Hannah Arendt's 60s struggle session and the right side of history

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been really discouraged about people attacked by online mobs who simply look at the world and — in good faith — say what they see.

One example: Lee Fang, a strong reporter at The Intercept, went to a Black Lives Matter protest. He interviewed some of the protesters, one of which was a black person from Oakland who was there to support BLM — but not blindly so. On Fang’s video, he raised a question about the movement’s larger implications. He asked why there was only attention to violence against black people when white people did it. His life had been impacted by violence, but not the kind of violence under discussion by BLM.

He felt like that was an issue with the overall movement. That said, he was still out there supporting it. He just wanted to expand consideration. You can watch the video here:

I can understand why this kind of message can bother organizers of BLM. It’s like when someone does an anti-pollution campaign against, say, an industrial ag facility and the owners or people in the community try to deflect by saying that, for example, power plants pollute as well. Why aren’t you protesting the power plants?

It’s like: yeah, but we can only take on one thing at a time. So I get it. But also the guy in the video is just one basically unknown dude and it’s just one video online and it also isn’t a journalist’s job to help a campaign to maintain its narrative. Journalists pick out details to illuminate stories.

And just by the way: It might, for example, be good for BLM (if you step back and think about it) for the public to understand that it’s grassroots isn’t totally monolithic. But anyway good or bad, not Fang’s job. His job is to go see and say what he sees.

So while I can appreciate why an organizer might be annoyed about this video, I can’t, however, really understand why this kind of message would bother a fellow journalist who worked at the same news organization as you.

See, after sharing the video, one of Fang’s co-workers at The Intercept subsequently tweeted at him, “Stop being racist Lee.” She has since deleted the tweet but I saw it at the time. I also saw other reporters rally to her side. Matt Taibbi singled the case out as a particularly egregious example of the state of reporting today in his excellent essay, “The American Press is Destroying Itself.

Hopefully I don’t need to spell out why this incident is extraordinary.

So, Hannah Arendt

With an example like this in mind: it was very encouraging for me to listen to this episode of the ‘Philosophy Bites’ podcast with Samantha Rose Hill, a scholar who mainly studies the philosopher Hannah Arendt.

So, backing up: if you know anything about Hannah Arendt (and I don’t know a lot more than this), you know she coined the term “the banality of evil.” We now understand that concept to mean people just doing their jobs but those jobs actually being pretty terrible — but to them it can basically just feel like work and they don’t even really need consider its consequences.

There’s all kinds of levels of this, but she came up with it while watching a trial that concerned probably the greatest single evil of the last century: the holocaust of Jewish people in Germany.

Here’s what I didn’t know: her reporting on the trial, which was collected in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, led to really, really serious controversy. She was put through something not unlike a struggle session in New York City. Rose Hill explains in the podcast that people thought by calling evil “banal” she was minimizing the crimes.

It was one of those things where people choose to read into a particular word choice what they want for their own partisan reasons rather than to seek to understand those word choices in good faith.

Since then the notion of the “banality of evil” has become a useful one, one were we can understand that all kinds of people do jobs that are just a little evil, but we all have to pay the rent, right?

For more on this, Rose Hill has an essay at Open Democracy where she explains this some more. Rose Hill (I think) is basically summarizing the essay Arendt wrote following her controversy, in which the philosopher explains what she’s come to understand as the perpetual tension between truth and politics.

We can all see this very much playing out today. Everyone knows that the former President Trump bent the facts and lied outright to suit his agenda all the time and his backers in the grassroots did the same.

But if you’re a more left-leaning person and being fully honest with yourself, you also know that people you probably largely agree with are doing the same, at least to some degree. They are both:

a) pushing crazy things that don’t really square with the truth but accelerate their cultural/political strategy and
b) making people who aren’t enemies into enemies because of bad faith interpretations of things they have written or said — because nothing is more important than fearmongering wrongthink.

So that’s why I wanted to point out this podcast. It was somewhat invigorating and encouraging to learn that Arendt had gone through this as well — that she had been something not unlike a cancellation. And that, in fact, it turned out she was on the “right side of history” in the end.

We don’t remember the fact that her peers put her on a sort of phony trial in absentia (like Twitter does all the time). The objections to Arendt’s work are largely forgotten.

We just remember that Arendt watched the trial, wrote what she saw and that she was right.