Thoughtless Governing Bodies
The conservative assault on government is at its usual October level, government shut down, threats against raising the debt ceiling, and the barrage of pointless and stupid explanations from the perpetrators. It’s useful to remember that this is a standard approach to non-government, this time plotted out in writing and in advance by the worst elements of the shadow government of ugly billionaires and their unthinking legislators.
Unlike previous years, though, reporters and editors seem to have noticed that constant attacks on governing processes are dangerous. The New York Times has the details on the plotting, in an article titled “A Government Shutdown Months in the Planning”. It explains how “conservative activists”, including the Club for Growth, the American Enterprise Institute, and more listed here, planned to blow up legislative funding mechanisms to stop the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The plan ended with a government unable to pay its debts. There was no contingency planning to deal with the Senate or the President if they refused to play along.
The media have also noticed that the crazy party is, in fact, a bunch of crazy people. Horror of horrors, they might actually hurt rich people by wrecking the US economy, and that is making the coverage at least marginally accurate. Quotes from the Tea Party show them as ignorant buffoons instead of principled thinkers. There is some hope that things will work out without more shredding of the lives of millions of people.
So last night I went to the movies and saw Hannah Arendt. Arendt was a thinker, a person who conducts the inner dialog of the self with the self. It was central to her identity both as a professional and as a human. We see this in flashbacks to her interactions with her first mentor, Martin Heidegger, as well as in scenes in which she types or walks or sits or lies on her couch, always with a burning cigarette. Her ability to focus, to think in long chains of argument, and to put those chains into words on paper led to brilliant insights and professional fame. As she says in the movie, she loves her friends, the people she knows; she loves in particular and with passion, not in general.
The movie includes a number of scenes from the television archives of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the murdering Nazi who is the subject of her most famous work, Eichmann in Jerusalem. The conflict in the film centers around her description of the testimony of leaders of the Jewish Community who worked with the Nazis, but now the book is best known for the phrase “the banality of evil”, the idea that radical evil can arise from the surrendering our ability to think for ourselves to a bureaucratic system.
Eichmann, she says, was unable to think for himself. He simply acted as a functionary, carrying out his oath. She sees him as stupid, as a man who mindlessly repeats aphorisms and catchphrases he heard somewhere as if they were exercises of thought, and as if they were justifications for his horrifying actions. She writes:
The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such. (Emphasis in original.)
In the movie, Heidegger says that thinking doesn’t produce morality, or good or anything else. We think because we are thinking creatures, and because it’s useful in figuring out which actions are likely to produce better outcomes than other possible actions. Arendt would say we don’t have to think, we can allow others to think for us, as Eichmann did.
Arendt’s argument that evil arises from surrender of the power of thought to a system, to a bureaucracy, is the subject of this piece in the Times, The Banality of Systemic Evil. The writer, Peter Ludlow, uses it to explain the actions of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Both of them believed that the systems in which they operated were doing objectively evil things. In Manning’s case, the system ordered her to drop an investigation into the abduction of 15 Iraqis who had uncovered some of the vast corruption in their country, and who were threatened with torture and death. Snowden saw the nature of the spying and invasion of privacy of the government, and, as he put it, “…eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public and not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.”
These are the acts of thinking people, people who have not surrendered to the systems in which they work. Let’s compare that to the thinking of the Tea Party. See, that’s a joke. They don’t think, and for many of them, there is no evidence that they are capable of actual thought. Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana congressman, draws unwanted attention from Charlie Pierce in Esquire:
“We aren’t going to be disrespected…We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”
Charlie calls it victimhood, but I call it thoughtlessness. This guy has one goal, vote no on the ACA, and no other goal can sit beside that idea producing a tension that requires actual thought to balance competing demands. It’s impossible to understand how a health insurance program with government is objectively evil, too, but plenty of thoughtless Americans believe it.
Mr. Tripcony, [a Dallas, Georgia] surveyor, said he underwent heart surgery not long ago without health insurance, “a bad blow.” He has been making payments against the cost. He had heard of the online marketplace for insurance that opened on Oct. 1 under the Affordable Care Act.
“I just don’t trust it,” said Mr. Tripcony, who has an equal distrust of President Obama. “I don’t like him, and I don’t feel comfortable with anything he’s got to do with.”
Mr. Tripcony said he had a better idea for a system to provide health care at a fair price. “I think it should be the same for everybody,” he said. “One big company, whether owned by the government or private.”
Informed that he had described the single-payer system that Mr. Obama abandoned when Republican critics called it socialized medicine, he said, “Yeah, I know, it’s crazy.”
He said he might eventually seek health insurance under the new system. “In a couple of months, when they get the Web sites working, I may do it.”
Democracy doesn’t work when the number of thoughtless people gets too high. We are proving that today.