One of my heroes is Gideon Strauss, a native South African, for many years the editor of Comment, and now the director of the De Pree Center for Leadership in Los Angeles.
For a host of reasons, I have long been intrigued by the banality of evil; at least that is the way that Hannah Arendt described it a generation ago in her report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who kept the trains to Auschwitz running on time, denying all the way to his execution that he had ever killed a Jew. In her weekly reporting for the New Republic, she kept digging away at the human heart, wondering, analyzing, probing, viz. what is it that makes evil so ordinary?
In the days of apartheid in South Africa, Gideon came of age. An adolescent who could not understand familial and national loyalties, a young adult who desperately tried to find a way to think about the world that could make sense of the world, a developing scholar who spent good years of his life deepening his insight about the politics of life, when apartheid was finally abolished, he spent several years as a translator for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, traveling from township to township, pouring out his heart so that his people might be able to hear each other, and find a way forward.
In this morning’s New York Times the lead story on-line is of an exhibit, “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life.” Reading the story made me think of Gideon and his history—as well as Arendt and her observations. And truth be told, of countless moments, known and mostly unknown, all over the face of the earth, where ordinary people in ordinary places make choices, and their neighbors and their societies either flourish or not, where good is pursued or not, where life is honored or not. The words are haunting, “the ordinariness of good and evil.”
Lord have mercy.
“On the one hand, it’s a grand narrative of stirring sights: ardent faces, agitated bodies, camaraderie, clenched fists, funerals. It’s also a disquisition on the ordinariness of good and evil, on how people in a particular time and place encounter and partake of both and go on with their lives, no matter what.”