I once had a boss who refused to say the word problem. Whenever he wanted to say problem, he would say opportunity. At staff meetings he would often talk about the opportunities the organization faced. However, since he also used the word opportunity to mean opportunity, you had to determine from context whether he was referring to a problem or an opportunity.
I’m working on a taxonomy of evil. This began five Thursdays ago, during lunch, which I ate, as I do each Thursday, on the Fragrance Terrace of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The Fragrance Terrace is for Garden staff. I’m part-time staff so I get to eat there. Four of my colleagues were with me, and we – or they – discussed the torture of Iraqi prisoners, which was big news right then. I learned about it from my colleagues.
Never did I determine why it was such big news. Did the American people seriously believe that Iraqi prisoners were not being tortured? Do the American people seriously imagine that the Geneva Convention or the U.S. Constitution or any law ever written can prevent people with power from abusing that power? What world are we living in, in the mind of the American people?
I perked up when someone called Rumsfeld evil, and someone else – me – called Cheney eviler. The distinction hinged on my interpretation of each man’s morality. As I see it, Rumsfeld operates according to a consistent set of moral precepts. Cheney, by contrast, is interested only in power. Said another way, Rumsfeld believes his actions will bring about a better world, while Cheney believes his actions will protect or expand his power. Said a third way, Rumsfeld is Hitler and Cheney is Stalin. Hitler believed in Aryan supremacy; Stalin believed in his own hegemony. Of course it’s entirely possible that Hitler believed in his own hegemony no less than Stalin but did a better job of camouflaging it in the rhetoric of Aryan supremacy. Also it can be argued that Stalin and Cheney are moral according to a version of morality that values power above all else.
One of my colleagues objected when I put Nixon in the Stalin category, since Nixon’s crimes don’t compare to Stalin’s in terms of scale.
Fair enough. My taxonomy of evil will include an adjustment for scale. This means that Jeffrey Daumer will be considered less evil than Dick Cheney, despite the fact that Cheney has not, so far as I know, killed and eaten anyone. I mean, not directly.
My taxonomy of evil will also include an adjustment for how directly evil one is, although in an odd twist, indirectly evil acts such as expanding the Army’s use of torture will be considered more evil than directly evil acts such as torturing people. It will work just like Amway, with a percentage of evil flowing back up the pyramid.
In fifth grade I participated in a classroom debate. I’ve long since forgotten the topic of the debate, or whether my team was for it or against it, and in fact the only thing I remember is that I didn’t say anything. Not a word. I had spent a week studying the subject of the debate, but when the time came to debate I froze. I remember telling myself that I had to say something, that I couldn’t just sit there in silence, but that’s what I did. It was humiliating.
After class, my teacher, Mrs. Staller, who wore an extraordinary amount of make-up, almost like a clown, touched me on the shoulder and said, “Next time, Michael.”