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Hannah Arendt in Spokane

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By Scott Kinder-Pyle

Donald J. Trump is the symptom of the disease, and not the focus of his humble essay. I mention the Republican candidate for president because of the rabid enthusiasm of his voters, who are ostensibly voting for the next dialectical movement in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s “history.”  That is, a huge chunk of the electorate now expresses their disdain for the multi-syllabic word and for the sophisticated public argument by which the democratic mythos has been sustained since 1776. The Trump-entourage will claim that they have a majority of followers who have grown tired of the elitist polemic and of  political correctness. But in reality the source of the majority’s fatigue is the creaky door through which authentic individuals must pass to become authentic individuals — and increasingly, there is a cry for oil or ‘drill, baby, drill’ or ‘frack, baby, frack,’ so that the noise might be resolved.

Alas, it’s not going to happen, and the noise won’t go away.

I recently came upon the courageous article by Hannah Arendt in 1963.  As legend has it, The New Yorker editorial board invited the German/Jewish philosopher to visit the trial of Adolph Eichmann, and the result would be the most incisive candor ever to grace the journal’s pages—and I do mean, grace.  Arendt’s thesis regarding the “banality of evil,” of course, included the capitulation of certain Jewish elites in the Final Solution, and this observation alone made her a target for those who wanted to affix blame to the S.S. officer and to the duplicity of the so-called Aryan race.  For a thinker like Arendt, however, there were bigger fish to fry.

Throughout the trial, Eichmann tried to clarify, mostly without success, the point in his plea of his being “in the sense of the indictment, not guilty.” The indictment implied not only that he had acted on purpose, which he did not deny, but that he had acted out of base motives and in full knowledge of the criminal nature of his deeds. As for the base motives, he was sure that he was not what he called an inferrer Schweinehund — a dirty bastard in the depths of his heart — and as for his conscience, he recalled perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do — to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and most meticulous care. This last statement, admittedly, was hard to take. Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified Eichmann as “normal.” “More normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him,” one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another had found that Eichmann’s whole psychological outlook, including his relationship with his wife and children, his mother and father, his brothers and sisters and friends, was “not only normal but most desirable.” And, finally, a minister who paid regular visits to him in prison after the Supreme Court had finished hearing his appeal reassured everybody by declaring that Eichmann was “a man with very positive ideas.”

Consider the vocabulary. Normal. Desirable. Very positive ideas. I’ve extracted this section of Arendt’s article because of the argument by analogy that nearly argues itself. Namely,

  1. Just as the disparate parties surrounding the Third Reich’s atrocities sought absolution in the anonymity of the crowd and in a ‘systematic’ herd mentality, so the Trump campaign refrains from taking responsibility and subscribes to a “following orders” absolution for society’s ills;
  2. Society’s ills are understood as an amorphous blob which threatens to envelope even the most insular and isolated communities;
  3. The United States of America is still reeling from the perceived vulnerability felt by the vast majority of its population to terroristic assault and utter catastrophe; among the insular and isolated communities of the U.S.A. there is a heightened sense of anxiety;
  4. Spokane — among the globally-sensitive communities of the U.S.A. — may be considered relatively insular and isolated.
  5. Individuals who constitute Spokane may find themselves susceptible to the absolution in the anonymity of the crowd and in a ‘systematic’ herd mentality.

And now, you see, I must confess to being an individual who finds Donald J. Trump to be a non-sensical, buffoonish bully.  Having acknowledged that opinion, however, I remain implicated among the culprits, who, like Eichmann, appear to live a life which is not only “normal,” but “desirable, and who, occasionally espouses ideas which the social-networkers regard as “very positive.”  I am guilty, and it’s not the season of Lent which compels me to admit it. Nonetheless, I confess to a guilt of a certain genre, and that is, the genre of trying to fit in somewhere, among certain like-minded individuals, when to be an authentic individual, I must do more than agree with the ethics of the majority.  I must go in and out of a creaky door.

Practically speaking, therefore, the promises of “winning, winning, winning” are tantamount to every red herring under the sun of Ecclesiastes. Winning is a sirens’ call, doomed to dash us against the rocks of our own hubris.  Moreover, Bing Crosby would not be proud.  In fact, the crooner might even invent another verse for White Christmas, one in which nostalgia for the “ones I used to know” becomes the Losing My Religion lyric of R.E.M.:

Oh no, I’ve said too much

I haven’t said enough.

The only question, I think, communities like Spokane ought to be asking is as follows:  is our nostalgia — even that of “Making America Great Again” — inadvertently killing the patient upon which we operate as conscientious citizens?  That is, we may deify the icons of popular culture simply because we can’t tolerate the ambiguity of living and dying in a world where the U.S.A. is just one among the nations of the world, and of human history.  Moreover, if we add religion, or even Christianity to the mix, even our ethical camaraderie has the melt-down ingredients of a golden calf.

Take care, Spokane.  May 24th looms like the Ides of March, and beyond that date, Armageddon won’t save us from the anti-climactic moment when Hannah Arendt comes to town and the authentic individual trumps the universal ethic every time, and twice on Sundays!

 

Scott Kinder-Pyle
Scott Kinder-Pyle
Scott Kinder-Pyle identifies as an ordained pastor in Presbyterian Church (USA), and has served as an adjunctive professor of philosophy, religion and literature at Eastern Washington and Gonzaga universities. Scott is a poet and the author of There’s No I in Debris—Except this One! In 2020 and 2021, he served as a resident chaplain at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, and has subsequently worked for Kindred and Gentiva Hospice as a Board Certified Chaplain [BCC], accountable to the Association of Professional Chaplains. Most recently, Salem Lutheran Church of Spokane’s West Central neighborhood has welcomed Scott as their interim pastor. He’s married to Sheryl going on 36 years, loves his children, Ian and Philip, enjoys films like Adaptation, ponders painting in the near future and appreciates the thinking of Emmanuel Levinas.

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