Delineating Evil

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A few months ago, when I was digging into some Eric Hobsbawm, I got into a debate with some members of the Horde over how to view Hobsawm's adherence to communism. I defended Hobsbawm's allegedly reflective outlook against many who saw him essentially indulging in a European version of Lost Cause-ism. I want to say that I was dead wrong and my interlocutors were right.  In that wrongness, I think is an important lesson. 

I understood, say, the Soviet bloc under a general rubric of "bad" or "evil" or "not good." This is insufficient for one who endeavors to be a thinking person. To be human is to be detailed and individual, and thus to see inhumanity  you must not submit to the temptation of seeing people's oppressions as an undifferentiated muck of pain.  Part of the job of writers, historian, artists and intellectuals is not allow evil to become inhuman, amorphous and globulous, to make sure that we don't get lazy, that the contours of particular evils are delineated and precise.

I should have known better than to do this because one of my pet peeves is the way the black struggle in American gets lumped into the broader "People of Color/Women/Poor/Gay etc" gumbo. Activism sometimes necessitates a melding of interests. But I am not an activist. I'm not sure what I am. But I am sure of what I want--to see clearly, that is to say  without self-serving apology or self-flattering caveat or self-justifying analogy.

The following paragraphs from Tony Judt reminded me of this. Here is evil perceived clearly and communicated directly:

The scale of the punishment meted out to the citizens of the USSR and Eastern Europe in the decade following World War Two was monumental—and, outside the Soviet Union itself, utterly unprecedented. Trials were but the visible tip of an archipelago of repression: prison, exile, forced labor battalions. In 1952, at the height of the second Stalinist terror, 1.7 million prisoners were held in Soviet labor camps, a further 800,000 in labor colonies, and 2,753,000 in ‘special settlements’. The ‘normal’ Gulag sentence was 25 years, typically followed (in the case of survivors) by exile to Siberia or Soviet Central Asia.
 
In Bulgaria, from an industrial workforce of just under half a million, two persons out of nine were slave laborers. In Czechoslovakia it is estimated that there were 100,000 political prisoners in a population of 13 million in the early 1950s, a figure that does not include the many tens of thousands working as forced laborers in everything but name in the country’s mines. ‘Administrative liquidations’, in which men and women who disappeared into prison were quietly shot without publicity or trial, were another form of punishment. A victim’s family might wait a year or more before learning that he or she had ‘disappeared’. Three months later the person was then legally presumed dead, though with no further official acknowledgement or confirmation. At the height of the terror in Czechoslovakia some thirty to forty such announcements would appear in the local press every day. Tens of thousands disappeared this way; many hundreds of thousands more were deprived of their privileges, apartments, jobs. 
 
 
In Hungary, during the years 1948-53, about one million people (of a total population of less than ten million) are estimated to have suffered arrest, prosecution, imprisonment or deportation. One Hungarian family in three was directly affected. Relatives suffered commensurately. Fritzi Loebl, the wife of one of Slánský’s ‘coconspirators’, was kept for a year in the prison at Ruzyn, outside Prague, and interrogated by Russians who called her a ‘stinking yid prostitute’. Upon her release she was exiled to a factory in north Bohemia. The wives of prisoners and deportees lost their employment, their apartments and their personal effects. At best, if they were lucky, they were then forgotten, like Josephine Langer, whose husband Oskar Langer, a witness at the Slánský trial, was later sentenced in a secret trial to 22 years in prison. She and her daughters lived for six years in a cellar. 
 
Romania saw perhaps the worst persecution, certainly the most enduring. In addition to well over a million detainees in prisons, labor camps and slave labor on the Danube-Black Sea Canal, of whom tens of thousands died and whose numbers don’t include those deported to the Soviet Union, Romania was remarkable for the severity of its prison conditions and various ‘experimental’ prisons; notably the one at Piteşti where, for three years from December 1949 through late 1952, prisoners were encouraged to ‘re-educate’ one another through physical and psychological torture. 
 
Most of the victims were students, ‘Zionists’ and non-Communist political detainees. The Communist state was in a permanent condition of undeclared war against its own citizens. Like Lenin, Stalin understood the need for enemies, and it was in the logic of the Stalinist state that it was constantly mobilizing against its foes—external, but above all domestic...
 
The martial vocabulary so beloved of Communist rhetoric echoed this conflict-bound condition. Military metaphors abounded: class conflict required alliances, liaison with the masses, turning movements, frontal attacks. Stalin’s assertion that class warfare accentuated as socialism approached was adduced to account for the curious fact that even as elections everywhere showed99 percent support for the Party, its enemies were nevertheless multiplying, the battle had to be fought with ever firmer resolve, and the domestic history of the USSR had to be painstakingly reproduced across the Soviet bloc. 
 
The main enemies were ostensibly the peasant and the bourgeois. But in practice intellectuals were often the easiest target, just as they had been for the Nazis. Andrei Zdanov’s venomous attack on Anna Akhmatova—‘a nun or a whore, or rather a nun and a whore, who combines harlotry with prayer. Akhmatova’s poetry is utterly remote from the people’59—echoes most of the conventional Stalinist anti-intellectual themes: religion, prostitution, alienation from the masses. Had Akhmatova been Jewish, like much of the central European intelligentsia, the caricature would have been complete.

These paragraphs, which I listened to walking through New York today, made me feel like the whole conversation we had about Nazism and Communism yesterday was kind of silly. I have so many questions.

I bring my own biases to this. In my eyes, killing someone because of what you perceive to be in their bones--because of invented race, or gender, or ancestry, or sexuality--is the worst possible crime.  But why is that the worse possible crime? What specific reason can I give for elevating the Southern slave society over the Gulag in the hierarchy of evils? Why, specifically, is the Shoah our buzzword for ultimate evil? Is a hierarchy of evil, itself, a ghoulish and bizarre enterprise, best abandoned? Why does it even matter?

I don't know. I'm sure you will tell me. There's so much to think about here.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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