The problem of evil

A distracting tic afflicts the postmodernist.  Whenever he encounters a common sense concept, he sees a problem.  He then spends endless amounts of energy persuading others that they, too, should perceive the problem, and be deprived of their comfortable, common sense existence.

The tic is so uncontrollable that the postmodernist must invent a hideous verb for it:  to problematize.  Once he has problematized the subject in question, and troubled all his neighbors with his affliction, the postmodernist skulks away without another word.

Spawning problems is his business.  Solutions?  Why bother?  In the end, they’ll get problematized too.

A good example is Tony Judt’s “The ‘Problem of Evil’ in Postwar Europe,” in the New York Review of Books (but via A & L Daily).  I note parenthetically that, for those driven by their inner demons to problematize, the favorite rhetorical trick is the use of scare quotes.  The word house, for example, has a common sense meaning, but if I read “house” I begin to worry, I wonder what I’m missing — I see a cosmological problem hidden behind a simple word.  Same with “man,” “faith,” “reason,” “science,” “democracy,” “progress,” ad infinitum.

Postmodernist prose comes in two styles:  turgid and precious.  Judt’s, thankfully, is of the latter persuasion, and his article floats light as a feather.  The subject isn’t really Europe but the Holocaust.  An understanding of evil, Judt appears to say, can only be measured in terms of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews.  That strikes me as a parochial view of the subject, but let it stand.  The interesting bit comes with the problematizing, which concerns

the concept of “evil” itself. Modern secular society has long been uncomfortable with the idea of “evil.” We prefer more rationalistic and legal definitions of good and bad, right and wrong, crime and punishment. But in recent years the word has crept slowly back into moral and even political discourse.[5] However, now that the concept of “evil” has reentered our public language we don’t know what to do with it. We have become confused.

On the one hand the Nazi extermination of the Jews is presented as a singular crime, an evil never matched before or since, an example and a warning: “Nie Wieder! Never again!” But on the other hand we invoke that same (“unique”) evil today for many different and far from unique purposes. In recent years politicians, historians, and journalists have used the term “evil” to describe mass murder and genocidal outcomes everywhere: from Cambodia to Rwanda, from Turkey to Serbia, from Bosnia to Chechnya, from the Congo to Sudan. Hitler himself is frequently conjured up to denote the “evil” nature and intentions of modern dictators: we are told there are “Hitlers” everywhere, from North Korea to Iraq, from Syria to Iran. And we are all familiar with President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” a self-serving abuse of the term which has contributed greatly to the cynicism it now elicits.

It’s hard to translate such conceptual hash into into notions with which one can agree or disagree.  The easiest approach would be to say:  George W. Bush used the word “evil,” therefore it’s become unclean.  But, in good postmodernist fashion, let’s look beyond the common sense explanation, into the problematized heart of Judts “problem.”

What is evil, and why does “modern secular society” feel so uncomfortable in its presence?

There is a common sense answer:  evil pertains to those who increase human suffering.  The greater the power, the greater the capacity for evil.  Parents who exploit or mistreat their children are evil exactly to the degree that they exploit or mistreat.  The same applies to bosses who bully and humiliate their workers.  And, of course, the greatest potential for evil lies with lawless governments, with tyrants who steal from, imprison, and murder innocents at will.

If by modern secular society Judt means liberal democracy, then I can’t think of a question that has most persistently troubled liberal thinkers than that of suffering.  The matter was usually posed in terms of happiness, but it would take a colossal lack of imagination to confuse the liberal obsession with happiness with anything other than a desire to alleviate suffering.

The liberal solution to the problem of evil is the recognition of individual rights, and the placing of limits on every source of power.

Liberal democracies tend to be optimistic.  They believe in progress, in the perfectability of the human race.  Because of our Jeffersonian heritage — our belief that virtue is a natural condition — we Americans are the sunniest people known to history.  Yet I doubt the most optimistic American would deny the pervasiveness of evil, its universality and recurrence across the globe.

Because it was both arbitrary and thorough-going, the massacre of the Jews by the Germans has rightly become an exemplar of evil.  But no serious person ever considered the Holocaust a “singular crime.”  No student of history — or for that matter, of human nature — could restrict suffering to a single episode in time.  Even the Jews suffered bondage in Egypt and Babylon, before Auschwitz.

Others have suffered as well.  The Jew who condemns the Holocaust but excuses the slaughter of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge (Noam Chomsky comes to mind) is justifying evil, and preparing the ground for the next holocaust.

Evil persists in the world, and — so long as human nature remains unchanged — always will.  This is not an academic question.  Nor is this a question about Germans and Jews, except insofar as we draw the proper conclusions from that grim lesson.  Evil persists today, embodied in ideologies that justify the suffering and slaughter of innocents.  Evil persists in organizations and individuals eager to impose such ideologies, or to justify or appease them.

In a sense, the Nazis, like a resistant virus, will always endure in mutated form.

That is the real problem of evil.  It persists.  Those who place their desires above the suffering of others can be found everywhere, in all ages.  “Never again” is an empty phrase.  Liberal democracy can survive only if we identify the sources of evil in ourselves and in the world, and oppose these relentlessly, no matter how long or how tiresome the struggle.

Failing that, evil might well triumph.  It nearly conquered the world during World War II. It nearly seduced the world during the Cold War.  It rules today in places as disparate as Sudan and North Korea.  When evil seizes power, problematizing it suddenly falls out of fashion, and the persecution of innocents becomes a moral imperative.  We may justifiably discomfort modern society, to avoid that fate.


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