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Tuesday, December 24, 2013


The Realities of Evil

Theodore Dalrymple's 2006 book review is particularly apt today when freedom and good is under siege.

In his introduction, Professor Hollander quotes Solzhenitsyn. According to Solzhentitsyn, the sine qua non of mass murder as a way of life, or as an industry, is ideology. Before the advent of ideology, people only did harm within a relatively restricted circle, for example in the ruthless furtherance of their own careers. Macbeth is a very bloody play, but only those who in some way stood between Macbeth and the throne had much to fear from him. Ordinary people, at least, could stand aside in the conflict.

There was no standing aside in the ideologised state: either you were for the government, the leader and the ideology, or you were against them. Indeed, once dialectics became the master science, being personally in favour of them was not enough; you had to be objectively in favour of them, that is to say to have no blemish on your record, such as a bourgeois birth, knowledge of anyone with such a birth, or intellectual interests. (An interesting history could be written of the murder or imprisonment during the twentieth century of people who wore glasses, merely because they wore glasses. Communists in particular were inclined to believe that people who wore glasses were their enemies, because – despite their own materialist conception of history, according to which the driving force of history is economic relations rather than ideas – shortsightedness is particularly prevalent among intellectuals, and intellectuals, at least outside the humanities of departments of western universities, have ideas that might cast doubt on the ultimate truth of communist ideology: a backhanded tribute to the fact that ideas ultimately rule the world. An interesting exception among eyeglass-phobic dictators was Macias Nguema, the first, democratically elected, president of Equatorial Guinea, subsequently overthrown by his nephew, the current president, who killed or drove into exile a third of the population, and who had a special animus against those who wore eyeglasses. His animus probably arose more from his uncertain personal claims to intellectual distinction than from the mixture of paranoia and gimcrack ideas about neo-colonialism that he picked up third-hand, which was the nearest he came to ideology.)

Where the means justify the end, as they do for most ideologies, mass murder becomes more likely, perhaps even inevitable in ideologised states. The capacity for cruelty, and the enjoyment of cruelty, that lies latent in almost every human heart, then allies itself to a supposedly higher, even transcendent purpose. Original sin meets social conditioning. A vicious circle is set up: and eventually, viciousness itself is taken to be a sign both of loyalty and of higher purpose.

It is curious how even now, after all the calamities of the twentieth century, the lengths to which people are prepared to go to pursue an end is taken by others as a sign of the worthiness if not of the end itself, at least of the motives of the extremists. The fact that people are prepared to blow themselves up in an attempt to murder as many complete strangers as possible is taken as proof of the strength of their humanitarian feelings and outrage at a state of injustice.

And this:

Psychopaths there are, of course, in every time and every place. They are always dangerous, but in some circumstances they are more dangerous than in others. The very qualities that are loathsome at one time are praised as diligence, fervour, loyalty, honesty and so forth at others. Here is a description from the Professor Hollander’s book, written by a Cambodian physician who lived through the three years of Pol Pot’s regime:

… a new interrogator, one I had not seen before, walked down

the row of trees holding a long, sharp knife. I could not make

out their words, but he spoke to the pregnant woman and she

answered. What happened next makes me nauseous to think

about. I can only describe it in the briefest of terms: He cut the

clothes off her body, slit her stomach, and took the baby out. I

turned away but there was no escaping the sound of her agony,

the screams that slowly subsided into whimpers and after far

too long lapsed into the merciful silence of death. The killer

walked calmly past me holding the fetus by its neck. When he

got to the prison, just within the range of my vision, he tied a

string round the fetus and hung it from the eaves with the

others, which were dried and black and shrunken.

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