An Ordinary Evil

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      If Bernie Madoff's crimes were "extraordinarily evil," as his sentencing judge declared, than how to we describe the crimes of Joseph Stalin, or the warp speed massacres in late 20th century Rwanda?  How do we distinguish linguistically between a massive Ponzi scheme and genocide?  It's not an idle semantic question.  Hyperbole, pop culture's lingua franca, doesn't simply exaggerate; it also diminishes.  It threatens to obliterate essential moral and aesthetic distinctions, undermining our ability to recognize gradations of good and evil, freedom and repression, or beauty, intelligence and talent.
   
     Yes, Madoff ruined countless lives (literally, considering the effect of his fraud on charities as well as individual investors.) Yes, he stole on a grand scale and earned his imprisonment.  Yes, apparently he had his share of neuroses, (like reported obsessive compulsive tendencies,) but who doesn't?  Generally, he seems such an ordinarily evil man.  His sins  -- greed, selfishness, dishonesty, an absence of empathy -- are all distressingly common.  Indeed, his story owes its symbolic resonance to the ordinariness of his character and crime.  Extraordinary people stand apart.  Madoff stands within and for the acquisitive, status hungry culture that lionized him, the tribalism that led so many Jews to trust him, and the corrupt financial and regulatory system that allowed him to prosper.  

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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