Jul/Aug 2017 Salon

The Banality of Evil in Concord

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt takes pains to distinguish the difference between an ordinary autocratic or dictatorial regime and that of the totalitarian kind the Nazis and Stalinists ran. In the first case, what the autocrat demands is unquestioning obedience, certainly no public protest, whatever a subject or citizen may privately think. In the second, totalitarian system, the intention is to control not just the action and public expression of the individual but her/his very thoughts and, ultimately, the kind of human being s/he are. A good Nazi has no personal life (except when asleep, as one prominent Nazi pointed out). S/he is merely an atom in the movement whose object is to help evolution along by purifying the human race of its inferior breeds—a kind of speeding up of natural selection. S/he lives entirely to fulfill the will of the leader, no matter how fickle or self-contradictory said will may seem to an outsider. Similarly, a good communist lives and dies for the sake of historical necessity, which is embodied in the party and at its core in the person of the leader. S/he has no other existence than to play a small role in the process of realizing a perfect, however future, communist society (the Soviets never claimed to be anything more than socialists).

Arendt maintains this totalitarian type of political system was new to history. Before, there had been monarchs, despots, tyrants of all sorts. But the totalitarian version of political and social control is unique to the Nazis and Bolsheviks (at least after Stalin got full control of the party). I take her at her word, though of course all societies indoctrinate their populations, whether they are closed or open, authoritarian or democratic. Our own school system in the US does so, supposedly for such purposes as to teach the origins and exercise of a citizen's right to question and even dissent from governmental authority. We have our own national myths as well, the most egregious being "how the West was won," not until recent decades acknowledging it was by genocide pure and simple. And then there is our mainstream media, which as George Orwell pointed out in his (rejected by the publisher) introduction to Animal Farm, censor themselves so effectively that overt government interference is rarely necessary.

Our academic institutions play a critical role. We have taught our history of slavery as if it were a system for which a handful of mean slave owners were entirely responsible, without acknowledging the part played by northern banks and elite universities, not to mention the slavers of New England. And the next time you dip into a novel of Jane Austen and one of the gentleman portrayed there has to make an unspecified trip to the West Indies on "business," remember that business almost certainly had to do with management of a plantation—today we would call them slave-labor camps—where the average life expectancy of the workers was about one year.

But what surprises me about Arendt's analysis of the origins of the 20th-century totalitarian systems is her lack of any mention of other, non-political systems that have attempted the same complete control both outwardly and inwardly of human beings. Surely she could not have been ignorant of the history of Christianity and Judaism—today we could add Islam—in their attempts, largely successful, to control not just the behavior but the very thoughts of the faithful. Even entertaining an idea that ran contrary to Christian doctrine could be punishable not only by torture and death but by an eternity in the afterlife of even more exquisite agonies. The Inquisition was just one of those agents of mainstream European religion. And the same intent to control every waking moment of the faithful goes on today in parts of all three faiths, only recently without the power to impose physical punishment on malefactors. The tortures of the damned or expulsion in this life from the security of a closed, completely self-contained sect does the trick almost as well as thumb screws and the stake.

Surely these religions which have sought to control both the body and the mind of believers in what could only be called a comprehensive, i.e. totalitarian, fashion (and which, by the way, operated with nearly total power for hundreds of years, not just the 12 and 70 years of their modern political counterparts) could have served as models for the Nazis and Stalinists. After all, Arendt does say that the fraudulent but immensely popular Protocols of the Elders of Zion—second in sales only to the Bible in the early the 20th century—served as a blueprint for the Nazi goal of world domination. She maintains the Nazis, or proto-Nazis, initially did not so much hate Jews as envy and want to replace them as the supposed masters of the world. Surely at least some of these same people knew the history of the authority wielded during long centuries of religious oppression.

I doubt anyone who has not grown up inside one of the stricter varieties of a major religion can comprehend what it means to have your thinking self-censored, never mind the inclinations of your flesh. It's a terrible thing to tell a child her/his very thoughts are dangerous and sinful if they are different from orthodox belief or fall within the narrow limits of what constitutes a sinful thought or act. In a society less besotted than our own by "faiths," we would call this kind of thing child abuse and outlaw it. It seeks to control every waking moment of your consciousness. It makes you feel as if just being you is a near occasion of sin and hence of damnation and/or exclusion.

It takes an unusual sort of person to free her/himself from such an environment, especially when the outside world is so unwelcoming or your education is so pitifully lacking and the guilt of turning your back on what your family and friends consider essential truths feels like treason. It's a bit like trying to give up alcohol or drugs when all your friends are heavy drinkers or drug addicts. Some people accomplish this emancipation with remarkable aplomb, simply "see through" it and move on with their lives. Others only gain a sense of detachment from the fears and deeply embedded doctrines of their youth in painful stages over a long period of time and never achieve anything more than a tentative, one-day-at-a-time release, like recovering alcoholics who are always just one step from lapsing back into their addiction.

Compare this kind of regime with the spirit of Henry David Thoreau's On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. This short but timeless work—still an inspiration for modern-day revolutionaries like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.—is a text both conservatives and liberals could call their own, though both now and at the time of its publication they would be made uncomfortable by what much of it says (not unlike Christians who subscribe in general to the teachings of Jesus but ignore the more difficult parts). A conservative manifesto could begin with the essay's opening words: "That government is best which governs least." And liberals could get on board with the idea of resistance to aggressive wars and to support of tyrannical regimes for economic reasons. Thoreau says, "It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right."

No two ideas of government could be more unlike than Nazism/Stalinism and Thoreau's ideal of a fully democratic state. In the former the individual has no mind of his/her own and hence no responsibility other than to obey the will of the leader. In Thoreau's, the individual takes full responsibility for her/his own affairs as well as for the minimal government required for a society to exist (road maintenance, funding public schools, e.g.).

The two systems are antithetical to each other and probably both equally impossible to attain in the real world. But of course it is to Thoreau's ideal that we in the West tend to identify, at least nominally, despite its insistence that an honest person cannot pay taxes to a government that engages in an unjust war or a state that looks the other way to an ally's repression of its people when it's politically or economically inconvenient not to do so.

He has contempt for militarism—one can only imagine what he would make of the color guards and camouflage uniforms sometimes worn by major league baseball players, not to mention our militarization of the police to put down the very kind of protest he sees as essential to citizens' control of their government. He has contempt for the person who reads in his/her newspaper about governmental policies s/he doesn't approve of, and then falls asleep with the paper on her/his chest. And about those who think they are doing their civic duty simply by voting every two or four years he says, "Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.... He forthwith adopts one of the candidates selected [by the rich and influential], as the only available one, thus proving that he himself is available for any purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of an unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought."

Thoreau demands that a citizen worthy of the name take full responsibility for the actions of her/his government, which means that s/he think for her/himself and not shy away from being persecuted by that government for her/his protest. Even one person who is willing to go to jail for her/his convictions constitutes a majority of one, he insists, and he abhors the idea that the will of the majority should render the minority's impotent. "A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight."

He asks a lot of the citizenry, but is under no illusion about the likelihood of their behaving any better that they do. Yet even today independent thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Ron Paul, and Ralph Nader insist it takes only a small minority of citizens organized around a purpose to effect real change. Edward Snowden in the context of speaking about ordinary people bringing about revolutionary change (abolishing slavery, achieving the vote for women) calls such dissident behavior a "riot against orthodoxy": "...[W]hen people are expanding the borders of human rights, that always begins as a riot against orthodoxy. Whether it happens in the street, whether it happens in the newspapers, whether it happens in writing, whether it happens on TV..."

Thoreau was not a church-goer (he refused to pay the tithe even when faced with jail time for his refusal) and probably should not be considered a believer in anything except some sort of transcendent deity. But his ultimate model for the just state seems to be that of the Gospels, which he quotes here and there without attribution but which he calls the source stream of the river of truth. And the words of Jesus are largely repetitions and developments of the writings of Jewish prophets like Isaiah. If I knew more about the Koran, perhaps Muhammad could be included as well, not to mention Confucius and other non-Westerners who agree essentially on these basic ideas.

Jesus said few in any generation would hear his message. Few, I think, have heard Thoreau's. But those few, and the irresistible minority who have been energized by them, have sometimes changed the world. Today's Thoreaus say the same things he did, try to motivate us to take control of our fate, are optimistic almost beyond reason, and yet sometimes as if miraculously do help us make the world a more just and freer place.


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