Thoughts, Four Years Later

On Sunday, June 16th, I graduated from DePaul University, with bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and History of Art & Architecture.

It’s really, really intense to think about everything that’s happened in the past four years.

I spent my first year at the university not liking it very much. I was happy to finally be gone from Cincinnati, where I spent my middle and high school years, and finally getting the fresh start I had wanted for as long as I was there. That feeling wasn’t so much borne of animus against the people I knew in high school, though that was an aspect, but rather being able to escape the person I was then. I had not been well-liked, to say the least. I bet I’m still not held in high esteem by many of those folks, and I wouldn’t argue against them in terms of their assessments of my character. I was a pretty miserable person to be around, for a whole host of reasons, many of them stemming from my recovery from several rounds of intensive medical treatment regarding the brain tumor I had, but I don’t want that to be an excuse. I could and should have been a better friend, and a better student. Coming to Chicago meant that I could have that chance.

I like to think that I’ve taken that chance. Certainly, from my point of view, the past four years have been the absolute best years of my entire life. I have met the most amazing people, seen the most fabulous things, had experiences that are frankly so absurd that I never would have thought of them ever occurring beforehand, but now are time capsules to look back on and laugh at. I’ve had a few crushes, and now I can genuinely say that I am in love with a person whose wonderfulness I am staggered by each and every day.

I’ve learned. Shit, have I learned. I realize now that I came to Chicago as the very definition of someone who didn’t know a goddamn thing. But, through classes with utterly wonderful professors, and through the community of friends who welcomed me and shared with me their experiences and wisdom, I think I’m a far more compassionate, informed, active person.

However, much as I hope these things about myself are true, I don’t ultimately get to decide whether they are or not. I’m of the belief that whether or not I’ve grown as a person, whether I am worthy of the great friendship and care that I have been offered in this city and others, are to be judged by those that have made me who I am. To declare myself fleet and fancy-free, an activist, writer, friend, etc. worth listening would be the height of conceit.

This is a lesson I’ve learned through my friends, and in the pages of philosophical and historical texts, namely those of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hannah Arendt, and Audre Lorde; we are constituted as people by our histories, by choices we have made or those that have been made for us, by those who we have interacted and chosen to learn from or otherwise. Had any small thing been changed in any part of our lives, we would be different. We are, in Merleau-Ponty’s words, condemned to sense; condemned, always, to exist as beings in the world.

This is, I think, the most important lesson I’ve learned so far in my life. We can’t escape our history, but we can work to be better people on account of it. We do that by being willing to listen, being willing to question not just ourselves, but the world itself, especially the information given to us from those who social norms would have us believe are our betters. This kind of engagement takes all kinds of forms, but it is essential to our very humanity.

I believe I have been made a better person by Kate, and by Danielle, and Miri, and Steve, and Tyler, and Amanda, and Simone, and Professor Chanter, and Lyz Liddell, and Debbie Goddard, and countless numbers of people who I simply cannot name here for lack of space. Being able to meet all of these people, and to be changed by them, is the great gift that DePaul University offered me, and so, despite what the administration might do with regard to basketball arenas and gentrification and generally disregarding every word that Vincent de Paul ever said or wrote, I will be forever grateful to the institution. Had I not gone to DePaul, everything would have been different, and I doubt I would have been as happy as I am in this moment.

In closing, thank you to everyone who’s been there. Thank you to everyone who reads this. I don’t know what I’m doing now, two degrees later, but I have no doubt it’ll be a fun ride.

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Eichmann in Boston

This quarter, for my senior capstone class, i.e. the class taken for a major that is supposed to cap off our undergraduate studies, I am taking a course focused on Hannah Arendt, the political theorist, with the truly excellent Peg Birmingham, who has been one of my most important instructors during my time at DePaul. In our analysis of it, it has brought to my mind many stark lessons for our current predicaments.

We started our examination of Arendt’s works by reading Eichmann in Jerusalemthe book she wrote and compiled from her time sitting in on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who more or less facilitated the extermination of the European Jews by the Third Reich and who was captured, tried, and put to death by Israel in the early 1960s. Most of the book is concerned with the details of the trial, and the testimony of Eichmann and others, but on the whole Arendt attempts to use the man to assess the phenomenon of the Holocaust itself, namely the complete and utter moral collapse of the nations involved, and also what she refers to as the “banality of evil,” the thoughtlessness of Eichmann in his charge to fulfill the duty given to him.

The chilling aspect of the trial for Arendt, and for those who read her recounting of it, is not that Eichmann was some evil ghoul, maniacally bent on the destruction of a people, but in fact something quite different; the man was no such thing. He was not psychologically unhinged in any way; he described himself as doing his duty, having no ability to stop the horrors of the Nazi regime, and so instead he did as he was ordered, because he believed that doing so was the truly moral thing to do, going so far as to cite Kant’s categorical imperative as his driving ideal. He admitted no guilt, no antisemitism, and seems to have at least been not guilty of the latter.

What, then, are we to make of Eichmann? He was not a monster, as is evident from reading Arendt’s account; but surely we should not exonerate him, as well. The message of his trial is that monstrous evil does not necessarily only come from the diabolical mastermind, bent on the destruction of all that is good and pure in the world, but instead that evil is easily done by those who are joiners, those who do not question orders, those who are too apathetic to care about what acts they commit or  enable, so long as they think it is correct, though that authority they believe may be a corrupt one. Moral collapse of the sort seen on the scale of the Holocaust is not, as we believe, an extraordinary thing, but rather one that can occur at any time, if, like Eichmann, we allow ourselves be the dupes of power, if we are not skeptical enough to question governments and ethical enough to make the right decisions.

The banality of evil can be seen today. We in the US have spent the past decade or so, if not more, watching our own government commit exceedingly immoral acts in the name of national security, while riling the population up into a fever over anyone who happens to fit the stereotype of being Muslim. It’s happening right now, in the aftermath of the explosions at the Boston Marathon. Long before suspects were identified by authorities, the media and average citizens leapt to conclusions, immediately assuming Saudis and anyone else who was mildly Middle Eastern looking to be the culprits; such reactions are catalogued here and here, amongst other places.

This attitude, the assumptions of guilt, are exactly what Arendt warned us against. But she also offered us a brighter truth; that against all of the horror of the Nazi war machine, there were those that resisted, such as the actions of the state of Denmark to save its Jewish citizens and refugees from the Einsatzgruppen, as well as those of Anton Schmid, a sergeant in the Wehrmacht who saved 250 Jewish people from the concentration camps. There are always those who make the moral choice, not the practical choice of saving their own skins, when the greatest adversity comes. Patton Oswalt wrote much in the same vein in the response to Boston.

It is in these stories that we must take hope from, and from the banality of evil, of the prejudiced assumptions, that we must constantly be on guard from. Our society has the capability to lapse into abjection and horror at any moment, if it has not already. We have stood by while innocent people have been illegally imprisoned by the people we elect to govern us, we have raised barely a peep against drone strikes on innocent civilians, and plenty of other moral lapses; as difficult as it is to do, we must look at ourselves, and constantly check our biases and actions. Ideology is what makes us blind, and so, we must do our utmost to not blindly follow ideology.