There is an ol’ boy I follow on Facebook. He’s a man of faith.
He believes the Restoration of the Once and Future President is coming, and that in a year all those who were suckered into being vaccinated will realize their mistake and that it will be too late for them. He believes that the audit in Arizona is going to rock the world.
He believes he is being shadow-banned and censored, that Facebook–his nemesis and his lifeblood–has singled him out. His content is being obviously suppressed, otherwise he’d have more comments and likes. He believes most Americans think like he does, and that there are powerful and malevolent forces that operate beyond the ordinary bounds of nations and laws that seek to subjugate the individual. He believes he has special insight into the way things really are.
For all I know, he might be right.
All of us ought to keep in mind the possibility that we might be wrong. What we believe is not always congruent with reality. But, as a recent letter writer to this newspaper pointed out, when you believe something you believe it: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
People who pay attention to Facebook get the news they deserve. The problem is that everybody pays attention to Facebook. And to cable news blather. And they can’t imagine that anyone doesn’t attend to the spectacles that occupy their days. All the wonder and beauty in the world and focus goes to opportunistic cranks too dull to ever consider the consequences of their fake certainties. Some people poison the world with lies to make their nut.
I don’t blame them. A TV show is not a serious tool for moral investigation; it’s meant to draw attention to itself. A TV show’s purpose is to attract eyeballs that will suffer the commercials embedded by advertisers willing to pay for access to the show’s audience.
What the advertisers want is a target-rich environment, a sea of credulous consumers willing to believe their pitches. Some demographics are worth more than others, depending on the product you’re trying to sell.
If you want to know what the powerful think of you, look at what they’re trying to sell you. If you’re seeing a lot of ads for gold bullion, timeshare cancellation, male performance enhancers and credit repair services, maybe you should rethink your life choices. Or at least understand that, based on your viewing habits, certain people have identified you as susceptible to these pitches.
Maybe somebody thinks you’ll believe anything.
That’s not a knock on faith, a gift not granted everyone. There are lots of things I wish we all had more faith in, like the basic decency of most human beings when confronted by genuine crisis. Most of us would behave better in a critical situation than we might expect; we aren’t the snarling, selfish, solipsistic creatures we often present as. Most of us are capable of selfless sacrifice and casual kindness, even though there might not be anything other than anecdotal evidence of this.
And recent years have eroded my faith in any sort of American exceptionalism–to paraphrase Goethe, I cannot conceive of any crime which we could not commit.
Hannah Arendt’s 60-year-old assessment of the Nazi SS officer who oversaw the logistics of Hitler’s Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann, as the embodiment of the “banality of evil” is usually viewed skeptically these days; many have pushed back against the idea that Eichmann was pedestrian and ordinary. (Arendt’s critics often misread her; let’s leave that discussion for another time.)
But the more important observation that Arendt made, and the one that’s more germane to our 21st-century world, is that the Nazis promulgated a culture of what she called Gedankenlosigkeit, usually translated as “thoughtlessness” but more accurately rendered as “the inability to consider.”
Eichmann and other Nazi bureaucrats were so consumed by petty careerist concerns that they were blind to what their actions meant in the wider world. It wasn’t just a lack of empathy with the victims of the Holocaust, it was an inability to imagine himself beholding to any law higher than the affirming edicts of his Fuehrer.
When Arendt wrote that Eichmann was nicht einmal unheimlich–not even sinister–she was talking about the nature of evil, which some people (like my Facebook friend, perhaps), would grant it parity with good. But Arendt took a view of evil that was similar to that of St. Augustine, who saw it as a shadowy absence, a lack of goodness, a defect rather than an opposing force. Eichmann wasn’t filled up with something vital and darkly grand. He was inhibited by a lack of imagination–a lack of humanity.
He could honestly state that he didn’t believe he had committed any crimes because he was simply performing a role ascribed to him. (Judas could have made a similar argument.) Eichmann could not see around the propaganda of the Nazis; he could not imagine a story in which he was the villain. He was a good man doing a good job, and he knew this was so because he could neither conceive or countenance a world where his actions and those of his countrymen might be seen as monstrous.
It is human to want to feel that we are at the center of the story, that our words and actions are meaningful. Some of us ache to be more than we are, to live lives of derring-do, to win friends and influence people, to think and grow rich.
But there is no glory sitting behind a keyboard, especially not in an age when everyone has a keyboard and a platform and every thought revealed in ways cruder and more blatant than the next monkey with a persecution complex might express it.
A few years ago, a college professor got into trouble for using the phrase “little Eichmanns,” and I don’t disagree with his censure. But most evil is done piecemeal, indifferent to any grand design, and many of those who aspire to leadership, both intellectually and politically, are as careerist as any Nazi.
Be careful who you put your faith in.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.