Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Banality of Banality

Posted By on 08.21.10 at 08:30 AM

Hannah Arendt put banality on the map in 1963 with her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. She wrote:

"When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III 'to prove a villain.' Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all....He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing."

In a nutshell, Arendt's idea, as explained here by Edward Herman, is that "people who carry out unspeakable crimes . . . may not be crazy fanatics at all, but rather ordinary individuals who simply accept the premises of their state and participate in any ongoing enterprise with the energy of good bureaucrats."

Arendt made banality a $5 word, a fashionable term to wave like a spring of hemlock at a bogeyman — to demystify him, cut him down to size.

For instance,this piece in the December 13, 2001 issue of Time: "The Banality of bin Laden."

But no one would describe bin Laden as a good bureaucrat. Nor Rod Blagojevich for that matter. When the then governor was arrested in 2008, nationalreview.com ran a short commentary by Jonah Goldberg under the headline "The Blithesome Banality of Blago's Blunders." Goldberg turned Arendt on her head. He wasn't coupling banality to evil. He was uncoupling it. "I’m not really disputing the use of the word [evil]," he wrote. "But that’s not really the word that comes to my mind. Evil is too dark, too serious, too smart for what we’re talking about."

And now, in the wake of the Blago trial, the Chicago News Cooperat8ve's James Warren has published a piece in the New York Times that goes beyond Goldberg and circles back to Arendt. The headline: "After the Trial, the Banality of Blagojevich Sinks In." And Warren begins, "As you strain for meaning in the trial of Rod R. Blagojevich, you are left with only a portrait in garrulous banality." He explains, "Beneath his bravado and craving to please there is a decidedly and even drearily mundane individual — in words, actions and, now, in the one crime."

And later: "Like the Nazis to whom [Arendt] referred, the former governor, by and large, proceeded as if what he was doing was normal."

Yet Eichmann and Blagojevich are unlike in almost every way. The type Herman describes — "rather ordinary individuals who simply accept the premises of their state and participate in any ongoing enterprise with the energy of good bureaucrats" — describes someone close to being Blago's polar opposite.

So I suggest that Arendt's observation has lost its point, which hasn't been supplanted by a better point. Banality has become a term of haughty dismissal, employed against anyone noxious who needs to be put in his place, anyone whose 15 minutes of notoriety are over but isn't acting like it. Anyone who won't go away when we want to be done with him. The one message Blago should have gotten from the media when his trial ended because we sent it loud and clear was this: We don't want to cover you anymore.

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Necessary postscript: Banality indulgences aside, Warren's sum-up of Blago is as good as any I've read.

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