Saturday, July 23, 2022

Evil Isn't

People who are evil don't see themselves as evil.

We have been passing the time reading free paperbacks from the local book exchange.  Mark likes mystery novels and I am reading my first "Doc Ford" novel.  Been to the restaurant, might as well read the book, no?

One of my literary vices is reading trashy Clive Cussler novels.  It is not exactly high art.  The hero is always handsome and has steely grey eyes, the body of an athlete, but who walks with cat-like grace on the balls of his feet - or some such nonsense.  The heroine is beautiful, of course, but not in a supermodel way - and she is smart, too - usually the one to hack into the villain's computer system.  The villain, of course, is the height of evil and has an underground (or underwater) "lair" usually in an hollowed-out extinct volcano, or perhaps on skull island.

The plots are predictable - the hero gets captured, the villain takes the heroine hostage, they escape, and then are recaptured.  But in the end, the villain always gets killed, usually in some gruesome way, and the hero and heroine escape, and end up at a restaurant in Paris toasting their good fortune.

It is cotton-candy junk-food literature, and there is a lot of it out there.  Cussler has written dozens of such books (lately with the help of co-authors) and in a way he was a Ian Fleming wanna-be.  If you actually read any of the Bond novels, you'd realize they are pretty much the same way - two-dimensional characters and paper-thin plots.  Not a lot of character development in action-adventure novels.

(Cussler was kind of screwed by Hollywood.  They made at least two of his novels into movies, and Cussler wasn't really happy with the second one and said so.  Hollywood sued him for breach of contract and took him to the cleaners for millions of dollars.  That wasn't really fair).

But what struck me about these kind of books is that the "bad guys" - and there are always bad guys, the world is very black-and-white in such books - are really bad, know they are bad, and enjoy being bad.  In fact, evil is their business model, often for little or no real reason, other than to be evil.  And of course, they have armies of henchmen whose motive for being evil is never really stated.  Does Dr.. Evil have a good 401(k) and dental plan?  The henchmen are usually gunned-down en masse in these books (and movies) so I don't see the point of being a henchman.

The reality of evil, I think, it a little more nuanced.  People who we think of as evil don't think of themselves as evil.  They think we are evil.  Whether it is internal rationalization or whatever, they think that what they are doing is good, and people who oppose them are bad.

The most evil people in history didn't consider themselves to be evil.  Far from it, they felt what they were doing was good for their own people, and perhaps the world.  People like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and of course, Hitler, killed millions if not tens of millions of people each.  And yet each had a rationalization for their actions - rationalizing that their "evil" plans were actually good for the country and the world.

Hitler felt that massacring the Jews would result in a better Germany and a better world.  He rationalized that invading Poland and massacring Slavic peoples would provide "Lebensraum" or Living Space for the German people.  In his mind, what he was doing was good - for his own people.  Too bad about those others, though!

The same could be said to be true for Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.  They were reshaping their societies to improve them (or so they thought) by forcing collectivism, bootstrapping industrialization (or in the case of Pol Pot, the inverse) and improving their own countries.   If people stood in the way of that, well too bad for them.  And if there was collateral damage and ancillary causalities, that's a real shame.  But the ends justified the means, in their minds, and they were not being "evil" but just practical.

They were. of course, wrong.  Not only did millions upon millions suffer and die, their grandiose plans, like that of Dr. Evil and every other two-dimensional villain, failed.  But that is not the point. The point is, they didn't rub their hands together like the dimestore novel villains and say, "Let's be evil!" accompanied by a maniacal laugh.  They didn't think what they were doing was evil.

Look around the world today.  We see Islamic fundamentalists engaging in terrorism or in the case of ISIS or whatever you call them, trying to establish a "Caliphate".  In their minds, it is we who are the evil ones - suppressing Islam and supporting Israel, not to mention invading Iraq and Afghanistan.  They don't see blowing up an embassy as evil, but rather a guerrilla action against a much stronger foe - a foe they see as evil.

Or take Putin - please!  We paint him as this evildoer who is out to conquer the world.  And of course, he is evil.  But I suspect he doesn't see himself that way.  Rather, he sees himself as a protector and savior of Russia, and his goal - clearly - is to re-establish the power of the former Soviet Union by annexing, one at a time, the former satellite States.  Of course, it isn't going well for him, is it?

We look at the Ukrainians as heroes and talk about bringing more Baltic countries into NATO or even the EU.  But the reality of many of these countries is that they are hardly Democratic, and have some evil in and of themselves.  Before the current President of Ukraine was elected, the government was rife with corruption.  And yes, there is a battalion of Ukrainians who are basically fascists.  Once the war is over, we'll have to deal with that as well.

We laud the Poles for their support of Ukraine, and yet we have a lot of issues with their far-right government and its muzzling of the judiciary.  The EU has been fining Poland for these abuses, but for now, we sweep these issues under the rug, as we face a common enemy.    The rest of the former Soviet-bloc States are little better - some dictatorships, others openly siding with Russia.

Then we have countries like Finland, which too late are realizing that being neutral is not a very smart move.  Even among EU countries there is dissent and disagreement.  And then you have the Swiss, which are not part of the EU but are willing to be secret bankers and arms dealers to the world.  Nice folks, those Swiss - it ain't all just chocolate bars and cuckoo-clocks over there.

We, of course, don't see ourselves as evil, but over the years, the United States has done some pretty evil things.  We "liberated" the Philippines from the Spanish, and then slaughtered the members of the Philippine liberation  front.  There is a reason we are not so popular there.  We invaded Central America to protect the United Fruit company so Americans can have their Cavendish bananas.  The whole region is in turmoil even today and we wonder why.

Of course, some argue that if we don't intervene in these countries, others will, and have, of course.  Russia and China have tried to exert their influence worldwide over the years and even today.   International politics isn't a matter of patty-cake, and sadly these small countries get caught in this chess game as pawns - saddled with debts and manufactured dictators. And neither side sees themselves as evil, only acting their best interests - and if pushed, will say they are acting in the best interests of these third-world countries.

Of course, in America, we are still (somewhat) free to talk about these things.  And some folks think that talking about these things is being un-American.  So when a demagogue comes along and tells people they are "great" and America will be "great" again, they latch onto that message.

To me, America's greatness lies not in jingoistic patriotism, but in the fact that we can disagree and have opinions and .not be thrown in jail for them.   Our greatness lies in the fact that a Pol Pot or a Stalin or a Hitler could not take power here - under Democracy - and slaughter millions in the name of progress.  We all have voices that need to be heard and often messy compromise is real freedom, not absolutism.

We are sold this narrative that we are the good guys and the rest of the world is evil - and enjoys being evil and does so intentionally.  The reality is, of course, that sometimes we do bad things and the "other guy" doesn't see what he is doing as bad, only what is in their own self-interest.  And it shouldn't shock anyone that other people do what they perceive to be in their own self-interest.

For the most part, we are the good guys even if we have done some bad things in the past (and continue to do so).  The good that the world sees in the United States is the idea of democracy, even if it is somewhat flawed in places and tarnished in recent years.  It is the idealism of our country that is admired, if we are admired at all.

Sadly, the narrative being sold today is that any form of introspection or critical thought is to be considered treason.   We don't need to examine our own actions, but just assume that everything we do is right (after all, we're God's favorites, right?).  Problem is, "the other guy" thinks that God is on his side and that we are the evil ones in our hollowed-out volcano.

What is really scary is that some folks, in the name of "greatness" would toss away our greatest attribute - democracy - and replace it with a mindless dictatorship,, to "get things done" and squelch dissent and have everyone march in lock-step.  They fail to see how that worked out for our historic enemies, who felt that, they too, were doing the right thing to make their country great.

We are already great, but our greatness is slipping away from us.  And yes, it seems that this new generation of evildoers in part, seems to relish the evil - just like in the paperback novels.  They want to "own the libs" and "make them cry" not because they believe in some overarching political philosophy, but because they relish belligerence, violence, and cruelty.

Maybe that is the difference.  While world leaders may not see themselves as "evil" many of their followers are willing to embrace evil wholeheartedly.   And some leaders are willing to tap into that.