Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

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.

13 Responses to “The banality of courage”

  1. plm said

    I’ll take my corrupted soul and my flat tax, thanks.

  2. tigtog said

    I live in a country where the electorate, when polled, has repeatedly had a large majority stating they would rather pay a larger portion of tax to the compulsory medical program contribution to improve public hospitals than have to negotiate private insurance programs that actually cost much more per year than the tax contribution (while our once marvellous public hospital system dwindles through underfunding).

    Our government ignored us.

    Taxes are not theft. Tax is the contribution we owe for taking advantage of the civil order that government makes possible. And yes, if you are one of the few that makes it rich then your contribution should be larger because you’re benefitting from social infrastructure more, even if only from the transport system you use as you deliver your product and the public school system which educates your employees.

  3. Blue Athena said

    I think there are a few other issues at play here. First is the tendency to adopt a deontological rather than teleological ethical system. Another is the erroneous belief in the libertarian view of free will (not to be confused with the political term “libertarian” which is I believe it’s reference above). The further conflation of determinism with fatalism in the minds of the general public makes an understanding of condition related circumstances difficult to explain.

    Most people living in the US who have not received any fundamental training in introductory philosophy (meaning most people) are going to fall prey to these misconceptions, and will easily adopt a simplistic ethical system which justifies their own advantages or claims of unfairness, depending on their status in society. And that tendency, to pick an ethical system that is to ones benefit, likely is [nearly] universal. However it requires the libertarian notion of free will to justify the belief that people are responsible for their own suffering, and therefore to dismiss it from mind.

    Interestingly, my own research indicates that those who have cross-cultural experience are likely to be more deterministic in their outlook, which if the connection between understanding and determinism is correct, may offer one avenue of hope.

  4. Interestingly, my own research indicates that those who have cross-cultural experience are likely to be more deterministic in their outlook, which if the connection between understanding and determinism is correct, may offer one avenue of hope.

    Please to explain “determinism” in this context. While I do not reside in the US, I do lack fundamental training in introductory philosophy.

  5. Sorry Andrew, I always forget how large the expatriate math community is, especially in the precincts of information technologies.

    BlueAthena can speak for herself, and I hope she does, because it’s an interesting topic, but I think she meant by “determinism” what’s usually meant by way of contrast with “free will”: that all events at time t are mechanistically determined by the state of the world at t-1. (Prediction is another matter, there’s quantum uncertainty to worry about and so on.) It’s an important principle if you want to deny the possibility of miracles.

  6. Blue Athena said

    Metaphorical is correct in his interpretation of my use of the term “determinism”, but my reference doesn’t actually have anything to do with miracles, at least not in the common sense of the term.

    What I was refering to is the relationship between one’s belief in free will and the emotional charge and understanding of the ideas of “blame”, “responsibility” and “praise”. Those with a deterministic outlook, while not free from these products of evolution, tend to have the emotional response under better control. Determinists, as a whole, are more sympathetic/empathetic.

  7. R said

    As the R. in question, I’d like to point out one chief objection to our current tax system. My money is taken from me, under threat of violence, to fund a bunch of pork barrel projects, e.g., the Next Byrd Memorial Highway of Federal Building.
    If the monies actually *went* to the widow down the street [or my mom, a widow in Texas], or the struggling single mom with two kids – I would be much happier. Maybe not totally happy, but better.
    We try to change the system – nothing happens. Same story, different players.
    FYI, we are foster parents. We take in one child at a time. The money the state provides is a couple of hours consulting fees – not even peanuts. We provide the love and security a child needs.
    How do I reconcile the callousness of my positions on taxes with the care of children?
    Simple – we know what we are doing – we also can see that government, at all levels, is grossly incompetent.
    And, for the record, my day job is with a real company providing services – I only consultant to defense contractors to get some of the largess flowing out of DoD and DHS.
    It is very interesting – the observation that the Rocky Mountain area is callous – it may be the environment. Here, in the hinterlands, if we don’t plan ahead, one can die if one doesn’t take personal responsibility. The weather will kill you if you are stupid. If one is snowed in for a couple of weeks, one had better have food and fuel ready. The power may go out for days, if not weeks. The Government won’t be there to help you.
    The attitude that the Government will help one appears to be a major metro area attitude.
    My 2 cents.
    Fire away. Incoming fire accepted.
    For example, I used to be a death penalty proponent. Then, one day, a friend observed – you don’t trust government to get the roads right, but you will let them kill fellow citizens? After my mind quit boggling, I had to change my position. I am now an ardent death penalty opponent.
    I still retain the right to use lethal force in self defense, and advocate that position, but, if I have to use it, it’s pretty certain to me that it needs to be done. Some one breaking into my home, or threatening some one else with lethal force – cut and dried.
    After seeing courts in action, and all the people on death row exonerated, I think this is a reasonable position.

  8. R., thanks for posting. I really was profiling a type, it’s interesting how close it is. I wonder why westerners see incompetent government everywhere. Is it because you’re looking for it, or because it just is less competent? Here in the northeast, we see the garbage get picked up, subways running regularly, and firefighters getting to every fire in less than 4 minutes, every time. Sure it’s not perfect, but neither is Microsoft.

    If a person or a people are judge by how they treat the least of us, the foster parenting counts a lot. It’s not thankless, there must be personal rewards every day – a soccer practice that goes well, a new type of math problem solved, even just a smile where there used to only be frowns. But our society might as well be trying to make it as thankless as possible. So, thanks.

  9. ClaireDePlume said

    there’s a chance as i type this that no matter which words i choose, some may be offended.

    “R”, i read your words and hear a tone of frustration. likely and like most of us, you aim to choose your battles wisely, and challenge those where there exists a glimmer of hope for success. perhaps this is why you offer foster care – your efforts are in evidence when you view the smiling eyes you’ve helped. perhaps this is why you don’t trust government, a faceless, eyeless entity. it’s far easier to question and mistrust things which lack the face of humanity.

    i don’t enjoy reading some comments here which tend to dehumanize – either in the guise of outright dislike, or in veiled abuses of others using faceless, sterile generalizations.

    that’s like saying that all taxes are evil, or asserting that all which is evil is a tax. or remarking that all courage is banal, or that all banality is courageous. both statements are misrepresentations of the whole truth, and may represent only half the truth at most.

    what is evil, in my mind, is giving lip service to that which we know to be wrong, or saying nothing at all as we stare silently into that which offends our sense of humanness, or by saying anything – true or not – in an effort to attack the thing we find offensive. all of these serve to upend our moral equilibrium, and in this way, we face our own evil within. losing our direction, losing our own self is the least courageous thing – when we allow this we tempt our own moral suicide.

  10. R said

    Actually, this is a good post.
    I can say taxes are evil – they are extracted from me through threat of violence. We give our foster kids more than they would ever get from the “system” because we care. That is a giving, not a taking.
    I apologize if I offend, but your phraseology seems foreign – in America, we are more about the power of the people as opposed to the power of the state.
    Also, for those that underestimate the power of armed people – we kicked out the Brits – no offense, Andy, with our personal weapons. Historically, the Vietnamese NVA kicked us out of Vietnam because our politicians had no balls. And currently,what US pol would nuke a US city that revolted? Hell, I’d love to see SF or NYC secede. No one but me would nuke them. Oh, but they have no guns. We have an USA Armored division down the road, but I doubt they’d try anything – we know where their families live. And work. And what bars they hang in. And where they work out. Where the officers live.

  11. ClaireDePlume said

    R, your words did not offend. I do however, hear much anger in your words.

    As for choosing combat to prove a point, I must ask you; does violence against violence ever “win”? Perhaps the United States “kicked out the Brits” once upon a time, but when the U.S. was attacked on it’s own soil in 2001, may I ask who came to your aid?

    Did going off to war in Viet Nam or anywhere else ever accomplish something apart from feeding anger and promoting the “culling of the herds”?

    And about taxes? Our pockets are regularly cleaned out behind our backs and under our noses. However it’s really a lot simpler to criticize “the system” (heck, we’re doing that right here), but who among us has a better way? Who can step up to plate and present a plan for a more tenable way to live? I’d dearly love to hear from someone, anyone, with a better solution.

    I do not for a single nanosecond, believe that people want to live in violence and fear. Yet bearing arms and baring our reptilian brains is precisely that.

    The best way to see the change we want is to live those changes. It’s up to you, me, everyone, to live out truths from a point of integrity, not anger.

    C’mon. Surely as evolved humans, we have much better to offer the world and all existence than bloodshed and violence.

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  13. […] hair-raising site now brush up this synopsis https://metaphorical.wordpress.com/2007/02/19/the-banality-of-courage and give comments […]

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