Sunday, March 22, 2009

"The Banality of Evil"

I’ve been following the Bernie Madoff and bailouts/AIG retention bonus stories with disgust and fascination. How is it that white collar criminals and white collar workers can visit such far-reaching harm on so many people to such an exponential degree that they bring a whole nation’s economy down and impact the world’s economy to such a historic level? There are real people whose real lives are really being destroyed by what has transpired in the ordinary course of doing business.

One thing I know for sure as I survey this economic landscape is that we are all interconnected in ways that boggle the imagination whether or not we believe that we are active participants. Whether you have prudently lived within your income or you’re living on credit cards beyond your ability to pay them off, you’re impacted by what is happening in the corridors of power, narcissism and greed on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C. – like it or not.

In a March 20, 2009, opinion piece for Newsweek entitled “Wall Street’s Economic Crimes Against Humanity,” Shoshana Zuboff writes:

Each day's economic news leaves me haunted by Hannah Arendt's ruminations on Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann as she reported on his trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker 45 years ago. Arendt pondered "the strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil" and sought to capture it with her famous formulation "the banality of evil." Arendt found Eichmann neither "perverted nor sadistic," but "terribly and terrifyingly normal."

We Americans live lives that are separated by many degrees from what animates us and what we do or others do for us to achieve the fulfillment of our daily wants and needs. Just stop for a moment and consider: Where does the water come from to brew your morning coffee? Who cleans it so that it is potable? How is it cleaned? How does it get delivered to you? How do you pay for what you use? Who determines how much you get to use vs. what someone, say, in India or Sudan gets?

What about the work that you do? Are you an information worker, a service worker or someone who actually produces a product? How many steps are you removed from the actual end user of your labor? If Hurricane Katrina’s devastation had hit your workplace or the neighborhood where you reside, would there still be any demand for your labor? Would you still have a job to go to? Would what you do make any difference to anybody?

Recently, I had the opportunity to ponder what people in third world countries do about their health issues, such as living with and dying from life-threatening illnesses like diabetes, heart and kidney disease, and cancer. If you live without the banality of medical tests that tell you blood pressure and blood sugar readings, how would you handle hypertension or diabetes, how would you live a healthy lifestyle or care for your body?

I submit that we all participate in “the strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil” to the extent that we are thoughtless about how we live, our roles in the world economy – how we get to live the lives that we live, how we depend on others along the way, and how the way we live impacts the way that others live.

What we think of as ordinary and normal is actually rather extraordinary for most of the world. We take so much for granted.

1 comment:

Laurie Gudim and Rosean Amaral said...

This is a topic near and dear to my heart. As a for instance, I would love to have universal health insurance in this country. For one thing, it would mean I'd be insured for a change. But at what cost to the rest of the world does even such a simple, good-sounding thing like this come? Who really pays for our opulence?

All the questions you ask are good ones. And, as you suggest, this is just the tip of the iceburg.

Thanks, my friend, for keeping us aware.