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Excerpt from Welcome to the Machine

How Do We Define Sanity? (p. 203)

From chapter "The End"

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt observed, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together. . . .”

Thomas Merton said much the same thing: “One of the most disturbing facts that came out of the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane. . . . We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism [sic], madness, destruction.And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.”

Here is what modern sociologists say about the sanity of individual Nazis: “By conventional clinical criteria no more than 10 percent of the Nazi SS [the acronym for Schutzstaffel, German for Protective Corps] could be considered ‘abnormal.’ This observation fits the general trend of testimony by survivors indicating that in most of the camps, there was usually one, or at most a few, SS men known for their intense outbursts of sadistic cruelty.”The sociologists conclude, “Our judgment is that the overwhelming majority of SS men, leaders as well as rank and file, would have easily passed all the psychiatric tests ordinarily given to American army recruits or Kansas City policemen.”

How do we define sanity in a culture that is killing the planet? How do we define rationality? How rational is it to remove 90 percent of the large fish from the oceans? How rational is it to remove 90 percent of the native forest from the land? How rational is it to change the climate? How rational is it to put so many pollutants into the air that infants exceed a lifetime’s “safe” exposure to carcinogens in two weeks in Los Angeles, three weeks in San Francisco? How rational is it to have carcinogenic chemicals in half the municipal drinking water in the United States? No problemo, you say, I’ll just drink from my well. Yesterday I read that the U.S. Congress is set to relax the rules allowing oil corporations to further pollute groundwater.

Or maybe all of this is rational. It all depends on what you want. It was said of someone whose name you may know, “From insane premises to monstrous conclusions, Hitler was relentlessly logical.”

We can say the same for much of our culture’s rationality. If your premises are flawed, it doesn’t matter how rational you pretend to be; your actions will still be absurd.

What’s the point?