Commentary Magazine


Family Feud

To the Editor:

I am disturbed by Erica Mann’s comments [“Letters from Readers,” May] on Irving Howe’s article [“Hannah Arendt & the New Yorker,” October ’63], particularly her agreement with what she calls Hannah Arendt’s “implied view that human character is largely socially determined.” I reject the implication that we can forfeit personal responsibility for our actions by blaming them on . . . society, upon which it is practically impossible to enforce accountability. Her eagerness to establish the point that man’s nature is “malleable” also bothers me . . . Miss Mann (Mrs. Michael Werthman) will one day be the mother of some of my grandchildren. It will be her responsibility, not society’s, to shape their character. I would hate to think that this “molding” process is reversible, that under certain social conditions ordinary humans could bring themselves to perform the “most monstrous acts.” I would rather hope that if the mold is true the clay will harden into an endurable integrity, which is what Mr. Howe must have meant when he stated that neither he, nor Hannah Arendt, nor Rachelle Marshall could ever be an Eichmann. . . .

The crimes of the German people cannot be explained by asserting that any people could have committed them. Any people did not commit them. The Germans did. Eichmann cannot be acquitted because our natures are so “malleable” that any of us could have been socially shaped or misshaped to perform similar acts of barbarism. . .

We cannot withhold condemnation of a murderer just because all of us are capable of murder, no more than we can withhold homage from an Einstein or a Tolstoy just because we all have within us the divine sparks of genius that might have enabled us to do the things they did. . . . Even though we are all subject to emotions, instincts, and impulses which make these crimes entirely possible, and, more remarkably, even though compelled to exercise these same impulses and instincts to stay emotionally healthy, man is still able to eschew violence, to make the choice against it. . . .

Ben Werthman
San Diego, California

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