Illustration by Bob AulAside from pop-culture-cued numbskulls like Richard Ramirez, evil people rarely think of themselves as evil. Nazis thought they were saving the world from grasping, scheming Jews. Stalinists thought they were saving the workers from grasping, scheming bosses. Palestinians are saving themselves from an oppressive occupying force. Israelis are saving themselves from terrorist maniacs. The al-Qaida are scouring the world of corrupt American dominance. We are saving ourselves from freedom-hating zealots. In the 1860s, we were saving ourselves from ourselves, and whether you were good or evil depended upon which side of the Mason-Dixon line you lived. Same deal during the generational divide of the 1960s—shall we call it the Manson-Nixon line?—when you had your choice of evil bogeymen (hippie-bearded or five-o'clock-shadowed) who were leading dupes into murderous acts.
I'm not saying there aren't clear-cut good guys and bad guys here, just that the bad guys are always convinced they're the good guys. Hitler loved dogs. Pol Pot was probably a barrel of laughs at the mahjong table. Slobodan Milosevic will tell you he's a patriot. None regarded themselves as evil.
Yet they each wielded this mysterious dark power that bound followers to them. In world events today, our leaders speak of evil as if it were a palpable force spewing forth from hell, with only us, God's chosen, there to beat it back with our mighty sword.
What is this evil among us? Well, let me dispense the sort of wisdom they pay me the modest dollars to dispense, and I'll put it in big type so you'll get your money's worth:
EVIL IS STUPIDITY.
It is nothing more and maybe a little bit less because it is a particular type of stupidity, the kind that is either so blinkered by fear or just downright sociopathic that it is blind to most of life. In one of his films, Werner Herzog used a rooster to symbolize evil, he said, because the rooster was the stupidest creature he knew. Bravo, Werner!
Let's talk about Chuck Manson for a minute. People say he was the very face of evil, the poster boy for the permissive '60s, the switched-on Svengali with eyes like burning mesquite, taking kids from good homes and twisting them into blood-bathing lysergic murder zombies.
I'm pleased to know a guy who knew Manson, Phil Kaufman—pleased because Phil's a delight to know and because among his trove of tales are his Manson memories, which only highlight what a doofus Manson was.
Phil met Manson when both were at Terminal Island enjoying the hospitality of the state in the mid-1960s, Phil for having been a spectacular failure at smuggling weed, and Manson for kiting checks, stealing windshield wipers or something equally pathetic. In jail, Manson stood out only as a scrawny guy trying to play Merle Haggard songs on an acoustic guitar.
He preceded Phil back into civilian life, so when Phil looked him up, he already had his following going, living then in Topanga Canyon. Phil moved in with them because, fresh from prison, a heedless series of rustic fucks with compliant hippie chicks seemed like a better idea than most.
The downside of this axillary-haired heaven was that he had to listen to Manson splutter out his interminable shithead theories about race and Armageddon. Manson sucked as a musician, thought world hunger would end if people went dumpster-diving behind markets as he did, and wasn't much good at figuring out what the Beatles' songs were about.
When the nookie-to-nihilism ratio at the commune got a little too drastic for Phil, he told Manson what a tedious blowhard he was and split. That, combined with Phil holding the master tapes to Manson's precious recordings, led Manson to order his followers to kill Phil one night. But not finding Phil where they expected him to be, they simply went next door and killed the La Bianca family. What kind of idiot operation was that? Do you think Pizza Hut would be in business for long if they just left pizzas with the neighbors?
Phil didn't know his danger at the time, and when Manson was arrested, he didn't initially believe Manson had ordered the murders because he knew him only as a dumpster-diving mooch with an endless line of self-deceiving bull. But stupid as Manson was, he never could have parlayed his bull into one of history's more notorious murder sprees without the presence of acid-doped dupes even dumber than he who listened to him.
There is never a shortage of dupes. There were far more people in the same time frame who believed in Nixon's "secret plan to end the war" even as he kept escalating it and the death toll climbed.
Today we have the terrorists who hijacked the Sept. 11 flights, with some of them, according to the videotaped Osama bin Laden, not even knowing they were going to their deaths.
Want to consider another set of dupes, lied to and cynically manipulated by evil figures to carry death to others? How about smokers, cigarette executives and the victims of secondhand smoke? Along with the 400,000 idiots who smoke themselves to death every year, they take along another 50,000 persons via secondhand smoke. Each year, that's more than 16 times the number of innocents killed on Sept. 11 by al-Qaida, killed instead by tobacco profiteers. You don't see us bombing North Carolina, though, do you?
Did you see last week where the European Union is accusing American tobacco companies of smuggling billions of cigarettes into Iraq, in violation of U.S.-propounded international law? Should the companies be prosecuted for growing richer by providing succor to our enemies? Or should they be rewarded for spreading death to the ace Evil Axis member state, even as our intelligence agencies have made so little headway? Could this be the reason the Bush administration tried to slip a measure into the PATRIOT anti-terrorism bill last fall that would have shielded the tobacco companies from the racketeering cases being sought against them by the European Union, Canada and Colombia?
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So Charles Manson, creepy idiot, goes down in history as evil personified for indirectly causing the deaths of fewer people than it takes to field a softball team; Osama bin Laden ups the ante to 3,000 and becomes the new face of evil; and meanwhile, a cabal of executives allegedly smuggles to our enemies and—known fact now—has lied and hidden data about the dangers of its product, resulting in the death of 450,000 people per year in America alone, and its faceless members not only go about rich and free but get preferential treatment by the White House as well.
(Conservatives will tell you that this is practicing "moral relativism." No, it's using our reason, which they haven't entirely outlawed yet.)
When evil is that entrenched, that rich, that powerful, that manipulative, is it still stupid? You bet. They may never know it, and they may go to their graves walking on yours, stinking rich and laughing, but they are stupid to the core.
Frank Herbert said, "Fear is the mind-killer," and as Miles Davis noted, the inverse of "evil" is "live." Evil sons of bitches of all stripes—mullahs and corporate raiders and tigers and bears—fear nothing more than they do the unguarded moment, the live instant—right here, right now—where change occurs. Instead, they try to lock the world down into their narrow theocratic or profit-flow vision of how it should be. Who is so stupid that they want to watch a predictable movie where they know everything that's going to happen? They are, except it's not a movie, but every minute of their lives—and, if they have their way, ourlives. At the risk of sounding morally relativistic again: screw them all.