Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Is Evil, evil?
Several years ago I heard a speaker while in college speak about the importance of properly analyzing history. The reason that I remember the core of his speech was that I found the topic to be interesting and the questions he raised to be thought provoking; and as most of you know, I love thought-provoking conversations.... the deeper, the better! To my "sick" academic mind, a good evening would be to have a bunch of people sitting around and engaging in a great discussion on "deep" topics. Anyway, moving on...
The professor was Dr. Demos of Yale University (btw, one of the most interesting history professors I ever had) and he was stressing how it is important for students of history, professors of history, research writers, etc., to learn to analyze history as history. In other words, not give what they may conceive as clear-cut labels. According to Dr. Demos, when we do that, we enter into a "wrong way to attempt to understand history." History, of itself, has no unambiguously good actors or bad. There are just actors. In fact, good and evil should not factor in a historical analysis at all. Properly done, history must be examined and analyzed from a dispassionate, almost other-worldly, perspective. Let me give you an example using the Civil War.
Lincoln fought a war to preserve the Union—a union that had been voluntarily, democratically entered by the various states and subsequent territories. Take away the repugnant institution of slavery, and the Confederacy had the better democratic claim for what they wished to do, if the critical ideal for a democratic republic is self-determination. Had Lincoln not been able to wrap his cause of preserving the Union in the flag of ending slavery, the 600,000 dead would have been an atrocious cost to pay in order to keep a voluntarily-entered union from being voluntarily and democratically dissolved.
Stripped of moral judgments, history abounds with irony. Lincoln had to subvert the democratic will of the Southern state legislatures in order to preserve democracy. He eventually used the greater evil of slavery as justification for his fight against Southern democracy, but it should never be forgotten that he didn’t issue the Emancipation Proclamation until 1863, well after hostilities had commenced. He pinned his cause on eliminating slavery only when it appeared his cause of preserving the Union was in jeopardy. One wonders, what rationale to hold together the Union would be available, if in the future some state democratically determined it wished to leave? Considering that even client states like Iraq and Afghanistan have no choice about their limited participation in the Union, it would be outlandish to imagine that something would not be contrived if, e.g., Texas figured it would be better off going it alone, again. Lincoln was lucky. He had the abolition of slavery to steel the people’s hearts and minds to battle against their own people, and in some measure, against their own ideals. Artfully leveraging slavery to his purposes was part of Lincoln’s genius. It would take an even more astute politician to conjure such a compelling purpose today, if one of the several states sought leave to end its association.
Ok, continuing my example using the Civil War (yes, one of my favorite period so history to study), let's take a look at the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. Lee is perhaps the most mythologized and romanticized military leader in American history. His tactical brilliance is routinely praised, though there is precious little evidence supporting the view. In fact, Lee led tactical disaster after disaster, not least Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, which as any reasonably astute tactician understands, and all Lee’s generals at the time fully well knew, was nothing more or less than Confederate suicide. In many ways, Lee was the Union’s best general. History is always written by the victors, perhaps explaining the enduring myth of Lee’s tactical brilliance. The victors would not wish to imagine that Lee’s defeat was anything other than the product of their own valor and determination against a formidable foe.
So, are we correct to label something as "evil" simply to justify our own desire to elevate our own "goodness" or to justify something we consider (or in history's case - the victor) to be morally good. Could not one claim that Lincoln was an "evil" man for leading the country into a war that, as stated earlier, actually went against the very principals of the Declaration of Independence? If you don't think so, maybe you should take the time to re-read the Declaration of Independence, for it clearly stated:
"...That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
Would it not be equally justified to declare that Robert E. Lee was "evil" for leading the Confederate states into one disaster after another; only on the belief that for some reason the South was justified in it's succession?
What about other characters that we find throughout history? Who is "evil"? Why are they considered "evil?" How will history look back at us 100, 500, or a 1000 years from now when they read that we aborted millions of unborn children (NO!!! THIS IS NOT AN ANTI-ABORTION MESSAGE!!!...but what if for some reason later on that it's discovered that a fetus at 1 week old can indeed feel pain...it would probably change the interpretations that some have about the "justification" of aborting a fetus...therefore the future may judge us completely different)? Will we be considered an "evil" people?
Last but not least - the question must also be asked - is an individuals actions "evil" or is it the results of a given action that are evil?
Trust me, the topic is difficult to nail down and granted, the interpretations are just as varied as the events in history itself. So here's the blog topic for this week.....
Is Evil, "evil"? Can we effectively and justifiably declare someone or something in history as being "evil" - if so how or why?