I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with literary historian Lyndsey Stonebridge, exploring the present-day resonance of the 20th-century thinker Hannah Arendt. Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in her 1963 book about the Jerusalem trial of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann.
So one of her famous phrases is the “banality of evil,” which was an observation she made about Eichmann, and that was controversial. But you said something about the bureaucratization, which was part of that banality, a refuge for — instead of thinking, you are part of the system, and you follow the rules, and you enact the rules.
And again, I really would not compare Eichmann to anyone alive right now in full, but the revulsion and the sense of alienation people all over the place have from bureaucracy, which in our age is globalized, right? The way the phrase “the government” will be received in many places in the U.S., the way the phrase “the E.U.” is received in England, there are echoes of something that goes wrong in human societies that were still with us or we’re feeling again. I don’t know.
One of the first things Arendt did when she finally got to New York, one of her first jobs was to help edit Kafka’s diaries. You remember the story of the stranger — it’s certainly a migrant story. The stranger arrives in a new place, he comes for work, and then he can’t work out what’s going on, and he can’t settle, and he’s blocked by this bureaucracy that no one understands.
Anyone who’s worked with refugees or migrants in the last ten years will know all too well K’s experience as he tries to make good on the offer of work for the castle. I think it’s very interesting that she actually chose that. She chose it because it resonated with her experience. But it goes back to the earlier conversation. I suppose the more we become fearful for what we call life, the more we try to bureaucratize to keep other people out, the worse it gets. And also with the logic that is no logic. That’s the other thing. It’s the capricious nature of bureaucracy. If I think about the E.U.
Even well-meaning bureaucracy takes on these dehumanizing characteristics.
Well, this is the very interesting. Exactly. Humanitarianism is a very good example of — how do we administer for human life? And once you start to administer human life, you have very difficult decisions to make. And before you know it, you are in a situation where you’re running very close to not committing atrocities but getting very, very close to causing harm rather than doing good.
(--Lyndsey Storebridge, The Moral World in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now, On Being with Krista Tippett)Is it better to be organized well? Or to face the fear uncertainty brings?