The Banality of Authoritarian leadership

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The title of this post attempts to echo a comment by Hannah Arendt in her book  on Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. In this work she claims that after examination of all  the interview material with Psychologists and other officials, and after witnessing the events of the trial, one can draw no other conclusion about the personality and character of Eichmann than that he merely was not able to think. This opinion flew in the face of the prevailing discussion which tended toward a religious categorization of what happened in terms of the evil of  Eichmann’s actions and character. The comment “the banality of evil” seemed to many Jews to trivialize what had happened in the holocaust  exactly because they believed strongly that a religious idea of the sacred served as the standard by which to measure a man and his actions. To a Philosopher who characterizes the humanity of a man in terms of his/her ability to think, however, the accusation  has exactly equivalent dramatic value. Someone who fails to think in accordance with the basic categories of morality appears less than human. Popular opinion might even think of such people  as monsters(rather than devils: but are not devils a kind of monster?).

So what is the evidence for  judging that  current political leaders might  have difficulties with the capacity of thought in general but in particular with ethical thought? In an interview on television shown on CNN on the 26th January 2017, it was  argued  by the President of the USA  that he believed that torture should be used on suspected terrorists and the reason he gave for his belief concerning the truth of his claim  is that people in his intelligence agencies have told him that torture works. This was a somewhat surprising admission given an earlier claim  that one of his own newly  chosen cabinet ministers with extensive military experience had provided him with arguments that torture is not a good idea. Other commentators have pointed out that torture  is in fact against the law of  the country  and  a change in the law would be needed  if  it  was to be a possible anti-terrorist strategy. I am not sure whether  it was part of the same argument or a separate section of the interview but the President also seemed to be arguing that there was so much hate in the world that the decision to torture  terrorists would not worsen matters noticeably. One is reminded  here of  the view of every humanist since Buddha that violence breeds more violence, that the policy of an eye for an eye would lead to a world of blind people trying to find their way to their destinations. It appears then that we have at least one current world leader who responds emotionally to  both “sound bites”  and  images of the sizes of inauguration audiences without any thought  or critical capacity. Of course it would be foolish to suggest that this leader is like Eichmann, the mass murderer in all respects or even most respects. The argument is only that there is sufficient resemblance between the banality of Eichmann’s behaviour as recorded in his pre-trial testimony and his witnessed court room behaviour  and the banality of  pre-and post inauguration behaviour of the latest President of the USA. The most obvious difference between Eichmann and Trump is, of course that Eichmann was merely a cog in the Nazi machine being directed by a larger cog higher up the chain. But for those of us who still read books, having ones life run by sound bites and television images  is represented very well by the image of cogs blindly turning other cogs.

Indeed it might be the very banality of  the behaviour and language of morally  confused people that  causes a mist of confusion to descend upon everyone in their vicinity and which allows a popular  “acceptance” of alternative moral  positions.

The danger of relativizing morality is that the next stage in that process is to believe that the law can be manipulated in the same way in which one manipulates  other people. The law becomes another cog in the machine. Not to mention the fact that we have another leader to the East who cares little for International law and who has been characterized as delusional  in relation to his behaviour in  the Ukraine. The President of the USA wishes peaceful relations with  this warmonger and  it is not difficult to see why. The apprentice may be  seeking a master in the arena of the manipulation of nations. He may be seeking to be a larger cog in a larger machine.