Witches can be right, giants can be good

In my ADD way, I rarely revisit topics once I’ve posted on them—I say what I have to say, and them I’m done. (Of course, some topics always pique my interest, usually for strange reasons: the gilt Art Nouveau rotary hotline has been silent as of late—hello?) So I wasn’t planning on further deconstruction of the whole Gustavo Dudamel-Hugo Chávez-Venezuela thing, but it’s been flaring up again (Although, as Darcy points out, we’ve probably been focusing on the wrong demagogue).

The opposition to El Sistema is basically this: Chávez is awful, El Sistema has connections with Chávez, therefore it’s tainted, no matter how much good it does. Patrick at The Penitent Wagnerite (linked above) put it this way:

You cannot assert that Chávez is bad, but part of his regime (no matter when it was founded) is good, without contradicting yourself and implying that Chávez is good. It’s just that simple.

Here’s my question (which goes well beyond the ostensible topic at hand): why is this whole evil-tainting-good idea invariably a one-way street? Patrick paints himself into a corner because his definitions of “evil” and “good” are so acid-and-base exclusive. (A professor I know would have diagnosed this as “hardening of the categories.”) But even those of us who take a more pragmatic (or, from a pejorative standpoint, “morally relative”) standpoint still have a tendency to default to the same direction of moral flow. Evil taints good, but good doesn’t, as it were, taint evil.

I wonder how far back in human history that lopsided equation goes. Pandora’s Box, maybe? Adam’s fall? Unusually for this infidel, I thought of a biblical passage, from Mark’s Gospel:

And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

My suspicion is that the modern iteration of the unwashable stain is a hangover from the rise of Nazi Germany. Many decent people chose to take a charitable view of Hitler for too long, with disastrous results—as a result, our reflex is to believe the worst of any even mildly evil figure, and morally quarantine ourselves.

But take a look at that passage from Mark again: the point isn’t that evil needs to be violently amputated from our souls, the point is that even flawed souls can, on balance, be saved. The morally maimed can still enter into eternal life. Your hand is evil? Your foot? Your eye? That’s OK—it’s not like you’re all evil.

Jesus, in other words, was optimistic about the human soul. If you’re afraid of being infected by the evil you see in Chávez and his ilk, you’re too late: it’s been there all along. That’s the pessimistic reality of the human condition that we’re all-too-familiar with after the last couple of centuries—the darkness that resides in all of us, periodically, sometimes catastrophically erupting into the world. But we miss the optimism: sure, there’s evil in everyone’s soul, but most of us don’t let it erupt. It manifests itself as petty selfishness or occasional intolerance, but not authoritarian megalomania. We try our best to be good people, and that good taints our evil. Is it enough? Not always—sometimes not even often. So what do we do? We keep trying. It’s foolishly optimistic. And foolishness is the most universal human trait there is.

Chávez, by the way, lost his bid to alter the constitution and make himself permanently re-electable. Did he call in the army? Declare the election invalid? Throw it into the courts? Nope—he sucked it up and gave a concession speech. At least in this instance, he did the right thing. Did some of El Sistema’s good taint his soul? Probably not—but considering the possibility is a nice workout for an intellectual muscle that, it seems, we may have forgotten how to use.


  1. One sixteenth black, and you’re Negro. Which gave us Lena Horne.And America’s music.So which is the “good” and which is the “bad”?My religion offended me, so I took it’s advice.Some yin in every yang, et cetera.

  2. Your interpretation of scripture is probably sound, but Jesus also said somewhere along the way that we should flee from evil. Or maybe it was Paul. The point is that it’s never good to be in tight with disreputable types. As dictators go, Chavez may be among the most benign, but where do you draw the line to say that it’s no longer morally sound be seen as one of his representatives?

  3. Dictators?When a referendum, decided by the dictator-to-be, ends officially with his defeat by 50.71 vs 49.29… this means that democracy is holding firm and that Chavez is far from being that dictator that many depict.Think about: few thousands NOs that any Florida-like-system could have turned into YESs!

  4. This is a bad apple. It has a worm in it. I do not recommend that you eat this apple. I recommend that you throw it out. It’s a <>bad<> apple.But, you know, the worm is actually only in a tiny part of the apple. The rest of the apple is fine. If I were really hungry, I’d probably take a bite of a part of the apple where the worm isn’t.

  5. I don’t have an objection to The System per se, my skepticism comes into play regarding the incredible amount of PR frenzy that has been whipped up by Dudamel’s management team. The guy is clearly the real deal, but the amount of attention and adulation is bordering on the obscene, in my opinion.

  6. “Evil taints good, but good doesn’t, as it were, taint evil.” I beg to differ, dark and light mingle in both directions.And as you’ve been hinting, Chavez may be a minor dictator but we as citizens of the United States are saddled with a major dictator (who decides what the law is through “signing statements”). The U.S. is currently much closer to the old Nazi nightmare than anything our Venezuelan president has come up with. It’s not like he’s invading everyone in the world while keeping military bases in just about every country. The whole projection thing on the part of the Western world towards Venezuela right now is just plain weird.

  7. SFMike, what you describe is the standard right-wing trope of preemptively attacking your enemies in areas where your guy is vulnerable. Your guy made his mobbed-up bodyguard police commissioner of NYC, and forced NYPD officers to walk his mistress’ dog? The Dems are soft on crime! Your guy is a draft-dodger against a genuine war hero? Bring on the swiftboating! Your guy only won in the first place because his brother struck 60,000 of African-Americans from the Florida voting rolls? Chávez is undemocratic! (Which, I mean, he is in some ways, obviously, but for those in the Bush administration to criticize the governing practices of any other government in the world is clearly freaking absurd.)

  8. Marc: One of the points I was getting at was that to me, the “flee from evil” sort of morality says more about <>us<> than the real or alleged evil we’re fleeing from. It’s a symptom of moral insecurity, I think, this idea that evil is some sort of virus that we have no immunity towards. Interestingly, if you buy into the whole “living a Christ-like life” thing, you can’t help noticing that he spent an awful lot of his time with disreputable types. (I suppose being the son of God makes one pretty morally secure.)nobleviola: Hype is hype, but I do think Dudamel is something unusual in that he, at least so far, actually lives up to it. (I saw him here in Boston and yes, the technique and the talent is that good.) One thing to keep in mind is that critics might actually be <>more<> cynical about PR than the average concertgoer—nothing gets a critic salivating like the prospect of taking down the over-hyped.Darcy and Mike: You know, it’s interesting that, for all the checks and balances in the Constitution, what may actually be the most important bulwark is something as simple as term limits. I think the Venezuelans instinctively caught on to this—from what I can tell, it was the proposed abolition of the two-term limit that was the main engine in sinking Chávez’s proposal. Even if you love the current guy, you never want to give up the ability to just run out the clock. (This is a tougher call, at least for me, in the legislature, where the perks of seniority are somewhat offset by the diluted power of the individual—but I think that some sort of campaign finance reform that would dent the advantage of incumbency would be a salutory development all around.)

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