Moral Responsibility and the Banality of Evil
Negatively mirroring moral actions worldwide are ghastly acts of immorality. Description of such immorality can only be through incomplete summary: routine war-crimes by the U.S empire, kidnapping and caging children at the southern U.S border in violation of asylum laws, enslaving prisoners for virtually free labor for corporations, syphoning capital to the ultra-wealthy from the rest in a systematic kleptocracy, obliterating educational and self-fulfilment opportunities for underprivileged citizens, and reducing the media to a privatized megaphone to justify these violations against humanity.
Openly immoral elites, their supporters and their actions heavily animate political discourse. Trump in the U.S, Jair Bolosnaro in Brazil, and Mohammad Bin Salman’s brutal and despotic regime in Saudi Arabia all produce justified indignation worldwide. Much has been written about such heinous leadership and its support.
The Banality of Evil
But one brand of elite and its disciples have gone rather unexamined. These are the amoral populations, otherwise reasonable people content with approaching a breathtakingly abhorrent state of world affairs with equanimity and detachment — equanimity and detachment without which the terrorists and criminals would not be able to operate.
There are occasional tyrants and other jaw-dropping monsters that have punctuated history and continue to do so. Unfailingly coupled with them are the intellectuals, acolytes and obedient citizens who find moral comfort in offloading crimes on to the shoulders of the most immoral amongst us, without so much as a whimper of meaningful protest, and with the obligatory clutching of pearls. Evil comes in all flavors, and banal has been a bestseller for a long time.
Case in point: liberal centrism in the U.S today. In the face of Nazis on the streets, a two-decade-long flagrant bombing of innocent civilians in the middle east and other war crimes, routine rape of the environment by recklessly profiteering oil corporations, and overthrowing elected governments of sovereign states, as seen in the ongoing U.S coup in Venezuela, the American liberal is content with engaging in twitter resistance, launching historically large marches that do not fundamentally challenge power nor inconvenience anyone, and inflating the careers of hacky television personalities who haven’t had an original thought for a long time. The tweets, the signage, and the jokes never penetrate the roots of power and oppression, because that would reveal the foundation upon which liberal comfort and prosperity is built.
As I previously covered in How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Exposes Democratic Party Failures:
…Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House. For our purposes, she can be considered a distillation of Democratic Party priorities. She has refused to support Medicare for All, a policy supported by 70% of Americans; but quaint constructs like democracy are of no concern here. As reported by The Intercept:
“Less than a month after Democrats — many of them running on “Medicare for All” — won back control of the House of Representatives in November, the top health policy aide to then-prospective House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Blue Cross Blue Shield executives and assured them that party leadership had strong reservations about single-payer health care and was more focused on lowering drug prices, according to sources familiar with the meeting.”
The intra-party opposition to elementary democratic priorities does not stop with healthcare. Ocasio-Cortez’s recently introduced Green New Deal resolution captures goals that are supported by the majority of both parties. Yet, the oft-professed bipartisan cooperation is nowhere to be found — certainly not championed by Pelosi, who recently referred to the resolution as “the Green Dream or whatever.”
Further, it would seem that the disdain for democracy is not limited to domestic forces. Pelosi also supports the U.S-backed imperialist coup in Venezuela to overthrow the democratically elected head of state Nicolas Maduro. Pelosi has not much to #resist here against a criminal Trump Administration. To the contrary, she has issued a statement supporting the Trump Administration in this blatant violation of international law. This after sanctimoniously decrying for a couple of years Russian interference in the 2016 U.S presidential elections.
The elevation of the sensible centrist such as Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke is not viewed as a failure of a political class that would rather negotiate with; nay, empower proto-fascists. Instead, it is viewed as capable and dispassionate stewardship.
This only serves to conceal their attempts to crush the people’s agenda, which includes invigorating democratic engagement of all people regardless of race, class and gender. Such an agenda threatens wealth, as it would redirect capital in productive and profit-threatening ways such as single-payer healthcare and infrastructure projects including renewable energy systems. As covered before, this is not acceptable for those immersed in levels of comfort and convenience few humans have ever known.
A recent resurgence of an engaged and morally outraged population has resulted in symptomatic elite handwringing and panic. As reported by the New York Times in ‘Stop Sanders’ Democrats Are Agonizing Over His Momentum:
When Leah Daughtry, a former Democratic Party official, addressed a closed-door gathering of about 100 wealthy liberal donors in San Francisco last month, all it took was a review of the 2020 primary rules to throw a scare in them.
Democrats are likely to go into their convention next summer without having settled on a presidential nominee, said Ms. Daughtry, who ran her party’s conventions in 2008 and 2016, the last two times the nomination was contested. And Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is well positioned to be one of the last candidates standing, she noted.
“I think I freaked them out,” Ms. Daughtry recalled with a chuckle, an assessment that was confirmed by three other attendees. They are hardly alone.
This fear of democratization of wealth and social decisions leads the amoral to commit their votes to Trump rather than Sanders, as MSNBC contributor Donny Deutsch recently claimed in a moment of honesty, before being corrected by the host.
This fear of reduction of personal privilege leads the amoral to mount weak opposition, disguised in political maneuvering, against a historically incompetent right-wing.
This fear of an increase in subversive challengers against the political and media establishment leads an obsolete leadership to cling to empty “values and philosophy,” as presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg described to avoid talking about his policy set.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in summarizing his disappointment in the superficially concerned liberal, said, “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” One can only imagine his indignation if he were to hear a common amoral refrain in today’s political climate leading up to the Democratic Party primaries: “I will vote for whoever is the Democratic Party nominee.”
This statement, often declared with an air of moral righteousness, is empty. It is warm amber to protect oneself from questioning their own privileged place in society and the ramifications of their own actions or inactions. It conveniently distills all things worth opposing to the “other side,” soothingly balancing moral and material comfort simultaneously.
All Politics Are Moral
Cognitive linguist and author George Lakoff has said that all politics are moral. Moral reasons are always available after the fact. Decisions are made with a different rubric — profit, power, control — and then moral arguments are developed to justify said decisions. Some of the most blatant violations against humanity have had moral arguments made for them:
- The two American original sins — native genocide and slavery — were explained away because the more enlightened, civilized people were simply liberating the savages from their animalistic ways. Who can speak against God’s work? That it was beneficial for the oppressors was simply a coincidence.
- When corporations twist the state to shower gifts and tax breaks on them, it is simply a method to spur job growth and economic advancement for all. That it is beneficial for the oppressors is simply a coincidence.
- When private health insurance companies lobby aggressively to campaign against less expensive Medicare-For-All, which would prevent many deaths and bankruptcies due to lack of health insurance, it is simply to preserve “access to insurance” for Americans. That it is beneficial for the oppressors is simply a coincidence.
- When Nancy Pelosi supports the Trump administration and the aforementioned coup in Venezuela, that is simply spreading democracy, presumably by stealing local natural resources. That it is beneficial for the oppressors is simply a coincidence.
And so on.
Coupled with the minority of immoral agents who directly execute and benefit from such acts are the intellectuals, media members, and everyday supporters who are content with harvesting ancillary benefits which come from blatant crimes against humanity.
The opening paragraphs in Noam Chomsky’s 1967 essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals highlight this tendency with anachronistic examples, as follows:
TWENTY-YEARS AGO, Dwight Macdonald published a series of articles in Politics on the responsibility of peoples and, specifically, the responsibility of intellectuals. I read them as an undergraduate, in the years just after the war, and had occasion to read them again a few months ago. They seem to me to have lost none of their power or persuasiveness. Macdonald is concerned with the question of war guilt. He asks the question: To what extent were the German or Japanese people responsible for the atrocities committed by their governments? And, quite properly, he turns the question back to us: To what extent are the British or American people responsible for the vicious terror bombings of civilians, perfected as a technique of warfare by the Western democracies and reaching their culmination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, surely among the most unspeakable crimes in history. To an undergraduate in 1945–46 — to anyone whose political and moral consciousness had been formed by the horrors of the 1930s, by the war in Ethiopia, the Russian purge, the “China Incident,” the Spanish Civil War, the Nazi atrocities, the Western reaction to these events and, in part, complicity in them — these questions had particular significance and poignancy.
With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.
All immoral actions referenced here have countless people contributing their time to oppose them. There are electoral and extra-electoral tactics, literary and other media awareness programs, and so on. These people, like Martin Luther King, Jr. are stirred into action by witnessing the actions of the immoral. However, just like Martin Luther King, Jr., they too find the shallow understanding from people of good will more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
It is the amoral who protect the immoral from the subversive power of these people. Liberal centrism, an amorphous mass of ideologies enslaved by markets, profits and neoliberal capitalism, is useful only to delay the descent to bare fascism — a preferred outcome to socialism for the materially privileged.
Headlines such as Melinda Gates: Capitalism needs work, but it beats socialism and the US is ‘lucky’ to have it, Climate Change Will Get Worse. These Investors Are Betting on It, Democrats Just Confirmed Lots Of Trump’s Judges So They Could Skip Town, WSJ Endorses Far-Right Brazilian Presidential Candidate Bolsonaro, Money vs. morals: Khashoggi killing raises questions in Silicon Valley about Saudi investment, The Democratic Party Is Fighting to Keep Representatives It Needs to Lose and Davos Erupts in Laughter at the Notion of Tech Billionaire Paying More Taxes are all indicative of the blight that is this secular religion.
In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt documents the detached and rather aloof outlook of Adolf Eichmann, an organizer of the Holocaust under Hitler’s regime. She noted,
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”