In My Own Write: When life declines to imitate art

How can people identify evil one minute, then deny its existence the next?

By
January 27, 2009 20:41
In My Own Write: When life declines to imitate art

judy montagu 88. (photo credit: )

 
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Evil: wickedness; a force or power that brings about harm - Collins English Dictionary The first time I encountered evil was at the age of five, in Glasgow. My grandmother had taken me to see The Wizard of Oz; I had nightmares for weeks afterwards. And despite everything cinematography has achieved since that 1939 movie was made - despite the many films I have seen - I still consider the Wicked Witch of the West unbeatable as a projection of sheer malignancy. Her chin, almost as fearsome as her hat, may have something to do with it. She plans to kill Dorothy, the embodiment of innocence, and sets the hapless Scarecrow's arm on fire. Implacable, irredeemable, she is diabolical to the core. No one doubts it, or feels anything but relief when she melts into a puddle of putrefaction. So with the villains in any number of films. Those foolish enough to tangle with James Bond - such as Mr. Big, or Dr. No, or Emilio Largo - are unquestionably bad on a global scale, out to rule the world by hook or by crook. And when they, respectively, get eaten by a swarm of barracudas, buried under a heap of guano, and shot in the neck with a speargun, the audience gains a comforting sense of justice done, of general rightness prevailing, of the world being left a better place. Evil has been vanquished, at least for now. THEY say life imitates art, but not in this case. Away from the darkness of the movie theater, out in the light of day, evil is far less easily pinned down, as Hannah Arendt's controversial book The Banality of Evil suggests. Evil displays a finely-honed, snaky ability to assume different guises, to plead weakness and poverty and ignorance; and then, with a flash of its tail, to mingle with the mundane and sort of ebb away, leaving a dismaying void where our anger and indignation have no target. Forget about pinning evil down - mightn't one paraphrase the late US Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart in a 1964 pornography case and say: "Evil is hard to define, but we know it when we see it"? Sadly, no. Post-religious societies such as liberal Europe's, with all their technology and sophistication, lack the moral and mental tools to confront evil. They lack even the vocabulary with which simpler, Bible-believing societies were quite comfortable - "Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil... a blessing and a curse" (Deut. 30). Such moral absolutes are out. They sound gauche, almost primitive, like a lapse of good taste. For the liberal denizens of Europe, then, an awareness that evil moves among them as a present, potent force motivating some individuals and groups to plot and even succeed in inflicting mayhem on others seems, despite the evidence, to be largely absent. Momentarily sparked by this or that traumatic event, it melts away like the Wicked Witch. Where evil is allowed to exist at all, it is kept firmly in the realm of fantasy and entertainment: horror movies, children's fairy tales, situation comedies like British TV's The Vicar of Dibley. Liberals like to pronounce the word in quotation marks - "evil" - with an ironic lift of the eyebrows, implying: Don't fret yourself, it isn't real. THEN a baddie like al-Qaida's Osama bin Laden, or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, proclaims that terrible things are going to happen to "the corrupted Western civilization"; and, behold, some terrible things really do happen - like the Madrid train bombings in 2004, the London Transport suicide bombings a year later, the 2007 car-bomb attempt at Glasgow Airport, and the (thankfully foiled) August 2006 conspiracy to blow up 10 British airliners en route to America. What happens then to people's equilibrium? They take notice; they can hardly help it. When they travel, they are inconvenienced by additional security measures. Police with submachine guns sprout in airports. Suspicious individuals are apprehended here and there. Yet a sense of essential invincibility permeates much of liberal Europe, the tremors of the recession notwithstanding. Because these folks are convinced that all human beings must want the same things that they aspire to: upward mobility, material success, and to live and let live. It's obvious, innit? Well, no - not to those who aspire to live and let die, or to die while taking as many others as they can along with them. Some may dare to call these troublesome characters evil; many more, who have difficulty with the concept, term them "misguided." Still others, confused and quite out of their depth, attempt ludicrously to eliminate the human element altogether. BOMBINGS and their attendant mayhem - so familiar to Western moviegoers and yet so surrealistic when they occur - simply erupt, one is often urged to believe, like a force majeure. The human beings who plot, plan and perpetrate them are almost tangential to the phenomenon. And, anyway, admitting that these people may be evil - something so self-evident in the escapist atmosphere of the cinema - feels simplistic, embarrassing even. "There's no such thing as evil," a young British intellectual told a visitor recently. "People who seem evil are just motivated by fear." The implication: If we can get to the bottom of that fear - or anger, or alienation - and assuage it by reaching out, by engaging in dialogue, those who have been so crassly categorized as evil will shed their naughty ways like an old overcoat and reveal themselves to be the same basically reasonable, decent people that we ourselves are. Shmuley Boteach, in a 2005 oped in this newspaper, wrote that he once asked Michael Jackson whether he really believed that if he could have an hour alone with Hitler, "'you could somehow touch something inside of him?'" Absolutely, the singer responded. "'I know I could.'" THOSE who resolutely refuse to recognize evil tend to see themselves as a cut above the common mob.But here's the rub - and it's a painful one: Where there's no evil, there's no good, either. It all gets thoroughly mixed together in one huge murky, moral relativist soup - which goes a long way toward explaining why broad swathes of liberal Western opinion today seem so thoroughly confused about right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and - yes - evil in so many parts of the world; ours, too. Heartily, and with righteous vehemence, they cheer the bad and condemn the good, congratulating themselves all the while on their impeccable judgment. In liberal Europe today, it's standing room only on the moral high ground. THOSE who think that Michael Jackson is wacky and so his opinions don't count for much will also mock his choice of Hitler as baddie of choice for a bit of talking therapy. "Hitler was satanic," they might say dismissively, setting him apart from those others around and about who do, yes, cause concern, but who are, in the final analysis, "misguided" and "reachable." But that's too easy. Hitler wasn't a Dalek from another planet. He belonged to us, to the human race; to Western society, moreover. His acts and ordinances, and those of his henchmen, were promulgated and carried out by human beings. That's the shame and pain of it: that we are, indeed, capable of great wickedness. There exist those who, in their aims and outlook, are remarkably similar to the Wicked Witch of the West. They'll kill us if they can, because their motives and aspirations are quite different from ours. We'd do well, therefore, in the West and elsewhere, to engage in a little less "understanding" and a little more standing up for ourselves and what we hold dear. Accepting that there is such a thing as evil is a good place to start.

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