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Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It
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on January 1, 2014
Addressing the topic of political evil is relevant and important. The world's political evils are obvious: invasive wars, torture, and genocide. Wolfe aptly points these out. His solution is that we the public make ourselves realistically aware of evil. His word is "serious." Now, let's be honest: is seriousness the right weapon with which to combat evil? Of course not. The only counterbalance to evil is goodness. Wolfe fails even to make us aware of the structure of evil in public life when we are not yet at war or not yet committing torture and genocide. He fails to analyze the role of self-justification and scapegoating that flood the speeches of our political leaders. Such self-justification and scapegoating constantly keep the populace on the verge of committing political evil in the form of economic injustice, cultural prejudice, class discrimination, war, or even worse. In sum, political evil is almost as wide spread as the human race if one knows how to identify it. I recommend, like Wolfe, that we get serious, to be sure; but a little bit of goodness might also be of help.
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on September 13, 2014
The book came in excellent condition. I have begun to read it and find it very interesting.
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on January 14, 2017
This book has a promising and worthy title: "Political Evil." Wolfe does perform a careful job of sifting through the differing notions of evil, mostly through the lenses of St. Augustine, Hannah Arendt, Milgram while doing a bit of archeology on the American penchant for iterating Manichean discourse. Having said that, I had also the definite sense that Wolfe was recapping lecture materials, and perhaps indulging at bit too much in the way of a scholarly literature review. However when Wolfe ventures away from the Lit Review mode, his aim is sometimes less than true. For example: Written in 2011, Wolfe assures us that totalitarian states can never rise again, because the unique conditions of World War I, multiple Imperial collapses, followed by the heedless 1920s and then the Depression, well this was (and would be) the only historical period possible for the rise of Totalitarian states. Arguably, in the post-Brexit, post-2016 U.S. election period, we're seeing a situation that resembles, in some respects, the post-WWI world that Wolfe pegs as the only time that Totalitarian state would emerge. Seen from 2017, these far too-frequent assertions that totalitarianism or other forms of dangerous nation-state formations are passe seem extraordinarily glib and smug, and potential wrong, as well as far away from the humility that the author, at different points, says that he values. The best portion of the critique is the analysis of the Manichean political impulse. But even then, Wolfe ignores the fact that one goal of Manichean discourse is to discipline the domestic space, to make the "state of emergency" the rule, rather than the exception (as Walter Benjamin noted). We've entered a dystopian present, and Wolfe's overall smugness, again seen from 2017, of the impossibility of that kind of event seems out-of-touch, with the current moment. As Wolfe notes, citing Machiavelli, "Time drives all things," including the possibility of a digitally-enabled revival of the totalitarian impulse. Because Wolfe misses this so thoroughly (and he spends too many pages dismissing such a possibility), his tome on "Political Evil" becomes a bit limited, in its contemporary usefulness.
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on November 29, 2014
Alan Wolfe has created an excellent text on how we as a society can think about and recognize "Political Evil". It is important to add to one's way of viewing our moral place in the world, and our responsibility in making it safe for our citizens and citizens of the world at large.
The most important concept outlined is a view of the nature of evil, especially the Manichaen view which is negative and unsolvable, and how it can affect political response.
History is a very important study, because it teaches us, or should, the errors of our past. Unfortunately too often it is the wrong lessons we learn, many of which are elaborated on in this book.
At this time in our history almost half if not more of our population doesn't know the structure of our Republic, much less who our Allies were in the second World War, but rally around phrases like 'Munich' and 'Appeasement', ' World wide War on Terror', 'American Exceptionalism', 'Evil Empire', and the easiest most simplistic jingoism of the neoCons.
To create a society that doesn't support meaningless aggression, commit our children to unwinnable war's, and fail to see the horrors committed against helpless civilians throughout the world we have to acknowledge our shadow side, be able to reject over simplistic solutions, beliefs that a group is irredeemably evil and must be eradicated, and find a balance in our Foreign Policies. This treatise goes a long step in moving the reader in that direction.
Our first step could begin at home: teaching our children to recognize propaganda, media manipulation, respect for others, moral courage to speak truth to power, to recognize that they have a shadow side which can be controlled and its energy brought toward a creative use.
It is unlikely that we can get to a place where we can make use of the information provided in this text, when over 40% of our population is caught up in beliefs that our President is an anti-Christian Socialist Fascist born in a pro Muslim foreign land and half the world is Islamic-Fascists bent on the destruction of our way of life, and must be hunted down until they are eliminated. I think we have a good chance of falling back into a counter-evil culture given our current politics, which appears to be a politics of fear
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on October 16, 2011
In his learned new book Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (2011), Alan Wolfe of Boston College examines and discusses political evil, concentrating political evil in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. If you have found yourself at times reflecting on political evil and American foreign policy, and perhaps reflecting on American foreign policy as political evil, you may find Wolfe's detailed discussion of political evil thought provoking, regardless of whether you should happen to agree or to disagree with certain points he makes. In short, if you're looking for a thought-provoking book to read about political evil, you will almost certainly not be disappointed by Wolfe's book. Regardless of how individual readers, including me, may respond to particular points he makes, Wolfe has done the country an enormous service by examining and discussing the various forms of political evil and the various ways of discussing political evil that he examines and discusses. As a result, his book deserves to be widely read and discussed.

If Wolfe's book were widely read and discussed as it deserves to be, the discussion could take our current political discussion to a new level by giving liberals news ways of thinking about and discussing political evil. If this desirable result were to happen, then liberals would be better equipped to fight the good fight against the Republican noise machine. In my estimate, the Republican noise machine has for decades out-scored, as it were, tongue-tied liberals.

In roughly the first half of the book, Wolfe discusses World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. He analyzes totalitarianism in detail, with special attention to Hannah Arendt's work. In the second half of the book, Wolfe turns his attention to far more detailed discussions of terrorism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the politics of countering political evil, or counter-evil. Because of my own interest in terrorism, I will highlight his discussion of terrorism.

ALAN WOLFE'S VIEW OF TERRORISM TODAY

Is terrorism today "a form of unreconstructed evil that must be eradicated from the face of the earth through mobilization of military might" (page 149), as certain political leaders such as Bush have suggested? No, says Wolfe. He says that terrorism is a form of political evil. As a result, "we should deal with the political realities that . . . lead terrorists to go on their killing sprees" (page 148). Sounds reasonable enough to me. How does this sound to you?

But Wolfe quotes the following statement from Benjamin Netanyahu's 1995 book: "The salient point that has to be underlined again and again is that nothing justifies terrorism, that it is evil per se - that the various real or imagined reasons proffered by the terrorists to justify their actions are meaningless" (quoted on page 150; italics in the original).

In the final analysis I agree with Netanyahu that nothing justifies terrorism. However, I am not convinced that it is relevant to claim that "the various real or imagined reasons proffered by the terrorists to justify their actions are meaningless." I might agree that the reasons proffered to justify their actions do not justify their actions. Nevertheless, I think we should find out what their reasons are for acting in the ways in which they act as terrorists.

Wolfe summarizes three general forms of counterterrorism policies: (1) the war model, (2) the criminal justice model, and (3) the reconciliatory model (page 150). He clearly favors the reconciliatory model. "The key proposition of the reconciliatory model," he says, "is that terrorism is a form of politics and that the best venues for responding to it are through diplomacy and negotiation" (page 151).

In his speech on September 20, 2001, former President George W. Bush made "his case that terrorism was evil, pure and simple" (page 160). He clearly opted for the war model by leading the nation into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Wolfe credits President Barack Obama with having a less Manichaean rhetorical style than his predecessor had: "the less Manichaean rhetorical style of Obama," Wolfe says, "is one of the few hopeful signs that the United States could possibly shift to a more sensible way of thinking about the threat that terrorism represents" (page 172). After all, terrorism "is a tactic relied upon by the weak," Wolfe notes, and "no terrorist campaign has ever gone on forever" (page 170). He observes that "[t]errorists are few" (page 173). However, because "[t]hose inclined to support their goals can be many," "[r]educing the number of the latter is crucial to limiting the damage inflicted by the former" (page 173).

"That can best be done," Wolfe claims, "by promoting the democratic way of life not as a rhetoric weapon in a long-term ideological struggle but as concrete proof that those who learn to live with differences by not killing those with whom they disagree have discovered a way of practicing politics that works better than any other available method" (page 174).

So democracy is a way of practicing politics that works better than any other available method for practicing politics, as Wolfe says it is. But American democracy needs to work through its foreign-policy efforts to reduce the number of people in the world who might be inclined to support terrorists' goals against the United States.
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on February 17, 2017
A rich and complex read. Wolfe illustrates how our frameworks for understanding evil shows up politically, using real examples from US and global politics, and how to defend against it.
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