The Banality of Tyranny

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German-Jewish (and eventually naturalized American) philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) outraged the Left with her definitive account of modern tyranny, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Written in 1951 when Stalin was still ruling the Soviet Union and worshipped by the Left, it exposed with ruthless logic and evidence the essential sameness between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Nazism and Communism were just two sides of the same tyrannical coin, said Arendt, not opposites of Right and Left.

The world’s leftist intellectuals never forgave her, and so were scandalized again in 1963 by her book, On Revolution, an impeccably scholarly study of why the American Revolution was a success and the French Revolution an abysmal failure.

Yet it is her account of the 1962 trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem, for which she is most famous. Hitler had put Eichmann in charge of transporting Jews to his extermination camps such as at Auschwitz. At his trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann claimed that he was just doing his duty, conforming to the law, and that he was powerless to do otherwise.

Arendt saw that Eichmann really believed this. He wasn’t a "radically evil" sociopath; he was an ordinary man just going along with what was happening. This was an evil that frightened Arendt more than that of a rare monster like Hitler, for it was an evil perpetrated by otherwise normal people.

She described this phenomenon in her memorable phrase: the banality of evil.

This tendency for people to do things just because it’s accepted by others is a pervasive quality of human nature.

We get used to things. We adapt to circumstances. We habituate our daily routines. The most conscious of us do this; it’s part of what allows us to function in our daily lives. It takes an energetic act of volition in order to counter these mundane forces.

If we had to think consciously every time we did anything we would be exhausted and unable to function before we even got going for the day. Instead, this executive function is largely reserved for novel circumstances or moments of decision.

Imagine driving a car and having to think about every action you take in driving anew, as though you were learning it for the first time. This is what life would be like without our ability to habituate.

On the other hand, this ability to adapt and get used to things is what allows bad policies, dysfunctional ideas, abuse of power and, yes, outright evil to grow and become an acceptable part of life.

Back in my college days, our professor of US history one day was talking about the New Deal. He spoke in glowing terms of how FDR had saved democracy, all the ways that he strengthened America and our freedom, etc. He was speaking as a demagogue, teaching nothing but his own opinion and I knew it. So I put down my pencil and stopped writing notes.

It was a little shocking and very eye opening for me to look around the room of more than a hundred fellow students, all dutifully scribbling down what he was saying – as though it were the truth. I was literally the only one who was, in that moment, not taking part in the charade.

These were not stupid people, nor were they necessarily true believers in the dogma being sold to them at that moment. They were just people in a certain circumstance, doing what they thought they should be doing.

These were the kids who read Newsweek and Time magazine and thought they were getting an in-depth and balanced take on world events, who voted for John Anderson for president because he saved them from having to defend Jimmy Carter, because he seemed to be more "enlightened and reasonable" than Ronald Reagan – and besides, that’s who all the "smart" people were voting for.

These are the same people who have grown up to support and become the bureaucrats and representatives, professors and newscasters of today, who have created our modern culture of government dependence and power. They take the status quo as a given, and try to maintain everything that they are used to.

These are people like the present group of "moderates" in Congress who would like to compromise with each other to find a way to "solve our nation’s problems" – in other words, to maintain the status quo for themselves and their government colleagues.

Of course, compromising between freedom and tyranny is like compromising about what height of a cliff you should have to jump off. Once you accept the premise that you’ll jump, you’re already doomed.

We focus our political energies on the thugs and demagogues of the Left because they are the noisy ones, the annoying ones, the ones who so blatantly seek to undermine our system of individual liberty and limited government in the pursuit of their socialist utopia.

But our greatest danger now is not such an obvious enemy; we are up against human nature itself. We are up against our own tendency to get used to things as they are.

If we want to re-establish America as that shining city on a hill, as the champion of individual liberty and personal responsibility; if we want to roll back the now ossified structures of the progressive movement and bring forth once again the strength and beauty of our founding principles – like tearing up a musty old carpet to find a beautiful hardwood floor – then we have to keep our consciousness alive in ways that are somewhat unnatural.

Self-regulation requires energy, it requires focus and it requires the same kind of eternal vigilance as does our liberty.

The natural tendency for us as citizens is to become complacent, letting our representatives take care of the government for us and refocusing on our regular life habits.

The natural tendency for our new Republican majority in Congress is to do exactly what the last Republican majority did: join the crowd in an effort to get more power, bend their integrity toward expediency and go along with the culture of dealmaking and compromise in order to "further progress."

This momentum of a culture is a powerful force. It is what addicts have to counter when they try to get sober – in most cases it’s necessary to get completely away from the culture that supported or at least accepted the addiction and establish a new culture that supports a sober and healthy lifestyle.

Our representatives need to feel that the culture that had accepted the corrupt and fascist progressive status quo is no longer the comfortable way to go. They need to hear from us constantly that we expect them to champion our founding principles, that we support them in representing a culture of individual liberty and self-responsibility and that there are an overwhelming number of us that feel this way.

We especially need to encourage our new members who are full of fire and vision so that they can become the leaders of the congressional culture. There is tremendous leverage in standing up with integrity to oppose harmful authority.

You are probably familiar with Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiments. Subjects were asked to administer ascending quantities of electrical shock to people each time they answered a question incorrectly. Those receiving the shock were acting, not really being shocked, but the subjects didn’t know that.

The intensity of shock began at 15 volts and rose in 15-volt increments up to 300 volts. The subjects heard screams, pleas to stop, complaints of heart pains and then silence – yet many of them continued to the end. How many?

Two-thirds of participants administered the full range of shock, simply because the person in authority – a man with a white coat – would say, "The experiment requires that you continue."

This is very scary, of course, but there’s more to the story: In a little known but vitally important detail in these experiments, those who witnessed another person refuse to comply with the authority were dramatically more likely to refuse to comply themselves. In this case only 10% obeyed the orders of the authority.

The power of a positive example represents a huge potential for good.

One representative with that kind of integrity can make a world of difference. We have a lot of them now with the potential to defy the status quo of the progressive agenda. We have to stay on top of them and remind them what we expect of them: to demonstrate the courage, the integrity and the clarity of purpose that got them elected.

The elections of 2010 did one thing only: They undermined the momentum and presumptuousness of the progressive agenda. Now comes the hard work – the ongoing discipline of dismantling the Administrative State that has been built in defiance of our founding principles.

The momentum, the comfort and the accepted norms are with the progressive administrative state – not by ideology or activism, but simply through force of habit. It is this mundane unconscious acceptance that has to be stirred up and confronted.

Countering the banality of tyranny with the passion of liberty will be our greatest challenge. If we can do it, this will be a heroic period of history, re-affirming America’s founding principles and the truly revolutionary principles of individual liberty.

Reprinted with permission from The Daily Bell.

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness and A Pocket Guide to Mastering Happiness.

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