Web Letters | The Nation

Arendt got evil right

I don’t think the writer of this article understood this film well. The film is as much about what is going on in the world today, suggesting the Arendt was right in seeing evil as banal. Arendt said that Eichman dissociated himself from his own humanity and that allowed him to do what he did, that he was not truly driven by hatred but by having blocked himself off from his own humanity.

The bankers, mortgage companies, investment bankers who wrecked havoc on the lives of many millions of Americans to line their pockets with great wealth, and those in the government who failed to prosecute anyone for an open fraud on the American public, also had to dissociate from their own humanity, to see the people they stole from as meaningless and even inhuman.

Arendt may have misread Eichman. Maybe Eichman did truly hate Jews. But I think she got the banality of evil right, and I think the real message of the documentary Hannah Arendt is that all kinds of banal evil have happened in this world: corporations make millions while paying fast-food workers so poorly that the taxpayers pay for their healthcare and food stamps—that is evil. Corporations make millions by inflating real estate values, selling bad loans to people who could not afford them, selling bad loan portfolios to unsuspecting investors, even betting against their own junk investments all so they could make money.

Look at any aspect of our economy: one has to dissociate from one’s own humanity to run a fracking operation, or to be the Koch brothers and fund things like wiping out union power and wiping out the middle class.

Arendt got evil exactly right. She might have gotten Eichman’s hatred of the Jews wrong and she might have been too lost in cool intellectualism to speak about the Jewish leadership in Germany as the Nazis rose in power, but her main message is that evil is really banal, and boring: it is simply when a human being dissociates from their own humanity—this dissociation allows a human to be cruelly evil to fellow humans. She got that right, it is going on in the world today… as long as some rich well connected folks are making money and greasing the right palms, banal evil happens all over the world. She got evil right. Unfortunately.

Don’t let her comments about Jews and the conflict those comments generated distract from her insight into the banality of evil. Look around the world: banal evil is all over.

Tree Fitzpatrick

Berkeley, CA

Nov 23 2013 - 10:49am

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.