History can seem so clean and simple, when we look at it through the lens of the narrative we prefer. Usually, that narrative involves Us, our people, our nation, “people like us”, being the Good Guys, the reasonable ones, the honourable ones, prevailing over Them, “those people”, those non-allied nations, “people not like us”, being the Bad Guys. We, the Good Guys, keep the world in some kind of reasonable order while They, the Bad Guys, keep trying to mess it all up.
Why? Because, they are Evil, and what Evil wants, is Power. They freaking get off on Power so much so that it has embedded them in a philosophy of superiority over others, a rigidity in their thinking that they, and those like them, just absolutely have to be “better” than Others. (You can’t trust those Others, you know. You never know what they’re capable of….)
So, thank God for people like me and you, eh? Keeping the world safe from those power-seeking psychos, those, uh, Others.
When history is seen in this simplistic, Us vs. Them framing, then we feel comforted, ‘knowing’ we’re one of the Good Guys. And because we also believe at some basic level that Good is more powerful than Evil, God is more Powerful than the Devil, we also ‘know’ that We will win.
Like, World War II was basically Star Wars or Lord of the Rings: Evil Bad Guys trying to take over the world, stopped by an alliance of Everybody Else, courageously bonding together and fighting to stop Evil from spreading.
Long before I learned about the Holocaust, I watched Darth Vader order the Death Star to destroy a planet. It was the first moment of awareness in my child-mind that a planet — a freaking PLANET!!!!! — could be destroyed. I think it was my existential awakening, and I remember the horror that clutched my breast, watching billions of people, animals, lakes, rivers, a whole many-billion-year history of Life vanishing in an instant, all those lives snuffed out, and for what? So a madman could make a point?
I knew, watching Star Wars, that nothing could justify that kind of violence. And as I learned about the real world of genocides and war and mass rape and torture and the whole smorgasbord of horror that Evil gorges itself on as we fight and bleed our way through history, that feeling has never left me — nothing justifies it. Nothing justifies hating other people so much, or perhaps caring for them so little, that violence can be perpetrated on them, their rights ignored, their lives discounted, their cries unheard, their bodies destroyed without regard for the living souls they house, the beautiful, emotional, caring, loveliness that each Life is.
When I learned about the Holocaust, watching videos of the gas chambers, of piles of twisted limbs and broken bodies bulldozed into dirt pits, of countless rows of pictures of the murdered, so efficiently accounted for by the Nazis, now displayed in memorials to those victims, staring into the cameras of their captors, their eyes incomprehensible with the knowledge of their own imminent death, it shook me to the core to know just how fucking terrible we can be to each other.
When we let hate, in all its guises, take over our hearts, and approach each other through violence, the downward spiral that is our inevitable trajectory has no bottom. There is no depth of cruelty, depravity and horror that is “out of bounds” for humans to inflict on one another. We’ve done it all. And if we let it happen again, we’ll do it again.
When you think of Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings, or World War II, there is no doubt what side you would’ve been on. Right? You’d be one of the Good Guys! It’s barely even a question! You would suit up with the Rebel Alliance. You would take up arms against the orcs. You would fight the Nazis, or if you were a civilian, then you would shelter Jews and help those fleeing for their lives in any way you could. Anne Frank would be hiding in your house, if you had the opportunity. It would be scary, but you would be brave. You would Do The Right Thing.
You sure as hell wouldn’t be a Nazi yourself! You wouldn’t be a Gestapo officer, or a guard leading a miserable line of naked humans into gas chambers, or a soldier marching people outside of their village to shoot them and leave their bodies in a mass grave.
No, you would be a hero.
The thing is, in the present moment when the Big Thing is actually happening, it’s obviously not always that straightforward. There are lots of reasons why people might side with the Bad Guys. I mean, there sure were a lot of stormtroopers and military dudes and everyone, carrying out Darth Vader’s orders and building his Death Stars and all that. There sure were a lot people in Nazi uniforms, building gas chambers and imprisoning people and carrying out the whole grotesque machinery of genocide. And right now, there sure are a lot of Russian soldiers, shooting guns at their Ukrainian brothers and sisters. There sure are a lot of Israelis living on land stolen from their imprisoned Palestinian brothers and sisters, and there sure are a lot of Americans supporting such obviously illegal and globally condemned Apartheid.
And it’s just not the case that all of those people are themselves “Evil”. After all, they each likely believe they are Good, just like you and I believe about ourselves.
So how do Good People carry out such heinous, evil acts? If we can’t just believe “They are bad”, then how do we make sense of all this bad shit that keeps happening?
Well, obviously, brainwashing and propaganda can go pretty far, especially when it stokes racist, religious, or nationalistic fires on a large enough scale. Propaganda at a nation-state level can amplify a psychopathic or delusional or hate-based perspective amongst a whole population, activating and validating the angry like-minded, providing an outlet for their anger, providing scapegoats to blame, validating a soothing worldview that You and Yours are Good, and the problems of the world are because of Those Crazy Motherfuckers Over There. With enough propaganda, enough people can be swayed to support, or at least passively enable, the State to carry out its terrible plans, all the while believing that the violence is justifiable, necessary, maybe even the Will of God. It’s Right. So, they put on the black boots and prepare to stomp on some faces.
Or, maybe the do-ers of violence are not all brainwashed. Maybe they’re victims too. Maybe the pressures to align oneself with the Regime, and the consequences of not doing so, are just too great, too scary. When it really comes down to the choice of potentially laying your life on the line, maybe it’s just too damn hard for people to resist “following orders”.
Or maybe it’s easier, in the complexity of everyday life, to not get involved at all. Stay out of trouble, keep your head down. Just be a good neighbour, take care of your own loved ones, and watch your back. That’s enough, right?
Or maybe it’s just so goddamn difficult to know what to do, that you just…..sorta……don’t do a whole lot. I mean sure, you follow the news, talk to people, express some opinions here and there, maybe even send in some money to an organization or sign a petition. But in the scale of Grand Events, what the hell can you ACTUALLY do? Well, either sign up to fight, volunteer, or keep your head down and take care of your loved ones, right?
The problem is, the Bad Shit that history’s despots and dictators and psychopaths and power-mongers subject the rest of us to, keeps happening. Even though we built nice, heartfelt memorials that said “Never Again” after the Holocaust, and we’ve reiterated this commitment after every genocide and mass-violence that happened subsequently, the fact is, they keep happening. We keep giving enough money and weapons to the Bad Guys, that they keep doing this shit.
But most critically, what we give the Bad Guys, what’s more important than money and weapons, is followers. It’s obedience. Invariably, the Aggressors of history are aggressors because lots and lots and lots of people follow them.
So it’s not just Bad Guys that are “the problem”. It’s Followers. It’s our desperate need to feel secure, to have the proverbial StrongMan tell us what to do, assure us that all is safe, that the Barbarians are being held back, the gates will hold, the city is secure, our lives will continue. And the scarier things get, the more that “the masses” yearn for security and become vulnerable to the charms of the StrongMan.
When times are tough, we COULD bond together in the spirit of universal humanity, see All as One, and simply help each other. Share resources. Be Good. If we did, humanity would be so kick-ass we would probably have colonized the solar system by now instead of just blowing each other up all the time, buying giant yachts and enslaving the masses to enable all this.
It’s our need to escape personal responsibility, the terror of accepting our true Freedom, that leads us to be susceptible to the siren song of the StrongMan, his promises of domination, and “Us” winning over “Them”.
Thus, in seeking to avoid the existential terror of our own personal responsibility to face our shadow, our hate and vanity and lust for power, we have enabled the psychotic few to create a world of terror. And now we live in that world and ask, “Why?” And “what can I do?”
First, face your hate and fear. Then embrace your love and courage. You’ll know what to do after that.