Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Does the Devil know he is evil?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, evil, villains

The title of this post is a question I like to ask people when the subject of evil comes up. Think of the great villains of history, distant and recent: Athaliah (a genuine evil queen: see 2Kings 11), Herod, Nero, Caligula, Pope Boniface VIII (who "came in like a fox, reigned like a lion, and died like a dog"), Catherine the Great, Lizzie Borden, Hitler, Mao, Stalin or Osama bin Laden. With the possible exception of Ms Borden, each of these persons, and a great many other "meanies", was convinced he or she was good. There's a Crip hit man who wrote the book Monster while in prison. It is his nickname. He likes it. Most of the book is an attempt to convince the reader that he is really a good guy.

Then there's the corner drug dealer/hit man. If you dare, catch up to him and interview him. He'll go to great lengths to show you he's just a guy trying to make a living, giving people a product they want very, very much. I wonder if Earl Bradley, the Delaware pediatrician who raped at least 100 2- and 3-year old girls, thinks of himself as fundamentally good? He even videotaped many of the rapes. What was he thinking?

Flitting thoughts along these lines went through my head when I saw the book I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman. I've been hoping to find a book that delves into the possibility that some people actually choose to be evil. The jacket blurb raised my hopes, claiming the book is about people who wanted to be evil. That is as far as it went.

Starting with a discussion of rock bands he hated, the author primarily discusses people who are hated by others, whether or not they actually did anything evil. He derives a rule (we can call it Chuck's Rule of Evil): The villain is the one who knows the most and cares the least. The poster boy for this rule is supposedly Newt Gingrich. Howzatt? His "Contract for America" did more good for this country than any congressional action since. There is no mention in the book of something many folks consider evil, Newt's tendency to have affairs, but wait to file for divorce when the current wife is badly ill.

Klosterman goes on to various other public figures and groups, including a couple of really witless comedians and the rap group N.W.A. (who practically invented Gangsta Rap), and mid-book he discusses sports teams, dwelling on the Oakland Raiders. Now the Raiders' owner Al Davis seems to revel in a bad boy image, with his rule book centered on "Just Win, Baby!". But I suspect, inside, he thinks, "I am such a good coach" (Or thought, since he has now died).

The obligatory chapter on Adolph Hitler, which also mentions Stalin and Mao, really goes nowhere. Hitler is the exception that tests the Rule, because, whether he really knew the most or not, he certainly cared the most. But everything that can be known about Hitler has been written hundreds of times, so all that is left are speculations.

In the end, Klosterman admits that the adage, "he who writes of others writes of himself" is true. The book isn't about whether the hated people he writes about are/were really bad, but about the hatred (or not) he and others feel towards them. We are left with the question, who is worse, the hater or the hated one? In most cases, if there is someone or something you really hate, you'd do well to take a long, thoughtful look in the mirror.

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