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Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It
Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It
Alan Wolfe
Vintage, 2012
352 pp., 16.0

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Stranger in a Strange Land: Eric Miller

Political Evil

This is a guest column by Eric Miller, professor of American history at Geneva College and author most recently of Glimpses of Another Land: Spiritual Hopes, Political Longing (Cascade).

In Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It, Alan Wolfe addresses the ongoing crisis of Western democracies. Published in September 2011, marking the tenth anniversary of 9/11, his book is even more timely today, amid the debate over drone killings.

So what is "political evil" as Wolfe understands it? The term turns out to be considerably narrower in meaning than one might imagine, given the broad swath of reality the words "political" and "evil" usually cover. In this book Wolfe is not calling attention to, say, Nixonian varieties of evil: deceit, thievery, graft. Nor does the dull presence of a solipsistic citizenry qualify for him as political evil. No, Wolfe wants us to think of political evil as "the willful, malevolent, gratuitous death, destruction, and suffering inflicted upon innocent people by the leaders of movements and states in their strategic efforts to achieve realizable objectives."

Clearly Wolfe seeks to turn our attention to evil on a grand scale and, given the past two decades of world history, for obvious reasons. He centers the second half of the book on an astute and often illuminating discussion of terrorism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and "counterevil"—the fighting of political evil with evil. But before he can do this he has to elaborate and defend his thesis on political evil.

Wolfe believes that Western democracies have bought into a long-cultivated assumption that evil in general is vast and prevalent—an error (so he sees it) largely traceable to St. Augustine and his many heirs, including the highly influential 20th-century political philosopher Hannah Arendt. For Wolfe, we may not be possessed by evil but we are, tragically, obsessed with it. "Evil," he contends, "is all too often analyzed at too high a level of abstraction," and by people who not only imagine evil to be "lurking in everyone" but who take it as axiomatic that we are defined by a "malevolent human nature." In so believing we run all kinds of risks. Exaggerating evil's presence, we take outsized actions (i.e., massive military retaliation) in ill-advised efforts to stop it. Or we lose our will to fight it, convinced the battle is already lost. Or we fail to even study it: evil is evil is evil, after all—there is nothing new to learn. "Neo-Augustinians," he writes, "are so intent on finding evil within that they downplay the fact that ordinary people spend considerable amounts of time loving one another." In fine neo-Pelagian voice he insists that we are not "inherently stained by sin."

Wolfe grants that human misery and fallibility plague us—and that in fact "there is no more important problem facing the entire world today than the existence of evil." (One reads this declaration with a sense of relief, somehow.) But he has little patience with those who spend (yet more) time seeking a deeper truth that will illumine such mysteries. Many of the great difficulties we face today—he cites climate change, AIDS, malnutrition—are "best addressed by calling upon the powers of invention and technology," not God or philosophy. And political evil's defeat depends upon neither spiritual transformation nor military might but, instead, on political acuity. "We need not reform" the workers of political evil, he writes. Rather, "we need to stop them," through careful, strategic political action, using force rarely and with great hesitation. In the end, we have no choice but to "rely on the only will that Augustine so distrusted": our own.

Wolfe makes such judgments with a gatekeeper's authority, and with swagger. The gate in question opens into the promised land of liberal democracy. Like partisans of all political ideologies, Wolfe positions himself, simply but earnestly, as a realist, a guardian of that which must be preserved for civilization's survival. We must, he urges, bring ourselves to become that which it is within our nature to become: "purposeful beings capable of creating a more just and humane world." And if we should fail to correct our collective thinking about ourselves we risk going, whether by will or by force, in the "subhuman" direction: into mass ruthlessness, into the Hobbesian wilderness, into the frightening rule of evil men arming themselves even now with unfathomable stockpiles of high-tech might. As he puts it, our very "social contract" is at risk—and the "state of nature" lies before us as a possible fate.

This of course is the Lockean language of classical liberalism, the wellspring of Wolfe's faith, addressing—and laying claim to—a world indeed in crisis. Yet in this book Wolfe never really grants that his variety of liberalism is in fact a faith. It is rather a stance that seems to him simply to reflect self-evident realism: the way things are to (most) rational, educated human beings. Religion on the other hand Wolfe understands to be a "system of meaning preoccupied with eternal questions of salvation and sacrifice." But is not his secular variant of liberalism too a system of meaning—albeit one preoccupied not with eternal but with the most enduring of earthly questions: survival and choice? Crucially, survival and choice, as this tradition has evolved, have risen to become for its advocates forms of salvation and sacrifice. Wolfe dearly wants these earthly matters to be the governing—one is tempted to say exclusive—concerns of the American citizenry, the great "we" he continually invokes. But what if "we" should find that the great problems gathered so expansively around the notion of evil require that "we" go beyond liberal notions of survival and choice in our pursuit of not just understanding but order? What will "hard liberals" (in Leon Wieseltier's phrase) then say to us? Do to us?

I have little quarrel (or only little quarrels) with Wolfe's thinking about how to combat "political evil." True, his confidence does not always help his cause. "A moment's reflection," he suggests, "might have allowed Western policymakers to see that the evils of terrorism are so different from the evils of totalitarianism that equating the two is precisely the wrong thing to do." Was it really so simple? Were the thousands of American politicians and policy-makers so uniformly stupid? Still, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, his exasperation has a certain purchase, and his larger argument—that shrewd, political, scaled-back, and, yes, moral responses to political evil offer a way forward—makes sense. If we are to live peaceably in this diminishing world we have made—an almost audacious hope—surely this kind of trenchant rethinking is necessary.

But what of Wolfe's resolute secularity? It's not that he is trying to wipe out religion. This is not obliteration bombing. In the book's fascinating final chapter he, who had been active on the Left in the 1960's and '70s, concedes that "there is much truth in the idea that the experience of the 1960s did not prepare us well for the outbreak of political evil that followed in subsequent decades." It is now apparent to him that "human beings, far from being free spirits standing to benefit from the loosening constraints of faith and family, really do have a dark side." After duly criticizing its unnecessary and dangerous extremes he even touts the "advantages of secular Calvinism," principally for its "insight into temptation" and its attention to humility—a "Christian virtue," Wolfe writes, that is "available to anyone, religious or not."

No, Wolfe is not seeking to destroy religion. Rather, his policy is more like containment. "Calvinism tamed," he chants, "is Calvinism useful." In fact, he goes so far as to explain with striking bluntness why he, as a liberal, feels free to turn to religion at all: "It is precisely because the world of modern politics has become so thoroughly indebted to a secular understanding of human purpose … that we can safely turn to religion for ways of thinking that can help us wrestle with the paradoxes of political evil."

The work of "hard liberalism"—call it Heroic Liberalism—will go on. Heroic Liberals may have a defensible purpose to boast: survival and choice, the formation of, in Wolfe's phrase, "autonomous agents." But, as his quasi-theological turn shows, there may be older insights, vistas—even truths—that turn out to be necessary for the liberal order's own well-being, truths that secularity, for all its shrewdness, has no eyes to see. "Democratic faith finally fails democracy," the political philosopher Patrick Deneen writes. Liberals may yet find themselves grappling with older notions of liberty—and in so doing discover yet more of the knowledge of good and evil.

—Eric Miller

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