The Devil’s Work

Posted on 2013 July 29

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There is no man so good, who, were he to submit all his thoughts and actions to the laws, would not deserve hanging ten times in his life. — Michel de Montaigne

We’ve got it exactly backwards. It’s not the garden-variety bad guys who cause all the mischief in the world. It’s the righteous and their followers who stir up the most trouble.

Granted, life contains a quantity of criminals, people who feed off the losses of others, who target their fellow humans as prey, like vampires on the prowl. But they’re one-offs, too insular to join a mass phalanx, troublesome but not ultimately the great peril. The real minions of darkness are those who consider themselves fit to judge others, to condemn those whom they deem unworthy, and to infect followers with that anger until it becomes a plague.

We like to congratulate ourselves for recognizing that the great tyrants of history must have been psychopathic — Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Attila, Genghis Khan, Robespierre (and of course any recent American president from the political party you despise) — but this presumes we’ll recognize such behavior in the future, when the next demagogue appears. By condemning these leaders as mentally ill, we think we’ve pinned them down. We think we have a name for what ailed them. We don’t. What we miss is their unyielding belief in themselves and the rightness of their causes, traits we normally applaud. The psychology manuals can define psychoses and anti-social behaviors, but they lack a definition for a dysfunction all too common among humans — the simple and straightforward failing called arrogance.

Each of these gentlemen was firmly convinced that his was the righteous way. Of course, each also believed that his own desires and the good of his people were one and the same, so that his every whim — including any murderous impulse — was adopted as good policy by his underlings. Meanwhile, these dictators took loving care of their own families, exuded charm and intelligence, and showed strength and determination, all of which are considered virtues in nearly every society. What’s not to like?

It’s the arrogance that’s not to like. Arrogance is a common quality in leaders of all stripe. After all, it takes a great deal of courage, toughness, and self-regard to fight one’s way up a ladder of leadership, so that only the most supremely confident — those who never doubt themselves or their own motives — can make it to the top. At that point, surrounded by sycophants and an army of supporters, they find the field is theirs for the taking, and they and their followers conclude that anyone who doubts them must be evil and traitorous. Small wonder, then, that self-righteousness and demagoguery go hand in hand.

“Sure, but that was then. We live in better countries today.” Maybe. Our crowded urban societies mix liberals, conservatives, immigrants, and diverse races into polyglot melting pots whose temperatures rise with each new ingredient. Pretty soon the pot simmers as we shout our moral outrage at those among us who are “doing it wrong.” We — and they — rush to the capitals of power, where everyone tries to persuade officials to punish and restrict their fellow citizens. As a result, regulation grows and expands until we’re chafing under bureaucratic burdens. We then blame, not ourselves, but our political enemies. The worse it gets, the harder we try, in a tragic feedback loop, until all that remains is a giant caldron of bureaucracy, heated up by our hatred.

It’s only a matter of time until inspired leaders dip into this roiling cauldron of anger and ladle out big servings of power for themselves.

The predators we most fear — bank robbers, child abusers, swindlers — can only damage a few people at a time. Zealots, on the other hand, often possess charismatic zeal that can lure millions to their causes. Blinded by our angry yearning to punish those we dislike, we support their crusades and wars until, exhausted by the intolerance and disgusted by the carnage, we finally rebel and turn them out. The irony is that our desire to oppress the wicked transforms into a greater evil than the sins we opposed.

And so I say unto you, dear reader, that in this world the righteous shall become angry, and their rage will do the Devil’s work.

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Posted in: Politics