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The Imperative to Think in the COVID-19 Era

Now would be a good time to listen to Hannah Arendt.

The world can be a lonely place for those of us who suspect that the coronavirus pandemic or “crisis” is little more than a pretext by which, practically overnight, those who have long been aching for it executed nothing less than “the fundamental transformation” of America.

It’s been that much lonelier given that, up until very recently, upon realizing that Democratic officeholders, their apologists in the media, and their constituents are exploiting the mass fear that they engendered for the purposes of furthering their own agenda, Republican politicians and conservative media personalities have been equally guilty of promoting the narrative of the second coming of the Black Plague.

Much more work needs to be done on the part of those in the Republican Party and conservative media. At least for now, however, they appear to be beginning to emerge from the bottom of Plato’s cave.

The point here, though, is to remind those who have seen and called out the cooked numbers, fake accounts, hyper-sensationalism, and mythologizing for what they are, and who have been suppressed, censored, and disparaged for doing so, that they are in good company, for truth-tellers—earlier generations in other times and places would call them “prophets”—historically have suffered the same fate.

In glaring contrast, those who refuse to pursue truth, whether they deliberately lie or simply uncritically accept what everyone says, appear to gain the whole world, even if it is at the cost of losing their souls.

Hannah Arendt, a Jewish woman whose family had to flee their native Germany when the Nazis rose to power, would become a great 20th-century philosopher. After the war, she attended the trial of Adolph Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust, in Jerusalem. Expecting to see a monster personified, Arendt was discombobulated when her expectations failed to materialize.

While Eichmann’s actions were monstrous, he wasn’t monstrous at all. Quite the contrary, he was all too ordinary, or “banal,” as she would write. 

What did leave a lasting impression upon her was Eichmann’s “curious, but quite authentic, inability to think.”  

Arendt writes:

However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think. 

Eichmann couldn’t think beyond “clichés,” “stock phrases,” and “conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct.” Because of this, his testimony was littered with “inconsistencies and flagrant contradictions,” illogic that didn’t in the least faze him.

In other words, Eichmann couldn’t think beyond the memes, bumper sticker slogans, and hashtags of his day.

It wasn’t that Eichmann was stupid. Nor was it that he lacked the ability to think critically or logically. Rather, he lacked the will to do so.

It was this “inability” to think that Arendt believed made him that much more susceptible to committing evil.

It is crucial to realize that while Eichmann may have been the impetus that provoked Arendt to explore the relationship between thinking and morality, she by no means meant to imply that the phenomenon that she observed in him was in any way unique either to Eichmann or to Nazis. Most people, she knew, possessed that same “curious, but quite authentic, inability to think” possessed by Eichmann.

Most people do not want to think.

This is how seemingly decent people can become complicit in evil.

Flatten the curve! Stay at home! Avoid non-essential travel! Save lives!

These are the “clichés,” “stock phrases,” and “standardized codes of expression and conduct” of the so-called “COVID era.” Most people, sadly, seem to be incapable of or unwilling to think beyond them. This is a problem, however, because all such soundbites  have “the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence.”  

Stock phrases and the like shield us from reality. It’s not that they are of no utility; Arendt readily concedes that if “we were responsive to this claim [on our thinking attention purchased by all events and facts] all the time, we would soon be exhausted.”

But if we are interested in thinking clearly, of becoming educated, empowered; if we are interested in seeing to it that the powerful, the opportunistic, and the corrupt don’t manipulate us for their own purposes; if we are interested in self-governance; if we are interested in guarding ourselves against being perpetrators of evil—then we must marshal the will to think.

It is imperative that we learn how to think.

It is imperative that we refuse unabashedly to accept the declarations and decrees of experts uncritically.

It is imperative that we resist the tendency of most to just go along with the herd, to blindly obey orders.

Today, that “curious, but quite authentic inability to think” Hannah Arendt saw in Adolph Eichmann and that provoked in her a dramatic reorientation of her thought is on grand display in America (and beyond).

Those of us who care about the well-being of our republic and about the liberty bequeathed to us by America’s founders, for which earlier generations of Americans sacrificed their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” have an obligation to think.

We must think lest we implicate ourselves in the evils being visited upon the country by those who would “fundamentally transform” it in the name of keeping Americans from getting sick.