Alan Wolfe on Political Evil

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Political scientist Alan Wolfe examines political evil and why, in an age of genocide, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and torture, it threatens us in ways radically different from tsunamis and financial panics. In Political Evil he looks at where and why evil is used for political gain, and sheds light on the creation of policy and on a concrete path to a more just future.


Alan Wolfe

Comments [36]

Ed from Larchmont

Objective evil does exist in the fallen angels, the best description I've seen of them is Iago's statement: 'I am not what I am'. They refuse to be what they were created to be, and the only other choice is nothing.

Nov. 06 2011 08:52 AM
Peter Talbot from Harrison NJ


As you have gleaned from the responses, the topic is a matter of some heat, if not light.

Mr. Wolfe's thesis that a judge in Spain has no "standing" to indict an American official for war crimes means that the Nuremburg courts had no "standing".
His further argument that America has their elections to redress grievances as serious as war crimes is also a bit far-fetched. If we elected them, are we all guilty? If we vote them out later, has the crime been redressed? Honestly speaking, I'm afraid Prof. Wolfe is a bit out of his depth with regard to legal thinking.

The quibble between genocide and ethnic cleansing sounds a bit facile. Is there an arbitrary atrocity scale we are to consult?
This is more troubling than the problem of "standing", and implies that Prof. Wolfe's relativism extended to ethics is merely "situational", but uninformed by any principles other than personal affront at the brutality that attends war. This means that his ethical principles are determined more by personal extension of what are primarily aesthetic categories, not right or wrong with capital letters. It's like saying we should all more closely attend "evil" in politics because it's so yucky. The lack of coherent definitions of evil this raises is evidenced in the comments here.

Weak philosophical argument, certainly. Bad command of the history of jurisprudence internationally. Afraid I have to side with too many of the comments above: not a worthy guest for your excellent and insightful show.

We would all be better served if you invited either a theologian of note (any religion) or an ethical philosopher: Chomsky would be fine. Moses Maimonides' discussions of ethics in "politics" would be very fecund indeed (U of C Social Thought/R. Lerner, et al).

Nov. 01 2011 04:51 PM
John A.

Did else anyone notice that AW was Both an Athiest and a believer in Theological thought? Probably not, point lost.

Nov. 01 2011 12:59 PM


"Poor thinker" pretty much sums it up.

Why bother?

Nov. 01 2011 12:55 PM

@John A.

If someone starts with a wrong argument, then his entire "thinking" process will fail and he will arrive at a wrong conclusion(s). This happened numerous times during this interview.

Throughout his interview Alan Wolfe came out as a very poor "thinker". There is no point of listening to him, reading his book(s) or taking his classes at Boston College.

Nov. 01 2011 12:53 PM

@DarkSymbolist from NYC!

Haf'ta agree.

Nov. 01 2011 12:48 PM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!'s ok for the international community to indict other leaders that have committed war crimes but when another country indicts American leaders (rightly so) who committed war crimes, suddenly Mr.Wolfe has a n issue with that.

Mr.Wolfe your philisophy can be summed up in one word: hypocrisy

Oh, and as far as the term "Islamofascism"...I'm no Bush fan obviously but the Nazis sought to impose a world order based upon their beliefs, Islamic extremists like Al Qaeda seek the same thing based upon their religious beliefs...exactly what is the difference in the end??? I don't care whether I'm being subjugated because of my racial identity or my religious one...what's the difference? I'm still being oppressed or killed based solely on who I am!!!!

Oh yeah, i forgot what the difference is ...if it's based upon religion somehow that is not "political evil" to you. Like I said: HYPOCRISY

Nov. 01 2011 12:45 PM
cesar from NYC

If Americans do interfere and interfere in other countries and judge other people, why the hell can't a Spanish judge prosecute American citizens and politicians.

Nov. 01 2011 12:44 PM

Hitler et al were human beings. Turning them into monsters or anti-christs is an infantile response to take away our collective responsibility for allowing evil things to happen. It is too easy to call these people just "evil." Individual actions can be evil, people are too complex for such categories. I recommend watching a film I have just watched called "Max" (2002).
Augustine, whilst being an impressive writer, was a viscous bigot by the way, like most theologians. Anyone who believes in a place called Hell or a person called the Devil is predisposed to do evil things, as is the belief in a chosen people or a master race, (precursors to nationalism & jingoism.)
The beauty of the man Jesus' teaching of understanding and forgiveness is that he equated the thought with the deed - to even think of adultery is equated with committing the act. When we finally get that we will move to the next stage.
There are no indices/measures of evil as the speaker suggests; it creates double standards and this only confuses what is a simple matter of choice in each individuals actions. This is an obvious example of the legalism which dominates our theologically infused culture.

Nov. 01 2011 12:42 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

TO Amy

The IDF was on the scene, but it was believed that terrorists had illegally taken refuge in the camps after having promised to remove all the terrorists from Lebanon as the PLO had finally agreed to.

Sharon did not want to send IDF troops into the camps to search and disarm them. He allowed the Phalange to go in, but only to find and disarm terrorists. Why should he risk IDF troops for that risky operation? He did not authorize a massacre. It was supposed to be purely to disarm any terrorists found there. He had no idea that the Phalange intended to carry out a massacre. He justed wanted to spare IDF casualties. It was not a Jewish massacre of Palestinian Arabs. That is simply a blood libel.

Nov. 01 2011 12:41 PM

@jagger butts from Queens

In 1982, Isreal's own Kahan Commission, the Commission of Inquiry into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut determined that Israeli military had FULL knowledge that the massacres were taking place AND did nothing. The commission held Ariel Sharon personally responsible!!


Take responsibility... for once!!

Nov. 01 2011 12:41 PM
Risa from Brooklyn, NY

Wait -- what? Regarding judges from other countries not indicting American government officials Wolfe says that we have mechanisms in America, namely elections, to indict our own officials - but secretaries of defense are not voted into office! ALSO, if Mr. Wolfe agrees that Rumsfeld and Cheney are possibly war criminals in a global war, why should they NOT be indicted by foreign judges? Wolfe sounds like he's liberal in the most neoliberal sense of the word.

Nov. 01 2011 12:41 PM
Bernard from Bronx

This guy is annoying me with his nonsense. I'm sure the Native Americans are happy to hear that their virtual elimination was ethnic cleansing and not genocide.

Nov. 01 2011 12:39 PM
John A.

Just a word for listening - Listen - to the guest rather than waiting for him to say some trigger phrase so that I, commenter, may launch into some pre-programmed point. This is how I'm reading many of these comments today. He's a thinker. Please think with him.

Nov. 01 2011 12:39 PM
Matthew from manhattan

RE cheney

Since we (US) did nothing regarding the bush admin evils someone else needs to

Nov. 01 2011 12:39 PM
Amy from Manhattan

True, the IDF didn't carry out the Sabra and Shatila massacre. But they were on the scene & let the Phalange kill people indiscriminately, when they could have intervened.

Nov. 01 2011 12:37 PM

Ruwanda is the worst case of genocide after the Holocaust?

What about Cambodia?

Hitler and Stalin were (some claim still are) hugely popular in their countries.

Poland and Czechoslovakia were ethnically cleansed of ethnic Germans after WWII. Was it evil?

Nov. 01 2011 12:37 PM
DarkSymbolist from NYC! when Arabs kill non-arabs (and yes non arabs were largely getting killed in Darfur, get your facts straight) it's not genocide?

This is the second time Mr.Wolfe has excused the actions of religious extremism resulting in atrocity.

So it seems with Mr. Wolfe if you are American and/or you are killing another group that is not of your religion, you get a pass and it's somehow "not evil"

I'm finding following Mr.Wolfe's "logic" extremely hard to's like going through a labyrinth full of dead ends...

Nov. 01 2011 12:36 PM

I particularly love the use of one atrocity to justify another's atrocities.

Relative evil.

Nov. 01 2011 12:33 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Then what action does Alan Wolfe think should have been taken to help Darfur?

Nov. 01 2011 12:33 PM
micky from New Jersey

Right on Mike! "There is an old saying that when a peasant picks up an AK-47 and aims it at a jet aircraft bombing his village the wrong question to ask is, "Where did he get that gun?" The asymmetry of power that gives a government of a powerful country a monopoly on large scale violence and brands small scale violence as terrorism, merely serves the cause of the powerful over the cause of the oppressed." Yeah, and then the powerful talks from their mouth while their arms continuing stealing from the weak.

Nov. 01 2011 12:32 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Hugh Samson

Israel killed no one in Sabra and Shatilla. Not one bullet. It was the Christian Phalange that carried out that revenge massacre against the Palestinians in Sabra and Shatilla. Don't rack that up to Jews. That was Christian Arab on Muslim ARab slaughter, having nothing to do with Jews or Israel. It was payback for previous massacres.

Nov. 01 2011 12:30 PM
Mike from Manhattan

There is an old saying that when a peasant picks up an AK-47 and aims it at a jet aircraft bombing his village the wrong question to ask is, "Where did he get that gun?" The asymmetry of power that gives a government of a powerful country a monopoly on large scale violence and brands small scale violence as terrorism, merely serves the cause of the powerful over the cause of the oppressed.

Nov. 01 2011 12:29 PM


Excellent point.

Nov. 01 2011 12:29 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Your guest just go it wrong! Islamofascism = Nazism = Stalinism, etc. The Islamofascists will not tolerate anything other than Muslim predominance everywhere, at any price, and say so openly. That's evil to me.

Nov. 01 2011 12:28 PM

And Israel murders of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila? Deir Yassin? Operation Grapes of Wrath? Cast Lead?

Here's one for Alan Wolfe: A double-standard excusing your friends is evil.

Nov. 01 2011 12:27 PM

Have to agree with DarkSymbolist.

To Alan Wolfe:

US mining of Nicaragua's harbors, targeting civilian vessels? Supporting the Contras?

Napalm? Carpet bombing civilians in Vietnam? Laos? Cambodia?

Killing — as Madeleine Albright admitted in 1996 — 500,000 Iraqi civilians under a sanctions regime that was targeted at civilians to force the hand of Saddam Hussein?

Nov. 01 2011 12:25 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Were Hitler and Stalin not inherently evil? Are the doctrines of class war and race war not inherently evil?

Saddam was not evil? Anyone who simply murders people to retain personal power is simply evil.

Nov. 01 2011 12:25 PM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!

@ Hugh

As far as I can tell from what he's said, it seems: If Americans are doing it, it's not evil. If it's others from other cultures, then it's evil.

That seems to be it in a nutshell.

Nov. 01 2011 12:22 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Broadly, how would you distinguish St. Augustine's view of political evil and St. Thomas' view of political evil?

Nov. 01 2011 12:22 PM

What is wrong with freedom to have multiple wives?

Which only highlights the issue - what is evil for one is good for someone's else.

Wolfe and Lopate project their values - the fact highlighted by the comments on this very forum.

Nov. 01 2011 12:21 PM

So calling something "war" wins a pass on atrocities? And when an American president contrives excuses, manufactures 'evidence' to go to war, killing 500,000 innocents? Those 500,000 are okay, according to Wolfe?

Nov. 01 2011 12:19 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

"Times may change, but people don't." - Quoting Rose Garbuz, holocaust survivor, circa 1955.

Times will change, but people never will. Accept it and deal with it. We are no different today, except technologically, then we were 30,000 years ago. Same size brain. More or less the same body. Some history and religious ideas have come and gone. Wars and plagues come and go. People remain the same. Wiser, perhaps, but no different in behavioral changes anyway.

Nov. 01 2011 12:15 PM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!

Sooooo.....he wouldn't classify purposefuly and knowingly lying to start a war that didn't need to be fought and resulted in the death of untold thousands as evil?

Bzzzzzzzz! Sorry Mr.Wolfe, you just lost all credibility.

Nov. 01 2011 12:14 PM
yoav ben yosef from NYC

It is not true that theologically the question of evil remains unaddressed. In Buddhism, for example, we all have negative and positive seeds, and it is up to us to cultivate the latter.

Nov. 01 2011 12:12 PM

The Columbine killers and Son of Sam are dwarfed -- monstrously, overwhelmingly -- by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and now Barack Obama. Drone killings, assassinations, torture -- evil.

So how does Alan Wolfe contrive and rig his account to excuse the war crimes of Bush and Obama?

... Okay... rhetoric and mistaken assumptions. Except that we KNOW that Bush lied. Come on. If Wolfe is going to exempt vast tracts of American crimes, then he might as well just flush his book down the toilet.

Nov. 01 2011 12:12 PM

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