Starting tomorrow: BANALITY AND TOWN!

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


  1. "We only mention Arendt today because her famous phrase lives on"

    Somerby again grabs Arendt's phrase out of context, ignores her meaning and applies it to a situation to which it does not apply. Those cops in Loveland are not bureaucrats carrying out orders. They are sadists. That Somerby cannot see this distinction should tell you a great deal about Somerby.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "At this point, it may not matter whether Arendt's various observations and claims were fully well-founded."

    With this casual line, Somerby implies that perhaps Arendt's observations were not well-founded. Somerby has no basis for making this remark and it is entirely gratuitous.

    Further, Arendt's point was that the mechanics of implementing evil orders are themselves evil when the result is the holocaust. Without men like Eichmann, Hitler's schemes would have been impossible to enact on the millions of people who died in the holocaust. Arendt's point was that evil need not look like Hitler but can look like Eichmann too, banal in both the actions (arranging train schedules, finding boxcars) and appearance (Eichmann made no bombastic speeches, performed an office job and went home to his family each day).

    If Somerby were trying to point out that racism can be inherent to a system that is implemented by banal office workers, Arendt's meaning might apply. Somerby is instead talking about officers whose actions are not routine and would be unacceptable to anyone witnessing them, sadistic individuals, not drones in a broken system. Somerby is arguing that such sadists are just everyday guys, no different than everyone else. In that, he is wrong. He should be talking about the extent to which endowing men with police authority tends to attract sadistic individuals who seek that job in order to indulge sadistic impulses.

    Instead, Somerby tries to imply that we are all like that under the skin. That this is just the way humans are (anthropology all the way down), so why single out those guys? No -- Somerby is wrong about this. We are not all the same in our sadism, and that is why police forces need to take responsibility for what their officers do, screen for negative personality traits and hold their staff accountable for their excesses and abuse of the public.

    That Somerby never calls for any of this should tell you what Somerby is all about.

    1. Very good points. When Arendt was heavily criticized in the 60's It became apparent to me that most of the criticism was from people who didn't read her book or understand her reasoning

  3. What kind of blogger argues in support of repressive elements of society? Somerby is no liberal. He is a card-carrying member of the Tucker Carlson fan club.

  4. "A stunning banality is on display as those officers sit around talking and laughing about their earlier violent conduct"

    What does banality mean? Definition: something that lacks originality, freshness, or novelty : something banal : commonplace.

    If this police behavior were commonplace, they wouldn't be reporting it at all. It wouldn't be deeply shocking, as it is to normal people. There would be no reason to report it. Somerby argues that this Loveland event wasn't reported by the press, but how else would he have heard about it. It has been all over the news, because it is far from banal.

    Perhaps Somerby will argue that because this incident occurred that means there is no racism, since bad things can happen to white people, even old ladies. Such an argument would be ridiculous. So, why then has he brought this up? And why is he misusing the word "banal?"

  5. He doesn't say it hasn't been reported, he says it has been "disappeared." In other words, it was reported once and then pretty much forgotten. Little if any follow-up.

    I don't think Somerby would argue that there is no racism, just that police killings of black people are extensively covered by the press, whereas no white ones are. If you want proportionality, then 1-2 such white deaths would be covered for every 5 black deaths, roughly. If you say that racism can't also be addressed simultaneously, I'd say why not. Police brutality is an issue that affects all "races" not just blacks. Each and every death is a tragedy, not just black ones.

    1. The white killings are all covered by the press -- locally, because they are not a national problem.

      Black killings are a national problem because they exemplify systemic racism.

      Police brutality may affect all races, but not all races are targeted equally by it.

    2. Somerby claims that this incident was "disappeared" but it wasn't initially reported because (1) the officers lied and said there were no injuries during Garner's arrest for shoplifting, and (2) the Loveland PD said it was unaware of the incident until the lawsuit was filed on April 26 2021 -- last week!

      There was no opportunity for this incident to have been "disappeared" before now. So Somerby's claim that it was given insufficient attention is specious.

      Somerby is dishonest about this stuff. You have to check everything he claims.

    3. If there's more white killings than black killings, why isn't that a national problem? Black people are more important?

      Maybe the motive for these killings ISN'T racial.

      Yes, how dare such an idea be suggested.

    4. Exactly. It’s striking how often the earlier commenters above, as is the case with so many of the commenters here, globally speaking, underline the points Somerby is making, even as they flatter themselves that they are somehow refuting them.

    5. Oh yes. Every day, a full blown parade of unmoderated openly hitlerian dembots, in the comment section.

      That's the beauty of this fascinating blog.

    6. Mao,
      If you're fascinated by that, you should check-out "SnowflakeFest 2021", which took place in D.C. on January 6th.
      Black people's votes got counted in an election, and the Right threw a temper tantrum, like the whiny little piss ants we always knew they were.

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