What's Evil Got to Do with It?

My editor, David Swindle, has a penchant for assigning me to review what I’d consider some pretty nasty stuff. It started with HBO, Girls in particular. He tried getting me into Game of Thrones, but after the whole Red Wedding thing I just couldn’t take it. Now, David has me watching Scandal. It’s more palatable in the network sense (nowhere near the gratuitous nudity and graphic sex levels of HBO), but it’s still as dark. Nothing beats watching a show about a team of lawyers who don’t care a whit about the law. In fact, they go to great lengths to break the law in order to serve the gods of public opinion.

Only four episodes in, I consulted with my PJ colleague April Bey, a big fan of the show, for her opinion. “Everyone is evil, but that’s okay because we’re all evil,” she explained. Her observation was ironic, disturbing, and thought-provoking. Despite an apparent thread of cynicism regarding religion and morality, the struggle between good and evil remains the stuff of blockbuster hits like Scandal. Because our stories reflect our cultural psyche, it should come as no surprise that the word “evil” is beginning to carry serious weight in intellectual circles. Ascribed with more power than a petty adjective (i.e. early 2000’s “evil” George W. Bush), evil is now being discussed as a theory and a reason for contemporary political, legal, military and indeed cultural failings.

Take, for example, Camille Paglia commenting on “Yes Means Yes” campus rape legislation:

Current educational codes, tracking liberal-Left, are perpetuating illusions about sex and gender. The basic Leftist premise, descending from Marxism, is that all problems in human life stem from an unjust society and that corrections and fine-tunings of that social mechanism will eventually bring utopia. Progressives have unquestioned faith in the perfectibility of mankind.

The horrors and atrocities of history have been edited out of primary and secondary education except where they can be blamed on racism, sexism, and imperialism — toxins embedded in oppressive outside structures that must be smashed and remade. But the real problem resides in human nature, which religion as well as great art sees as eternally torn by a war between the forces of darkness and light.

Liberalism lacks a profound sense of evil — but so does conservatism these days, when evil is facilely projected onto a foreign host of rising political forces united only in their rejection of Western values.

The easiest approach to evil in our culture is to merely deny that it exists. Laugh in the face of “religion as well as great art” before simply chalking it off as ignorant, superstitious, wrong. And when the social engineering doesn’t work, we throw more money and more intellect at the problem. We disgrace the old thinkers and surround ourselves with new ones whose ideas form a fortress around us, protecting our culture from the “ignorance” we’ve learned to despise, and even fear.

PJ Media’s own Roger L. Simon  picked up Paglia’s “rejection of Western values” ball, making this key observation regarding the Obama administration’s apparent lack of concern — care even — for ISIS:

At its basis, the problem is cultural relativism, the tawdry mother philosophy of political correctness that suffused the academy when Obama was  going to school and still does. Under CR, all cultures are equal, ours and the Islamic State. We are imperialist to think otherwise. Morality is a thing of the distant past, some artifact of St. Anselm or Maimonides.  Not cool, even if it protects us from murdering each other.

…Good and evil are difficult concepts for everybody, especially we products of the modernist educational system.  But we ignore them at our peril. Otherwise, we really are at Midnight.

Beheadings. Religious wars. Masked men. All this is the stuff of dark ages, history, a folklore that defined what we call “terror” as evil. Terror itself is a concept birthed from evil, but just as we dismissed away evil we declared, mocked and finally protested a war on terror for over a decade. Now we have radical Islamists swinging axes in New York City and beheading co-workers in Oklahoma. We hush up Islamic connections and call it “workplace violence” because “terror” is so passe.

Paul Berman expanded the conversation on evil by contrasting our ancestors’ attitude toward evil with our own. In doing so, he taps into one reason — perhaps the reason — why we have such trouble confronting evil in our culture: We have educated ourselves out of believing in the existence of evil and in our ability to stop it.

The ancients believed in the power of evil. They considered that evil forces were capable of rising up unbidden and wreaking destruction for no reason whatsoever. …But the medievals believed, or at least sometimes believed, that anyone who wishes to refuse Satan’s temptations is free to do so. In this fashion, the belief in the autonomous power of evil proved to be, during a period of 2,500 years, a belief, as well, in free will.

We moderns, though—we look upon evil as a problem in social science. We assume that if someone has gone on a barbarous rampage, or if popular political movements have set out to annihilate entire populations for fantastical reasons, the horrors can be rationally explained. We ask the economists, sociologists, political scientists, and geographers to investigate the origins, and the scholars duly speak to us about poverty, social dislocations, aridification, the psychological costs of national humiliation, and so forth. The explanations conform to what, in the modern age, counts as common sense. And yet, if you look closely at the social-science explanations, they boil down to a single thought, which can be expressed with a pointed finger. It is the idea that, if people in some part of the world have fallen into a deranged and murderous rage, somebody else must ultimately be to blame. This is the meaning of “root causes.”

…We reflect that maybe we should do something to impede the outbreaks of horror. We lift a finger. Just now, we have lifted two fingers. Maybe three! But we moderns have had trouble motivating ourselves to do even this much, and that is because, not believing in evil, we do not believe in free will, either, not even for ourselves.

Conservative critics are quick to pan Scandal for predictable reasons. The show depicts a Republican president who would be considered a RINO in policy-making terms. The premiere episode featured the most decorated American soldier since World War Two, a spokesperson for the NRA and a devout Christian, coming out of the closet as a homosexual in order to prove his innocence in a murder case. (His allibi was legit — he was with his boyfriend.) The vice president is a much-despised stereotypical Bible Belt ultra-conservative who has no problem performing quick exegesis in order to judge the behavior of others and would make Pat Buchanan look like a moderate. In short, the show is a typical Hollywood “we stereotype conservatives” setup, which makes it easy to disparage and dismiss. This is where the most religious (and, perhaps, biblically-oriented) of the Right are wrong. In dismissing Scandal they are dismissing one of the most popular examples of Jacob’s struggle between God and human nature, between good and evil, that is on network television today.

Any serious political commentator’s main concern should not be policy. It should be evil. Renegade intellectuals are finally looking at the world and figuring out that something is seriously wrong with the way we think, and that bad thinking is what produces bad policy, bad reporting, and bad behavior. We need to reintroduce these concepts into our culture and that isn’t going to happen en masse through campaigning and advocacy. It is going to happen the way it did 3,000 years ago: through stories. Scandal is a modern morality play, examining the human struggle with good and evil. Olivia Pope, Cyrus Beene, President Grant, and the whole lot are the patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets wrestling, as Jacob did, with God and with evil. Are they always right and perfect? No. In fact, the times they are right are very few and far between. And that failing is exemplary of the modern psyche’s belief that Paul Berman explained so well: while we wrestle with evil, we also wrestle with believing that evil exists and, perhaps the most scandalous idea of all, believing that we can overcome it.