Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The glamor of evil

Simon Montefiore performs the invaluable service of reminding us that a love for learning, charm, great erudition, a prodigious memory, a fine singing voice, a talent for oratory and a steady nerve are not incompatible with homicidal mania. The man with all these qualities held forth with artists like Babel, Akhmatova, Eisenstein, and Shostakovich; was the patron of Maxim Gorky and was a fan of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. He had tremendous people skills; he knew when to flatter, compromise or wait. The man remembered as Josef Stalin, for whom "the solution to every human problem was death", knew how to wait.

The great monsters of the 20th Century were not, as some might imagine, always deeply hated men. That came later, when they lost or lost power. They were at the height of their careers celebrities, creatures of the crowd, idols of the youth. And if boasting of a connection to celebrity is the true measure of his brilliance, Stalin's star has little dimmed. Vladimir Putin's grandfather was chef to Josef Stalin, the man who killed more human beings than Adolf Hitler.

In a world where fame and celebrity attend those we are supposed to admire, the ultimate loser is the man who can't dance. George Bush, we are reliably informed by the media, has the IQ of a moron, though how he matriculated from Yale and Harvard or flew an F-106 will remain an unexplained mystery. Doubtless his father bribed the airplane to fly itself.

But if literateness and culture were indicators of good, then Josef Stalin had a fair claim to excellence. The NYT, reviewing Montefiore's book, is positively thunderstruck by Stalin's range of humanistic interests:

He could sentence thousands of innocent people to death with a stroke of the pen and then go to his private cinema to enjoy an American cowboy movie, yet he could also display affection and tenderness. ... Once, when Artyom Mikoyan, designer of the MIG aircraft, "suffered angina and was put to bed, he was aware of someone coming into his room and tenderly laying a blanket over him. He was amazed to see it was Stalin."

These manifestations of humanity are supplemented with evidence that Stalin had intellectual aspirations. He displayed a passionate interest in history; at the height of World War II he spent his spare time reading about ancient Greece. After the war, as he was about to leave on vacation, he ordered a library of books that included volumes of Shakespeare, Herzen, Goethe's letters, ''Poetry of the French Revolution'' and a history of the Seven Years' War.

Then the NYT incredulously asks, "how to reconcile such manifestations of humanity and intellectualism with the persistent sadism, clinical paranoia and debauchery that fill so many of the pages of this book?" It is the surprise itself that is revealing. Why should intellectualism and evil be inherently incompatible? The NYT never tells us why evil should not assume fair shape. If anyone is to blame for this assumption it is probably Hollywood, which has persuaded us that bad guys always look the part. Shane had to look like Alan Ladd and the gunslinger Wilson like Jack Palance. We can hardly imagine the roles reversed. The disconnect about Ted Bundy was that he didn't look like Charles Manson.

But the spotlight attracts more things than song. Glamor was always part of the attraction to power. It's interesting to note that after Stalin defeated Hitler, one of his regime's first artistic concerns was to re-shoot the Triumph of the Will in a Soviet context with himself in the starring role. Even if he had to have a studio actor do it. In such productions the first hint of the presence of evil is the limited cast. Despite the cast of thousands there are only two characters on a dictator's stage: the Man and the Masses; and the Masses hardly more than a collection of ants, stripped of their last vestige of individuality, helpless, lost and awaiting only the touch of greatness to save them from their insignificance.

The first solitary hero descends from the clouds.


Below second hero descends from the clouds, this time in color, over the ruins of the first.



Bad guys don't always look like Jack Palance. Hucksters usually have good production values. "How art thou fallen from heaven, O son of the morning!"




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21 Comments:

Blogger Tamquam Leo Rugiens said...

It did not take me too many years in the ministry to figure out that the more perfect the facade the deeper the darkness within - usually. There are genuinely good people out there, but they tend not to present themselves as good. Evil hides behind a mask of innocence - usually. Seldom does evil unmask itself, save to terrify it's victims.

6/03/2008 11:48:00 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

A minor correction: George W. Bush
flew the F-102, not the F-106.

Very few of the latter were ever made. The former were a mainstay of the Air Defense Command.

A squadron or so of 102s was stationed at Tan Son Nhut and did escort duties. They could not drop bombs so we grunts never saw them. Bush volunteered for VN duty but was turned down because at that time he only had 600 hours. 800 was the minimum.

Sorry for the digression. You make a key point in the article: Most monsters win popularity contests hands down. Something that is too often overlooked.

6/04/2008 12:42:00 AM  
Blogger Thrasymachus said...

Why, why, why most people will never understand this mystifies me. But, most people think bad people are ugly and scary. But if they were they wouldn't have much success being bad would they? Street muggings maybe but nothing more serious. To really hurt people you have to get close to them, and the get close to them you have to be appealing. "Charm" is just another tool of the doer, of the user. Sometimes they manipulate, sometimes they force.

As a rule of life, never believe or trust anyone who is "charming" or "charismatic."

All these tools of evil are encountered daily in life, but to list them would be too much digression.

6/04/2008 04:32:00 AM  
Blogger lgude said...

What a brilliant juxtaposition of clips. I had no idea that Stalin tried to trump Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. The Russian cinematography shows the influence of Eisenstein but is no match for the sheer brilliance of Riefenstal. Without a word she raises her Fuhrer close to being a god. I prefer the chaotic humanity of the Russin crowds to the ordered and uniform joy of the German masses, but Riefenstahl's cinematography is brilliant..the majesty of the clouds and the cathedrals and the shadow of the Fuhrer's plane marking the landscape. Both men unleashed mind boggling evil and great masses of people believed both to be supremely good. That humans sometimes get things this wrong collectively is sobering indeed.

6/04/2008 04:52:00 AM  
Blogger Marsh Arab said...

In one of his essays in the "Let My People Think" series, apologist Ravi Zacharias points out that the Nazis were not blood thirsty cavemen, but were the cream of society - the intellectuals of intellectuals. He suggest that when human intellectualism - humanism - replaces God and morals, then the natural result are things such as the 'final solution.' You may listen to his essay here:

http://www.rzim.org/USA/Resources/Listen/LetMyPeopleThink.aspx

and here:

http://www.rzim.org/USA/Resources/Listen/LetMyPeopleThink.aspx

6/04/2008 04:53:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

One of my favorite lines from any movie “…on the other hand, he had a fine singing voice.” Said by Jack Nickelson as the Joker as part of a denunciation of his murdered boss, played by Jack Palance. Great minds think alike!

One of the interesting things about Hitler is that he has attained the position of the ultimate militarist. Love of military power has become synonymous with the term “fascist.” But in reality the professional German military was from the beginning his worst enemy. Generals from the German General Staff plotted to kill Hitler and stage a coup, but were deterred when the British and French professed absolute horror of the idea and would not profess to recognize the new government. Later, of course, a group of German officers did try to kill Hitler.

Similarly, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have attained the mantle of Great Peacemakers, even though neither had any real success in that area and ultimately set up the basis for greater conflicts.

People “feel” that something is so – and they get quite upset if you “confuse them with the facts.”

By the way, while many more F-102’s were made than were F-106’s – about 1600 versus around 800 – I would not call a production run of that size “very few.” By the time I started working on them in the mid-70’s I think we had over 300 still deployed. And while102’s were on alert for fighter interceptor duties in South Vietnam, they also were used to provide cover for the rescue of downed pilots, since they could scramble faster than anything else. Admittedly, their armament was not well suited for ground attack, but they did manage to get the VC to keep their heads down so the rescue choppers could come in.

6/04/2008 05:35:00 AM  
Blogger Lilith said...

Ravi Zacharias points out that the Nazis were not blood thirsty cavemen, but were the cream of society - the intellectuals of intellectuals.

Ah yes, the exquisite intellectual discourse of the Nov. 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, the irrefutable intellectual argument of Kristallnacht, the unassailable facts straight from the mouth of Propagandist Joseph Goebbels...do go on.

6/04/2008 06:24:00 AM  
Blogger McDaddyo said...

All men have the capacity for both evil and good. Nothing defines us more certainly as human than that.

The myth isn't that bad men look bad, it's that evil is some kind of mysterious, supernatural power that "possesses'' a select few men like, say, Stalin.

Were Stalin born in Cleveland in 1961 to a school teacher and a pastry chef does anyone believe he would have thugged his way to the White House, then built and operated an ideological machine that murdered millions?

By far the vast majority of mass evil is done by people who are led to believe their survival depends on it.

The "great man" theory of evil -- seeking to blame history on individuals like Hitler or Stalin -- is a massive cop out.

Is the genocide in Sudan taking place primarily because one mastermind is posessed by evil or because the culture has developed a negative feedback loop in which its members have learned nothing better than to respond to killing with more killing?

Did Iraq exist in a state of terror for decades because Saddam Hussein is a really, really evil man, or because the superstitions and ignorance of tribal culture -- stunted by its own emotional and intellectual narrowness AND by the malnutrition of imperialism, allowed layer upon layer of political middlemen to extort too much from the layer just below them for too long?

Some who believed otherwise have now only to look at Iraq to confirm that, however evil Saddam was, he was representative of a significant slice of Iraqis, willing to murder as a political tactic and convinced that their survival requires evil behavior.

It almost goes without saying that many on this blog also believe evil behavior is necessary for their own survival.

The good news is that they were almost all born in places like Cleveland to people like school teachers and pastry chefs in recent decades, so they'll probably never get the chance to oversee the murders of millions.

6/04/2008 06:28:00 AM  
Blogger VA Gamer said...

The "great man" theory of evil -- seeking to blame history on individuals like Hitler or Stalin -- is a massive cop out.

mcdaddyo 6/04/2008 06:28:00 AM


I disagree, mcdaddyo. I believe in the "great man" approach to history. Individuals can and do make a major difference. Society and the environment set the stage, but one person fills it.

It takes the right environment for such a person to influence events, but without a single director, the masses just move about aimlessly. It is much like the "perfect storm" which occurs when conditions align just the right way. Without such a perfect alignment of events and conditions, it is merely a bad storm.

6/04/2008 07:00:00 AM  
Blogger Kirk Parker said...

Dave,

To supplement what RWE said (as a minor correction to your minor correction), the F-106, not the F-102, was the main air defense interceptor in the US itself, from about 1960 until the arrival of the F-15.

6/04/2008 07:03:00 AM  
Blogger Tamquam Leo Rugiens said...

McDaddyo said: "The myth isn't that bad men look bad, it's that evil is some kind of mysterious, supernatural power that "possesses'' a select few men like, say, Stalin."

The amazing McDaddyo takes our breath away again! What a lovely argument for moral relativism. Evil people are not really evil (unless of course they happen to be conservative chicken hawks or GWB or some such), they are misunderstood! A little love, here, folks, if you please. I suppose that is why we have to talk to them without pre-conditions in order to soothe their terrible fear. The Messiah speaks and wicked souls are healed!

What a load of Bolshevism!

Evil people are evil because they choose violence as a means to assuage their fears, not because some "supernatural power 'possesses'" them. They yield themselves to it. Just like we all do when we choose what we know to be morally wrong over the alternative. Every single human being on the planet is subject to fear, good people face the fear rather than displace it on others.

The great tyrants of history have engaged in that displacement to the extreme, and have charmed a whole lot of other people with the same fear into allowing that one supreme leader to manage that displacement for them. A people in the grip of a tyrant don't simply allow a tyrant to rise to power, they demand that he assume power. Implicit in the contract between they tyrant and his people is the unspoken understanding (it must be unspoken for once spoken the spell is broken) that the tyrant will defend the people against their fears and the people will cooperate in that defense.

I refer you to M. Scott Peck's "People of the Lie" and the excellent work done by Alice Miller among others.

Then he offers this nugget, this jewel of perspicacity: "It almost goes without saying that many on this blog also believe evil behavior is necessary for their own survival." It would be amusing were it not so pathetically monstrous.

Projection, anyone?

6/04/2008 07:39:00 AM  
Blogger El Jefe Maximo said...

I have always thought that Stalin, among the most evil and Satanic individuals in history, was certainly a truly brilliant man. A Georgian bank-robber, who survived the Russian revolution and outmaneuvered probably Lenin (there's a strong possibility he did Lenin in); outmaneuvered Trotsky and all the old Bolsheviks around Lenin; established his dictatorship; built the Red Army -- judged on results probably the most fearsome fighting force in history; made and kept it loyal; survived his military and foreign policy mistakes in 1939-1941; and wound up one of the big winners of the greatest war in history.

I wonder what his IQ was ? It had to be fairly staggering. His ability to take the measure of people was truly amazing -- possibly the only man who ever gulled him was Hitler, and that was not for long -- and maybe Beria at the end.

But for all that, a truly, truly, unredeemably evil individual, possibly made more so by his realization of his own ability to manipulate less intelligent mortals. Of all the dictators of the era, less is known, personally, about him than the others, as Edvard Radzinsky pointed out -- anybody who got to know him really well wound up dead or in the Gulag. Product of a dark and Satanic political system, nothing became him in this life like leaving it.

6/04/2008 07:45:00 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

To RWE and Kirk Parker:

I stand corrected. Did not know that many F106s were produced.

You gotta understand: My favorite airplane was the A1 Skyraider.
F100s and F4s were also useful from time to time.

I did see F 102s before I enlisted. One of them came over my hometown waggling his delta wings at his girlfriend who was having a birthday party in her backyard.
Rather impressive sight.

6/04/2008 09:42:00 AM  
Blogger Artfldgr said...

The NYT never tells us why evil should not assume fair shape. If anyone is to blame for this assumption it is probably Hollywood, which has persuaded us that bad guys always look the part.

ah... I would beg to differ...

I would blame William Shakespeare

I know, i know, foul, a dead white guy...

but remember Richard III, Act I scene I

And now, in stead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shap'd for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them-
Why I, (in this weak piping time of peace)
25 Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on my own deformity.
And therefore since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasure of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams...

6/04/2008 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

The real danger of evil is when it is presented as a good or its existence is denied. The first defense against evil is to recognize that it exists, even with us. C.S. Lewis argues that the Devil's most clever trick is to vanish from our sight.

The second defense is to struggle against it. This effort has many names but it comes to the same thing. Thus one may recognize the inevitability of doing evil as a consequence of the way things are without concluding, 'right, since evil is part of the world it's ok to use it'. Evil is always to be avoided. But like friction, it always shows up in the whatever we do. Recognizing it is not the same thing as making it a virtue.

6/04/2008 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger Zenster said...

Dave: Most monsters win popularity contests hands down.

One would think that the popularity of Darth Vader and Goth fascination with all things devil and death related would have made that quite clear.

lgude: What a brilliant juxtaposition of clips. I had no idea that Stalin tried to trump Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.

By now it should be pretty clear that Stalin outdid Hitler on all counts.

Marsh Arab: Ravi Zacharias points out that the Nazis were not blood thirsty cavemen, but were the cream of society

Few people seem to realize this and it is hilarious how a majority of Neanderthal American neo-Nazis types would have been shipped off to the death camps well ahead of any Jews.

RWE: One of my favorite lines from any movie “…on the other hand, he had a fine singing voice.”

Mel Brooks beats that one easy:

Hitler was a better dancer than Churchill;
Hitler was a better dresser than Churchill;
Hitler was a better painter than Churchill:
he could paint a whole apartment in one afternoon, two coats.

— Franz Liebkind —


McDaddyo: Is the genocide in Sudan taking place primarily because one mastermind is posessed by evil or because the culture has developed a negative feedback loop in which its members have learned nothing better than to respond to killing with more killing?

Taking into account, Mohhamad, the answer is, “Yes”.

Did Iraq exist in a state of terror for decades because Saddam Hussein is a really, really evil man, or because the superstitions and ignorance of tribal culture -- stunted by its own emotional and intellectual narrowness AND by the malnutrition of imperialism, allowed layer upon layer of political middlemen to extort too much from the layer just below them for too long?

Taking into account, Mohhamad, the answer is, “Yes”.

Some who believed otherwise have now only to look at Iraq to confirm that, however evil Saddam was, he was representative of a significant slice of Iraqis, willing to murder as a political tactic and convinced that their survival requires evil behavior.

Taking into account, Mohhamad, the answer is, “Yes”.

It almost goes without saying [then why say it?] that many on this blog also believe evil behavior is necessary for their own survival.

Taking into account Mohhamad, the answer is, “Yes”.

Defeating Islam will most likely demand—as was the case in many historical situations— “fighting fire with fire”. Just like with Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Islam’s demand for massively disproportionate retaliation quite clearly seems to require that Westerners must “believe evil behavior is necessary for their own survival”. Remember:

ISLAM WOULDN’T HAVE IT ANY OTHER WAY

Tamquam Leo Rugiens: Implicit in the contract between the tyrant and his people is the unspoken understanding (it must be unspoken for once spoken the spell is broken) that the tyrant will defend the people against their fears and the people will cooperate in that defense.

Le bingo!

El Jefe Moximo: anybody who got to know him really well wound up dead or in the Gulag

Otherwise known as an “insurance policy”.

Wretchard: The real danger of evil is when it is presented as a good or its existence is denied.

Just as with Political Correctness and its unshakable belief that one can somehow pick up a turd by its clean end.

Wretchard: Thus one may recognize the inevitability of doing evil as a consequence of the way things are without concluding, 'right, since evil is part of the world it's ok to use it'. Evil is always to be avoided. But like friction, it always shows up in the whatever we do. Recognizing it is not the same thing as making it a virtue.

Wretchard, my tremendous respect for you and your works obliges me to ask how you reconcile that foregoing quote with the common notion of Original Sin. Do you agree with the concept of Original Sin or do you oppose the eternal condemnation of man as being inherently evil? Whether you answer or not, please know how much I appreciate all that you do here at the Belmont Club. Thank you so much.

6/04/2008 04:31:00 PM  
Blogger slimslowslider said...

Forbidden Planet-the Krell
the Krell were like the germans pre WWII. their subconscious minds created hitler.

Like Tamquam Leo Rugiens said: Implicit in the contract between the tyrant and his people is the unspoken understanding (it must be unspoken for once spoken the spell is broken) that the tyrant will defend the people against their fears and the people will cooperate in that defense.

true that.

6/04/2008 07:15:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

So charismatic people can be dangerous and evil. I think there is no shortage of people in the US who fall into each of the three categories. Evil people hide behind a mask of innocence, it's true, and so do a lot of other people -- politicians in particular. It's really the system, the protocol and traditions, the Constitutional algorithm, that protects us from these people. I suspect we have a few potential tyrants in high positions even now, but they cancel each other out and actually end up doing good because of the social restraints that encumber them. Even POTUS can only do so much to subvert the system.

I think we all know the subtext of this post, and many of us share the same concerns, but you have to remember that charisma is sometimes the natural product of good intentions. The best we can do to protect ourselves is to monitor the weaknesses in the system.

6/04/2008 07:41:00 PM  
Blogger Kirk Parker said...

Dave,

I grew up under the flight pattern of the F-106's from McChord as they practiced their scrambles to the coast.

McChord at that time (pre-Starlifter) also had Globemasters. Those things projected an amazing amount of rumble as they climbed out after takeoff, before they could get their engines synchronized. It wouldn't just rattle your windows; the whole house would vibrate.

6/04/2008 09:31:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

Original sin simply means there is no way out. It's an older, nearly equivalent word for the "human condition". Whatever we do, even if we are scrupulous as the Jains, by living we will inevitably commit evil, by accident, misjudgment or weakness. The only way to avoid evil entirely is not to live at all.

The politically correct understand this at some level and I think they've made the subconscious decision not to live. Their reaction to the great sins -- if I may use the word -- of Western civilization in the 20th century is an apathy verging on suicide. They hedge themselves around with Croc sandals, recyclable supermarket bags, co-op food and abasement, the way older generations hung about garlic. But even this doesn't let them off the hook. Because while they stick their heads in the organic sand, evil goes abroad "like a roaring lion". Even in their passivity they abet evil by omission.

But what if you want to live and act in this world? Then we must have help. Something that allows us to sanctify our sufferings; something that forgives us our trespasses. Something that allows us to act in grace, for so long as we act with good intent and charity. Some framework in other words, that will allow men to escape the "human condition" because it provides a larger meaning to their lives. A framework in which it will be alright.

The real reason people have "faith" -- and not so long ago it was faith in a worker's paradise, or "progress" -- is that this makes it possible to live. When one of my high school classmates died recently, I got an e-card from his family, saying he went out as he wanted "not dust, but ash". If we are to live, let us our burn ourselves out in faith. The alternative is dust.

6/05/2008 01:57:00 AM  
Blogger Zenster said...

Wretchard: The politically correct understand this at some level and I think they've made the subconscious decision not to live.

I couldn't have said it better. Thank you for such a well-considered reply. Your site is—without a doubt—one of the web's finest.

6/05/2008 07:34:00 AM  

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