The Depersonalization of Evil

ted-rall-aaron-la-timesSkewed News The email was from someone who generally supports me. And it was generally supportive: “I’m glad you still have a platform.”

Me too! But the generally nice email contained a qualifier.

“I do find a lot of your opinions repugnant.”

Whoa. Repugnant? Such a strong word. The Holocaust was repugnant. What did I write or draw that was so disgusting?

“[Your] most repugnant stuff is portraying powerful people as unmitigated evil,” my otherwise supportive correspondent elaborated. “Everyone is human, and some of them are even nice humans, which is actually a greater hazard since there’s no question that some of what they do is evil. But someone has to navigate these insane political terrains and actually lead/serve, even if they wind up being completely alien from who they started to be.”

I shan’t identify the letter writer. Partly, this is because I like him/her. (Generally supportive, you know.) Mainly, though, I suspect that many people — particularly liberal Democrats — feel the same way as she/he does about my cartoons and writing. If people are turned off, I want to know why. I appreciate feedback. Seeing such criticism spelled out forces me to take a step back, reconsider whether I’m being unfair or wrongheaded — in this case to the “powerful people” whom I portray as “unmitigated evil” — and either change my act…or double down.

This “I support you, but” writer is right about my work. Especially in my cartoons, I often portray powerful politicians and business executives as bad people. I drew George W. Bush, first as a deranged dictator complete with Augusto Pinochet-like epaulettes, sash and silly tyrant hat out of a Terry Gilliam movie, and then, after 9/11 and the beginning of the war on terror, as a hideous monster drooling coke snot over his fangs.

I’m so subtle.

I’ve been graphically kinder to Barack Obama — though some disagree — but in content I’ve been as mean to him as to Bush. I undermine his image as calm and reasonable with cartoons that show the cold-blooded automaton rubbing his hands with glee as he presides over one assassination-by-drone after another, and surrounds himself with luxury (golfing, hanging out at his multimillion-dollar summer vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard) while ordinary Americans lose their jobs and their homes. Obama, in Rallworld, is a murderous bastard who doesn’t care about you. As were Bush and Clinton.

The titans of capitalism come under heavy fire too. If you’re the CEO of a major company, pretty much the only feedback I’m going to give you is that you’re a greedy employee-firing price-gouging turd who exports American jobs to foreign hellholes because you don’t care about anyone else.

Guilty as charged: I do depict the rich and powerful as pure evil.

I don’t care about your intent. I don’t buy “gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet” justifications. If you have a hand in starting and/or continuing a war, an optional war of aggression, you’re a mass murderer. If you order killer robot planes to blow up people who haven’t been convicted of a crime in any court, and those killer robot planes blow up those people and other people who just happen to be nearby when the missile hits, you’re an evil person who did an evil thing, and it doesn’t matter one little bit that you have a winning smile, that you say you’re trying to keep America safe and strong, that you’re fighting “them” “there” so we don’t have to do it here, that you’re funny at the White House Press Correspondents Dinner, that you look adorable alongside your two beautiful daughters, or that you’re the first black president.

Save the qualifiers. You’re evil and I’ll draw you evil.

“We are condemned to be free,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre — free to choose between good and evil or, as in much of his literary work, between less evil and more evil. As such, he elaborated, we are defined by our worst act: a man who acts cruelly is, by definition a cruel man.

Sartre’s existentialism works for me better than any other codified system of philosophical or religious belief. I agree with him on most ethical issues. Killing thousands of people is evil, so people who order thousands of people killed are evil. Osama bin Laden is morally indistinguishable from Barack Obama.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be defined by the worst things we’ve ever done. Yet we are. As you read this, well over two million Americans are behind bars because they stand accused or convicted of a crime. Many of those inmates — probably most of them — have donated to charity, helped a stranger in need or donated blood. Very few people who have done bad things have mostly done bad things. Nearly 200,000 are military veterans, yet their service didn’t mitigate their fate. Their judges didn’t care because, as Sartre said, we are all defined by our worst act.

The lower your status in society, the more harshly you will be treated by the justice system. The darker your skin, the longer your prison sentence. The poorer you are, the higher the fine. The fewer resources you have to get through life — like, if you suffer from mental illness — the more brutality you will experience at the hands and fists of police and prison guards.

This, I believe, is the exact opposite of how it ought to be.

I’m with Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben: with great power comes great responsibility. (The corollary, which also serves as a handy definition of what it means to belong to the political left, is that with little power comes little responsibility.) If you’re privileged — rich and/or white and/or male and/or blessed with resources — you should be judged more harshly.

Which brings us back to my portrayals of the rich and powerful.

It is not actually true that “someone has to navigate these insane political terrains and actually lead/serve,” i.e., join and work inside and for the system — at least not as the point of the spear.

No one has to “actually lead/serve.”
True, opting out of the system entirely — refusing to pay taxes, for example — is so hard and carries such harsh penalties that it isn’t reasonable to expect of the average citizen. But it not asking much to suggest that we boycott the really horrible crimes the system commits. After all, most Americans do opt out.

Most Americans do not enlist in the armed forces. Yay, non-servicemembers! Most Americans do not harbor political ambitions. Good for you! Few Americans are corporate executives or in a position to ever become one. Your hands are relativelt clean!

Most Americans are, therefore, not evil.

By their nature, the biggest evils are those carried out on a grand scale: genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass poisoning by pollution, destroying the environment, huge frauds, systematic theft, racism, gender discrimination and so on. The only people capable of executing these humongous evils are those who possess wealth and/or power. If we don’t/can’t/shouldn’t call out the rich and powerful people who commit these terrible crimes because, hey, someone has to lead/serve, we are effectively saying that no one is responsible. That these crimes are authorless.

Depersonalization of crimes, absolving everyone of responsibility, is a historical whitewash and an insult to the victims. If there’s no criminal, did a crime occur? Logic says no. The fact that no one has ever been charged with a crime in connection with torturing Muslim detainees at Guantánamo concentration camp signals to the world that the torture either never really happened, that we can’t be sure whether it happened, or that if it did it doesn’t matter.

What about mercy? Don’t people, even powerful people, deserve a pass when they make mistakes? As I say above, more is expected of the rich and powerful. The ethical bar is higher. But yes, mercy is an important societal value, one that should be extended to the rich and powerful — when appropriate.

To me, you’re more deserving of soft treatment if you’ve learned from your mistakes. One of the reasons that I despise Hillary Clinton is that she has never met a war she didn’t like: Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and then Syria and Libya under her direct watch. She supported them all. None were morally or legally justifiable. With the possible exception of Bosnia, they spread misery and chaos, and hurt American interests. She’s stupid and mean. If anyone deserves a pass for warmongering, it isn’t her.

Like the former community organizer Barack Obama, former children’s rights advocate Hillary Clinton has become “completely alien from who they started to be”: a member of the board of the hideously anti-worker megacorporation Wal-Mart, a corrupted politico who sells influence to the highest bidder, an assassin.

She’s repugnant. I’m merely calling her out.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for ANewDomain.net and SkewedNews.net, is the author of “Snowden,” about the NSA whistleblower. His new book “Bernie” about Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, is now available for pre-order. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

For Skewed News, I’m Ted Rall.

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