Friday, August 17, 2007

Of Bush and Evil: The Nature of his Crime Against Humanity

In one of the early scenes of a late '90's movie entitled "Tea With Mussolini", a character described the current age, the years preceding World War II, as an age of "great dictators". The reference was, of course, to Benito Mussolini in Italy, Adolf Hitler in Germany, Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union. Those who saw the movie may recall that it was, in turns, tragic and light hearted. It was, in fact, director Franco Zeffirelli's story of his childhood in Italy during World War II. As in Boris Pasternak's novel Dr. Zhivago, we witness a monolithic state crushing dreams, hopes, life itself.
Both Hitler and Stalin came to realize that it was possible to eradicate the unpredictability of human affairs in "the true central institution of totalitarian organizational power": the concentration camp. What Arendt saw is that eradicating unpredictability requires altering the nature of human beings. In the camps the internees' deprivation of all rights, even of the ability to make a conscientious choice, does away with the dynamic conflict between the legality of particular positive laws and the idea of justice on which, in constitutional governments, an open and unpredictable future depends. On the one hand, in Arendt's concept of totalitarianism, human freedom is seen as inconsequential to "the undeniable automatism" of natural and historical processes, or at most as an impediment to their freedom. On the other, when "the iron band of terror" destroys human diversity, so totally dominating human beings that they cease to be individuals and become a mere mass of identical, interchangeable specimens "of the animal-species man," those processes are provided with "an incomparable instrument" of acceleration.

--[Hannah] Arendt's concept and description of totalitarianism

A "state" wishing to eradicate "unpredictability of human affairs" must make of its own apparatus an inhuman machine utterly lacking empathy. SS members become mere interchangeable parts in a killing machine. Master and slave alike cease to be entirely human. This is the state as machine. Such a state requires its Auschwitz, its Abu Ghraib, its Guantanamo.
In World War I enemy aliens were regularly interned "as a temporary emergency measure," (see "Memo: Research Project on Concentration Camps") but later, in the period between World Wars I and II, camps were set up in France for non-enemy aliens, in this case stateless and unwanted refugees from the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Arendt also noted that in World War II internment camps for potential enemies of democratic states differed in one important respect from those of World War I. In the United States, for instance, not only citizens of Japan but "American citizens of Japanese origin" were interned, the former maintaining their rights of citizenship under the Geneva Conventions while the latter, uprooted on ethnic grounds alone, were deprived of theirs by executive order and without due process.

--Evil: The Crime against Humanity, Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University


Ed Murrow Reporting from Buchenwald


From "Good Night and Good Luck", Murrow's "McCarthy" Broadcast

I cannot claim to be an expert on the work of Hannah Arendt and I most certainly have not read all her works. But in her famous phrase, the banality of evil, I find a natural affinity with the work of Dr. Gustav Gilbert whose job it was to interview the Nazi war criminals on trial at Nuremberg. Gilbert may have found in those interviews the psychological nature of evil, an utter lack of empathy.
From that moment on Arendt said she "felt responsible." But responsible for what? She meant that she, unlike many others, could no longer be "simply a bystander" but must in her own voice and person respond to the criminality rampant in her native land.

--Evil: The Crime against Humanity, Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University

The issue of "responsibility" is central if "evil" is to be dealt with effectively from both a philosophical and a psychological standpoint. Responsibility is the very essence of morality, or more precisely, the essence of any attempt to base morality upon something other than commandment. Responsibility is the very essence of Existentialism. Sartre said that man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Earlier, Voltaire challenged French aristocracy when he declared: "I have no name but the name I have made for myself." A machine made of de-humanized humans is utterly evil, utterly without empathy.
They[Nazis] consciously sought to articulate and construct a Nazi modernity and heralded their institutions and technological systems with no less enthusiasm than Jünger, even if they did so in much worse prose.

--The Business of Genocide: The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps

Purely philosophical approaches to state and personal ethics are inadequate. Most philosophical systems are concerned with "good actions" or "bad actions". Greek epicureans, for example, measure the good against an ideal good life in which both are associated in some way with pleasure. Yet, for some, those responsible for setting up Abu Ghraib for example, evil itself is pleasurable. These people are commonly called perverts. Topcliffe was one. Torquemada was surely another. Epicureanism does not exculpate sadists. Pleasure as a measure of goodness is therefore inadequate and violates Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative demands behavior that is necessary unconditionally. By contrast, a situational ethic involves choices or behavior conditioned upon a desired result. For example: you must pay your bills and maintain a good credit rating if you wish to get a mortgage.

A. J. Bahm made a distinction between good and bad intentions. At last, one feels that qualities of goodness or badness are literally put upon the individual as if some non-spatial, non-temporal Platonic ideal had been simply imposed upon pure existence. A "good" intention does not define good; rather, it presupposes a knowledge of it.

Arendt might not discount efforts to separate good actions from bad actions but seems more interested in good intentions and finds in the individual his/her response to others, the connections with one person to another, indeed, humanity as a whole to be the basis by which evil is distinguished from good. As an ethic, it was a new approach.

What are the psychological differences between one who feels responsible for his/her country compared to those who are indifferent? Clearly, an evil person cannot be expected to feel badly or guilty about being evil. Likewise, one would not have expected committed Nazis to have felt "responsible" for the direction of Germany under Hitler. One wonders how those who made Auschwitz run felt about their jobs, themselves. Likewise, one wonders how the American GOP sleeps at night, how its members make peace with themselves, why they, in fact, have more night terrors and bad dreams than other folk.

In my own case, having loved what I thought my own country to be, I felt responsible when, over a period of some four years, I saw every cherished principle attacked, eschewed, subverted and, in other ways, rejected or trashed! Many of my feelings were less than noble and still are. I am only human. Bush put to us all a choice. We were either for him or against him. I made the right choice.

In a sense, we are all corrupted by the system upon which we depend for a livelihood. My interests in this system were attacked and put in jeopardy. But these were legitimate interests for which I make no apology. In other cases, I was surprised to learn about myself that I could not, would not live with or compromise the subversion of the rule of law, due process of law, the basic rights that I believe are not only our birthright but, in fact, belong to everyone. With Bush's usurpation of the US government, those ideals are all but gone. Like Arendt, I felt responsible, as an American, for what Bush had done in my name! All that remained to be seen was how Bush would bring about a "state" wishing to eradicate the "unpredictability of human affairs". We have over some six years witnessed astounding progress toward that goal. What remains for Bush when it becomes clear that his increasingly dictatorial policies inspire, in turn, increasingly desperate resistance not merely among the hard pressed people of Iraq, but, likewise the increasingly hard pressed people of the US?

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Why Conservatives Hate America




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