famous analysis of Eichmann to mind.
We refer to the videotape from Loveland, Colorado which we mentioned several times last week. For one example, and for links, you can just click here.
The videotape shows several police officers from that city discussing a recent violent arrest they had made. They're watching the bodycam video of the (remarkably) violent arrest as they conduct their discussion.
In some ways, that videotape—the videotape of the officers discussing their earlier conduct—is the most unusual videotape we have ever seen.
In some ways, it may be the most instructive videotape we've ever seen. For remarkably obvious reasons, that videotape brought that famous phrase—"the banality of evil"—quite directly to mind.
We'll be discussing that videotape this week. We'll be discussing the apparent banality on display on that tape.
For the past several years, we've been saying, at this site, that "it's all anthropology now." Here's what we've meant by that:
It makes no sense to continue to dream that our society is capable of serious discussion or serious political action. It's all over now but the shouting!
The only task that remains is the attempt at explanation—the attempt to explain the reasons why we're caught in this giant fail.
If it's all anthropology now, the Loveland videotape is quite a find.
A remarkable type of banality is on clear display in that tape. But that brings us to a second question we'll be exploring this week—the question why the major news orgs in Our Town have disappeared that remarkable tape.
Rather plainly, a remarkable type of banality id on display in that tape. This week, we'll be asking a second question:
Is a second type of banality on display in the way the news orgs of Our Town have covered, but also have refused to cover, violent events of this general type? A type of banality is quite clear in that Loveland videotape. But is it possible that some similar type of banality is general here in Our Town?
At this point, it doesn't matter if Arendt was right in her assessment of Eichmann and the Eichmann trial. By way of contrast, the way we cover these violent events very much does matter.
A stunning banality is on display as those officers sit around talking and laughing about their earlier violent conduct, but we won't be told about that in Our Town:
Is a second banality on display as that tape disappears?
Tomorrow: As seen on that videotape