Hannah Arendt’s reporting on the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann famously ends with the summation that what she observed was the banality of evil. She presents Eichmann, the mid-level manager whose obsession with organization made mass murder possible, as someone for whom the cliché was a sedative of conscience, for whom propaganda took on moral authority.
Two points here must be immediately addressed. Eichmann was not someone who would have been a monster by himself. He was blandly average. He might have worked for his professional decades as a moderately successful salesman without ever doing any serious harm had it not been for the sociopathic society that was Nazi Germany. He even seems to have had an average conscience — one that will not go out of its way to right any wrongs, but will refrain from the worst actions — until Hitler’s regime had set its schemes into motion. He was thus like a great many people, basically anodyne as long as they are not pushed too far.
He also could not have committed his infamies had it not been for the people around him. The murder of human beings on an industrial scale requires a lot of laborers to operate the machinery. Someone had to run the trains, build the prisons, file the paperwork, and organize the schedules.
It is all too easy to believe that nothing could have been done, given the compliance of the Germans and of the populations of many occupied countries. But Denmark during the war shows what might have been across Europe. The Danish king did not wear a yellow star, but he did express his intention to don one if the Germans required Danish Jews to do so, and the people of that nation not only refused to turn over Jews for deportation, but worked to hide and smuggle to Sweden as many as possible.
The effect that stock phrases had on Eichmann’s mind is all too familiar today. Trump’s flailing is invariably described as making America great again, and any proposed solution to our social ills is labeled common sense. Thoughts and prayers are the immediate response to horrors, and while we can afford any tax cut or war proposed, universal healthcare and expanding access to higher education costs too much. The validity and value of a person’s ideas are determined by the groups to which the person belongs.
This list can go on and on. So much of political speech would fall silent if human beings were unable to use language in a thoughtless manner. We treat politics like an athletic contest. Winning is all that matters, and the only plan for the future is the next season. We signal our group identity by the slogans we use without analysis and by the slogans that we subject to criticism.
What gets lost here is the understanding that the purpose of politics is to do good in society. By doing good, I mean either actions that promote well being or choices to refrain from acting when the best we can do is busywork. But the doing of politics requires and produces power, and that is all too often substituted for the proper end of the process.
Power is addictive, and it is particularly dangerous to mediocre minds. For persons like Eichmann, power is a marker for accomplishment. His measure was the efficiency with which he removed Jews from the territories under his supervision. For Donald Trump, money is power, and all that matters is the piling up of wealth to provide him the feeling of being able to move the world around him as a result. At the core of a psychological makeup of that nature is a fear of being exposed as a fraud — a person who is all branding with no substance.
One of my constant themes is that the advance of technology allows a greater distribution of power. The Internet spreads information, bypassing gatekeepers. What will be possible with 3-D printing has yet to be shown, but the potential looks vast. The commercial development of space is similar, especially since the very concept of a nation — of what we mean when we talk about society and the obligations and benefits that come from it — will go through endless evolution as we move outward.
Voting was an earlier expression of distributing power. But as has been recognized by political philosophers going back to the ancient Greeks, democracy suffers from the risks of demagoguery and ignorance. The fallacies of advertising — faulty emotional appeals and the lure of the bandwagon are high on the list — sway the mob, and a showman who promises an easy road to paradise will always do well in popular elections.
If a democracy is to work, the luxury of being average must be given up. This may sound like a statistical impossibility, and it is ever less realistic under the constant attacks on our educational system, but mediocrity is not a worthy goal. Someone must do the work of government, and if the people are unwilling or unable to take on that job, at least in a supervisory role, there will be volunteers to fill the vacancy. As Ben Franklin said after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, we have a republic, if we can keep it. A republic is literally a thing of the people, as contrasted with the rule of the few or the one, and ours employs democracy — the rule of the people — as the means of determining the will of the rulers. But it is not a system that works for banal people.