Our interview broadcast on September 25, 2013
R.K.: And welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM out of Washington Township, NJ reaching Metro Philly and South Jersey. My guest tonight is Peter Ludlow. Peter is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University and he writes frequently on digital culture, hacktivism, and the surveillance state. I got in touch with Peter because he did an oped for the New York Times titled, "The Banality of Systemic Evil" which is mostly about whistleblowers and their response to, well we'll talk about it. Welcome to the show, Peter.
P.L.: Hey, thanks a lot.
R.K.: I really liked your article, very smart and thoughtful and it inspired me to give you a call. So, the title of the article, "The Banality of Systemic Evil" is a play on the writings of Hannah Arendt. Can you talk about a little bit about that first? The banality of evil and then we'll get in to systemic evil?
P.L.: Sure, I keep seeing the movie lately, there is a movie about this which is I think still in theaters and it's about when Hannah Arendt is given the assignment of covering Eichmann's trial and she writes an essay called "Eichmann in Jerusalem" and the thing that she marvels at in this trial is how in some sense Eichmann didn't appear to be a monster but seemed like an ordinary sort of bureaucrat who is wrapped up in carrying out his responsibilities. She was struck by what she called the banality of evil. Evil people are not like the monsters that you see on TV shows but rather they're these people that sort of work within a system and they go by the etiquette and rules of the system but in doing so they can bring about unspeakable evil.
R.K.: What was the movie that you refer to?
P.L.: Now I'm blocking on the exact title but it might be something as simple as Hannah Arendt.
R.K.: Well that's something we can -
P.L.: I think it's got -
R.K.: we can dig up later -
P.L.: sure, yeah
R.K.: - on the podcast page. So let's talk about systemic evil then.
P.L.: One of the things that was really inspirational to this was a book called Moral Mazes and it came to my attention because Aaron Swartz had written about it, Aaron Swartz was the kid who was prosecuted for, what the prosecutor claims was illegally downloading scientific journal articles and he had this notion that these sort of things should not behind a firewall, that that sort of knowledge should be available to everybody.
Anyway, as sort of a motivation for this, or one of the books that really inspired him was this book called Moral Mazes and it's this amazing book by a sociologist who somehow got permission to just sit in on in five different corporations and just see how the bureaucracy in those corporations worked and he wrote about how it was a kind of internal logic to these corporations and rules that you're supposed to follow.