Political "evil" allows people to assuage their consciences in numbers. A person who might never hang a man, might do so in a mob. Lynchings and torchings of black people were most often done by groups -not by individuals. While psychologists may diagnose individuals as 'psychotic', the more harmful effects are sustained when the group as a whole exhibits such symptoms and acts upon them. A 'mob' can be, in the vernacular, crazy! Can the same be said of an entire nation? Is America, under Bush, nuts?
A person who might never condone the slaughter of over a million civilians in a war of aggression might go along if his leaders have told him it was an act of war! Bush put to the American people a false choice: 'you are either for me or you are for the terrorists'!
I recently debated the issue of "character" with a PhD, a Shakespeare scholar with credentials in psychology. My position is that, while one's life is the sum of every choice, one cannot make an unmotivated choice. In existentialist terms, existence precedes essence. The threat posed by fascism is an 'existential' one! Indeed, one can only act, in good faith, upon what is believed to be true; others, however, will act upon a proposition known to be false, or worse, a lie. Millions were willing to go to war against Iraq believing Bush had told the truth about Saddam Hussein and 'weapons of mass destruction'. Others didn't care. They just did it for the money.
Millions made a bad choice when Bush put the alternatives before them: you are for me or you are for the 'terrorists'. Many supported the war in good faith because they believed his lie! Others knew it to be a lie but supported him anyway. What is to be said of these people? What is to be said of someone who acts upon something known to be untrue? In this case, the pretext for war --WMD and Saddam's alleged links to 'terrorism' --were not the real reasons for war. There are, in cases like this, two motives: a 'hidden truth' that is acted upon in bad faith, and the 'lie' that is publicly professed. It is this "second" motive, the lie the "actor" tells himself, in order to commit the "crime" -and to the world when he/she is caught that is a source of evil itself.
Bush has not bothered to convince himself of the truth of his own lies. Bush knows but doesn't care that his lies are habitual and harmful. He represents the textbook example of 'bad faith'; he is the archetypical liar, the manipulative sociopath, in literary terms --an arch villain.
The second lie is often called a "cover story", used typically to 'sell' a crime to the masses. Hitler was practiced at it! Among Republicans, "trickle down theory" is just such a lie. It is a rare culprit who accepts his/her own villainy. Therefore, even among the GOP, it is often necessary for the 'ruling elite' to maintain the facade, the rationalization that tax cuts benefiting only rich folk would eventually 'trickle down'. It was Republicans of this type at the GOP convention in Houston, 1992, who said of Ronald Reagan: "he made us feel good about ourselves!" I suppressed a puke when I first heard that. Some people --notably Republicans --ought not feel good about themselves!
It is possible, therefore, to convince millions of people to act upon lies if there is something in it for them. True villains will hold out for material gain --booty! This is where you will find the corporate establishment and the Military/Industrial complex. Others, like rank and file Republicans at the 1992 convention, are less expensive: they need only a plausible cover story in order to 'feel good about themselves'. In Faustian terms, it's all just a business deal. The difference is the price that is paid for a soul. Rank and file Republicans come cheap --a transparent lie will do the trick. The crooks of the MIC hold out for billions and get it!
"Republicanism" is a gestalt of lies. Republicans embrace "trickle down theory" not because it is true but because it conveniently justifies piggish, criminal behavior. At that point, the good doctor conceded the debate. There are perhaps two kinds of people in this corrupt White House -those who really believe the lies behind the "occupancy's" actions and policies -and those who know them to be lies but cite them disingenuously in order to promote the agenda to which they subscribe for reasons known only to them. I find it hard to believe that motives so assiduously disguised are benign.
It is too easy to conclude that if Bush had been honest and upfront about the many ways in which his cronies would be enriched by war with Iraq, the nation would never have backed the war. In fact, many would have backed the war and would have espoused the same specious arguments and for the same reasons. Therefore, 'evil' goes deeper; greed, hypocrisy and mass psychoses are only the mechanisms by which it is achieved. Dr. Gustav Gilbert, the American psychologist charged with keeping the Nuremberg criminals alive until they could be hanged, said that evil was an "utter lack of empathy". In the absence of empathy, an "evil" person is free to justify any hideous crime from vote theft to genocide.
In one of the early scenes of a late '90's movie entitled "Tea With Mussolini", a character described the current age, the years preceding World War II, as an age of "great dictators". The reference was, of course, to Benito Mussolini in Italy, Adolf Hitler in Germany, Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union. Those who saw the movie may recall that it was, in turns, tragic and light-hearted. It was, in fact, the story of director Franco Zefirelli's childhood in Italy during World War II. It's poignant story is not unlike that of Boris Pasternak's novel Dr. Zhivago. In both stories, we witness a monolithic state crushing dreams, hopes, life itself.
Both Hitler and Stalin came to realize that it was possible to eradicate the unpredictability of human affairs in "the true central institution of totalitarian organizational power": the concentration camp. What Arendt saw is that eradicating unpredictability requires altering the nature of human beings. In the camps the internees' deprivation of all rights, even of the ability to make a conscientious choice, does away with the dynamic conflict between the legality of particular positive laws and the idea of justice on which, in constitutional governments, an open and unpredictable future depends. On the one hand, in Arendt's concept of totalitarianism, human freedom is seen as inconsequential to "the undeniable automatism" of natural and historical processes, or at most as an impediment to their freedom. On the other, when "the iron band of terror" destroys human diversity, so totally dominating human beings that they cease to be individuals and become a mere mass of identical, interchangeable specimens "of the animal-species man," those processes are provided with "an incomparable instrument" of acceleration.
--[Hannah] Arendt's concept and description of totalitarianism
A "state" wishing to eradicate "unpredictability of human affairs" must make of its own apparatus an inhuman machine utterly lacking empathy. SS members become mere interchangeable parts in a killing machine. Master and slave alike cease to be entirely human. This is the state as machine. If this 'state' were a 'person', it would be called sociopathic, evil! Such a state requires its Auschwitz, its Abu Ghraib.
In World War I enemy aliens were regularly interned "as a temporary emergency measure," (see "Memo: Research Project on Concentration Camps") but later, in the period between World Wars I and II, camps were set up in France for non-enemy aliens, in this case stateless and unwanted refugees from the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Arendt also noted that in World War II internment camps for potential enemies of democratic states differed in one important respect from those of World War I. In the United States, for instance, not only citizens of Japan but "American citizens of Japanese origin" were interned, the former maintaining their rights of citizenship under the Geneva Conventions while the latter, uprooted on ethnic grounds alone, were deprived of theirs by executive order and without due process.
--Evil: The Crime against Humanity, Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University.
Ed Murrow Reporting from Buchenwald
From "Good Night and Good Luck", Murrow's "McCarthy" Broadcast
I cannot claim to be an expert on the work of Hannah Arendt and I most certainly have not read all her works. But in her famous phrase, the banality of evil, I find a natural affinity with the work of Dr. Gustav Gilbert whose job it was to interview the Nazi war criminals on trial at Nuremberg. Gilbert may have found in those interviews the psychological nature of evil, an utter lack of empathy.
From that moment on Arendt said she "felt responsible." But responsible for what? She meant that she, unlike many others, could no longer be "simply a bystander" but must in her own voice and person respond to the criminality rampant in her native land.
--Evil: The Crime against Humanity, Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University.
The issue of "responsibility" is central if "evil" is to be dealt with effectively from both a philosophical and a psychological standpoint. Responsibility is the very essence of morality, or more precisely, the essence of any attempt to base morality upon something other than commandment.
They consciously sought to articulate and construct a Nazi modernity and heralded their institutions and technological systems with no less enthusiasm than Jünger, even if they did so in much worse prose.
--The Business of Genocide: The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps
Purely philosophical approaches are clearly inadequate. Most philosophical systems are concerned with "good actions" or "bad actions". Greek epicureans, for example, measure the good against an ideal good life in which both are associated in some way with pleasure. Yet, for some, those responsible for setting up Abu Ghraib for example, evil itself is pleasurable. These people are commonly called perverts. Topcliffe was one. Torquemada was most certainly another. Epicureanism must not exculpate sadists. Pleasure as a measure of goodness is therefore inadequate and violates Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative demands behavior that is necessary unconditionally. By contrast, a situational ethic involves choices or behavior conditioned upon a desired result. For example: you must pay your bills and maintain a good credit rating if you wish to get a mortgage. But merely 'paying your bills' cannot be considered to be 'good' in and of itself. There may times in which it is better not to pay your bills. If your utility company is knowingly enaged in the support of a totalitarian regime that is waging aggressive war upon an innocent civilian population, it can be argued that unless you withdraw your financial support of them, you too are guilty of murder, war crimes or genocide. In the US consider the many ways in which you may have aided and abetted Dow Chemical or Exxon/Mobil, as examples.
A. J. Bahm made a distinction between good and bad intentions. At last, one feels that qualities of goodness or badness are literally put upon the individual as if some non-spatial, non-temporal Platonic ideal had been simply imposed upon pure existence. A "good" intention does not define good; rather, it presupposes a knowledge of it.
Arendt might not discount efforts to separate good actions from bad actions but seems more interested in good intentions and finds in the individual his/her response to others, the connections with one person to another, indeed, humanity as a whole to be the basis by which evil is distinguished from good. As an ethic, it was a new approach.
What are the psychological differences between one who feels responsible for his/her country compared to those who are indifferent? Clearly, an evil person cannot be expected to feel badly or guilty about being evil. Likewise, one would not have expected committed Nazis to have felt "responsible" for the direction of Germany under Hitler. One wonders how those who made Auschwitz run felt about their jobs, themselves. Likewise, one observes this in the American GOP.
In my own case, having loved what I thought my own country to be, I felt responsible when, over a period of some four years, I saw every cherished principle attacked, eschewed, subverted and, in other ways, rejected or trashed! Many of my feelings were less than noble and still are, though my choices have been made.
In a sense, we are all corrupted by the system upon which we depend for a livelihood. My interests in this system were attacked and put in jeopardy. But these were legitimate interests for which I make no apology. In other cases, I was surprised to learn about myself that I could not, would not live with or compromise the subversion of the rule of law, due process of law, the basic rights that I believe are not only our birthright but, in fact, belong to everyone. With Bush's usurpation of the US government, those ideals are all but gone. Like Arendt, I felt responsible, as an American, for what Bush had done in my name! All that remained to be seen was how Bush would bring about a "state" wishing to eradicate the "unpredictability of human affairs". We have over some seven years witnessed astounding progress toward that goal. What remains for Bush when it becomes clear that his increasingly dictatorial policies inspire, in turn, increasingly desperate resistance not merely among the hard pressed people of Iraq, but, likewise the increasingly hard pressed people of the US?
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• Condi Must Go
• The Origins of Totalitarianism
• Arendt's concept and description of totalitarianism
• The Business of Genocide
• On the Concept "Totalitarianism" and Its Role in Current Political Discourse
• Kant's Moral Philosophy
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April 18, 2008 By: Len Hart Bush's Conspiracy to Create an American Police State: Part IV, the state forces an 'existential' choice, via The Existentialist Cowboy