Monday, February 22, 2016

Mr. Miracle provoking previously unseen levels of pearl-clutching and vapor-catching in the Cathedral...,



WaPo | Like any number of us raised in the late 20th century, I have spent my life perplexed about exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany. Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand. Leave aside whether a direct comparison of Trump to Hitler is accurate. That is not my point. My point rather is about how a demagogic opportunist can exploit a divided country.

To understand the rise of Hitler and the spread of Nazism, I have generally relied on the German-Jewish √©migr√© philosopher Hannah Arendt and her arguments about the banality of evil. Somehow people can understand themselves as “just doing their job,” yet act as cogs in the wheel of a murderous machine. Arendt also offered a second answer in a small but powerful book called “Men in Dark Times.” In this book, she described all those who thought that Hitler’s rise was a terrible thing but chose “internal exile,” or staying invisible and out of the way as their strategy for coping with the situation. They knew evil was evil, but they too facilitated it, by departing from the battlefield out of a sense of hopelessness.

One can see both of these phenomena unfolding now. The first shows itself, for instance, when journalists cover every crude and cruel thing that comes out of Trump’s mouth and thereby help acculturate all of us to what we are hearing. Are they not just doing their jobs, they will ask, in covering the Republican front-runner? Have we not already been acculturated by 30 years of popular culture to offensive and inciting comments? Yes, both of these things are true. But that doesn’t mean journalists ought to be Trump’s megaphone. Perhaps we should just shut the lights out on offensiveness; turn off the mic when someone tries to shout down others; reestablish standards for what counts as a worthwhile contribution to the public debate. That will seem counter to journalistic norms, yes, but why not let Trump pay for his own ads when he wants to broadcast foul and incendiary ideas? He’ll still have plenty of access to freedom of expression. It is time to draw a bright line.

One spots the second experience in any number of water-cooler conversations or dinner-party dialogues. “Yes, yes, it is terrible. Can you believe it? Have you seen anything like it? Has America come to this?” “Agreed, agreed.” But when someone asks what is to be done, silence falls. Very many of us, too many of us, are starting to contemplate accepting internal exile. Or we joke about moving to Canada more seriously than usually.