Sunday, October 23, 2022

Michael Johnston: The banality of evil shoe salesmen

I’ve always thought of Wellington as being a bit like Tolkien’s Hobbiton. It’s peaceful, comfortable, and largely ignored by the dark forces of the world. But evil can lurk in the unlikeliest of places – even, it would seem, in Wellington.

In 1963 philosopher Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Adolf Eichmann was a senior Nazi bureaucrat, responsible for the deportation of Jews and others deemed undesirable by Hitler’s regime, to concentration camps.

In 1960 he was captured by Israeli secret services in Argentina. He was put on trial in Jerusalem, which is where Arendt encountered him.

The picture Arendt painted of Eichmann was of an ordinary man simply content to follow procedures. To him, deporting people to death camps was little different than transporting apples or garden hoses. He was, Arendt thought, the model of an amoral administrator.

Some commentators criticised Arendt’s analysis, arguing that the very fact that Eichmann was able to do what he did without remorse defines him as evil. But that misses the point.

Arendt didn’t say that Eichmann wasn’t evil. She said that evil is, all too often, commonplace and boring. Even tyrants – those giving the orders rather than following them – can be ‘ordinary men’.

That brings us to the banality of evil shoe salesmen.

New Zealanders of a certain age will remember Bata Bullets, a popular brand of children’s sneakers. Most kiwi kids of the 1970s probably owned a pair at some stage. Those who lived in Wellington, it turns out, may have purchased theirs from a certain Russian warmonger.

Yes, you read correctly. Apparently, Vladimir Putin once sold Bata Bullets in our capital.

According to Wikipedia, “multiple reports have suggested Putin was sent by the KGB to New Zealand, allegedly working for some time undercover as … a Bata shoe salesman in central Wellington”.

Later, Putin headed the KGB, an organisation every bit as evil as the Nazi gestapo. And now he has unleashed war on Ukraine and threatened the world with nuclear weapons.

I grew up in Wellington. Perhaps I bought a pair of Bata Bullets from Vladimir Putin. Perhaps I sat near him on a train or passed by him while he was feeding the ducks at the botanical gardens. These thoughts underscore Hannah Arendt’s insight that perpetrators of appalling crimes often appear “terrifyingly normal”.

We have seen the face of evil and it sold us sneakers.

Dr Michael Johnston has held academic positions at Victoria University of Wellington for the past ten years. He holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Melbourne. This article was originally published HERE

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