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What It Is and How to Combat It

by Alan Wolfe

Pub Date: Sept. 29th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-27185-3
Publisher: Knopf

Noted political scientist Wolfe (The Future of Liberalism, 2009, etc.) brings the theological problem of evil to bear on politics and political wrongdoers from Hitler to Dick Cheney.

“Political evil is all around us,” writes the author, and the headlines would certainly seem to bear him out. That evil comes in four flavors: terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide and what Wolfe calls counterevil, which he defines as “the determination to inflict uncalled-for suffering on those presumed or known to have inflicted the same upon you.” This is likely to be the most controversial plank in his platform, but nonetheless Wolfe considers George W. Bush’s response to Saddam Hussein to be a hallmark example. Political evil has a cause, he writes, and that cause would seem almost always to be the accumulation and retention of power. This is distinct from the “apolitical evil” that dominates the headlines: the Columbines and murderous mothers and Beltway snipers that haunt our dreams. Such evil is often characterized by a sort of glee in a madman’s gleaming eye. In the instance of political evil, it is possible to see that glint—as Wolfe writes, “However much they differ from each other, Eric Harris, Adolf Hitler, and Osama bin Laden all took unseemly pleasure in the harm they caused others”—but the process is often anonymous and bureaucratic. Cheney, apologist for and practitioner of evil, comes in for a particular drubbing on that score; Wolfe asserts that his devotion to waterboarding and invasion was meant to scare “civil libertarians and Democrats” as much as the nation’s external enemies. Replacing Cheney’s theory of government as nemesis, Wolfe writes, is necessary “if the United States is to come to terms with its experience of counterevil.”

Abstract and sometimes arid, but always with an eye to what’s happening on the ground.