Thursday 14 February 2013

Excerpt from That Line of Darkness: Vol. II

              Encompass Editions 
    This piece also appeared in Critics at Large

When you cross over that line of darkness, it’s hard to come back. You lose your soul.
–Former CIA officer. Quoted by Jane Mayer

Gothic is a mode
perhaps the modeof unofficial history.
Literature of Terror by David Punter.

Gothic texts frequently chart the trajectory of individuals who suppress or lack the capacity to empathize with others. Similarly, when individuals in the larger world succumb to an ideological virus, neither experience nor reality can disrupt their single-minded quest to achieve utopia. Their narrative often includes sanctioning the emotional humiliation and the physical assault upon people they consider non-persons. If intended victims are regarded as vermin or parasites that must be eliminated, moral restraints to cold-blooded violence are atrophied, if not abandoned. The Gothic mode employs filtersthe demonization of the other, the double or a sinister duality, psychic vampirism, the obsession with bloodlinesto explore how individuals and groups inspired by an ideology or opportunism can lose their moral compass and descend into a gray if not dark zone. In Gothic fiction ethical codes “operate at best in distorted forms.” The same can be said of totalitarian states and the militant Islamists. In a chapter from The Dictators titled, “The Moral Universe of Dictatorship,” Richard Overy argues that the Nazis and the Stalinists adopted an extreme moral relativism that subsumed individual conscience into the collective will, one that was driven solely by ideological imperatives. Just as moral elites like the church and the law were co-opted or destroyed by Nazi and Soviet ideology, the original meaning of the Quran is lost, even repudiated by the actions of militant Islamists.

Paranoia is a hallmark of Gothic fiction: the reader is uncertain about whether the fears of the characters are based on reality. In the underlying ideologies of totalitarian states and militant Islamist groups, paranoia is a palpable force. Their irrational delusionsthat a racially immaculate community will defeat a global Jewish conspiracy to subvert German civilization; that history will vindicate the virtuous proletariat over the exploitative bourgeoisie; and that the West has waged war against Muslims, all acts of violence are justifiedare the fulcrum from which their need for total manipulation of their subjects springs. The attributes assigned to enemies (real and imaginary) often portray more about the mindset of those who would destroy them. The enemies become reflections of those who fear them. The Gothic motif of doubling is a useful frame through which to examine the concept of evilthe willingness and intent to inflict deliberate harm on innocent human beings. This topic, however, is usually avoided by historians. Sir Ian Kershaw, distinguished historian and the author of what many consider the definitive biography of Hitler, never mentions the word evil. This avoidance derives from a number of understandable reasons starting with the conviction that it is the function of historians to explain and not to judge. Evil is considered a theological concept beyond their purview. It is also often associated with the monstrous and therefore it places individuals in a realm where they become unaccountable for their actions. Finally, its careless and simplistic use since 9/11 when it was bandied about without nuancewe are good, they are evilto mute or bludgeon any critical responses (who can be against combating evil?) would act as a deterrent for historians to explore its sources and its nature in specific historical contexts.

Social psychologists and philosophers, however, are willing to confront evil head-on. Moral philosopher, Susan Neiman suggests that we abandon our attempt to foreclose the discussion about good vs. evil provided we recognize that anyone is capable of participating in it, as Victorian author, Robert Louis Stevenson, astutely explores in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Neiman draws upon the experiments of social scientists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo to support her argument. Milgram demonstrated that sixty-five percent of his subjects were willing to follow orders and inflict electric shock on others despite the emotional upset many experienced at what they (wrongly) thought were screams in another room provided they did not need to assume personal responsibility. Philip Zimbardo randomly divided a group of healthy young men into two groups: guards and prisoners. The men rapidly became either brutal sadists or abject dehumanized prisoners, so quickly, in fact, that Zimbardo cut short his experiment. He observed that the right circumstances can awaken in anyone the impulse that delights in cruelty and concluded that sadism, as “the province only of deviants and despots—of Them but not Us,”—is an illusion. (During the first half of the powerful 2001 film, Das Experiment, the interchange between guards and prisoners replicates the sadism and humiliation that Zimbardo observed but, then as the situation careens completely out of control and various forms of violence and brutality occur, we are left wondering if those horrors might have happened if Zimbardo had not aborted his experiment.) Zimbardo’s insight echoes the Gothic convention of doubling and serves as a sober reminder that in certain ways we resemble the enemy we wish to destroy.

Believing that evil takes on many forms and cannot be reduced to a single essence, Neiman suggests that only by a careful case-by-case analysis can we recognize that a line has been crossed from awful to evil. She notes that evil often results from brutal insensitivity rather than demonic malice. Insensitivity is accompanied by shamelessness, indifference or a lack of awareness that certain actions could lead to disgrace. The only way to stop the further erosion of shame is to return to the language of good and evil provided it is not caricatured or externalized as something only others do: “The idea of evil is neither demonizing nor Manichean.” The acknowledgement that certain actions are indeed evil can offset the danger of desensitizing us or providing alibis: roughing up prisoners may be bad but cannot be compared with the evil acts perpetrated by our enemy or certain actions, however repugnant, can be defended in the name of patriotism and service to country or excused given the circumstances. If we are to avoid these alibis, Neiman suggests that the more we understand how people are drawn into evil actions the more power we have to do things differently. 

Hannah Arendt
Neiman avoids any discussion of Nazism. She acknowledges, however, without it the Holocaust – which she characterizes as the “gold standard” for evil – would not have been possible. As a Jewish witness to the radical evil of Nazi Germany in a German prison and as a refugee in Nazi-occupied France before her daring escape, political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, did tackle the meaning of Nazism and, to a lesser extent Stalinism. She contended that the aim of totalitarianism exceeded that of political domination over others to a “system in which men were superfluous.” From the leaders to the functionaries in the camps, they were mere instruments of their respective ideologies. In her words, “absolute evil could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetous, resentment, thirst for power, and cowardice.” 

This volume of That Line of Darkness explores the spectrum of evil that ranged from the camps in Germany and the Soviet Union to the forms it took in the regimes’ echelons of power, the social elites, activists, informers, bystanders, and even in some of its victims. The first two parts of the book where radical evil abundantly abounds contrasts with part three which deals with modern America and the quieter, more insidious forms of evil committed by individuals who might not set out to intend harm but either excuse or are indifferent to it. The boundaries between the two paradigms outlined by Neiman and Arendt, however, are by no means impermeable. When mockery, disdain and cruelty dwell within individuals and groups, those forces can be readily released with or without official state sanction. Under these circumstances, the impermissible becomes possible and human beings cross the line into darkness.

The pervasiveness of the Gothic mode underscores how its power can extend beyond the murderous states of Europe. It resonates with the fears, anxieties and desires that percolated and festered in America after 1945 during the Cold War, and has permeated the culture in recent times. Joseph Conrad’s allegorical Heart of Darkness (1902) effectively provides a bridge from the horrors inflicted by two totalitarian states to those perpetrated by a relatively liberal democratic state. Mr. Kurtz is a charismatic agent of an ivory company who succumbs to the dangers of the jungle. His bizarre behaviour and lack of “restraint” mirror the “primitive” beings he endeavours to civilize. The novel and the fate of the central character could be read as a cautionary warning about the dangers of venturing into unknown lands regardless of the motives. Part Three explores the fundamentalist absolutism of both the Bush presidency and militant Islamism. American actions at home and abroad reveal not only a mirror image to the monster it wished to destroy, but convey a disturbing continuity with those states that have been consigned to history’s graveyards. All three of them, albeit with radically different degrees of intensity, heightened the politics of fear to further their national or imperial agendas. I am not suggesting a moral equivalence or comparison between the callous disregard for civilian life shown by Islamist terrorists or the magnitude of the murderous actions perpetrated in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and the cavalier dismissal of the rule of law that operated during the Bush years. In America countervailing institutions, personal freedoms and respect for human dignity existed in ways that were inconceivable in Germany, the U.S.S.R and in the liberty-lashing culture of al-Qaeda. Nonetheless, American contempt for the “towel people” at both the official and main street level made it possible to sanction constitutional violations and egregious human rights violations that reveal disturbing echoes of the violence meted out to “racial enemies” and “enemies of the people.”

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