January 2009


                                      by  Sy  Schechtman



            Hannah Arendt  wrote a book about thirty  years  ago  called “On the Banality Of Evil”  which explained  how the monumental human infamy  that was the Holocaust  was incrementally possible,  bit by scurrilous  bit  with mind numbing atrocity, by crimes that stultified rational thinking.   The unthinkable   becoming  common place,  or even a bit boring---   but not so dreadful  any more.   This is certainly true to a some extent in daily life too,  where  the nagging reality of human  imperfection and shortcoming makes us tolerant and perhaps too accepting of  our brothers and sisters mini misdeeds,   blurring the  line at times  of true good and evil.   And many of us are sometimes caught in the web  of this interpretive dilemma,  some times emphasizing the positive  and than the negative of   the same general proposition.   Not on a light hearted whim either.    But on the shifting reality of the present situation,  which may have changed  appreciably since last we confronted the same general landscape.   So we, the great body  of voters,   have not only words and avowals, promises and slogans, hopes and fantasies and whole perceptions  of the candidates we have encountered in the last two marathon  years of campaigning for the job of leader of the most powerful nation in the history of the world.

        And now that the new fledgling but victorious  leader waiting patiently  in the wings,   is doing the time honored but somewhat duplicitous seeming  move away from his loyal base  and its most liberal pretensions—Obama has the most liberal  voting record  of all --- toward the more moderate center of the political spectrum.      Somewhat to the dismay of the  gay marriage ultra left flank but very reassuring for the relatively large number of Californians  who voted for  propostion 8 on the recent referendum asserting that marriage has to be  only a heterosexual union.   And also the use of conservative   minister  Rick Warren to do the invocation  at his forthcoming inauguration,  who is not exactly thrilled with the same sex marriage thrust.   So we still seem to get reassuring signals that the center will hold and that the President elect  Obama  who gloried initially in Change Change, Change!   now realizes that he won the election perhaps  only with the timely  collapse and attendant panic of the financial world and now needs to go very slowly  to heal and buck up our morale first.   To change, that is, back to the reality of  due diligence and hard work  as the usual panacea when crisis time  occurs.  Or, sometimes,   class, repeat after me,   “the more things change, the more they remain the same”!!

            The classic example of  change, of course, was Nixon going to Communist China and completely aborting  his life long political stance of  anti communist  rhetoric.   He dramatically changed the course of American Asia  politics from Sino American  outright hostility  to gradually improving culturally and economic ties.  So much so that China is now the proud(?) possessor  of at least   many billions of  United States  Treasury bonds,  which we hope will not now be tendered for payment!   And  we are now the recipient  of much “made in China”  merchandise.    Only the lifelong anti communist convictions of an avowed Communist hater such as Nixon could have convinced the still large American  bloc of  anti communists that we should deal with Red China.    To the mutual benefit of both  countries.     So far!!

        Was it duplicitous  or fortuitous that  Nixon  in effect opened up communist China to large scale interaction  with the western world?     Did Lyndon Johnson lie ----or exaggerate mightily-- to us about   the Tonkin gulf incident  in Viet Nam, about a purported attack by the North Vietnamese on our “security  forces”  who were aiding our South Vietnamese allies,  and thus giving us congressional legal sanction to escalate greatly our military prescence there.?   And almost just yesterday,   were we all deceived  by the non existent weapons of mass destruction (WMD)  of our current foreign involvement in Iraq?.    Or perhaps  it is hopefully too soon  to write off completely the seemingly  disastrous blunder that  Iraq appears to be.   That  some day our commercial and cultural presence will be an accepted  part of the   mix of a normal  middle eastern Asian life.     A  society that is more comfortable with our  western mode of life as we shall become with their  approach.   And the WMD obfuscation absorbed in the positive result of a US and Islamic détente, if not even positive commercial alliance,  as with China today.  (Hopefully,  from my rhetoric to God’s ear!)

        Positive duplicity also was  well within our experience during Roosevelt’s great almost four term regime before and during Worl War II.   Undeniablely  the  greatest president of the last century,   coping with  the   great depression of the nineteen thirties and the second world war,  FDR embraced the concept of the end justifying the means,  at times with great positive results.    While his many make work and economic stimulus projects, all with terse alphabetical  titles,  such as WPA, CCC, NRA,etc, were more hopeful than successful,   and his attempt to add more justices to the Supreme Court, then derisively known as “Packing the Court”, was also a failure,   his conduct of the massive Fascist  alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II, in concert with the redoubtable British under the  great Winston Churchill,  kept Western civilization intact and viable.  But Roosevelt played somewhat  loosely        with the truth at times,   notably violating international law by breeching our neutrality status before our official entry into the war before Pearl Harbor by using our submarines to secretly help convoy military supplies to England,  mostly frustrating the German U boat  gauntlet  and their deadly torpedoes.  

        A very positive result which helped sustain  our faltering future ally , England, until  we finally had the right pretext-----The sneak attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor—to allow us to officially enter the Second World War—at first against Japan.  Then Hitler aided Roosevelt’s   very pro English position by promptly declaring war on the United States and thus giving us a de facto right to be a belligerent even though our country,  now very anti Japanese, was still very neutral on our new European foes, nazi Germany and fascist Italy.   Once officially “in”  the war  the world saw the greatest and most rapid mobilization ever; literally from a standing start  as the draft of United States men and women within little more than a year  accounted for over ten million people,  the men  at first using broom sticks as rifles to at least learn the manual of arms, before enough real rifles were available.   In Hitler’s mostly brilliant and meteoric rise to power in almost all of Europe wide,   his second  greatest     mistake was taking on communist Russia,  that vast territory  that had engulfed Napoleon a little over a hundred years before.  His greatest mistake,   however,  was   the  blunder of   allowing us into the fray  by his unilateral declaration  of war on the United States two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor----although we had not committed and overt aggressive act--- and thus  spurring the greatest military  mobilization in history under FDR’s dynamic impetus.                   

        A large negative, however, was  FDR’s health at the time of his late in life third and fourth terms in office.   Indeed, most of us,  including myself, were never fully aware of the extent of his paralysis.    Most of us were dimly aware of his partial paralysis  due to  poliomyelitis,  but  we never saw him  in a wheel chair or walking, something in fact that he could not do.    Besides sitting  of standing immobile,   we were never aware of how   disabling        his disease  was.  Or would have voted for him again if we knew.   Or of the rather grim prognosis medically for his last few years in office.    He did die early  in his fourth term, shortly after the crucial Yalta conference.     Few of us were aware of his vice presidential candidate and his capabilities.   And  this fellow  was almost totally unaware of the crucial post war  events and problems  that were  looming post world war II. That’s  Harry Truman---that untutored, non college   individual who was in Roosevelt’s  place at some vital post war summit conferences. Providentially,  and probably  somewhat accidentally,  Truman turned out to have confronted  many very challenging decisions  very successfully  in the far east, but alas did not have the total overview of the European front,   where   the Allies and Stalin peace   talks at Yalta  and Potsdam were held  and where more or less Russia   extended her hegemony  thru communist dominated   eastern European countries all the way to the Rhine river.    A strong and vigorous   western democratic opponent would not have let that happen.    Only 45 years later,  with the fall of the wall  containing the eastern satellite states and the implosion of the Soviet Union   do we now see a prosperous and aspiring people  building  much  more  democratic institutions.   All of this  was certainly  aided by Harry Truman,  when he as able to attend to some of  the festering  western postwar  western problems  with the Marshall Plan,   which pumped 17 billion dollars in rehabilitation aid   into those western countries on the western side of the Rhine to aid their successful free market recovery.   (Compare, perhaps to the 700 billion bailouts of today?)  

        Today we have our own somewhat unique implosion,----the credit aspects of our finance system are non functioning,  and we have the noxious results of our “toxic  assets”  due to the “securitization” of  improperly made  mortgages to impoverished  poor credit risk applicants  approved by negligent  banks and financiers and rating agencies  and then sold world wide to respectable customers like Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns  under the mistaken assumption that there was iron clad federal insurance  to protect them.   This assumption was valid only up to certain point, however.   These very low or even no interest initial  mortgages,  and even no down payment proved unsustainable as interest began rising a few years later  and  these  financially fragile owners began abandoning their resplendent new homes as their value became less and less and the interest payments (which may have been negligible  or non existent  at the start) more of a burden as the current continually declining asset value of the home became less than the initial  mortgage  total.    Thus we have an almost overwhelming number of foreclosures. And this dereliction  at the base  has risen up the financial chain, to the august issuers of Freddie and Fanny Mae,  and AIG insurance,  who been swamped,  and suffocated with  far too many claims  for insurance protection,  and now federal government takeovers  have been necessary.    And there are many, many  spectacular distressed  real estate deals around.

           So,  it has been wisely said that the devil can readily quote scriptures, the holy writ.  Even Jesus at one point vehemently denounced the Pharisees, who are still considered a valuable source of rabbinic Judaism and Sunni and Shiite many times are at each others throat,  still have rapport with most tenets of the Koran.      And we await the judgment  of history  many times for  validation of confusing current trends.   Tricky Dicky  Nixon( his enemies sobriquet)  had the immensity of Watergate and his vitriolic anticommunism,   but opening up China maybe be more consequential.    Much distress is involved with our current  recessionary woes and the obvious need to repair  and probably re-regulate somewhat our shoddy capitalist system,  but the banality  of evil involved is not lethal,  not of the Hitlerian Nazi   malignant  type,  but merely  human greed and envy which democratic discussion and punitive legislation where needed  can suffice to bring us back to true justice.   And prosperity!   As  our ancient rabbis taught, we humans are  constantly conflicted  by both the good and the evil constantly  within us  (the Yetzer Tov  and the Yetzer Hara)  and that man has free will and that the Lord is waiting expectantly in the wings for humanity   to do the right.  That the Yetzer Tov –the good-- will ultimately triumph.