Despite its fire-and-brimstone title, the latest from Wolfe (The Future of Liberalism) offers a restrained and balanced inquiry into the violent world confronting America today, covering a wide variety of leaders and philosophers, including St. Augustine, Hannah Arendt, Adolf Hitler, and Osama bin Laden. Wolfe spends little time mulling the subjectivity of "evil" as a concept. Rather, by "evil," he means the threats that loom for the liberal democratic societies of Europe and America during the coming decades. His primary concern is to construct a typology of political evil, encompassing genocide, ethnic cleansing, terrorism, and such "counterevil" as the American use of torture to combat its enemies. Too often, argues Wolfe, citizens allow their leaders to use acts of evil as an excuse for overly aggressive retaliations. Only by accurately classifying each threat can the West successfully respond to it. However, it's not clear how mere identification can solve real-world problems, such as poverty and powerlessness, which underlie many of the evil acts he discusses. Without addressing these root causes, any schema such as Wolfe's will be an exercise in scholasticism, akin to counting how many devils can dance on the head of a pin.
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Noted political scientist Wolfe (The Future of Liberalism, 2009, etc.) brings the theological problem of evil to bear on politics and political wrongdoers from Hitler to Dick Cheney.
"Political evil is all around us," writes the author, and the headlines would certainly seem to bear him out. That evil comes in four flavors: terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide and what Wolfe calls counterevil, which he defines as "the determination to inflict uncalled-for suffering on those presumed or known to have inflicted the same upon you." This is likely to be the most controversial plank in his platform, but nonetheless Wolfe considers George W. Bush's response to Saddam Hussein to be a hallmark example. Political evil has a cause, he writes, and that cause would seem almost always to be the accumulation and retention of power. This is distinct from the "apolitical evil" that dominates the headlines: the Columbines and murderous mothers and Beltway snipers that haunt our dreams. Such evil is often characterized by a sort of glee in a madman's gleaming eye. In the instance of political evil, it is possible to see that glint—as Wolfe writes, "However much they differ from each other, Eric Harris, Adolf Hitler, and Osama bin Laden all took unseemly pleasure in the harm they caused others"—but the process is often anonymous and bureaucratic. Cheney, apologist for and practitioner of evil, comes in for a particular drubbing on that score; Wolfe asserts that his devotion to waterboarding and invasion was meant to scare "civil libertarians and Democrats" as much as the nation's external enemies. Replacing Cheney's theory of government as nemesis, Wolfe writes, is necessary "if the United States is to come to terms with its experience of counterevil."
Abstract and sometimes arid, but always with an eye to what's happening on the ground.
Throughout, Wolfe's overarching theme is as unpopular as it is important: doing politics, or doing it well, means giving the Devil his due. It means compromising on matters of principle when the alternatives are worse, and substituting reality checks for morality plays. It means remembering that bills of indictment and denunciations of appeasement and other forms of grandstanding often do more harm than good. In his concluding pages, Wolfe takes pains to distance himself from the "cynical" realism of "Kissinger and his epigones," but he goes on to say "ethical realism can work"…Whatever you label Wolfe's argument in Political Evil, it is timely, valuable and refreshingly adult.
The New York Times Book Review
“Intelligent and often brave . . . Audacious . . . Important . . . Whatever you label Wolfe’s argument in Political Evil, it is timely, valuable and refreshingly adult.” —Jonathan Rauch, The New York Times Book Review
“In Political Evil, Alan Wolfe issues a compelling summons to moral and intellectual seriousness and conducts a multi-pronged and . . . soberly argued inquiry into the contemporary forms of political evil and the proper means for combating them.” —Peter Berkowitz, The Wall Street Journal
“[Wolfe’s] sentiments . . . seem both admirable and true.” —Michael Ignatieff, Slate
“Ambitious and important.” —Charles R. Morris, Commonweal
“This book has many virtues. Wolfe has done us a service in reminding us that human beings should be sensitive to their own fallibility, and to the dangers of a hubristic mustering of overwhelming force . . . Political Evil represents the reflections of an intelligent, humane and learned scholar who has many important things to say to policy makers in a world that is dangerous and sadly in need of tempering voices.” —Robert Swan, Washington Independent Review of Books
“A revelatory work: full of terrific analysis, and, a word I hesitate to use, wisdom. So many illuminations about so many murky matters. Really wonderful.” —C.K. Williams, winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
“In this impassioned and thought-provoking journey through the varied landscape of political evil, Alan Wolfe draws subtle and often heartbreaking distinctions examining what can—and cannot—be done to combat the most vile organized horrors that human beings have always inflicted upon one another. This is a necessary but disturbing book, because it is all about the heart of darkness that is so much more comfortable to ignore—and our own limitations even when we try to do the right thing.” —Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason
“In the face of mass violence, terrorism, and genocide around the globe, democratic citizens risk inaction and also excessive reaction. Are there alternatives to letting evil continue and producing more violence and inevitable victimization of innocents? Alan Wolfe's clear-eyed analysis offers vital tools to advance effective responses. He calls for joining unblinking condemnation of large-scale horrors with precise attention to their particular roots. His warnings against sweeping generalizations and faulty analogies to the past are grounded in detailed studies of mass violence in Darfur, the US ‘war against terror,’ and other current events. For serious alternatives to overreaction and inaction in the face of political evil, read Alan Wolfe.” —Martha Minow, author of Between Vengeance and Forgiveness
“Despite the persistence of evil, Wolfe is hopeful that we can stop evil acts, and despite his clear appeal to reason, his arguments are quite passionate.” —Booklist
“A balanced inquiry into the violent world confronting America today.” —Publishers Weekly