Obama and the Banality of Small Wrongs

© 2009 Keith McWalter

The political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her seminal work, “The Banality of Evil,” posited that the true horror of the Holocaust was not that its atrocities were committed by sociopaths or extremists, but rather that they were committed by everyday, ostensibly normal men and women who were socialized by degrees into believing that their actions were not evil, or would be overlooked. The banality of evil resides in the quotidian nature of its perpetrators and the blandness of their assumption of their own guiltlessness.

American politics and American politicians have frequently relied on the propensity of the electorate to forgive small wrongs in the service of some alleged greater good. In recent years this reliance has become almost institutionalized: Nixon seeking a waiver for Watergate, Reagan ducking Iran-Contra, Clinton making light of Monica, and George W. Bush asking us to overlook a little wiretapping, torture, and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in his pursuit of evil-doers. What is amazing is how often this has worked, at least for awhile.

Barak Obama campaigned explicitly on the promise of a change from all this. The dignity of his personal bearing, his elevated oratory, and his written words reinforce the expectation, central to his sweep to victory in November’s election, that he would be different, both personally and in the conduct of his administration. In the zone of ethics, he started out well, largely barring lobbyists from his team, setting in motion the closure of Guantanamo, and selecting an attorney general who dares call torture by its name.

But there have been troubling “exceptions” to the ethical standards Obama has espoused. His deputy defense secretary nominee, William Lynn III, is an ex-Raytheon lobbyist. Tom Daschle is a de-facto lobbyist and, it turns out, a tax cheat. Hillary Clinton is walking a fine line of conflicts of interest with her husband’s charities. The same attorney general nominee who called waterboarding torture also had a hand in the pardon of the scurrilous expatriate Marc Rich.

Perhaps most troubling is Obama’s apparent willingness to overlook the failure of Tom Daschle and Timothy Geithner to properly pay their taxes. These are brilliant men of extensive means, accustomed to mastering detail. They are technicians of the law. There is simply no credible excuse for their being off on their reported taxable income by hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially due to the obvious and personal nature of the income we’re talking about: free services on one hand, and grossed-up salary on the other.

If Tom Daschle or Tim Geithner had been caught shoplifting in a drugstore, their candidacies would have been over. Their “mistakes” on their taxes are no better than petty theft from the public weal, and “apologizing” for them doesn’t cut it.

These are in a sense small wrongs. They are certainly banal wrongs. But convincing ourselves that they are unimportant wrongs is the first step down a path that we’ve been down too many times before, and that Barak Obama promised to avoid.

There is a double standard here. It’s not the double standard that one political party is constantly accusing the other of applying. Rather, it’s the difference between how the members of an elite –of which both parties are members –treat one another, and how everyone else gets treated. It’s the old boy pass, and we should insist — particularly of this President — that no more be handed out. There should be no “balancing” of wrongs against the long record of these men. Hold them to the standards of their own achievements.

As I write this, Tom Daschle has announced the withdrawl of his name from nomination, as has prospective “efficiency czarina” Nancy Killefer (over another small wrong). This is a good thing, as it evinces an awareness of what’s at stake. The tragedy of the last Bush administration was that small wrongs –as well as some grander ones – were continually forgiven (by the perpetrators, and by the people) in the service of ideology. Our public discourse tends to fall into the rote reactions of the sports fan: my guy good/your guy bad. The fact that we may like a President’s politics, or what he stands for, the fact that we voted for him, is no reason to look away when his choices betray – by small wrongs, or large — the hopes we’ve placed in him. Rather, that is when we the people should scream the loudest.

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