How to make Evil Banal (Slavery and Freedom Summer, too)

Inadvertently this blog has stumbled into a little series on the function of covenant in the endless war between banality of evil and civic courage. Given that a few of us are attending to the centenary of the first engagements of what became known as The Great War, and subsequently as The First World War, it’s not a bad idea. One historian the other day asserted that the whole thing had been one big conflict, with an extended cease fire between the two major conflagrations. Does Albert Camus explain the Roaring Twenties? It looks to me like we’re probably heading into another such half century, or might already have entered into it. Not sure what the cease fires were, but they sure look to be over.

So, back to the banality of evil in its war with civic courage. Yesterday’s “Fresh Air” gave a fuller expansion to reporter Rukmini Callimachi’s expose of kidnapping for ransom as the bankroll process for terrorism. Where to start with all the ways this resonates with headlines and history stories! But when seen through the lens of making evil banal, the fit simplifies — and terrifies. For what she describes matches almost perfectly the description of Nazism’s rise to power in Weimar Germany, and Mussolini’s in Italy.

First came the thugs, who attacked brutally and publicly. Then came the ideologues, who justified the brutality with simplifying statements of how the violence fit into social possibilities for those who supported Nazism. Exploiting and manipulating free speech in a too-liberal democracy, this combination which drew out and suppressed all political and cultural opposition, by veiling with thin persuasion what it aroused with manipulative rhetoric.

Cultural opponents fell into two groups: those with different lifestyles and those with different ethnicities. Political intimidation of persons with different lifestyles, including the well-known round up of homosexuals, coincided with early round-ups of political opponents. So if rhetorical persuasion wasn’t doing the job, maybe our prisons will. These folks –many of them labor leaders and followers — suffered imprisonments that were long enough to suck out their civic courage, but short enough to allow them back into society. Here they spread the well-known phrase, “resistance is futile.”

But their releases spread something else: false data for folks who wished to deceive themselves that the Jews, Roma, and later political opponents would also be held, subdued and released. It was the perfect complement to thugs in the streets: “This party is just doing what every government does: discouraging its enemies and rewarding its supporters. Learn your lesson and you’ll be fine.”

This is where the notorious Al Quaeda expense accounts come into it. When an organization shifts its invitation to supporters from participating in face-to-face violence to simply doing an office job, Adolph Eichmanns result. I do not doubt that for those who would like to engage in personal terrorizing, Al Quaeda still has opportunities, but for those too dainty for such work, it now has a second path to social stature. There was a point in Terry Gross’s interview yesterday when Rukmini Callimachi said that the kidnap victims are now being obtained indirectly, by social networks who have been displaced in the wars and droughts and nation-building chaos which is today’s northern Africa. Tuaregs are doing the dirty work in Mali, other Bedouins in other places. “You mean they are outsourcing terror?” exclaimed Terry, in genuine surprise. “Yes,” replied Callimachi.

Here was where my mind exploded with the “ah ha!” moment in a difficult part of African’s history with kidnapping for enslavement by Europeans. In ancient times, and at many moments throughout time – including our own — slavery was/is the fate of prisoners of war. Because this was the African tradition –as well as the well-documented European tradition — I conjured until recently that American slavery relied on some unknown-to-me interior wars for hostages for sale to slavers. That didn’t make sense: no continent can hide four centuries of warfare strong enough to produce that many kidnap victims, but the alternative was just too awful to contemplate. But recent history makes clear that some Africans were making money kidnapping and selling others, on a regular basis, in much the same way Callimachi describes Al Quaeda operating today. There was no war, at least not at this level. It was simply the most lucrative business available in a continent whose healthy young people were being siphoned out, much as gems and minerals would later be hauled away.

And here was where Hannah Arendt became and remains an incendiary scholar. The fact that some Jewish community and camp leaders “cooperated” in selecting immediate victims for Nazism cannot be denied. But the terrified submission of people at gunpoint, people who are witnessing the brutal deaths of people standing right next to them, possibly in their own families or with other close social ties, should not be equated with the self-satisfied professionalism of people like Adolph Eichmann, slave kidnappers, Al Queda career climbers. To have only a single word — “cooperation” —  is a language failing that needs to be corrected. “Cooptation ” is worse, for it implies not only grudging physical participation, but acceptance of key ideas.

People who are randomly alive in a holocaust, even by their own actions (for similar actions had no saving grace for many others) cannot be asked for civic courage. The Warsaw Uprising succeeded by recognizing the need to unify personal consciences into warfare. No, civic courage is the duty of people to stand up from within the potential professional ranks of banal evildoers, individually taking risk, from start to finish. The hard part is that to do so is to shift the holocaust from others onto oneself. To save other families is to lose one’s own. That is the function of the public violence with which such campaigns begin. You will not just linger on a lower rung of the social ladder, you will see us brutalize your children, humiliate your parents, dispatch your grandparents and suckling babies as if they were some kind of pests. Boko Haram, anybody?

So who signs up for this? The United States has been honoring Freedom Summer this year, remembering the martyrs, and noticing again how most of the folks who went — black and white — were childless, unmarried, in a stage of life devoted to detaching from family and finding one’s personal deepest meaning. Civic courage has its banality, too; such activism was made possible by families whose children did not have to send money home. But what happened in Freedom Summer — this never really came home to me until this year — is that Cheney, Schwirmer, and Goodman were killed at the very outset of the campaign. Volunteers were still arriving. The message was clear: you can turn around and save yourself now. The recognizable pattern of totalitarianism, starting out by exhibiting random brutality.

But the volunteers did not turn around. The families they came to serve were at first reluctant to associate with them, terrified of long-term consequences (already being victims of the long-term consequences of slavery’s lingering outrages). But by staying out the summer, entering into the risks, the poverty, the cultural structure of local African American communities, the volunteers modeled civic courage. This is what I mean by affirming the “dignity” of someone, once you’ve decided it is your job to stand up for their inherent worth. The truly banal participants in horrible evil can be outlasted. They get nervous when they see alternative career ladders that might be more lucrative than that offered by the monster machine. Ambitious white southerners learned to get along with integration when federal policies made it a condition for regional uplift; racism lingers most heavily among white folks left behind as The New South made progress, and frustrated northern minimum wage workers, who have adopted the region because it has a rhetoric for shifting the pain of their poverty onto “others.”

The appearance of alternative professional options is the moment when the terror campaigns click into high gear: other millions — political, religious, and social rebels–  join the Jews and Roma in the gas chambers, roadside trenches, anonymous forest graves, on the gallows. These other millions died — and still die– defending personal consciences. When their numbers are high enough, pacifism has no prospects. But “just war” is not the right description of taking up arms at this point. The “just war” would have been earlier.

But would it have been by equally ugly methods –drones? renditions? plowing over houses? Or would it have been by establishing, nourishing, and defending a banality of civic goodness? Something like our Great Compression, when unions and corporations (yes, they did that then) fought like crazy not only to enrich their members but especially to provide life long security for families who joined their ranks. Something like what Europe has now, with its regulations against quack science in the name of profit and its protections for personal integrity against corporate expansionism. Something like what Singapore practices, with its mandatory savings accounts and educational oversights.

I began this series by complaining about mistaking media events for civic courage, and my assertion remains the same. Civic courage means living in the long haul. It means entering uncomfortably close quarters and making yourself vulnerable to folks who won’t get what you’re saying, doing, living. At least not at first. But if what you do there is show them your covenant, and show them how they, too, can fulfill their dreams by accepting you in their covenant — not for transformation or imitation, but just at the level of mutual toleration and respectful communication — only then will you have smothered evil’s incipient banality.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “How to make Evil Banal (Slavery and Freedom Summer, too)

  1. I have only today discovered your writing, and I am enamored.

    I am a soldier, and these words, in particular, have significant meaning to me in light of multiple deployments:

    [ But what happened in Freedom Summer — this never really came home to me until this year — is that Cheney, Schwirmer, and Goodman were killed at the very outset of the campaign. Volunteers were still arriving. The message was clear: you can turn around and save yourself now. The recognizable pattern of totalitarianism, starting out by exhibiting random brutality.

    But the volunteers did not turn around. The families they came to serve were at first reluctant to associate with them, terrified of long-term consequences (already being victims of the long-term consequences of slavery’s lingering outrages). But by staying out the summer, entering into the risks, the poverty, the cultural structure of local African American communities, the volunteers modeled civic courage. ]

    This rings so painfully true in my experiences in Iraq, and I believe it highlights a key. We had to be there- but only physically- and our very separate nature meant that we did not enter into a shared risk but instead remained isolated in our own. It was frustrating to watch- and I believe we failed because we [soldiers] were never able to enter a relationship of shared risk with the families against a common enemy. We failed to demonstrate civic courage; being there isn’t enough.

    I look forward to reading much more- thank you for the time you spend sharing.

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