June 25, 2012

The Banality of Evil: What Americans now seem to accept

After the American Century

Fifty years ago Hannah Arendt compellingly argued that great evils are commonly not the work of sociopaths or deranged persons but rather are the work of ordinary persons. They have gradually accepted as "normal" certain actions and social conditions that their ideology tells them are inevitable or unavoidable. Arendt was writing about the kinds of people who carried out the Holocaust, but her insight applies to lesser evils as well.

The United States is hardly Hitler's Germany, but it is in danger of accepting some things as "the ways things are done" or as "normal procedures" that I find unacceptable. These  include.  

(1) Increasingly, Americans are using drone aircraft to assassinate people inside other countries, because they are alleged to be terrorists or because they have the bad luck to be in the vicinity when a drone flies in.  This does not seem fitting behavior for a nation that believes in the rule of law.
Drone aircraft

(2) Beginning after 9/11 Americans have openly taken up the practice of imprisoning people without access to a lawyer and without even being charged. The practice is limited to non-Americans who are outside the country, but once established might become US practice as well. Such imprisonment is against the principles of English common law and it would have been anathema to the Founding Fathers of the country.

(3) Another issue is whether to deny medical care and education to children who arrived in the United States as infants, through illegal immigration. These young people recall no other country as home, and they have grown up as Americans, whatever their legal status. 

(4) Rapidly rising costs of university education have outpaced inflation. These high costs have created a gulf between an ordinary American's aspirations and his or her real possibilities. This makes the United States a less egalitarian society, and also a less competitive one, because some talent will remain undeveloped because the tuition was too high. (By way of contrast, university education remains completely free in Denmark and Norway.)

(5) The United States was founded as a society based on egalitarianism. But today it is fast becoming a society of social classes based on huge differences in wealth. The gap between the average wage earner and the wealthiest 1% has grown enormously since the end of the Cold War, and threatens to become a permanent condition of inequality. This is a question of whether to tax wealthy people more, and also a question of whether to raise the minimum wage.

(6) It has become "normal" for American corporations to move jobs overseas where they pay workers poorly and manufacture with few pollution controls. Extremely successful clothing and electronics companies behave abroad in ways that would be judged unethical or illegal inside the United States. Not only are American jobs lost, but foreign workers are exploited to make every new Ipad and every pair of Nike shoes. Is this just the way things are now? No more discussion?

More issues could be added to this list, but the point would remain the same. These practices have become the new normal. In 2012 Americans seem to accept as ordinary practices, in certain circumstances, murder, imprisonment without trial, denial of medical care to children, loss of educational opportunity, the increasing rigidity of the social class system, and outright exploitation of workers abroad.  These things would not have been acceptable to most Americans a few generations ago, but now it seems that the country is getting used to them. But these practices are not normal or inevitable, they are the result of policies that are relatively recent and that are not common in other democracies.