Most folks I know are trustworthy and good. They don’t lie to me. They don’t swindle me. They don’t manipulate me. They don’t exploit me. They don’t imprison me, literally or figuratively. They don’t torture me or rape me or murder me. But when it comes to adjudicating social questions — questions that venture beyond immediate interpersonal relations — these same people appear to possess the moral sensibility of a tadpole.
I remember, as a child, talking to my parents about a book they were reading, a book many Jews were reading at the time; Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997). I remember concluding, “Damn, them Germans were evil.” It wasn’t until well over a decade later, while stumbling on Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) that I learned the real lesson. It wasn’t that them Germans were uniquely sadistic, it was precisely the opposite. Them Germans were just like most people, provided the right circumstances and demagogues and propaganda machines.
I’m not drawing a direct parallel between the Holocaust and the war crimes presently being committed in the Gaza Strip. I am, however, drawing indirect parallels between every pernicious politics ever endorsed by the majority of any given population, ranging from neoliberal economic reforms to neoconservative foreign policy to Operation Protective Edge. The common thread holding all these collective sins together is the willingness of seemingly good people to surrender their ethical capacities when it comes to evaluating (or not evaluating) the “serious” and “practical” determinations of the ruling elite. It is thanks to this everyday surrender that the “banality of evil” is secured.
Politics is not a hobby. It is not a sport or a distraction. Or at least at its most urgent register it must not be. Politics, when done right, is the extension of interpersonal good will and obligation to the realm of the social. When this version of good will and obligation is forgotten, as it often is, great evil ensues