The Nature of Evil

Edmund Burke famously said “For evil to flourish it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.” Burke was given to the pithy, memorable statements and was also a wise and extremely well-informed thinker. But today even though we might quote Burke there is little doubt in the minds of growing numbers of people that evil, as such, is a fiction. Indeed, in our relativistic age, “good” and “evil” are nothing more than words we use to describe things we either approve of or condemn. Today it’s all about US and how we feel. Students are asked not what they think about their reading (if they have done any) but how they feel. And they are asked to write “reaction papers,” rather than thought papers. And outside, in the “real” world, ask any Tom, Dick, or Sally and they will tell you it’s all a “matter of opinion.”

But one who took seriously the notion of evil was Hannah Arendt who, in 1963, was asked to write a series of articles for the New Yorker on the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Granted, the “final solution” was close enough in the memories of many people to make such a series of articles timely and pertinent. In fact, they were later collected in a book, published by Penguin under the title Eichmann  in In Jerusalem: A Report On The Banality of Evil.  Note, please, the sub-title. Arendt’s point was that folks like Eichmann are just like us. He was nothing more, and nothing less, than a bureaucrat, a tiny little man who simply did what he was told to do. In her words:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

The thing about the Holocaust that is so deeply disturbing, along with the fact that many deny it ever happened, is the strange matter-of-fact manner in which the “Final Solution” was carried out.  Hannah Arendt was appalled by the indifference with which people like Eichmann went about the business of calmly eliminating from the face of the earth over six million human beings. Such people are hollow: they have no soul. Eichmann never turned on the gas, but he was intent on making sure the trains ran on time so the victims could be delivered to their execution on schedule. He was not especially sadistic; he probably never thought about the people who were being gassed at all. But his callous indifference goes to the heart of Arendt’s dismay over his behavior. He was “just doing his job.” Evil can indeed be “banal.”

In a longer observation earlier in her book, Arendt seems to be providing a corollary on Burke’s statement quoted at the outset of this post:

“For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

Of course, for any of this to make any sense whatever, we must first accept that the Holocaust did happen — it was not a fiction. And, secondly, we must accept that evil is indeed a fact of life. It is real and some of us, indeed, many of us, are capable of committing evil actions or going along with others who commit them. One would think that both of these things would be easy to accept, but in this age of Newspeak and “false news” it may be too much to ask. We are asked, instead, to forget the past and get caught up in the chaos of the present, to accept lies as the truth and go along with the atrocities that are committed in the name of making America “Great” again. We are overwhelmed each day with information and misinformation mixed together in such a way that it takes the greatest possible effort of will, intellect, and attention to separate the two. Most people simply do not bother. And with our education system failing fewer and fewer people are able to make the separation even if they wanted to.

We would do well to pause and reflect on the nature of evil — which is very real — and the things that have happened in the past that inform the present and should make us wary of so much of what is going on around us. Arendt was right: evil is banal. And while it may be something any one of us is willing to engage in, we should seek above all else to be one of those who recognizes it for what it is and who simply says “No.” With emphasis.

Advertisements

“My” Truth

In a comment she made to a post I wrote about the nature of truth and falsity, Sha’Tara made the following remark: “In my world there is no truth whatever unless it is ‘my’ truth. . . “ I dismissed this claim as “indefensible,” which was a bit flippant. It deserves closer examination, though in the end I will try to show why it is indefensible. In effect the position is what has been called “solipsism,” and it has been around since humans began to think about truth and falsehood. The position rests on the assurance that I am the only one; I alone know about the “world” which is regarded as “real.” Truth, which is my personal fiction, is mine and mine alone.

As I noted in my comment to Sha’Tara, the claim “there is no truth” also claims to be true and this paradox is the key to the dismissal of the position. At best the claim itself is a half-truth. Some truths are mine while most have nothing whatever to do with me. To be sure, we all look at the world differently; each of us brings with us a large suitcase full of bias, prejudice and, at the very least, individual perspective. No question. But we bring this large piece of luggage to a world we share with others who also bring their own luggage. And we try to make sense of it, to make claims that can withstand criticism and which seem evidential. The evidence is itself available to others and can be examined and verified or rejected as the case warrants.

But in the end, claims from the axioms of Euclid (“Things equal to the same thing are equal to one another”) to the claims of the scientist (“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”) to the claims of the historian (“Caesar crossed the Rubicon”) can be verified. They are true because there is considerable intuitive, mathematical, historical, or sensory evidence to support them. They are not “my” truth: they are “our” truth. If we disagree about the claim that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, for example, we must bring evidence forward that provides an indisputable case against that claim. Indeed, like any claim, this one can be dismissed willy-nilly, because no one holds a gun to the head of anyone else (we would hope), but the dismissal is pure whimsy. There are no grounds for doing so, except that it makes the person himself or herself feel good. All the evidence supports the above claims in the parentheses.

The chemist/philosopher Michael Polanyi wrote a book in 1958 titled Personal Knowledge in which he argued that the scientist, no matter how exact the science itself, always brings with him or her a personal element. All claims, even the most precise and exact ones supported by mathematics and empirical observation are couched within a context of “personal knowledge.” Nonetheless, Polanyi insists, the knowledge itself is not in question because of the personal element. Polanyi’s goal was to restore science to a place within the body of human studies, to show that it is human knowledge and not so impersonal and somehow clinical that no one would approach it without rubber gloves and no interest whatever in the relationship between scientific truth and the truth in the social sciences and the Humanities. In a word, Polanyi wanted to substitute for the objective, impersonal ideal of scientific detachment an alternative ideal which gives attention to the personal involvement of the knower in all acts of understanding. But, note please, he did not reject all knowledge or all truth out of hand. Indeed, he affirmed the certainty of certain truths, while admitting the elements of personal involvement in the discovery and formulation of those truths.

The point of all this philosophical rambling is to show that truth is in a sense “mine,” but as truth it is there for anyone else. I am not all alone (solus ipse). I share a world with others with whom I can agree or disagree but with whom I also share a body of knowledge. I can get on the airplane with confidence that it will take off and land safely — because science tells me it is safe. I can drive my car and it will start and stop when I ask it to. The danger in rejecting truth is that we become open to manipulation by those in power who seek to instill in us a body of half-truths and “false facts” that allows them to realize their political goals. We are susceptible to the demagogue and the politically ambitious. We need to insist that there is truth and knowledge available to all who take the time to search and seek to validate it because if we do not do so we have nothing with which to defend ourselves from clap-trap and political nonsense.

This is why education is so important, especially in an age in which there are people “out there” who would have their way with us, convince us that black is white and that theirs is the only truth when, in fact, the truth belongs to no one. It belongs to all of us.

True Or False?

I begin with a rather lengthy quote from Wikipedia regarding one of the greatest atrocities ever committed by one group of human beings against another. I refer, of course, to the Holocaust.

The Holocaust, also referred to as the Shoah, was a genocide during World War II in which Nazi Germany, aided by its collaborators, systematically murdered some six million European Jews, around two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe, between 1941 and 1945. Jews were targeted for extermination as part of a larger event involving the persecution and murder of other groups, including in particular the Roma and “incurably sick”, as well as ethnic Poles, Soviet citizens, Soviet prisoners of war, political opponents, gay men and Jehovah’s Witnesses, resulting in up to 17 million deaths overall.

Germany implemented the persecution in stages. Following Adolf Hitler‘s rise to power in 1933, the government passed laws to exclude Jews from civil society, most prominently the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. Starting in 1933, the Nazis built a network of concentration camps in Germany for political opponents and people deemed “undesirable”. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, the regime set up ghettos to segregate Jews. Over 42,000 camps, ghettos, and other detention sites were established.

The deportation of Jews to the ghettos culminated in the policy of extermination the Nazis called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question“, discussed by senior Nazi officials at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942. As German forces captured territories in the East, all anti-Jewish measures were radicalized. Under the coordination of the SS, with directions from the highest leadership of the Nazi Party, killings were committed within Germany itself, throughout German-occupied Europe, and across all territories controlled by the Axis powers. Paramilitary death squads called Einsatzgruppen in cooperation with Wehrmacht police battalions and local collaborators murdered around 1.3 million Jews in mass shootings between 1941 and 1945. By mid-1942, victims were being deported from the ghettos in sealed freight trains to extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, they were killed in gas chambers. The killing continued until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945.

There are those among us who would insist that we cannot judge the Nazis because we haven’t walked in their boots. Seriously. There are also those among us who deny that the Holocaust ever happened, who insist that it is a fiction. These people also believe, many of them at any rate, that the moon landing was staged and never happened. I suspect these people also believe the earth is flat and that the sitting President of the United States is an exemplary human being.

What we need to think about when it comes to truth and falsity — which are being conflated these days in order to carry forth hidden agendas by those in power, I strongly suspect — is that the truth need not be pleasant. It need not fit in with our preconceptions and predilections. It can even be a bit ugly — like the truth about the Holocaust. The sheer numbers in the above quote beggar belief. And since the quote is from Wikipedia there are many who would question the truth of those claims. But there is a considerable body of evidence — available to anyone who wants to examine it — that those figures are accurate. Indeed, this is the nature of truth and how we can separate it from the falsehoods that parade as true because we (or someone out there) wants to (us) believe them. The truth can be corroborated by anyone at any time and in any place. Falsehoods cannot: they dissolve in the face of evidence, criticism, and sound argumentation. More than ever before, perhaps, it is imperative that we insist upon the difference between the two.

The way one goes about proving a statement, as we know from the hard sciences, is to seek to disprove the statement. If we cannot do so, we must accept it as true, like it or not. This was once known as the “Socratic method,” the method Socrates used in pleasant conversations with young men in Athens to test the claims that were floating about in the air — seeing if he could prove them to be mere “wind-eggs.” So much of what we hear today is in that category and we, as responsible adults, should dismiss them out of hand and insist that we be told the truth.

There is much to learn from history and we ignore it to our peril. We must test all claims, including those of historians — and if they are any good they would insist that we do so. But if those claims can stand the test of criticism and review then we must accept them, like it or not. That’s the nature of truth.

Consistency

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Please note the modifier: “foolish.” He is not saying that it is foolish to be consistent. He is saying it is foolish to cling to a position despite the evidence that displaces that position, despite evidence to the contrary. We seem to love foolish consistencies in this country and to distrust anyone who changes his or her mind — thinking, perhaps, that the person who does so is weak. George McGovern, years ago, lost the presidency, according to many experts, because he changed his mind about his running mate early on in the race. Heaven forbid that a man change his mind because he has determined that he was wrong! We had better be thought strong — even at the cost of foolish consistency.

As one who taught logic and critical thinking for many years and who thinks consistency in itself is a good  thing — not a foolish consistency, just ordinary consistency — I am amused by the ability of so many of us to hold on to two or three conflicting claims at the same time. Recently Terrell Owen, a football great in years past, was voted into the Football Hall of Fame — on the third ballot. He was incensed. He, suffering from entitlement as do so many athletes today, thought of himself as a “first-ballot” candidate. It was not to be and he fumed. The induction occurred recently and he determined not to attend the official ceremony in protest. He had his own celebration in McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga,Tennessee where he grew up and had friends clothe him with the gold jacket which had been sent from Canton, Ohio. He then gave a speech to approximately 3000 people who were there to support him. They also thought he should have been a first-ballot inductee. And later several talking heads on ESPN lauded Owen for his “honesty,” not to say, his courage. Many have agreed that it shouldn’t have taken this long.

In his speech Owen started off by insisting that he was not going to excoriate (my word, not his) the sports writers for not voting him into the Hall as soon as he was eligible. He then went on to excoriate the sports writers for not voting him into the Hall of Fame as soon has he was eligible! It was an astonishing example of inconsistency bordering on outright contradiction. And inconsistency can be so obvious that it amounts to a contradiction, a violation of what Aristotle thought to be the first “law of thought.” To be logical and indeed to make sense, we must avoid contradiction — especially in these days of false news and alternative facts. A square cannot be a circle at the same time and in the same respect. That is a law of thought. One cannot logically begin by saying that he is not going to criticize the sports writers for their egregious mistake and then go on to do just that!

We ignore the laws of thought, and indeed the common-sense notion of consistency, at our peril because it behooves us as intelligent creatures — more intelligent one would hope than the evidence suggests we are — to think clearly and cogently in order to find our way in the dark to something that we can accept as true. Not that we can ever be certain that we have happened upon the truth, but there are claims that simply are evidentially true and if we group them together they must be consistent, one claim cohering with another.

In the end, it would appear, we must avoid consistency of the foolish variety, fiercely embracing claims that are mutually exclusive, and insist upon consistency of the ordinary kind, making sure our claims fit with one another. Emerson was surely right: it is foolish to cling to claims once they have been shown to be false. But I would add that it is equally foolish to lay claim to “truths” that conflict one with another when such cannot possibly be the case. We must think our way through the maze and seek to be coherent and consistent throughout. That would appear to be the first rule of critical thinking.

 

The Real Villains

Bernie Sanders knew who the real enemy is — and it isn’t the Republican Party or our clown President. They are a mere diversion. The real villains in the political drama that is playing out before our eyes are the corporations. And because Sanders was becoming too loud he had to be silenced. The Democratic Party, which is funded by the corporations in large measure (as, of course, is the Republican Party) saw to it that his candidacy came to an end. He has been set aside and is now no more than a whimper, something the corporations can ignore because the rest of us can’t hear him, or refuse to listen.

The corporations are the modern face of capitalism and many of the criticisms by people like Mark Fisher (author of Capitalist Realism) are more properly directed at the corporations than they are at capitalism, per se. The corporations were recently allowed to come from behind the political curtain and declare themselves openly when, in “Citizens United,” the Supreme Court determined that corporations are persons and entitled to make huge donations to the political parties without having to do so under the table. As a result their cover is blown, but they are now beyond our reach because we do not know who the hell they are! That’s the problem, and that’s precisely why they are NOT persons: they are insubstantial and they cannot be found responsible for their misdeeds because they are like a shadow that suddenly is no longer there. Assigning responsibility to the corporations is like nailing Jello to the wall:  it cannot be done. They will be bailed out when in financial difficulty by the government, which they own, and if they should be discovered doing the dirty they will throw one of their own under the bus — or cover over the mess like the Valdez oil spill, with clever P.R. They are insidious because they are essentially vaporous and operate in secret.

Mark Fisher paints a vivid picture the Kafkaesque world of the corporations which is now our world. And toward the end of his book he outlines for us the effects of capitalism on the family and education — two of the pillars of our civilization — and the sorry state to which each has been brought mainly because of corporate influence. I quote him at some length because his message is worth pondering:

“It is the parents’ following of the trajectory of the pleasure principle, the path of least resistance, that causes most of the miseries in the families. In a pattern that quickly becomes familiar, the parents’ pursuit of the easy life leads them to accede to their children’s every demand, which becomes increasingly tyrannical.. . .

“The problem is that late capitalism insists and relies upon the very equation of desire with interests that parenting used to be based on rejecting. In a culture in which the ‘paternal’ concept of duty has been replaced by the ‘maternal’ imperative to enjoy, it can seem that the parent is failing in their duty if they in any way impede their children’s absolute right to enjoyment. Partly this is an effect of the increasing requirement that both parents work; in these conditions, when the parent sees the child very little, the tendency will often be to refuse to occupy the ‘oppressive’ function of telling the child what to do. The parental disavowal of this role is doubled at the level of cultural production by the refusal of the [corporations] to do anything but give audiences what they already (appear) to want. The concrete question is: if a return to the paternal superego — the stern father in the home — is neither possible nor desirable, then how are we to move beyond the culture of monotonous moribund conformity that results in a refusal to challenge or educate?”

Corporations remain out of focus in our world of constant entertainment and diversion — provided, of course, by the corporations (who also see to it that both parents must work in order to “provide for their families”). Thus the corporations are able to determine not only political but cultural outcomes while remaining  anonymous. And those outcomes are always about the same thing: profits for their shareholders and C.E.O.s. The shareholders themselves feel they are benefitting because they enjoy a higher standard of living and are able to take advantage of the diversions provided for them by  — wait for it — the corporations! It is a circle, and it is a vicious circle. Bernie Sanders saw this clearly. But his voice has been silenced. Will anyone have the courage to speak up — say, Elizabeth Warren? Or will her voice also be silenced as well before she can shout “wolf” loud enough to be heard by those who really don’t want to listen.

In any event, the notion that we live in a “democracy” is no longer tenable. In fact, we live in a tyrannical bureaucracy run by numerous powerful corporations that are above the law because they determine what the laws will allow or disallow. The founders worried about the influence of money on the tenuous threads that hold a Republic together, but they never, in their worse nightmares, imagined the power that could be wielded by giant multinational corporations. The Republic they envisioned, resting as it  precariously did on the balance of powers, has been replaced by the all-powerful corporations and the unimaginably wealthy few who run the show.