March 03, 2004


I've been enjoying my reading of The Gulag Archipelago, as much as one can enjoy reading about imprisonment in Stalinist Russia. I hit a passage today that struck me with its simplicity. It's in the chapter on the Bluecaps:

To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good, or else that it's a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to see a justification for his actions.

Macbeth's self-justifications were feeble--and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.

Ideology--that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others' eyes, so that he won't hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jocobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.

Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

Many have condemned President Bush for his label of The Axis of Evil; they thought it simplistic, sanctimonious, or ridiculous. Yet there is indeed evildoing in this world today; it's not confined to the twentieth century. And I agree with Solzhenitsyn that ideology is often the way that individuals justify their actions.

Would a Palestinian strap on a bomb and blow up a bus if he hadn't been told from day one that the Jews are the source of all of his suffering and he would be rewarded in heaven? Would one of Saddam's henchmen have been more likely to say "hang on a minute" when instructed to kill someone in a plastic shredder if he weren't backed by the Ba'athist ideology? And would individuals actually be stupid enough to do this yesterday if everyone else around them weren't doing it too?

The old question is If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you? You're supposed to answer No, but a group ideology makes it hard to not jump. But maybe that one person who refused to jump would make a couple of others see their error, and someday the whole ideology might come tumbling down.

Posted by: Sarah at 07:37 AM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
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1 Keep on with the Archipelago. Aleksandr Isaevich is a difficult read in some ways. But the greatest tragedy our miserable planet has ever seen is worth reading about. And this entry indicates, I think, that you've grasped his point. That choice is basic to resisting group ideology and its tyranny.

Posted by: Dr_Funk at March 07, 2004 01:19 AM (RVsRN)

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