Facing Evil

  • submit to reddit

A conference on “Facing Evil” offers intimate testimonies of eloquent men and women — including Maya Angelou, Philip Hallie, Raul Hilberg, Sam Proctor, and Al Huang — as they discuss the force of evil and the discovery that exploring evil leads to revelations about goodness.


TRANSCRIPT

BILL MOYERS:. This is the first of a series of occasional specials on the world of ideas. My old friend and colleague, Eric Sevareid, calls this kind of reporting “news of the mind.” It comes from the imagination of writers and artists, from the knowledge of scholars and the wisdom of teachers, the theories of scientists and the poetry of everyday experience.

When people give voice to what they think, they’re bringing us news from the world within as surely as runners of old brought messages by foot from distant frontiers. The people in this broadcast talk about evil, and they speak from the power of first-hand experience. That’s why my fellow, Texan Harry Wilmer, invited them to his conference on understanding evil, a subject that was never very far from Harry’s work as a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas.

Most of us see evil from a safe distance: the genocide and homicide, the atrocities of war, the cruelties of the police state, the bigotry, the racism, the battered child. But the victims of evil must cope with the ugly graffiti it has scribbled on the walls of their psyche. Can they forgive the evildoers? Should they?

Inevitably, the discussion of evil leads to the idea of good. On this particular weekend, some of the people who came to talk about the dark mystery of evil ended up celebrating the light.

PHILIP HALLIE: There’s a force, a dark, flowing force, that goes right through our minds, right through our minds and bodies, that carries us toward evil. I see it in so many ways, that there is such a force.

RAUL HILBERG: In searching for good and evil, to put it very bluntly, one found the Holocaust a signpost, a marker: this is it.

BARBARA JORDAN: I do not feel that evil is some outside force separated from the individual. I believe that in human nature, in each individual, there is a bad and a good, or an evil and a good.

WOMAN: And I’m hoping that through this conference I can learn more about evil and all the things that hold me back and keep me from developing. I’m trying to look at it, not just from a — the people in the country are evil or in the world are evil, but maybe I can understand some of that within myself.

MAN: The seductive thing about evil is the way it can hide itself, I think. It is here, you know, and it is now, and it is us, and we do need to know how to see through the various disguises that we put on it ourselves.

WOMAN: It’s important to learn about evil, because, well, I start with, I am a Holocaust survivor. And it was- I saw how much evil was made during the war, and what happened to my people.

MAN: And I was with the 71st Division, furthest east division in the European theater, and we liberated a Hungarian Jewish labor camp. And the conditions were beyond belief, and you know, 3,000 people laying on boards in a hut built for 300 people. People dead laying next to each other, starving, vomiting, hadn’t had food or water for five days. I remember that, 42 years ago and a little more.

MAN: You know, my own experience as a Vietnam veteran has made me think of evil in a different way. And I- coming out of Vietnam and sort of turning around, seeing it wearing my own face.

BILL MOYERS: The setting was the beautiful hill country of central Texas in the fall.

The occasion: a conference sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities, which conducts such events in the old stagecoach town of Salado every two years. From nearby homes, offices and campuses, from distant states too, people gathered to wrestle with questions of evil, and to hear from those whose understanding of evil comes from having to face it.

Maya Angelou is a poet, dancer, playwright, and the author of six books, including an acclaimed autobiographical series. Her journey has taken her from the little town of Stamps, Arkansas, out to the far reaches of the world, and back now to the South, where she teaches American studies at Wake Forest University.

MAYA ANGELOU: What happens when we, a group of very highly energized and reasonably intelligent human beings come together to talk about evil? What on earth do we unleash? Is this a Pandora’s box? Once we open it and it comes out, are we sort of letting out an evil thing? I have trepidations about this conference; I don’t know what we evoke by invoking the word evil.

I don’t know.

Throughout our nervous history, we have constructed pyramidic towers of evil, of times in the name of good. Our greed, fear and lasciviousness have enabled us to murder our poets, who are ourselves, to castigate our priests, who are ourselves. The lists of our subversions of the good stretch from before recorded history to this moment. We drop our eyes at the mention of the bloody, torturous Inquisition. Our shoulders sag at the thoughts of African slaves lying spoon-fashion in the filthy hatches of slave ships, and the subsequent auction blocks upon which were built great fortunes in our country. We turn our head in bitter shame at the remembrance of Dachau and the other gas ovens, where millions of ourselves were murdered by millions of our-selves. As soon as we are reminded of our actions, more often than not we spend incredible energy trying to forget what we’ve just been reminded of.

When I was seven and a half, I was raped. I won’t say severely raped, all rape is severe. The rapist was a person very well known to my family. I was hospitalized. The rapist was let out of jail and was found dead that night, and the police suggested that the rapist had been kicked to death.

I was seven and a half. I thought that I had caused the man’s death, because I had spoken his name. That was my 7-1/2-year-old logic. So I stopped talking, for five years.

Now, to show you again how out of evil there can come good, in those five years I read every book in the black school library; I read all the books I could get from the white school library; I memorized James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes; I memorized. Shakespeare, whole plays, 50 sonnets; I memorized Edgar Allen Poe, all the poetry -never having heard it, I memorized it. I had Longfellow, I had Guy de Maupassant, I had Balzac, Rudyard Kipling -I mean, it was catholic kind of reading, and catholic kind of storing.

When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say, and many ways in which to say what I had to say. I listened to the black minister, I listened to the melody of the preachers, and I could tell when they would start up on that kind of thing, when you know they mean to take our souls straight to heaven, or whether they meant to dash us straight to hell, I understood it.

So out of this evil, which was a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness, you see, in the sordida, I was saved. And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.

I’m obliged to tell you about an uncle of mine, Uncle Willie, in a little town, little Arkansas town not far from this site, about as large as this side of the room. My uncle raised me. I was sent to him when I was three, from California, and he and my grandmother owned the only black-owned store in the town. And he was obliged to work in the store, but he was severely crippled, so he needed me to help, and my brother. So at about four, he started us to learn to read and write and do our times tables. And he used to, in order to get me to do my times tables, he would take me behind my neck, my clothes, and stand me in front of a pot-bellied stove, and he would say, “N-n-now, s-s-sister, d-do your sixes.” I did my sixes. I did sevenses. Even now, after an evening of copious libation, I can be awakened at eleven o’clock at night and asked, “Will you do your elevenses?” I do my elevenses with alacrity.

A few years ago my uncle died and I went to Little Rock, and was met by Miss Daisy Bates. She told me, “Girl, there’s somebody who wants to meet you.” I said I’d be glad to meet whoever. She says, “Good-looking man.” I said, “Indeed, yeah, certainly.” So that evening she brought a man over to the hotel, and he said, “I don’t want to shake your hand, I want to hug you.” And I agreed. He said, “You know, Willie has died in Stamps.” Well, now, Stamps is very near to Texas, and Little Rock when I was growing up was as exotic as Cairo, Egypt, Buda and Pest. I mean, I couldn’t- this man knew where Stamps was, and my crippled uncle?

He said, “Because of your uncle Willie, I am who I am today.” He said, “In the ’20s I was the only child of a blind mother. Your uncle gave me a job in your store, made me love to learn, and taught me my times tables.” I asked him how did he do that, he said, “He used to grab me right-“. He said, “I guess you want to know who I am today.” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “I am Bussey, I am the vice-mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas,” went on to become the first black mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas. He said, ”Now, when you get down to Stamps, look up-” and he gave me the name of a lawyer. He said, “He’s a good old boy, he will look after your property.”

I went down expecting a middle-aged black man; a young white man leapt to his feet. He said, “Miss Angelou, I’m just delighted to meet you. You, why don’t you understand, Mr. Bussey called me today, Mr. Bussey is the most powerful black man in the state of Arkansas, but more important than that, he’s a noble man. Because of Mr. Bussey, I am who I am today.” I said, “Let me sit down first” He said, “I was an only child of a blind mother, and when I was eleven years old, Mr. Bussey got hold to me and made me love to learn, and I’m now in the state legislature.” That which lives after us; I look back at Uncle Willie, crippled, black, poor, un-exposed to the worlds of great ideas, who left for our generation and generations to come a legacy so rich.

So I wrote a song for Miss Roberta Flack, you may have heard it, it says:

Willie was a man without fame, Hardly anybody knew his name,

Crippled and limping and always walking lame

He said, ”But I keep on moving, I’m moving just the same.” Solitude was the climate in his head,

Emptiness was the partner in his bed, Pain echoed in the steps of his tread,

He said, “But I keep on following where the others led.

I may cry, and I will die, but my spirit is the soul of every spring.

Watch for me and you will see that I’m present in the songs that children sing.”

People called him uncle, boy and hey,

Said, you can’t live through this another day, And then they waited to hear what he would say.

He said, “But I’m living in the games that children play.

You may enter my sleep, people my dreams, threaten my early morning’s ease.

But I keep coming, I’m following, I’m laughing, I’m crying, I’m certain as a summer breeze.

Look for me, ask for me, my spirit is the surge of open sea, Call for me, sing for me, I’m the rustle in the autumn leaves. When the sun rises, I am the time,

When the children play, I am the rhyme, Just look for me.”

We need the courage to create ourselves daily, to be bodacious enough to create ourselves daily -as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings. I think that the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.

I have written a poem for a woman who rides a bus in New York City. She’s a maid. She has two shopping bags. When the bus stops abruptly, she laughs; if the bus stops slowly, she laughs; if the bus picks up someone, she laughs; if the bus misses someone, she- ha, ha, ha So I watched her for about nine months. I thought, mmm, uh-huh. Now, if you don’t know black features you may think she’s laughing, but she wasn’t laughing. She was simply extending her lips and making a sound -ha, ha, ha, ha I said, oh, I see. That’s that survival apparatus. Now, let me write about that, to honor this woman, who helps us to survive. By her very survival, “Miss Rosie, through your destruction I stand up”. So I used the poem with Mr. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “Masks,” and my own poem, “For Old Black Men.” Mr. Dunbar wrote “Masks” in 1892.

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes, This debt we pay to human guile,

With torn and bleeding heart, we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us while we wear the mask. We smile, but oh, my God, our tears to thee

From tortured souls arise.

And we sing, “Hey, baby-bye,” we sing, But oh, the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile, But let the world think otherwise, We wear the mask.

When I think about myself, I almost laugh myself to death, My life has been one great big joke,

A dance that’s walked, a song what’s spoke, I laugh so hard, I almost choke

When I think about myself.

Seventy years in these folks’ world, The child I works for calls me ‘girl’.

I say, “Ha, ha, ha, yes, ma’am,” for workin’s sake, I’m too proud to bend and too poor to break.

So, I laugh until my stomach ache When I think about myself.

My folks can make me split my side, I laugh so hard I nearly died,

The tales they tell sound just like !yin’ They grow the fruit but eat the rind.

I laugh until I start to cryin’ when I think about myself

And my folks, and the little children.

My fathers sit on benches, Their flesh count every plank,

The slats leave dents of darkness

Deep in their withered flank,

And they nod like broken candles, All waxed and burned profound,

They say, “But, sugar, it was our submission That made your world go round.”

There in those pleated faces I see the auction block,

The chains and slavery’s coffles, The whip and lash and stock.

My fathers speak in voices That shred my fact and sound,

They say, “But, sugar, it was our submission And that made your world go round.”

They laugh to shield their crying, They shuffled through their dreams, They step and fetch to country,

And wrote the blues in screams. I understand their meaning,

It could and did derive

From living on the ledge of death, They kept my race alive,

By wearing the mask.

PHILIP HALLIE: To my mind, ethics is baloney. I have just worked in it for 40 years or so, but I do find it really baloney. What really — it’s a means.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Philip Hallie won three battle stars during World War II and came home to study and teach philosophy, with a special interest in cruelty. His best-known book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, tells how the people of a village named Le Chambon in southern France risked their own lives to shelter refugees from the Nazis. For Philip Hallie, good and evil are not abstractions to be debated theoretically, they’re the stuff of daily life.

PHILIP HALLIE: If it doesn’t produce any discourse about good and evil, if it doesn’t produce joy, real joy, not just sentimental, occasional, fleeting joy, but a joy that transforms you, a converting joy, that converts you, if it doesn’t do that, it’s baloney, I mean there’s no reason to just flap your lips excessively about it.

I’m a skeptic, and a skeptic is somebody who is skeptical or dubious or doubtful about high abstractions. For instance, evil and all the sort of medieval freight and everything that comes with the word evil, gives me the jumps as a skeptic, and I’m a little dubious about it. No ideas but in facts, no ideas but in things.

And for this reason I’ve found it most natural for myself to be concerned with cruelty in-stead of evil. Cruelty is something that’s got authorities. There’s some people that really know when it’s happening, and they’re the authorities. The victim is the authority on it.

Again, having said all this, let me talk to you a little bit about my experiences as a skeptic understanding cruelty. So I have to tell you a little bit about my life. I was raised in the slums of Chicago, and spent a good part of my life in a building quite aptly described or named “The Cockroach Building.” The Cockroach Building on Roosevelt Road near Kedzie -my father was always socking his bosses and getting fired, so he could never make a living, and we were always living- we lived in the Cockroach Building.

In order to walk down the street in our neighborhood, you almost always had to run a gauntlet of some sort. In those days my mother would send me for a loaf of Silvercup bread. I don’t know if any of you, maybe nobody here is old enough to remember Silvercup bread. The Lone Ranger advertised it -and when you pick up this bread, it scrunches in your hands and becomes a little teeny ball. Got a red and white wrapper, I don’t know if any of you remember it. But just about every other evening, my mother would say go out and get some Silvercup bread. So I’d go down and somebody’d jump me. And then if I were lucky, he wouldn’t give me a hard, real hard time, just give me a bounce or two.

One day, I must have been eight or nine, somebody jumped me, a great big blonde kid, and he started pounding my head, the back of my head, down on these rough, coarse, these big stone pavements we had in Chicago. And I felt the blood sort of gather, coming down my neck, and he said, “You son of a bitchin’ Jews, you killed Jesus, you bastards, you killed Jesus!” And I hadn’t heard too much about Jesus, so — but I heard a few rumors about him, but I — but my immediate response was, “Gee, I didn’t do it!” But that didn’t stop this kid hitting me, and then he must have seen my eyes glaze or something, and he let go, and he took off.

I went and got the Silvercup bread, because I was a fairly tough kid, I came back to our house, and my mother’s kid brother was sitting in the kitchen. And he’s a fighter, he used to work out with Joe Louis sometimes — very seldom, because- and he said, “Pinky, whose blood is that on you? Is that somebody else’s blood?” And I said, “No, Uncle Louie” -everybody had an Uncle Louie in Chicago -“No, it’s my blood, Uncle Louie.” He says, “Oh.” And he’s quiet, and he was with his big sister and he didn’t want- and she was a mystic and loved everybody and all that, so he wasn’t going to bring up anything.

And the next morning, my uncle Louie came by and he took me, instead of to school, he took me to his house and he started teaching me fighting. Not boxing, I learned that a little later from him; street fighting, which is murder, just murder. It’s very different from boxing, it just involves kicking with your knee. But I got pretty good at this, it was a lot of fun; people kept nice large area around me, as I would go for my Silvercup bread or whatever, and I felt a great deal of joy and power in it all. And then I went into war considerably later, and had the fun of shooting white phosphorus warheads, shells, into Mannheim on the Rhine river, and watching people burn.

Let me tell you a secret. You do not only imitate your opposition, as we’ve been saying earlier today, you imitate your loves as well. And I loved violence as much as I loved my Uncle Louie.

I saw people burning, I saw, worst of all, not just whole people burning, but I saw embedded chunks of white phosphorus burning in a person otherwise healthy, so that the person could feel it all, running, and that made it all the worse, because it fanned the flame. I saw shrapnel, because there was a lot of shrapnel because of the white phosphorus warhead, because they weren’t HE, high explosive, warheads, they broke larger chunks, the white phosphorus broke larger chunks off the- shrapnel off the shell. So they’d cut off a head or an arm, instead of dis-integrating the body. So I saw heads, beautiful young German boys, blonde heads with blue eyes, just the head, or an arm, just lying there in the road, when I came through to clean out the place for snipers with a bunch of others. If that’s not evil, there’s no such thing.

When I studied philosophy and picked up the tools of philosophy, the first major thing I turned to was a work on cruelty, which was my great interest. I did my book on cruelty, and then I noticed, as I mentioned to you before, this law of mimicry, you mimic what interests you, you imitate what you love, the way I imitated my Uncle Louie. I found that I was wanting to kill the victimizers, I was going to imitate them, or I felt as if I was the victim, and I was imitating them. But worst of all, I found that when I wasn’t feeling like killing the victimizers or wasn’t feeling identified or thinking of my children, that I was indifferent, and that was the worst. I was just as exactly as indifferent as the monsters who were doing it and ordering it, and that was the worst.

Well, one day I was sitting in my office and I was reading about these horrors, and I couldn’t bear it any more. I really felt I didn’t want to live; I didn’t want to kill anybody as I went out, I’d like to just go. The world was just unbearable. And so I thought I’d take a look at some of the stuff I’d been trained to investigate, namely the French Resistance stuff in the army, and I opened the page and I started reading, and my cheeks started itching and I reached up, and my cheeks were covered with tears. And I was reading about a little village of Le Chambon, and reading about the way this little village saved people’s lives without killing or hurting or hating anybody. And I realized that this might be my salvation, that I could, by becoming interested in it, assimilate it, imitate it, mimic it, and maybe be saved. The power of love.

Their gray little church that they had in this tiny little mountain village, perched on a high mountain, on a plateau on a high mountain, this tiny little church was like a battery, charged – charged -with love. Charged with such a power of love, power of love, that the Germans were disarmed in the literal sense, their arms weren’t relevant. It was like an innocent child that they saw. And the village wanted to save the Germans more than the gypsy kids, they wanted to save the Germans from doing more evil. That’s what they were doing, that’s what they were after.

So I wrote Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, and became converted, a different person of sorts, for a while. And then I said to myself, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You -something in your heart resents the village. Something in your heart resents the village.” They didn’t stop Hitler. They did nothing to stop Hitler. They received letters from the Nazis after the June ’40, when the Nazis took over France, they received letters, these pacifists, these nonviolent people, saying to them, “Thank you very much, you’ve been very helpful to us by not fighting, and by discouraging people from fighting.” And so the head of the village got a letter like that from Hitler, one of his lieutenants, and he never forgot it.

A thousand Le Chambons would not have stopped Hitler. It took decent murderers like me to do it. Murderers who had compunctions, but who murdered nonetheless to stop him. The cruelty that I perpetrated willingly was the only way to stop the cruel march that I and others like me were facing. How could I begin to deal with cruelty in my mind, if I had on the one hand, the idea that you can harness its power and stop, first of all, stop its march, and then harness its power by- only by force, by equalizing power, and on the other hand, by love? How could I take these two such different forces, and tum them against the cruelty that I was growing to hate, especially after my work in Chambon, that I was growing to hate, growing to hate with such an intensity that was unclouded by any doubts.

It’s got to have paradox, it’s got to have contradiction, it’s got to have conflict, or it isn’t a powerful human feeling. And the paradox, the contradiction in my life that I have lived with, while I was firing, pulling that lanyard, and every moment of my life afterwards -including the ringing in my ears that comes from sitting that close to a gun that’s a 155-millimeter howitzer, firing 100-pound shells for about 10 miles -all of these things that’s come since then is that I am a decent murderer, that I am a conscientious killer, I am somebody who would do it again if I were in similar circumstances, and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. And therefore I do not have remorse for it, I have nothing but disgust, that my whole life is a shambles because of it, because my whole life as a thinker is based on the preciousness of human life. And I violated it, and I would do it again.

Now, that labyrinth, that jungle of thought and feeling is my condition, and it’s the condition not only of Vietnam veterans who came from an unpopular war, but from all veterans who are just- have a modicum of decency. But to me, whose whole life is an ethical study of the preciousness of life, it’s an explosion, a continuing explosion in the middle of my mind.

The result was a vision, and this is where I stand now. I feel that, in line with everything that’s been said so far in our conference, that we are in the condition of cruelty, we are in the food web. We eat whatever we can eat, and whatever can eat, eats us. We are in the food web. We are killers, if only of plants, and we are killed. And yet in the food web, in the food web there is room: Spaces in the food web.

We had a hurricane in Middletown, Connecticut, a couple of years ago. We watched it uproot our favorite chestnut tree, and then all of a sudden the sky was blue overhead. Overhead there was a blue sky and little birds, even little teeny birds, were just living it up up there, just whisking back and doing all sorts of acrobatics and having a wonderful time, right there in the middle of the hurricane. Around this blue was this vast raging hurricane. But in the blue, peace, beauty and space, room.

George Santayana in one of his sonnets says, “As in the midst of battle there is room for thoughts of love.” And in the midst of that blind, agonizing, destructive force, there were those little birds. My mother, when she talked about the kids that were killed in the Holocaust, she called them little faygeleh, little birds, whirling inside the blue.

I feel now that we can push back and expand the blue, the eye, but it’s the hurricane we’re in, and don’t forget it But all of us have it, this moment, the space of blue. We have to make room for love, even the most vicious and destructive of us, perhaps especially the most vicious and destructive of us. But some people make a larger space for blue, for peace, for love, and that making of that space takes power as well as love, it takes force of will, it takes assertion, commitment.

Well, I think that morality, the only- the way I can put the relationship between ethics and morality is this. If I did not keep aware of the conflict in my mind about my being a decent killer, then I would be more immoral than I am. As long as I cushion myself from it, or keep myself from seeing the agony of life in this respect, because I deserve that agony, as long as I see that I deserve that agony -because I want my cake and eat it too, I want to believe in the preciousness of life and be a killer too -and because I feel this way, I have to pay a price morally. I have an obligation to pay a price, and the price is agony, and I pay it. But I can’t stand paying it every minute of my life, so I become a sensualist, or I become a wacko husband to live with, my poor wife doesn’t know what’s going to happen to me next when I walk down the stairs. I have a kind of an extreme existence. And then sometimes I don’t, so the times I just face myself. I’ll listen to the ringing in my ear, and I listen to the feeling that I would do it again, and then I see those heads, especially those heads, the beautiful young people.

BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] Ms. Jordan was the first black woman to serve in the Texas Senate. After six years in Congress, including a prominent role in the impeachment hearings of President Nixon, she is now teaching at the University of Texas.

BARBARA JORDAN: In the early ’60s, I ran my first campaign for public office. I en-countered in that campaign people who did not want to hear what I had to say, because they could not see past my color and my sex. And this was so prevalent in their minds that I didn’t even put my picture on billboards or cards, because I didn’t want to remind people of my sex and my blackness. To me this was a stark encounter with evil. And what did I do about it? I simply made the name Ms. Jordan the point of identity.

I wonder, Maya, given our blackness, and what we have experienced from the majority community, is our perception going to be forever clouded by the black experience, or is it possible to cut through it?

MAYA ANGELOU: I think the energies must be directed to understanding that we speak and act and live through, with the black experience. We’re always talking about the human condition, what it is like to be a human being. What makes us weep -if I was Chinese, I would weeping as a Chinese, as a human being, finally. I mean, if I were Asian or on a kibbutz in Israel or in a Palestinian concentration camp, no matter where I am I would have to speak through my own experiences. Nothing human can be alien to me. I would have to understand, speaking from my position, where I stand on this little rock, you know, with these- all these years, and my hopes dashed and dreams deferred, and the triumphs. So I would not release or relinquish one iota of my experience; I want to come through it and see myself and all human beings as my brothers and sisters -some not quite savory.

BARBARA JORDAN: I believe that I personally can move through my black experience, cut through the experience of my blackness, and find reconciliation and love. And I believe that I can do this because I think instinctively and at base, each human being has good within the individual, and I happen to believe that that good is a stronger force than the bad, evil force which exists in individuals. And that’s why I believe that the good within me can overcome whatever distortions I have suffered because of my blackness, and find that reconciliation and love.

BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] The scholar and writer Al Huang is a master of the ancient Chinese art of Taiji, and a champion of dance as the triumph of joy over suffering.

CHUNG-LIANG AL HUANG: So often we talk about opposition, dualism, black and white, love and hate, good and evil. But in Chinese language, we don’t have duality. I often hear people say, “I think, we think, you think.” It’s the word think, and that’s the mind, it’s a little mind. The big ‘M’ mind is the heart. And when you do include I feel, I sense, I live, I rage -I am. And that’s Taiji.

So I would like to show you an alternative. This is a place right beneath your belt under the navel, in Chinese we call dan tien, and this is where that power of life is. This is the place we have ji, the breath of life, when we do Taiji, we know it’s there. There is energy in evil; the same as energy in love. And this lump, this congestion, this anger, this rage, can be transformed. Ha-ha -I have life still, ha-a-a-r-r-rgh!

And when you bring that life out into somebody, that you see and you want to share this love and life, and this is real. But it’s really to come within yourself, and to find that balance, that integrity, that unity, that polarity, which transcends dualism. The right and the left, pulling, splitting sensation, but bring it together.

Now, this is the art of Taiji, that I was fortunate enough as a child in China, learn through osmosis, every morning just going out of the house, waking up with every Chinese. Put your hand in your dan tien, and say to yourself, “I am a dancer,” say it, “I am a dancer, I am a dancer.” “I am a Taiji dancer, and I’m a damn’ good one.” Ha-ha, all of you are.

May I have the music? Some of you feel like it, please join me in this open space. I have ‘joint leaders over there somewhere. Stand up, Philip. Okay, join me, you have room here, some of you have aisles, get up, and let this song help us. Just improvise with me.

Little louder, music, just slightly louder. Use the space, come use the space; Maya, come up, give her a little more room; Phil, come up. And reach for the sky, open your throats, sing with us, it’s a simple melody. .

MAN: Well, we talk too much about understanding, that’s my subject as a philosopher, and I think it’s important to understand, in order to forgive. But there is something else, too, and that’s what we learn from Al Huang and the Taiji, that there’s a centered and harmonious way of living and moving and being, that makes it possible to live with these things.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over ] Raul Hilberg left Vienna as the Nazis were taking over in 1939. After serving in the American army, he has spent his life collecting the intricate details of genocide, and is now considered the world’s leading authority on the documents of the Holocaust. His book, The Destruction of the European Jews, is read and studied around the world. He now teaches at the University of Vermont, and often serves as an expert witness for the Department of Justice.

RAUL HILBERG: It will surprise some younger people that the whole subject of what we now call Holocaust was taboo for very many years. It was not taught, it did not have a name. There was after the Second World War a series of major trials against major war criminals, and the question that was asked was how, how could such a thing have happened, meaning essentially, how could Germany, the most cultured country in the center of Europe, have engaged in such activities? But there was at that point no curiosity about the intricacies, about their real details. Indeed, one had the feeling that one had to get the war crimes trials over with. And the reason was political; Germany was going to rejoin the civilized world as an ally of the United States in its contest with the communist world.

And as you know, after 1948-1949, after NATO, came the Korean War, came the intensification of the Cold War, came Vietnam, and only after Vietnam did the Holocaust surface. And I do see a resonance between this resurgence of interest in the Holocaust, and the American people, particularly younger people, searching for something. Because Vietnam was indecisive, Vietnam was murky; in Vietnam one did not have objectives. And at that point, somebody said to me; “I envy you your war.” And I said, “Excuse me?” And he was referring to the Second World War, in which I had a minute part, he envied me my participation in the Second World War, because that was the war in which we knew what we were doing.

We’ve long known that the process of destruction was an undertaking step by step, that no one in 1933 had a clear idea of what would happen in 1936, and no one in 1936 knew about 1939, and no one even in 1939 foretold 1942. There was no blueprint, there was no central office, there was no planning in any fundamental, central way of this process. And yet it reached a point, after the Jews had been concentrated in ghettos within Polish cities, after they had been deprived of livelihoods, after their food rations were cut, when the open question was asked, “what now?”

Now, we know what happened, but there is a strange darkness amidst all the thousands and tens of thousands of materials at our disposal pertaining to the central figure, the main character, Adolf Hitler. He was, in some sense at least, a man who spoke of rationality, yes, even of reason. He said, “We must be anti-Semitic, but there are two kinds of anti-Semitism. There is the anti-semitism of feeling, of Gefuhl, which spills over into the streets. That is not the kind of anti-semitism that we want, we want one of reason. One which will develop in accordance with certain principles, that will be rational, that will accomplish something, because the anti-semitism of feelings has never accomplished anything. The Jew survived all these onslaughts, and he’s still here.”

Hitler was, is always depicted, if anything, as the most decisive man in history. Speer was once asked, “How did you know when Hitler made a decision?” It was a very important question, because as the Nazi regime developed over the years, his whole structure of decision making was changed. At first, there were laws; then there were decrees implementing laws; then, a law was made saying there shall be no laws. Then there were orders and directives that were written down, but still published in ministerial gazettes. Then there was government by announcement, orders appeared in newspapers. Then there were the quiet orders, the orders that were not published, that were within the bureaucracy, that were oral. And finally, there were no orders at all. Everybody knew what he had to do.

But in such a situation, what is Hitler, and what is an order by Hitler? If he says, “Ah, I think we ought to do something,” is that an order? And so Speer was asked the question, “How did you know?” He said, “That depended on his tone of voice. Oh, when he was very angry, we all assumed this was nothing. But when he spoke quietly and in a low tone, then we knew that a decision had been made.” So it is, this enormous implication, who did it?

I’ve always believed it was a vast bureaucracy. One cannot destroy a people; it’s not possible without employing all the institutions that a society has. The uprooting process alone required the specializations, the expertise, of bureaucrats at all walks of life. Of course, the Nazi party had its little domains, but that is not to say that the destruction of the Jews was the work of pure Nazis, party members, initiators of Nazi party doctrines.

But who were these initiators, these innovators, these bureaucrats? They were very well-educated. Let me give just three groups: the lawyers, the soldiers, and the physicians. The lawyers were everywhere, and they had to be, because the process of destruction had to begin with ultra-complex, I’m inclined to say surgical maneuverings, to make certain that while the Jews were destroyed, the German population was protected. What, for example, do you do with a half-Jew? What do you do with a mixed marriage? What do you do with a contract between a Jew and a non-Jew, or a Jewish corporation and a non-Jewish corporation? How do you define the term, Jewish corporation? And who do you supposed solved these problems? The lawyers, always. Oh, yes, it was a legal proceeding.

The military: no, the military were not charged with or even trusted with the destruction of the Jews. That was somebody else’s work. However, they governed many countries -Norway, Belgium, France, Serbia, Greece. They were backup for concentration camp security, they were giving logistic support to murder units operating inside their framework in occupied Russia. Oh, they were heavily involved, and it was a war in that sense against Jewry.

And the doctors? The ghetto was conceived of as a quarantine, to prevent epidemics. Of course, the first killing operation, it must never be forgotten, was directed against the institutionalized Germans, those with so-called mental illnesses, of whom there were 300,000. Eighty thousand were gassed. The children, by the way, were not gassed; they were starved. I speak of German children, now. But the same process, the same personnel, the same techniques were used to gas the Jews. Thus, for example, the first commander of the Treblinka death camp was a psychiatrist.

Oh, yes, who did it? The professionals. Did they know what they were doing? Of course. They thought about it. Himmler, a man born in 1900, he commanded the SS police. He had seen no action in World War I, it was too late, he was born in 1900, and none of course in 1939 either, because by then he was high-ranking. And so he came once to a shooting operation, to see what it was like, and these were the first dead bodies he had ever seen. And he was very taken, and he said he wouldn’t even like it if German men did such things gladly. And again and again he made speeches, and finally in 1943 he made one to his SS generals, it’s that famous one, in which he said, “You all know what it is like when 50 bodies lie there or 100 or 500. To be able to have done this and to remain decent, that has made us great.”

There is something in an event like this which clearly indicates that ordinary people did extraordinary things, and that normal procedures were used for abnormal ends. This is one of the characteristics of this whole process. But it would be a great mistake to label these particular individuals as banal characters, for that they were not. They were or became specialists in destruction. It took a certain insight, even genius, to do that.

1st MAN: You had said something to the introduction of Professor Hilberg’s speech or presentation, where he said, “Where was god?” Now, I certainly lack the experience in World War II that you and others in this conference have had, but it’s kind of my hobby and reading, and I’ve become more and more frightened by a different question: where was I? Had I been in Germany at that time, I am very frightened in my own heart, that I would have been in there, in the Hitler Jungen, that the panoply of waving flags and the blaring of bugles and the Sieg Heils would have captured my heart and my mind, and the evil that’s within me would have said, “Oh, God, let me in there, let me do my thing.” Has anybody else at this conference, in this group, ever felt this horrifying feeling, that I would have been there, had I been there?

2nd MAN: We didn’t use the term, but it’s mob psychology. It’s rather hard to resist that. I think I might have been a member of the German youth movement if I had been there and been caught up in it, because there’s evil in all of us. And we’ve had lynchings in this country, and I’ve never been in a lynch mob, but if there was a lynch mob started up, I may have joined it. Who knows?

1st MAN: But you’re a judge.

2nd MAN: I’m a judge, I’m a judge, and we’re supposed to be discerning and judgmental, but we can be caught up. And I think mob psychology is a terrible thing, frightening thing.

MAYA ANGELOU: Now, that spirit, where the victim and the victimizer come together, is it possible, then, that in that joining, that one eradicates evil, suppresses evil itself, is there? What I seem to see in that is hope, and probably the only way in which evil can be suppressed. Am I right?

RAUL HILBERG: A person who has suffered may, I suppose, forgive his tormentor, and that is, in some existential way, even easy. But how does one forgive the killing of millions of people? On whose authority do I forgive? I have not been elected to do that. There is no Jew anywhere who feels that he could. There is an admonition, and it’s called silence.

Despair is not something that I have experienced in my bones. I read the work of the late Primo Levi, the Italian survivor, who said he did not despair while he was an inmate at Auschwitz, but afterwards he did. And he committed suicide. I, on the contrary, not having been an inmate in Auschwitz, have not despaired, for I always remember the words of Sigmund Freud, which he delivered in the medical school in 1915 in Vienna, when he said, “Do not despair over what you see now, a first-” only in those days they didn’t say first – “a world war, for mankind has not risen as highly, and therefore it has not fallen so much.” And this word from Freud has dominated my thinking. And so not only don’t I commit suicide, but I say to myself, “Oh, my, how many years are left now to do this research?” For I say, 40 years is not a long time.

BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] Dr. Samuel Proctor is pastor emeritus of the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He is a theologian, teacher, a former associate director of the Peace Corps, and one of the country’s most accomplished preachers.

Dr. SAMUEL PROCTOR: You know how I found out about the death of Martin Luther King? I was coming into Dallas on that April day, way back in 1968, to take part in a conference that we were having on how to strengthen the faculties of the black colleges. We had several black colleges around Dallas, around there in that general neighborhood, and there I was coming with my briefcase, I got out and went out there by the airport, looking for a taxi. And they pointed me to a taxi, there was a black fellow was in charge: “B-r-r-r, you want a cab? Here’s a cab.”

I looked, and there was this scrawny, thin white fellow, hair stringing down his back, tattoos crawling up his arm, had a little dirty, juicy brown cigarette butt, blackheads all over his face, he looked so grimy and ill-kempt. I started to say, “Sam, you don’t need to get a cab like that, do you?” And there I was standing in my pressed-up blue pinstripe suit and my button-down shirt, and I almost waved him along, joining in in the whole business of perpetuating this prejudice and all of that. I started to say, “Go ahead, fellow,” but the Lord wouldn’t let me do it “Sam, don’t do it, don’t join in that. Get in the cab.”

I got in the cab. I didn’t know King had been shot. I got in the cab, he was so quiet, “Where you going?” “Going to the Sheraton downtown,” I says. He went on, and as he was turning out of that airport, takes a lot to get out of that airport, and finally he said, “Mister, must be you don’t know what done happened today.” He could hardly talk this language. I said, “What’d you say?” Said, “Must be you don’t know what done happened today.” “What happened?” I said. I thought first this was some dirty kind of a racial thing he was going to pull off on me, the stereotype was there. And he trembled, he shook, I looked in the mirror, his head was hung down over the steering wheel, and in a cracked voice, this fellow whom I’d already learned to discount in the world, he said, ”Somebody killed Martin Luther King today.”

That’s how I found it out, from the person I least expected to be broken up in tears about it, the person I least expected who’d want to tell it to me, he looked so poor and so out of it. He’s the one who said that to me. Why is it that my information about human beings did not allow me to be open to that possibility? We don’t know enough about the ingredients of community yet, and we need to spend an awful lot of time laboring on that. There’s an awful lot of evil we’re let-ting slide right in, because we’ve not given enough attention to this.

When I went to Crozer Seminary, had a nice scholarship, a lot of encouragement, first day I was there, sitting in the chapel with my blue suit on, I was looking all nice, scrubbed all up, fingernails clean, ready to go to work. I was the only colored boy there -see, we were colored then, I’m so old, I’ve been everything. But we were colored at about that time. Went in the chapel because they were passing out jobs; the war was on and all civilians had to have some kind of a job to help the war effort. But the seminary students had a deferment to study for the naval chaplaincy, so we were there to go to school, but you had to do some kind of work to help the seminary get along. So I signed up, I told them I could type, I could do this, that and the other, and I sat there. And a Ph.D. in church history from the University of Chicago on the faculty was the chairman of the student employment committee -never forget it as long as I live.

He stood there and read off all the job assignments, and I was still sitting there. Everybody had left the chapel, then he said, “Mr. Proctor, would you step here a moment?” He said to me, smiling, as if I were to be complimented, he said, “Mrs. Marts wants to see you in the kitchen.” I got up, walked down, I must have grown a thousand years between that chapel and Mrs. Marts, but at the top of the steps, as I was about to say “I’m going back to Virginia, I’m not going to stay in Pennsylvania’ and be insulted like this. Of all the things for him to think of doing, he wanted to perpetuate the whole thing and assign me to the kitchen and I’m not going to do it” But then, strangely, somehow a voice said to me, “Sam, be bigger than that. Go on down there and wash the dishes, scrub the pots and pans, convince them that they can’t diminish you one whit by sending you to the kitchen. Go down there and scrub the kitchen better than anybody ever scrubbed it before, and let God take care of the residue. All the equation will work out somehow, go on and do it.”

Went down there and this lady came to me and hugged me, she said, “Did they send you here?” She could hardly talk, she was a Hungarian refugee cook there at the seminary. I said, “Yes, ma’am.” You know, she took that dirty apron, put it up to her face and cried. She said, “Why did they send you here?” She said, “They won’t let but one colored boy in the school at a time, and they always want him to work down here.” She said, “They are professors and ministers and theologians, and that’s the way they think.” She said, “They do the same way they do downtown.” I said, “Would you mind if l stayed down here with you?” She said, “Would you stay?” I said, “You bet I’m going to stay. I’m going to stay; something tells me I’m going to learn more about Jesus down here with you, than I’m going to learn upstairs with them.”

Now, talking about the ingredients of community, do you know that later on, I went downtown and got a haircut in the same two-three day span. Got me a nice haircut in the colored neighborhood downtown in Chester, Pennsylvania, came walking back to the campus, and all of the fellows were standing out in front, all white boys from Southern Baptist institutions -Wake Forest, Mercer, University of Richmond, right down the line. They wanted to be trained in a liberal seminary, but they didn’t want to go too far, so they crossed the Mason-Dixon line to Chester and that’s far as they wanted to get. But there are all of my classmates -came from Duke and Emery and all down the line. You have to understand, I’m the only black boy there. Martin Luther King came eight years later, I was the only one there, walking up there, a total stranger, first year student, they were all standing on the big- right, the big columns watching me.

And one stepped out in front, great, big fellow, freckle-faced, red-headed fellow. He said, “Where you been, Sam?” I said, “I been downtown.” “For what?” “To get a haircut” He looked right down and he was huge, and he said, “Where’d you get the haircut?” “At a barber shop down in the colored neighborhood down in Chester.” He looked at me, and they all heard as he was doing this for his audience. He says, “I want to tell you something. I’m the barber on this campus. I cut everybody’s hair, the president’s hair and the janitor’s hair and everybody’s hair. And I’m going to cut your hair, too, as long as you’re here.” He said, “If I catch you with another haircut from downtown, I’m going to beat your mm-mm, mm-mm, mm-mm.” It wasn’t seminary language, either. And I said, “Oh, what, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to do.” This red-headed white boy from down there in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, right down the road from Raleigh, you’re going to be my barber here, and I just left Virginia? I had to go upstairs and get myself together.

And I looked at my mirror and had one of those frequent and long conversations, “Sam, you going to let that guy cut your hair?” I said, “Yeah, but I’m not going to let him shave me, though.” I had the biggest decision to make, and then came the word, “Sam, you don’t know what’s happening in his mind, you don’t know how ready he is for a brand-new experience. If he says he wants to cut your hair and says it in front of everybody, go on in the room and have him cut your hair. Have him cut your hair.” And for three years we became the best of friends, are friends today.

How do we know where these openings are for community? We’re so bogged down in tradition, so bogged down in the traditional ways of doing things, we don’t know what’s buried in the human spirit, or how much capacity there is for change. We don’t know how much evil we are putting up with that we don’t have to put up with at all.

I found out that creative love disarms people who are mean and violent. When I say creative love, I don’t mean just being a coward, I mean doing those things in relationship with them that they just don’t know how to handle, they don’t know what to do about it. Because when they expect you to respond in violent ways and you don’t, they don’t know what the next step ought to be. And I’ve had this kind of encounter over and over and over again in my life, and I have practiced it and I find it to be a much preferred method for me than all of the other alternatives that I might have tried.

My daddy lived in the midst of all of that ugly stuff down there in Virginia, but I remember how he belonged to the Philharmonic Glee Club. Daddy would come home from driving that truck at the Navy Yard, and put on that stiff bosomed suit, and he looked like he was so happy to break back the collar, patent leather shoes, we would press his pants, and on 60 black men, coal trimmers and truck drivers, table waiters, all of these kinds of fellows out there singing for the white population in the middle of the 1930s. One concert a year, practicing every Wednesday night, but it was down to perfection. They came marching out there singing -we had to sit on the back row, because we were black, and the back row had benches without the backs on them, and that was our punishment for showing up. You sit on the row…. But there we had our little tickets, only a handful of black folk were allowed to come. “Daddy, why do you all want to sing for the white folks?” “They need the experience of having us stand there and sing this music, and we’re going to keep on singing to them till times change down here.” It’s son of a silent kind of a continuing testimony to the fact that they were totally human and they were not going to succumb and not going to have their hearts eaten out with evil. There where my daddy was, standing in this same tradition, trying to make all things work together for good.

And you know the last song they sang every night at that concert? I’ve never seen it writ-ten, I’ve never heard anybody else sing it, and I haven’t heard them sing it for 50 years, but the words will never leave me. There I was, a little fat-faced boy with my legs just swinging, they weren’t even long enough to touch to the floor. And I could hear my daddy’s golden tenor rising up on the end, they were singing, ”Dawn is breaking and a new day is born, the world is singing the song of the dawn. Yesterday the skies were gray, but look, this morning they are blue. The smiling sun tells everyone, come, let’s start life anew. Let’s all sing, Hallelujah! for a new day is born, the world is singing the song of the dawn.” My daddy died before he ever saw that new day really being born, but he lived with the hope and with the faith that that new day would be possible. Thank you very kindly.

MAN: The celebration of life, the celebration of joy, is the only thing finally that’s going to be healing. Understanding is- gets us to a point where we can come together, but without that point of celebration, in the arts, with Maya’s language and particularly the dancing, where you simply can unload, where you can feel the power and feel it spread among the group.

MAN: I do believe that an evil that you can’t forgive lives on as an evil in your own head, and affects yourself and people around you. You know, I’ve been to Vietnam, I’d seen- I saw, you know, the pieces of children hanging from a tree. I thought I’d seen all the evil that I could see, and nothing would- nothing would hon. But there was a lot of hurt in this conference, and I was surprised- I surprised myself that way. But there was also- there were moments of tremendous hope.

MAYA ANGELOU: I take away with me in a fierce determination, some humor, and that is that all these bright minds and sincere energies came together to talk about evil, and we ended up with hope. That’s too wonderful. God bless you, oh, thank you. Thank you for your survival, for you helped us all to survive.

RAUL HILBERG: Americans by nature must be optimistic. Americans are always hopeful, and why? Because they’re a bunch of people who, aside from the blacks, crossed an ocean to start a brand-new life, and that’s the basic tradition. Ah, for heaven’s sake, if one were not hopeful, if one didn’t have the guts to climb on a ship, to sail into the unknown and to begin a new life, well, now, that wouldn’t be America, would it? But America consists of such people and their descendants, and what’s left is this, shall I call it desperate holding on?

“Now, what lessons could we draw from evil? What hope could we obtain from evil? What good will come out of it? Yes, evil we must have, it is useful, it is necessary, for without it we cannot have the good, it is the source of the good, we learn from it.” And so of course our speakers at this conference, even the academics among them, at times sounded like preachers.

Always lessons, always hope. Don’t leave us as Freud did, with a negative message, but what else do you expect in America -and Texas, which is America multiplied.

BILL MOYERS: When I was growing up here in Texas, I almost never heard evil discussed, except in theological terms. It wasn’t a popular subject. People did bad things to people; near where this conference met, human beings were once bought and sold as slaves. But evil was the work of the devil, and there wasn’t much mortals could do about it, except wait for grace. Listening to this conference, it’s still obvious we don’t have a common vocabulary to define evil, or a shared strategy for coping with it.

The history of our times suggests to me that evil begins with absolutes; just think of all that’s been done by absolute power in the service of absolute truth, often in the name of an absolute god. But in small ways as well as large, it’s not been hard in this century to bring out the worst in human beings. To catch the devil in the act, we often would have had to spring the trap on ourselves. “In every culture,” the psychologist William James says, “the normal process of life contains moments when radical evil gets its inning and takes its solid turn. Yet we almost never identify those moments until after the fact, too late to arrest the instinct for aggression and self-destruction.” That we usually fail to see and act in time is as puzzling to me as the persistence of evil itself. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on April 14, 2015.

  • submit to reddit