Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Eichmann in our Living Rooms

In her most famous book, _Eichmann in Jerusalem_, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil." Eichmann, who enabled one of the greatest genocides of all time, did not act from personal hatred of Jews or Gypsies, or because he was overtly, inherently evil according to Arendt. He acted because he believed in following the law and doing his job well. He did evil, but was not evil - he simply absented his own moral responsbility, and did his job, regardless of its consequences, seeking promotion and to do well by the standards of his day. If that job meant killing millions of Jews, well...ah well.

What was important about Arendt's book is the notion that ordinary people, acting in ordinary ways could do vast evil. We tend to think of evil as psychopathic, recognizable, like a cartoon villain. Arendt pointed out that evil happens when ordinary people choose not to recognize the moral qualities of their actions.

It is a painful thing to recognize, as we must, that right now, Adolf Eichmann lives in our houses. He is us, and we are he. That is, the ordinary life that we are living right now is the cause of more harm than any Nazi ever committed. We are committing genocide all over the world by warming the planet. 1.5 billion people stand to lose their drinking water over the next century. Up to 2 billion risk famine. More than 2 billion will be displaced. We can expect 30 million to die of diseases that are gradually moving north. The people most at risk are mostly poor, many women, many non-white. Whole nations of people stand to be killed or turned into refugees. The Nazis managed to kill only 11 million people. We stand to make them look like pikers.

And we do it every day in our living rooms, in our cars, in our schools, at our jobs. Over the second half of the 20th century, there has been the gradual increase of the notion that beaurocrats, those who kill people with a pen and never have to dirty their hands are not less morally responsible, but more so. There is a special circle of hell for those who do not dirty their hands.

And for every one of us who deplores an Eichmann, ordering Jews to the gas chambers, or Clinton watching Iraqi children starve to death, or a Rumsfeld ordering torture, should look carefully at ourselves, and think about how we are different. We too are killing people. We are doing it every morning as we drink our coffee. We too are killing people when we get into our cars to go to work. We are killing people as we do our jobs. We wonder what we have done to deserve this government that we have. And the answer is this - we have the government we can expect. For those who wash their hands of the acts they are responsible for, there is a special circle of hell indeed.

What is the answer? The answer is to stop obeying the law, the custom, going on the way we are. Arendt pointed out that Eichmann missed the whole point of Kant - he thinks the law is good because it is the law. But the law (or the custom, or the way we live) is only good if it is good, and it is moral, and if each man and woman allows their conscience, their moral sensibility to do a true accounting and judge, and take real responsbility.

Arendt famously said that it was always possible to resist the pressure to do evil. She argued,

"...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."

There is no excuse for us to fail to resist. We must reduce our emissions individually and as a nation. Whenever anyone says to you, "one person cannot make a difference" remember this - some day you will face your children, or G-d, or your own conscience. Being able to do that, and say "I fought back" may be the greatest legacy you can leave. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps we might also enable this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.

I do not wish to see Eichmann in my mirror.



Anonymous said...

Philip G. Zimbardo, in The Lucifer effect: understanding how good people turn evil, argues that it isn't so much that one bad apple spoils the rest as that good apples are put in bad barrels and find it very hard to resist the situtation.

Our bad barrel is our whole system of life, and while we resist it, we can also try to retro-fit the barrel. (Is there a metaphore I haven't mixed?)

It is sobering to realize that so often we are one of "them."

Thanks, Sharon, for all your blogging.



Michelle in Ga said...

I respectfully disagree.

jewishfarmer said...

What do you disagree about, Michelle? I'm curious.


Michelle in Ga said...

Telling folks they're committing
atrocities of omission is like
telling them they're guilty of original sin. "You're born,
therefore you're guilty." I can't
abide that kind of reasoning.
Folks are being lied to, many
can't help that they cannot percieve the truth.
The rest of the post was fine,
offering options and hope for
adjusting to a difficult today and tomorrow.

deliberately said...

I too take a bit of issue with the post. The principles are fine, I just don't think bullying people into changing the way they are approaching their actions is likely to have the desired effect. Telling people who aren't already in agreement that they are mass murderers is more likely to put them on the defensive. You risk pushing people away, not bringing them closer to the truth.

jewishfarmer said...

Thanks for clarifying, Michelle. That's what I thought you probably objected to - and I figured I'd get that response. But I don't think it *is* like saying you are guilty of original sin, in the sense of inevitability. Not everyone in the world, and not everyone in rich nations commits these acts in equal measure.

This is a matter of taste and approach, of course, but I think that we use a lot of honey, both on this site and in the environmental movement in general. There's a lot of rewarding people for simple and incremental changes, and that's good. But I think we also can't be afraid to ask people to take moral responsibility for their actions, or to take an unflinching look at the consequences of them.

That's not to say I don't agree that many people don't fully understand the implications of their actions. But that was almost certainly true of many people who supported the Nazis, or many people who have enabled any kind of genocide in history. All these things happen gradually, without shouting out their names. And yet, we are still, IMHO, obligated to perceive and to resist. There are always those who look up at the end of something and ask "what have I done" - they often write interesting books about it. I'd like someone to skip the book, and recognize *before* the consequences become horribly evident.

I'd also say that with all the information coming out on the IPCC, you have to, on some level, choose not to know. And that's part of what I'm concerned about - I think many people are choosing not to think too hard about what is happening. And I'm not sure that the carrot *is* a better solution than the stick there. It will be interesting to find out.

We'll have to see what the rest of the response is. But I appreciate it, both Michelle and deliberately, that you took the time to articulate your difference. That's helpful to me.

Anonymous said...

I think we spend an awful lot of time being nice to people about their consumption, partly not to put them off, and partly, at least in my case, because I'm very aware that I live in a glasshouse. But maybe some people need a wake up call. Perhaps if they knew that not using that paper towel is a nice start, but that it's not just about saving a tree, they'd be motivated to do more. I think keeping people in the dark about the effects of their actions is not doing them (or anyone else)a service. I don't think it's a matter of pointing fingers at the guilty as letting people know what's really going one.


Anonymous said...

When you fill your gas tank, how many lives did it cost? Neither you nor I know...but I am sure that the number is not zero. The same goes for the factory-farmed food you eat, the cheap clothes that you buy, and so forth. How much human and non-human misery is embodied in what you buy? The costs are hidden, but they are real. What enables the Eichmann in all of us to come to the fore is when we don't try to look at the devil behind the curtain, even when brave little Toto is struggling to reveal it.
Once you realize that many of your everyday actions are corrupted beyond acceptability by our inhuman and amoral corporate masters and others, you know it is time to stop. Look for the hidden evil, for it will not go away on its own. Stop doing what causes others misery and death to the very best of your abilities.
Don't be too hard on yourself when you fail, however. You didn't make the world, and it may be beyond your abilities to never buy gasoline again. Just remember that your actions contribute to the world that is, and the world that you leave behind for the next generation. Do the best you can. Expose every devil you can. Look for them in the most inocuous of activities. Don't give money or time to the devils you uncover, to the best of your abilities. Spread the word--there are devils everywhere, and it will take the best disinfectant, sunshine, to begin to eliminate them.
Go, Sharon, go!

RAS said...

Amen Sharon. Thank you for calling a spade a spade.

I, for one, am tired of being nice to people who consume willy-nilly, fly all over the place, eat sushi flown in from Asia, and have three times as many tvs and Ipods as they do people in their house, but think its okay because they use CFLs and recycle. Or even in less extreme cases -I have to fly once a year to see my kids because I live 500 miles away; I have to drive all over because I have kids and have to chauffer them around to all their activities, and on and on.

Here's a hard truth: when people are doing something wrong, especially when they know it's wrong (as most people do) being nice to them to try and get them to change usually will NOT work. You have to call them on their s**t. When you do that, they are going to get mad and defenisve (as some on this blog all ready have) but it will also make them start to think. They may change. They may not. But unless they're really close-minded, they are going to see that what they're doing is wrong -and that someone, at least, has seen through their game.

Squrrl said...

I'm a little torn on this one--on the one hand, as you say, people need to be brought to understand that their actions have serious global implications, and, as Mea says, it's not just about saving trees. On the other, I'm just...I'm just not into guilt, I guess. For one thing, I'm not nearly as convinced as you seem to be that people really DO grasp the implications of their actions. In fact, I'm pretty sure that most of them don't. For example, I think it likely that I could do a quick polling of my little rural neighborhood, and not a single person would even be able to tell me what the IPCC is, never mind truly grasp what it's saying. Yes, they don't know because they don't want to know. But all many of them have is an uncomfortable sense that things can't go on this way, at best.

Basically, it's all about who has the information, to me. I have the information I need to understand the situation, and therefore I have a responsibility to act in accord with that information as best I can, which includes sharing that information--when I think it will be heard. But I'm not at all sure that my neighbors do, and so I don't get angry--only sad--when they don't act in accord.

I find I have more to say on this issue that can be reasonably said here--I think I'll go blog. :-P

Paula said...

I agree with Sharon that "many people are choosing not to think too hard about what is happening." But I also think that many people have zero awareness of what is actually happening in the world. And FOX News does not count, everyone.

For many people, it seems absolutely formidable to ponder "why" at all. Whether these individuals lack either consciences or analytical skills is beyond me.

We certainly make direct and indirect efforts in the industrialized countries to fuck up every ecosystem on the planet. We, sitting in positions of privilege, have raped and pillaged all sorts of indigenous peoples and ethnic groups to have the so-called comforts we own today. We should be ashamed, very ashamed. But how often do we ponder the consequences of our actions? When does it get to the point of staring you in the face? When does "LOOK WHAT YOU HAVE DONE," shout out from inside you?

I saw a parts of a documentary last week where some Lithuanians ? (please correct me if I'm wrong) were ordered to move the rotting, emaciated bodies of Holocaust victims from one pit to the other. I got that feeling you get when you're sure you're going to vomit; when saliva starts forming at the back of your throat and your stomach, well . . . you know.

I just got through a major portion of Romeo Dallaire's "Shake Hands With the Devil," as well (Rwanda genocide, 1994).

A few months ago, I read an article from a Chicago Trib reporter tracing oil transit from an angry Nigeria to a diffused suburban gas station.

I am floored, stunned, and ashamed all at once.

So now that I know these things, is it not my responsibility to change myself?

In summary, I think we all have to look at social change in these steps:

1. Awareness
2. Acceptance
3. Action
4. Change

The breakdowns in these steps are what we have to work on.

Thank you, Sharon, for your inspiring work. You have been a beacon for me and a friend, even though I don't know you personally.


Anonymous said...

I have no idea how many people grap the concepts. I run into a wide range of people, from strugglers at the soup kitchen who aren't even aware that oil is used to make gas. They tend to be very consumed in the details of survival; however, they don't have cars, and certainly aren't major contributors to overconsumption by US standards, though some of them find the idea of filling their empty water bottles from the tap rather taking taking another full one for the walk home a real hoot.

Then there seem to be a lot of cluesless people who should know better. Surely some of the 79% of people in a recent survey who didn't know plastic came from oil had been exposed to that information at some point and had just forgotten it becuase it seemed unimportant.

And then their are people like a couple I know who are aware of things such a child labor in lethal conditions who say, "Well they are just (fill in the blank)" or "At least they are working." There seems to be a discontect between two sorts of humanity for people who think like that. One man doesn't seem to grasp the fact that we was able to start his own business with a loan sucured by the house his parents left him, while living on his wife's salary while it took off, using the skills he'd learned at university (paid for by his parents) doesn't mean that someone with no resources or education can't (and this is the example he uses) go door to door offering to mow lawns with the household's mower until he saves up enough money to buy his own equipment and then become a sucessful landscaper. After all, "If I did it, anyone can. They just have to work a bit harder." Basically he can't see the difference in the situtations.

MEA (btw, I don't mind what people call me, but I don't have an e e cummings complex in reverse. They are my initals, not my name)

Michelle in Ga said...

There is true evil in the world.
It shouldn't be confused with ignorance or apathy. Most folks
of my aquaintance don't know a thing about Peak Oil, they TRUST
fox news. Heck, so did I until
I was blessed with awareness. The
most that I can do is attempt to
educate and awaken others. I have
frequently stated that trying to get folks PO aware is like trying to disconnect them from the BORG collective. How do you get people to rewire a lifetime of accepted truths? It doesn't happen overnight, or by telling them they're murderers. It's easy to
loose patience with the "non-believers", but they haven't woken
up or been given a chance to cope with this terrible new world we face. They are like lambs to the slaughter and should be treated a bit more gently. Just my take.
Otherwise, I truly appreciate Sharon's writings. Michelle

Michelle in Ga said...

Another thought:
What's the age of carbon responsibility? Is my 1 year old
neice guilty before she udders her first sentence? Is my 3 year old neice guilty of murder?
Is my bold and sassy 13 year old
liable? My 19 year old? They didn't
cut their adult teeth on PO.
Am I guilty? No. M

Kiashu said...

I don't think we're Eichmanns. Eichmann was someone who had power, and who organised the death of millions. So the common person is not an Eichmann, our political and corporate leaders are Eichmanns.

We've more in common with the common German citizen, the ones who saw Jews disappearing from their cities and said and did nothing.

There's a moral difference between the SS guys who kicked a Jewish family out of their home, and the "Aryan" family who came to live in that home three years later.

It's important to be able to make these moral distinctions, between those who are truly responsible and those who are simply along for the ride, wherever that ride might go. It's the difference between activity and passivity. Not only is this an important distinction in morality, it's an important one in spreading this sort of message against genocide or global warming or whatever.

That's because if you say that everyone is an Eichmann, the only result is people feeling depressed. "Wow, if I'm as evil as the guys in Shell who get the Nigerian government to murder environmental activists, then... what can I do? Nothing." It's not productive; even if it were true - which it's not - it's not productive.

The other night I saw the excellent documentary Crude Impact. One of the things said in that was that people calling out that there's danger cause fear. But there are two kinds of fear: positive and negative.

Negative fear is "we're doomed!" and "everything and everyone is against us!" It leads to passivitiy, inaction, and there's a risk of political dictatorship - "This problem is too big for anyone, we need a Strong Leader."

Postive fear is fear which leads to action. "Okay, X is a danger, but if I do Y then it'll be okay." This leads to solving the problem, and people working as communities and societies to fix things up, and greater democracy - which allows more ideas to pop up which could solve the problems.

In saying that we are all Eichmanns, you are creating negative fear. Someone like David Suzuki or Bill Mollison is a good example of creating positive fear. "Here's a problem, if we do nothing there'll be trouble, but here's what we can do to fix it, who else has ideas to fix it?"

ulu said...

It's kind of "funny" to see how many here react.
"Once you realize that many of your everyday actions are corrupted beyond acceptability by our inhuman and amoral corporate masters and others" and "I was blessed with awareness.", those two kind of sum it up.

We look at the Eichmann in others, not in ourselves. It’s easier, and less confronting, that way. And that's all the space our very own personal Eichmann needs to be comfortably seated. It's me who does the corrupting, and once I call myself aware, I no longer am.

It's safe to assume we need so much energy and effort just to keep our own inner "devil" at bay, we don't have time to fight others' evil. And if you do focus outward, towards the others’ fault, that takes away from what you can do for "you". By blaming others for what’s wrong, you deprive yourself of the power to make it better.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

The human part of our brain is the last that developed, and the last to react to events in our lives. Fight or flight does not originate in your “intelligence”. We use it only to justify what the primitive parts of the brain have done. Germans made themselves believe what they did was just, and justified. Our so-called intelligence doesn't lead us, it follows.

And if we don't stay alert 24/7, it serves to make us the cruelest species ever. No animal is capable of torture, because it can't invent a reason for it. We can.

We can also use our intelligence to be righteous, but only if we tell ourselves we are not, if we accept we have to fight for it, constantly. Looking at the poverty for millions in our own country, or the millions of children dying in misery elsewhere, can we truly say we’re winning the fight against our personal Eichmann? Are we truly aware?

It's inside you, the individual, that the battle between the brain parts takes place, and not in other people's heads. That's not your battle. If you fight it regardless, you will certainly lose your own battle as well.

Let him who is without sin cast the first stone

Anonymous said...

Jesus may have said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," but he also, as I recall, did not endorse adultery. If we are too busy being concerned with out own effect on the world, will we have time to help others realize the effect they are having. While I'm trying (with varous degrees of failure) to get my footprint smaller, I'm finding it harder and harder to accept that's it okay for others not to make any effort because it's too hard, or one person won't make a difference, or whatever. I'm not asking them to give up everything they have and move into a cardboard box and drink dirty water. I'm just hoping that at least they will cut out some of the waste. I have a SIL who wants every light in the house on all the time, because it's not very cheerful to go into dark room, and its a pain to have to remember to turn on all those lights once it gets dark. (This means that the downstairs light burn all night, among other things.) Why is it wrong of me, while trying to keep my household in one room in the evening so we are only burning one light, to be aware what she's doing, want her to stop, and even (at the risk of getting my nose wiped her her, again) pointing out what she's doing? (She, BTW, is one of the people who thinks child labor under terrible conditions, is all right because they are only ______)



RAS said...

I want to address something that's been said on here. Kiashu said it best when she said that we're more like the German citizens who did nothing when the Jews were removed from their homes or came to live there afterward, so that absolves us of primary responsibility.

Um, no. The moral difference between the SS and those who watched isn't as wide as you'd think -because the latter could have stopped it. They could have spoken out, they could have worked in the Underground. But they did not. In most places, when you see a crime and fail to stop it or at least report it, that makes you an accomplice. The German citenry who stood by and watched without doing anything were nothing less than accomplices to the SS.

Furthermore, some of them were worse than accomplices. Why? Because they knew it was wrong, and yet still did nothing. There is, I firmly believe, a special hell for those who knowingly watch evil happen and stand by without doing anything. "All that is required for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." -Ben Franklin (I think)

Likewise, the people who today KNOW what we're doing to the planet, who know that we are killing it and exploiting and murdering people for our own benefit and yet still refuse to do anything, claim that there is nothing they can do, or that the problem isn't that bad, or moral -and literal -accomplices in the killing.

You've hit a nerve Sharon.

sylvia said...

I completely agree, Sharon. It's actually been completely consuming me, recently. I read "Planet of Slums" by Mike Davis, last week and have been completely overwhelmed by the knowledge my lifestyle is killing other people. Not in the future, when the seas rise and cover even more inhabited islands. Now, as we speak.

But you don't have to read a whole book to get an idea of our impact. Here's a fun factoid: the amount of calories in a SUV tankful of ethanol is enough to feed a person for a whole year.

Our country is subsidizing the ethanol industry (in this country, ehtanol is mainly made from corn). As a direct result, the price of corn tortillas in Mexico (a staple food there, not a snack), has tripled and in some places quadrupled. There have been food riots in Mexico City.

We are starving our neighbors to the south so that we can continue to drive SUVs. I'm horrified by this.

Kiashu said...

If you fail to make a moral distinction between those who sin by action, and those who sin by inaction, then not only is your perception of morality faulty, but you won't get your message through.

If you condemn everyone they stop listening. Adjust your words to your aim - do you want everyone to feel bad, and do nothing? Or do you want them to feel good, and do something?

Whether they should feel bad or not is irrelevant. Believing in Jewish ethics, I believe that only actions and results matter; if a bad person does something with good results for bad reasons, it's still got good results, so their motives are irrelevant - except insofar as they affect their future actions.

If your message is that we are all Eichmanns, then you'll get no results at all. People turn away when they're being compared to a genocidal person. Funny, that.

"We are starving our neighbors to the south so that we can continue to drive SUVs. I'm horrified by this."

The starvation isn't coming about specifically because of the ethanol, but because of "free" trade. When NAFTA came in, Mexico exported corn to the world, and fed itself easily; after NAFTA had been going for a few years, US imports (subsidised by US govt) were sold in Mexico at below production cost, and this drove Mexicans off their farms. So Mexico dropped in corn production, and reied on imports; these imports are now becoming more expensive.

The point is that if you rely on someone else for everything you need, you're less secure than if you rely on yourself. Mexico is quite capable of producing more than enough corn for itself; but "free" trade stops it.

If it hadn't been ethanol, it would have been demand for corn for livestock in China's growing livestock industry, or something else.

We are not Eichmanns.

sylvia said...

So we would be responsible for Mexican's hunger if it were caused by ethanol, but we're not because it's actually caused by NAFTA? And NAFTA is what, an act of God? Our elected leaders came up with the idea, and Mexico was in no position to negotiate. The world is one big resource grab, and the US is winning. This necesarily implies that other people are losing. And by "losing" I mean going hungry, lacking medical care, lacking fresh water, and yes, as a result, dying. I'm not sure how you can think we're not responsible for this state of affairs.

Kiashu said...

The point about Mexico and its stale food of corn is not that ethanol or NAFTA or whatever is blameless.

The essential point is that the Mexican government have chosen to have their people get their staple food from another country. When NAFTA was signed, the treaty gave Mexico 15 years in which to gradually reduce Mexican government subsidies to corn farmers, time for them to adjust; instead they got rid of them in 3 years - against their own treaty, and US advice. I don't know if they could have adjusted at all (since the US kept its own subsidies), but 3 years was definitely too quick.

The end result was that Mexico relies on imports for its staple food - corn. 8 of 28 million tonnes consumed annually in Mexico is imported - and rising.

When you rely on someone else for your daily needs, that someone had better be entirely reliable; but the market - free or otherwise - is never entirely reliable.

It's foolish for a country to not try to be self-reliant in the things it needs day-to-day. That's the real problem. The most powerful countries in history have always sought self-reliance in food, shelter and transport. The most abject and miserable countries have relied on others for those things.

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