Jewish Journal

What does evil look like?

by Brad A. Greenberg

October 21, 2007 | 11:17 am

In a piece about the war criminal’s best friend, Jacques Verges, the NY Times Magazine asks today what evil looks like, and passively dismisses belief in God as passé:

For much of history, when an ironclad trust in a divine maker still prevailed (however many plagues or earthquakes he might have arranged), the question of “evil” was contained by one of two rationales: that people deserved it because of wicked behavior or that it was part of a larger, unknowable celestial plan. That attitude, gullible as it now seems, had the benefit of keeping this particular epistemological dilemma outside the human purview. It held steady until the emergence of a philosophical tradition that, beginning with Immanuel Kant’s questioning of God’s pivotal position and reaching an apogee of unbelief with the arrival of Nietzsche, put the concept of evil right in our laps. As Susan Neiman says in “Evil in Modern Thought,” from the Enlightenment on there have been two views: “The one, from Rousseau to Arendt, insists that morality demands that we make evil intelligible. The other, from Voltaire to Jean Améry, insists that morality demands that we don’t.”

Hannah Arendt predicted that, post-Auschwitz, the problem of evil would be a primary focus of contemporary life. And it might have been, except for the fact that, in a destabilized and reflexively ironic age, we are always checking to make sure we haven’t overlooked a mitigating circumstance or an admirable principle gone wrong. Fearful as some of us are about exhibiting a too-primitive and “demonizing” attitude — the kind of macho Us-versus-Them, Axis-of-Evil line of thinking that has made Bush and Company figures of easy derision — we have become increasingly tentative about assigning this stark designation. (In “The Myth of Evil,” Phillip Cole says that his book “asks the question whether evil exists at all and one possible answer I take very seriously is that it does not.”) Few of us would be hesitant to use the word to describe the genocidal regimes, for example, of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Milosevic. But for the most part, we post-Manichaean postmodernists are more like Neville Chamberlain hoping to win over Hitler with a bit of coaxing than like Winston Churchill, who committed his country to fighting him. Given our a tradition of broad civil tolerance, it makes uneasy sense that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the half-buffoonish, half-demonic leader of Iran, was invited to speak at an ivy-towered bastion of learning, where he gave voice to his hate-mongering views.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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