FYI

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.






111 replies
  1. 1
    BR says:

    This is why The Wire is such a great show. Very few characters are unambiguously good or bad. They’re just human, working within a broken social system.

  2. 2
    MBunge says:

    “Americans mostly seem to think that the evil of Nazism is a geographical construct that you can localize to some other place (Germany) and time (pre-bellum slave states), and implicitly keep at a distance from oneself. Europeans mostly understand Nazism as an impulse towards evil which everyone always has to choose whether or not to indulge.”

    If you’re defining it as a discussion of Nazism, the Americans are right. Nazism and its success in Germany WAS the product of a specific time, place and circumstance. Conflating the essential human impulse towards evil with Nazism seems like it muddles more than it clarifies.

    Mike

  3. 3
    Rick Taylor says:

    If I remember correctly, that was the impulse behind the initial Milgram experiments. They were originally going to hold them in both Germany and America, to test the hypothesis that Hitler was able to rise to power in Germany because it was in the German character to submit to power. I may have that wrong, or it may be an urban legend, but I think that’s how it was explained to me.

  4. 4
    kid bitzer says:

    but maybe this was an incredibly clever move by the french, who want to dissuade america from becoming a torturing nation by playing on–our hatred of everything french!

    pretty soon, limbaugh is going to be saying, “yeah, i used to be pro-torture, but then it turned out to be french and all. i’m starting to wonder whether dick chenée wasn’t maybe a little french underneath it all. yeah, forget torture–it’s just not worth turning french over it.”

    i mean–the hatred of all things french is no more irrational than the embrace of torture. why not fight feu with feu?

  5. 5
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    All real evil comes from Grover Norquist. All the other bad stuff just happens.

  6. 6
    Mike Kay says:

    Is it safe?

  7. 7
    El Cid says:

    So, when is it in our development as adults and as citizens that we are taught and or socialized into our responsibility not to comply with authority when it asks us to do wrong?

    I mean, I don’t really recall going through this in school or work or the military, at least, nothing more than occasional passing references and maybe a film about the Nazis every now and then (Twilight Zone episode or two).

    I don’t think that this is something society wants to teach its citizens.

  8. 8
    Bulworth says:

    What? The Faux hosts didn’t think this show was just a prank or a joke or a demonstration of how weak-kneed we hippies are being about the past administration’s torture program, which really wasn’t torture because we don’t torture?

  9. 9

    This is appalling. Not the results, which we all knew, but that someone is conducting this experiment. We already know the answer. We don’t need a beautiful model telling us to push the button; we’re perfectly happy to do it for a dumpy guy in a lab coat.

    The statistician in me also suspects that this wasn’t exactly a random sample, though maybe not worse than recruiting them on a college campus. We’re not talking 81% of French people; we’re talking about 81% of French people who wanted to be on a game show, and we don’t even know what information they had when they agreed to participate.

  10. 10
    Menzies says:

    I remember having arguments with my roommate last year about this stuff. While I’ll readily admit he repeatedly wiped the floor with me on things like taxes, international commerce, and debt – basically anything involving money – it always shocked me that his response to anything I brought up about the Cheney method of terrorist interrogation was “. . . but they’re terrorists!”

    Or, for example:

    The comparison [of Osama Bin Laden] to convicted killer Manson angered Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, who said it showed the Obama administration doesn’t understand the American public’s desire to treat terrorists as wartime enemies, not criminal defendants.

    The problem is twofold: one, wartime enemies have protections to recur to, such as the Geneva Accords, and two, I think it’s more that Culberson’s constituents would rather treat criminal defendants as wartime enemies.

    I think the primal fear impulse has not only made us easily cowed, but also prone to overreaction.

  11. 11
    clyons11 says:

    Guess I’m surprised that you’re surprised, Tim. You insist on applying consistency and reason to systems that are predicated on The Gut and It’s Different When WE Do It.

  12. 12
    jeffreyw says:

    Was it the Stoics that defined “things in themselves” v “judgments about things”? The notion of evil I have is there is evil in the world because I judge some actions to be evil. Just because large blocs of people can agree that certain actions are evil doesn’t mean that Evil is abroad in the world as a thing in itself, it is just that we can agree to call things evil.

  13. 13

    This American Life had something about the Milgram experiments in the last year. I also read about it somewhere else, but generally the average American will not have heard of this. A majority of Americans don’t believe the evidence for evolution. Sigh.

  14. 14
    Kryptik says:

    @J. Michael Neal:

    I don’t think the point was so much to re-test Milgram’s experiment, so much as to test how much the television effect amplifies that already abhorrent yet common human impulse.

  15. 15
    Kryptik says:

    @The Grand Panjandrum:

    I would hope that they at least remember the experiment even if they don’t remember the name. Hell, I was only reminded of the name Milgram on the various articles about this, but I damn sure remembered the experiment.

  16. 16
    Menzies says:

    @MBunge:

    I’m taking a class on Nazi Germany right now – well, on totalitarianism in general, but our current focus is Nazi Germany. Detlev Peukert, whom we’re reading right now, would argue that time and circumstance were certainly necessary, since he explicitly equates the rise of Nazi Germany with the fall a mass industrial society, but he also discounts the idea that it could only have happened in Germany.

    I think Greenwald’s distinction might be different from the one you’re making.

  17. 17
    The Main Gauche of Mild Reason says:

    @The Grand Panjandrum:

    Nobody but elitist liberals listens to NPR. Preaching to the choir.

  18. 18
    Osprey says:

    @The Grand Panjandrum:

    A majority of Americans don’t believe the evidence for evolution.

    Sadly enough, every time I see a Republican on TV or hear about anything to do with the ‘Tea-Baggers’, I think we’re de-volving.

  19. 19
    Vince CA says:

    @Tim F, the word is antebellum, not pre-bellum. Other than that, right on. (Latin education is going downhill mumble grumble…)

  20. 20
    WereBear says:

    Most people live in stark terror of making significant decisions.

    This is the lure of black & white authoritarianism; someone else does the thinking for them… and takes the responsibility.

    If you’ve ever stood in line behind someone agonizing over their doughnut choice, (which they gave no thought to while they were standing in line to get to the register!) you’ll know what I mean.

  21. 21
    Kryptik says:

    @Menzies:

    Greenwald’s point is less that Nazism in specific wasn’t a product of the times. It’s that the kind of amoral evil that Nazism is representative of is ridiculously common and sadly universal, regardless of what mask or flag it wears.

  22. 22
    gnomedad says:

    What’s up with this Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act the article mentions. Shouldn’t we be hearing from Obama saying he doens’t want such powers?

  23. 23
    Hawes says:

    I thought the movie “The Siege” did as good a job as Hollywood is likely to do with the topic, though they failed to imagine a 9/11 type event to spark the creation of a torture regime. And yes, Bruce Willis has “evil” stamped on him at the end, but only at the end.

  24. 24
    Matthew B. says:

    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.

    But how many bad European action movies make their way over to the States? Compare the moral view in the average Jerry Bruckheimer production and the average Luc Besson production and honestly, you won’t find that much of a difference.

  25. 25
    gg says:

    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.

    In discussions like this, I always think of the great Charles Schulz, writer of “Peanuts”, who as a cartoonist showed more philosophical depth than all of FOX News combined (not that that alone is saying much).

    In one series of strips, Linus is forced to give up his blanket. After a horrible withdrawal process, he finally is cured of his addiction, just in time for Charlie Brown to hand him a new blanket and get him hooked again.

    “I thought I was doing the right thing,” Charlie told his psychiatrist.

    “In all of history, no greater damage has been done than by those who thought they were doing the right thing,” Lucy replied.

    “Five cents please.”

  26. 26
    Menzies says:

    @Kryptik:

    That’s sort of my point though – I read MBunge as saying that the rise of Nazism required 1930s Germany with all of its ancillaries (the big labor movement, the Weimar Republic, what have you) and Peukert’s contention is that Nazism required the 1930s, but not necessarily Germany itself.

    It’s all about the first paragraph, I’m not discussing the point of the whole article – that one’s fairly obvious.

  27. 27
    Tim F. says:

    @Matthew B.: Bullpockey. Watch District B13 and tell me who was the bad guy in the climactic rooftop fight scene. Who was the bad guy in The Professional? The cop trying to do his job? Fifth Element was unusual, but he wrote it for the American market.

  28. 28
    PTirebiter says:

    @Just Some Fuckhead:
    You need a solid dose of Tbogg this morning. Check out his “This is why we’ll never have nice things” then try to let go.

  29. 29
    Zifnab says:

    @Menzies: That’s my congressman.

    /facedesk

    The problem is twofold: one, wartime enemies have protections to recur to, such as the Geneva Accords, and two, I think it’s more that Culberson’s constituents would rather treat criminal defendants as wartime enemies.

    Culberson’s constituents don’t give two flips about criminal defendants and wartime enemies. Most of them are 50+ year old families in the oil business or related fields who want to retire safe and wealthy in the Greatest Nation on Earth, then ascended to Heaven to reside forever with the sweet baby Jesus.

    They don’t see themselves as targets in a society with collapsing criminal codes and they don’t care what happens to some brown person picked up by the FBI on the east coast for whatever reason the POTUS considers serious enough to do so.

    Culberson brings in votes by playing the Jesus card, not being a communist, and funneling money to the oil industry. That’s why he gets elected. A conservative Democrat who did the same would do just as well in the district. Culberson is just demagoguing the issue because it gets him media attention and maybe kicks up fund raising a bit. Other than that, he’ll vote how his party tells him to, like a good little drone.

  30. 30
    Raenelle says:

    I wonder if acceptance of faith-based religion has something to do with manichaeistic simplification. If people can be cleanly divided into saved and unsaved, why not good and evil? Which is cause, which is effect, ??? Or maybe both are just the effect of a failure to learn how to think and so are frequently found to accompany each other.

    The world is divided into people who think doubt is a sin and those who consider it a virtue. Or it’s divided into people who brag about how expensive their toys are, and people who brag about the bargains they found. One or the other.

  31. 31
    slag says:

    So Glenn is baffled, or maybe he’s playing at being baffled.

    To some extent, I share Glenn’s surprise. These are the same people who called waterboarding a fraternity-style prank. It’s not as if they seem to have any particular abhorrence of the concept of torture. This is unlike some of the rest of us who do have that abhorrence in theory, but when it comes to its actual implementation, we can rationalize it.

    In a sense, it’s the order of operations here that makes their response particularly weird. They’ve consciously, overtly approved of torture already. Not just for brown folks but for wealthy, whitey frat houses. So, at this point, to find a distaste for it when the French, specifically, do it, demonstrates an even more fragmented outlook than one might imagine possible in creatures as seemingly simplistic as Faux Newsies.

    Nuance…they have it in infinite quantities.

  32. 32
    Tim F. says:

    @Tim F.: Addendum! Besson actually made fun of American manicheanism in Fifth Element by casting evil itself in the movie. The last time I remember anybody doing that was Time Bandits.

  33. 33

    @gnomedad:

    What’s up with this Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act the article mentions. Shouldn’t we be hearing from Obama saying he doens’t want such powers?

    Why don’t we wait and see if the Judiciary Committee even holds hearings on it before we get the vapors.

  34. 34
    FlipYrWhig says:

    So Glenn is baffled, or maybe he’s playing at being baffled.

    In the original piece, isn’t Glenn baffled _that the Fox News people are baffled_ by torture acceptance? He’s not baffled himself by torture acceptance. He knows full well that way too many people groove on the idea of torture. Tim F., Greenwald agrees with you, right?

  35. 35
    Tim F. says:

    @Raenelle: Not automatically, no. Jesus despised self-righteousness and explicitly described evil as an impulse with which everyone must struggle.

    People who consider themselves superior in their righteousness and embrace manicheanism are shitty Christians.

  36. 36
    MBunge says:

    “he also discounts the idea that it could only have happened in Germany.”

    Evil can rear its head anywhere, but the Nazis could only have happened in Germany. Just look at the differences between the Nazis and Italian facists or the Nazis and their American cousins, The Klan. Regarding the specific phenomenon of Nazism as just “human evil run amuck”, which seemed to be the Euro attitude alluded to by Tim F., strikes me as unhelpful in understanding either human evil or its concrete manifestations.

    Mike

  37. 37
    RSA says:

    What surprised me most in this account of the story is this line:

    Nick and a team of psychologists recruited 80 volunteers, telling them they were taking part in a pilot for a new television show.

    My understanding is that Milgram’s experiments were one historical motivation for the establishment of IRBs, institutional review boards, committees that look at the ethics and other issues surrounding experiments with people. Years later, some of the subjects of the Milgram experiments thought they’d really been screwed up by the experience. I’m actually surprised to see even any partial replications of Milgram’s work (though there have been IRB-approved ones), much less what looks like a full-up real-life recreation. Those participants can look forward to difficulties in their future lives, I think.

  38. 38
    mr. whipple says:

    I’m loving the new tagline!

  39. 39

    @Raenelle:

    I wonder if acceptance of faith-based religion has something to do with manichaeistic simplification.

    Not really. Take the Bolsheviks, for instance.

  40. 40
    PTirebiter says:

    @WereBear:
    Hey pal, bring a snack next time. I need to see all them before I can even begin the process. The question is, why do I always end up going with two chocolate twists and a Kolache?

  41. 41
    Evinfuilt says:

    @MBunge:

    If you’re defining it as a discussion of Nazism, the Americans are right. Nazism and its success in Germany WAS the product of a specific time, place and circumstance. Conflating the essential human impulse towards evil with Nazism seems like it muddles more than it clarifies.

    Only if you exclude the rather powerful Nazi movement here in the US at the same time. Of course, we have to ignore American Nazi’s right? US is different, we never had anything like that.

  42. 42
    erlking says:

    @Menzies: Are you reading Mayer’s, They Thought They Were Free –http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/511928.html
    Fascinating firsthand accounts of life under the Nazis.

  43. 43
    Zifnab says:

    @J. Michael Neal:

    Why don’t we wait and see if the Judiciary Committee even holds hearings on it before we get the vapors.

    Because this is the sort of bill you see people muttering about in 2010, only to see start making it out of committee hearings in 2012 under President Palin.

    It’s like the Iraq War. The GOP was planning for that shit in ’98. I wish we’d had a list of Pro-War Dems back then, rather than having to wait for them to pop up full throated in ’03. I’d also like to know who needs a primary challenge in the next six years on our side of the aisle because he or she was stupid enough to give some undercover bump or head-nod to this kind of legislation.

  44. 44
    Mark says:

    Action flick: Con-Air. Even the protagonist was bad. The key theme in the movie was that the worse somebody was, the more gory the death they were going to die. But it was still evil vs more evil.

  45. 45
    Catsy says:

    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.

    Probably the single most influential work in drilling that concept into my head was the Timeline-191/Southern Victory series of novels by Harry Turtledove. These 11 books assume the South won independence in the Civil War, and follow the United States and Confederate States from the Second Mexican War in 1881 all the way through the Second World War–fought between the North and the South–with the series ending in 1944.

    The series is best read as an allegory, and in some cases a cautionary tale. Without giving away anything important, the economy of the South collapses at the end of WWI, allowing a charismatic demagogue to rise to power–and instead of Jews, the scapegoats for all the Confederacy’s ills are blacks.

    It’s worth noting that I grew up in Virginia. NoVa is not exactly what you’d call either rural or a Confederate stronghold, but I went to school with kids who proudly wore the Confederate battle flag, I had family who were unconsciously racist, and I still have a fading attachment to the region. I battle the remnants of this upbringing within myself whenever they surface. So it was very difficult to avoid empathizing with certain Southern characters in the series, and this sense of empathy and identity really shook me when characters I’d spent five or six books getting to know end up being part of the black Holocaust.

    It was, as they say, a come-to-Jesus moment. More than a few of them, actually. And since then I’ve been a lot more disturbed by people like Beck and the teabaggers than I used to be. These people are fascists, and their brand of hate-fueled demagoguery is exactly the sort of thing that makes evil possible.

  46. 46
    cleek says:

    if you believe (or know how to pretend to believe) that we don’t torture, there’s no reason to make a connection from us to a bunch of smelly French people. what’s really surprising is that they’d get that close to the topic, just in case their viewers might accidentally make the connection. but, i guess the need to belittle the French is so great that it’s worth taking the chance that viewers might drift off and have a thought of their own instead of following the two-minute-hate-on-the-French.

  47. 47
    mr. whipple says:

    Poll: Liberals Entirely United Behind Passing Health Bill

    “Dennis Kucinich’s flip on the health care vote this morning is symbolic of a broader shift among liberals. Last month 73% said they supported the plan with 19% opposed. Now 89% say they support the plan with only 3% opposed. Whether it’s because of the President’s increasing visibility on the issue or because liberals finally decided the current bill is as good as they’re going to get and better than nothing, there’s been a big rise in support since early February.”

    I think the 3%-‘ers are overwhelmingly overrepresented in the blogosphere, which should give them a clue.

  48. 48
    Matthew B. says:

    @Tim F.: Well, if it comes to that, Bruckheimer produced Enemy of the State. I’m having a hard time seeing the shaded ambiguities in Taxi Part X or Transporter Part Y — or for that matter Léon.

  49. 49
    L Boom says:

    Feel obliged to mention this in these circumstances: Robert Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians. John Dean’s Conservatives without a Conscience was based on Altemeyer’s research. (although the link doesn’t seem to be working now)

    He talks about the Milgram experiment and such, but goes into great detail about not just the right wing authoritarian (RWA) followers but their relationship with their authoritarian leaders. Not surprisingly, it’s all about tribalism; the in-group can do no wrong, the out-group can do no right, and there are never any contradictions because there’s no ideology other than the exercise of power at the heart of things.

    There’s an interesting section where he polls RWAs about the Bible and they show a total lack of knowledge about what’s actually in there because it’s entirely received wisdom. Again, not exactly surprising stuff, but he digs pretty damn deep into it.

  50. 50
    ajr22 says:

    @Mark: False, Nic Cage aka Cameron Poe was not evil at all in that movie. He was a marine who killed a dude in a bar fight while protecting his wife. As the law of this country states troops=greatness. Are you attacking the troops?

  51. 51
    Tim F. says:

    @Mark: Bullshit. Nick Cage was protagonist 1 and Jon Cusack was protagonist 2. P1 and P2 were heroically, impeccably Good. John Malkovitch was antagonist 1. A1 was absolutely, irredeemably evil. The rest of the the plane’s crew were a mix of minor antagonists (also evil) and cannon fodder. The only clever gesture, which by the way was awesome on so many levels, was casting Steve Buscemi as a Greek chorus. I wish that every movie would do that, including rom coms. Especially rom coms.

  52. 52
    patrick II says:

    OT, but I just called my congressman’s office and had to get through six busy signals at the switchboard. I think they are having a busy day.

  53. 53
    gnomedad says:

    @J. Michael Neal:

    Why don’t we wait and see if the Judiciary Committee even holds hearings on it before we get the vapors.

    OK, point taken. But given the Cheney administration’s love for the Unitary Executive, it would be nice to hear some homilies from Obama, being president and all, rejecting unaccountable executive power that the previous admin gave him. Be nice to rub their faces in it.

    Or maybe this would end up as teabagger ammo and that’s why I don’t have Rahm’s job.

  54. 54
    WereBear says:

    People who hate were, once upon a time, people who felt hated themselves.

    Scratch any authoritarian, and you’ll find a child raised with a “spare the rod” and “my way or the highway” attitude. At least, I’ve never been refuted yet, when I get the chance to ask.

    So the evil people do is their primitive way of grappling with the evil their bad experiences stirred up in themselves.

    An excellent book which shaped my thinking on this subject is Not by the Sword.

  55. 55
    Menzies says:

    @Zifnab:

    I’m not saying I know your district better than you do – and certainly I’d have no idea how Culberson campaigns in-district. As a graduate of an English-language school for scions of rich families, though, I’m not sure I was far off on the views upper-class people hold on crime.

    @MBunge:

    Someone after your comment raised the specter of the American Nazi movement, but I don’t think that’s a legit argument since we never had an explicitly Nazi government.

    Also, I’ll admit it – I mistyped. I meant to say Tim’s distinction, not Greenwald’s; I’m running on four hours of sleep and the two articles mashed together into a coherent whole somehow.

    I think the European interpretation of evil is a little more nuanced than “human evil run amok,” though, particularly in German historiography since you have to deal with the existence of a population who were not directly guilty of war crimes but who also did not actively resist the regime under whose control they were.

    @erlking:

    Unfortunately no, probably because my professor’s specialty is 1930s Russian history. (In Soviet Russia, history writes you!) I’ll mention the book to him, though.

  56. 56
    Matthew B. says:

    Steve Buscemi’s serial killer in Con Air was there as comic relief. Weird, weird script.

  57. 57
    Joseph Nobles says:

    So exceptionalism in any form is a prerequisite for acts of immense evil? I like it. Have we run this past the Cheneys?

  58. 58
    Gus says:

    @J. Michael Neal: True, but I just dropped my Senator a line telling her to do her utmost to kill it in committee. Doesn’t hurt to be safe.

  59. 59
    brantl says:

    MBunge, you’re wrong. There were plenty of Nazis in the United States (Prescott Bush and Henry Ford) among them. They were full-boat, they bought the whole nine yards.

  60. 60
    James K. Polk, Esq. says:

    District 9?

  61. 61
    Tim F. says:

    @Matthew B.: Enemy of the State did not have an evil antagonist? Pass me some of that stuff, dude.

  62. 62
    WereBear says:

    @Matthew B.: But one I have a fondness for. I always like when they take the conventions and play with them. And very quotable, such as:

    On any other day, that would seem strange.

  63. 63
    PeakVT says:

    OT: The GOS has a post listing the final 15 uncommitted votes: Lincoln Davis, Jim Matheson, Harry Teague, Travis Childers, John Barrow, Zack Space, Chris Carney, Brad Ellsworth, Jerry Costello, Henry Cuellar, Nick Rahall, Solomon Ortiz, Earl Pomeroy, Bill Foster, Harry Mitchell.

  64. 64
    Fergus Wooster says:

    @brantl: This. And don’t forget about the Business Plot – those guys came dangerously close to bumping FDR and going full brownshirt.

    We were saved by Smedley Butler, the Marine general the suits had approached to execute the coup. He promptly blew the whistle and we all live happily ever after.

  65. 65
    ajr22 says:

    This debate has just reminded me of this amazing scene. http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/155700

  66. 66
    Jerry 101 says:

    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?

    Actually, yes. The Dark Knight.

    Yeah, the Joker was “bad”, but was Batman really that “good”?

    Batman may not have killed anyone directly, but there’s a lot of blood on his hands in the end.

    So, unless you consider Harvey Dent the protagonist, the theme of the obviously good protagonist vs the obviously evil antagonist doesn’t hold up there. And, of course, they turned Harvey Dent into Two-Face, so there went the good in him.

    Jim Gordon, Alfred, and Lucius are all accessories to Batman and the damage caused.

    And, in that movie at least, the Joker is almost elemental, a force of nature, chaos embodied, rather than a pure evil. There’s no objective or plan with the Joker, beyond toying with Batman.

  67. 67
    Matthew B. says:

    @Tim F.: Gary Oldman was evil as all hell in The Professional. I’m not sure what criteria you’re looking for …?

  68. 68
    Fergus Wooster says:

    And don’t forget that Henry Ford used his offices and dealerships to publish his “The International Jew” pamphlets.

  69. 69
    patrick II says:

    I am not sure I understand the discussion about the requirements of being in Germany during the 30’s for the rise of Nazism. German Nazism is a specific kind of authoritarianism in a specific place and time, but so was Russian Communism which was responsible for the death of millions, Chinese communism under Mao, Cambodia, etc. Each is a different flavor of authoritarianism specific to time and place under which there too many people display a dark willingness to do a master’s bidding. Authoritarianism is the general default form human organization. Democracy has only succeeded intermittently and is more delicate than we presume, which is, I think, Glenn’s underlying point.

  70. 70
    Tim F. says:

    @Matthew B.: Oldman had enthusiasm issues, but evil? He was not corrupt, he did not hurt innocent people. Given Jean Reno’s performance at the end you can hardly even accuse Oldman of using excessive force. Acknowledging that his character was written to be an asshole, what did he do that was evil?

  71. 71
    Fergus Wooster says:

    @Tim F.:

    Acknowledging that his character was written to be an asshole, what did he do that was evil?

    Um, murdering Natalie Portman’s entire family? Including her sister and 5-year-old brother??

    Not corrupt? Wholesaling drugs on the side?

    Seriously??

  72. 72
    Tim F. says:

    @Fergus Wooster: Forgot that part. Sorry. It has been a while.

  73. 73
    Menzies says:

    @patrick II:

    It’s more about Tim’s first paragraph than Glenn’s article; this was partly due to my mistyping, which I admitted a few posts back. The question is whether the American interpretation of “evil” as a geographical construct or the European interpretation of Nazism as rising out of a “human impulse for evil” is more helpful in understanding Nazi Germany as a whole.

  74. 74
    Sentient Puddle says:

    @Jerry 101: True, but by the end of the movie, are you really left with the impression that Batman could do some fucking dangerous shit with the power he has, or do you feel like you could really hang your life on trusting this guy?

    Yes, The Dark Knight does do this nuance better than a lot of other movies, and in my characterization above, I am going much more black and white than I should. But I still don’t think it quite escapes the good/evil trope.

  75. 75
    Matthew B. says:

    @Tim F.: Hnnh? Not corrupt apart from drug dealing and murdering Natalie Portman’s family, you mean?

  76. 76
    ajr22 says:

    @Tim F.: You must not have actually watched this movie. Oldman is a cop who is selling drugs, and when someone steals drugs from him, he comes to his house and murders his entire family in cold blood. He then spends the rest of the movie trying to find and kill a 13 year old girl. The scene in the bathroom were he takes that pill makes him seem like pure evil. Reno’s character is an assassin, but he takes in the girl and protects her, even giving his life for her.

  77. 77
    Mike in NC says:

    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.

    Dubya infamously said he “didn’t do nuance”. He was one part Duke Wayne and one part Ronald Reagan, with just a pinch of Jesus to make his heart pure and humble.

    He actually believed there was an “Axis of Evil”. Did anyone try to call him on it? Of course not.

    Yes, people ate that shit up.

  78. 78
    Tim F. says:

    @ajr22: Acknowledged above that it’s been a while and I misremembered the movie.

  79. 79
    scav says:

    Oswald Mosley and his jolly crowd were all over England at the same time — so I don’t know if it was exactly only the Germans. Diana Mitford and Mosley were married at Goebbel’s with Adolf himself at the ceremony. He had such lovely blue eyes she was always going on about, even to her death. Diana’s sister Unity shot herself at the outbreak of war she was so distraught. Interesting family, the Mitfords: Jessica a Communist and Nancy, well, hard to say except mostly a Francophile.

  80. 80
    Fergus Wooster says:

    @Tim F.: Thought so. No worries – the movie’s actually pretty forgettable. Really adolescent stuff.

  81. 81
    Corner Stone says:

    @El Cid:

    So, when is it in our development as adults and as citizens that we are taught and or socialized into our responsibility not to comply with authority when it asks us to do wrong?

    Parents don’t teach their children this either. It starts much earlier than a broad “society” of citizens.

  82. 82
    Stefan says:

    Evil can rear its head anywhere, but the Nazis could only have happened in Germany. Just look at the differences between the Nazis and Italian facists

    The key difference being competence?

    or the Nazis and their American cousins, The Klan.

    Perhaps, but that’s also like saying that Stalinism could only have arisen in Russsia or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In the end all you’re saying is that “the particular German manifestation of this evil could only have arisen in Germany.” Well, sure. But that doesn’t preclude the possibility of equal or even worse manifestations of evil arising in other countries, even the US, in slightly different forms adapted to their particular time and place. If the US was ever completely defeated in a war and suffered through years of economic and cultural degradation, I can got-damn-guarantee you that it would produce some spectacularly nasty fascist movements here. Hell, look at how crazy we got under the peace and prosperity of the Clinton years.

  83. 83
    Stefan says:

    Someone after your comment raised the specter of the American Nazi movement, but I don’t think that’s a legit argument since we never had an explicitly Nazi government.

    Is someone forgetting the Jimmy Carter years?

  84. 84
    Jonny Scrum-half says:

    I didn’t see anything in the linked Wikipedia article about lynching that described what entire American towns did to black people as recently as the 1980s.

  85. 85
    Fergus Wooster says:

    @Jonny Scrum-half: Or what American white people did to entire Black towns as recently as, well, 1923.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulsa_Race_Riots
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosewood_massacre
    But that’s still in the Nazi-era ballpark.

  86. 86
    Common Sense says:

    I think it’s a little simplistic to paint with such a broad brush. The Godfather has some complex characters. I consider Lost quite irritating, but it’s hard to argue the characters are cardboard cutouts. Pretty much any serious Coen Brothers movie has multifaceted heroes and villains. Hell, the Academy Award winner this year did a great job of staying away from the black/white good/evil moral quandary that War movies tend to take every time and just told the story from the soldier’s perspective. Who was the villain in the Hurt Locker?

  87. 87
    DBrown says:

    @MBunge: The Klan and Nazi’s differed? You’re saying that the slow burning to death a black hanging by a rope for the enjoyment of a community of whites (with children) as they would hold a picnic are people that are not as bad as the Nazi’s? Please. The KKK and its members are NO different than the Nazi’s and we in American looked the other way until the 60’s.

  88. 88
    patrick II says:

    I think a post discussing our capacity for evil is an appropriate place to post this link:“Tea Partiers Mock and Scorn an apparent Parkinson’s victim

  89. 89
    DBrown says:

    @Jonny Scrum-half: There are pictures and they are terrible to even look at, much less realize that the children in the picture watched. Try harder.

  90. 90
    Jonny Scrum-half says:

    DBrown — “Try harder” at what?

  91. 91
    someguy says:

    It needs to be made clear that the Americans who think geography is linked to evil, for the most part, live in red states in the South or West. So I’m having a wicked paradox moment right now thinking about how evil is linked to those regions. Because of teh irony.

  92. 92
    Candia says:

    When I was growing up in Germany in the 80s, the book “The Wave” by Morton Rhue was required reading in schools (and, while relatively simple, packs a punch and leaves a lasting impression). It’s based on the true case of a 1967 American school teacher experimenting with his class how Nazism develops. It goes from “How could it possibly happen?” to “See, it could happen anywhere!”.

    And regarding an example more similar to this French TV show, in 2001 a German film called “Das Experiment” dealt with a similar concept of even fake prison/authority/power breaks down rules and ethics. And I just read on Wikipedia that the book it was based on, was based on a real event, the “Standford Prison Experiment” of 1971, which had to be cancelled after a short time because it became morally unsustainable. To quote from Wikipedia: “The experiment quickly grew out of hand. Prisoners suffered — and accepted — sadistic and humiliating treatment from the guards. The high level of stress progressively led them from rebellion to inhibition. By the experiment’s end, many showed severe emotional disturbances.”

  93. 93
    Silver says:

    Of course the Nazis and the Klan are different.

    German efficiency, you know…

  94. 94
    snarkout says:

    @RSA:

    We’ve moved on, but I’ve read that some of the participants in the Millgram experiment were actually grateful to discover what they were capable of doing; per Wikipedia, at least one person wrote him a letter thanking him:

    While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority… To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority’s demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself… I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe.

    Action movies without defined good and evil tend to be downers — who wants to hear that the only winners are the farmers, and that samurai always lose? I’d get laughed out of the room if I claimed Irreversible, right?

  95. 95

    Read:

    For Your Own Good by Alice Miller
    Obedience to Authority by Stanley Milgram
    The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer

    Then you will recognize that parents demand unquestioning (or nearly so) obedience from their children in return for love and approval. That obedience is very, very easily manipulated by other, later authorities such as religion, the military, political parties, and the government.

    Authoritarianism is nearly universal, and we are just as likely to persecute Blacks or Arabs or illegal aliens as Germans, for the exact same reason. Authoritarian parents demand that their children follow the same beliefs and have the same opinions, ignoring and refusing to respect the individuality of the child. His needs are utterly secondary to the parent’s needs, which were secondary to his or her parents’ needs. The parent will perpetrate any abuse he or she feels necessary to make the child conform and obey because he went through the same thing and thinks the only way for the child to be happy and successful is through obedience.

    Evil is not and never has been an inherent part of human nature, excepting a genetically damaged few. When you beat a child you teach him that his body does not belong to him, and that makes it easier to molest him or ship him off to war. When you tell him that his beliefs are wrong and evil and what he thinks is right is really wrong, you are teaching him to distrust his instincts and follow the herd. When you reject who he is because he doesn’t fit into the narrow range of acceptable behaviors, you are telling him that there is an “us” and a “them,” the worst thing in the world is to be different, and he must hide who he really is at all costs.

    Children and former children would rather kill or die than admit their parents were unable to love and accept them. They will perpetrate any horror to cling to the illusion of love. That is where evil comes from.

  96. 96
    AhabTRuler says:

    Nazism per se isn’t the right question. It is whether the Shoah itself was the result of something inherent to the character of the German people or the result of factors attibutable to any nation. It is also one of the more contorversial topics in the historiography of WWII.

    I think that one of the best places to begin the discussion is with Arendt’s “Eichman in Jerusalem”, better known by its subtitle “The Banality of Evil”.

  97. 97
    Tony J says:

    @Catsy:

    Turtledove might be the unchallenged ‘Master of Alternate-History’, but he made himself really unpopular with certain elements of the alt-hist crowd by writing that series. To a lot of them the very idea that a victorious Confederacy (Real Americans!) could have been transformed into a genocidal fascist state by military defeat and economic Depression is just liberal, PC nonsense and an insult to them personally, because they know that the Civil War wasn’t really anything to do with slavery or racism, and that’s that.

    Strange people.

    If you liked – if that’s the word – the Southern Victory series, try and get hold of Daniel Easterman’s ‘K is for Killing’ alt-hist novel. It’s a bit predictable and pot-boilerish, and the end makes little to no sense, but parts of it make your blood run cold when you realise how close America came to following Germany’s lead back in the 1930s.

    Short version – The KKK doesn’t have the Stephenson Scandal back in the ’20s, and so remains a potent political and cultural force right up to the Depression. It comes to power in 1932 as part of an Aryan American Alliance with Lindbergh as the figurehead, and things go downhill from there. Try getting through the list of ‘Concentration Camps in the Third Reich and the ‘New American Republic’ (in which they’re matched one for one until the German examples hit Z while the American examples go on for another three pages) without getting a cold feeling in the pit of your belly. And the passages from “A Child’s History of the United States” are made even more stomach turning when you realise that they’re not so far from what Texan school textbooks are going to be like if the Teabaggers have their way.

    When you boil it all down, there’s a very good argument to be made for saying that FDR saved the US from – some kind – of fascist movement. If the Depression had gone on longer, and the New Deal hadn’t injected hope into the body politic, people could have started looking for the usual suspects to scapegoat, and that kind of thing always has a habit of snowballing.

  98. 98
    Bruuuuce says:

    One quibble: What happened in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Bagram were less like Milgram’s experiment than the Stanford Prison Experiment.

    I’m utterly shocked, not that the Milgram experiment was ever reproduced (and doubly not shocked that it was done for TV), but that psychologists were involved, given all the ethical rules that were put in place specifically as a result of Milgram, to prevent such abuses of humans again.

    [sarcasm]Then again, it was in France.[/sarcasm]

    I also see that nobody’s yet mentioned Peter Gabriel’s great song based on Milgram, called Milgram’s 47 (We Do What We’re Told). Here, have a link to the song.

  99. 99
    Thomas Beck says:

    Keep in mind that it is an unspoken assumption among Fox News hosts and viewers that, not only does America not torture (except when they are explicitly demanding that America torture), but if and when we do torture, we are justified in doing it. We can do anything we want to anyone else even if, were they to do that exact same thing to us, they would not be justified in doing it.

    Not that we torture, of course. (Except when wingnuts argue that we should.) But we don’t. Whatever we do is not torture, even if, when other people do it, it is torture.

    I hope this is all now clear.

  100. 100
    Tsulagi says:

    Americans mostly think that evil like Nazism is a geographical construct

    Not sure about that. That would be a pretty stupid belief. I have more faith in my countrymen. Always an optimist.

    Prime necessary ingredient for evil is fear. No black and white, we’re all buyers to some degree. Some more than others. Then there are sellers of fear. For power. More buyers you have, and the depth to which they buy, the more power you have.

    Goering knew that when at the Nuremberg trials he told an American intelligence officer it was easy to bring Germany to war, simply convince the population they were under attack and denounce any who disagree or don’t support leadership’s solutions as unpatriotic. It’s a basic formula.

    Those classic college psych experiments of getting a dufus to push a button frying some poor bastard in a chair is the same thing. Dufus fears the authority figure. If he doesn’t comply, he’ll be alone, ostracized and the powerful authority figure could mess up his world. Comply and he’ll win favor. Take the path of least resistance. Dufus will further rationalize his capitulation as actually strength.

    Goering was right, it’s always worked and likely always will everywhere with no geographical limits. Has worked here. See latest example, 9/11. If that hadn’t happened, guessing Bush would have been a one-termer later remembered as a laughable footnote in history: The Great Miscommunicator. Fear always sells.

  101. 101
    Corner Stone says:

    @Susan of Texas:

    When you reject who he is because he doesn’t fit into the narrow range of acceptable behaviors, you are telling him that there is an “us” and a “them,” the worst thing in the world is to be different, and he must hide who he really is at all costs.

    Children and former children would rather kill or die than admit their parents were unable to love and accept them. They will perpetrate any horror to cling to the illusion of love. That is where evil comes from.

    Bah. This is too simplistic. You think the better path is to allow a child to follow their instincts?
    Be an individual in *this* (or any) society? Give me a break.
    This issue could be a blog all by itself.

  102. 102
    dave says:

    Candia:

    That Stanford prison experiment is more disturbing to me than Milgram. A bunch of Stanford kids were turned into monsters within a very short span. And there was no authority figure urging them on, like in Milgram. The very fact that the “guards” had power lead to abuses. I think towards the end even the experimenters started to get embroiled in the dynamic. Unless you think there is something uniquely evil about Stanford undergraduates then there is no other conclusion than that we are all imminently capable of great evil.

    EDIT: Typos

  103. 103
    Stefan says:

    I have more faith in my countrymen.

    Really? Still?

  104. 104
    Catsy says:

    @Tony J: I actually loved the Southern Victory series, even though it did and still does make me uncomfortable. The discomfort is not because the series is bad–although Turtledove does tend to reuse very similar characters and writing tropes a lot–but because of the self-examination it brings with it. It really could happen here–and nine years ago it nearly did.

    I haven’t read K is for Killing, but I see that I will need to check it out. Thanks for the ref. I love alt-history stuff, but the genre is very hit-and-miss, and aside from the usuals like Turtledove and S.M. Stirling it can be hard to find the good stuff.

  105. 105
    asiangrrlMN says:

    Most people don’t know about the Milgram experiments? Really? I mean, granted, I was a psych major, but still. Huh.

    This is actually one reason I prefer foreign flicks to American flicks. I find the simplicity in the majority of American movies to be off-putting. In addition, I have a hard time getting past the names in the movies since our culture is so obsessed with the lives of our pop stars.

    I like Brit flicks because they have people who look like real people in them, and the characters aren’t always so neatly-defined. Plus, Alan Rickman.

  106. 106
    WereBear says:

    @asiangrrlMN: Sad, but true; there are a great many people who know very little, about anything.

    I don’t know how they get through the day.

  107. 107
    lou says:

    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?

    There is No Way Out, which appeared to be about an innocent, upstanding, all-American military hero getting scapegoated by corrupt pols but turned out to be quite different at the end. To me, the ending made the movie. otherwise it would have been standard political thriller fare. (Others hated the end).

  108. 108
    Nellcote says:

    I think the potential for evil deeds is part of the human condition. What defines an evil deed changes over time.

  109. 109
    RSA says:

    @snarkout: Thanks for that passage. I read book (name forgotten) that was a retrospective of the experiment, with interviews with subjects, and I either forgot or skipped the positive parts.

  110. 110
    DPirate says:

    Werebear I think has it wrong. Plenty of kids from good families turn out bullies or otherwise give in to their weaknesses. I do not think that humanity is inherently good and that the occurrence of evil within ourselves is due entirely to outside interference (influence perhaps, but one can be abusive without having been abused). Then again, given public education, I’d be hard put to say there is anyone in the west who hasn’t at some point in their life felt hated?

    Candia: There was a high school “experiment” conducted in our school every year until about 1986. The teacher would hand out random colored cards to the class and these colors equated to class divisions of some sort. I don’t think it was set whether they were economic or some other social distinctions; iirc, we were left to read into it what we would, excepting that orange, for example was elite, and green middling and red lowest. Then the teacher basically excused herself and left us to our own devices. Fistfights would be the end of said experiment, of course.

    As to the Stanford experiment, it is very lacking in controls. IMO, it is more an exposition of learned behavior than anything inherent in our psyches. I use “learned” in the sense that these students were acting out a role which they had pieced together over their lives: how does a guard act; how does a prisoner act? Milgram is more telling, at least as applies to this discussion.

    Anyhow, by way of contribution to the discussion, I want to say that I believe that we, humanity, are subject to greater forces than what acts separately upon each individual. I am a firm believer in the idea of a group mind, which might be explained as a social or historical current, whether in something as simple as a mob of people or a pack of dogs or as large as a cultural, religious or national identity. Any way one can imagine an Us and Them scenario is another way in which we can apply some scenario of evil behavior.

  111. 111
    Scott says:

    >>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? <<

    Watchmen

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