Day By Day

Friday, January 19, 2007

Getting Down to Basics: The Reality of Evil

Anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and "evolutionary psychologists [sociobiologists]" may disagree as to the precise mechanisms involved, but they mostly agree on one thing -- objective, scientific categories and methods of analysis, not the subjective terms of moralistic discourse, are the key to understanding human actions. The great conceit of social science is that such "value laden" terms as "good" and "evil" cannot provide, indeed they obscure, insight into human affairs. Rather ultimate responsibility for human action lies, not with the individual who acts, but with larger systemic dynamics discernible only through scientific analysis.

Well..., not all social scientists would agree. One who would not is the psychiatrist Anthony Daniels who writes under the pseudonym, Theodore Dalrymple. Dr. Daniels, you see, has experienced evil close up. For years he has practiced in the hell-holes of post-colonial Africa, Latin America, and in the prisons of Britain, and he has seen terrible things..., terrible things indeed. [For an account of his career and his experience of evil see here.]

Another social scientist who has seen evil close up is the famed sociologist Paul Hollander. In the latest New English Review Dr. Dalrymple reviews Professor Hollander's latest work, an anthology of accounts by those who have experience left-wing horror. [Paul Hollander, introduction and editor, From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence And Repression in Communist Studies, Intercollegiate Studies Institute (April 17, 2006), hardcover, 760 pages].

Hollander knows of what he speaks. As a child he fled first from the Nazis, then from the Communists. He has assembled testimony from others who have experienced the pervasive state terrors of the twentieth century. Some examples:
[W]hen Evgenia Ginzburg, author of the brilliant and terrible memoir, Into the Whirlwind, leaves her apartment to go to the local headquarters of the NKVD, having been called there for a supposedly friendly chat about someone she knows, her husband says to her, ‘Well, Genia, we’ll expect you back for lunch,’ and she replies, ‘Goodbye, Paul dear. We’ve had a good life together.’ She knows, as he does, that she is never going to see him again this side of the afterlife: which is to say never.
Or this, from a Cambodian physician who lived through Pol Pot's three year reign:

… 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.

That, my friends, is an image of evil that will haunt me for a long time. It should bother you too.

Following Solzhentitzyn, Hollander notes that the scale of evil expanded greatly in the twentieth century and attributes this to the rise of ideologies -- amoral, science-based explanations of the human condition. And, responding to those who would argue that the Nazi evil was greater than that of other ideologized states such as the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China, he notes:

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.

In other words, the terror emanating from the Left was just as total and inescapable as that perpetrated by Hitler and his minions, and it killed far more because unlike the German terror, it was able to run its full course.

And as for those on the Left who would excuse terror as necessary to achieve a higher purpose, Dalrymple notes the pathological assumption being made:

The greatness of a crime [for Left wing apologists] is a guarantee of the greatness of its motive: for who would order the deportation of whole nations, for example, cause famines, work millions to death, shoot untold numbers, unless he had some worthy higher purpose? And the more ruthlessly he did all these things, the higher his purpose must be to justify them. To participate in the worst of crimes is then to be the best of men. It was under communism (as well as Nazism) that Norman Mailer’s ethical injunction, to cultivate your inner psychopath, became government policy, as well as prudent.

There are still those, especially among academics, who would excuse as necessary the horrific crimes of the Left. Perhaps, Dr. Dalrymple suggests, this is

because elements at least of communism still exert an attraction for so many intellectuals, and no one wants to acknowledge that his ideals justified and in part motivated mass murder on an unprecedented scale. Who would not rather deny the meaning of scores of millions of deaths, than abandon his illusions?

And it is because this delusional left-wing bias still poisons our political discourse that stories such as those collected by Professor Hollander should be read and studied.

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