One of the main differences between American and European cinema, a difference that has held up whenever I discuss the topic of evil and Nazism with Europeans, is the concept of where evil comes from. Americans mostly think that evil like Nazism is a geographical construct that you can localize to some other place (Germany) and time (
pre-bellum antebellum slave states). Obviously, by implication, we have nothing to do with those bad people. Europeans mostly understand Nazism as an impulse towards evil which everyone always has to decide whether or not to indulge. This game show that Glenn Greenwald highlights will be perfectly understood by most Europeans as an expression of that point.
We tried the exact same experiment in America almost fifty years ago (and then we tried it again in abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo, and Bagram air base…). Just like French game show players, people mostly tortured when someone in authority told them to. Every psychologist knows about the Milgram experiments (or should) but most Americans never heard of them because they don’t fit our idea of America as a uniquely enlightened place that would never do what entire American towns did to black people as recently as the 1980s.
So Glenn is baffled, or maybe he’s playing at being baffled.
I just watched an amazing discussion of this French experiment on Fox News. The Fox anchors — Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum — were shocked and outraged that these French people could be induced by the power of television to embrace torture.
Speaking as employees of the corporation that produced the highly influential, torture-glorifying 24, and on the channel that has churned out years worth of pro-torture “news” advocacy, the anchors were particularly astonished that television could play such a powerful role in influencing people’s views and getting them to acquiesce to such heinous acts. Ultimately, they speculated that perhaps it was something unique about the character and psychology of the French that made them so susceptible to external influences and so willing to submit to amoral authority, just like many of them submitted to and even supported the Nazis, they explained. I kept waiting for them to make the connection to America’s torture policies and Fox’s support for it — if only to explain to their own game show participants at home Fox viewers why that was totally different — but it really seemed the connection never even occurred to them. They just prattled away shocked and angry about the evils of torture and mindless submission to authority and the role television plays in all of that.
Sadly, in this case the Fox News crew doesn’t really stand out from the rest of us. Can you remember the last time you saw an American action flick where (by the end, plot twists permitting) the lead and the antagonist didn’t have “good” and “bad” tattooed on their forehead? Americans eat that black-and-white shit up. The problem is that this attitude of good-self versus bad-other is not just a great opiate for those nagging feelings of doubt, it’s also an essential prerequisite for acts of incredible evil.
We want to tell ourselves that some unbridgeable gulf separates us from the awful impulses that lead people to commit evil. Our entertainment industry is more than happy to sell that illusion back to us. The further we sink into manichean self-righteousness the more evil behavior will be accepted by politically significant numbers of Americans.
I don’t know whether there is an answer to this. FOX and the GOP have discovered an incredibly rich business model in shrieking manicheanism. At the very least it cannot hurt to have a President who acts like a mature adult and treats others like the same.