Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Tragedy of the Idealist

Before he was executed, Adolf Eichmann was asked to explain his actions. "I was an idealist," he said. An idealist, one whose moral compasses were spinning madly. Perhaps all idealists, in greater or lesser degree, have such compasses. The Nazis and the Communists were idealists, as are the greenies who blow up SUV dealerships and drive spikes into trees. To them, they are right; everyone who disagrees with them is not merely wrong, but evil. To them, there is no continuum from right to wrong. Everything is black or white.

All of them considered themselves to be idealists, ones doing "good," even if the sacrifice of other people's lives for their version of that "greater good" was, in their minds, necessary. Perhaps the sacrifice of other people is an inevitable part of that combination of idealism and force, which seeks a perfection on earth. The thought that they are doing wrong, if it flits across their minds at all, does so only briefly. The self-righteous -- innocents all -- can barely conceive of any ill coming from their actions.

Superficially it's a disturbing thought that more people have died throughout history from conscious "idealism" than from "evil." Yet, people like Stalin, who wanted to create the perfect "New Soviet Man," and Hitler, who desired a god-like Master Race, ended up with tens of millions of their citizens dead. The worst evil serial killer in the world is but a drop in a lake compared to the idealism of a Pol Pot or Stalin or Hitler.

So, on a deeper level, it isn't too terribly surprising that the idealistic desire for a perfect world, one rid of evil, has led to the catastrophes that it has.

Fundamentally, Bush and the late Osama bin Laden share much in common. Both are idealists, and their idealism, fanatics. And in their fanaticism and idealism, they divide the world into absolute and mutually exclusive categories of Good and Evil, with nothing in between. They seek by force to impose their vision of perfection on the world, no matter how many innocent people get swept away.

"I don't do nuance," said the modern-day Manichee George Bush. "And when you're trying to lead the world in a war that I view as really between the forces of good and the forces of evil, you got to speak clearly. There can't be any doubt . . . [O]ur goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive, destroying terrorist networks and spreading freedom and liberty around the world." Put simply, he wishes to destroy evil and replace it with his version of perfection.

Osama bin Laden, another Manichee, didn't "do nuance" with the Great Satan, either. He was pretty clear about his idea of who was "good" and who was "evil," and whose vision should be imposed on the world and whose shouldn't. He, too, wished to destroy "evil" and impose in its place his version of "perfection."

Wrote Bruce Bartlett, in the New York Times Magazine: ''This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them . . . . "

The Manichees, heretics, supposedly died out over a thousand years ago. But they live on, in the soul of everyone who believes that people can be put into neat categories of Good and Evil. And those defined as "evil" must be eradicated.

"The most striking principle of Manichee theology is its dualism," notes the Wikipedia article on Manicheism. "The universe is considered a battlefield for control between an evil material god, and a good spiritual god. Christians recognized the evil god in Satan but, of course, could not accept the idea that Satan had as much power as Jehovah. Christians held that Satan, unlike God, is a created being. The term Manichaeistic is often used to describe any religion with a
similar concept of struggle between good and evil."

The 20th Century was the Century of the Manichee. Those false religions known as Communism and Nazism -- Manichee to the core. And if they did not consider their opponents to be as strong as they were, why did they feel it necessary to attempt to slaughter them to extinction? Why would George Bush use the phrases "the forces of good" and "the forces of evil" as if they were equal to each other?

And therein lies the problem with the modern-day Manichee: anyone who is on the receiving end of that term, "evil," will be lucky if he escapes with his skin intact. Or the skins of his elderly, his children, and his infants. It doesn't matter in the slightest if he and everyone else is innocent. Indeed, innocence is irrelevant, and is covered by the phrase, "collateral damage." All of this is the logical and inescapable result of dividing people into categories of Pure Good and Pure Evil.

In every mature theology, the idea of a purely good, idealistic Heaven on earth has always been considered blasphemy, and for the best of reasons: It always leads to genocide. The attempt to establish a Heaven on earth always leads to a Hell instead. The desire to conquer the world for its own good is merely a pretext for tyranny. "All tyrants call themselves benefactors," noticed both Jesus and Aesop.

Anyone who is idealistic enough, naive enough, and self-righteous enough to believe in those categories of Pure Good and Pure Evil is stuck with an unsolvable problem: Those defined as evil, even if they are not, are always dehumanized, then murdered. This dehumanization of those defined as "evil" is the basis of propaganda.

Excuses are always created; the murders are always rationalized. The innocent die with the guilty; all are bundled into an undifferentiated damnation and sacrificed to the false idol of "perfection." All the problems of the world -- all the evil in it -- are projected onto those defined as evil, making it necessary to rid the world of them. Thus the saying, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

We can have a very good world, one created by liberty and the free market, but we can't have a perfect world. Human nature stands in the way. It's the same human nature that does not understand the wise saying, "The Best is the enemy of the Good."

A solution to that problem is to give up those categories of Pure Good and Pure Evil, with one group putting itself in the first category and its "enemies" in the latter. Once those categories are given up, the projection of evil onto others ceases. In giving up that self-righteousness and that lofty but brittle idealism, there is also given up hubris and the hatred of others. Unfortunately, this doesn't
look like it's going to happen anytime soon.

It took me years to understand what that saying, "Love your enemies" means. It doesn't mean to "love them," not really. That's impossible. It means to see them as people, not subhumans, not things, not demons, ones to hate and project all of the world's evil onto, so that one can self-righteously use God and country as an excuse to slaughter them.

When those categories aren't given up, we're left those sins of which every religion disapproves: hate, rage, murder, self-righteousness, hubris, fanaticism. That's what comes of the belief in perfection: All those flaws are projected elsewhere, onto other people.

There is something beyond that simplistic, dangerous Manichean world of Pure Good and Pure Evil, in which a noble "good" must destroy "evil," no matter how many people die in that unending and impossible process, or else the "evil" will destroy the "good." To the Manchee, the gods are equal in power, and it's up to him to see the right one wins.

"The clearer our insight into what is beyond good and evil," writes Stephen Mitchell, "the more we can embody the good." Paradoxically, this means to give up the belief in perfection, of an ideal world achieved through force.

Once the idea of perfection is given up, so is the idea of other, evil people being the cause of the world not implementing that perfection. The problem lies ultimately not in other people, but in ourselves.