Thursday, February 22, 2018

The enduring drama of hating Arendt's Eichmann

Arendt on Eichmann is like the ax that can never be buried for American Jews. Only once you're deep in the Arendt weeds, among only a select subset of scholars and far beyond the reach of regular educated people, will you finally be out of hearing range of the accusations of Arendt's anti-Semitism. But the problem is that you probably never want to find yourself in those weeds, which are full of other predators. So you probably have to stay out in the open with the accusations: Arendt exonerated Eichmann and accused the Jews of facilitating their own destruction by cooperating with the Nazis. Every educated American Jew over a certain age will tell you this, unless he is one of the few grazing out there in the weeds with the snakes. And then the weed-eaters will respond with, no, Arendt was a great genius who spoke five languages and actually fled Nazis while her critics were just provincial rubes.

Ruth Wisse's is probably one of the better versions of this accusation. She goes through the long (so long) history of the accusation and concludes that Arendt's real motivation was not to cover the Eichmann trial but "to impose her understanding on the trial" and
to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction like Bellow’s that “everybody…knows what murder is.”
Taken in one sense that's clearly not right, since throughout her writing, she argues that "the German mind" insofar as it's part of the Western tradition is dead, and was killed by the rise of modern totalitarianisms. That is the reason for the moral unclarity, the inability to rely on conventional categories of judgment. In another sense, insofar as "the German mind" is her own mind and its particular education and cultivation (that is, the education of all German intellectuals of her generation), it might be closer to the truth. She did think she was especially well-equipped to understand the transformations of the twentieth century, and perhaps she was wrong on that count, but this either boils down to an accusation of vanity, or is really another accusation, more limited than the one that Wisse purports to make here but also one with a history, which is that Arendt is really just a secret or unwitting (most such accusers claim that she was, somehow, both) Heideggerian, and by extension, a kind of proto-Nazi herself.

The Heidegger stuff aside, I agree with Wisse that Arendt used and perhaps misused the Eichmann trial as a vehicle to further develop the theory of totalitarianism she had laid out in The Origins of Totalitarianism. But I would like to offer one corrective to Wisse's condemnation, and that is this: in hindsight especially, that theory is more important than Wisse allows.

Most of the writers and scholars who accuse Arendt of whitewashing Eichmann and villifying Israel and the Jewish communal leaders of Europe - in short those who reject the book - are of the generation that was born during or right after the war. For them, the Holocaust was a shocking revelation, its full scope unknown to the American public until years after the war's end. And just as its details and real extent were beginning to emerge into public consciousness, along came "Miss Arendt" to downplay its gravity and even blame the victims. Her timing could not have been worse.

But, a generation or two later, the situation was quite changed. Arendt's intervention had precisely zero effect on the American understanding of the Holocaust. By the 1980s and '90s, the Holocaust was well-established in the public consciousness and was the center of American Jewish self-consciousness. To be Jewish in America was to have a personal connection to it, the closer the better, but a connection to some lesser but parallel form of anti-Semitic violence - a pogrom, perhaps, or the Inquisition, if you had to dig that far back in the family history - would do if necessary. It became a ubiquitous element of the school curriculum - one program, "Facing History and Ourselves," was taught around the country, culminating at some schools in trips to Auschwitz. By the 1990s, no one in America was uncomfortable calling the Nazis evil. In fact, the functional definition of evil had more or less become the Holocaust. There was absolutely no difficulty thinking about it in moral terms, as a battle between good and evil.

The difficulty turned out to be precisely that is was so easy to moralize. Because the Holocaust became a kind of shorthand for all kinds of evil, to be offered to children as the apocalyptic scenario most to be feared, it was so excessively moralized as to become completely de-politicized. It has come to be understood as an example of personal moral failure on a vast scale, or really the sum of many personal moral failures. Many Germans, individually, began to harbor these negative "stereotypes" and "prejudices" (the great buzzwords of my elementary schooling) about Jews, and as these prejudices and stereotypes spread across the land, the people who held them got together and became essentially large-scale playground bullies to the Jews: first persecuting and then killing then. So, goes the moral of this story, if you want to prevent the next Holocaust, don't be prejudiced, and don't be a bully. Remember: every time you pick on a classmate or spread malicious gossip about your friends, you are taking the first step towards another Holocaust. And don't let other people be prejudiced bullies either. Thus, the ubiquitous poem, "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist..." Thus, the plots of all children's books about the Holocaust. Everything is about the moral failures of individuals to do the right thing and stand up to the bad guys.

It all sounds vaguely plausible, especially to a child, since it's essentially an account of the Holocaust modeled on childhood social life. The problem is, of course, that in the terms of the poem, if you had spoken out on behalf of the Socialists, the Trade Unionists, etc., you would've been killed right along with them. The Holocaust was not the result of playground bullying on a national scale. It was a political event and it has to be understood in political terms - in terms of regimes and political philosophy, in terms of national histories, in terms of European statecraft. Precisely the argument that Podhoretz used against Arendt has to be explained: "It is one thing to hate Jews, but it is quite another to contemplate the wholesale slaughter of Jews.” As Arendt points out in Eichmann, most European nations had developed robust traditions of virulent anti-Semitism by the time of the war. And yet only one of them contemplated the wholesale slaughter of Jews, and that one was, perplexingly, among the least anti-Semitic. How do we account for that?

Political explanations involving regimes and history are beyond the grasp of schoolchildren, so they were dispensed with, and the moral failure explanation won out. But at a cost. It diminished mainstream Judaism, elevating the experience of victimhood to its center and pushing the "philosophical Judaism" that Wisse values (and even simply Jewish observance) to the sidelines. It gave at least two decades' worth of children a dumbed-down and dangerously misleading understanding of political evil. And ultimately, it turned the Holocaust into treacle.

Unlike the generation whose schooling was in a sense rebutted by the discovery of the Holocaust, mine was infused with the Holocaust all the time - we read about it every year, we wrote essays pretending to have experienced it, we even did a mock Nuremberg trial at some point. I had read every children's book about the Holocaust that my school and public libraries possessed by the third grade. (It should be noted that my experience, having taking place in Skokie, was perhaps more extreme than most, but the basic themes were widespread.) And it always came down to the same point: don't be mean, or you will start a Holocaust. But what was odd was that I was frequently mean, and yet no genocide ever resulted. The result was that, by the end of middle school, this understanding of the Holocaust made Judaism look to me like a hysterical and overbearing cult of victimhood, which I had no interest in joining. When I came across Finklestein's The Holocaust Industry at the library in high school (again, the Skokie Public Library may not entirely resemble your public library in these regions of the Dewey Decimal System...), I couldn't help but seeing his point. This, I take it, is not where Wisse wants the moral view of the Holocaust to take us. 

When I read Eichmann in college, it was a revelation. Here was an account of the Holocaust that explained Nazism as a political event, a regime that developed out of and in opposition to liberalism, rather than a random burst of coordinated meanness. To say the Holocaust was political is not to say that it was specific to 1930s Germany, or to deny anyone's responsibility for it. Arendt's is not some intricate structuralist story that denies human agency. But it does account for the problem that is so obvious even to children: if prejudice leads to genocide, and prejudice is so common, then why are genocides so rare? Wisse is right that Arendt co-opted the  trial to elaborate her pre-conceived arguments, but those arguments were not conceived on the spot and they were not so obviously wrong. Our understanding of Nazis as evil is already so deeply embedded that Arendt's description of Eichmann as banal is unlikely to result in a revaluation of all values, though it might direct some doubts towards bureaucracy and obsession with the imperative to purify one's thoughts of all biases. Having reached our limit of Holocaust moralism, Americans might benefit from some Arendt-as-antidote.


Anonymous said...

"why are genocides so rare"

genocides are rare because the minority can normally resist (or fight back) and start a war--which is not considered a genocide

"This list of genocides by death toll includes death toll estimates of all deaths that are either directly or indirectly caused by genocide. It does not include non-genocidal mass killing such as the Thirty Years War (7.5 million deaths), Japanese War Crimes (3 to 14 million deaths), the Atrocities in the Congo Free State (3 to 13 million deaths), the 1965–1966 Indonesian Politicide (0.4 to 3 million deaths), the Great Purge (0.69 to 1.75 million deaths) or the Great Leap Forward (15 to 55 million deaths)."

Julia said...

It's always so interesting to me that people think Arendt doesn't paint Eichmann as sufficiently evil (I assume this is what Wisse means when she suggests Arendt went "around" good and evil). For me, Arendt's portrait of Eichmann remains one of the most—perhaps the most—chilling descriptions of evil I've ever read. That could manifest so normally, in such mediocre people, had never occurred to me before I read Eichmann. What could be more terrifying and awful than the idea thoughtlessness led to genocide?

Anonymous said...

"if prejudice leads to genocide"

What kind of prejudice?

Whites think blacks have low IQs, but this leads to affirmative action (lower admission standards), not genocide

Men think women aren't athletic, but this leads to women's-only sports leagues, not genocide.

Hollywood thinks fat women can't act, but this only means there's no more than one fat woman on screen at a time (and she's a comedian), this doesn't lead to genocide.

Women think short people make bad spouses, but this only means all men are taller than their wives, not to genocide.

There are many kinds of prejudices that aren't hate-based.

The "National" Socialist Germans were fighting the communists in Russia during WWII. Who started communism? Jewish Marx, Jewish Trotsky, and Jewish Lenin. How do you rid the world of communism to make way for "national" socialism? By getting rid of the inventors of communism--the Jews.

When the Jews fled to America they recast themselves as capitalists--think Von Mises, Rothbard, Friedman, Rand, Volokh, etc.

Anonymous said...

Four police officers sat outside during the Florida shooting waiting for back-up.

htt ps://www.cnn.c om/2018/02/23/politics/parkland-school-shooting-broward-deputies/index.html

Is that because the police officers were evil or were they like Eichmann?

Miss Self-Important said...

Julia: Yes, I think that's why Wisse is careful to avoid the accusation that Arendt is somehow not really condemning Nazism in calling Eichmann banal, which some versions of this accusation do claim. But her complaint is that the effect of the argument is to direct our fears to the regime and away from individuals whom we identify as particularly immoral. The problem is not so much Eichmann anymore, since he's just a regular dimwit, but the kind of regime who can turn a regular dimwit into a mass killer. Although Eichmann is still guilty, the effect of the argument is to shift the onus of the blame.

Anonymous: I'm not really sure what part of this post you're objecting to. I'm not endorsing the "prejudice leads to genocide" argument.

educatedwhinge said...

Arendt's book is very good, and I've never seen any of its critics respond to one of its main claims (which I've never bothered checking up on): that the Israeli judges were critical of the prosecutor and how he conducted the case; and that her criticisms of the prosecutor were shared by these judges.