"What makes Iago evil? Some people ask...You might ask that. I never would, not any more."
--Joan Didion, "Play It As It Lays."
"The Countess Margit Batthyany, nee Thyssen-Bornemisza, threw a lavish black tie good-bye party fo the SS officers in residence at her castle near the Hungarian border, where she had been reportedly cuckholding her husband with a Gestapo officer. At some point during the evening, the SS men reportedly marched out some Jewish slave laborers. They invited guests to shoot them for a while, then returned to the dance."
--Ann Marie O'Connor, "The Lady in Gold"
"You could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic--you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up...He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric."
Evil may be an out dated word, but it does have the virtue of clarity.
But what is evil? If evil has clarity, we should be able to define it pretty easily.
Of course, evil is in the eye of the beholder. For Countess Batthyany, those Jews who were shot for sport at her dinner party must have been evil. Shooting them for sport was like shooting rats. Or like shooting that deer like thing at her feet. Although, one might ask, how much fun is shooting rats or deer in black tie? (The fact is, having seen rats on city streets, they are not my favorite mammals, but shooting them would not fill me with joy.)
Evil is what we find repellent, although the beggar covered with sores, reaching up pathetically from the street is repellent, he is not evil. You need more than that.
Evil demands a quality of lack of sympathy, often it is wrapped up in aggressiveness, and relishing the misfortune of others. As they say in "Avenue Q" when explaining the word "Schadenfreude" --happiness at the misfortune of others, "Oh, that IS German."
|The Countess with her Trophy|
But simply taking pleasure in seeing the demise of someone we do not like is not necessarily evil. If Donald Trump were to lose this election, and all his backers gather in a room to weep and wail, relishing that moment (looking, now increasingly unlikely) would not be evil, but a sign of relief and joy at the ascendancy of virtue.
|Hey, let's get this party going: Shoot some Jews|
So evil may involve, but does not always necessarily involve a willingness to harm.
Think of the wives of the commandants of concentrations camps, who raised their children within earshot of the camps, who could smell and see what was happening there, but ignored what they knew was happening, as they served their children schnitzel on fine china at their carved tables: They were evil, even though they may not have enjoyed the pain of their fellow human beings. They were willing to support those who did the evil and they were, in their passivity, evil.
The child who throws a kitten into a pond and watches it drown is evil. But what about the adult who watches a child stumble into a river and simply watches rather than attempting to rescue it? You could say, like Woody Allen, "Well, I don't know how to swim." But not reacting is a form of evil.
The sum total of what Donald John Trump has spewed out over the course of the campaign is evil, for all the reasons Ms. Clinton enumerated. And those who respond to it are just as evil.
The real problem for Ms. Clinton, and for the rest of us, is that the next day she said she regretted having called some of his supporters deplorable.
If you read more than the sound bite, she went on to remark, "They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead-end. Those are the people we have to understand and empathize with as well."
The problem with this, Hillary, is the same problem you run into with the Austrians, post war. The Austrians fashioned themselves as "Hitler's first victims," the first country he invaded. Never mind, Hitler was received ecstatically, and as the German troops retreated at the end of the war, Austrians jeered Jews and cheered as Jews were mowed down by crowds of Austrians.
No, you cannot have it both ways. When it comes to despots, you are either with them or you are against them. You may have your reasons, but if you support evil, if you raise that arm in salute, you are just as evil as the guy you are saluting.