May 11, 2017

Dealing with the banality of political evil

 We begin with comments by a distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College followed  by some notes from your editor.

Peter Dreier, Huffington Post, August 2016 -“Sociopathic” might describe Trump’s condition, but it doesn’t describe our condition as we routinely hear such Trump statements on the campaign trail.

The only thing that comes close is philosopher Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil.” She coined this phrase in her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, about the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a top administrator in the machinery of the Nazi death camps, in an Israeli courtroom. If someone carries out unspeakable crimes often enough, he or she comes to accept them as “normal.” That was Arendt’s view of Eichmann.

But the “banality of evil” also applies to an entire society. We can get used to outrageous things — slavery, Jim Crow segregation laws, massive homelessness, widespread malnutrition, the frequent killing of black men by police — until we are provoked to view them as unjust.

This is the dilemma now facing Americans — and particularly American journalists — in thinking about Trump’s presidential campaign. We’ve become so used to his daily outrages …  that we’re almost numb to them. It is difficult to renew outrage day after day.

It is a matter of what kind of words, and what kind of behavior, crosses the line so blatantly, and violates whatever standards of basic decency we have, that it is beyond contempt. But who draws the line? And what do we do to a public figure who crosses it?

The New York Times’ media critic Jim Rutenberg, in his analysis, “Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism” , did a good job of examining how difficult it is for the mainstream media, caught in the web of “he said/she said” reporting and admonitions to be “neutral,” to deal with Trump’s campaign and his almost daily outrages. Rutenberg wrote:

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”

Where is George Orwell when we need him?

Sam Smith – Having been in this racket for six decades, I’m aware that some things have changed dramatically for the worse and yet the public and the press regard them as normal –as Peter Dreier points out, what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil.
Among these has been the fading of moral voices – whether from academia such as Dreier or religions other than the evangelical right. It is amazing,, for example, that only 25% of Christians are evangelicals – and not all them right wingers – yet the media has let them have a disproportionate share of space on issues like abortion and gay rights.

Similarly the media seems immune to the possibility that the most successful exercises in diplomacy do not typically involve the military. Nor does it ask when our last successful war was or when was the last war approved, as required by the Constitution, by the US Congress.

Part of this is because history and cultural context are an almost trivial part of journalism these days. Among the things you might otherwise learn is that the banality of political evil is far more bipartisan these days that it once was.

Yes Lyndon Johnson lied about Vietnam and Kennedy lied about Cuba but their total lives were  much more complex. It wasn’t until I began looking at the Clinton story during the 1992 campaign that I stumbled not only upon a Democratic version of repeated fiction but a stunning acceptance of it by liberals and the media that would continue for a quarter century.

Many of the things I wrote about Arkansas would never appear in the more conventional media. I won’t bore you with the details, but how many even today realize that three of Hillary Clinton’s closest business partners ended up in prison? Or that Whitewater was, in fact, a real estate scam in which the unwitting bought third rate property 50 miles from the nearest grocery store and, thanks to the sleazy financing, about half the purchasers, many of them seniors, lost their property.

Such information was so unacceptable in Washington that for a period I was banned from DC’s NPR station and on two occasions, my invited appearances on CSPAN were blocked by higher network officials. To this day, I have never run into such a collection of good stories for which there was such stunning disinterest by the media and liberals who should have cared.

I had always thought one of the jobs of a journalist was to uncover the truth for the public about its leaders.  As far back as the 1990s I began to feel a growing disinterest even by those I thought were in a fellowship of mind.

Then there was the Bush administration with the Iraq War and it felt more comfortable, for example, to write a piece for Harper’s comprised entirely of Bush administration and supporters’ lies about the war. But a decade and a half later, few still seem concerned that we were conned into a struggle that about which those in power still tell untruths.

And while Obama was, on a day to day basis, more honest than such predecessors, his underlying story also contained fictions that to this day seem to interest only a few. For example, he had neither the ethnic heritage nor the progressive politics for which he was credited. He, in fact, spent more time at Harvard Law School than he had with a black parent. And curiously, at a time when discussions of race blossomed, few seemed to notice that skin color is only one factor in ethnicity. I have long felt that Obama could have been far more effective and successful if he had presented himself as America’s first bi-ethnic president, someone who had lived and understood the complications of a multicultural society. 

Add to this the hidden fact that Obama was in part the creation of the same conservative Democratic Leadership Council that had given us Clinton and you have another clue as to why something like Obamacare didn’t work out better. 

Then consider the post-Great Society desertion of the white working class and its economic issues and one begins to sense that this is a cultural rather than just a political problem.

So if we are to be honest, we must admit that as a society we have increasingly treated as normal political characteristics we still claim to abhor. The evil of Donald Trump is not our fault, but our failure to act loudly and firmly enough against its earlier manifestations made his rise easier. 

The media is not helpless to deal with this. It after all helped to create Trump first by its enthusiasm for his show business manifestations and then by assisting Americans come to believe that TV show hosts are a reasonable source of presidents. It also bought heavily into the Trump lie that running a family business is equivalent to running a normal large corporation and that in either case selling stuff to customers for your own profit qualifies you to serve citizens in their best interests.

The media’s job is not merely to report what is happening and being said but to lend it some rational meaning.  If a bridge collapses, you talk to engineers and not just the people who were on it or the politicians who built it. 

Some newspapers are doing a much better job of fact checking of late but there is little of this on television. The key question is: when Trump lies, what should you do about it? Reporting lies is not a journalistic responsibility, pointing out lies is.

And the media needs to take responsibility for the fact that the people they feature on their pages and on the air easily become voices of authority and reason to the public. Even in the 1950s and 60s, when you read the news you found voices of intelligence, morality imagination and clarity even if they were outside the system. These voices often lack the sort of power the media respects in part because the media rarely talks to them. How would CNN cover Martin Luther King Jr if he had arrived on the scene last year?

It’s time to make wisdom, justice and moral understanding at least as big a part of the news as those who con every microphone they approach. If the people we hear through the media are mainly hyperbolists, liars, and other forms of manipulators, where do we get to learn what is sane, logic and moral?

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