An Ordinary Evil

By Wendy Kaminer

      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.  

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2009/06/an-ordinary-evil/20388/