September 27th, 2007

“Understanding” evil

We may not be able to define evil, but most of us think we know it when we see it.

Unfortunately, that leads to equations such as Bush=Hitler, or the bumper sticker I saw on a car yesterday that said, “War is just terrorism with a bigger budget.”

And it also leads to the false notion that we can truly understand the genesis of evil, when sometimes it’s hard enough to simply recognize it, and to deal with it in an appropriate and timely fashion.

Hannah Arendt caused a hue and cry when she watched the Adolf Eichmann trial and described the defendant’s demeanor as showing “the banality of evil” (scroll down to #6, here). Suzanne Field’s piece on evil, in today’s Real Clear Politics, refers back to Arendt and describes instead what Field calls the “frivolity” of evil. Although I think “frivolity” is a poor choice of words, Field is making a good point nevertheless:

The devil wears many disguises, and one of them is the appearance of normality, perhaps the most dangerous phenomenon of all, because it’s a disguise unto itself.

Evil is real, but evildoers are all too human. In the photograph we know of him, Mohammad Atta’s eyes may look as though all human kindness had been scooped out of him, but his family probably didn’t see him that way—although the Portland Maine employee who watched him go by and onto that airplane on that fatal day said that he looked like a “walking corpse.”

Hitler had a strange look to us, but the German people found him highly charismatic and appealing. Ahmadinejad, as Fields points out, has no evil aura:

His clowning, his weaving, his bobbing, his smiling on the podium at Columbia University lent an air of normality to his lies and deceitfulness. He looked silly at times, but he didn’t frighten anyone with his stage presence.

Our wish for the mark of Cain, or cloven hooves, or some other clear sign of evil originates in the fact that it is only by their works that we know them, and by then it can be too late.

Of course, evil is sometimes telegraphed way ahead of time by words, and this is true in the case of Hitler and Ahmadinejad. Why are these words so often ignored by so many?

It’s easy to say it’s all just bluster. It’s easy to think we are too powerful to be seriously threatened by these little people who sound so crazy. Those who made that mistake with Hitler lived to regret it.

But one of the most fundamental errors people make when judging evil is to think we understand it, when we don’t. The fact that Hitler was most definitely a human being leads us to think that if we knew enough facts about him, we could explain the etiology of his evil.

But Hitler’s evil seems to have been much more than the sum of his parts—the illegitimacy, the lousy childhood, the failed art career, the anger at Germany’s WWI defeat. Try as one might—and many have tried—Hitler’s evil can be described and detailed but never understood nor, ultimately, explained.

The other fundamental error people make when judging evil is thinking it is less evil than it actually is, and more amenable to persuasion, argument, or kindness. Because those who do evil are human, we think they are subject to the same fears and doubts, loves and anxieties, concerns and scruples, as the rest of us. Perhaps when they were children they were, although in the cases of sociopaths and psychopaths the notion is that they were born lacking something we tend to call a conscience. At any rate, by the time we know about them, something quite unusual seems to be going on in their psyches.

I think of the example of Stalin who said, on hearing that his son had tried to commit suicide but had only managed to shoot himself in the stomach and live, “He can’t even shoot straight.”

People such as Stalin or Hitler or Ahmadinejad or Saddam Hussein are about power. That is the coin of their realm, and power is their mother tongue, even though they can learn to speak secondary languages in order to give the appearance of reasonableness. Do not forget that it is a facade, and do not believe that you know them. As Field points out about Ahmadinejad:

We may think he was humiliated by the hostility he confronted at Columbia, but maybe he, like Hitler, understands how to play it out to his advantage against the gullible, the feckless and the frightened.

Shakespeare, who may have understood human nature as well as anyone on earth and could speak about it better than anyone on earth, had something to say about all of this, of course. And so I’ll close with his words:

One can smile and smile and be a villain.

67 Responses to ““Understanding” evil”

  1. Owen Says:

    Fields did not coin the term “frivolity of evil”. I know of at least one earlier source, a column with the exact same title as Fields’, by from 2004. It’s on a different topic, one in which the phrase “frivolity” is a little more fitting, but it’s an excellent column and I think touches on many of the issues this blog raises.

  2. Owen Says:

    Damn it, I screwed up the link. Anyways, it’s by Theodore Dalrymple.

  3. gcotharn Says:

    Aversion to banal reality constitutes a link between conspiracy theorists and the “we can reason it out” crowd. Neither group wants the simplest explanation to be true. Banal reality is too uncomfortable.

  4. gcotharn Says:

    Political progressives have come to a place from which they cannot acknowledge the existence of evil.

    They have similarly come to a place from which they cannot acknowledge wrong and right – except in cases of intellectual discrimination between wrong and right (which is wrong) vs. non-discrimination between wrong and right (which is right). The irony of this escapes them.

    Thus progressives cannot acknowledge the evil Islamist ideology which threatens the West and the USA. They will not take the mildest look at it – which is all that is required to see it is transparently barbaric, wrongfully conceived, and evil. Progressives cannot bring themselves to pronounce such a judgment. Our soldiers – such as 1LT Travis Manion – are giving their lives to fight a threat which progressives refuse to name.

  5. Bugs Says:

    I don’t think the Ahmadinejad/Hitler comparison is quite on the mark. Hitler was the force that transformed Nazism from just a little group of street thugs into a juggernaut of evil. Ahmadinejad is no such force – he is merely a tool of the mullahs. If anything, he resembles Goering more than Hitler. He can be jolly and awkwardly human – just don’t forget who he works for.

    Whatever – they are all like Hitler in that they believe they’re doing something wonderful for their country. Hitler believed he was the instrument of Aryan destiny. The mullahs believe they are the instruments of God’s will. They can do no wrong.

    Assuming Ahmadinejad is the guy in that old hostage crisis photo, I wonder what changes his beliefs have undergone since his student days. Is he still a true believer in the mullahs, or has he become a pragmatist?

  6. sergey Says:

    Actually, the concept of evil belongs to realm of religion and can’t be meaningfully rationalized outside this realm. The best attempt was done by Konrad Lorentz in “So called evil: a natural history of aggression”, but even this insightful book get short of real understanding of evil.

  7. Xanthippas Says:

    Arendt had it right. Evil at it’s worst can still be completely banal, and thus even less understandable. Thus, understanding it in the hope that it explain immoral human action-even on a scale so large as the holocaust-is a fool’s game. And anyway, good intentions produce enough bad results to make the notion of evil almost quaint.

  8. sergey Says:

    I must agree with Dostoevsky: evil is not a natural phenomenon, it is supernatural, so no science or psychology can grasp it. The fact that villains often look so human should not surprize us: one needs to be human to be evil, no animal, contrary to Lorentz, can be taken as a model or testing example for study nature of evil. This epithet applicable only to human beengs.

  9. Richard Aubrey Says:

    IMO, evil is sometimes perceptible, on some kind of subliminal level.
    And that’s scary. And that means some percentage of folks will be Stockholmed on the spot.
    That leads to seeking for normality where it does not exist or where its simile is lame.

  10. Ymarsakar Says:

    One of your html tags has a run on, Neo.

    In one aspect, they are human and prone to human fallibilities such as lust for power. Understanding by itself is not enough for the question of “what are you going to use it for” comes into place. For those that seek comprehension in order to stop Hitler, that is one thing, but for those that sought comrpehension in order to find ways to do what they don’t wish to do, then that is simply weakness that no amount of comprehension over other things will solve.

    Evil ultimately destroys. It can mimic creation by drawing on the life essences of others. In point of fact, the ability to create illusions and fabrications is critical to evil deeds given the disproportionate amount of power between those that serve Evil and those that serve Good.

    There is an instrinsic parasitism that cloaks itself and draws upon the resources of others. By stealing what is not the parasite’s, the parasite can become stronger than the host.

  11. Trimegistus Says:

    What always puzzles me is how people who vehemently reject the traditional religious moral yardstick nevertheless don’t hesitate to call whatever they disagree with “evil.” Modern Lefties dismiss religious-based morality as so much patriarchal claptrap, but still bandy about the words “good” and “evil” with great abandon.

    A true atheist wouldn’t use those terms. There is no good and evil without a religious morality; there are only things which lead to one or another outcome. All ethics become “situational” without an absolute yardstick.

    Yet it seems to be those most committed to abolishing that yardstick who are nevertheless the most absolute in their thinking. War is Bad. Bush is Evil. Racism is Bad. Harming the environment is Bad. A true atheist should ask “Why?”

  12. chuck Says:

    I’ve known both Communists and Nazis from the thirties. They weren’t evil as individuals, it was as members of the movement that they were evil. I think it is necessary to distinguish the singular individual from the group member in these cases because there is a whole different psychology involved, one far less studied than individual psychology.

  13. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Chuck. Yeah. Nice guys. They chose to be evil. They chose to take Wednesday nights for the party meeting. They chose to paper over Stalin’s crimes.

    They could be nice to you–until you happened to be in the way–but they would drop that at an instant’s notice.

    Remember the first beheading on tape? The Berg boy. His father did the party thing, pimping out his son’s death to attack Bush. I’m sure Dad is a nice guy, won’t take cuts at Starbuck’s. But if the party needs it….

  14. neo-neocon Says:

    Chuck and Richard Aubrey: I’ve explored that issue quite a bit in my 3-part series on Paul Robeson.

    Also, on the question of how it was that idealism motivated people to support Communism, I give the early followers somewhat of a free pass; it was the ones who kept on supporting it, and making excuses for it, after it was clear that it led to tyranny and destruction, that I have the most trouble with (see this and this).

    Here’s a quote from one of my posts on the subject, which begins with a long excerpt from David Horowitz:

    Political utopians like my father had a master plan. They were going to transform the world from the chaos we knew into a comfortable and friendly place. In the happy future they dreamed about, there would be an end to grief from life out of control, life grinding you down and smashing your gut when you expected it least. Human cruelty would go out of style and become a memory in the museum of historical antiquities. In my father’s paradise there would be no strangers. No one would feel like an outsider, alienated from others and at odds with themselves.

    For thirty-five years I followed my father’s footsteps and believed in his earthly redemption, until a day came when I realized that there are tragedies from which one cannot recover, and alienation that no revolution can cure. That we are the mystery, and this is the only truth that matters.

    This is a fine description of the tragedy of the Utopian, who believes in the perfectibility of human nature and thus often commits (or at least condones) great evil in the name of an only-imagined good. To these people, faith in Communism replaced faith in religion, and was going to make up for all the disappointments of their lives. Some of them managed to abandon the dream when the excesses of Stalin were finally revealed in mid-century; others could not give it up, but instead gave up their hold on reality. I knew some of these people.

  15. Cappy Says:

    “understands how to play it out to his advantage against the gullible, the feckless and the frightened.”

    Hey, that’s the three major constituencies of the Democrat Party!

  16. Laura Says:

    When you do evil things in the name of God, and therefore God is on “your” side, one feels no shame whatsoever. As long as they feel that their actions are divine, the delude themselves and their followers. This is how you convince a nation to do evil things. The German people weren’t bad per se. They became believers of his sick religion. One only hopes that the Iranian people can maintain their sanity.

  17. Richard Aubrey Says:

    neo. That brings up a thought. The reason for pursuing utopia so assiduously is the inability to deal with life’s gut punches. If you learn to cope, you’re not a candidate for the utopian road.

    I suppose we could start speculating about the wussification of American culture, the determination to increase dependency and reduce independence and self-reliance.

  18. nyomythus Says:

    Speaking of evil, I’m reading “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954 – 1962” I just got past the Philippeville Massacre — how horrible.

  19. Jim Says:

    Ideologies certainly cause people to behave as they might otherwise not. In Revolutionary France, a repeating cycle of “ever-narrowing definition(s) of political purity and legitimacy*” do to the belief that all those who opposed the radicals views of the Republic must be expelled and destroyed as traitors. This purge mentality is something that has repeated in Utopian movements again and again.

    Still, I think there is no doubt that such movements by there very nature draw great villains in. It is not a accident that the Nazis recruits toughs from the Communists and the Stasi from the the defunct Nazi organizations.

    *The Terror by David Andress

  20. sergey Says:

    “If you can dream – not making dreams your master
    If you can think – not making thought your aim”.
    This is the big “If”, where utopians and theoreticians, the main constituents of Marxism, Nazism or contemporary “progressives”, fail miserably. And, as the poet wisely concluded, you can be “a Man”, that is, really human, only if you can do all this.

  21. Laura Says:

    Appealing to the masses on an economic, religious and moral level gave to Hitler the nod he needed to push forward with his “ideal” society. In that ideal, homosexuals didn’t exist, “degenerate” art and poetry didn’t exist, only pure classical art and beauty. The intellectual didn’t exist as they were not to be trusted. Hitler could not have done what he did without the backing and support of most of a nation.

  22. Xanthippas Says:

    Remember the first beheading on tape? The Berg boy. His father did the party thing, pimping out his son’s death to attack Bush. I’m sure Dad is a nice guy, won’t take cuts at Starbuck’s. But if the party needs it….

    That’s a pretty disgusting thing to say. I’d almost say you’re “evil” for thinking such a thing, but I hardly believe in the term. I do however believe in the banality of stupidity.

  23. Richard Aubrey Says:


    Your opinion noted and discarded.

    But, just for fun, the connection between the boy’s death and George Bush is, at best, extremely tenuous. In fact, the connection doesn’t exist at all.
    So, why is the elder Berg pushing something which does not at all apply to his son’s death?
    The party–meaning whatever ideology he subscribes to–sees this as an opportunity. And, with sufficient emotional loading in the public presentations, perhaps some of the unwary may be led to make the connection and come to hate Bush. Which, of course, is the object of the elder Berg’s campaign.

    Look at it this way. If it were you, and you were smart enough to know there’s no connection, why would you take your mourning on the road and insist there was? Wouldn’t you prefer to mourn in private? Or, heaven forfend, blame the people who actually did it? Naw. X & co. are too sophisticated to actually blame the people who actually did the thing.

    There is a possibility that the elder Berg is so distraught that he honestly thinks this, but if so, none of his friends have talked him out of it. If any tried to keep him from making a fool of himself. That’s another thing. You have to make yourself look foolish, or loathesome, if the ideology requires it. Someplace out there, the betting is, there is somebody who can be convinced.

    Anyway, Berg is to smart to believe himself, but there is always the possibility he will find someone who isn’t.

  24. Donald Wolberg Says:

    One should not lose sight of what evil does and how it can threaten individuals and nations, and in the end the civilized world. The recognition that Iran is a major proble can get lost in a debate about good and evil I suggest. It has been lost in the endeless involvement in Iraq, where another evil force was really not our problem, contained as that force was. No rational analysis would allow Iran to not be an ever-increasing proble with a significan confrontation the only solution, from the U.S. perspective. No rational analysis would deny that with the threat of Iran as a significant player with the ability to project power removed, immediately opens avenues for stabilizing the region. It is unfortunate that we continue to squander our resources and the lives of our warriors in a place that had no significant value to us. We failed to differentiate between the brutish evil that was no threat, and the fanatical religious-based evil that is.

  25. Jason D. Says:

    I find evil rather easy to define; I think that the trouble most people have is that they try to see it as a postive value; that is, an opposite of “good.” Rather, evil should be defined as a negative value–the ABSENCE of good.
    Take away compassion, you have sadism; take away freedom, you have tyranny; take away conscience, you have sociopathy.

  26. Ale Says:

    Being 2 blocks from 911 when it occurred was the first time I have critically thought about the concept of “evil”. For what seemed a million years that September morning, I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the burning buildings, people jumping out. In a state of shock, I remember myself for for the first time delving into the concept of evil.

    For the months that followed, understanding evil became an obsession with the sight, sounds, and smells of 911 invading my daily thoughts an nightmares, critically tearing apart what constitutes evil actions.

    I came to the conclusion that evil is indeed so abstract that it many times go beyond the actual acts of the individuals that commit atrocities. The men who flew the planes into the building can never fully appreciate the hurt they cause, just as the serial murderer tends to block out any sense of the terror he has created.

    Perhaps this is part of being human, the ability for us to brainwash ourselves into thinking our actions are devoid of any consequences, or these consequences somehow merit our end goals. These consequences because necessary afterthought to some, while terrifying to the very core of others.

    I hope I’ll never have the opportunity to look at pure, unfiltered evil ever again, but I don’t have to, it will never leave me.

  27. Bugs Says:

    I don’t think good is ever absent. Ahmadinejad is probably kind to his children. Those Nazi camp guards were probably kind to each other when they weren’t gassing Jews. I think what’s really absent is limits.

    Maybe it’s belief that your goals, or the goals of the State or the Ummah or the Revolution, take precedence over all other considerations. Maybe the willingness to sacrifice others to a “higher” thing – whether that be some Utopia, or just your own ego.

    Or maybe those are just symptoms of evil and not the thing itself. Whatever – ultimately, every one of us is potentially good or evil. It just takes discipline and effort to be one and not the other.

  28. J. Peden Says:

    No rational analysis would allow Iran to not be an ever-increasing proble with a significan confrontation the only solution, from the U.S. perspective.

    [Donald Wolberg]

    Continuing OT, it’s beginning to look to me like that’s a major reason why we went into Iraq – but with perhaps an attempt to take a different tack to either control or minimize the “significant confrontation”.

    I don’t think anyone forgot Iran’s place within the axis of evil.

  29. Tatterdemalian Says:

    “I am sure that the one who wielded the knife felt Nick’s breath on his hand and knew that he had a real human being there. I am sure that the others looked into my son’s eyes and got at least a glimmer of what the rest of the world sees. And I am sure that these murderers, for just a brief moment, did not like what they were doing… George W. Bush never looked into my son’s eyes.” – Michael Berg

    “He also didn’t cut off your son’s head.” – Tim Blair

  30. sergey Says:

    Ale, you have got it. The best human attempt to understand the nature of evil was to give this abstract force a perceptible image – the figure of Devil. While being mythical, this image, nevertheless, grasps the most important features of this abstract notion: activity, vitality, and conscious opposition to its antipode – God or goodness. Another mythical, but accurate notion associated with evil – act of selling soul to Devil. This is also conscious act, a catastrophic event in a person’s biography after which no return to normalcy is possible. The best novel on this theme is “Doctor Faustus” by Thomas Mann.

  31. Richard Aubrey Says:

    The knife wielder knew he had a human being there…and went ahead.
    I blame Bush.

  32. Xanthippas Says:

    But, just for fun, the connection between the boy’s death and George Bush is, at best, extremely tenuous. In fact, the connection doesn’t exist at all.

    In fact, that’s not the point. The point is you, a nobody, don’t really have the moral authority to question what a father thinks of his son’s death, including who or what he blames it on. Period. You are not granted the moral authority by virtue of the fact that the guys is attacking your most favoritest President ever or your most favoritest war ever, anymore than I would grant myself the right to criticize the parents of dead soldiers who think I’m an traitor for being against the war. I think they’re wrong and I would defend myself if confronted, but I happen to have the good grace to keep my yap shut because after all they lost a kid in the war and I didn’t and I don’t have any right to get on some blog and expound about how they’re actually deluded or liars or whatnot. Unfortunately, as I’ve learned time and time and time again, the most vociferous people on the right seem to think that when it comes to politics, everybody’s fair game unless they sign up for the bandwagon opinion. That includes the parents of dead soldiers, or live soldiers who disagree with you, or hell even dead soldiers that disagreed with you, because NOTHING IS MORE IMPORTANT than “victory” in Iraq, and that trumps all…including common human decency and humility.

    So RA, sorry if Berg doesn’t agree with you about Bush and the war. Sorry if that hurts your feelings. Sorry if that’s politically inconvenient for your ilk, to have fathers and mothers of people dead in the war “ranting” about the waste of it all. If you didn’t want to have people with some inconvenient measure of moral authority as a result of the losses they’ve endured running around criticizing your little war, then maybe you shouldn’t have been so eager to start it in the first place.

    In short: YOU don’t get to criticize what the father of a person killed in Iraq thinks just because he doesn’t agree with you. That might give you less to rant about in blog comments, but really, you should try to remember that simple rule of human decency.

  33. Ale Says:

    I blame Bush

    Richard, What I was getting at is that evil is really completely separate from politics, and Its not really about blaming Bush, or even Hitler for that matter. It isn’t about religion, and certainly not about the “absence of good”…

    Rather, its an abstraction, where as an unintended consequence of actions puts into place something that is really out of the control or consciousness of any one individual. I feel like Serial murderers can never have the courage to face up to the ruin they have caused, or can ever grasp what they have done. And I feel this is the same reason why many that go off to war (even if it is for a greater good), find themselves haunted and isolated, unable to speak about the atrocities they have encountered.

  34. agip Says:

    X: “The point is you, a nobody, don’t really have the moral authority to question what a father thinks of his son’s death, including who or what he blames it on. Period.”

    X, who made you the Absolute Granter of Moral Authority? Is that a job you applied to the pope for? Or maybe you’re the Mahdi? Reincarnation of Ghandi? Just ‘progressive’? Where do you get your authority to decide who has ‘moral authority’ from? I mean, I didn’t vote for you.

    I’ve seen a lot of people die, some of them gruesomely. Does that give me authority to tell you to shut up about death? No. It doesn’t. You aren’t ‘nobody,’ you are a human being with inalienable rights to speak your mind, even if I find your words objectionable. So is Berg; so is everyone in this thread.

    But telling people to shut up, they don’t have the authority, has become typical of the ‘progressive’ camp, as it is typical of any elitist priesthood. Eff that. There is NO HUMAN MORAL AUTHORITY beyond the individual conscience. So eff you and eff your ‘moral authority’ and eff your sad attempt to wall off opinions you can’t handle any other way.

    You have the right to question anyone. So do I. And if we BOTH exercise that right, we both might learn something. Anything less is authoritarian crap that sends us down the toilet.

  35. Treadmilljoe Says:

    There is a functional way to look at evil. Once I am sure someone is evil the only intelligent course worth my time is action not understanding. I may try to understand my adversary in terms of tactics and strategy. For a person to be labeled by me as evil means that I want that person as my target. I have decided that I have a choice between being the predator or the prey and I hesitate in making that choice (Hamlet like) to my peril.

  36. sergey Says:

    We can not understand evil. But we do not really need to. It is enough to know that it exist, that it grows and became more powerful when got unpunished and that when confronted with evident evil every decent person must attempt to stop it. What should be said to a villain: I am not here to understand you or dispute with you. I am here to blow your brains out. And do that, if you can.

  37. Jason D. Says:

    Bravo, agip!

  38. agip Says:

    Morning after regrets: I apologize for using vulgarity in my last post, and if I could edit the post I would bring it up at least out of the gutter. One of the things I very much appreciate about Neoneocon is the level of discourse here, and I regret bringing it down.

    What I should have said, in brief, is: The idea that one must have some kind of ‘moral authority’ or, ANY authority whatsoever, in order to speak is a fundamental denial of individual human rights and an advocacy of authoritarian social structures. Whoever has the authority to grant and deny ‘moral authority’ has the authority to decide who can speak and who can’t, and that is simply tyranny.

    And it is always a ‘who,’ a person or group of people. Moral authority isn’t granted naturally, or we would all pretty much agree on what constitutes it. No, it doesn’t just materialize out of thin air; someone has to decide what the requirement is to hold ‘moral authority.’ Is it a particular experience or set of experiences? A particular regime of study? A particular outlook? A particular genetic characteristic? Someone always controls that narrative, and that someone is naturally a tyrant.

    Certainly, authority has its place in free speech; we tend to trust the physicist when he speaks on physics because he is an authority in that field. And we may laugh at the physicist who speaks on theology (just as we may laugh at the theologian who pronounces on physics). However, this authority is expertise; it is not the authority TO SPEAK. Every human being is born with the inalienable right to speak on any topic, and abridging that right is a step towards tyranny.

  39. Laura Says:


    great post!

  40. Xanthippas Says:

    X, who made you the Absolute Granter of Moral Authority?

    I’m not. But I am in a position to make moral judgments, as I’m human. And I judge that it’s sorry to say that a guy whose mad that his son died in Iraq is “pimping” his son’s death. I don’t think I need to be Ghandi or God to say that.

    You have the right to question anyone. So do I. And if we BOTH exercise that right, we both might learn something.

    Sigh. I knew somebody would make this argument. Of course you have the right. RA has the “right” to be an ass and say whatever he wants; sure he does. I have the “right” to be an ass too and to say to anyone I know that commentator RA at the Neo-Neocon blog is an ass and a bozo and a loser. What I’m talking about is the basic human decency to not say something like the dad of a guy dead in Iraq is “pimping” his son’s death.

    As to your follow-up comment…I appreciate the effort to add some nuance to your argument. But I’ve never said and don’t believe that you need some sort of moral authority or professional qualification to be qualified to express your opinion on a topic. People can judge your credentials and decide whether you’re believable or not. But, to fail to acknowledge that Berg’s dad has more moral authority to speak about his son’s death than RA does to accuse him of pimping his son’s death is just stupid. I don’t need that much moral authority to say RA is a bozo and a jerk for saying something like that. I don’t think it’s a step towards “tyranny” to do so. Instead, it’s a step towards reminding RA and other commentators here that while we have the right under the Constitution to speak our mind (to the extent Neo lets us do so on her blog at least) we also have a moral duty not to be jerks about it and impugn the integrity and character of people whose kids died in Iraq when they don’t say what we want them to say.

  41. Richard Aubrey Says:


    I don’t claim moral authority. I claim common sense.
    Also, I notified next of kin during the Viet Nam era a couple of times. So I know the face of the war-bereaved.
    Berg is not acting like a bereaved parent. His son was not killed in Iraq as if he were a soldier acting on Bush’s orders. He went there on his own business and was captured by murderous, sadistic psychopaths who like to do that stuff and come from a culture which likes to see it done.

    Papa Berg knows this as well as I do. He might have said, early on, “eff Bush”. But no sane man would continue to believe what he is peddling. His ideology compels him to go through this in order to provide grist for those who know better but pretend to believe, to be outraged at Bush, and for the dull normals out there who might believe him.
    Berg is bad. The ideology which compels him is worse. Worst, is that he would not hesitate to insist on such a sacrifice from some other one of the faithful.

  42. Sally Says:

    X: …we also have a moral duty not to be jerks about it and impugn the integrity and character of people whose kids died in Iraq when they don’t say what we want them to say.

    First of all, Berg didn’t die in Iraq. Second, being a parent doesn’t endow you with any special “moral authority”, and certainly doesn’t excuse you from moral judgment if and when you make absurd or vicious remarks. Using the occasion of his own son’s death to make a partisan political point, asserting that those who sawed off his son’s head are morally superior to the hated Bush, is both absurd and vicious, and takes away from Berg’s father any authority he might have had, moral or otherwise. Such people — Cindy Sheehan is another obvious example — impugn their own integrity and character.

  43. agip Says:

    X later: But I’ve never said and don’t believe that you need some sort of moral authority or professional qualification to be qualified to express your opinion on a topic.

    X earlier: The point is you, a nobody, don’t really have the moral authority to question what a father thinks of his son’s death, including who or what he blames it on. Period. … In short: YOU don’t get to criticize what the father of a person killed in Iraq thinks just because he doesn’t agree with you.

    I would not have written anything on this thread if you hadn’t claimed RA didn’t have the ‘moral authority’ to speak. You did claim he had no right to speak; you put it very clearly: “YOU don’t get to criticize …”

  44. Xanthippas Says:


    Wow, so you continue to go on by questioning Berg’s integrity AND his sanity. You are a true class-act sir.
    Your response, such as it is, demonstrates that yet again you have no idea what I’m talking about. Then again, if you had the decency to understand what I’m saying now, you never would have said what you did in the first place.

  45. Xanthippas Says:

    Second, being a parent doesn’t endow you with any special “moral authority”, and certainly doesn’t excuse you from moral judgment if and when you make absurd or vicious remarks.

    I should be amazed at the willingness of commentators here to defend RA’s disgusting remarks, but I’m not.

    By the way, yes actually being the parent of someone killed in war DOES grant you a special moral authority. You can call Murtha a traitor, impugn Bush’s integrity, blame the war on the military-industrial complex, and pretty much say whatever you want cause YOUR KID DIED IN A WAR. And the rest of us should just shut up and take it because their KID DIED IN A WAR. But I supposes that’s my liberal common decency talking there, a trait that puts me at a significant disadvantage to right-wingers who think that everyone’s integrity is up for question.

  46. Bugs Says:

    I sympathize with Mr. Berg’s loss, I completely understand why he said what he did, and I would help and protect him as I would any injured person if I were in a position to do so – despite the fact that I probably disagree with him politically. My attitude toward him is due to my own charity. You don’t kick people when they’re down, especially not your fellow citizens. His ‘moral authority’ has nothing to do with it.

    Fact is, I do not recognize anyone’s moral authority. It just doesn’t exist. When the term is applied to Berg and Sheehan, it’s usually just argumentum ad misericordium under a different name. Berg has personally suffered from the Iraq conflict more than I have, therefore he…what? Knows more about the Iraq conflict than I do?

    I got hit in the head with a boomerang when I was a kid. Almost knocked me out, I bled all over my new shirt, had to get stitches, and I still have the scar. Does that make me a boomerang expert? Probably not. The most this experience ‘entitles’ me to say is, “Boomerangs can be dangerous. Be careful playing with boomerangs.”

    Does Berg’s experience with the Iraq war entitle him to offer anything more than “In war, innocent people like my son sometimes get killed, and it’s terrible?”

    What I’m saying is, Berg has the right to grieve as much as he wants and, in grieving, to say anything his heart tells him to say. That includes expressing anger at George Bush and the war. I have no problem with that. But if he’s going to engage in a serious debate about policy, he’d better bring something more to the discussion than “I’ve suffered more than you have.”

    The same goes for people who want to use his experience in their own debates, or to shut down the debates of others.

  47. Xanthippas Says:

    What I’m saying is, Berg has the right to grieve as much as he wants and, in grieving, to say anything his heart tells him to say. That includes expressing anger at George Bush and the war. I have no problem with that. But if he’s going to engage in a serious debate about policy, he’d better bring something more to the discussion than “I’ve suffered more than you have.”i>

    I don’t think he’s said that. And I’m not really saying that for him. All I’m saying is that, as a result of Berg’s loss, people like RA should have the decency to respect the man enough to not say things like he’s pimping his own son’s death. That’s a disgusting thing to say to any parent who in their grief offers a political opinion.

  48. Ariel Says:

    The problem, X, is that you carried it too far. You granted Berg a form of absolute moral authority (your own words and their implications will burn you if you say you didn’t) which neither he, nor anyone, deserves from personal tragedy. You may take exception with RA’s assertion, and you can show RA where he is wrong, both in substance and decency, but you cannot give Berg a free pass from criticism.

    I see in your words some underlying assumptions that I find abhorrent: 1) victim = moral authority and 2) that no parent would use their child, or their child’s tragedy, for self-aggrandizement. The first creates a world of petty tyrants, and the second blinds us to the reality that some parents are narcissists that use their children. Note that I have said nothing about Berg himself.

  49. Bugs Says:

    Suits me. Picking on grieving parents is certainly uncalled-for. I suspect few of us would write these things if we thought Berg were ever actually going to read them. Nobody likes hurting real, suffering human beings.

    Here’s the problem: None of the crap we see on TV and read in the papers and on the web is ‘real.’ It’s all carefully staged to make us feel and think in certain ways. We know we are being manipulated, we expect to be manipulated, and we assume it’s going on all the time. The issue with Berg is that, although his personal grief feels real to him, his public grief does not feel real to us. We’re not criticizing Berg the man – who is someone we don’t know at all and will probably never meet in our lifetimes. Instead, somehow, we’re criticizing Berg the media creature – another made-up denizen of un-reality who comes before us to make a Point.

    I could weep with the flesh-and-blood Berg. The other one is just background noise.

  50. Ariel Says:

    Bugs, I agree with you. The private man I would likely give a free pass, though I may attempt to counsel rather than criticize.

  51. agip Says:

    X: yes actually being the parent of someone killed in war DOES grant you a special moral authority. You can call Murtha a traitor, impugn Bush’s integrity, blame the war on the military-industrial complex, and pretty much say whatever you want cause YOUR KID DIED IN A WAR. And the rest of us should just shut up and take it because their KID DIED IN A WAR.

    Maybe I’m not understanding your terms. What exactly do you mean by ‘moral authority,’ and exactly how does one come by it?

  52. Sally Says:

    If your kid died in a war, you still don’t have the “moral authority” — whatever that’s supposed to mean — to make racist or fascist public statements unchallenged, for example, and I doubt that X’s so-called “liberal common decency” would “just shut up and take it” in such a case. No, this brand of “common decency” extends only to those whose grief is expressed in terms the Bush-deranged consider politically correct. What sets Berg’s father apart is not his grief, nor his opposition to the war, to any war, nor his hostility to Bush — it’s the deliberate, public comparison of those who hacked off his son’s head and publicized the video to the hated political figure, and the elevation of his own son’s killers. That’s what impugns his character and integrity, never mind judgment, and sympathy for such a repugnant statement is neither liberal nor common nor decent.

  53. Ymarsakar Says:

    The special moral authority refered is the one that chickenhawks do not have according to shirley-narcissist.

  54. Bugs Says:

    The only moral authority you’re responsible to is your own conscience. When you place moral authority in someone or something other than your conscience, you diminish yourself as a moral being. Worse, people will be able to manipulate you by claiming authority where none really exists.

    I think the only reason moral authority was brought up in this discussion was that the term has been in the news lately. It’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue. You can call on it to make someone look inhumane or hypocritical, or just to shut them up. ‘Sorry – absolute moral authority, no discussion allowed!’ I think in this case someone just pulled it out of their bag of rhetorical tricks without really considering what it means. Of course, it means nothing. Especially now that the politicians and pundits have been rolling it around in their filthy mouths.

    I think X. might doing one of two things: First, he might be cynically using Berg’s pain and suffering, feigning compassion and outrage in order to make the conservatives look cruel and heartless by comparison. Or, he might be expressing genuine sympathy and defending the grief-stricken Berg against inappropriate criticism. This being the Internet, we’ll never know which. Maybe I’ll just give him the benefit of the doubt.

    I would also say that media exposure cheapens everything, no matter how profound. Before you go public with your grief or love or any other deeply-felt emotion, expecting the public to understand and sympathize – just think of the phrase “pearls before swine.” You’ll save yourself a lot of frustration.

  55. Ymarsakar Says:

    Anything less is authoritarian crap that sends us down the toilet.

    Xanth is pretty far down the totalitarian useful idiot camp already.

  56. agip Says:

    No, Bugs, I think X means it. That would be why he ignored my post showing his contradictory claims and simply reasserted the authority to tell people when they can and cannot speak. He actually seems to believe in some ‘moral authority,’ which is why I asked him to explain it. Similar to your position, I don’t think there is any human moral authority beyond the individual conscience.

    To me, not telling Berg to his face that he’s ‘pimping his son’s death’ is simply decent behavior, meaning it’s the way I act because I’m a decent person, not because he has any authority of any kind. I.e., my actions depend on MY decency, not any particular quality of his. So X’s assertion that some form of authority is involved is puzzling, unless it is just a crass idea cooked up to shut up the ‘wrong’ people and force everyone to listen to the ‘correct’ people.

  57. Jason D. Says:

    Well, let me settle this now:

    I hereby declare myself Grand Pontiff of Moral Authority. All argument from suffering/appeals to (moral) authority MUST be approved by me to be valid.

  58. Lee Says:

    Hey, wait a minute!
    I paid good money to some guy downtown to have absolute moral authority in all issues. So why do I now need your approval, Jason?

  59. agip Says:

    Oh, but do either of you gents have an Absolute Moral Authority Card??? Hmmmm????

    Ah, I thought not.

  60. Bugs Says:

    agip – It is a crass idea most recently cooked up – or at least taken out of the fridge and microwaved – by Maureen Dowd. Reason enough not to take it seriously.

  61. Ymarsakar Says:

    If the moral authority that Berg Vater got was extremely high because he saw one son die, then when a person ends war by annihilating humanity, including his own family, then that person would achieve Ultimate Dominance in terms of authority and credibility. When he says something is true, his moral position is indefeatable and unchallengeable, for he has lost much and seen much loss.

  62. FredHjr Says:

    It seems to me that “evil” is a moral category which stands in contrast with its opposite, “the good.” Therefore, because we need to resort to philosophy AND theology in order to even consider it a meaningful topic, there are both rational and aesthetic dimensions to it. Moreover, because of its power and its ultimately mysterious nature, it does indeed have a supernatural identity. By its fruits you shall know it. I would further add that evil has a malevolent, cruel, vicious, and sadistic core, that it has to hide by means of deception in order to be deployed in the process of our destruction.

    I have indeed known evil people. They aren’t many. “The banality of evil” only describes a cover, and does not reveal the core of what it is. So much for that. Evil people are deceivers who seek power and domination over others. They ENJOY inflicting harm on people. Their pleasure principle is so opposite of most of us that sometimes it is difficult for normal, healthy people to conceive of it and understand it.

    In totalitarian societies, many people collaborate with it, but are not necessarily evil people. They are indeed guilty of a host of other sins which serve this monster at the apex of the hierarchy of wickedness. Not every German, Soviet, Chinese, North Vietnamese, North Korean, Cuban, or Muslim member of the 1400 year Ummah is evil. But many are guilty of sloth, pride, greed, cowardice, and a host of other bad traits that make for an easy accommodation with those who pull the levers of power.

    Evil is corrosive of vitality. It truly is necrophiliac, metaphorically, symbolically, and literally.

  63. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Says:

    Funny to come here months later — but the issue of Art (Mamet changing his mind, 14 Mar 2008) led me to think of evil. Was too busy working to read or leave comments in Sept.

    Evil is wanting to do bad to others; to have the power to do bad over others; the willingness to do bad; the desire that bad happens (envy).
    Even the willingness to do bad “for a greater good”.

    On Berg … is it possible to “pimp a dead son”? If it’s not, then of course daddy Berg can’t do it. If it IS possible, what would that mean? What would it look like?

    I claim it is possible. I think son Berg, like son Sheehan, were defying their parents when the children chose to go to Iraq, go into the military. If so, how the parents are using their grief is a legitimate polite topic of conversation. I don’t like the way the parents are betraying the children.

  64. Jackie Says:

    Words and actions determine evil. Correct

    Evil (words and action) are used to attain, maintain power. Correct

    Yet your politics support the rise of evil in this country, by the above definitions!

    But you think this evil is, less than and needed, to confront the greater evil.

    It’s false logic!

    Hamas wants hard-liners in power, they fight, that Hamas will always fight. But the real question is, will they lead?

    Is complete appeasement the answer? Of course not.

    But the Neocons, need the fight as well to stay in power, our lesser evil.

    This evil has become vicious circle.

  65. Vince P Says:

    * rolling my eyes at |—||| neocons!!!! |||—| *

  66. nyomythus Says:

    Where does evil come from? Religion

  67. Davidus Carvinus Says:

    Scott Peck wrote that evil could be defined as “live” spelled backwards: that which took away life. On the basis of which he opposed the Vietnam War. But a few pages later he was approving of free choice and abortion rights, without reference to life spelled backwards or forwards.

    It is no accident that the Me Generation would also be the Subjective Generation.

    So I ask if subjectivism might be the actual basis of evil. And sure enough, that’s how the Bible sees it: If you choose to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, you will be godlike, deciding for yourself what is good and what is evil.

    And this cuts us off from the other tree, with its fruit: life.

    What we fail to appreciate is that we ALL have been deceived and are under the self-delusion and power of evil. And that is the significance of the Light who came into the world, which the darkness did not overcome.

    Joyeux Noel, y’all.

About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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