It’s kind of funny how many of us gravitate towards certain writers or thinkers when the world around us starts to feel unsafe. I touched on this is my last blog post, but with a lot of what is happening in the United States right now, particularly with how the idea of “the nation” or “nationhood” has been used as a motivating factor for much of the behavior I don’t agree with, has left me wanting to try to understand what is going on. Don’t get me wrong, I think that grossness in American politics has been there for decades — I truly don’t believe you see this type of about-face happening with a flick of the personality switch, so the things that are spewing out now are things that have always been there, but were not necessarily spouted so freely pre-2016. For instance, as someone who has been the legal guardian of someone with severe disabilities for nearly ten years, I have already seen the impact that conservative policies have on the lives of vulnerable populations. The expenses for those who need this type of support are often huge and comes from social security and Medicare. If you slash these, you slash the resources for those who had no say in how their lives ended up and who rely entirely (again, as people who have NO CHOICE that their bodies or minds require support/services) on these services to live a good life, whatever that means for them. Whenever a conservative governor is in place, we see a huge cut in these services — it’s a fiscal fact, so look it up if you don’t believe it — so the tendency to undercut vulnerable populations has always already been there, but it seems it’s more in vogue to be explicit about not caring for others. Or at the very least, there is apparently less shame in not caring.
Again, as someone whose loved one’s life is so directly impacted by what happens in the nation at large, it is alarming to me to see the actions of those currently in power, because I simply don’t understand a lot of the rhetoric and the hysteria behind that nationalist rhetoric. As such, I found myself trying to find things to try to work through some of my confusion and make some sense of what is happening. It’s not just that people are being swayed by emotion or are, as it is often tempting to say, just being stupid. There are real affects at play and, even if I don’t get it or don’t agree with it, I want to try to see where this negative energy is coming from. My desire for a longitudinal approach is what always lands me in front of Hannah Arendt and it seems I’m not alone in reaching out to her work as I’ve seen a lot of people referring to both Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Origins of Totalitarianism lately, for good reason. Arendt’s work is fantastic at tracing an issue throughout history and providing historical context for something — such as anti-semitism — and how it ties to other larger issues in history, such as imperialism and totalitarianism. Even if you don’t want to buy into her arguments, the fact that she can show how a lot of these modern problems are tied together is fascinating.
I like Arendt because of her no-nonsense attitude, I like that she is more than willing to cut the crap and even push the bounds of “civility” to make a point about atrocities and the horrible ways humans treat each other. She got a lot of heat for this approach, particularly when it came to Eichmann in Jerusalem. Yet, if you read the text, you can see that she really wasn’t wrong about what she said. One aspect of the text that was deemed problematic at the time, though now is actually something important and interesting to point out was that, historically, there is evidence of Jewish community leaders cooperating with Nazi policies or at the very least keeping quiet about all that they knew. Thus, Arendt wonders whether more lives could have been saved if those “in the know” within Jewish communities would have spoken up — or at least told their communities what was actually happening. Who can say whether this is actually the case, but the point I want to make here is that it’s easy to delineate victims and perpetrators, particularly in a case like the Holocaust (which was utterly inhumane and unquestionably evil). However, it brings up an issue that Arendt is deeply concerned with here and in her other work: the need to speak and the need to act.
Eichmann in Jerusalem is often brought up because of the tagline: a report of the banality of evil. For Arendt, the banality of evil stands in contrast to the almost mythic quality we often ascribe to evil (perhaps due to the influence of Christianity in the U.S., in particular) when, in reality, evil is banal. Evil is often stupid, it is complacent, and it is brainless. Eichmann, for instance, is described as “the architect of the Holocaust” but is utterly insipid and inarticulate during his trial. For example, Arendt writes:
“…Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented cliche (when he did succeed in constricting a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliche) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to himself. The longer that one listened to him, the more obvious that it became that his inability to speak was closely linked to his inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else.” Eichmann in Jerusalem, 49.
The inability to speak and its relationship to a mental block is interesting, as someone who really enjoys language, because the way we describe something matters. The way we talk about other people, for instance, impacts how we view them and, by extension, how we feel it is okay to treat them. Arendt points this out later in the text, describing what was called a language rule under Nazi Germany:
“Moreover, the very term language rule [Sprachregelung] was itself a code name; it meant what in ordinary language would be called a lie…The net effect of this language system was not to keep these people ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, ‘normal’ knowledge of murder and lies.” Eichmann in Jerusalem, 85-86.
These moments in the text resonated with me because I do see a similar effect in politics today where things seem to be framed by certain parties in a new way to avoid being called what it is: hate. Hate against certain groups of people (immigrants, LGBTQ+, POC, women, etc.) does not seem to equate to what it did in the past, which is alarming. In the past, we could shame those who were racist because it was not (and is not) acceptable behavior — yet we have powerful figures spewing racist commentary and followers accepting it as fine. Just because this comes from the mouths of people who happen to be in positions of power now does not make it acceptable and Arendt would be the first person to note that we cannot buy into any sort of language rule to smooth things over. I think Arendt is a good reminder for those of us who may be bewildered about what is happening, especially to people in our communities who are suddenly showing surprising beliefs, while also reminding us to not stay silent.
However, I think that “not staying silent” means something different than what we might initially think. One point Arendt highlights is the need to be connected and to have dialogue with people; both loneliness and isolation prepare people for the seeds of totalitarianism in her argument. I do think that the issue with social media platforms is that you are not really connecting with anyone — even if you have a huge following, it is not the same as having your close group of friends who have known you for years and who you genuinely care for. If you begin acting out, these people can talk to you and point out the problem. On the other hand, you can find your niche online and things essentially become an echo chamber. Why would you change your mindset if you follow a ton of people who repeatedly tell you it is okay to be racist, it is okay to limit the lives of others for the sake of your own status quo? However, when you encounter different types of people on a daily basis, or if you have people in your life who are POC, LGBTQ+, Jewish, and so on, it is much harder to lump everyone into a single group to discriminate against.
That being said, some people are able to still be stuck in their ways, even when they know people who are different than them. As Arendt writes, even Eichmann had his “exceptional Jews,” who he viewed slightly differently than the millions of other Jews (and non-Jews) who he happily send to death. Thus, for some people it is possible to believe you are a tolerant person as you say things that are clearly intolerant to those around you. It is a balance between deciding where people are; are they in a place where they are willing to see where they may be wrong? Or are they too deeply steeped in their hate, beautified as “ideology”, to see that they may need to be more accepting? I guess it is up to each of us to determine how we want to behave around those in our circles and who to let go of.
I do believe people can change, though, which gives me some hope. For instance, my mother was just speaking to me a few days ago about a group of women she has met with for over a decade. If you would have asked these white, conservative women how they felt about LGBTQ+ issues, they would have railed on about how they did not agree, how it is a sin, how we need anti-LGBTQ+ legislation (to my mother’s horror and disbelief). However, in a recent get-together, one of these women was saying how her daughter asked about a friend of the family who was gay and this women admitted that though she did not necessarily agree with the young man’s lifestyle — she would go to the wedding and would support him, because he deserves to be able to live his life even if she did not want that life. My mother recounted this and was so surprised to see this change, because we never expected this woman to ever say this. It’s a small victory, but I think part of the change has to do with my mother’s consistent resistance to their groupthink. Whenever someone in the group said something borderline racist (in front of my mother, an Asian woman!) or would say something anti-LGBTQ+, she would speak up and ask why these women cared so much or why they said such things. Once they had to actually confront their patterns of thought, they realized that there really was no good reason to be so judgmental and controlling. In the end, I think that real change happens in communities, where people are face-to-face, rather than in an online environment.
For anyone who is interested in hearing more on Hannah Arendt and how her ideas are still incredibly relevant today, I also suggest listening to a recent episode of the podcast On Being called ‘The Moral World in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now with Lyndsey Stonebridge’. Stonebridge discusses how we can take what Arendt said in the past and use it productively today, particularly regarding the need to be connected and to actively discuss things. I suggest the unedited version as they go into more detail!
Finally, I know that I tend to harp on about how much I like Hannah Arendt (I think this is my third post on her!), but I do think that we need to avoid focusing too heavily on one voice. Although I think Arendt is an incredibly useful resource when it comes to thinking about the world today, I want to refrain from believing that any one thinker has all the answers; thus, the books I have been reading on the idea of nation are coming from different scholars about different nations. The nation is not something biological or something settled, it’s something we all constantly negotiate. Avoiding a myopic focus on “America” highlights how that category isn’t natural or set — it’s what we all decide it is. As much as a white nationalist may want to believe that there is a “true American” who should run the country, there isn’t and there was not even such a thing during the origins of the United States. The sooner everyone accepts that the United States is not a whites’ only space, the sooner everyone can start to work on how we can improve society to be inclusive to reflect what it actually is now, not how a handful of frightened people believe it ought to be.
*All quoted passages are from Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Press, 2006)*