Chapter Two: What I Talk about When I Talk about Evil

xxxx What I Mean by an “Evil Force” xxxx

The idea of an “evil force” is important for us in Liberal America to wrap our minds around for two reasons: 1) What we are up against in America today — what threatens the future of all we hold dear — is something that warrants being called — indeed, I believe is best understood as — an “evil force”; and 2) The more that people in Liberal America are enabled to see this phenomenon, and to see it as an “evil force,” the more capable we will be to respond to it appropriately, i.e. to fight and defeat it.

In this chapter, I will try to show how the first of these two assertions is true.

(While the second proposition makes sense, it is based on a extrapolation that if people will see what I see, they will feel as inspired and impassioned as I have felt to press the battle against this destructive force. Is that true?)

The first step toward believing in the reality of an “evil force” is simply to SEE it. Whether or not it fits into one’s worldview for there to be such a thing, if one perceives the phenomenon, intellectual integrity requires that one adjust one’s views in order to accommodate that reality.

And the first step toward seeing what I’m calling an “evil force” is having a description or definition of what I mean by evil. Also, what I mean by “good.” Both are naturalistic phenomenon, i.e. simply part of what operates in the world of cause and effect.

1) I propose that we think of “evil” as a force– meaning that it operates to move things within the system in a consistent and identifiable direction.

The same can be said of the force of the good, though the directions are opposite.

2) The direction toward which these forces move things — the consistency of their impact — has to do with the quality of the order. In the case of evil, the force works to impart — to the things it touches — a pattern of “brokenness.” Imparting “a pattern of brokenness” (more on brokenness shortly– see Chapter Four) means breaking down those orders that serve and enhance the quality of life as lived in the system. The force of evil works, for example, to replace justice with injustice, integrity with duplicity, peace with strife, ecological health with ecological breakdown, etc.

The force of the good moves things in the opposite direction: where the force of evil destroys the order that enhances life, the force of the good strengthens those structures that serve life.

Each of these forces — the good and the evil — works to expand its domain in the world.

3) The force of evil has coherence. A dense network of interconnected causes and effects makes it coherent at any given time, so that the different elements of brokenness moving through the system are causally connected. And that same interconnectedness allows the force to move through time in a coherent way. (More on this shortly, in this chapter’s section,”The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back.”)

Again, the same can be said of the force of the good.

4) The force of “evil” not only creates brokenness, but also utilizes -exploits – brokenness where it finds it in the human system. These forms of brokenness that it exploits include the anarchy in the intersocietal system, unjust social organization, and a lack of integration (or reconciliation among) the elements of the psyche and character of human beings (individually and collectively).

The good operates similarly, but in the opposite direction. As evil utilizes brokenness in the human system to expand its influence, the good utilizes “wholeness” (life-serving order) in the human system to increase the wholeness of the human world.

5) When evil manifests itself in the world through the concrete actions of human beings, it “wears a human face” expressive of those human qualities that have historically been associated with evil – qualities like cruelty, deceit, greed, selfishness, and the lust for power.

With the good, the symmetry continues– i.e. same general structure of operation, but with the opposite sorts of human traits – kindness instead of cruelty, honesty instead of deceptiveness, etc. — being visible in its workings.

I have described here a phenomenon to which I have given the name “evil force.” It is useful to differentiate the two elements here: the phenomenon, on the one hand, and the name by which to call it on the other.

I will be showing that the phenomenon is real, that it operates in the human world, and that it plays a central role in the human drama. As for what to call it, as I see it such a phenomenon as I have described above possesses most of the essence of what has traditionally been called evil. For that reason, and because I believe the name conjures up the appropriate set of feelings within us, I think it right to call it “evil.”

But the important thing is to see the phenomenon– see it in all its vastness and darkness. (If you perceived such a phenomenon, what would you call it?) Call it whatever you want.

What matters is that we see it clearly enough to fight and defeat it, as this is the nature of what we up against in America today. This is what I mean when I say that one part of the two-part dynamic behind our national crisis is that “Today’s Republican Party has become an instrument of an evil force.”

xxxx More About Evil xxxx

From experience, I know that there are pitfalls to the use of the word “evil”: people understandably imagine that the word as I’m using it has all the same meanings and connotations as the word as they’ve heard it used before. It may be useful to articulate here some differences between my use of the word and some others with which people are familiar.

When I say it is a force, to be understood in naturalistic, secular terms — just a part of the dynamic operating in the human system through cause and effect — that is in contrast with the one of the traditional religious notions of evil: it involves no malevolent supernatural powers. So no, I am not conjuring up something Satanic here. No malevolent supernatural being.

Another issue that arises is whether the use of the word means “demonizing” one’s opponents or enemies with a toxic label. But the phenomenon I am describing is not best perceived in terms of “evil people.” Again, think of “evil” as a FORCE.

This “evil force” works through people, but those people are not the locus or source of the phenomenon. Those people who serve the force of evil in the world might be considered channels through which the force works. Or as “carriers” of the pattern of brokenness. So one might also think of Evil is a disease — a disorder — that we fight.

That may mean that we need to stop the carriers from spreading the brokenness, but it is not ultimately those people — those “carriers” — whom we fight, but the destructive force.

When it comes to those human beings who serve the force of evil, I’m firmly of that Christian school of thought: “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” (Not always easy, but that’s what I believe is right.) (For more on this, see “With Malice Toward None,” pp….)

Besides which, it is plain to see that — in America today — many of those who lend their support to the evil force that has arisen on the right are in most ways good people. (See “When Bad Politics Are Supported by Good People.”* [BOTTOM NOTE: * denotes henceforth that the essay can be found on the supplementary materials website at]

So this is not about the demonization of one’s opponents. It’s about the recognition of a vast, subtle, but coherent force transmitting its patterns of brokenness by the naturalistic means of cause and effect.

[It is a theory of evil that at one level could be called “social scientific,” while at another level it reveals a dimension to our world that could meaningfully be called “spiritual.” And that in our times has the potential to have an impact that is political. Our reality is multidimensional and so also, therefore, should be our understanding.]

xxxx The Clarifying Power of the Pure Case xxxx

Much of the time, in human affairs – particularly in the (relatively fortunate) history of the United States — this force I’m calling evil is hard to see. The forces of good and evil are so thoroughly intermingled – within nations, within political parties, within individual human beings – that usually it doesn’t clarify much to identify any single entity as “evil.”

Most of the time, it is not appropriate to characterize our real-life battles in terms of “the battle between good and evil.” Often, it is a dangerous way to see things. Sometimes it is itself a manifestation of the force of brokenness.

But occasionally that stark and melodramatic-sounding characterization illuminates far more than it distorts. Occasionally, something manifests itself in the world that does not contain the usual interwoven mixture of elements. Occasionally, history presents us with a (relatively) “pure case.”

And we Americans are living in one of those times.

One of America’s two major political parties is unusual — perhaps even unique in the history of liberal democracies — in the proportions of constructive and destructive elements that govern its conduct. In today’s Republican Party, the balance between honest and dishonest, just and unjust, caring and cruel, altruistic and selfish, has been replaced by an extraordinary tilt in the direction of those ways that degrade a society.

Consider a couple of thought experiments:

Imagine a list of all developments in America in the past fifteen years that the national representatives of the Republican Party (the Republican president, and/or Republicans in Congress) played some role in shaping. Then imagine a list of those developments in which the efforts of the Republicans contributed to a better outcome for America.

Isn’t it clear that the first list is very long, and that there are hardly any entries on the second?

(Indeed, is it not clear that during the presidency of Barack Obama, the Republicans made the outcome worse on virtually every issue the nation has faced — on the stimulus, on health care reform, on cap and trade, on reviving the American economy and getting people back to work?)

Has there ever, in American history, been a political party that has behaved in so consistently destructive a fashion? I think not.

Another experiment. Imagine a list of all communications that these Republicans have put into our national discourse during the past fifteen years —- every idea and assertion that has been voiced by national Republicans or right-wing talk radio or Fox News in an effort to inform and/or influence the public. Imagine further a second list of those statements that have improved their listeners’ grasp of reality or understanding of the truth of the matters under discussion.

Again, it seems that the first list is very long, and that there are precious few entries on the second. Whether the subject has been the war in Iraq, or climate change, or Acorn, or where the president was born, or Benghazi, or the priority to be given the national debt, isn’t it clear that powers on the right have consistently led their listeners astray?

Has a major America political party ever been half so consistently dishonest as today’s Republicans in their messaging to their country? Has a political party ever been such a fraud in terms of its claims to be patriotic, or conservative, or defenders of Christian values?

Pure cases open a window into the fundamental realities of the human world. They lay bare the underpinnings of the force of evil as it operates in human affairs.

The nightmarish episode of the Third Reich in Germany — its rise out of the Weimar Republic, and then its brutal and murderous tyranny and expansion — led many thinkers of that era to important insights into the dynamics of that destructive time. (E.g. Erich Fromm’s ESCAPE FROM FREEDOM, Theodore Adorno et al.’s THE AUTHORITARIAN PERSONALITY, Norbert Elias’s THE GERMANS.)

Now in our times, another pure case — far less inflamed by a murderous lust to annihilate, but nonetheless similarly consistent in its working to make worse everything it contacts — has provided yet another opportunity to examine the nature and workings of the force of destruction within a civilized society.

xxxx See the Evil: A Portrait of the Coherence of the Force xxxx

How can such a force arise? So, I imagine the reader wondering. Here in Part II, I will attempt soon to present in a step-by-step fashion, operating in an evolutionary framework, an integrated and grounded answer to that question. But first here’s a bit more of a portrait of this coherent force I claim is what we’re up against in America today.

In the previous chapter, I described “The Republican Party’s Extraordinary Pattern of Destructiveness.” Putting together the hundreds of pieces from the news of our times, I identified a set of patterns that included

an insatiable lust for power and wealth,
an impulse to prey upon the vulnerable,
a preference for conflict over cooperation,
a persistent dishonesty,
a proclivity to divide groups of people against each other,
and a willingness to sacrifice the greater good for selfish advantage.

And I asked the question, which I described as too long unasked: “What is it that would express itself in all these ways?” Which leads to the question, what is it that all these things have in common? The pattern made by all these patterns is that in each case there is a spread of the pattern of brokenness.

Here is demonstrated a part of that COHERENCE of the force. It expresses itself in a variety of ways, but the pattern of brokenness bears evidence of a common thrust, a consistent impact. Something seems to be working toward the achievement of a “purpose” of increasing the power of “brokenness” in the world.

That demonstrates what might be termed the CROSS-SECTIONAL coherence of this force: how kindredness of this force’s manifestations at a given time.

This force also demonstrates a LONGITUDINAL coherence: a capacity of the force to maintain its nature through time.

xxxx The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back xxxx

It’s like facial recognition technology: if the features match up, you conclude, “It’s the same guy.”

So it is with the match between the force that drove us to Civil War more than a century and a half ago, and the force that has taken over the Republican Party in our times.

ITALIC: In both cases, we see an elite insisting on their “liberty,” by which they mean the freedom to dominate.

With Citizens United, in our times, the corporatists have declared that their “freedom of speech” gives them the right to buy our elections, unfettered by any concerns about the rights of the average citizen to have an equal say in their government.

Back in the 1850s, the slaveholders insisted that their “liberty” meant that they had the right to take their human “property” anywhere in American territory, an insistence that swept aside the previously respected concerns of millions of their countrymen that there be regions of the country free of slavery. (Not to mention the denial of liberty to these human chattel.)

ITALIC: In both cases, the use of the structures of American democracy was combined with a contempt for the democratic values that inspired our founders.

Nowadays, the Republicans have made a national effort to pass voter ID laws to address a non-existent problem of voter fraud– a campaign that is itself a fraud whose transparent intent is to disenfranchise America’s most vulnerable citizens who predictably vote mostly for the Republicans’ opponents.

Back in the years leading up to the Civil War, the slaveholders banned the distribution of anti-slavery writings, and sometimes suppressed anti-slavery talk by violence.

ITALICS: In both cases, the elites driving the polarization of the country justified their dominance by distorting, in belittling ways, the humanity of those they sought to exploit.

Today’s Republicans talk about the 47 percent, the half of the country they characterize as “takers,” even though many of those 47 percent work multiple jobs just to make ends meet; and these Republicans vote to strip them of unemployment benefits, at a time of massive joblessness, in the mistaken belief that only desperation will get these lazy people to work.

Back in the time of the Slave Power, the slaveholding class declared they were doing their black slaves a favor to discipline them into an ethic of work; freeing them would be cruel, the masters claimed, because those blacks were inherently too lazy and incompetent to survive on their own.

ITALICS: In both cases, the idea of compromise became a dirty word, as the inflamed insistence on getting everything one’s own way took hold of the inflamed side.

Today’s Republicans do not seek compromise, and the dynamics of the party are such that anyone who works toward compromise is demonized and run out of office by challenge from the more inflamed, uncompromising wing of the party.

Back in the years leading up to the Civil War, the South’s insistence on the unfettered expansion of their domain led to the overturning of the great Missouri Compromise, which had held the nation together for more than thirty years. It was this fracturing of the peace that instigated the return to the political arena of Abraham Lincoln, and set the nation on course to a bloody civil war.

ITALICS: In both cases, the powerful elite in the grip of that destructive force refused to accept that in a democracy sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and sometimes you have to accept being governed by a duly-elected president you don’t like.

Today’s Republicans have done everything they could to nullify the presidency of Barack Obama, whom the American people duly elected twice. Like no other opposition party in American history, they have refused to accept the temporary minority status to which American voters have consigned them. The Republicans’ top priority, since Obama first took office, has been to block the president from performing the function for which the people hired him.

Back on the eve of the Civil War, the Southerners — who had disproportionately dominated the upper echelons of the national government from the time of its founding — considered the election of Abraham Lincoln an intolerable insult, and promptly made a unilateral decision to break apart the Union; they then raised an army to defend that decision, rather than accept the outcome of the democratic process and regroup for the next election.

As with facial recognition, the configuration of the features tells us, “This is the same ugly thing, come back again.”

(A fuller presentation of how “the spirit that drove us to Civil War is back” can be found in a series of piece on the Supplementary Materials website. Those pieces deal in turn with these dimensions of the ways in which disturbing patterns match up between these two eras: “the Spirit of Domination,” “the Spirit of the Lie,” and “the Spirit of War.”)

In coming chapters, I will explain how it is that such patterns can endure and re-emerge in a cultural system over the course of generations. (And how it is that such large and enduring patterns, though “abstract,” are not only “real” but are in some ways the most deeply “real” aspects of the human world.)

Suffice it to say for now that, in its re-emerged form, this pattern or force or spirit has retained its destructive nature. Back in the mid-19th century, it broke the nation apart and gave us a nightmarish Civil War. And in our times, it is damaging everything in American civilization that it can reach.

xxxx WHY NOW? xxxx

This idea — that the “evil force” we see operating in America today, making the Republican Party into its instrument, is in some meaningful sense “the same” force that took possession of the American South in the 1850s and drove us into Civil War — constitutes a qualification of my earlier assertion about the “unprecedented” nature this thing that’s come to center stage of the American political arena.

In different ways, I believe, both are true. The force is in important respects the same, but also the circumstances are different. Without attempting to sort out what’s a repeat and what’s unprecedented, I’d like to call attention to one important difference. It’s a difference in the nature of what opened the door to the rise of an evil force powerful enough to wreak great damage on the American nation.

In the 1850s, the nation faced a huge and deep-seated issue – slavery. It was through this terribly divisive and inescapably extremely that an evil force could work its way to great power in the American political arena. Slavery was a significant dimension of brokenness embedded in the American body politic: a long-established way of life for a dominant American elite, representing a major share of the national wealth, was at fundamental odds with founding values of the American nation (“all men are created equal”). In addition, important conflicts of economic interest corresponded to a geographic boundary between two well-defined regions – thus providing a fault line on which the nation could be split apart.

Today’s crisis is not like that. There is no remotely comparable major issue confronting the nation. Our contemporary rise of an evil force to a position of great power seems to have happened just on its own, with no substance at its heart. It seems, indeed, that rather than the brokenness growing out of a vital issue, as in the earlier era, in today’s crisis it is the brokenness that comes first and then the force of brokenness that has arisen makes a battlefield out of every issue that arises.

What this suggests is that there has been some deterioration in the overall fabric of wholeness — goodness/morality/integrity — in the American civilization. It suggests that the American body politic suffers from a compromised immune system, a diminished capacity of the cultural order to resist a force of disorder.

An analogy presents itself: When a human body is infected with the AIDS virus, leading to a weakening of the immune system, opportunistic lurking diseases like Karposi sarcoma can take hold and kill the person. Likewise in America today: the political equivalent of Karposi sarcoma (that “spirit that drove us to Civil War,” lurking for generations in the recesses of the body politic, has opportunistically moved to a central place in the American power system because the system lacks the needed forms of resistance.

In its pure opportunism, this force has found in the Republican Party a channel to wreak destruction on the American organism. But it could only wreak this destruction because the American body politic provided the opening.

As was said before, this crisis is the product not only of the force that’s taken over the political right, but of the failure of the rest of the American body politic — Liberal America (and its political arm, the Democratic Party), the press, and the American people — to respond appropriately.

American civilization would seem to have been weakened by some sort of “cultural AIDS” that has opened the door to the pathology. It therefore behooves us to investigate what kind of “cultural AIDS” has weakened America’s cultural “immune system.”

Let me add, then, one more question to the list (p. …) of those to be addressed in the coming chapters with its “integrative vision”:

7) Why now? What is it that has happened in the American cultural system to account for the rise of this evil force in our times, in the absence of any objective blow to the system to open the door to evil?

With the rise of Nazism in Germany, there were the traumas of World War I (and the punitive Versailles peace) compounded by the devastation of all that was economically solid by the hyperinflation. With the coming of the Civil War there was the intractable issue of slavery, and the conflict between two incompatible visions of society that corresponded dangerously to a geographical division.

So what’s our excuse? (See Chapter None –“How the Balance of Power Between Good and Evil Can Shift Adversely” — for at least a serious stab at an answer.)

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