Evil Be Thou My Evil, Article by Theodore Dalrymple

Dr. Dalrymple examines two books: “…Mao’s Secret Famine, by Frank Dikotter, a professor of Chinese at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, and…Beyond Evil, by Nathan Yates, a journalist on the British tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mirror.” In the article, found here, he explores the linear elements of judging evil, the comparison of communism with Nazism, and the absurdity of good intentions arguments. His answers are not evil. The text is below:

Often I read more than one book at a time. When I tire of one I fly to another. This is because the world has always seemed to me so various and so interesting in all its aspects that I have not been able to confine my mind to a single subject or object for very long; therefore I am not, never have been, and never will be the scholar of anything. My mind is magpie-like, attracted by what shines for a moment; I try to persuade myself that this quality of superficiality has its compensations, in breadth of interest, for example.

Be that as it may, I recently spent a day reading two books and constantly switching between them; the first Mao’s Secret Famine, by Frank Dikotter, a professor of Chinese at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, and the second Beyond Evil, by Nathan Yates, a journalist on the British tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mirror.

The famine of Dokotter’s title was that brought about by the Great Leap Forward in China between 1959 and 1962; the thing which was beyond evil was the murder of two little girls in the Cambridgeshire village of Soham, whose disappearance for a time captured the attention of the world.

The famine was probably the worst in world history, at least as measured by the absolute number of victims; according to Dikotter, there were 45,000,000 of them. Other famines have been worse relative to the total population: it is sobering to recall, for example, that the population of Ireland is still only 70 per cent of what it was before the great potato famine of the 1840s, when some in Britain regarded it coldheartedly as a Malthusian winnowing of the surplus population ordained by God.

Nevertheless, there seems something peculiarly dreadful about the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward: from its complete predictability from previous human experience of such great leaps to the utter indifference of Mao Tse-tung to the deaths of scores of millions of his compatriots and to the suffering of hundreds of millions of more of them.

Of course, Mao could not have produced the famine single-handedly, but the other authors of the catastrophe acted mainly from cowardice or sycophancy, unattractive but nevertheless human qualities that few of us have never exhibited in the course of our lives.

One finishes Dikotter’s book with a visceral loathing of Mao, whose preparedness to contemplate seriously the deaths of hundreds of millions of people if only his dim and half-baked ideas about the good society might be put into practice places him among the select company of true moral monsters of the Twentieth Century, for example Lenin and Hitler. The only lesson that Mao drew from the Great Leap Forward and its terrible associated famine was that he should revenge himself on Liu Shao-chi, who did much to bring it to an end. Mao duly took his revenge on Liu during the Cultural Revolution, again at the cost of untold suffering and destruction. Mao cared about as much for humanity as most of us do for ants in the kitchen.

By comparison with the deaths of 45,000,000 people, those of the two little girls in Soham might seem insignificant. What are two to set against so many? The culprit was a man called Ian Huntley, who had a long history of dubious sexual relations, including with 12 year-old girls. But though he had been reported to or investigated by the police several times (many witnesses, including the mother of a 12 year-old girl whom he had sexually assaulted, refused to testify against him), he had no convictions and therefore no criminal record; thus, when he applied for a job as school caretaker there was no official record of anything that he had done that precluded him from taking up the job. What amounts, legally-speaking, to tittle-tattle cannot be allowed to stand in a man’s way.

The two girls whom he murdered went for a walk one evening, and he asked him into his house. They suspected no ill of him because they already knew him from their school. What happened next is known only to him, who has never told anyone the truth of what he did. Probably he assaulted one or both of them sexually and then, realising that each would be a witness to any allegations made by the other, he killed them both, taking their bodies under cover of night to a distant ditch where he later burnt them beyond recognition.

When a hue and cry for the missing girls was raised he played to psychopathic perfection the part of a concerned person and good neighbour. With all the other villagers, he searched high and low for the two girls, though of course he knew all along where they were. He even uttered words of comfort to the distressed parents.

The question I asked myself as I read the two books, switching from one to another, is ‘How and on what scale do you compare the evil of the two men, Mao Tse-tung and Ian Huntley?’ It hardly seems satisfactory to say that Mao was 22.5 million times worse than Huntley because he was responsible for that many more deaths than he. And yet to utter the two names in the same breath seems almost to indulge in bathos.

Huntley probably did not set out to kill the two girls. He had been violent to women and adolescent girls before, but not so as to cause them permanent physical injury. The chances are that in killing them he was only trying to get rid of the evidence. He preferred their deaths to his exposure as a sex criminal.

Likewise, Mao did not set out to kill millions, but he much preferred to do so than have to back-pedal or re-think his ideas, a back-pedalling that would have cost him his power. If the implementation of his ideas led to disaster, therefore, it proved to him only that there were saboteurs, class traitors and capitalist-roaders still at large, enemies to be destroyed. Never could he admit that his ideas were wrong, and moreover wrong for obvious reasons that anyone of average intelligence ought to have been able to see. Let the heavens fall, he said to himself, so long as I preserve my power.

It is clear that the evil of these two men cannot be compared using a linear scale, and the same goes for the suffering of their victims. Who would expect the parents of the murdered girls to be consoled by the thought that at least the murder of their children was not the Great Leap Forward, that at least Huntley killed only two to Mao’s millions, and that, everyone else they knew apart from the girls had survived, which was certainly not the case during the Great Leap Forward, when every survivor knew of scores who had died? And what would one think of a defence lawyer who argued in court that Huntley was not as bad as many others in history that he could name if he wanted?

Huntley and Mao did what evil they could within their own spheres. Mao’s sphere, alas, was the largest population in the world, while Huntley was confined to a small village in England. Only one of them – Mao – got away with it. But both conscientiously did the worst they could.

The urge or temptation to place people in a league table of evil is very strong, as if evil were measureable on a linear scale, like height or weight. Was Stalin as bad as Hitler, and if not, by what percentage was he less bad? Twenty per cent, forty per cent? Serious arguments are held on this question; I have had them myself, as if something depended upon the answer, as if indeed there were an answer; likewise the comparison of communism with Nazism.

Protagonists of the view that communism was at least as bad as Nazism point to the fact that it killed more people. Protagonists of the opposite view say that, while this might be so, communism lasted seventy years, while Nazism lasted only twelve, as if a longer rule implied almost a right, or an excuse, to kill more victims. If one divides the number of victims by the number of years in power, Nazism was probably worse than communism, even if it is not always entirely clear who was the victim of which ideology. Therefore, goes the argument, Nazism was the worse.

Then, of course, there is the argument about intentions. Communism may have been responsible for more deaths than Nazism, but at least it killed in the name of a universal ideal, not in pursuit of the supposed benefit of only a small portion of mankind. This is a distinction that has always seemed to me rather odd. Who would be much consoled by being asked whether he would prefer to be brutally murdered in the name of a universal ideal or merely because he was a member of a hated racial or religious group? Is it better to be killed as a bourgeois, as a kulak or as a Jew?

In opposing evil, of course, we often commit acts that, in other contexts, would themselves be evil. We are tempted to suppose that the end justifies the means – which sometimes it must, of course, but not always, if for no other reason than that the connection between ends and means is inherently an uncertain one.

And there is another trap that awaits us: there is nothing more delightful to the human mind, or at least to many human minds, than to do evil in the name of good. The number of sadists is legion, and the impulse grows with its satisfaction. Even the dullest of understandings is lightning-quick in its capacity to rationalise sadistic urges in the language of morality. We can thereby come easily to resemble, even if in only attenuated form, those whom we so fiercely oppose and claim to abhor.

There was a remarkable instance of this in the book about the Soham murderer, Ian Huntley. When he was brought to court for his trial, a mob had gathered outside to hurl execration at him. Most in the mob were women, and many had their young children with them. These children screamed in terror as their mothers threatened the culprit (still technically innocent) with physical violence. There is little doubt that, had it not been for the presence of the police, the accused would have been torn limb from limb, children or no children.

But it is morally certain that these Mesdames Defarge lived lives that were not beyond reproach as far as their upbringing of their children was concerned. At the very least, the example of public behaviour that they set was appalling, and their disregard of the terror of their own children in itself a form of abuse. Almost certainly some of them were the kind of women who would have refused to cooperate with the police in the days before Huntley turned murderer. If reproached for their behaviour, they would, with that quickness of mind to which I have already referred, have returned the reproach to its sender by saying that he who made it was a sympathiser with Huntley, and therefore some kind of accomplice of his.

The mob that howled at Huntley resembled that which howled at the victims of the Cultural Revolution. It is true that, unlike the victims of the latter, Huntley had committed a real and terrible evil, but it was an evil so self-evident that it required no howling mob to make evident or to condemn it; those who suffered most from it were certainly not among the mob baying for (among other things) his death.

Delight in evil is very widespread, even if it is not quite universal, and it takes many forms. I do not exclude myself from these strictures, for I have sometimes enjoyed inflicting suffering on others, even if only of a comparatively mild kind. I have even sometimes suspected that I have enjoyed living among, and reading about, evil in order to assure myself that I am a jolly good fellow, at least comparatively-speaking, using a linear measure of evil of course.

Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2011 James Ament

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