Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hannah Arendt, the Movie

Twenty-thirteen marks the release, perhaps long overdue, of the story of Hannah Arendt, the gifted and controversial thinker. While Arendt's entire life was notable, the film concentrates on her coverage of the Eichmann trial in Israel for The New Yorker in 1961. Her personal discovery and publication that Adolf Eichmann was not a diabolical monster but simply a dull, ordinary bureaucrat obsessed with efficiency ignited a firestorm of criticism from the international Jewish community. The fact that she put blame on Jewish leaders for not taking an active enough stance against the Nazis led to her further ostracism.

 Arendt had close relationships, both intellectually and personally, with some major figures and institutions of the twentieth century. Raised and educated in pre-Nazi Germany, she was very close to philosopher Martin Heidegger, moved on to France and a coterie of Marxist intellectuals, eventually obtaining US citizenship in 1950. She held positions at UC-Berkley, Northwestern, Princeton, Yale, Chicago and other schools.

Even today, nearly 70 years after the destruction of the Nazi regime, people consider Hitler and his inner circle as the architects of a situation that led to the deaths of millions. Similarly, less catastrophic tyrants, the Khadaffis, Assads, Perons, Castros, Mugabes etc. are given the responsibility for the sufferings of their subjects. The reality is that these monsters cannot flourish without the day-to-day work of their bureaucrats. The insatiable record-keeping, the detailed regulations, the never-ending quest for and analysis of information and the draconian enforcement of decrees are all handled at the lowest levels of bureaucratic hierarchy. For bureaucrats there's no such thing as good or evil. They're just doing their job. It's with them that the "banality of evil" thrives.

Or, as Dr. Arendt herself put it so well in her essay, "On Violence", in Crises of the Republic, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1974:

"...the terms used since Greek antiquity to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man--of one or the few monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy. Today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such domination: bureaucracy or the rule of an intricate system of bureaus in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called rule by Nobody. (If, in accord with traditional political thought, we identify tyranny as government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done.  It is this state of affairs, making it impossible to localize responsibility and to identify the enemy, that is among the most potent causes of the current world-wide rebellious unrest, its chaotic nature, and its dangerous tendency to get out of control and to run amuck.)

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