Michael Ignatieff offers some thoughts on Alan Wolfe’s book, Political Evil, today at Slate. The Canadian professor/pol/world citizen starts out by declaring his liberalism and moving to an interesting point — interesting because it is a point they often use to tag conservatives as narrowminded oversimplifiers of nuanced situations:
Evil is a moral problem for everyone, difficult to acknowledge in ourselves, hard to understand in others, and difficult to defeat without committing lesser evils. Liberals—I count myself as one—have a special problem with evil, connected to our particular form of self-regard. Liberals like to believe we are tolerant, but evil, by definition, cannot be tolerated. We believe that politics ought to be deliberative, but we can’t deliberate with evil. We think compromise can be honorable, but there are no honorable compromises with evil. We think politics ought to be governed by reason, but evildoers, while they may reason, are not reasonable.
“Difficult to acknowledge in ourselves”, indeed. But that’s not really my point, and I’ll give Prof. Ignatieff credit for making a good-faith mental effort here. He notes that Wolfe distinguishes between political evil and its more generic form:
There is plenty of evil out there, he points out, which has no politics at all: adolescents slaughtering other adolescents at a high school, predators molesting children, loners acting out fantasies of revenge and empowerment with automatic weapons. Our various therapeutic and explanatory discourses still leave us without consolation in the face of these murderous frenzies, but, Wolfe argues, we should at least spare ourselves the foolish idea that such evil lurks in all our hearts. The Norwegian killer who sprayed bullets over children at a liberal party summer camp was a psychopath. He is not us and we are not him. He tells us nothing about Europe, about Norwegian society, about anything. It accords him a dignity he does not deserve to explain him. It is appropriate to mourn and remember, and it would be prudent to keep him locked up for good. It is an utter waste of time to give him significance.
On the other hand, the evils of terrorism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the like are done “with motives, intentions, which while repellent are political.” Ignatieff considers Wolfe’s book with an eye toward this sort of evil, and he confines his discussion to the international stage. Again, that’s fine — it would be silly for me to complain that his article is the article that he presumably meant to write, rather than some hypothetical piece I would have preferred to read.
But it gets interesting for me a bit later. Wolfe contends that political evil is multifarious, in a variety of shades and degrees of depravity. To lump it all together, he says, is to deny ourselves the precision we need to properly understand what is going on:
Nothing is gained, and much is lost, if, in seeking to mobilize opinion to stop a massacre, you call it genocide. You debase the coinage of outrage. Next time you cry wolf, no one will believe you.
I would suggest that this is what has happened to the race card in American political discourse — because the accusation of racism has been applied so liberally (see what I did there?), it has become, like Orwell’s fascism, merely a term for “something we dislike.” But this is simply one example.
Indeed, I find a significant portion of Wolfe-via-Ignatieff to be particularly applicable to contemporary American political discourse.
And before the tu quoques start flying, yes, I’m aware that we see this on the Right as well — but those folks don’t seem to post this stuff on my facebook page these days.
But as Ignatieff notes in his review:
Politics, Alan Wolfe wants us to understand, is not a morality play. Our world is not divided into the forces of light and the forces of darkness, the good and the evil, the righteous and the damned, the saved and the sinners. In a world understood politically, all motives are mixed; all intentions are impure, and the teams on the field of […] politics do not reliably divide into good guys and bad. All victims are not innocent, all perpetrators are not without justifying motive; and all properly political solutions to the problem of evil involve supping with the devil and eating with a long spoon.
I agree with this, which brings us to that tragic view I mentioned in this post’s title. I think part of conservatism means acknowledging the imperfectability of man. That’s why we’re suspicious of government — it is composed of human beings, and inevitably, therefore, will screw up. Given that certainty, I think it wise to minimize its power. But I think an intellectually honest conservative has to at least be open to the possibility of being wrong.
On the other hand, I think the Left leaves itself particularly open to the sort of Manichean error Ignatieff describes and that I see in the pictures above. But because of that very Manicheanism, it is too easy for someone to start with a good idea — say, feeding the hungry — but to decide that because their goal is good, that anyone who disagrees with their methods must perforce be evil, which puts those opponents into a realm of That Which Must Be Destroyed. The sensitivity to shade and nuance that Wolfe calls for (and upon which, ironically, many on the left pride themselves) is lost.
To move to a concrete example, many on the right oppose the welfare state. This is not because we hate the poor. Rather, I think it’s because we see the problem of poverty as an inevitable product of the differences between people in an imperfect world. Because it is inevitable, attempts to fix it range from harmless-but-futile to futile-and-malignant, based at least to some degree on the size and scope of the effort. Is this not nuanced? But it’s far easier simply to chalk all this up to avarice and a sociopathic disregard for our fellow man (see the Colbert image above.) Ironically, the accusations of a lack of empathy are themselves proof of a failure of imagination — of empathy — on the accuser’s own part.
So where does all this lead us? Well, perhaps it leads us to the not-quite-a-solution that my friend the Major and I have reached. I would like to believe I understand his motivations, although I disagree with where they lead him. I trust he regards me similarly. For either of us to write off the other would be a genuine evil, and tragic as well.