The banality of courage
Posted by metaphorical on 19 February 2007
I guess I’ve been walking around in some kind of dream state for 50 years. A number of people, it seems, are far more callous and cruel than I’ve understood. Have I been side by side to what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” all these years? A innocent-looking thread on a mailing list forced the question upon me.
One list member threw out a simple question: Does economic inequality matter?
After the usual fits and starts with an open-ended query like that, one member stated the case for lessening inequality with this:
> For crying out loud, even if we tax someone making a million dollars 50%,
> how morally impoverished do they have to be to complain they are as
> “wretched” as a family living on $15,000 a year?
To which another member, R., wrote the following (reprinted here with permission):
> > Whose morals are you using? I frankly don’t give a damn about the
> > family living on $15K – or $50K – a year.
> > You want to steal – via armed robbery – half of what I make, or
> > more. That is wrong. Government *has* to treat me equally to all
> > others. That means a either a flat tax or a sales tax.
> > This progressive BS has to stop.
> > Must we terminate all the progressive tax advocates to make this go away?
> > We can do that. No guns required.
> > When are the “progressives” going to get *it* that their position is
> > armed robbery?
> > When we nail them to an “X” and leave them out to die, Roman style?
> > Yeesh.
There’s so much to be repulsed by here it’s hard to know where to begin, but “I frankly don’t give a damn about the family living on $15K – or $50K – a year” is as good a place as any.
Now R. happens to be a very pleasant guy on the mailing list most of the time. While you never know who’s really sitting at the other end of a keyboard located deep in cyberspace, he comes across as a member of a type you see often enough if you’re on-line often enough, for long enough: a Rocky-Mountain-state engineer or other professional, white, upper-middle class, middle-aged and almost always divorced.
The R.’s of the world are politically libertarian, though usually making a good living off the government teat indirectly as an employee or consultant for some large corporation with big defense or, nowadays, homeland security contracts. They hunt and fish, seemingly build their mountain redoubts by hand themselves, and extol the virtues of every self-sufficiency from dressing their own meat to home-schooling their children, two activities that can sound frighteningly similar when they brag of them. (Elsewhere in the thread, R. blamed the inferiority of inner city schools not on poverty or inadequate funding, but on teachers’ unions.) They have almost as many guns in the home as books and the 2nd Amendment is by far the most important, since we can recover from the loss of all the others by using our home armories to “take back the country” whenever necessary.
And yet, it’s hard not to find an R. entirely unlikeable. They’re usually excellent raconteurs who seem to find on-line discourse difficult owing to the impossibility of reaching through cyberspace to refill your glass from their own bottle, which is likely to be a well-chosen, well-aged single-malt. And they’re usually men (R.’s are uniformly men) of responsibility and honor. If they’re quick to go to war, at least they’re veterans themselves, and while it’s difficult to turn their minds around, it can happen from time to time when you least expect it.
A couple of months ago, another list member and I woke up this particular R. to the horrors of the Hamdan case (in which the Supreme Court finally found the Bush Administration’s system of military commissions to “violate both the UCMJ and the four Geneva Conventions,” as Wikipedia puts it).
R.’s concession speech on the list was a model of the form. Then, after I thanked him for his graciousness, he wrote privately:
Without honor, an old concept, I’m just another worthless shill.
No one thinks much about that any more. I wish more people did.
Thank you for accepting my concession. I will work on my Congresscritter to try and change the ways things are being done.
Being Right is one thing – Doing Right is another, often difficult, thing, since many people take the easy way out.
What to make, then, of “I frankly don’t give a damn about the family living on $15K – or $50K – a year”?
It seems to me it’s only shocking in its frankness. I’ve seen people sidle up to such sentiments any number of times, though the percentage of them occurring a few hundred miles on either side of the Continental Divide is remarkably high. There’s a climbing partner in Nevada, a father of 3 beautiful children who has literally held my life in his hands, who advocates an end to all governmental medical insurance programs, including emergency hospital services. (If you can’t present a credit card, you should be turned away, or, if necessary, carted away.) There was a computer repairperson in Denver who could have renamed his company after Martin de Porres, given the way he raised my Mac from the dead. He offered the opinion that all taxes were theft, and we would do fine with private militias defending our nation from without and private police forces defending it within.
I think R. doesn’t care about the family living on $50k because they’re doing okay, and he doesn’t care about the family living on $15k because they could be making $50k if only they wanted to. If pressed R. would say that no one is starving, even on $15k, as if hunger didn’t really exist in America. (Another list member pointed out that upwards of 20 million Americans rely on humanitarian food banks for some of their food; this had no effect on R. and his fellow libertarians on the list. R.’s imaginative solution was to end governmental food subsidies, since, after all, if there’s no union in sight, some government program somewhere was surely the problem.)
The key, I think, is in the sentence, “Government *has* to treat me equally to all others.” Of course, equality comes in many flavors. When my well-to-do best friend picks up a three-figure dinner tab, including an insouciant Barolo that caught his eye, at the end of a museum-going day that began with a diner breakfast that I paid for, he’s employing a simple principle of equality, but one that would, on analysis, looks dangerously like something that Karl Marx himself could have written. (Indeed, at the other extreme, there could be a tax program under which R. and the $15ker each pay the exact same $1000, say, for the year. That too would be equality, but of a sort that even R. seems to shy away from; R. objects to progressive taxes.)
It’s the references to theft and armed robbery that led me to see that R. is in the thrall of an ideology. These aren’t metaphors; R. truly believes that the government is stealing from him and everyone else with its taxes, as if the social contract didn’t exist or represented nothing more than the tyranny of the underwealthy majority. It doesn’t take Freud to see the meaning of the reverse-reference to martyrdom. When pressed in the past, R. has allowed that a flat tax of no more than 10% is acceptable, though one suspects it’s probably in part an allowable extortion, an insurance policy to dilute the corrosive possibility of a violent revolt of the masses. The R.’s are happy to live in a world that’s just one step removed from Hobbes’s “”solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” state of nature, but that one step is a critical one.
From this ideological thrall, it was but a short step for me to consider what Hannah Arendt in her signature phrase called the “banality of evil.” It’s not an easy concept to summarize, but the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy does a very nice job of it.
The concept comes from Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, where she uses a biographical analysis of the man to understand “his role as chief architect and executioner of Hitler’s genocidal ‘final solution’ (Endlosung) for the ‘Jewish problem’,” and, eventually to understand such great evil itself.
Her characterization of these actions, so obscene in their nature and consequences, as ‘banal’ is not meant to position them as workaday. Rather it is meant to contest the prevalent depictions of the Nazi’s inexplicable atrocities as having emanated from a malevolent will to do evil, a delight in murder.
Arendt concluded that Eichmann was constitutively incapable of exercising the kind of judgement that would have made his victims’ suffering real or apparent for him. It was not the presence of hatred that enabled Eichmann to perpetrate the genocide, but the absence of the imaginative capacities that would have made the human and moral dimensions of his activities tangible for him. Eichmann failed to exercise his capacity of thinking, of having an internal dialogue with himself, which would have permitted self-awareness of the evil nature of his deeds. This amounted to a failure to use self-reflection as a basis for judgement, the faculty that would have required Eichmann to exercise his imagination so as to contemplate the nature of his deeds from the experiential standpoint of his victims.
As I say, it would be convenient to explain R.’s indifference to families living on $15K – or $50K – a year in these terms, but I think it would be unfair. R. is a soldier and he sees life as a perpetual state of battle. If the family of $15k is one illness or layoff away from oblivion, so too every soldier is one patrol away from a double-amputation. Such are the wages of war. If R.’s own family should be forced by circumstances out of its cozy foxhole, that too would be an exigency of war. R. isn’t incapable of looking at misery from the experiential standpoint of life’s victims so much as he is willing to, if necessary, be one of them.
While such a standpoint is, to my mind, foolish and unnecessary, it at least has the virtue of consistency. Socrates considered courage the least important of the virtues, insofar as they are separable, but a virtue it nonetheless is.
Socrates went on to argue, though, that too much of a good thing can be bad; if any of the virtues overwhelms all the others, paradoxically, a corrupted soul is the outcome. For this reason, he considered moderation to be an overarching virtue di tutti virtues, synonymous, in the end, with justice itself. While it isn’t banal, the inevitable result of R.’s leonine morality is gross injustice.