Thinking About Thinking

I’ve noticed a mysterious little flurry of viewers to a post I wrote two years ago about Hannah Arendt and her view of thinking and creativity. It is lack of imagination, Arendt asserted, and the dumb obedience this crabbed view of the world produces, that leads men, seeking to escape loneliness (among other things) to join movements in which they may be required to function as monsters, carry out unthinkably inhuman orders. They simply accept the rationale they are given, join a movement and execute the wishes of a Leader who may or may not be wise, capable or decent. A leader who may, in fact, be Adolf Hitler.

Adolf Eichmann, portrayed to this day as one of history’s most infamous monsters, was, as observed by Arendt during his sensational, important trial in Jerusalem, an unremarkable man of modest intellectual gifts who insisted it had been his duty to obey the laws of the new order in Germany. He spoke in cliches, often repeated stock Nazi phrases and was incapable of imagining that a regime that made mass murder ordinary, normal and lawful could have anything wrong with it. The several psychiatrists who examined him prior to his criminal trial in Jerusalem concluded he was not a “man obsessed with a dangerous and insatiable urge to kill” or a “perverted, sadistic personality” (as the prosecutor later wrote of Eichmann — and as the ad for the current Netflix offering about him suggests).

Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as “normal” — “More normal than I am after having examined him,” one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another had found that his whole psychological outlook, his attitude toward his wife and children, mother and father, brothers, sisters, and friends, was “not only normal but most desirable”– and finally the minister who had paid regular visits to him in prison after the Supreme Court had finished hearing his appeal reassured everybody by declaring Eichmann to be “a man with very positive ideas.”

(Eichmann in Jerusalem, pp. 25-26)

It was Eichmann’s utter lack of imagination, his willingness to believe what his superiors told him, his ambition to succeed and advance in his career, that made Eichmann the hardworking cog in the Nazi killing machine that he became. He was not troubled by conscience because what he was doing he had been legally ordered to do, he had only been doing his job. He literally could not imagine refusing to do his legal duty. A refusal to do it would have resulted in his own demotion, imprisonment, probably death — all unimaginably harsh and self-destructive outcomes. End of inquiry. Arendt was internationally vilified for “humanizing” this monster in her 1963 masterpiece. I’m with Hannah, she gives us a crucial understanding in her deep portrait of an otherwise ordinary enabler of evil.

In law school students are drilled in thinking through and articulating both sides of an argument, imagining as many avenues of legal attack to the client’s position as possible in order to defend against them. Rigorous thinking means sometimes considering ideas you might find repellant, overcoming the reflex to simply cast them out with a grunt of disgust. A mark of the agile mind, someone said (F. Scott Fitzgerald?) is being able to keep two contradictory thoughts in mind at the same time. We live in the instant information age, so here you go:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” [1]

We are not trained to be nimble, creative thinkers — we are trained to be earners and consumers, as well as reflexive moralists who do not dwell on crazy-making nuance. From birth, here in the United States, we are exposed to hour upon hour of commercial advertisements, teaching us what to buy. By the time we are in kindergarten we can recite countless commercial tag lines and sing (at least when I was a kid and every product had a catchy little tune attached) dozens of jingles. I often lament that I can easily sing the entire “Veep” (a lemon lime soft drink, circa 1961) jingle perfectly but can’t recite a single line of Shakespeare or the Bible accurately.

In a sense it’s not anyone’s fault that we are a largely superficial, stubbornly opinionated culture, we’ve become this way by design, for the massive profit of the beneficiaries of this commercialized state of affairs. Imagining a fundamentally different way of life is almost impossible, given the pervasiveness of the one being sold to us 24/7 and now, literally so: carried on smart devices in our pockets, with little notification sounds to remind us to look at them. We tend to latch on to whatever suits our views, gravitating to items that support our confirmation bias.

Every moral and political issue is reduced to an oversimplified false duality — yes or no. If you critique an extractive, highly polluting consumer society that may well be destroying the earth for short-term profit it is easy to see what you are: a Communist, a soul-dead enemy of freedom and liberty. There is no other frame to think about such things here, though a desperately needed one is evolving with things like The Green New Deal.

Thinking about crowds carrying torches, united in some cause, often a violent one, we can set them in virtually any epoch in history. The rationale of the march is always similar — we are in pain, we are afraid, we’re angry, we are the victims, we are going to kill the people who are victimizing us! It’s true that once we have murdered the evil bastards our miserable life remains pretty much the same, the anger, pain and fair have not vanished — but that just means we haven’t killed enough of them. It is the triumph of action without thought, without imagination, without Reason, that leads to every mass catastrophe (not caused by “Acts of God”) that humans have ever fallen into.

It’s tempting, of course, to make comparisons between a guy like Eichmann and some of the political actors of our time. What “belief system” must one accept to justify the caging of children forcefully ripped from their mothers’ arms? It’s tempting to compare the thousands in perfect solidarity at a Nuremberg rally to the crowds today at certain political rallies, the fascist goon squads of 1930s Germany to a gang of men who take up arms to protest the tyranny of mandated mask wearing to slow the spread of a deadly pandemic. These types can imagine only one version of the world, as they believe it is, with powerful, evil cannibal child molesters trying to gain the upper hand, doing whatever they can to destroy our cherished way of life.

These crowds live, as we all do today, in echo chambers that magnify whatever bias they had last night, the one they wake up with today. A few guys are getting incredibly rich running these massive echo chambers while the rest of us face ever greater peril from endlessly magnified real problems that require deep thought, serious discussion and ingenious solutions, problems that are reduced to idiotic black or white, red or blue, yay or nay.

Thinkers are easily killed by violent men of action, men with guns, ropes, bombs. Violent, unthinking emotion, time after time, prevails over reflection, understanding, mercy, wisdom. That doesn’t make the attempt to understand, to be merciful, foolish. Understanding, and imagining a better future, is the only chance we have against the hoards who increasingly believe that politically powerful cannibal child rapists are coming to get all of the little white, Christian children in America and that only one man, an admittedly flawed vessel– but one secretly filled with Christ’s love — can save them. Decency prevails, when indecency becomes impossible not to see. The unimaginable stink of the thing can finally wake dozing souls to say: enough, goddamn it.

But we have to think. We actually have to think.

[1] F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1936, yo. A year one would have done well to keep this test in mind.

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