Whoso Rewardeth Evil for Good, Evil Shall Not Depart from His House

Sometimes, I’m glib.

Actually, I’m often glib.  Usually, even.  Always, maybe.

Anyway, I was glib last week when, while addressing a recent Bookends column in the New York Times, I wrote, “Reading is great”.

The fact that I was glib does not mean that I was wrong: reading really is great.  I believe, in all sincerity, that written language, our ability to record, preserve, and transmit information, is humankind’s greatest achievement, our best, perhaps only, hope of progress.

But while the ability to read is our paramount intellectual accomplishment and the great joy of my life, it can still bite me in the ass.  There is so much to read, and not all of it brings welcome news.

This month, the cover article of The Atlantic magazine is by Jeffrey Goldberg, and is called, ‘Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?’

Goldberg’s thesis is this: the Holocaust caused a temporary recession, or perhaps merely a masking, of Europe’s historically endemic anti-Semitism.  The effect is now wearing off, and a new wave of anti-Semitism from Muslim immigrants has exacerbated it.  The hatred that was always there is creeping back out into the open, and while Goldberg doesn’t believe that Europe has found itself back in 1933, he wonders whether it might not have found itself back in 1929.

The evidence which Goldberg marshals to support the existence of significant anti-Semitism in Europe, particularly in France and Sweden, is persuasive; less persuasive, perhaps, is the evidence in support of its increase.  But this is pretty cold comfort: first of all, I find Goldberg essentially credible, and so extend him the benefit of the doubt.  But secondly, isn’t it bad enough that there is still anti-Semitism in Europe?

Anti-Semitism is primitive, and appalling, and stupid.  It was primitive, and appalling, and stupid in 1933, and then we were all given a terrible lesson.

Of course, the Holocaust was much, much more than a lesson – it was a genocide.  But, at the very least, it should have been a lesson.  Millions of people fell victim to a base prejudice: a lesson is the very barest minimum of what that should have been.

The Holocaust should have obliterated anti-Semitism in the mind of every civilized person of every race, religion, nation, or creed on the planet.  That it didn’t, that the deaths of six million innocents only bought Europe’s Jews a century of reprieve, makes me despair.

Six million lives was far, far too high a price to pay to rid us of one prejudice – if it could not even do that, then we are hopeless, a wretched and evil species doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over and over, hamsters on the Devil’s own wheel.

What is the point of recording information if we cannot or will not learn from it?  The act of writing is hopeful: it supposes that knowledge might be cumulative, that every human might not have to start from scratch, that the path to wisdom might be shortened.

But if six million deaths will not teach us, then what chance does the written word have?  What can the reason, the argument, the logic, or the witness of past persons do for us if their very deaths leave us unmoved, as stupid, vile, and ignorant as we were before?

And we are stupid, vile, and ignorant.  We cherish our bigotries and our hatreds more than we cherish each other; we preserve them and pass them on from generation to generation like twisted little heirlooms.  Truly, what pieces of shit we have proved to be.

I have read too much history to have any faith in us anymore.  No one has any right to surprised by Goldberg’s article: given a long enough timeline, man will always turn on man.

I’m not surprised; I’m sad.  More than that, I’m disgusted: what a pathetic excuse for a species we are.  Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?  The evil in man has made itself felt in every place, in every time – perhaps the better question is, where would they go?

Featured image taken from Wikipedia.

Chairman Mao Will Seat You Now

In 1918, a young Mao Zedong moved to Beijing and went to work as a junior librarian in the Beijing University Library.  He wrote later:

“My office was so low that people avoided me.  One of my tasks was to register the names of people who came to read newspapers, but to most of them I didn’t exist as a human being.  Among those who came to read, I recognized the names of famous leaders of the ‘renaissance’ movement, men…in whom I was intensely interested.  I tried to begin conversations with them on political and cultural subjects, but they were very busy men.  They had no time to listen to an assistant librarian speaking southern dialect.”

Mao was a nobody from Hunan province, and he was ignored by the prominent intellectuals he so admired.

This passage is excerpted very early in Philip Short’s biography of Mao, and I am well past what was, in the grand scheme of things, a brief episode in his life.  But this vignette has stuck with me more than any other from Mao’s life.

Mao Zedong would go on to rule the most populous country on earth.  He would preside over a regime that would kill tens of millions of people.  He would become, by some estimates, the most accomplished mass murderer in this history of humankind.

But in 1918, he was being snubbed by men history has forgotten, and this story has haunted me since I read it.

With how many people do you interact every week?  How many people serve you coffee, check out your items, pull your car around, pump your gas, see you to your table?

And those are the ones you see!  What about the people who clean up after you, fix what you break, prepare the food you eat, pick up your trash, deliver your packages?  How big is the army that serves you invisibly?  How many lives intersect with yours every day?

And what if one of them will become Mao?

There are two aspects of this idea I find disturbing.  The first, and the more ordinary, is the possibility of our unwitting proximity to evil.  It’s not pleasant, imagining that history’s next great killer might be taking your order.

But what frightens me even more is the thought that, perhaps, the clerk in the Beijing University Library wasn’t evil.  He would become Mao Zedong, we know now, but he had not yet.  And maybe, he need not have,

And if it is a question not of ‘When’, but of ‘If’, if he might but might not, then who else might?  Might one of my brothers?  My husband?  Might I?

There are two ways to see the future which lay ahead of that clerk: in one, he would find his way to his role, he would make space in history for himself.

But is it equally possible that history had an opening and that it would fill it?  Who is to say that Mao was the only man who might?  Perhaps many men might have done the job – perhaps most.  It may be that the murderers will out; it may also be that history could make murderers of us all, and she chooses.

This isn’t a lifetime movie: I don’t believe that Mao became a mass murderer because of those slights.  I don’t believe that, if one of these Chinese eminences had simply paid Mao Zedong the respect of answering him, the great storm of the Chinese Communist Party might have turned at the last moment and headed out to sea, that millions might have been saved.  And maybe this whole idea is wrong, and historical monsters aren’t borne of a diathesis-stress model: maybe Mao came into this world broken and dangerous and nothing was going to change that.

But isn’t it frightening to think that, perhaps, some large number of us carry the potential for great or terrible deeds inside us, and we wait only for the right combination of events to draw us into the open, where we become the stuff of statues and nightmares?

I don’t like my reflection in this mirror: I like to believe, as most of us do, that there are no accidents of fate which would twist me into shape to order millions of my fellows to their deaths.  There is no lower creature than a genocidaire – I choose to believe I could not become one.

But that anonymous clerk in the Beijing University Library is dogging me and now, I see the monsters of history everywhere I look, in the world all around me.  Because, if we are not monsters yet, who knows what we will become?

Featured image taken from Wikipedia.

“To See and Listen to the Wicked is Already the Beginning of Wickedness”

I used to work in the lab with a young woman, on her way to medical school, who didn’t “believe in schizophrenia”.  Everyone hears those voices, she explained to us completely in earnest; to succumb to them was simple weakness.  “Schizophrenics”, she would say with air-quotes, were just lazy people gaming the system, exploiting disability and trying to get out of working.

This woman was obviously a malignant idiot (and she is now in medical school, so be very afraid), but I was stunned and fascinated by her.  I have spent my entire adult life working in neuroscience research, where people don’t question the essential validity of psychiatric illness.  We study schizophrenia because we believe it exists, because, and I can’t stress this enough, it does.  It emphatically does: schizophrenics are ill – they are not “lazy”.  I’d never met anyone who’d admit to not believing in mental illness before.

Imputing moral failings to people who suffer from psychiatric disease is retrograde and stupid, and I mention that here because I am about to do it.

There’s been a fair amount of press this week, in the wake of the conviction of Lacey Spears of the second degree murder of her son Garnett, about Munchausen by Proxy.

Munchausen is a factitious disorder, a disorder characterized by the fabrication of symptoms of somatic illness.  People with Munchausen often go to extraordinary lengths to receive medical attention for their fake illnesses: they research their “condition” obsessively, run up huge medical bills, poison or mutilate themselves; they have even been known to undergo surgeries that they do not need.

They do not believe that they have these disorders – Munchausen is not a disorder of delusion or psychosis.  Munchausen patients are deceptive, they are seeking attention and sympathy.

Despite the fact that there is, at this time, no known neurological lesion associated with Munchausen, I won’t dispute that someone who is so desperate for attention that they will drink bleach or undergo unnecessary amputations is mentally ill.  However, Lacey Spears didn’t have Munchausen; she had Munchausen by Proxy.

Munchausen by Proxy is Munchausen Disorder where the medical charades are enacted not on the sufferer but on someone else, usually a dependent, a child or an elderly parent.  Instead of poisoning themselves, people with Munchausen by Proxy poison their dependents, over and over and over again.

I just don’t know that I have what it takes to consider someone with Munchausen by Proxy mentally ill, a victim of their condition in the same way that someone with schizophrenia or bipolar is a victim of their’s.

The argument is that Munchausen by Proxy is a compulsion, that the “need” for attention is like the need that someone with obsessive compulsive disorder might have to wash their hands repeatedly.  That may be, but I doubt it: Munchausen by Proxy deceptions are methodical and controlled, not frantic and compulsive, and well enough in-hand to be perpetrated on other, vulnerable people.

More than that, I’m not sure I care.  This may be my failing – certainly, I believe that it is my responsibility to try to see the world as it is, whether or not it accords with my wants or expectations.  I know I’m not the first person to see a diagnosis as an excuse, and I’m not at all sure that’s company I want to keep.

But I’m not sure it’s right or wise to let every category of human wickedness hide behind pathology.  If you are “compelled” to put feces in your child’s feeding tube because you’re so needy for the attention of others, are you sick or are you so supremely selfish as to be fairly called evil?  Or are you both?  And do your actions really deserve our moral parsing?  Do we owe you the time and energy it takes to figure out why you’ve done this, why you’ve killed your own child for attention?  Do you deserve the protection a diagnosis gives you?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about evil people and evil acts – I find them interesting and I want to understand them, maybe more than I should.  I care where the line between illness and evil lies, and I think that, perhaps, I want to draw that line between compulsion to self-harm and compulsion to harm another.  I think it behooves us to treat self-mutilators as sick: they hurt, primarily, themselves.  But we lose moral credibility if, as a society, we decide that anyone who hurts anyone else must be “crazy”, or ill – we should not rob all wrong-doers of volition.

For whatever reason, the coverage of Lacey Spears left me cold and angry.  Even I have my limit, and maybe this is it.  I have a difficult time seeing Munchausen by Proxy as an illness – I see it instead as vileness, as tremendous and terrible selfishness.  And I don’t want to look for moral or psychological complexity in that kind of darkness any more; I just want to look away.

Title quotation by Confucius.

‘King, Look Into Your Heart’

‘Evil’ is a word which, I think, should be applied with care.  I believe that most cruel human actions are the result of ignorance, or cowardice, or illness.  Some, though, are the result of greed, or anger, or selfishness, and those may fairly be called ‘evil’.

The historian Beverly Gage recently published the unredacted version of a famous, evil document.  In 1964, William Sullivan, a deputy of J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, composed and mailed an anonymous letter to Martin Luther King Jr.

Hoover suspected King of communist sympathies and had been tapping King’s home, office and hotel rooms, and so knew of King’s extramarital affairs.  A tape of one such encounter apparently accompanied the missive.

The letter, which was sent the same year King won the Nobel Peace Prize and which references it, is addressed to KING, explaining that it will not dignify him a ‘Mr.’, ‘Reverend’, or ‘Dr.’ in light of his “abnormal personal behavoir [sic]”.

The letter instructs him, “King, look into your heart.  You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes.”  It calls him “evil, vicious”.  It tells him, “Listen to yourself you filthy, abnormal animal” and threatens him with the exposure of his affairs, warning him that, “You are done.  The American public, the church organizations that have been helping – Protestant [edited for legibility], Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are – an evil, abnormal beast.”

Threatens him, unless, within 34 days, he completes an act unspecified: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do.  You know what it is…there’s only one way out for you.”  King, who apparently didn’t buy the letter for one minute and saw Hoover clearly behind it, thought that the letter was designed to make him kill himself.

This letter is evil along so many axes: the government wire-tapping of political dissidents, the targeting of a non-violent civil rights leader and the attempt to drive him to suicide, the leveraging of a man’s legal sexual appetites against him in the political arena, the patronizing and caricaturish attempt to play on racial loyalty.  This letter is utterly unredeemed by any generous or normal human virtue; there is nothing in this sorry episode that the American government should feel good about.

And this was not so long ago – fifty years.  I was not alive, but my parents were.  We can hardly argue that these are the sins of our remote ancestors, that we are a wholly different nation now.  Dr. Gage, in her great short piece in the New York Times, is absolutely right: when we decide to trust our government, when we try to imagine what baseness we’re capable of today, it is worth remembering what base acts we committed only yesterday.

Image taken from the New York Times article cited above.

Bad Bummer on the Ostfront

“Red Army units also shot their German captives, especially Luftwaffe pilots who had baled out.  There were few opportunities for sending them to the rear, and they did not want them to be saved by the enemy advance.” – Antony Beevor, ‘Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

Operation Barbarossa launched on June 22nd, 1941; the German army invaded the Soviet Union in a move which surprised no one except the leaders of the Soviet Union.  In the next three weeks, the German army advanced well into the Soviet Union and over 2 million Soviet soldiers were killed.

The Ostfront is a bleak chapter of human history, with atrocities to go around.  And while apologies should never be made for the murder of prisoners of war (at which, if course, the Nazis also excelled), there is something devastating about soldiers so certain of the enemy’s advance that they execute POWs lest they find themselves fighting them again.  Imagine the desperation they must have felt as the German army advanced further and further into their country, closer and closer towards their homes and families.

Have you ever been moderately or seriously injured?  Shot, stabbed, sliced, had a bone badly or visibly broken?  The moment you realize that the boundaries of your body have been breached is a bad one.  There is a sick, sinking feeling, before anything actually hurts, when you see that the world has intruded into you and you understand that you are not OK.

I wonder whether that is at all how it felt to watch the Germans advance into your country.  One’s relationship to one’s country is obviously different, more complicated and less…implicit, than one’s relationship with one’s own body, but they might be equally vulnerable to the sense that something hostile and alien and hard has come driving into a space which was your’s and safe and has hurt it.  Two million Russian soldiers killed in three weeks – which does not include civilian deaths – a rate of killing which must have felt like national hemorrhaging.

One of the challenges in thinking about the Ostfront is finding someone to really root for.  With one genocidal regime pitched against another, it’s hard to feel good about any outcome.  But while some evils are perpetrated by evil individuals, some are perpetrated by sad, misguided, or desperate ones.  While Soviet soldiers certainly committed evil acts, they were being borne down on upon by one of the most frightening forces humans ever unleashed upon one another.  They were angry and they were scared, and we can understand that without apologizing for it.

Quotation at the top is from Antony Beevor’s book Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943.