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Quick Links & Fresh Thinking
1. Democrats and Republicans deeply divided on extreme weather (The WaPo)
2. Dark Brandon haunts the Fox News website on GOP debate day. (Verge)
3. Japan loves its sushi. But the fish are disappearing (LA Times)
4. Cities are hotter than ever. Here are 5 things they can do about it. (CNN)
5. How poverty is a direct result of corruption. (Time)
Today's Issue. Democracy. Fascism. Existence. Annihilation.
A few days ago, a man named Travis Ikeguchi shot a woman named Lauri Carleton. For what? For hanging a Pride flag outside her clothing store, in Cedar Glen, just ouside Los Angeles. That's one of his tweets, above, in the pic.
Lauri was married with nine kids. A beloved member of her community, who felt that everyone deserved dignity, peace, life, and a right to exist. Hence, the Pride flag. “She was murdered over a Pride flag that she proudly hung on her storefront,” two of her daughters said. “Make no mistake, this was a hate crime. Her flags had been torn down before and she always responded by putting up a bigger one. Our family is broken. We find peace in knowing she passed quickly in a place she cherished, doing what she loved while fiercely defending something she believed in."
According to authorities, Ikeguchi shouted "disparaging remarks," then slurs, and finally, shot and killed her. Lauri was a mom and a businesswoman. What about Ikeguchi? He had a history of posting lunacy and vitriol in the usual places on social media. Homophobic screeds, conspiracy theories, extremism, fanaticism, violent fantasies about killing people. He's about...exactly what you'd expect. And that's the problem.
What was this? What really happened here? America—and the world's—rising tide of hate did. It's the flipside of democracy in steep, sharp decline—at a rate of more than 10% a decade, currently—but I'll come back to that.
How are we to make sense of this? Was it just a random incident? Of course not. America's in a certain atmosphere. A poisonous one. An atmosphere of erasure, bigotry, violence, and hate. I mean that formally, not just informally. The fanatical wing of the GOP's on a legislative blitzkrieg—passing bill after bill to extinguish the rights of groups they don't like, approve of, consider full persons. Book bans, bans on high school classes. Women lost the rights to privacy, expression, movement, and association, as Roe fell. Basic rights are under attack in state after state. Is it fair to say it hardly takes a genius to see a link between "Don't Say Gay" becoming law—and violent fanatics taking inspiration to finish the job, by gunning down an innocent woman for raising a Pride flag?
But what is that link, exactly? There's a phrase you've heard of, no doubt. The banality of evil. It's Hannah Arendt's famous, even revolutionary, idea. But it's subtle one to really grasp. And yet what's taking place as hate rises in our societies is just that: the banalization of evil. Bigotry, rage, violence, slurs, demonization, threats, intimidation, hate—all these are becoming something...ordinary. Commonplace. Just more noise in the ether. Parroted, repeated, regurgitated. Thoughtlessly. They're becoming normalized. Technology's accelerating the process, and so are institutions looking the other way. I mean normalization formally, technically. As in: new social norms, replacing the old, democratic ones of peace, tolerance, equity, nonviolence, and truth.
Let's think about Ikeguchi for a second. How many are there like him? Who spend their days writing screeds on social media quaking with hate? Uncountable numbers. And as places like Twitter have had any last vestige of safety standards deconstructed—even blocking people is about to be removed—of course, this kind of fanaticism is just...exploding. An obstacle you have to wearily endure just to see the headlines, or check in with your friends, or scan what's going on in the world. It's become banal to have to endure...this...rising tide of hate. Or put another way...the rising tide of hate...has become banal. More so every day.
Now let's go a bit deeper. What did Arendt actually have to say about this revolutionary idea, the banality of evil? She was thinking, talking, writing about Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust.
He was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliche. Even on the day he was to be hanged, Eichmann spoke in cliches. It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us—the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil [emphasis in original].
Now think about Ikeguchi. Or the entire social group like him. Isn't that an eerily accurate description of...them? To the core? Their mentality and their attitude? They're incapable of forming original thoughts. They speak in cliches. The very ones given to them by demagogues. Who say things like gay people are "groomers" and teachers are "pedophiles," that anyone with a kid or family who's a little bit different is a "pervert," that there's form of moral corruption against purity and faith that exists within these people, who aren't really people at all. "He was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliche." Isn't that a perfect way to describe every single fanatic on social media who's out there raging at everyone they hate...shouting conspiracy theories and slurs, literally recycled word-for-word from the mouths of demagogues?
That's the banality of evil, 2020s version. It's back—and it's a profoundly urgent and difficult problem. That's because we're largely powerless against it—though I'll come to what we can do. Think of the Platform Formerly Known as Twitter. What can any of us do, when a billionaire decides that it's OK, perfectly permissible, for the hateful to rage openly, more and more every day, at whomever they like, with whatever degree of violence they threaten? Now consider Arendt's notion of what kinds of Pandora's Box that opens.
Think of the Ikeguchis—and budding Ikeguchis, those who share the same attitudes, even if they've stopped short of violence—of the world, and in our societies. Doesn't that...describe them...all too well? There's a different process, phenomenon, happening here. They're not motivated, it seems, by getting rich, though Trump may be, by class resentment, because of course, they look up to Trumps, by covetousness, wanting a mansion, not even by self-interest: Ikeguchi, after all, martyred himself for the cause of hate. Instead, something eerie, weird, irrational, bizarre, absolute is happening. We say: "you can't even talk about reality or facts with these people," or, "these people are lunatics, nothing gets through to them."
More of his die-hard fans trust Trump than they do their friends and family, it was recently revealed. Think about what that means. This is absolutism. Something impregnable—impossible to negotiate, compromise, bargain with, knock sense into, reason with, educate, inform, anything—has taken place here. And that's how democratic norms begin to dissolve.
Our institutions are doing an incredibly poor job of handling this issue. Hate speech leads to hate crime. Hate legislation leads to the normalization of hate, which is no longer even a crime—it becomes the law itself. We know that historically, without a shadow of a doubt. From genocide after genocide. It was the great lesson of the Holocaust, of course. But it's also been a lesson taught in Rwanda, the Balkans, Afghanistan, the world over. So why are we failing to really learn that lesson? Why are our institutions allowing hate to go on unchecked—what's the point of them, in that case?
What happens when hate goes unchecked? Let me go a bit deeper still, now. What America's experiencing is a process of normative dissolution. Old norms of peace, tolerance, justice, truth—and yes, those never existed to absolute degrees, but still, progress had been made—are now being unravelled. Undone. Reversed. That's happening in a classic, textbook pattern. From the top down, the fanatical wing of the GOP's launched a blitzkrieg, legislatively, banning books, passing laws like "Don't Say Gay." These forms of legislation are designed to erase people's basic rights—their Mother Right, in fact, the right to exist, from which all other rights follow.
But accompanying that legislative assault is a rhetorical one. Ron DeSantis' spokesperson says ‘Don’t Say Gay’ opponents are ‘groomers. But here, in florid political contexts like these, words aren't just words. That's the point that Holocaust survivors have made recently: "it started with words." When demagogues say things like "they're groomers, pedophiles, they're coming for your kids, families, to pervert and rape them"—those aren't just words, in the same sense as me saying, "Hello, how are you." They're calls to action. Thinly veiled ones. They imply, with a wink-wink, and a nudge-nudge, that it'd sure be a shame if someone finished the job. Hey—we're doing what we can, we're taking their rights away. Sure would be a shame if someone took everything else away from these people who aren't really people. Right down to their lives.
That's how democratic collapses happen. That pattern is key: normative dissolution. What is "the end" of a democracy? Is it just an overthrown election? Not quite. It's how you get there. Democracies rely on norms—people enacting the basic values of tolerance, truth, justice, coexistence, and so forth. Just think of those norms, summarized, perhaps, as nonviolence and decency. It's OK for you to exist—I don't want to take that away from you. But when these norms dissolve, and begin to replaced by not just everday anger and rage, but the existential form—then a democracy's in profound trouble.
The existential form of anger and rage. Everyday anger and rage happens all the time in a democracy. You cut me off at the traffic light, I'm frustrated. You're walking too slowly, and I've got a meeting to get to—hurry up!! The existential form of anger and rage is different. I don't believe you should exist. I want to take your Mother Right away—and all the rights which depend on it, from expression to movement to privacy to association. Like hanging a Pride flag outside your shop. I don't want you exist.
What's the existential form of anger and rage called? Hate. And that's the rising tide that's spreading across America—and much of the world. Ikeguchi didn't just regurgitate the usual American conspiracy theories. He celebrated Europe's new far right taking rights away from the LGBTQ, too. Let me say it again, for emphasis. The existential form of anger and rage is hate—I don't want you to exist—and it's sweeping our societies, and poisoning our democracies. So much so that it's become...banal. It's in the ether, a hundred million times a day, hour, second, fanatics hurling slurs and shouting screeds on social media—just an ordinary, commonplace part of life now. Think again about how many there are with attitudes resembling Ikeguchi's. Not exactly rare, is it? Even, anymore, to say it out loud, a thousand times a day, right in your face, screamed with venom and vitriol.
But none of this is remotely ordinary. Let's go back to the banality of evil. It rips societies apart. It's a place that you really, really don't want to get to. Why not? Once it sets in, it's hard to undo. Where do you even begin, once evil's been...normalized? To explain why well, let's think again about...evil...for a moment. Why was Arendt's idea so revolutionary?
By Arendt's time, that confidence had been shattered by the terrors of Nazi-occupied Europe, Japanese-occupied China, and the Soviet Union. Secular intellectuals were left groping for new explanations, and to many it appeared that Arendt had found one. The killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia have kept the question--and Arendt's answer--very much alive. "We have a sense of evil," Susan Sontag has said, but we no longer have "the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil."
Now we're at the point where we can really understand Arendt's explanation of evil. It was about thoughtlessness. Blind, deaf, mute obedience. About just...acting sort of like a robot. Not considering any moral ramifications of what you were saying or doing. Just regurgitating the Big Lies demagogues told. Being a loyal foot soldier, or an efficient bureaucrat, like Eichmann—whom, Arendt pointed out, always operated scrupulously within the boundaries of the law. That was how evil became banal. When people stopped thinking, reflecting, considering, understanding, knowing. And just...acted...reflexively...to enact the Big Lies of demagogues...like killer robots. Even to the point of martyrdom, like an Ikeguchi.
Now think of Ikeguchi again. Think of all the fanatics who are out there screaming vitriol on social media. Think of the way platforms give them free rein to. Consider the way they literally recite, word-for-word, the Big Lies and conspiracy theories demagogues spout—thoughtlessly. The way they internalize the thinly veiled suggestion: sure would be a shame if someone finished the job of erasing these people we don't like, who aren't even really people at all...with absolute faith and blind obedience. Isn't Arendt's point, explanation, idea...eerily, scarily, utterly applicable to them, to all this? We're seeing people become cogs in a machine of hate.
In our modern age lies a novel form of precisely what Arendt talked about. Her new explanation of evil—that it wasn't born of original sin, like envy or pride, or even of material lacks and deficits, but of something even deeper: thoughtlessness. Carelessness. Automaticity. This was where banality came from—when people became cogs in machines of hate, and acted without thinking, simply enacting the wishes of demagogues. Like lunatics. Today, we call such people fanatics, extremists, say they've been radicalized. But to really understand Arendt's Big Idea—I think it's more powerful today, perhaps, than it's ever been. Think about what Twitter's become. About how ordinary it is to encounter thoughtless lunacy about ending the existence of entire social groups. How technology enables it, and our institutions have yet to catch up with it. And how the rest of us are awash, barely holding on, trying not to drown, in a rising tide of hate.
It's not easy to put a society back together normatively. In a sense, it begins with each of us. Rejecting exactly what Arendt said happened: hate, emanating thoughtlessly, from demagogue to cog in the machine, repeated and parroted so often and so frequently, it becomes a norm, drowning out nonviolence, peace, truth, coexistence. It requires better of our institutions, too, to actually reject normative dissolution, not just legitimize it, the way so many of them do, as just another "side." Time will tell if America—and the world—are up to that challenge.
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