Banality of Evil, American Style

Margarethe von Trotta frames her new bio-pic, Hannah Arendt, around the philosopher’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Arendt is perhaps best known for describing the “banality of evil” at the heart of Nazism, and von Trotta’s film focuses on Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, in which she argued against the popular view of Eichmann as evil genius. He was, she said, far from that: a technocrat, an everyman, a person who was simply doing his job.

Hannah Arendt the film offers a compelling account of a singular intellectual, a window into postwar intellectual life in New York, and shows how during the first decades after fascism, people were trying to make sense of how and why so many seemingly intelligent people were captivated by National Socialism during those dark decades. Bureaucratic societies, she said, were creating a kind of rationality that threatened the capacity to reason. Fascism was the extreme result, though it was not unique.

Seeing the film caused me to reflect, once again, on Arendt’s brilliant, flawed analysis of the nature of radical evil, and how it might apply to American society.

To Arendt, Eichmann committed crimes so heinous and yet he seemed unexceptional, and normal in many respects. Attempting to come to terms with that apparent contradiction, she concluded that individual reason had collapsed under the weight of bureaucratic thinking. There was no person there–reflective rationality, and indeed thinking itself, had effectively broken down.
In the fifty years since the Eichmann trial, we’ve accumulated a great deal more insight into the man– thanks to finely wrought histories of the war, analyses of Hitler and his cronies, and testimonies of victims. The more we know, the more it seems that Arendt underestimated the power of racial hatred, the cultural roots of antisemitism, and the range of different motivations that brought people into the Nazi orbit: financial, political, and psychic.
Some years ago, I wrote a book about a Christian right campaign against homosexuality in a small Oregon town, part of the Oregon Citizens Alliance’s effort against gay/lesbian civil rights. I interviewed conservative activists in a bitterly polarized rural community, and found, too, that they participated in the campaign for different reasons: some wished to feel powerful, and to renew their place in the community; others were religiously motivated; many were simply bored.

During the course of my research, I encountered at least one leader whose homophobia verged on fanatical: Scott Lively. Lively, a leader of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, penned a vicious little screed called The Pink Swastika, which argued that homosexuals were behind the Nazi movement. I’ve written about that book as an example of how social movements on the right and the left deploy the Holocaust

After his relative lack of success in the US, Scott Lively decided to export his brand of hate to other nations, and two decades after his Oregon involvements, he became infamous for peddling radical homophobia overseas–in Uganda and Eastern Europe–with deadly consequences.

I bring him up not to draw fast and loose analogies between the American far right and German Nazism–though some on the left have done exactly that. Nor do I want to argue for American exceptionalism– that fascism could never take root here. Rather, I think it’s important to understand the continuities between the American and European far right–as well as the differences. In this country, we’ve certainly had our share of rightwing movements targeting immigrants, racial minorities, and communists, but save for the extermination and forced removal of Native Americans from their lands, we’ve never offered a friendly home to mass movements bent on annihilating difference.

Does this mean that Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann was wrong? Not necessarily. But it’s of limited use in understanding our own home-grown far right. Scott Lively’s no Eichmann: he’s more of a cowboy than a flannel-suited follower, less banal than self-important. He is fueled less by the collapse of selfhood than by a desperate attempt to feel important, powerful, loved. Our culture of individualism, for all its problems, makes self-denying forms of fascism, which call on the subordination of the individual to the state, less attractive.


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