Harry Hope's Saloon

This blog takes it's name from the setting for O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh -- a lousy gin-mill; a smoked-out, greasy dive where the habitues have all landed, it seems, permanently. Their lives, in each case, are paralyzed by fear and laziness. Like my own.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Eichmanns (part 1?)

I'd like to thank Scott for inviting me to his little unbirthday party. I've brought some more candles for his cake, and they're the special kind...

OK, so I've been reflecting upon Scott's recent post regarding the Ward Churchill "scandal". Now, I'm not going to get into advocacy of academic freedom, because the relevant arguments are either (moral universals) both widely available and rather boring, or else (sociological applications of evolution theory) somewhat beyond my expertise and worthy of separate discussion. Nor am I going to discuss the ethics of killing innocents (from whatever the agent's own perspective on justice) in the service of targeting the guilty. Here, instead, I want to discuss the other question, the one at an intersection of ethics and metaphor/analogy theory: to whom can our received construal of Eichmann and his role justifiably be mapped?

First off, I'm going to take it for granted that 'evil' is either preserved in any such mapping, or reduced somewhat (perhaps to 'very bad'). If moral badness were not essential to the analogy, I see no sense in choosing Eichmann as the source concept, rather than any number of morally neutral cogs throughout history and literature. Second, Eichmann is a conduit for larger evil forces. Third, he is personally dispassionate toward the evil cause he serves. Whether or not this is literally true of the man (and it almost certainly isn't), it has come to be, as a result of his "just following orders" defense at trial and of Hannah Arendt's general acceptance of his self-characterization for the sake of her larger points about human nature and history, critical to the symbolic Eichmann, which is what concerns me here. Fourth (and this is as true of the symbolic as of the real man), Eichmann not only witnessed, but made executive decisions in the organization of, the evils for which he and his society were condemned. The suffering was before his eyes, he was in a position to tabulate it, and did in fact report on it to his superiors as progress made. Put these features together and I get an analogical frame like this:

Eichmann Frame (EF): An Eichmann is a person who is evil by virtue of acting out of duty to an institution, while dispassionate toward the institution's values, and who thereby knowingly lets evil work through them as a conduit, while personally confronted with the suffering that makes such work evil.

Now, a frame is not an analytic definition, so a person need not satisfy all of the above precisely in order to be reasonably called an Eichmann. Features of the frame can be weakened or backgrounded; they can even be dropped, so long as enough of pragmatic importance is preserved in the frame. (Somewhat in Churchill's defense, he did refer to the WTC deceased as "little Eichmanns", and, as the qualifier 'little' suggests, did not claim that the individual evil of these individuals rose to Eichmann's level.) So, my two questions are: (1) To what extent are the various features of my 'Eichmann' frame central or peripheral? (2) To what extent do the WTC deceased (universally or on average) make the analogy go through?

Hold that thought. Scene change.

Here, in The Stand, is how Stephen King introduces the dark man, Randall Flagg:

“His pockets were stuffed with fifty different kinds of conflicting literature -- pamphlets for all seasons, rhetoric for all reasons. When this man handed you a tract you took it no matter what the subject: the dangers of atomic power plants, the role played by the International Jewish Cartel in the overthrow of friendly governments, the CIA-Contra-cocaine connection, the farm workers' unions, the Jehovah's Witnesses... the Blacks for Militant Equality, the Kode of the Klan. He had them all, and more, too... There was a dark hilarity in his face, and perhaps in his heart, too, you would think -- and you would be right... It was a face guaranteed to make barroom arguments over batting averages turn bloody.”

Aha, so here we have evil manifested as passionate hatred, ideology of all 31 flavors, movements in every case to cleanse the world of the corrupt. The force of the devil, says King, is the force that can make trivial differences into fuel for murder, and more substantial yet still surmountable differences into fuel for genocide. (I see essentially the same message in the Stones' Sympathy with the Devil, for what it's worth: the crucifixion of Jesus, Nazi expansion, October revolution, and in every case the same "game"; "Anastasia cried in vain" because the passion of the movement was immune to sympathy.) So how does this relate to Eichmann and Eichmanns? Well, consider my above formulation of the Eichmann Frame: it seems that the only difference between the EF and the Flagg evils involves the word 'dispassionate'. So then, how distinctive should this single feature be? Should I think about two very different evils, perhaps a Scylla and Charybdis to navigate exactly between? Or should I construe them as manifestations of the same evil force?

I'm inclined toward the latter. Until this very moment, I never planned to invoke Dungeons & Dragons in a blog, but in a flash I realize how formative may have been its bidimensional model of moral character ('alignment'): good-neutral-evil along one axis, lawful-neutral-chaotic along the other. When I invoke the concept of good versus evil in describing an individual or behavior, I instinctively attempt to distinguish it from the concepts of reliability versus spontaneity, thoroughness versus cleverness. The distinction cannot always be made of course, and is likely unjustified in many of the cases where I do make it, but nevertheless my working position is the Lawfuls of the world (as little as I enjoy talking with them at parties) differ from my personality in ways orthogonal to moral goodness.

Thus, I would tend to isolate such traits from the rest of my Eichmann Frame, resulting in something like this:

(EF'): An Eichmann is a person who has predominantly Lawful personality traits, and who is evil by virtue of knowingly letting evil work through them as a conduit, while personally confronted with the suffering that makes such work evil.

I think it fair to assume for the sake of argument that the majority of deceased WTC workers were not of a primarily revolutionary or radical bent. That is, I will grant that any evil they might bear is more of the Eichmann than the Flagg variety. In deciding the extent to which Churchill's Eichmann analogy goes through, I want to further pursue the second and third clauses of (EF'). That is, we should ask two questions of the analogy's target domain: (1) What can the person reasonably believe about the institutional forces which they serve as a conduit; (2) What is the person's revealed capacity to perform explicitly cruel actions, to see suffering and continue to push it forward?

It seems obvious to me that the majority of WTC workers did not reach little-Eichmann status with regard to these two features. Perhaps we should discuss, however, how a hypothetical individual might qualify?

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