Friday, September 27, 2013

On whistleblowers and recognizing goodness.

Peter Ludlow blogged about “The Banality of Systemic Evil” for the Times last week. He argued that Edward Snowden, Jeremy Hammond, Aaron Swartz and Chelsea Manning’s actions were based on a moral principle greater than the institutions that employed them, one that was grounded in the individual rather than the institution.

Systemic evil is a difficult problem to solve because it challenges the connection in our minds between lawfulness and goodness, and lawlessness and badness. Though we tend to trust our governing institutions and distrust those that act against them, “there can be no expectation that the system will act morally of its own accord.” And “If legitimate authority leads in the direction of administrative evil, it will certainly not provide legitimate outlets for resistance.

In other words, we rely on individuals like Snowden et al. to break ranks and speak out when they see something wrong. Though it is an act of disobedience, it is the only thing that can plausibly keep errant organizations on track.

What struck me most about Ludlow’s post was a quote from John Bolton that so perfectly expressed the root of the confusion over judging whistleblowers:
Snowden thinks he’s smarter and has a higher morality than the rest of us … that he can see clearer than the other 299,999,999 of us, and therefore he can do what he wants. I say that is the worst form of treason.
Bolton’s idea of what goodness looks like is useless in a situation where an entire system has erred. His moral compass is not internal, but external -- calibrated to the opinions of 299,999,999 other people. 

You don’t need to condemn the NSA, the US Army or the judicial system, nor defend the latest batch of dissidents, to see how Bolton’s thinking is a problem. You only have to acknowledge that systemic evil is a possibility and that amoral institutions make poor moral benchmarks.

Ludlow turns to Hannah Arendt’s report on Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann to illustrate how deferring to institutional norms can lead one astray. Eichmann sent millions to their deaths while asking “who am I to judge?”, leading Arendt to describe him as “neither the first nor last to be ruined by modesty.” He personified the difficult-to-accept fact that the scale of the destruction caused by the Nazi State could not have been possible without the widespread cooperation of ordinary people who could have resisted but chose not to.

Much has been written about how the Nazis used propaganda to deceive, but the bureaucracy offered its own kind of deception, one I suspect was more persuasive. The bureaucracy retained order while leading in the direction of evil. This appearance of banality was essential to the unprecedented crimes committed and the party did everything they could to preserve it.

For example, in 1943 the bureaucracy sent a memo reminding their murderers that they had “no right to take a single fur, a single watch, a single mark, a single cigarette, or anything whatever,” from the people they were sending to their deaths, “so that in the end [they could] say “we have not been damaged in the innermost of our being, our soul, our character.”

These token gestures of civility within the radically evil regime helped maintain the order people wrongly associated with goodness.

However, not everyone was so deluded. There were people who resisted and acted as rescuers. Kristen Monroe’s series of interviews gives an idea of what these people were like. On the whole, they reported feeling as if they could not have acted any differently. One rescuer, Otto, said his actions were “rooted in outrage.” That he simply “got mad.” He even admitted to having a “rather high opinion" of himself.

The anger of dissidents is often lost in the way we heroize them, a well-meaning but damaging lie. Monroe’s interviews brought to mind the controversy surrounding the release of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” a biography that published some of Parks' journal entries and by doing so revealed how her story had been sanitized.

Parks had experienced systemic evil personally. Before she refused to give up her seat, she had spent two decades fighting against the laws that treated her as less than human. She encouraged others to disobey these unjust laws and hated those who enforced them. Her actions were rooted in an entirely justified anger.

Everyone loses when we edit the stories of our heroes to suit our own taste for ordered goodness. When you sanitize people and hide their arrogance, when you paint Rosa Parks as a saintly figure instead of the righteously angry individual she was, you end up with a world full of people who have no idea what goodness looks like. A bunch of Boltons who figure the majority is a sound indicator of moral rightness.

The circumstances of each of the dissidents Ludlow considers are unique. You can judge their actions but ought to admire their nerve. In the context of systemic evil, they are what goodness looks like.


  1. Bravo. Your insight is an important one.

  2. Well reasoned & well written. Saw you on TVO the other night & have to say, your commentary was the most nuanced & intelligent. Cheers!