An Ordinary Evil

More

      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.  

Jump to comments
Presented by

Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Fascinating Short Film About the Multiverse

If life is a series of infinite possibilities, what does it mean to be alive?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

From This Author

Just In