Apr 142012

This photographer has a magnificent heart.

I’d like to think that there was a day in my lifetime when fewer children in North America would have been treated thus.  There’s a good graph to show juvenile incarceration rates.  The U.S. is off the charts.  I wonder how we’re doing in Canada where the Prime Minister loves prisons.

WHY the deterioration in moral behaviour?   How is it understood?   It’s a subject that intrigued Hannah Arendt.  It would serve us well to think about it.  See excerpts below.  First, the pictures and reflections of the photographer.


From Hannah Arendt, “Responsibility and Judgment“,  Introduction by Jerome Kohn:

p.  ix, x,   “Students demonstrating against the war… faculty special meeting… should the police be called…Arguments pro and contra … ambled toward a positive resolution. (Arendt) turned on (her friend) sharply “For God’s sake, they are students, not criminals.”   … no further mention of the police … those eight words ended the discussion.  . .. judgment of a particular situation . .  which the many words of argumentation had obscured.

No one was more aware than Arendt that the political crises of the twentieth century … can be viewed in terms of a breakdown in morality (war 1914, Russia and Germany annihilation of entire classes and races of people, dropping of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, cold war, the capacity to destroy the world with nuclear weapons, then Korea and Viet Nam, on and on) .  That there had been such a collapse was obvious.  But the controversial, challenging, and difficult heart of what Arendt came to see was that the moral breakdown was not due to the ignorance or wickedness or men who failed to recognize moral “truths,” but rather to the inadequacy of moral “truths” as standards to judge what men had become capable of doing.   . . . The tradition of moral thought had been broken, not by philosophical ideas but by the political facts of the twentieth century and could not be put back together again.

think for oneself.   Tocqueville’s insight that when in times of crisis or genuine turning points “the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity.”  At such moments (and to her the present was such a moment), she found the mind’s obscurity to be the clearest indication of the need to consider anew the meaning of human responsibility and the power of human judgment.

p. xv  “… To Arendt the banality of evil was not a theory or doctrine but signified the factual nature of the evil perpetrated by one thoughtless human being – by someone who never thought about what he was doing,  . . . The whole course of the trial bore out and confirmed this.  The brute fact of the banality of evil surprised and shocked her because .. “it contradicts our theories concerning evil,” pointing to something that though it is “true” is not in the least “plausible”.  In Eichmann Arendt had not dreamed up, or imagined, or even thought through the concept of the banality of evil.  It was, she said, “thought-defying”.

“. . . represent Arendt’s struggle to understand the significance of Eichmann’s inability to think.  . . .  an ordinary, normal man, a “buffoon,” and as such an altogether unlikely perpetrator of evil.  Arendt..was struck by the fact that Eichmann’s banality, his total lack of spontaneity, made him neither a “monster” nor a “demon” but nevertheless an agent of the most extreme evil.

P. xvii  “. . . the phenomenal reality of conscience may be discovered where it has seldom been sought, in the exercise of the faculty of judgment. . .

… Arendt’s effort to understand anew the meaning of morality as the knowledge of the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil.  It was Friedrich Nietzsche … who suggested that morality and ethics are no more than what they denote:  customs and habits.  In her native land (Germany) Arendt saw what she and many others had taken for granted, a seemingly sound and secure moral structure, collapse under Nazi rule, in the most extreme instance by reversing the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” to “Thou shalt kill”; and then after the end of WW2 she saw another reversal in which the former structure was reinvoked.  But then how sound and secure could it be?

p. xxix  ” the ability to think, which Eichmann lacked, is the precondition of judging, and that the refusal as well as the inability to judge, to imagine before your eyes the others whom your judgment represents and to whom it responds, invite evil to enter and infect the world. . . .

One might say that the ability to respond by judging impartially – considering and treating with consideration as many different points of view as possible – the fitness or unfitness of particular phenomena to appear in the world seamlessly joining politics and morality in the realm of action.

..the strictly moral power of judgment . . . she wrote that judging “may indeed prevent catastrophes, at least for myself, in the rare moments when the chips are down”

P. xxxvi  “. .  The pope had not denounced Hitler’s destruction . .  Her judgment of the pope raised the further question of why we avoid our responsibility to judge the failure of a particular man . . to act; and why, rather than exercise judgment, we prefer to throw out two thousand years of Christianity and discharge the very idea of humanity.  . . .

NOW TO ARENDT’S WORDS.  (She died in 1975.)

” . . the idea that when the chips were down diversity must be sacrificed .. to the nation, now has begun to crumble under the pressure of the threatening transformation of all government – the government of the United States not excluded – into bureaucracies, the rule of neither law nor men but of anonymous offices of computers whose entirely depersonalized domination may turn out to be a greater threat to freedom and to that minimum of civility, without which no communal life is conceivable, than the most outrageous arbitrariness of past tyrannies has ever been.  But these dangers of sheer bigness coupled with technocracy whose dominance threatens indeed all forms of government with extinction, with “withering away” – at first still an ideological well-intended pipe dream whose nightmarish properties could be detected only by critical examination – were not yet on the agenda of day-to-day politics …”  (INSERT:  thirty some years later, I think it is on the agenda, at least for some of us!)

p. 6:  ” .. the Danes were the only ones who dared speak out.  (to the Nazis)  The result was that under the pressure of public opinion, and threatened neither by armed resistance nor by guerrilla tactics, the German officials in the country changed their minds; they were no longer reliable, they were overpowered by what they had most disdained, mere words, spoken freely and publicly.  This had happened nowhere else.

p. 9:  ” .. Philosophy is a solitary business, and it seems only natural that the need for it arises in times of transition when men no longer rely on the stability of the world and their role in it …

This falling of dusk, the darkening of the public scene did not take place in silence .. never was the public scene to filled with public announcements, usually quite optimistic . . . (from all quarters, left, right and centre)  all of which together had the net effect of desubstantializing every issue they touched, in addition to confusing utterly the minds of their audiences.  This almost automatic rejection of everything public was very widespread in the Europe of the twenties . . .  the roaring twenties ..almost total oblivion of the disintegration of all political institutions that preceded the great catastrophes of the thirties.   . .. this antipublic climate of the times . .

p. 10:  “.. There existed after WW1 a curious social structure . . . could best be described as an international “society of celebrities”…

p. 19:  “.. when many people, without having been manipulated, begin to talk nonsense, and if intelligent people are among them, there is usually more involved than just nonsense.  There exists in our society a widespread fear of judging that has nothing whatever to do with the biblical “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” and if this fear speaks in terms of “casting the first stone,” it takes this word in vain.  For behind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence the doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done.  The moment moral issues are raised, even in passing, he who raises them will be confronted with this frightful lack of self-confidence and hence of pride, and also with a kind of mock-modesty that in saying, Who am I to judge? actually means We’re all alike, equally bad, and those who try, or pretend that they try, to remain halfway decent are either saints or hypocrites, and in either case should leave us alone.  Hence the huge outcry the moment anyone fixes specific blame on some particular person instead of blaming  . .  in short some mysterious necessity that works behind the backs of men . . . there is general agreement that such judgment of the person is vulgar, lacks sophistication, and should not be permitted to interfere with the interpretation of History.

p. 21:  “…What I wish to point out, … us how deep-seated the fear of passing judgment, of naming names, and of fixing blame – especially upon people in power and high position, dead or alive – must be  .. .  rather throw all of mankind out of the window .. in order to save one man in high position …”

p. 22:  “.. nobody paid much attention to moral questions . .  we were brought up under the assumption ..moral conduct is a matter of course. .. every once in a while we were confronted with moral weakness, with lack of steadfastness or loyalty, with this curious, almost automatic yielding under pressure, especially of public opinion, which is so symptomatic of the educated strata of certain societies, but we had no idea how serious such things were and least of all where they could lead.  We did not know much about the nature of these phenomena, and I am afraid we cared even less. …

P. 24:  “..we were outraged, but not morally disturbed, by the bestial behaviour ..  The new regime posed to us then nothing more than a very complex political problem, one aspect of which was the intrusion of criminality into the public realm. … All of this was terrible and dangerous, but it posed no moral problems.  . . . this very early eagerness not to miss the train of History . . honest overnight change of opinion that befell a great majority of public figures in all walks of life .. .an incredible ease with which lifelong friendships were broken and discarded.  In brief, what disturbed us was the behaviour not of our enemies but of our friends, who had done nothing to bring this situation about.  … they were only impressed by the Nazi success and unable to pit their own judgment against the verdict of History, as they read it.  Without taking into account the almost universal breakdown, not of personal responsibility, but of personal judgment in the early stages of the Nazi regime, it is impossible to understand what actually happened.  It is true that many of these people were quickly disenchanted  . . . Still, I think this early moral disintegration in German society, hardly perceptible to the outsider, was like a .. dress rehearsal for its total breakdown, which was to occur during the war years.

P. 25:  ” …We had to learn everything from scratch, . . . There stand on the other side of the fence, all those who were fully qualified in matters of morality and held them in the highest esteem (clergy e.g.).  These people proved not only to be incapable of learning anything; but worse, yielding easily to temptation, they most convincingly demonstrated .. how inadequate these had become, how little, they had been ..intended to be applied to conditions as they actually arose. …

P. 28:  ” (Hamlet)  The time is out of joint:  O cursed spite  That ever I was born to set it right!

To set the time aright means to renew the world …

P. 29:  “.. There is no such thing as collective guilt or collective innocence;  guilt and innocence make sense only if applied to individuals.”    (“if all are guilty, none are” quagmire. We are individually responsible.)

P. 31: “In every bureaucratic system the shifting of responsibilities is a matter of daily routine, and if one wishes to define bureaucracy in terms of political science, that is, as a form of government – the rule of offices, as contrasted to the rule of men, of one man, or of the few, or of the many – bureaucracy unhappily is the rule of nobody and for this very reason perhaps the least human and most cruel form of rulership.  But in the courtroom, these definitions are of no avail.  For to the answer: “Not I but the system did it in which I was a cog,” the court immediately raises the next question:  “And why did you become a cog or continue to be a cog under such circumstances?”. . .

(more to come.)



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