There’s a fine essay up on the New York Times website reflecting on Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and the new film about that seminal moment in our understanding of the human capacity for evil. Having read Ms. Arendt once when I was in high school, and then again some twenty-odd years later, I’ve always been at a loss to explain the uncivil meltdown of the New York intelligentsia when it comes to her work.
Roger Berkowitz, the essay’s author, is entirely correct in noting that there has been a rush to imply — without real cause — that Ms. Arendt’s assessment of Eichmann and his role in the Holocaust was dismissive or exculpatory, that she was in any way marginalizing his fundamental responsibility. The “banality of evil” was not a phrase created to suggest a mere clerk following orders, but of a man conceding all deeper moral thought to the demands of ideology. He was, indeed, as Ms. Arendt argues, a committed ideologue — “a joiner” — who needed something bigger than himself to provide purpose and meaning.
Reading this essay, I began to understand that it suits no one of an ideological bent to land anywhere in the middle on the question of who the Eichmanns are and how they come to be. For those that see us all as ripe for totalitarian brutality given mere circumstance, there is little to be contemplated in the human soul. And there is no narrative beyond the individual for those that see nothing systemic in the world that cannot be overtaken by the life-force of the great and vile men and women of history. Ms. Arendt had blind spots, to be sure; she at points wrote of Holocaust victims with less patience and sensitivity than their standing requires. But in finding a more truthful place between fixed, ideological points when it came to Eichmann himself, Ms. Arendt offered real, but complicated insight.
There is a small irony here, given that “Eichmann In Jerusalem” is itself a study in the cost of ideological purity to the human spirit. That those on either side of a philosophical divide would go so far as to mangle and mischaracterize Ms. Arendt’s work to assert against a middle ground is a shorter journey on that same, worn road. Perhaps, this is why her report from that Jerusalem courtroom still matters.
Look around at the hyperbolic and uncivil discourse between Democrats and Republicans, socialists and capitalists, Zionists and anti-Zionists, libertarians and liberals, the religious and the secular, pro-choice and anti-abortion: If you believe in anything completely — to the point of a rigorous purity — then you will at moments behave as an intellectual cripple. If you think any one ideology is greater than the potential of your own intellect and moral sense, you have likely impaired your ability to think and act honestly. If you can abide every all-encompassing cliche uttered on behalf of any single cause or argument, you are very likely poised to say, or do, something foolish, if not destructive.
This is not to say that there aren’t competing philosophies to be considered, or that one cannot find oneself more in agreement with one cause or argument than another. But when ideology itself becomes paramount and when all of the world can only be seen through such a prism, we are all of us taking a few, short steps in Eichmann’s shoes. True, we don’t approach his crimes, or match his craven inhumanity, but that may say less about our character, and more about the limitations of our position and historical circumstance. It’s not that we are all mere clerks, or that the other fellow is a ready sociopath. It’s that when we believe in anything to the exclusion of our own intellectual and moral rigor, we are simply less worthy and viable as human beings. That is Hannah Arendt’s great insight, and it stands.
What do you believe in? Is it always true? Does it always work? Is it always right, in every circumstance?
If so, look again. You have diminished yourself in some way.