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The Examination of Evil

Posted on Aug 4, 2011

By Tom Artin

(Page 2)

Lifton selects the stories of half a dozen Nazi doctors to represent the range of collaboration with the regime and personal extenuation this group of subjects presented to him. “Ernst B.” is the first case Lifton details, the Nazi doctor from whom he says he learned most about Auschwitz, an emotionally and morally complex man who at once had gone out of his way to save Jewish lives in the camp, yet was an outspoken admirer and friend of Josef Mengele, whom he described as “the most decent colleague I met there.” Over the course of their 30 hours of interviews, Lifton’s “feelings ran a full gamut from admiration to rage and everything in between.” He coins the term “socialization to evil” to characterize Ernst B.’s ability to accommodate himself to the horrors of Auschwitz.

Another case is that of Dr. Johann G.—before the war a prominent and highly regarded physician. In collaboration with the Nazis, he had participated in typhus experiments on prisoners, actions for which he offered Lifton (as well as the war crimes court that convicted and sentenced him to prison) elaborate rationalizations. Toward the end of his interviews, he implored Lifton to use his influence to “restore his professional standing and rehabilitate [him] in the eyes of the world.” When Lifton refused, Dr. G. suddenly wept uncontrollably for half a minute. This was not a conversion, however. “He wept because it was now clear that he would die without ever having cleared his name.” What he was mourning, according to Lifton’s judgment, was “loss of conviction in his own mind concerning his claim to honorable behavior in relation to the Nazi medical system. … ”

Lifton’s reaction to these tears—not of remorse, but self-pity—is instructive, as he navigates between objectivity and involvement: “I did not reassure him in any way, nor did I make any comment or interpretation. I simply remained silent until the tears stopped. … By then I was intent on viewing the episode in terms of its significance for my research. I was relieved to see him able to function again and very aware that something important—and perhaps appropriate—had happened between us.”

In the chapter “Historical Encounters,” Lifton recounts his interviews with five cases falling somewhat outside the general framework of his study of Nazi doctors, bookended by interviews with the celebrated ethologist Konrad Lorenz and with “Hitler’s architect,” Albert Speer. It proves to be one of the most interesting chapters in the book.


book cover


Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir


By Robert Jay Lifton


Free Press, 448 pages


Buy the book

It comes as a shock to learn that Lorenz, that affable author of engaging tales of animal behavior, was—Lifton says unequivocally—a Nazi doctor. He quotes a statement Lorenz had written in 1940 on “racial hygiene,” calling for “a more severe elimination of morally inferior human beings than is the case today.”

The sketch of Speer at the far end of the chapter presents us with almost the inverse: We are familiar with Speer as a notorious Nazi, intimate with Hitler, and possibly his successor; we are surprised by his apparent remorse, and even stunned by his proposal that Lifton become his psychotherapist. Collaboration in Hitler’s grandiose architectural schemes offered Speer the fantasy of becoming “someone who is surviving his own life.” Power and architecture became for him the path to immortality. Together with Hitler, he would transform the world.

Lifton presses Speer on how much he knew about the destruction of the Jews. Though he admits to having shared the “standard” and “legalized” anti-Semitism of the era, in which “one felt at home,” Speer insists he was unaware of the specifics of extermination. Lifton expresses skepticism about Speer’s claim that, though he organized construction materials for Auschwitz, he knew nothing of its function as a killing factory, but rather surprisingly gives Speer the benefit of the doubt. Though Speer sensed that terrible things were happening to Jews, he stopped short of knowing the specifics, because, “I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to see it.”

“One had two choices with Speer,” writes Lifton. “Either one could believe that he was consciously lying all along, or one could see him as involved in a sustained inner struggle around the psychology of knowing and not knowing. I favored the latter view. I thought he was ‘living a lie’ but that he had not experienced it as a lie. Because of his extreme psychic numbing, he had ceased to feel almost anything of the abuse and suffering of Jews. … His wish to focus exclusively on his emotional bondage to Hitler—and with my help find a ‘cure’ for it—was an effort to psychologize his Nazi behavior in a way that avoided ethical truths.”

To see long excerpts from “Witness to an Extreme Century” at Google Books, click here.

Lifton’s summation of his experience with Speer is nicely emblematic of his lifelong scholarly MO: “Our interviews had revealed extraordinary dimensions of enthusiasm and corruption, of complex immersion in evil—and … to learn about all this I had no choice but to sit in that room with him and his führer.”

If anything is missing from Lifton’s sketch of his scholarly method evolved over the decades, it is his relationship to the figure he refers to at one point as “the master,” and to whom he acknowledges a fundamental though unspecified debt: Sigmund Freud. At numerous points, he invokes the critique that Freudian categories are intellectually rigid, and that psychoanalytic practice adheres to narrow principles that ignore its patients’ broader humanity. In “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism,” Lifton goes so far as to draw parallels “between psychoanalytic training and the thought reform process.”

And yet he also concedes, “I was profoundly affected by the Freudian revolution. … I considered it one of the great revolutions of modern thought.” During his two years of psychiatric residency, “My best teachers by far were psychoanalysts, and I learned a lot from them about what we called ‘dynamic psychiatry,’ which emphasized such basic psychoanalytic principles as unconscious motivation and the importance of childhood development.”

But we are given no sense of what this essential debt to Freud actually is. Put another way, what is the positive side of Lifton’s ambivalence? Absent is a candid view of his relationship to the body of thought admittedly so foundational to his enterprise. Though Lifton nods at “unconscious motivation,” the unconscious scarcely appears in the memoir, and is not shown to have played much of a role in his synthesizing assessments. And if Freudian categories have tended (or been driven) toward reification, Lifton’s own terminology—totalism, psychic numbing, the protean self, nuclearism, animating guilt, doubling and the like—is no less vulnerable to degenerating into cant.

In his penultimate book, “Superpower Syndrome,” “a psychohistorical look at the United States as an aberrant force that endanger[s] everyone,” Lifton has addressed the ways in which his major themes—totalism, thought reform, nuclearism, atrocity-producing war-making, and the perversion of medical science in service to political power—are applicable to U.S. global militarism. America’s apocalyptic impulses, he argues, do not differ in kind (though to be sure in degree) from those of the extremists who smashed the World Trade Center. His comparison has been shocking to some. “It was a radical argument. … While many Americans had soured on the Bush administration, it was quite another thing to attribute to our country a consistent pattern of violent extremism carried out in the name of a democratic mission, of a ‘war on terror.’ But I wished to hold nothing back.”

Tom Artin is the author of “Earth Talk: Independent Voices on the Environment,” “The Allegory of Adventure” and “The Wagner Complex.”


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Leefeller's avatar

By Leefeller, August 15, 2011 at 11:02 am Link to this comment

It is refreshing to read a non divisive thread with exchanging of opinion, ideas and enlightenment.

Actually I have been having trouble posting on TD and checking to see it it is all TD or just one Article?

Thanks Leefeller

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Shenonymous's avatar

By Shenonymous, August 15, 2011 at 8:09 am Link to this comment

There is much merit in what you said Cliff Carson. Much as
news fodder I well remember the Tillman case, not the others,
not the others nor the American public branding killing
innocent Middle Easterners as killing terrorists.  Why would
finding the shooter be important?  Seems that person is seen
as a criminal.  Just as there is a difference between patriots
and terrorists, there is a difference between right and wrong
and whichever it is, it is in the eye of the beholder. Wrong is a
moral judgment and until some higher moral authority says what is
or is not moral then we are left to our own view of morality, and in
the same way all other groups have their own view, because like it
or not, morality in the reality, not in the abstract, is relative. 

It is not as simple as saying the shooter was defending his country
against invaders.  It is not even known if the shooter was Afghani. 
What right did the Saudis have in attacking America on 9/11? 
America had not invaded Saudi Arabia.  Osama bin Laden was a
Saudi.  You ask if Libya would have a right to attack America on
American soil?  “Right” is a strange word in this logic.  Ambiguous
it could mean correct, or having certain privileges.  Rights are
abstractions.  It has to be said what is meant when saying one has
a right to act a certain way.  Who is to say what is a just claim, a
legal guarantee, or a moral principle?  To what authority does the
appeal for judgment go?  Justice is being spoken about on two
levels, one is the ideal level where it is presumed there a standard
of perfection exists, then there is the real level that is not merely
ostensible or even many times apparent.  Real justice is when
righteousness or equitable action is performed fairly.  Then the
question of fairness must be examined.  That too, fairness, is
relative to the principles involved, the people, the reasons.  Who
shall be the solomons who sit in judgment?  One reason religions
came into existence was to pronounce judgments as coming from a
codified deity whose word could not be questioned.  The other
reason was to provide meaning to an otherwise meaningless
existence even if that meant to worship a supernatural being that
was larger than the meaningless life of all organic matter.

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By Shenonymous, August 15, 2011 at 8:06 am Link to this comment

I am not in any way attempting to justify as moral any war,
I hate war.  I have two grandsons who are about to enter into
the current wars and I hold my breath and will hold it until
they return home alive and sound of mind, which I doubt as
men going to war does something nasty to their minds. I am
genuinely concerned about those who they will face on the
opposite side. What will I do about it?  Protest where I can. But,
and I say but with much trepidation as the question must be
asked given the nature of men, and I do think it is in man’s nature
to war against one another, is there ever a just reason or defense
that could magnify into a war?  Can there ever be any just reason? 

One mistake I think being made is identifying a whole for a part. 
That might sound rather abstract but here is what I mean.  In
identifying “the United States” which is really an abstract whole,
for some individuals (which are real parts) is a fallacy.  Not all
Americans supported the wars in which the country entered. 
Vietnam showed America just how many did not want its presence
in Indochina, nor in Iraq, and now Afghanistan.  Many protested the
US involvement in Bosnia, Libya, and elsewhere.  You speak of “our
Government” as if it were the entire nation as a whole when in fact
it is not.  Look at us, who disagree with our government.  Look at
most of those on Truthdig who disagree with our government.  We
are not unique in those feelings.  It permeates our society.  “Our
government” happens to be whoever is in power at the time.  Our
government is whoever is in power that spreads the propaganda for
their own perceived reasons which they undoubtedly think are
good.  All men seek the good is the axiom.  When men disagree
what that good is, that is when we run into trouble.  If you are
going to take the part of the other side in the present conflict, do
not forget that there is this side as well.  Sorting out what is justice
is a tall order, but we only have to figure out where to start.  One
way I think to start “fixing” ourselves, as that is what it is going to
take, and I think that is the essence of what you meant in your last
paragraph, is first to see us as individuals who need to take action
against injustice, then the nation will be a nation of those who are
united.  So where to start, because it is not going to be quick or
easy?  With educating our young? Not only in the schools but in
homes, and that means educating the adults in whose care are the
children.  How shall we do that?

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By Anarcissie, August 15, 2011 at 7:07 am Link to this comment

I agree with Cliff Carson—one needs to take the story of the finding and killing of the fellow who shot down helicopter with a mighty grain of salt.

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By Cliff Carson, August 15, 2011 at 4:08 am Link to this comment


The only story we have is what the Media relays as the U S Military story.  If you can recall the saving Private Lynch story, the Tillman story, the April Glaspie episode, and a host of others including the automatic story of branding every killing of innocents as the killing of Terrorists until proven otherwise, then yes it was the locals that helped find the shooter.

But the question should be why would finding the shooter be important?  Did he do something wrong?  If so, since when did it become immoral to defend ones country against invaders?

IMO the invaders need to sell as fact that resistance to the U S invasion even by Afghans is something wrong because the U S invaded to help the Afghans.

Did the United States invade Afghanistan to help the Afghans?  Since the U S had troops on the ground in Afghanistan before 9/11 killing Afghans, would it be plausible to say that the Afghans had a right to retaliate if they were behind the 9/11 attack?

Would the Libyans have a right to attack America and Europe on their home grounds?

Trying to make moral an unjust war is a murky path indeed and I would believe one thing one should be prepared to hear is a lot of lies along the way.

As an example one of the highest ranking officers who tried to cover up the Vietnam War My Lai massacre was Colin Powell.  And He was used to present the false “evidence” to the U N about Iraq wasn’t he?

My whole point is this:  Where do you start believing the liar?

I am saying that If the U S decides to start a war for profit, then they must demonize their target to get Americans to go along with their immoral course of action.

And if nothing else, our Government is good at putting out propaganda to get us to do and accept things we would normally find abhorrent.

Only by challenging the facts as presented before you can the real story be revealed.  I think you and I are good to do that.  There must be millions like us.

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By Shenonymous, August 14, 2011 at 9:50 pm Link to this comment

Yes, I realize I am taking a slight detour from the article topic of
Lifton’s evil, or the distinction between patriots and terrorists, but
going for the higher ground of morality is still on the path, hence
only a slight detour.

I didn’t think that all of the people in the Middle East were
considered terrorists by the Americans, including us Americans
here at home.  The ground troops were after known terrorists
and had a specific target in their sites, and what was most
interesting to learn was that the local people helped to catch them
after the downing of the helicopter.  I hardly think the locals would
help if we considered them terrorists too.

You are probably right about the 2nd Iraq War having its genesis when
the USA colluded with Hussein to invade Iran.  So as the implied logic
goes, then the Iranis instigated their ally Saudis to attack the World Trade
Center on 9/11?

It is terribly complicated and no easy answer.  I agree we need to get
out of the war business.  Do you know a way to stop men from engaging
in wars?  I know that is a rhetorical question.  Anyway, I thought it was in
their genes.  You definitely know more about such things and the action
between the US and the Middle East than I do.  I’m just an ignorant
ordinary American trying to piece together a real story.  There is
enormously much more I suspect than has here been distilled down. 
There is culpability on both sides, so forgiveness will have to go both
ways.  I vividly remember though regardless of the US involvement in
his capture, Saddam Hussein was tried by an Iraqi court and hung by the
Iraqi people.  But I also remember from news accounts and curiously that
the Bushes were friends with Osama bin Laden and ushered his family
out of the United States to Saudi Arabia before all the horror began.

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By Cliff Carson, August 14, 2011 at 8:18 pm Link to this comment


“what do the American people do if Americans
are killed wholesale by factions out to destroy America?  Do we just let them?”

A good question but sort of a false premise I would think considering what the conversation was about.

We should resist anyone invading America and killing Americans.  And those resisters would be Patriots.

But what we have in the Middle East is America invading countries and then calling the indigenous people who fight back - Terrorists.”

Why?  We call them Terrorists because they resist the killing of their people.  Remember the people we are over there killing didn’t start these wars.

Was 9/11 the start of the Iraqi War or was the start of the Iraqi War when the United States had Saddam Hussein invade Iran and Iraq lost?

And why did the USA have Iraq invade Iran?  Because Iran had overthrown the SHAH ( Who was installed by the USA after overthrowing the Iranian Government in 1953 to get control of their Oil).

Please recall that both the murderous Saddam and the even worse murdering SHAH were puppets of the U S Government, killing hundreds of thousands of their own people was AOK with our Government until the they were no longer any use to the profit makers.

Was the start of the Afghan War after 9/11 or did it start back in the 90’s when Lithium was discovered in that Country in the Trillions of dollars worth.  You might recall that there was a civil war going on between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

The USA sided with the Northern Alliance ( who were fighting to keep the poppy fields open)and you might should read about the “Afghan Convoy to death” to see why the Taliban resists the USA so fiercely today.

What I am saying Shenonymous is that this war over there has nothing to do with any War on Terror.  That is just the excuse - not the reason.

And yes every American soldier that died in these immoral wars died to fatten bank accounts of the privileged.  And so did the Middle Eastern peoples.

I am not saying our soldiers were knowingly fighting in immoral wars, I would say that the majority of our soldiers were convinced they were fighting to protect the United States.  The fact is though that our government knew better.  And our government still continues these wars knowing they are run to provide profits to the privileged. 

We need to get out of these wars and ask forgiveness of the people we have harmed and the survivors of those we have killed.

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By Shenonymous, August 14, 2011 at 4:37 pm Link to this comment

Given then that the Trade Center and the other two airplane
destructions were not the reason for any war, then how do the
American people assimilate the fact that all those people were
killed for nothing.  If they were indeed killed for nothing then
that needs to be advertised and advertised big, like over and
over and over until the public gets it in their collective heads.
The Taliban and al Qaeda ought not to be hunted and killed.
Americans ought to thank them for killing so many people, for
Americans love to see so many of their people killed, and there
ought not to be any memorials to the 9/11 dead nor a 9/11
Memorial Park, and just a one-liner in the history books. 

The war was for oil and nothing else.  That is what needs to be
shouted, no, screamed at the top of the lungs everywhere.  I see
only a few doing that and then it is hardly a whisper or hidden from
the general public view on blogsites like TD.  The deaths and injured
from 9/11 was nothing American ought to get excited about since the
wars were not about that.  Do I understand you correctly?  For in spite
of what the politicians do, whether or not the wars the United States
became engaged in were justified or not, and you say they were not,
forget the politicians, what do the American people do if Americans
are killed wholesale by factions out to destroy America?  Do we just let

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By Cliff Carson, August 14, 2011 at 4:11 pm Link to this comment


I don’t think either Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, nor Jordan were the TARGET for anything after 9/11.

Remember retired Gen.Clarke(NATO Commander)noted that he had been briefed in 1991 that 7 of those countries were scheduled for invasion, all the Neo-Cons were waiting for was an excuse they could sell to the American public.  9/11 gave them that.

The TARGET was Oil, Minerals, Dominance, Profit, and position.

9/11 was merely the excuse for the U S and their Empire Allies.  That millions would die and be wounded was not considered.

Lust for Profit, Power, and Position was the motivator.

If the Government was looking for the perps of 9/11 remember the pilots were Saudi, all but three.  In fact none of the countries I mentioned above furnished any pilots and none of them attacked America.

But they all had something in common:  They had something the Corporations wanted.

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By Shenonymous, August 14, 2011 at 3:31 pm Link to this comment

It looks like the philosophy of evil is a sibling to the philosophy
of hate.  Seems like they are symbiotic and reciprocal in action.

Time seems to also numb the atrocities.  Now there is concern
for the guy who killed 38 people. Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the
top commander in Afghanistan and other officials would not say
how they were able to determine which Taliban fighter fired the
deadly shot but said they were able to track down the insurgents
after “receiving multiple intelligence leads and tips from local
.”  It is reported that the unnamed shooter was
attempting to flee the country when he was found in Wardak

Were the Seals going in there to kill civilians?  Or were they not called
there to assist another ground team who requested reinforcement in
their hunt for a Taliban leader?  How involved ought Americans
thousands of miles away and not privy to what is going on to be?  How
can we judge anything except from what comes over the news media?  It
is generally felt, I believe, because I do not know for sure, that America
ought not to be in the Middle East at all!  But there still exists the fact of
the 9/11 murder of thousands of innocent people in the Trade Center,
the people on those two planes, the plane over Pennsylvania, and the
Pentagon bound plane that need to be considered.  I suppose there are
those who think nothing ought to be done.  Was it an act of war against
the US or not?  Iraq was the wrong original target, that seems to be
agreed to by everyone!  What ought the American government do when
an act of war is committed against American people?  What if
Afghanistan had been the war target instead of Iraq?  Would that have
been justified?

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By Cliff Carson, August 14, 2011 at 2:53 pm Link to this comment


Thanks for the response.  I thought that’s what you meant in your earlier post.

The U S by its demagoguery of people we invade for profits has led our Nation down a perilous path.  It will be extremely to get any satisfactory ending to these Empire wars.  At worst we will wind up an occupied Nation.  At best we will wind up as the Beast of Nations - to be resisted at all costs.

Thank you Shenonymous for those links.  Notice that not all the war criminals were tried.  Many were brought to the U S to serve on International Corporate Management Boards such as the ones from I G Farben.  But those who served as guards at the extermination camps - the grunts, now we punished those suckers didn’t we.

Why is it that in any war, it is the most lowly who must sacrifice the most?  Witness the guy who fired the RPG.

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By Shenonymous, August 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm Link to this comment

From the articles, it certainly looks like Speer was extraordinarily
clever and had gone on trial after Hans Frank.  He saw what
happened to Frank.  Speer also equivocated immensely in his
testimony parsing his various duties as a Nazi official.  The Ben
Austin’s account of the Nurenberg Defendants and Verdicts at  clearly states the
dynamics of the trials and Speer’s response as a defendant.  He
escaped the hangman’s noose,

Peter Cassiday’s essay, heavily footnoted with an impressive bliography:
Albert Speer: A Philosophical Case Study
is chilling how one can navigate the emotions of those who sit in

Gitta Sereny’s “Albert Speer His Battle With Truth,” builds a so shaply
defined an illustration of the parallels in psychological traits between
Speer and Hitler that one does wonder how Speer actually escaped the

There are four incredible interviews at

In “The Good Nazi: The Life and Lies of Albert Speer” by Dan Van Der Vat, 
as described in David Murray’s book review The New York Times Book
Review, that van der Vat made an effective case, critically called a well-
written and skeptical account, that while the eel-like Speer knew for
years about the atrocities, he was able to deceive his adjudicators that he
only “suspected ... that something appalling was happening” to Europe’s
Jews. Appalling!  As a result, he was one of only two highest ranking
Nazis to escape being hanged.  He drew a 20-year prison sentence
instead.  When he took the stand at Nuremberg, the self-described
“second man in the Reich,” Speer denied any direct knowledge of the
Final Solution. But was he really the innocent bureaucrat he claimed to
be?  One could smell death at Auchwitz!  It was a death camp!  And
could he have possibly been sincere in accepting his share of the Nazis’
“collective guilt”?  van der Vat says no—that Speer’s avowals of ignorance
and repentance were a self-serving sham.  It is obvious he lived in
dishonor until he died.
Seems like Lifton’s sympathies are extraordinarily shallow in that he
consciously distanced himself from Speer’s sob story from real
involvement in empathy to develop his thesis on evil (we do not get any
data on his success with that particular examination)  He admits as
much a couple of times.  It looks as though Lifton also numbly objectifies
Speer’s psyche and his apparent remorse, as much as Speer’s does about
his relation to Hitler and the Nazis at Auchwitz and all of the Nazi

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By Tobysgirl, August 14, 2011 at 1:09 pm Link to this comment

It’s terrorism, folks, when violence is directed against CIVILIANS. It’s terrorism whether the violence is perpetrated by an individual or a state. It is not terrorism when violence is directed against a military entity, particularly an invading military entity.

“Hey, man, they knew what the gig was when they signed up.” Thank you, Lenny Bruce.

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By Clash, August 14, 2011 at 12:26 pm Link to this comment

Since the idea good or evil seems to be proven to exist only in homosapien, I think before attributing circumstances to words like good and evil, we might investigate the speculation stated by biologist Ernst Mayr, that higher intelligence is an error of evolution not capable of surviving more than a moment of evolutionary time. It seems to make more sense than believing superstition and not the species is responsible for the ills it creates and the damage it does.

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By Anarcissie, August 14, 2011 at 8:24 am Link to this comment

Terrorism is a method of war.  However, the incident you describe isn’t terrorism, it’s an counterattack against a military invasion—orthodox, ordinary war.  Regardless, since patriotism is usually based on ideas of war and domination—my people or country über alles—I don’t see the conflict between patriotism and terrorism.  The latter seems like a natural expression of the former under certain conditions.

If I shot down a hostile aircraft and someone asked me what I was doing, I would probably say I was trying to save my life and the lives of my family and neighbors.  Violently fighting off violent attacks against oneself and one’s kind is normal behavior among the social animals.

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By Cliff Carson, August 14, 2011 at 7:38 am Link to this comment


The “or” asks a question.  And I also asked the reader to seriously consider all sides in all the evil actions in a country that never did anything to you or me.

If you or I were the one who fired the RPG, would we have done it because we were defending our country or ( using that word again) would we believe we were serving some greater purpose such as planning world domination?

Is he a Terrorist because our Government says so, or is he a Terrorist because he says he is one?

Was this person defending his country from exploitation by immoral and greedy people or was this resister a threat to the United States or the Empire builders?
In other words Anarcissie , if all propaganda was removed from the discussion, who would be the “Evil” in this conflict?

Is America defending the United States people in the Middle East, or is our Government of the United States acting to provide a profit stream for Special Interests?

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By Anarcissie, August 13, 2011 at 9:50 pm Link to this comment

Cliff Carson, August 13 at 5:28 pm:

‘... The insurgent who shot down the Helicopter killing the 30 + soldiers - Was he a Patriot or a Terrorist? ...’

Why the ‘or’?

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By Cliff Carson, August 13, 2011 at 5:28 pm Link to this comment

Some very interesting comments on this thread.

And some of them brought up my questions gained during the reading of the article.  Especially those brought up by Brewerstroupe and Night - Gaunt

This copied from the article:

“What he was mourning, according to Lifton’s judgment, was “loss of conviction in his own mind concerning his claim to honorable behavior in relation to the Nazi medical system. … ”

It is, to me, something that is slowly engulfing millions of those who claim the moral highroad, they find excuses to accept the depravity of those who they identify with while dismissing utterly any right of the victims to resist those evils.

Case in point:

In our own Country, once the beacon of morality for Earth’s Humanity, there is no atrocity the United States and friends commits that will draw official condemnation from just about any other Country. As some on this thread mentioned, millions killed by my and your country to pillage the World, and the majority of the U S Population still call us the “Good Guys” in these wars that are on-going.

We have become conditioned to accept our “comfort” in our own depravity.  Unless it is mine or yours being killed for profit we keep the herd mentality - we are safe from harm because it will always happen to someone else.

Here comes a provocative question:

The insurgent who shot down the Helicopter killing the 30 + soldiers - Was he a Patriot or a Terrorist?

Give it some thought before you answer.

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By Shenonymous, August 11, 2011 at 12:12 pm Link to this comment

Why EmileZ, you don’t have to impress anybody least of all me. 
You did write about the three turnings of the wheel of dharma,
and I thought you knew what you were talking about.  Sorry, my
mistake.  This website might help you out to know what are the
four noble truths (only sort of kinda the basis of all of Buddhism,
but I guess they are not that important).
The fourth turning is observed by only two sects I know about,
which I more or less mentioned but not by name.  If you require
the names of these I will be happy to provide them.  I don’t quite
get your humor in some of your posts but I guess it is not
important either. 

What seeds are you eating that makes you blissful?  Share your
enjoyment with all of us, why don’t you?  Yeah, I know you can’t send
any to us. 

And I didn’t say I was a Buddhist, and I agree this idea of life as suffering
sucks bigtime.  But in a way, just look around and you would be blind to
not see the suffering, say in Palestine, or Syria, or Somalia, or or or or or

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By EmileZ, August 11, 2011 at 11:21 am Link to this comment

The truth of life is suffering just doesn’t seem to cut it if you know what I mean.

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By EmileZ, August 11, 2011 at 11:11 am Link to this comment

Tathagatagarbha, an ecumenical gesture???

Ok I’ll stop now. I just wanted to impress Shenonymous.

I must say however, the talk about seeds and seed syllables and such really gets me blissy… oh, forget it.

Speaking of evil. Look at the “Mississippi Still Burning” column.

I don’t know how to comment on that.

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By EmileZ, August 11, 2011 at 10:46 am Link to this comment

I am sorry, but did I say anything about the four noble truths???

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By EmileZ, August 11, 2011 at 10:34 am Link to this comment

That fourth turning you speak of sounds entirely outside of the three turning stuff. The person who is “enlightened” right??? Such a blessing!!! (I am being sarcastic).

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By Shenonymous, August 11, 2011 at 9:59 am Link to this comment

Oooohhhh, yes! The space between some people’s ears is more
frightening than Krishna’s 10,000 forms!  Buddha, I believe, would
take it calmly and say it is all illusion, that there is nothing between
the ears therefore a thought , which would be something is not a
promising expectation.  It would be doubtful even that meditation
is possible.  It could be called The Blank State.  But not the ‘empty’
state of Nirvana. 

My sense is that if one unlucky enough to find themselves in outer
space flailing around it could be terrifying after a moment of infinite

EmileZ, how lovely to read your words on Truthdig!  Very rarely does
one here show they know about the Four Noble Truths and its doctrinal
siblings, the Buddhist notion of emptiness and how intriguing is the
doctrine of extreme momentariness that sharply reminds me of quantum
physics.  I learned long ago that only the present moment exists, as the
past is gone and the future has not yet arrived.  Hence, carpe diem has
some validity.  Of course some believe all time is present, past, present
and future.  I guess one could think of it that way, for at times (pun) the
past seems to always be with us, but it also seems rather impractical for
ordinary life.  Buddha nature is the immortal principle sentients are born
with that permits the enlightenment to emerge that exists in all aware
minds, it is permanent, full of bliss, and uncorrupted in any way.  Do you
know that In some traditions there is a fourth turning that declares each
of us bears the seed of enlightenment and may be perceived dependent
on one’s receptivity, or intelligence?  Perhaps a bit of trivia for most who
prowl these threads, this is called the doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha.

Something I found very helpful when I studied Eastern religions was a
concept found in the Hindu Upanishads that I’ve carried with me since
is called Mind Poise or The Dharma of the Ideal Person, self-control.
Equanimity of mind coupled with inner poise is the sign of a man of
wisdom.  I admit this is not the easiest to practice.  I find I cannot
renounce all desires that come to mind.  I think I will take that
incomplete capitulation into eternity.

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By EmileZ, August 11, 2011 at 8:10 am Link to this comment


Space, the final frontier…

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By Anarcissie, August 11, 2011 at 7:36 am Link to this comment

Oh, I would say the space between the stars could still be pretty frightening.  And then there is the space between people’s ears.

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By EmileZ, August 11, 2011 at 7:26 am Link to this comment


I confess I haven’t read all your comments all the way through, but I thought you might be interested in the “three turnings of the wheel of dharma”, not that I adhere to any of them.

The first is associated with the developement of discipline or “mindfulness”.

The second is associated with the realization of emptiness.

The third and perhaps most controversial has to do with “buddha nature”, which I have heard explained as a kind of primordial altruism which is like the sun and like the sun is at times obscured by clouds (forget about nightime, they have metaphors for that as well). They use that same metaphor for the first two as well in the appropriate context.

Maybe you wouldn’t be interested. (P.S. although the “first turning” is often associated with the Hinayana the second and third turning do not necessarily line up with the mahayana and vajrayana.)

As far as I can tell, the first and second turnings predate buddha, and the third post-dates him but who knows???

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By Shenonymous, August 10, 2011 at 9:07 pm Link to this comment

Hard Nothing sounds like a new hard rock band.  I really like hard
rock but I’ve not heard this one yet. 

Quantum physics is where the notion of something created from
nothing has any traction and when looking at what the theoretical
physicists are currently thinking, we then find out that it is all still
theoretical at this time in physics, that and time travel.  A neat
11-year old NYT article might shed some quanta packets on these

Besides. the meaning of existence has an ambiguous nature in the
quantum world.  For our macro world, existence is always of something
and we can too quickly get caught in a linguistic trap when we try to say
exactly what nothing is, for when attaching the existential verb ‘is’ to it,
we are saying it has existence which sets up a fatal contradiction.  We
could try the term ‘not-being’ instead since we want to deal in fact and
not fiction. 

For those who believe in a deity, it has to be asked if there can be a
reality to “nothing” and if there is, the implication is that, with the
existentialists, no god would be required and thus the being of
nothingness provides a logical foundation for atheism. 

So yes, 5 Yups and 5 Nups, we would have to guess what the unthinkable
and unknowable “might” be up to which is where heuristics could help. 
The “getting” something from nothing would still be a trick even at 50%
probability of being right and for it to have some coherent meaning the
nothing (or unthinkable unknowable) would have to be specified which if
said, throws everything back into linguistic quicksand.

Where once it was thought that space was a vacuum, science has found it
to be teaming with lots of drifting stuff, some call it space dust.  So
Pascal’s fears were for nothing.  Dare I say LOL

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By Anarcissie, August 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm Link to this comment

Indeed, the definition of ‘nothing’ can pose a problem.  For instance, we might refer to the empty space between the stars which so frightened Pascal as ‘nothing’ but in fact it is quite active with quantum fluctuations, whatever they are.  At least, it is according to some physicists.  It’s a very active sort of ‘nothing’.

I was thinking, though, of hard nothing, that which is not even ‘nothing’, which even Michael Novak cannot experience, because as soon as you experience it it becomes ‘something’.  We can only guess at what the unthinkable and unknowable might be up to—so to speak.

So, you can’t get something from nothing?  Guess again.  You will have a 50% chance of being ‘right’.

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By Shenonymous, August 10, 2011 at 3:17 pm Link to this comment

Wondering is excellent therapy, Anarcissie, to prevent minds from
doing wooden.  But excuse me while I collect myself from laughing
so much.  The what if questions are the stuff of sci fi that’s f’sure,
but most certainly of all scientists and artists as well.  Logically
speaking we look the other way 99% of the time.  There is always
at least 359 degrees where we are not looking even if you are
looking broadly!  And yeah, anything could slip into reality
while we are not paying attention to the other 359 degrees. And
if we didn’t know it, well it would just be one other thing we didn’t know. 
Or rather instead of saying know, since knowledge is a sticky wicket, say
we were not aware of.  We have to rely on heuristics and just keep on
walking in the somethingness that seems to be there in spite of chimeras
because if chimeras, then that is also something, chimeras.

There are innumerable things we don’t know have come into existence, 
for it’s likely all kinds of species have evolved and it is only when some
serendipitous or maybe not so serendipitous chance happening on them
or their remains, or some combination of the elements that bump into
one another and while the bond initially happens it doesn’t last, like
some friendships, and do not survive because of one thing or another.
It happens all the time.  I wouldn’t even say the universe came into
existence out of nothing.  Not even the best cosmogonists have said
that. Some examples include String theory and M theory, the Hartle–
Hawking initial state, string landscape, brane inflation, and the ekpyrotic
universe.  Why there is even a theory by Richard J. Terrile that
hypothesizes our universe might be a simulated reality.  But that does
not nor do any of the other ones, say that the universe was created out
of nothing.  Now I do have a book you might be interested in, by Michael
Novak, The experience of Nothingness. 

But thinking about the definiton of nothing, there is very little there,
actually nothing at all.

You do, brewerstroupe, have the current conceptual scheme which is
something, even if it is a chimera, else you would not be aware of it.

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By brewerstroupe, August 10, 2011 at 2:51 pm Link to this comment

Cue mischievous chuckle…..hehehehe.

What is “nothing”?

I seem to remember reading that when matter is broken down into its smallest parts, it becomes energy - movement without a thing that moves.

By our current conceptual scheme, is this not “getting something from nothing” ?

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By Anarcissie, August 10, 2011 at 2:32 pm Link to this comment

I didn’t say I could do it.  In any case, how would you recognize it if I—or anyone or anything else—did?  Or if stuff just popped out of nowhere by itself?  You might have been looking the other way.

I’m just curious about this statement being taken on such confident faith.

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By Shenonymous, August 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm Link to this comment

Way…ell, you can try getting something from nothing.  Let me
know if you do.  It could be earthshaking.

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By Anarcissie, August 10, 2011 at 1:06 pm Link to this comment

How do you know something cannot come from nothing?

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By Shenonymous, August 10, 2011 at 12:40 pm Link to this comment

brewerstroupe, August 10 at 11:56 am – is what you and DofG
said really different from what I said at August 10 8:22 am?

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By brewerstroupe, August 10, 2011 at 11:56 am Link to this comment

Thank you for that contribution DofG.

Couple of points.

“Something cannot come from nothing”

I have no difficulty imagining that what “IS”, is and has always been.* I therefore do not see the necessity for a prime mover.

Shenonymous. Gibran has always appealed to me precisely because I too see in him what Dofg asserts, “the “devil” (a purposeful misinterpretation) is merely the ego”
I am not an expert but my Bahai friends seem to think along these lines. I also suspect that some other sects within Islam have similar interpretations ie. “God”, “Satan” etc are symbols for what “IS” - the dynamics of man’s existence (the set of inevitable dynamics that accompany his existence as “that sort of creature” in “this type of Universe”).

(*Hard to punctuate. “IS” should have emphasis and a pause.)

A good friend of mine embraced Islam in order to marry. He described his World-view in similar terms to that above. The Imam, a simple Cleric in a rural Malaysian Mosque, told him he was already “a good Muslim”. I will visit him shortly and I hope to interview a senior cleric and ask if it is essential, within Islam, to believe in an anthropomorphic God. I suspect it may not.

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By Not One More!, August 10, 2011 at 11:51 am Link to this comment

I think that pre nazi-Germany conditions were not significantly different than any other first world country seeking unfair economic gain, so thinking it couldn’t happen anyplace else (or here) would be a disservice to reality and history.

Most societies have the pre-conditions existing that allow for totalitarianism, meaning that certain people are inclined to act either as the leader or the henchmen for a totalitarian cause in every country (and community). They just haven’t been successful in some places, but not for lack of trying.

I play a little game sometimes- I look at people in my community and think who would want to be the leader demanding unquestioning loyalty (and punishing those that didn’t fall into line), who would be the nazi camp commander, who would be the prison guard, who would be the prisoner who would take other prisoners to the execution etc.

Are we there yet? Not yet maybe. But one thing is clear, almost every elected official from the president to the senators and congressmen do not act on behalf of the general public or for the long term interests of our country.

You have to ask yourself how many of them would support a totalitarian policy if they could personally benefit from it. Then you have to ask yourself how close we are when we have the patriot act, the continuous wars, the secret nature of government that fails to uphold the constitution in their pursuit of satisfying the requests (demands?) of the corporate elite.

We have political and religious leaders, news media personalities, and individuals that preach hate, exclusion, greed. Where is the peace, love and understanding?

We are in a no win situation, but the one thing I am not going to do is give the stick to the man who is going to hit me over the head with it. That is why I have been voting third party and Nader. We can argue about who is throwing their vote away. Obama and his policies is the result of voting for the lesser of two evils- the continued wars, the expansion of corporate greed all at the expense of the general public.

http://www.NotOneMore.US - The Pledge for Peace

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By Shenonymous, August 10, 2011 at 8:22 am Link to this comment

Seeking the knowledge of God is useless since knowledge of God
is not available.  Nor is knowledge from God.  If you are claiming
that knowledge is forthwith coming from a deity, what is the
pipeline?  I agree that nothing comes from nothing, and since
there is no way to verify that knowledge of any kind comes from
a god, then there is nothing reliable to be had.

The lovely writings of Gibran assumes there is a deity, therefore so
are devils and prophets.  It is lovely but fiction.  Storytelling.  The
only way humankind can overcome evil, as personified by devils,
satans, Shaitans, is to recognize that it is from themselves that evil
originates and only they themselves can defeat it.  They can defeat
evil by rigorously and accurately identifying what is evil, then working
and acting to destroy it.  That is the work of ethics and morality and
considering not only what those words mean in actual life but to live
that way.

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By DofG, August 10, 2011 at 7:26 am Link to this comment

First we must understand that truth, especially in its totality, cannot be ascertain within the limited spectrum of human comprehension. And thus, truth is a path, not a destination.

In terms of culture, we have three basic modes of ascertaining knowledge. One is what we learn from personal experiences that may or may not resonate with other individual realites or experiences. The other two are, more or less, institutionalized modes of knowledge. One is science and the other is via religion. One, science, is ‘to know’ the world of phenomena-those expressions of nature relevant to infinite and infinitesmal cosmology. The other seeks the knowledge of God, which presumes to a great extent, which can only be ascertained through faith in that which ‘cannot be seen’! And it must be noted that this perception of existence is almost exclusive to the Western cultural paradigm. However, there is a utilitarian falsity that binds both modern science (an ideology of empiricism) and religion (the ideology, and falsity, that God and Man “being separate and apart” requires mediation from anointed men!) That falsity is the concept of cosmic inception; for it is the foundation on which all other institutionalized falsites stand. Christianity has its “Genesis” and science has its “Big Bang” (theory) which might as well be called the Big Bang Law for the way in which it is used justify the cosmological dogma of science.

However, there is just one little problem with both concepts of inception. Something cannot come from nothing! They are mutually exclusive; for if “nothing” could have ever existed, it would be sustained the immutable “Law of Nothing” which could never give rise to “something”. And the same goes for our existence. We, and everything that ever was and ever will be exist because “nothing” never existed! This is the only true miracle of life itself. And thus, the Big Bang is probably true but its supporters will never entertain the idea that it is merely a cyclical event without beginnig nor end. And the religionists believe that their purpose is to ‘tie down” or “bind back” without accepting the fact that Man is an absolute expression of God and both are, substantively, One and the same! Thus, evil is merely a construct of the human mind, for human utility!

Read Kahlil Gibran’s poetic essay on the “devil” from the book “The Prophet”*

There are many people in the world apart from our cultural paradigm that understand that the “devil” (a purposeful misinterpretation) is merely the ego (the illusion) in Man, which must be “tied down”!

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By Shenonymous, August 8, 2011 at 6:00 pm Link to this comment

Delightful website!  I can see your id photo there!  What a good
choice. I don’t have much time right now either, but I downloaded
the article and will take pleasure in reading it later tonight.  Thank
you.  I am much obliged.

I also enjoy Joseph Campbell and actually met him and had a brief
chat.  It was a university lecture series in comparative religions, when
I was a graduate student.  He spoke on the travails of Theseus
voyage home and the recurrence of the number three.  A question
came to me, and I’d have to search my files for it was about 25 years
ago.  Anyway he was tickled I had such a question, and signed my
copies of his Masks of God series, and Hero with a Thousand Faces. 
I have a few of his other books as well.  I had to write a 10-page thesis
on his lecture (it is the penalty of being a grad student) and I am happy
to report I got an A grade.  We take such pride in our moments of
excellence!  Maybe because they are too far and few between?

Aristotle is one I refer to often also.  My favorite is never give to a
thing more than it is worth. Is our discussion worth more time?  I
think so but then I’m interested in the topic.  He is more pragmatic
than Plato but I’ve studied him and Plato for decades.  I prefer Aristotle
to Plato’s philosophy but Plato’s works are much more beautiful. I guess. 
Aesthetics is something I am also very interested in.  I say I guess
because in retrospect, if one appreciates the science of Aristotle one
could say his works were beautiful too. Very orderly and Plato said order
was beautiful. So there you go.  Anyway they were also both wrong on a
lot of things!  LOL

As an atheist myself I have weathered much castigation on Truthdig from
the believers and in various ways as believers come in many flavors.  I
get rebuke up the wazoo.  Oh well, I fight back as I am a woman and get
double doses of invective from the men when I get the better of them. 
They hate me for being educated and atheist and have said they hate me! 
The names I’ve been called would curl you toes.  Yeowie Kazowie! 
Nevertheless I am considered extra evil, oh, and vile,  probably more
than you are!  But we are not in a contest! 

Needless to say, I agree with you about Lifton.  I will reread the review
and the two excerpts to see if I can detect anything else that tweaks my
curiosity.  The article is certainly worth that much.

Thank you again for the linked website. I know I will enjoy myself this
evening.  I’ve always thought we humans have to thank the Arabs for
many ideas and inventions that is the basis of much of our science and
culture today.  Unfortunately that does not happen enough these days. 
There is too much time spent on politics and the uglinesses thereof.  I
appreciate the geniality of this forum.  Ironic isn’t it?  It is an article
about evil and we have found some good in it?

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By brewerstroupe, August 8, 2011 at 4:54 pm Link to this comment

My time is limited today so just a couple of thoughts and a chuckle.

Evil is a devilishly difficult concept to define. Infanticide, to take an extreme example, has been widely practised by many cultures, both primitive and complex. In island cultures with limited food resources, it probably arose as a survival mechanism. Certainly it’s practitioners did not regard it as evil.
By adherents to many major religions, I and others like me are considered thoroughly evil (to some bloggers also!) because of my atheism and indulgences. I do not believe I am.

As I have previously opined, the term does not belong in discussions of fact and or science. In my view, Lifton has a choice. He can admit that what he does is not fact based or science and go on seasoning his opinions with it or forego such culturally derived and contentious language. I definitely prefer the former but would settle for the latter.

As regards influences, I find Joseph Campbell informative and I share many of his viewpoints. I have always had a soft spot for Aristotle who was a big influence on Avicenna, one of my favourites - which brings me to our chuckle.

Here he is:

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By Shenonymous, August 8, 2011 at 3:40 pm Link to this comment

Instead of dealing with individual philosphers perhaps we could
discuss the consequences of each view.  Is humankind basically
evil? good? both? neither? or there is no human nature at all?

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By Shenonymous, August 8, 2011 at 3:38 pm Link to this comment

”the three paradigmatic ones” do not include any of Asian, Arabic,
Native American, etc. origin. the three paradigmatic ones” do not
include any of Asian, Arabic, Native American, etc. origin.”

brewerstroupe - That is where you can contribute to the pantheon
of theories and perspectives. I think most people don’t think about
there being a spectrum of beliefs about human views about them-
selves and what it means to be human among the ranks of simians.

I love humor so if you could rephrase what you meant I would love to
have a real healthy laugh as for most of my time lately on Truthdig
forums, I’ve only laughed at self-centered fools who don’t know what
discussion is anymore than piss ants do!  Sorry for the somewhat
gutteral language, but I am disgusted. You and I may both be fools but
at least we are being civil in our foolish “discussion” and for that I am

I wasn’t offering a discussion of the long history of human nature when I
listed names from thousands of years ago up to now. I was showing the
lineage of the three major Western ideas of human nature. And then
added the later ones that took an altogether different approach.

My apologies, I didn’t mean to exclude the Asian, or Arabic
or Native Americans perspectives on human beingness.  I’ve read about
them. But I was too interested in getting started with folks who most
populate these forums, westerners, who would have had some thoughts
about one or two of the ones I listed.  Just as briefly as I gave the ones
earlier, trying to round things out globally, Lao tze said in the writings of
Taoism that everything obeys the YinYang or the way of the opposites. If
one looked closely at the symbol of the Tao it is usually represented by a
circle with an S-curve bisecting it. One side is black the other white. The
black side has a small circle of white in it, while the white side has a
small circle of black. This is to say that whatever is one’s susceptibility,
there is an element of the opposite included. Humans have a nature that
is twofold, both good and evil, and whichever is the tendency, there is a
little good in those who follow an evil path, and the reverse for those
who follow the path of being good, there is a chance for evil doing there
as well.

Buddhists would say all is illusion and what we think is reality is not
reality. One must meditate to find out whether the path one is on is good
or evil and then to deal with those realizations. That seems to say there
is a human nature but we have to find out what it is through meditation.

Confucius also enjoyed self-cultivation, which means one becomes
aware of ones morality and ethics by paying attention to one’s behavior
in the society of others.

Another idea of self-cultivation is the Tongshu that starts out discussing
what it means to be authentic and goes through 39 other chapters on
various ways to experience the world. Tongshu discusses human nature
as having the two extremes called the polarities and what might be the
best way to integrate them appropriately into the way one conducts
one’s life. 

Among the great Arab thinkers Avicenna (Abd al-Rahman al.Naqib), is
considered the greatest by the Muslim world, had a view of human
nature. From a study on him, Prospects: the quarterly review of
comparative education, a 1993 UNESCO publication, Avicenna is of the
opinion that the human being is born ‘upon the natural disposition’ and
is neither good nor bad by nature, although tending more to good than
to evil; and this human being changes and adapts according to the
influences of the environment and its education systems.

Native Americans’ noble savage is basically good.  Each person has a
good and bad tamahnous or spirit following him or her who acts as
guides.  One chooses which one to listen to.

I hope I have redeemed myself and that some discussion may then

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By brewerstroupe, August 8, 2011 at 1:48 pm Link to this comment

My apologies Shenoymous. On re-reading my post I see it does not convey the humour I intended. I meant no offence to you, it is Lifton and his ilk whom I enjoy tweaking, for the reasons I have given. My reference to prison visiting was intended to point up Lifton’s inappropriate use of the term “evil” - the central theme of my criticism.

An exchange of ideas that encompasses the entire History of Philosophy is too ambitious for this forum and, in my view, of little value - your post demonstrates this rather well, given the contrary opinions of the sages you cite.

Sentences that begin “so and so said…..” contribute nothing to debate beyond the opinion of the “so and so” quoted. I far prefer those that begin “I agree with so and so who said…........and this is why….....” - hence my interest in “what YOU think”.

I disagree with Lifton and I hope I have explained why. You may well be correct in citing Becker’s influence. I have not taken much interest in him for the very same reasons. Whilst Becker’s ideas concerning the influence of death are interesting, both men appear to be incapable of freeing themselves from their cultural, received biases - an all too frequent failing in European thought. One notices that your “main views…..the three paradigmatic ones” do not include any of Asian, Arabic, Native American, etc. origin.

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By Shenonymous, August 8, 2011 at 10:51 am Link to this comment

brewerstroupe, I offered the major theories about human nature that
have been around for a couple of thousand years starting with 5th c.
Plato and working up to the present 21st.  Loftin was working in the

I put forth the main views, offered the three paradigmatic ones.  If you
have another, you and anyone else were invited to please present it.  I
see no others are forthwith coming. Shall it be assumed you cannot
think of any others?

Then let me offer a couple others on human nature, as I do think
there is something about what humans think and do, whether or not
it ought to be called human nature is one of the questions. 

So then, a fourth configuration of the human being’s psychology is the
Heraclitus of Ephesus’ who says ideas of good and evil, just and unjust
are simply opposite sides of the same single thing.  And while he
thought good would usually prevail, Harper Lee’s Atticus of To Kill a
believed that people naturally contain aspects of both
good and evil.  Similarly, Michael Shermer, philosopher, sees a human
propensity to be selfish, cruel and bloody, but is that it is overwhelm-
ingly more natural to be good than to be bad. 

The other and fifth interesting view is Richard Taylor’s, who argues
in his book, Good and Evil, against rationalism and morality as
conventional human contrivances.  He proposes that we ‘already’
know that certain acts are wrong, because we test the morality
‘principles’ by whether they agree with our intuitions.  He asks why
are we pretending that moral principles are real, rather than simply
communicative generalizations that WE create to ‘justify’ what we
already knew was right or wrong?  In other words, while using
general principles are valid as a pragmatic and communicative device
(it gets us where we need to go), they doesn’t negate the fact that it is
artificial, not something that really exist but is created, like god, in our
image, and anything but fixed.

I suggested that Lifton’s thesis is based on a view clearly presented in
Ernest Becker’s “Escape from Evil” treatise.  That human nature is
basically evil.  I have never visited a prison and I have no idea if President
Obama has, how would I know that?  What a ridiculous question.  The
only gander I have had is presented on the MSNBC program Lockup
which I find too dismal to watch.  I’ve read some of Foucault’s criticisms
of the prison systems, but never was able to figure out what he, and now
you, would do with criminals? 

If you do not want to discuss any of the positions or the philosopher’s
view of any particular view, that is your prerogative.  I was looking for
some exchange of ideas.

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By Rudolfo, August 8, 2011 at 10:43 am Link to this comment

brewerstroupe writes ...

“It is entirely possible, in fact probable, that Speer had no knowledge of the conditions in the camps. Have you or Obama visited a prison lately? Do you really know what goes on in there?”

Have you visited Auschwitz lately?  Do you know what went on there?  Did you know, for example, the Elie Wiesel was in Auschwitz when the Soviet army approached the camp?  Wonder what he was doing?  He was in the camp hospital where he had been operated on for a infected foot.  Did you know that the Nazi gave him the choice of remaining in the hospital and awaiting the Soviets, or leaving with them, i.e. the Nazis?  Did you know he chose to go with the Nazis, and to take his father with him?  Wiesel tells the whole story in his book ‘Night’.  Primo Levi and Otto Frank were also in the camp hospital at the time, they chose to await the Soviets.

Now those who read this will likely see a person banned from TD for telling Elie Wiesel’s own story, just as he wrote it !

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By Leefeller, August 8, 2011 at 8:25 am Link to this comment

An interesting topic, checking in to receive updates in order to follow where conversation direction happens to go!

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By brewerstroupe, August 8, 2011 at 1:09 am Link to this comment

“There are three theories of human nature, three distinct ways to go.”

I would be really interested in what YOU think Shenonymous.

Three theories? Which ones produce demonstrable predictions? What kind of experiment can we set up to test these theories?

In the absence of such data, are we not dealing with opinion - received wisdom?

In days of yore, those seeking relief from “evil spirits” (the equivalent to today’s psychosis) consulted priests and holy men. Some obtained relief. So it is with the subjects of Lifton’s art.

You may discern from this that Focault is a guy I would enjoy drinking with but with whom I would probably disagree (should he attempt to analyse why I drink). French Philosophers are great - why do the French elect such appalling leaders?

Fact is that Lifton approaches his subjects with a host of pre-conceived notions that have no place in academic analysis. His assumption of “evil” is post facto. It is entirely possible, in fact probable, that Speer had no knowledge of the conditions in the camps. Have you or Obama visited a prison lately? Do you really know what goes on in there?

Are you subject to “extraordinary dimensions of enthusiasm and corruption, of complex immersion in evil” ?

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By Shenonymous, August 7, 2011 at 6:50 pm Link to this comment

There are three theories of human nature, three distinct ways to
go.  Human nature is, as those familiar with Ernest Becker says, is
basically evil, humans are born as Hobbes says, as selfish savages
and must be tamed by society, and Plato who sees humans chained
to their raw senses, they are captive as if in a dark cave and must find
ways to liberate themselves, moving with ease among the conceptual
relations of abstractions.  Or human nature is essentially good, as
Lockeans and the Rousseaus of this disposition say, that humans
become corrupted by society, by civilization.  The third view is that
there is no intrinsic human nature, a post-modern view seen early
Spinoza (17th century) or the later 19th c. Ortega y Gassett, who said
humans only have a history, echoed in the 20th c. views of Foucault,
that nothing is inherently good or evil, human nature is a myth and that
humans only have choices, have freedom within the limitations of the
world in which they are born, and conditioned by the genetic makeup
with which they are born.  It looks as though Lifton agrees with Becker. 
Is he, are they, right?  Which is it?  Good, Evil, or neither?

Whichever is decided, promises considerable implications.  Or are there
even other ways that better describe human beingness?  It becomes
important when attempting to determine whether there are ethics or
morals of individuals or any society, and if there are, what they are.

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By Night-Gaunt, August 7, 2011 at 4:11 pm Link to this comment

So far as I am aware only sentients like us can be evil. All else functions within the parameters of survival via Evolution and Nature. (That may change in the future.) So humans can hurt others for reasons other than merely getting enough food to eat. But to create polities they can use to take and keep power. Killing others who disagree or are just of the “wrong party” or Religion etc are just the means of purging any dissent. And it is the embodiment of the opposite of humanism.

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By brewerstroupe, August 7, 2011 at 2:09 pm Link to this comment

Night Gaunt.

Lifton is critical of Truman’s decision to unleash nukes on Japan.

My criticism of Lifton is aimed at his invocation of “evil” (like some medieval cleric or primitive witchdoctor) when it comes to Speer. Somehow he feels no need to multiply entities in this manner when the victims are Japanese, Iraqi, Palestinian etc and the perpetrators are American, Israeli, whatever.

I freely admit to a bias when it comes to professions beginning with “Psych…” From where I sit, unverifiable theses belong in the realm of belief systems like religion. They contribute very little to Man’s knowledge of himself or his World. I will go further. They distract from Man’s clear thinking by providing a theoretical structure or rationale that obscures responsibility.

Truman, Churchill et al incinerated millions because of .......(insert whatever rationale suits - political, expediency whatever).

Speer streamlined the German armaments industry because he and his colleagues were possessed by “evil”.

Stalin? Well that’s another story. No doubt Lifton would place him in the “possessed” bag but wasn’t he on our side? Maybe Truman and Churchill used Stalin’s “possession” to good effect?

All nonsense in my book.

It has always seemed odd to me that England and France, with whom Germany did not want War, first declared War on Germany then sat in judgement at Nuremberg. The charge?

“The Waging of Aggressive war”.

In recent years I have come to agree with Justin Raimondo and his concept of “The War Party” - an entity that knows no national, ethnic or political boundaries. Lifton, though he would deny it utterly, is yet locked into to a Manichean worldview which is enabled by his belief in an invented and dubious logic - Psycho-logic.

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By Night-Gaunt, August 7, 2011 at 12:32 pm Link to this comment

This isn’t his book so how can it be covered in one mere article? “Strangely silent” probably isn’t right Brewerstroupe unless you mean all of this books are silent on it.

The US isn’t condemned because it hasn’t fallen. The same went for Russia and China for their atrocities either. Only the losers get that treatment, not the winners.

I’m reading Lipton‘s book on Nazi Doctors. Quite an eye opener on that part of the Nazi Biological State. And also how the whole system was constructed to ensnare those doctors, nurses etc who may not have been predisposed to be involved in medical killing for ideological and racial hygenic reasons in the first place.

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By Anarcissie, August 7, 2011 at 11:36 am Link to this comment

I think it is more interesting to read stuff the Nazis, fascists, and our own atrocity-makers wrote and said before they did the things for which they became infamous, when they thought they were on the winning side.

Everyone snivels when they lose; it’s quite boring.  ‘Oh dear, I’m so sorry I stuffed the Jews in those ovens.  I don’t know what came over me.’

My impression is that people cut up evil into smaller and smaller pieces until each finds some bit of evil he or she can do, and then does it, and goes on to the next piece.  The pieces can be quite modest!  They leave it up to their great leaders to put all the little bits of evil together into something gratifyingly impressive.

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By bogi666, August 7, 2011 at 6:37 am Link to this comment
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brewerstroupe, great analysis and the USG violates the Nuremberg trials hundred of times daily. In fact as far as Nuremberg goes the USG conducts itself more in line with the Nuremberg Laws of the 1930’s than with the Nuremberg trials of post WW2.

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By EmileZ, August 6, 2011 at 9:01 pm Link to this comment

Did I mention deliberate??? I didn’t.

Some things are so deliberately senseless and horrible that they defy any kind of understanding. Better to bang you head against the wall (not that that is what physicists do) in the effort to find some kind of unified field theory while the world goes to hell.

That is not what I mean anyhow. I just wanted to introduce deliberate senselessness and deliberate horror (perpetrated by humans who DO know better) which I can not wrap my head around. It happens constantly. REALLY BAD twisted evil STUFF!!!

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By EmileZ, August 6, 2011 at 8:09 pm Link to this comment


There are some things which are so senseless and horrible that they are beyond any kind of understanding. At least that has been my experience.

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By Rudolfo, August 6, 2011 at 5:59 pm Link to this comment

According to the article one of Lifton’s four interests is Nazi doctors.  The most infamous, Josef Mengele, has been in the news recently.  His memoirs were sold, privately, to a Jewish buyer.,7340,L-4098945,00.html

To date, his writing have not been released to the public. We have no idea of what he wrote !

A previous book on Mengele was reviewed by here ....

the review includes this reported conversation with Mengele suggesting that he was writing his memoirs to exonerate himself ...

“I don’t have anything to hide. Terrible things happened at Auschwitz, and I did my best to help. One could not do everything. There were terrible disasters there. I could only save so many. I never killed anyone or hurt anyone. I can prove I am innocent of what they could say against me. I am building the facts for my defense. I want to turn myself in and be cleared at a trial.”

In any case, we have no idea. His memoirs have been held in secret for 60 years !

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By Rudolfo, August 6, 2011 at 4:20 am Link to this comment

The article is the purest sort of drivel.  The US and Russia, post WW II, have designed, developed, deployed, and put on hair-trigger alert, a doomsday machine that can destroy civilization, if not the entire human race, in an afternoon.  That, my friends, is pure evil.  Not some architect who happened to be on the losing side of WW II.

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By EmileZ, August 6, 2011 at 3:42 am Link to this comment

I think the conclusion of this article asks the appropriate post WW2 question although it leaves out Viet Nam and so much more (nevermind pre WW2).

In my weaker moments, or perhaps my extra-weaker moments, I often indulge in some sort of half-baked speculation into the nature of evil.

From a sociological perspective (which I believe is perhaps more productive) I would reccomend Hannah Arendt, but I don’t really think it is neccesary.

P.S. I must say, however, that I believe Arendt’s writings have historical value. Especially considering how the U.S. always contrasts itself to the Nazis.

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By ruhullaha, August 5, 2011 at 11:19 pm Link to this comment

Wow!  I started not to read this article, what a disservice I almost did to myself. I am a survivor of Mk-Ultra, (this topic can be Googled) and I totally understand the need for moral decision-making and the need to examine human error. 

From the review I just read regarding this book, “The Examination of Evil,”  Dr. Lifton has made a significant contribution toward the understanding of human nature and the need to evaluate evil.

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By brewerstroupe, August 5, 2011 at 1:54 pm Link to this comment

The My Lai massacre led him to the concept of the atrocity-producing situation: “an environment so structured, both militarily and psychologically, that an average person—‘no better or worse than you or me,’ as I was fond of putting it—upon entering it, could be capable of committing atrocities.”

Such is Lifton’s insight when it comes to U.S. soldiers engaged in killing civilians.
When it comes to assessing Speer, the Architect:

I concluded that our interviews had revealed extraordinary dimensions of enthusiasm and corruption, of complex immersion in evil

On the architects of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Lifton is strangely silent. One is forced to wonder whether it is the national/ethnic identity of the perpetrator or the victim that occasions such inconsistency in Lifton’s judgement.

Many years ago, I abandoned the pursuit of a degree in psychology in favour of the relative verifiability of History and Philosophy. Since then I have given psychologists and their prognostications (which seem to me to be opinions bedecked in regalia) a wide berth. I have read those portions of “Witness to an Extreme Century” as are available on the net and found no reason to reconsider this decision.

Forests have been sacrificed to give vent to opinions as to what motivated those who stood in the dock at Nuremberg. Yet the U.S. and its allies have violated the Nuremberg principles literally hundreds of times since 1947 and never the question asked:

What “extraordinary dimensions of enthusiasm and corruption, of complex immersion in evil” led to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children, the ethnic cleansing of a million Palestinians, the current slaughter of innocents in Libya, the arming of corrupt and murderous regimes in Central and South America, Afghanistan etc.?

Why does Nuremberg Principle VI:

The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law:

  (a) Crimes against peace:

      (i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;

      (ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).

  (b) War crimes:

  Violations of the laws or customs of war which include, but are not limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation of slave labor or for any other purpose of the civilian population of or in occupied territory; murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the Seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.

  (c) Crimes against humanity:

  Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried on in execution of or in connection with any crime against peace or any war crime.

....not apply to US?

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By John Mortl, August 5, 2011 at 1:36 pm Link to this comment
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I am left with the uneasy feeling that Mr. Lifton throws in Hiroshima and Vietnam
to try to distract us from his morbid obsession and rationalization of the
displacement of European Jewry. In fact, unable to reign in and control his fetish he
ends up inadvertently using them to buttress his deep seated pathology.

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