Banality of Evil: Take Two

let them eat cakeThe “Let them eat cake” celebration by House Republicans marking today’s passage of yet another bill to defund healthcare for the uninsured and continuing the sequester is unseemly.  The New York Times called their glee “grotesque.”  Having just separated millions of people from public housing subsidies, Head Start, and unemployment  benefits, and coming as it did on the heels of ending food stamps for almost 4 million people, one might expect a somber tone.  Celebrating the sequester… who wudda thunk?

Rather comically, the Majority Whip took pains to emphasize, repeatedly, the vote was bipartisan.  Perhaps being math challenged is part of the House’s problem.  Two of 190 Democrats voted for it.  I would call that 99% along party lines, but, hey, that’s just me.   Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who pushed yesterday’s food stamps vote, shared the podium.  The provisions of that bill would impact those with an average yearly income of $2,500 or less, truly the poorest of the poor. One commenter poignantly wondered what Cantor prayed for on Yom Kippur.  Could it have been to take even more away from those at the bottom?

The juxtaposition of such harsh treatment of the poor happening the week following the highest Holy Day of the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement, is difficult to reconcile, even for non-Jews like me.  The Jewish path to Atonement with God requires t’fillah, teshuvah, and tzedakah.  These translate roughly to prayer, repentance for wrongs, and the charity that justice demands.  Charity is a particularly bad translation for tzedakah.  In many ways, they’re opposites.  Charity is optional, at the discretion of the giver, and something to which the recipient is not entitled.  Tzedakah is commanded of each and every individual, regardless of wealth, and in the Jewish tradition, recipients are entitled to tzedakah.

The Jewish tradition doesn’t try to equalize income or wealth.  While it t recognizes vast gulfs between the haves and have-nots, it also recognizes a sense of fairness.  Food, clean drinking water, a safe place to sleep and other essentials for survival are things every human is entitled to, for the sake of social justice.  Even those who receive tzedakah are required to give it.  They may render aid rather than material provision.  The Jewish way of engaging with those in need is full of dignity, on all sides.  Dignity is what seems to be sorely lacking in the US House of Representatives this week, but today especially.

The specter of powerful politicians usurping the powerless is not the worst of it.  What gives me greater pause are the millions of Americans drinking the Kool-Aid and voting against their own economic interest.  It calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s landmark book chronicling the trial of a Nazi war criminal.  In it she coins the term “banality of evil” and argues the Holocaust (and indeed, all the great evils in history) resulted not so much from the actions of evil people as from ordinary people blindly accepting and participating in evil behaviors promoted as “normal” by the state.  About the criminal she concludes, “…everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.”

While it may be tempting to describe our elected representatives as clowns this week, the consequences of their clownery is costing real people real lives.  Who represents them?

Join the conversation.  Why do so many Americans participate in the anti-healthcare, anti-poor rhetoric?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit

11 thoughts on “Banality of Evil: Take Two

  1. It is beyond me to understand why politicians choose this way. It certainly underscores their ignorance of the economic impact the poorest people have when their needs aren’t met. It is a very narrow-minded view in every respect, on every level. It makes me embarrassed to be an American.

  2. What seems to be a quest by some politicians and many of the rich, to bring the poor, the elderly, and women and children into a place of abject poverty of mind, spirit, and money makes me very sick in the pit of my being. Why more Americans cannot see what is being done, is even more sickening.

    I think we are ignorant of what is really happening. I keep thinking of the song, “How can we sleep when our beds are burning?”. We have been lulled into a place of complacency where it is easier to be entertained than to be educated. It is easier to go to sleep than to wake up and say “no more.” I remember when Bush pushed the Patriot Act through. I could see what was hidden in the lies of why the act needed to be passed. I sounded the alarm to many but few heard. In fact, I was dismissed as a rebel rouser.

    Congress has sunk to a new low and the republican party is shameful. I perceive them to be extremists who have no concern for the citizens of this country. What seems to be tops on their agenda is how much richer the rich can get and how much poorer everyone else can get.

    I agree with kdkh: I am embarrassed to be an american at a time like this when we put our own out to pasture.

    • I can identify with your comment about being dismissed as a rebel rouser. It’s the only way to thwart the banality of evil, though. When average Joes acquiesce to the state’s agenda, thereby normalizing the previously unthinkable, we’re hosed. Except, unlike the Holocaust, it isn’t the state’s agenda now. It’s a corporate agenda. Congressional pawns are doing corporate bidding. I believe the Patriot Act, along with all the fear mongering and efforts to demonize certain people, was a red herring serving to distract the masses from the real action, which was an energy industry jackpot.

      I don’t think all corporations are evil, but there’s a problem when congress represents corporate interests to the exclusion of actual constituents. Congress is supposed to set the rules for a kinda sorta level playing field. What do you think of Walmart? Do you think it is evil itself or do you see some other dynamic in play?

    • Hi, Jay. The observation was not so much one of surprise as one of unseemliness. However, after so much political commentary on both sides about how stupid the sequester is, it does strike me as a bit ironic that House Republicans are celebrating the continuation of it. I didn’t see that coming, but I can’t say I’m surprised, either. I’d have to agree with you that it’s been a long time in the making. Thanks for joining in with your comments.

  3. I think Walmart is all about profit. They pretend to care about their employees where treating them like slaves. My ex worked for Walmart for a short time in the late 1990’s. It did not take long on the job for him to see that all the hype about how great they treated their employees was only hype. While in the training period he was promised the moon, but once the store opened and he was on the job the promises went out the window.

    Unfortunately, in this economic climate we live in many feel Walmart is all they can afford. I know families with children who consider a trip to Walmart to be a family outing. What can I say? When I look around at what is going on in this country and the world I keep coming up with only one word to describe it all: “insanity.”

    • Interesting perspective, Brenda. Who am I to judge those trying to stretch a dollar? While I don’t judge shoppers, I can’t help noticing the jarring juxtaposition of employees who make so little they qualify for public assistance and the wealth of the Walton family. Something is wrong when US taxpayers are essentially enriching the richest family in the country. Congress could enact policies that prevent that. I don’t fault corporations for seeking profit so much as I fault Congress for enabling the ruthless way they do it.

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