Tuesday, November 14, 2006

There are a number of half-finished posts in my blog that haven't appeared, and probably never will. I started writing them but decided I didn't need to air that particular bit of dirty laundry, or saved it to finish later but lost the train of thought that made the idea interesting, or let a timely event go for too long. This post I just found skimming through my logs, though, is none of the above. It's from a February event, but it leads into a more general question, so I updated and finished it.

David Irving, a British historian, was convicted to three years in prison for denying that the Holocaust happened. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out, this event should stand out in our minds even if for no other reason than the fact that it's on the short and shrinking list of topics that almost all Americans agree on. "Irving is a scumbag, but just saying something offensive shouldn't be illegal" - practically no one disagrees. Lots of people pointed out nuance and context and understand (but not agree with) laws against denying the Holocaust exist in Germany and neighboring countries, but if anyone said that America should have such laws, I didn't notice them.

But information provided by Kevin Drum's opinion on it made me wonder about something. Besides obvious and self-proclaimed bigotry, he's also either stupid or lying, according to Wikipedia. During the trial he recanted his previous defenses of Nazis - so did Irving just figure this out now after 20 years of a career as an apologist and lied about having done so earlier, or did he figure it out in 1991 as he claimed but continued to maintain his public stance instead of disavowing and making amends for it in the years since?

So what I wondered was, when exactly have loathsome beliefs or actions been held by well-intentioned people merely because of error or indoctrination or misdirected animus, rather than coming from people who were loathsome in the first place? You see it in fiction all the time, from Shakespeare's conception of Brutus and others whose names escape me right now, all the way up to Darth Vader. It's a wonderful plot device from the writer's point of view, a villain with complicated or even sympathetic motivations. Or a tragic figure who does something and feels guilty about it but the damage is already done. And I saw an example just this morning in the new NBC show Heroes (the way the plots go, I shouldn't make any assumptions unless we see the body or hear it straight from the horse's mouth, but whatever), where writers revealed a caring, protective side to Mr. Bennett and opened up the possibility that he's been an actual good guy all along, when the viewers have been led to believe he's an evil mastermind or mad scientist. Five minutes later, he forced a fix on a heroin addict who's desperately been trying to get the monkey off his back.

What's the real-world equivalent, though? When has someone on the road to hell actually had the good intentions the proverb gives them credit for? Good fiction often presents judgments of people as complicated, but how often is that actually the case?

It's impossible to prove that there is no such example — let's see here, first try to find a universal standard for evil beliefs, then check out everyone ever who ever held one of them, then see if any of them have been convicted of unrelated crimes, then see if they are nice people in their personal lives... And I could come up with a list of people like David Irving there, but it would probably say more about my partisan proclivities than anything else.

And for that matter, this isn't even a strong statement — in real life, hateful or self-deluded people tend to be dishonest or destructive in other ways as well? Stop the presses! But it reminded me of other things, so I wondered.

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