Hannah Arendt was a student of free inquiry. Her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was an exercise in free inquiry, much to her own detriment. But it was only to her detriment because the results of her inquiry didn’t conform with the commonly accepted beliefs then (and perhaps now) about the Holocaust and how one views and discusses a Nazi war criminal. There is only pure condemnation of the person who committed these crimes, there is no allowance for attempting to understand the man behind the crimes, the reasons for committing the crimes, or nuances in their reasoning. They were monsters who sought to destroy the Jewish people and other undesirable people as deemed by the Nazis. In the biopic directed Margarethe von Trotta Hannah Arendt, in her final speech to her student she says “trying to understand is not the same as forgiveness”. She considers it her “responsibility to understand” and “reconcile the shocking mediocrity of the man with his staggering deeds.”
Seeking free inquiry and engaging in intellectual debate and trying to see an event in history from a different point of view is not the same as playing the devil’s advocate or in the case of Arendt, attempting to explain away or excuse the evils of the Nazi regime. If we don’t want history to repeat itself again, it’s not enough to pass legislation to ban fascist or neo-Nazi political parties, to ban inflammatory fascist or Nazi language in public, to ban Nazi worshipping; we need to find out how (not just why, we know why) a total moral collapse of a seemingly civil society took place in less than 10 years. Antisemitism isn’t new. Discrimination isn’t new. Racism isn’t new. Oppression of minorities isn’t new. All those things existed for millennia; but how did it go from something that exist as a fact of life to mass murder by the most grotesque of methods.
The knee jerk reaction to any Nazi criminal is that they are evil, they are monsters and no excuses can me made for their behaviors regardless of their personal circumstance; even if they had a gun to their head. Arendt resisted this urge, though a very legitimate urge and she wanted to find out more. Adolf Eichmann was in front of her in a Jerusalem courtroom. This was as close as she’ll ever get to a ‘Nuremberg Trial’ and this was the biggest Nazi criminal on the lam that was caught. It would be a terrible waste to not do an up close psychological autopsy of the person. So she inquired, and she let her free inquiry take her wherever she needed to go. What she found wasn’t spectacular, it was “banal” and that didn’t fit into the existing narrative about Nazi criminals.
The public discourse on the Holocaust is heavily policed, it was policed in the 1960s and it’s policed now. There are one set of accepted facts and discourse that is very black and white, the Nazis exterminated the Jews while the world watched and did nothing. The Nazis are to blame and the world did watch as this unfolded. But nothing in the world is black and white. The Nazis are fully responsible the this heinous crime they committed but they had help along the way. It’s not out of order to say while Nazis are fully responsible, but many people aided and abetted and looked the other way and some of those include Jewish people. The Judenrat may not know at the time that the ultimate demise of their fellow Jews they were deporting. But the existence of the Judenrat is a fact – and as Arendt points out in her Eichmann trial reporting, the Judenrat was not only in Germany, it was in almost every country. This is well documented. Arendt backed up most of her claims with sources from other experts – including the preeminent Holocaust expert Raul Hillberg. Even in the context of not blaming or shaming, merely questioning and analyzing, it’s not comfortable to discuss or even think about but by not thinking and talking about it, we forget the lessons.
Perhaps the most infuriating thing anyone can say when they are on trial for a crime is everything they did was “legal”, or that “I was following the orders of my superiors” (and that superior is almost always already dead). When Arendt talks about the ability to “think”, which is synonymous to claiming your personhood is suspended, great evil can happen. You don’t need to be a monster to commit horrible deeds, a little nobody like Adolf Eichmann – and there were millions of Eichmann’s in the Nazi Party can and will commit evil or allow great evil to happen.
The idea of what is legal vs. what is right is still highly relevant today. The recent spate of police killing unarmed black men were all legal in the eyes of the law. According to the law of the land, they acted in self defense, they did no wrong and they won’t be prosecuted. The worst that will ever happen to them is losing their jobs. But anyone who is thinking with half a brain knows that what they did was wrong, and the police definitely wasn’t “thinking” when they killed unarmed black men who posed no threat to their personal safety except in their prejudiced minds. Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning did what they believed to be the right thing and are now punished for it, especially Manning. What is right morally and ethically, which is exposing government crimes to its citizens has been deemed illegal, based on some bogus notion of ‘National Security’.
Dissenting opinion is and has always been heavily policed. Especially by those who call themselves Liberals. Another favorite pastime of Liberals is sliding in and out between what’s legal and what’s right. We are stuck at a juncture of what is free speech and how much free speech do we tolerate before it becomes inflammatory and unacceptable. Azealia Banks was banned from Twitter permanently as well as Milo Yiannopoulos, for directing his followers to racially abuse and troll the actress Leslie Jones. These two incongruent Twitter buddies were both banned for using racist, bigoted inflammatory language, but they weren’t banned until the corporate interests of Twitter was harmed. Both of these people have been trolling, racially abusing people for a long time, but they were trolling nobodies so no one cared enough to do much about it even if the abuse Tweets got reported. Banks was warned by Twitter a few times, that didn’t stop her, but when she unleashed her fury at a supposed slight by former One Directioner Zayn Malik and began racially abusing him and insulting his family, she was banned from Twitter. Prior to that she’d been verbally assaulting anyone who dared cross her mentions who she found displeasing in some way.Yiannopoulos gets his kicks out of trolling people, but one day he trolled the wrong target and he was banned from Twitter permanently. No one needs a Yiannopoulos on social media anywhere, he’s social media vermin, but he’s entitled to be one. Even in the interest of free speech, which includes trash speech, Twitter has behaved hypocritically, censoring when they felt the content will harm their bottom line.
The rise of right wing authoritarian governments popping up in places like Poland and Hungary; and their wholesale rejection and demonization of Syrian refugees as all being terrorists and how their religion and ‘way of life’ is incongruent with the ‘civilized’ West; the “banality of evil” is rearing its ugly head again. These governments have won elections, steered their electorate towards their way of thinking and believing, they have galvanized their police to be physically brutal with refugees . With the erecting of barbed wires along the open border Schengen Zone in the EU, it’s conjuring up lots of ugly images of the past.
With the US presidential election based on identity politics on one side and proto-fascism on the other, the policing of dissent is more prevalent than ever. Someone who refuses to vote for Hillary Clinton is tantamount to supporting Trump. Those who do not support Clinton are sexist, racist, anti-feminist and are coasting on their ‘privilege’ (whatever that means – Hillary Clinton is the most privileged woman I know). Those who don’t choose either one of the two awful presidential choices in front of us are betraying our democracy and process and allowing evil (Trump) to take over. Bernie Sanders will forever be blamed for daring to thwart the coronation of Hillary Clinton, he’ll be blamed for drawing supporters away from her, especially the sought after Millennial crowd. Sanders actions have been seen as sexist, therefore all of his supporters must be sexist, or anti-feminist, who would dare to risk losing the election to a fascist clown. All of these ‘critics’ do not see the irony of being undemocratic themselves as they are policing people how to publicly engage in discourse of a supposedly free presidential election. It’s not a wise strategy to shame or scare the voters into voting for you.
Those who engage in free inquiry must do so the ‘right’ way; which makes the ‘free’ part moot. And as soon as anyone steps on toes of another, swift apologies must come or else you would be labeled racist, sexist, anti-feminist, indulging in privilege and a whole bunch of other new lingo and terms I’ve yet to know their meaning. Hannah Arendt was called a self-hating Jew, at least that was a clear and direct “character assassination” to which she can clearly refute. How does one refute the charge that one is ‘coasting on privilege’ by simply supporting one candidate over another?