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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Knowing Evil

May I recommend a wonderful article on Hannah Arendt? Perhaps you saw the movie?

She has been my mentor since I went to U of Chicago in the 60s--a great political thinker. Her coverage of the Trial of Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker, made into the book Eichmann in Jerusalem is a classic in the study of the meaning of evil.

And she was condemned for it. For many Jews, she seemed to be downplaying Eichmann's anti-Semitism. She seemed to be saying that he was not such a unique monster, that like him others even Jews went along with the Nazis, that her charge of "banality" was simply not enough to get at his diabolic evil. She seemed to be letting him off the hook and minimizing his crime.

Not so! In my reading she was showing evil in all its depth and breadth much more so than those who  attack her.

When we worked on Chicago's West Side, we learned that the racism, which divided the city black against white, screwing both upwardly mobile hard working new immigrant blacks and also former immigrant hard working Poles, Italians, Irish, and Jews, was not caused by the fearful lower class whites running away or the black families moving in the same way that the former immigrants did. They were both victims of real estate and banking practices supported, even financed, by government policies. These institutions were run by liberal minded officials who just made money off those practices and policies without questioning them. These liberals did not disdain either black people or white and would have welcomed them into their families. But they went along.

No, the racism in Chicago was (still is?) not as bad as Apartheid in South Africa or Nazism in Germany and these officials certainly were not overseeing the Final Solution the way Eichmann was. But they were just as responsible. And so are we if we do not question and oppose practices that make victims of people and rob them of their dignity.

The thoughtlessness that goes along with these practices and polices is not just an unfortunate condition, it is a choice that has consequences. It is the actions, not the intent, that should be judged and which Arendt was judging in Eichmann--not his anti-Semitism, but his following orders to brilliantly organize the extermination of thousands of innocent Jews.

But judgment requires critical thinking, the thinking that raises questions about what we have been told and that contradicts the commands of authority to avoid the knowledge of good and evil. That is why Eve is my mythic heroine. She chose to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge despite the consequences to her. St Augustine preached that Eve brought evil into the world. But, no, she brought the knowledge of evil into the world so we might do something about it.

And Hannah is Eve today.

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