Like many liberals, I find it hard to believe in evil simpliciter. There has to be an explanation, some set of enabling conditions. It is not only insufficient, but also wrong, to point to something rotten in human nature–and to leave it at that. Appeals to human nature are like appeals to the “dormative power” lurking within a sleeping pill. Such appeals simply rename the cause and locate it at a different level than the behavior that cause is meant to explain.
In London, I taught a class on the Blitz. I don’t think I ever quite managed to convey to the students–or even to take in myself–its full horror. The romance of the Blitz, along with its mythic resignification as proof of British pluckiness and resolve, has obscured the simple fact of terror rained from the skies. Please don’t give me the pieties of “indiscriminate” terror and “civilian” populations. The evil of the mass slaughter of citizen armies is no less; its victims are as fully “innocent,” as fully entitled to exemption from such violence, as the denizens of a city. But it is the sheer fact of violence that I and my students never fully (it seems to me) grasped. The mind always slides away from the bald fact of killing to adjoining images, stories, facts, and consoling myths.
In my various readings to teach this course, I read J. B. Pristley’s BBC broadcasts, which ran from 5 June 1940 to 20 October 1940. Priestley was forced off the air because his forthright–and repeated–calls for a post-war socialist Britain to proved some recompense for the war-time suffering of its population offended the powers-that-be.
The broadcasts also show Priestley struggling to understand Nazi evil–which rhymes with my current perplexity in trying to understand conservatives (who often claim to be Christians) who put children in cages, deny food stamps to the hungry, are outraged by the extension of medical insurance to the less well-off, suppress voter participation, and wink at sexual and financial malfeasance. Why would anyone ever sign on to that agenda? Except for the tax cuts, there is not direct benefit to them of treating others so terribly. Only some kind of pleasure derived from cruelty fits the bill.
Priestley has no better explanations for such evil (and how can we call it be any other, more euphemistic, name?) than most leftists. But his characterization of the Nazi mindset and the dangers it poses to simple decency resonate with me.
From the broadcast of 23 June 1940:
“Every nation has two faces–a bright face and a dark face. I had always been ready to love the bright face of Germany which speaks to us of beautiful music, profound philosophy, Gothic romance, young men and maidens wandering through the enchanted forests. I had been to Germany before the last war, walking from one little inn to another in the Rhineland. After the war I went back and wrote in praise of the noble Rhine, the wet lilac and the rust-coloured Castle of Heidelberg, the carpets of flowers and the ice-green torrents of the Bavarian Alps. But after the Nazis came, I went no more. The bright face had gone, and in its place was the vast dark face with its broken promises and endless deceit, its swaggering Storm Troopers and dreaded Gestapo, its bloodstained basements where youths were hardened by the torture of decent elderly folk–the terror and the shame, not just their shame, but our shame, the shame of the whole watching world, of the concentration camps.
I knew that wherever these over-ambitious, ruthless, neurotic men took their power, security and peace and happiness would vanish. Unhappy themselves–for what they are can be read in their faces, and plainly heard in their barking or screaming voices–they wish to spread their unhappiness everywhere. And I believed then–and am convinced now–that if the world had not been half-rotten, over-cynical, despairing, it would have risen at once in its wrath before the great terror machine was completed, and sent these evil men and their young bullies back to their obscure corners, the back rooms of beer houses, and cellars, out of which they crept to try and bring the whole world down to their own dreary back-room gangster level.
Many people are mystified by the existence of so many ‘fifth columnists’ who are ready to work for Nazi-ism outside Germany; but, you see, Nazi-ism is not really a political philosophy, but an attitude of mind–the expression in political life of a certain very unpleasant temperament–of the man who hates Democracy, reasonable argument, tolerance, patience and humorous equality–the man who loves bluster and swagger, uniforms and bodyguards and fast cars, plotting in back rooms, shouting and bullying, taking it out of all the people who have made him feel inferior. It’s not really a balanced, grown-up attitude of mind at all: it belongs to people who can’t find their way out of adolescence, who remain overgrown, tormenting, cruel schoolboys–middle-aged ‘dead-end kids.’ That’s why the gang spirit is so marked among these Nazis; and it explains, too, why there has always seemed something unhealthy, abnormal, perverted, crawlingly corrupt, about them and all their activities.
And any country that allows itself to be dominated by the Nazis will not only have the German Gestapo crawling everywhere, but will also find itself in the power of all its most unpleasant types–the very people who, for years, have been rotten with unsatisfied vanity, gnawing envy, and haunted by dreams of cruel power.”
To the academic sophisticate (i.e. me), there is much that grates in this passage. (Those cavorting maidens; the simplistic Manichean notion of a bright and a dark face–although that does suggest that “good” is just as mysterious, just as difficult to explain, as “evil.”)
But I do want to hold onto two things (even as I also admire Priestley’s ability to speak passionately and vividly to his wide audience): first, that there is much to love–and that I love–in the United States; it would be foolish indeed to let despair over the current triumph of what is worst in American culture to wipe out a recognition of the resources for a better way. The hopefulness of MLK (balanced as it was with his deep discouragement at times) is exemplary here.
Second, Priestley reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that the Trumps, McConnells, and Kavanaughs of the world are bullying frauds driven by envy of their moral betters; they cannot acknowledge their own depravity, but reveal their self-hatred again and again. Not that we should pity them, but that we should fully understand their lust for power is the mask of deficiency. That lust should never be accorded a minute of respect.