“Why not join the S.S.? And he had replied, Why not? That was how it happened, and that was about all there was to it.”
These are the most haunting few sentences of the whole book, the controversial book by Hannah Arendt, “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” detailing the career of Adolf Eichmann, bureaucratic manager of the Holocaust. It is a book seeking out the how if not the why of such historic horror.
Subtitled “A Report on the Banality of Evil,” Arendt found that many Nazis, such as Eichmann, were “neither perverted nor sadistic” but instead “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Eichmann was but a “leaf in the whirlwind,” she said, a man who simply “had no time and less desire to be properly informed.”
He was a man all too credulous of the rhetoric of the Reich, the “language rules” as they were called, the unique idioms of Nazi governance. Instead of “extermination” and “killing,” they used words like “evacuation” and “final solution,” special verbiage used “not to keep these people ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, ‘normal’ knowledge of murder and lies.”
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Eichmann was especially suited to this linguistic trick, she said, unreflective, shallow and wayward as he was. He was a perfect cog in the machinery of Nazi evil – unthinking, uncritical, sophisticatedly stupid.
It was “thoughtlessness” that was the problem, she said elsewhere. “Cliches, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression,” all of which in the aggregate numbed and blinded so many to an evil that began small, an evil begun with only words and which then became normal, and then “moral.” And then the question, “Why not join the S.S.?” Why not?
That’s how it happened, how it happens. And it’s how it can happen again.
And now to our own unsettled age; enter Richard Spencer, founder of that abbreviated asininity known as the “alt-right.” Plainly a fool, plainly a bigot, plainly a pathetic Frankenstein monster of privilege and racism.
A fool, as I said, but articulate just enough, mentally agile just enough, to give the leaden demonic ideas of the past a frightful new life – and with a horrific sort of normalcy, almost a banality. A banality that was in the past, and may be in our own day yet again, the better cover of evil.
And enter again the phenomenon of “fake news,” the advent of the “post-factual.” This is nothing new, of course, but never has it been so perfectly mediated and so perfectly believed by so many, all our little screens such efficient instruments of untruth.
Images altered just so, half-facts gone viral as well as bald-faced lies, all of them made ready every day for us lazy readers, many of us as credulous as medieval peasants, ready to believe anything but the truth. Such is the prefatory confusion of tyranny and violence. It’s just the sort of habitat in which people like Richard Spencer thrive like flies among rotting fruit.
This is how it happens, and it’s happening again.
Which is why the good and colorful masses of our more humane society must stand together, despite our differences and against him and all who think like him. Too many are the voices of hatred, too few the voices of love. That’s why we must stand together, whatever our disagreements, against him.
Spencer is a fool, but we would be wise to be frightened. We’ve seen all this before, the rise of fools, and so we know what they can do, what sort of evil.
So let’s stand together, all of us, and speak loudly the loud word of love.
Joshua J. Whitfield is the pastoral administrator for St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and a contributor to The Dallas Morning News. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.