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The Banality of Evil: Anti-feminism and the Left

Last week, I finally sat down with some friends and watched the 2012 film, “Hannah Arendt,” by Margarethe von Trotta.  The film focuses on Arendt’s trip to Israel to watch the Eichmann trial and the writing of her article for The New Yorker on the trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem.  With nice timing, The New Yorker is making its archives including this article available for a limited time on its website so check it out here.  Arendt argues in that essay that what was most appalling about the trial and about Eichmann and most frightening for a political environment tending more and more to totalitarianism was that Eichmann did not claim to think.  He did not claim to make decisions.  He says he didn’t know or worry about where the trains he put the Jews on were going.  It wasn’t his responsibility, he was only responsible up until the point that they got on the trains.  He insists in court that he has nothing against the Jews, that he wasn’t driven by a desire to eliminate people he hated, but to satisfy his supervisors.  In the film, the prosecutors speak over Eichmann’s denial of hating the Jews and assert it as if it must be true to make sense of the murder of six million Jews.  Arendt raises the alarm that the problem is not that the perpetrators of the Shoah were evil masArendt film posterterminds, they were bureaucrats, bureaucrats who take refuge in not thinking, not even in refusing to think but in never feeling the need to think.

The most interesting part of the film for me was the depiction of the backlash against Arendt once the piece came out in The New Yorker.  The Jewish community in New York were upset with Arendt for not depicting Eichmann as more evil for what he had done – she recognizes he is cruel, but mostly, mediocre.  Arendt explains the error that she finds in what she has written, not that she should have made Eichmann more evil, but that, “Evil cannot be both ordinary and radical.  Evil is always extreme.  Never radical.  Good is always deep and radical.”  Her point is that Eichmann is evil, but he is ordinary and unthinking, and his evil, his capacity to do evil comes from his ordinary unthinkingness, and it is this ordinary unthinkingness that Arendt worries is a greater threat than the evil mastermind.  What I found so striking was that the survivors and the friends of survivors seemed to desire a radical evil, a mastermind of evil.  That kind of evil was easier to cope with than a pencil pusher who was just doing his job.

I watched the first season of the new show, “Fargo,” on FX a couple days after watching the Arendt film, and my husband Jeff pointed out that the show goes wrong where the Cofargoen Brothers’ film, “Fargo,” was so brilliant.  In the film, the criminals are fumbling everyman types, but the show is driven by an evil mastermind.  What is it about the evil mastermind that not only captures our imagination but seems to be the object of a certain kind of desire?  We want there to be some plan, some rational account, that explains why the evil has happened.  We find that satisfying.

But what if it doesn’t help?  My dear friend, Leigh Johnson, who blogs over at readmorewritemorethinkmorebemore posted an article to my Facebook page today, “Punching Gloria Steinem: Inside the Bizarre World of Anti-Feminist Women,” and it brought these ideas together for me.  Sidenote: I just heard a joke that is rumored to be Gloria Steinem’s favorite joke: “Do you know feminists have no sense of humor?” “No, but hum a few lines, and I’ll try to jump in.”  In this piece, Jessica Valenti reminds us of the women who have fought against feminist efforts for equality in American politics and law, from the Independent Women’s Forum to Concerned Women for America to the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, and from women like Phyllis Schlafly, Sarah Palin to Beverly LaHaye.  Valenti writes of “women stopping the progress of other women” and “raining on our progress parade,” and describes these associations such as IWF in terms of its financial ties to Rush Limbaugh.  Valenti doesn’t come out and accuse these women of being evil though a reference to Rush certainly ratchets things up a bit and she does note that that they would have the Violence Against Women Act repealed, that many of them reject women’s suffrage, and consider ‘ inequality’ a trade-off in getting men to do right by women.  But the piece as a whole struck me as making the claim that anti-feminists are evil and they are out to get us, a line that I don’t think is far off from the larger sense in Left media that the right is evil and it is out to get us.  Valenti writes: “But anti-feminist organizing is based on a deep hypocrisy and selfishness–an ideology built to assure conservative women that as long as they are doing just fine, other women will make do.”  Aside from recognizing that this “as long as I’m fine, others will make do” can also be applied to certain white and privileged strains of American feminism, this claim seems to need anti-feminists to be selfish hypocrites.  Selfish hypocrites who are bad people.

By making them selfish hypocrites who are bad people we don’t have to deal or consider the forces and ideas that lead them to think this way.  As I mentioned in a post about the connection between thinking and civic engagement earlier in the summer, I grew up in a conservative family from whom I learned a lot and that thinking mattered, but also that what it meant to be a man or a woman was prescribed by God.  That didn’t mean to stop thinking about what it meant, but that it didn’t mean something outside of or beyond what was prescribed by God.  It seems like there are two approaches to thinking about this: that people are using God to control those who follow them, or that people really are accepting of the view that the truth is a in a sacred text and are doing the best to figure out what they think it means to live according to that text.  (To be fair, a whole lot of Christians actually are feminists (cf. Christian Feminist Network), and you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they are often a part of churches that think you need to read the Bible a whole lot differently than those that think gender performance can be adequately prescribed by the Bible.)  The first account above seems to make them masterminds of evil.  On the second account, I can see how, though the ends they pursue seem to me to be devastating for women’s progress and for justice, that this is not because they have some fundamental evil that drives their being, but that they are following the commitments they have.

I don’t think that anti-feminists in America are on par with the cruelty of Eichmann – I know I’m in danger of invoking Godwin’s law before commenting even begins!  When Arendt calls Eichmann banal and unthinking she is saying something more shocking and upsetting than I am saying when I say that the anti-feminist position in America is banal because Eichmann was so cruel, he set the standard for cruel (see Godwin’s law above).  He appeared even more cruel because he didn’t have an agenda  for his cruelness, he didn’t have thinking behind it.  His destructiveness was truly unthinking!  American conservative and anti-feminist thinking that comes out of fundamentalism is not without thinking altogether.  But it isn’t an overarching plan for destruction and dominance.  You might disagree with me if you thought that it was a plan for the dominance of their view, but what I am arguing is that that view does not seek dominance by definition even if it wants to be the dominant view.  It doesn’t think it wasn’t to be dominant so that it can dominate.  I know a lot of people on the internet think that is the case, but I think that is the Left’s own bogeyman, and I admit that I’m only saying this from my experience within that culture, not from reading everyone who claims to represent it.  I would say that the fundamentalist view is a thinking based on a certain view of who God is and how we should act accordingly.  What is unthinking is that ground.  They have reasons and arguments for their accounts of gender roles, reasons and arguments that lead back to a certain essentialism rooted in a transcendent prescription for how we should live.   I would suggest that following a transcendent prescription for how we should live is banal not radically evil, and it is only in this way that I am comparing this position to Eichmann’s whose banality was in doing what he did from unthinking acceptance of orders from superiors.

My concern with the American Left’s demonizing of certain views on the right leads me to wonder why we want those who hold unjust positions to be radically evil.  If it makes us feel better to think in those terms, it seems to do so because it makes us feel righteous by contrast and such self-righteousness doesn’t seek to examine its own capacity to hypocrisy and selfishness.  And that, I think is the real problem that Arendt presents in her analysis of Eichmann.  If evil is banal, we are all capable of being evil.  If evil is banal, we aren’t safe from it.  We too could become cruel, even, yes, like Eichmann.  This was the danger of totalitarianism that Arendt warned of: the cruelty of bureaucracy.  Self-righteousness works not only to inoculate us to the possibility that we might also be susceptible to cruelty and injustice, or to just going along when going along is destructive and harmful, but also to create the disagreeing other as radically other.  Once posed as radically other, we can comfort ourselves without really doing anything just knowing that we wouldn’t be discriminatory, more concerned with our individual success than that of others, willing to take advantage of our privilege instead of seeking equality and justice.  No, we wouldn’t do that at all.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jon #

    This is a great piece of thinking, and — more than that — it is also convicting. By “convicting” I mean it not only finds the dangerous heart of assigning a heroic type of evil to others; it exposes that tendency in my own words and even acts. I’ll be chewing on this a while, because it speaks personally to me as someone who at first unconsciously and later quite deliberately embraced a feminist understanding of history and of theology. In the process, though, I’ve more than occasionally found it narratively advantageous to view those of a more, uh, conservative bent as motivated purely by animus against progress or “the good” or women (choose one).

    Of course, the first hunch I had upon reading the title was that we might be journeying back through the ’60s left, a mostly male-led movement that was astonishingly sexist and anti-feminist on virtually every level. And — though that wasn’t where you headed — there’s another example of your main point. The ’60s left didn’t set out to exclude or objectify women; they simply hadn’t thought about it, becoming (as feminist were soon to point out) not different than the “establishment” males they thought they’d broken from.

    Finally, I’d be remiss not to quote (with a wink) that sometimes quite essentialist C. S. Lewis. Not on women or men, but rather on a certain idea he had of hell.

    “I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’ The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.” [from his forward in “Screwtape Letters”]

    Sounds quite a bit like Arendt, doesn’t it? And — yes — one last comment. I still find in myself a terrible urgency re feminism that sits nearly as close to the center of my understanding as does Christianity. The exact reasons for that have become clearer over time, but I have also had to learn that urgency in itself can become dictatorial if I actually imagine that I will change others’ thinking. There is a hope I *might* change a few minds… but perhaps the main goal needs to remain the mind and heart’s clarity as I work on my own self-project, the discombobulating of a sexist male in order to create a (more) whole human being. Even that seems a bit much to ask most days.

    July 22, 2014
  2. Thanks for the comment, Jon. That Lewis quote is close to Arendt. It’s harder to fight the banal kind of evil, maybe it feels less heroic on our part, and that again testifies to our own need to construct the wages we fight in terms of our own goodness.

    I am interested in the question of that urgency. On the one hand, I think injustice should invoke urgency. But that leads me to consider where the focus of the urgency should be. I had a student tell me last fall that I shouldn’t feel like I needed to change their minds in that class period, because I had the whole semester. This was after a raucous debate in class. I think the better goal might be to incite desire for the reconsideration of one’s position. Like Socrates, I find people who disagree dig in when it becomes a matter of defending that they are right rather than actually pursuing the truth. In that sense, your effort to discombobulate might be the most convincing argument.

    July 23, 2014
  3. robertdstolorow #

    Excellent post! I believe that the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem coincided roughly with Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments conducted at Yale University. I took a graduate seminar from Milgram after he had moved to Harvard, and his descriptions and audio recordings of the experiments provided chilling validation of the banality of evil. Originally his idea was to study the German national character, which he thought was particularly prone to blind obedience to authority. But he needed an American control group with which to compare the Germans–hence his studies at Yale. Each study was set up as a bogus learning experiment, wherein the real subject was instructed to administer electric shocks of increasing intensity to the fake subject each time the latter made a mistake. In the initial studies, some 60% of the real subjects ended up administering what they thought were shocks at the highest level of intensity, even though the fake subjects were groaning in pain, complaining of a weak heart, and pleading that the shocks come to an end. All the experimenter said was, “The experiment must go on.” Subsequently, there were a number of variations on the initial studies, all with virtually the same results. The majority of real subjects acted like Eichmann, blindly and unthinkingly obeying. Milgram never took his research to Germany!

    Here is a link to my blog post on “The Meaning and the Rhetoric of Evil,” originally published as an invited essay in the Russian Journal: I think some of its themes bear on the problem of the banality of evil.

    July 24, 2014

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