New Year, New Ideas: Andrew Zolli on Futurism and Susan Neiman on the Idea of Evil

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At the onset of a New Year, many may be wondering: what lies in the days ahead? David Brancaccio talks to Andrew Zolli, who, at POPULAR SCIENCE magazine, Zolli holds the title Futurist in Residence. Then, how do we recognize the face of evil? As the terrorists struck on 9/11, philosopher and author Susan Neiman was putting the finishing touches on her book, EVIL IN MODERN THOUGHT: AN ALTERNATIVE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY. Bill Moyers speaks with Neiman about how people and societies deal with present and past atrocities. And in an essay, Moyers offers his own views on coming to terms with evil.




MOYERS: Welcome to NOW, and happy New Year. Our month of January derives its name from Janus, the Roman god of doorways and beginnings. Janus could look forward and backward simultaneously, something we mortals can’t do unless there are two of us.

So in this broadcast, my partner David Brancaccio — very much a man of the future — will look ahead, peering into the crystal ball for some ideas about the shape of things to come.

I turn 70 this year, a time for reflection on some of the big questions still unanswered after a long life’s passion of asking people what’s on their mind. We begin with the future.

BRANCACCIO: Well, my impulse for us to talk to our first guest was prompted by a headline I saw recently. It read: “Back to the Moon: Prez to Launch New Mission.” This wasn’t on a yellowed edition from the archives; it was a headline displayed on fresh, hot-from-the-presses newsprint.

Now let me tell you, I used to be Mr. Space. I was nine when Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind, and I ate up every detail of the mission.

Did you know the five F-1 engines of the Saturn rocket that got him there developed seven and a half million pounds of thrust? Did you know the command module pilot, Michael Collins, was born in Italy? I could go on.

It wasn’t just that I was a “science geek.” It was the infinite possibilities of exploring outer space that I, and many other Americans, found inspiring. It was the Vision, with a capital “V.”

I stored it in my imagination alongside other positive visions of the future that coursed through the culture in my early years. The robots that would take over the household chores. The monorails that would glide us to work. The better-living-through-chemistry technology to heal the sick and feed the world, with its residents guided to peaceful ends by the United Nations.

Then there are the more recent utopias: the Internet prompting the death of distance and the promise of connectedness. Globalization of merchandise, labor, capital, and ideas, raising all boats.

Okay, so none of these have worked out exactly as planned. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need them.

So here we are going into 2004 — an election year in the United States — and what are we presented with as a common, inspirational vision of the future? The limp prospect of another trip to the moon, it seems. Even the Bush administration had backed off the moon talk by year’s end, possibly under the weight of the growing federal budget deficit.

Looking for more of what the older George Bush once called “the vision-thing,” I phoned the one futurist in my rolodex, Andrew Zolli, to ask if he had come across any visionary thinking lately. “What?” he responded, “A perpetual war on terrorism and lower taxes aren’t enough for you?”

Andrew Zolli’s edited a volume, out in 2002, called CATALOG OF TOMORROW. He advises companies about branding, as well as cultural and technological trends. At the magazine POPULAR SCIENCE, he has the strange and wonderful title of Contributing Futurist.

Fresh from an annual conference about the impact of technology on people that he organizes, Zolli proposed to me a national conversation about a new vision for the future. That’s something I wanted to know more about.

Andrew, thank you very much for joining us on NOW.

ZOLLI: Great to be here, David, thank you.

BRANCACCIO: What are the specifics? What kind of national conversation about the future should we be having?

ZOLLI: Well, you know, our national image of the future, which really got going in the Second World War, and held sway over our collective imaginations for most of the second half of the 20th century, had an expiration date on it. When we were looking at the mid-century mark 50 years ago, we cast our eyes forward to the end of the millennium, to the beginning of the new century. And now that we’ve come to that place as a society, I think we’re in a position where we don’t have a dominant image of the future.

The time is absolutely ripe for a conversation about how we will embrace, resist, control, or be subject to important new technologies that are happening, and that are coming at a rate that will shock the average citizen.

BRANCACCIO: Well, you spend a lot of time thinking about those—

ZOLLI: That’s right.

BRANCACCIO: —new technologies. What is an impending tradeoff we would have to make?

ZOLLI: Well you know, one of the things that’s coming is that we’re gonna see a biotech revolution. Biotechnology is going to be as important to the next 50 years as information technology has been to the last 50.

Unfortunately, when we start talking about working with life as if it were code, as if it were computer code, we run headlong into ancient and well-intended and well-reasoned ethical— as you’ll— ethical principles in our society.

But the collision of our traditional ethical systems and our new science is not something that can be easily avoided. And it’s going to define a major conversation about the future in our society.

Now the problem is that we can’t avoid the implications of those technologies. Cloning will come back to our shores. And we will have to deal with it.

Another great example of the kinds of technology tradeoffs is the advent of something called pharming. Now that’s pharming with a PH, not an F.


ZOLLI: Now pharming, what we can do is let’s say, God forbid, you were to get cancer. We can take a small portion of your DNA that’s responsible for producing an anti-tumorous protein, producing a chemical in your body that naturally fights the tumor.

BRANCACCIO: Someday, not now.

ZOLLI: Some, well actually, today we can do—


ZOLLI: —the prototypes of this today. We can take that, we can cross-breed some of your genetic information with cornstalks. Plant an acre of corn that produces a chemical which will heal your tumor — David Brancaccio’s tumor, and your tumor alone.

Now that’s an incredible promise. If for one acre of land can produce a year’s worth of this drug.

BRANCACCIO: For me it’s an incredible premise.

ZOLLI: For you. But of course the danger is, when you put genes into the wild, they have unpredictable results. The road to the future is paved with unintended consequences.

And so, it’s unclear whether or not that’s a tradeoff that we should be willing to make. It’s unclear whether or not the cure for cancer should come at the cost of a potential danger for our food supply.

And our ethical systems were never designed to address these kinds of problems. And we’re going to have to deal with them. And the only way we’re gonna deal with them is at the societal level.

BRANCACCIO: We can’t leave this to the scientists or the politicians?

ZOLLI: Well, I think the danger is you do leave them to the scientists and the politicians. And people will get precisely what you would expect out of that. They’ll get people doing things sometimes because they can.

I’m not here— there’s no critique of science involved in this. Scientists in general, tend to be incredibly aware of the ethical implications of their work. And they want a participating, and involved, and invigorated conversation around their work. It’s just that they can’t get one today because in most cases, the science is too remote from people’s lives.

BRANCACCIO: Are you in favor of a brave new future involving human cloning?

ZOLLI: I’m in favor of— I think you have to make a distinction here. There’s two kinds of cloning. There’s therapeutic cloning, and there’s reproductive cloning. Now it’s clear that both kinds of cloning have benefit to humanity.

And here’s what I mean by that. If you were in an industrial accident and lost your hand, it would be incredibly valuable to be able to genetically engineer some cells at your wrist to your wrist essentially grow a new hand. There are plenty of animals in the animal kingdom that know how to reproduce.


ZOLLI: Right? That’s an incredibly valuable thing. And all — today, already, a good example of this is at Harvard University, at a Harvard-affiliated research center up in Cambridge, there are people working on the future of dentistry which will involve you simply growing new teeth when your existing ones get cavities, or break, or you otherwise need a root canal.

Now that’s a future I think everyone could say, “That’s terrific. We’d love to have that capability.” I think therap— reproductive cloning, which is simply, “I’d like a delayed twin, I’d like Mini Me, basically walking around” is something that causes so much uneasiness that I don’t think there’s any reason to go near it.

But that’s okay, because there’s huge amounts of value in the therapeutic cloning area, rather than the reproductive area. I do think, though that eventually we’re going to see all kinds of technological changes. We’re gonna be confronted with changes.

And perhaps the best one about the future, the one that I’m really the most intrigued by, is with the dramatic enhancement of the human lifespan.

There’s a researcher at Cambridge University, a guy named Aubrey de Grey, who has articulated what he thinks are the seven or eight primary causes of aging at the cellular level. And he thinks that by mid-century, we could quintuple, right, by the end of the century, perhaps even increase by tenfold the human lifespan.

BRANCACCIO: I’m already terrified by that notion.


BRANCACCIO: I mean what are we gonna do with — what role for children, if —

ZOLLI: What —

BRANCACCIO: —in fact, everybody’s 190 years old?

ZOLLI: That’s right. And in fact, the really interesting questions, questions you can’t even imagine coming out of this particular conversation. For example, you live to be 190 years old, but your kids live to be 500 years old. Which means they’re in adolescence for almost all of your lifespan.

Now I can imagine there are plenty of parents who are worried about that. And it’s a future without children. It’s a future largely driven, where the control of reproduction has to be very carefully measured. It’s a system we use very much like China’s, where you have one, basically, one shot at reproduction.

BRANCACCIO: But imagine the choices that this kind of future presents to us. How does the political process fit into this? You’re not gonna have any politician talking about that. It’s gotta be completely radioactive, as an issue.

ZOLLI: No question about it. But one of the reasons for this is that our political system, almost by design, has a kind of now-opia. It has a focus on the moment. It’s really not surprising. Because we live in a society in which innovation and consumption are so tightly tied together in our consumer economy, that politics becomes another thing that we consume. And so politicians are constantly looking not at a long-term future, but they’re looking at relatively short-term futures.

BRANCACCIO: You have a really nifty business card that says, “Futurist.” But you also consult with organizations, companies of all sorts, about how people understand these organizations. How people take on to their own, what, identities? Companies?

ZOLLI: That’s right. I got my training actually looking at how modern corporations build their public identities. And build their internal identities. The important point about the shift that’s happening today and the— is that the relationship between companies and culture has become a defining one, in our society.

Today, the politics of Nike, Disney, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, in some sense, matter more to people than they do— than the Democrats and Republicans, and the Independents and the Greens.

I was actually out in Muncie, Indiana. Where there was a guy being buried in a Harley-Davidson branded casket. He’d actually decided to spend eternity living in a brand. Right? He decided to get buried next to his motorcycle, which his wife told me during the service, or actually just afterwards, that she was delighted that he’d done that, so at least she’d be, you know, rid of the damn bike.

But the funny thing is that people are making decisions about brands, in which they are cherished cradle-to-grave companions.

BRANCACCIO: This is horrible. I mean, people I talk to tend to hate brands. With the possible exception of the PBS brand. But in general —

ZOLLI: Sure.

BRANCACCIO: Starbucks. McDonald’s. Often subject of criticism.

ZOLLI: Absolutely. It’s certainly true that there are people in our society that look at the impact of brands and consumerism, and say, “This is a terrible thing. This is awful. People are deciding to marry and build their personality identities out of logos. Instead of out of these other more meaningful kinds of decisions.”

They’re building their identities out of consumptions, the things they buy, not things the believe. However, if you go to rural contexts in this country, the coming of a Krispy Kreme Donut, and a Starbucks, is a big deal. And sometimes it’s a very positive deal. It represents economic validation of a community.

Now, it’s also true that the coming of Wal-Mart strikes fear and terror into the economic base. But if you take the Wal-Mart effect out, the fact is that there are people in our society who want to throw bricks through Starbucks windows, and say, “I want my brain back.” And there are people who are getting married by putting their hands on the iMac owner’s manual. Right? And somewhere in between is where everybody else finds themselves.

BRANCACCIO: Sometimes it’s the same person, who sits in a Starbucks —

ZOLLI: That’s right. That’s exactly right.

BRANCACCIO: — complaining about Starbucks.

ZOLLI: That’s right. In fact, for a book that I’ve been working on that’ll be coming out next year, there’s — we went out, and we interviewed 400 people about their attitudes about these kinds of companies. So, we asked 100 urbanites, 100 suburbanites, 100 semi-rural people, and 100 rural people, sort of at random. Just man on the street: “What do you think of this company?” And one of the fascinating things is, if you go to Berkeley. If you go to Cambridge, if you go to Brooklyn, and you go to those haunts of bohemia, and go into the Starbucks and ask people what they think of Starbucks, they’ll tell you they can’t stand it. It’s destroying the neighborhood. And this is while they’re wiping the Frappuccino foam from their upper lip.

BRANCACCIO: But how does the branding of us affect our own identities?

ZOLLI: If we create meaning out of the market, for the people who hold passionate beliefs about their Powerbook, and they hold more passionate beliefs about their Apple Powerbook than about their democratic representatives in Congress.

I think increasingly, companies can also be seen as shepherds of human meaning. That you have to think about companies. If you’re Nike or Starbucks or Disney or McDonald’s or Coca-Cola, you’re not in the culture. You are the culture.

And companies today really aren’t structured around being cultural institutions, about being responsive, and shared. You know, a great example of this is when AOL-Time Warner bought the rights to make a Harry Potter movie. The very first one they made, a few years ago.

One of the first things they did allegedly, was to go out and send threatening letters to parents of nine-year-old kids who had built Harry Potter Web sites. Because they didn’t want to dilute the value of the brand that they’d just purchased.

BRANCACCIO: And you as the brand expert think that’s not a great strategy.

ZOLLI: That’s not a great idea. But, one of the reasons that it’s not a great idea, is because the Harry Potter brand is cultural property. It’s not merely intellectual property to be protected.

It’s a vital part of our cultural conversation. It’s an important thing. And so, I think that there’s something really important, when a major corporation like that can’t make a distinction between real piracy — people taking a DVD of the movie, and burning 6000 copies, and selling it on the streets of lower Manhattan — and nine-year-old kids participating in a lifestyle.

And I think that increasingly, these kinds of issues are gonna come to the fore.

BRANCACCIO: And you’d advise a company in that situation to do what instead?

ZOLLI: Back way off. Understand that ownership of the brand is co-ownership of the brand. There’s no way you can avoid that. There’s no way in the end, that you can ignore the people who are your customers. And you have to treat them like more than customers. You have to treat them like constituents. And I think that’s where we’re headed.

BRANCACCIO: I’m still trying to get over a couple things here. You made this point that people know more about their Apple computer or the brand of the car they drive than perhaps their elected official in your view?

ZOLLI: Oh, absolutely. In fact, most people can name — you know they’ll name the President. They might name one of their two senators. And then it’s mushy right down to the person they met on the street corner.

BRANCACCIO: So politics needs some branding consultations here. What would you advise?

ZOLLI: That’s a great question. I’m not sure that the current system is something that I’d wanna put much of a brand on.

BRANCACCIO: For example, I can imagine someone wearing a “Greens ” t-shirt.

ZOLLI: Uh-huh.

BRANCACCIO: Maybe a GOP baseball cap. But a Democrat t-shirt? Seems unlikely.

ZOLLI: That’s true. But you’re — you can find just such t-shirts. But they’re not called Democrat t-shirts. For example, the Dean campaign is being funneled by people meeting in the on-line context, and then going to a Web site called “” And lets those on-line communities meet at their local bar and have what amounts to a local organizing meeting.

Now if you walk around the streets of lower Manhattan, you’ll see meetup t-shirts all over the place. And that’s a signal, more than anything else, of where in the political spectrum that person stands.

BRANCACCIO: Here’s what I don’t understand, though. Politics has long used the lessons of corporations and Madison Avenue in marketing their candidates. Around election time TV and radio are full of advertisements. Yet still not enough of us are engaged to the point that we actually would vote.

ZOLLI: Increasingly that’s because politics is a spectator sport. It’s something we watch. I mean on this show recently, I saw you had Jon Stewart, who is a manifestation of the political consumer, the person —

BRANCACCIO: Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s —

ZOLLI: Of Comedy Central —

BRANCACCIO: — Daily Show —

ZOLLI: Daily Show — who’s fantastic —

BRANCACCIO: —does a satirical newscast and other kind of commentary. But why is it a manifestation of this?

ZOLLI: Well, because I think increasingly there’s a large mushy middle of people for whom politics is increasingly remote. It’s driven increasingly by incumbents’ conversations with their own fringes on the left and the right. But, and not talking to people, ordinary citizens, about issues that to matter them. And so as a result, their machinations become the punch line for jokes. Because the only way to participate is sit in the corner and ask “Who are these people?” Right? “What is going on here? This has no bearing on my reality whatsoever.” And so you know you see comedians like Jon Stewart doing phenomenally well, representing what you might call the kind of silent majority of the 21st Century, which are people who are just thoroughly disengaged, and look at it merely as sort of talking heads on television.

BRANCACCIO: But this is the classic problem that a corporation would pose to you, which is people view politics like a spectator. Or — and a corporation might say to you, “People just look at our commercials as if they were spectators. It’s not part of their — we’re not part of their meaning.”

ZOLLI: There’s no coherent philosophy on either side anymore. I mean it — I will give the Republican party the significant edge here. They clearly know how to repeat on message all the time.

BRANCACCIO: These people are great at branding, actually.

ZOLLI: Oh, phenomenal.

BRANCACCIO: I mean the party of lower taxes, of smaller government, of tough national security.

ZOLLI: And you can’t say the three bullet points that stand for the Democratic platform like you just did for the Republicans, ’cause no one knows what it is today.

It comes right back to what we discussed at the beginning of this conversation, which is a coherent vision for the future, a vision for the future of the country, a vision for the future of our societies, and a role for the global government.

BRANCACCIO: But it’s that very vision that we started with, your call for this national conversation.

ZOLLI: That’s right.

BRANCACCIO: About what, our own identity? What is that conversation again?

ZOLLI: Well, you know I think we can start with a couple of things. We can start with what is the vision for the American society internally and externally for the next 50 years? I wish I could give you the answer. I wish I could tell you, “Here’s the vision.”

But the fact is, it’s only a by-product of a national conversation, which we really all need to have across the institutional boundaries, across the political divides.

BRANCACCIO: And 2004 is a great place to start with an election year.

ZOLLI: It is. In fact, it’s a profoundly important place to start.

BRANCACCIO: Well Andrew, proof that the future is now. Thank you very much for joining us on NOW.

ZOLLI: Thanks very much, David.

BRANCACCIO: Before we box it up and send it to the archive, here’s a short piece of a NOW interview that suggests how we might approach the year ahead.

It’s part of a conversation with Ossie Davis, playwright, screenwriter, producer, director, actor, and pioneering social activist.

MOYERS: What’s the moral assignment now?

DAVIS: Well, I don’t know.

And I suspect a lot of us don’t know, but it’s up to us to recognize that there is one and that we need access to it, and we need to align all our small objectives, in line with the moral assignment of the times and of the age.

There is a saying in the book, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Right now, we are sort of short on the vision thing, as some politicians have mentioned.

MOYERS: Some of my audience is young enough to know what the book is.

DAVIS: The book is the Bible. A lot of us depended on that, Bill. There are those of us committed to destiny or biology or whatever, to concern ourselves with the moral assignment.

We communicators, we storytellers, we poets, we artists, what is our function really but to remind ourselves that in the human endeavor, our humanity is never complete unless it has a strong moral component.

And we cannot afford to be too small in our objectives because what is required even to survive is that we take the larger view of ourselves and our possibilities.

And somebody has got to say that, somebody’s got to ring that bell, somebody’s got to write that poem, sing that song, dance that dance that says to us all, “Rise, you’re larger than that. It’s up to you to define the final meaning of America.” We’re not there yet, but we’re on the way.

ANNOUNCER: Once again, Bill Moyers.

MOYERS: As Ossie Davis said, we have to make moral sense of the world around us, and that means coming to terms with the presence of evil.

From the beginning, human beings have wrestled with that puzzle. Religious belief itself faced an immutable dilemma: how could a good and omnipotent God allow evil to happen?

Sacred texts tried to answer. In the Genesis story of creation, God pronounces good all that God has made. But one chapter later, God plants in the Garden of Eden the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This, theologians said, is the way evil begins, with knowledge and freedom, in the power of human beings to disobey God’s will. St. Ambrose wrote, “There is nothing evil save that which perverts the mind and shackles the conscience.” St. Augustine, in his magisterial city of God, was even more precise: “He that is good is free, though he be a slave; he that is evil is a slave, though he be a king.”

Evil and suffering came to be seen by the church as punishment for sin — only when mortals repented and turned to God would the calamities of life make sense. “When men or devils cause — suffering,” said the reformer Martin Luther, “It is only through faith and hope, not reason or proof, that evil can be understood.”

Enlightenment philosophers went beyond theology. Human beings are not fallen, said Rousseau; they are inherently good. If you want to see where evil begins, he counseled, look to social organizations that bend the twig of human nature in the wrong way, or crush it altogether. Fix society, and you fix the problem. Kant, Schopenhauer, Voltaire, Hume, Hegel, Marx all took their run at the puzzle of evil, but never solved it.

In modern times the question has been less philosophical than practical and political. We have been left breathless and speechless by mass murder in the name of utopian visions backed by state power. We no longer have to define evil to recognize it. From the gulags of Stalin and the extermination camps of Nazi Germany to the killing fields of Cambodia, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, slaughter in Rwanda, no other word but evil could describe horror on such a scale.

The writer Hannah Arendt looked at Hitler’s henchman Adolf Eichmann on trial in Israel and wrote of the “banality of evil.” Cruelty became the product of a vast machine produced by legions of ordinary people who had become cogs in a relentless process so massive and impersonal only a handful of them could grasp its scope.

But there was nothing banal about what happened on September 11, 2001. Terrorists intentionally and deliberately bent on murder reminded us, as the philosopher Pascal once wrote, “that men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

BUSH: The evil is in plain sight.

MOYERS: Since 9/11 the word has become commonplace in public life.

BLAIR: Once again we’re reminded of the evil these terrorists pose to innocent people everywhere and to our way of life.

MOYERS: It has also become the subject of one book after another, but there is one unlike any other by a philosopher unlike any other.

Susan Neiman is director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany. She was putting the finishing touches on her new book, EVIL IN MODERN THOUGHT, just as the terrorists struck on 9/11. Few recent books of philosophy have been so favorably reviewed. This spring the paperback edition will be published, with a preface addressing 9/11 specifically.

Welcome to NOW.

NEIMAN: It’s a pleasure to be here.

MOYERS: Let me show you a piece of video. And I want to get your reaction to it. Is this the face of evil we’re looking at?

NEIMAN: This is surely one face of evil. I think one has to be extremely careful not to locate evil in one kind of a face. And that’s the biggest mistake that people make in talking about evil is to think that it only has one form or one face.

Saddam is certainly one. But there are many others. And in talking about Saddam, of course, we can’t forget that this is a face that the United States dealt with happily for quite some time in the middle of some of his evilest actions.

MOYERS: When I saw that video the night of his capture I actually thought of Hannah Arendt’s much-used term “banality of evil” because I thought that is such a banal face. How does a man who looks so puny now, how could he have committed such evil in his time?

NEIMAN: You know, the interesting thing is if you look at some of the pictures even of the devil himself in modern literature, if you look at Faust or Dostoyevsky, the devil there is a pretty shabby character. He’s pathetic, he’s bumbling, he’s not appealing. But he’s also not Satanic in any kind of a strong way. And that’s the devil.

It’d be much easier for all of us if people who were evil looked like the devil. I mean literally horns and tails. If we knew how to recognize them. And, in fact, the lesson of the 20th Century is that evil can come in very ordinary forms.

MOYERS: I used to think of Saddam Hussein as the Middle East’s Hitler because like Hitler he was able to organize the power of the state to become an instrument of evil practice against his own people. But the question that haunts me is how were both of those men able to find so many willing executioners and torturers to carry out the evil in their name?

NEIMAN: I think it’s wrong to focus on Hitler. I think one of the biggest disservices that the Nazis have done through human history is to make us think that we know what evil is and it looks like that. And that anything that’s really evil has to be compared with Hitler and has to function in similar ways.

I think it’s extremely important to go case by case. Which isn’t to say it’s not a crucial question that you’re asking. Of course it is. But in each case the answer’s gonna be different, right? I mean, in each case you have to look at the sorts of chaos that was going on in the particular countries before these men came to power. And think about ways in which they could have been prevented. But I’m not sure that you’ll get the same story.

MOYERS: But you remember that after World War II, particularly after Auschwitz, the world, in effect, said, “Never again.” And yet since then we’ve had genocide, mass murder, unspeakable horrors of all kinds. We didn’t even though you’re right to say it’s wrong to think of Auschwitz as the only manifestation of evil. We don’t seem to have learned much from that.

NEIMAN: We haven’t learned enough. But again, I think part of the reason why we haven’t been able to respond to genocide where it’s taken place is that we’ve been fixed on particular images. We’ve been focused on the Nazis as a way of saying, “Look, that’s where evil is. And as long as it doesn’t have to do with train tracks and gassing installations we’re okay.” And that’s a real danger.

MOYERS: So how do you identify evil? I mean, like pornography as a Supreme Court Justice said, “I can’t define it. But I know it when I see it.” Do you know evil when you see it?

NEIMAN: I think there’s something right about that definition or that statement, as frustrating as it is for all of us. Do I know it? Not always. It’s much easier in particular to know it after the fact. Are there situations in which pretty much all of us agree something has crossed a line between the normally bad, the normally criminal and an action that takes our breath away, leaves us without ordinary ground rules. And most of us can agree on certain cases. You know, 9/11 is one of them, Auschwitz is another. But again, one needs to think about the more complicated cases as well.

MOYERS: You say 9/11 is clearly one of them. Was 9/11 an act of evil or a criminal act?

NEIMAN: I think it was an act of evil. And it was an act of old-fashioned evil—

MOYERS: How so?

NEIMAN: — if you like. Well, you mentioned Arendt’s discussion of the banality of evil. What was banal according to her was that it was done without evil intentions. A lot of people became even leading Nazis, Eichmann being one of them, without hating Jews. Without — even in the first instance intending to murder them. They began by doing their job. They certainly had no good intentions.

MOYERS: But these young men who flew those planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they knew what they were gonna do.

NEIMAN: Absolutely.

MOYERS: They were out to kill people.

NEIMAN: Absolutely. That’s why I called this an instance of old-fashioned evil. It’s not banal in the least. They knew exactly what they were doing. They were out to cause the greatest possible number of deaths and the greatest possible amount of fear. Rousseau, by the way, said that fear of death is actually worse than death itself because it threatens our freedom and poisons our lives.

And I think the two years following 9/11 show that he was right. So these people knew exactly what they were doing.

MOYERS: If you had been able to interview those young men who — the hijackers, the terrorists, they would not have said to you they were about to do evil. They would have invoked the name of God and said they were on a high holy mission.

NEIMAN: There’s a great line by a German Jewish writer, Tucholsky, said, “The opposite of good is good intention.” Good intentions or believing that something is called by God is no guarantee of anything whatsoever. In fact, very few evil actions are carried out with really demonic, Sadean intentions. You know, where somebody says, “Hey, I’m out to do as much evil as possible. And to, you know, I just want to cause as much pain and violence and violate as many conventions and laws as possible.” There are things like that. But they’re not the people who do the most damage.

MOYERS: So if intentions are not necessary to make something evil what does make it evil?

NEIMAN: I think we run a danger by looking for one thing. I think it’s a complex of things. The amount of damage and destruction that’s caused. The impact on a number of people. All of those things play a role. It’s like asking what makes something beautiful.

The fact that I can’t tell you one thing that’s common, say, between a New England landscape and a Greek island or between a New England landscape, a Greek island and a Bach cantata doesn’t stop me or you from finding all those things beautiful. In fact, what you do if you want to make that decision is you look very carefully and you analyze the particulars in each of those situations.

MOYERS: Knowing that you’re a philosopher and you see things with subtlety and nuance, how do you account for evil?

NEIMAN: You mean account for how it arises?


NEIMAN: Once again, case by case. Um, I think it’s really important to look at a case like 9/11 where people in full knowledge of all the consequences and all the intentions said, “We’re gonna learn how to fly planes without landing them and, you know, get in and go ahead.”

But it’s just as important to remember that in this country, people went along with lynching till not very long ago. Are they involved in evil to the same degree as people who knowingly get up and lynch someone or get up and crash into a building that takes 3000 lives and causes untold damage? No. Are they complicitous in evil? Yes.

MOYERS: So we can participate in evil without knowing it and even benefit from the structure that supports it?

NEIMAN: Absolutely.

MOYERS: Like slavery?

NEIMAN: Absolutely.

MOYERS: I mean, there were people in this country, a large number of people in this country who benefited from no-wage slavery who did not themselves own slaves. And would you say that was — slavery was evil?

NEIMAN: Slavery was absolutely evil. And the question is if you’re benefiting indirectly or not speaking out against it, to what degree you are participating in evil? I think it’s important to think in degrees. That is I don’t want to start —

MOYERS: Spoken like a real philosopher.

NEIMAN: You know, where I think… I think there are many ways in which philosophy can help us get clearer about what we actually do. One of them is to stop thinking in absolutely extreme terms. You can say, well, if we are not actually getting our hands dirty and we’re not actually torturing people and murdering them as Saddam Hussein or his flunkies were then we’re fine.

Or you can throw up your hands and say, “Gosh, every minute that I accept a world in which children are dying because I’m living in comfort is evil. And therefore I’m, you know, I’m as much of a sinner as anybody else.” Both of those are extremes that it seems to me are extremely unhelpful. You’ve gotta think in degrees.

MOYERS: This what you mean when you write in the book that it’s easier to see certain forms of evil, 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, than it is to see the evil that we become slowly but surely inured to as a result of living in the system that can produce enormous benefits for us without our knowing who are the victims of that system.

NEIMAN: That’s absolutely right. I would love it if all the evil in the world could be localized on the heads of, you know, a couple of really awful guys who did really visibly awful things like Saddam Hussein.

That would, you know, be marvelous if we could get rid of it that way. So, yes, I see the impulse to say, you know, enough instrumentalizing, enough negotiating. Let’s go back to the time when there were moral problems and countries took stands and got rid of good and evil. I mean, in a certain sense, in the way that people rightly see the allies in World War II, all right? There’s a longing for one last good fight or one more good fight.

MOYERS: A good war again.

NEIMAN: Sure. In which we can feel we’re on the side of the angels. I see the impulse. But I think one has to be very careful about it.

MOYERS: You used a theological metaphor there to describe—


MOYERS: —a political response to evil.


MOYERS: Let me ask you this, for example. Was Hiroshima, the dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, evil?

NEIMAN: Yes, it was.


NEIMAN: Because it was an unnecessary — First, it’s deliberate destruction of vast numbers of civilians that was not, in fact, necessary to winning the war. It was extremely clear. And Nagasaki was even worse. That is, that was a demonstration for the sake of killing a couple of hundred— 100,000 people to show the Russians that we could do it is instrumentalizing human life in a truly horrible way. And moreover, it unleashed, as you well know, possibilities that would have better been buried.

MOYERS: Have our views on evil changed over the years?

People in this country, people in the world still reflect — St. Augustine’s famous question after the Goths sacked Rome, you know, in effect, in the City of God. He said, “Why does a good God allow this to happen? God could have turned the enemy back. Why does this happen?” That’s the theological response.

NEIMAN: Yes. It’s a theological response, but you know, I think it’s really important to remember that not all theologians worry about this question. Or did, even in the middle ages. That is —

MOYERS: But most — I hear it mostly from a parent who says, “Why did God allow my child to die?”

NEIMAN: It’s the worst thing. And it’s the thing for which I don’t think there can be an answer. And of course then you have Dostoyevsky’s response that in a world particularly in which children are tortured, he doesn’t want to understand.

You see, there are two ways in which people have responded to the problem of evil. One is to say that, this is certainly Dostoyevsky’s way. To say that one doesn’t want to understand evil. That there’s something obscene about trying to understand evil.

The other way to go, however, is to say if we don’t understand evil, we’re never going to be able to prevent even parts of it. And this is the line that I think Arendt was taking in her book which is to say look, let us look at it, let’s analyze it, let’s break it down into ordinary actions. Let’s look at the psychology, let’s look at the political structures.

Even at the cost — and this is of course one of the reasons why she was attacked so much for writing that book — even at the cost of being told I’m trivializing the problem, because understanding is always in a certain sense a way of making something seem ordinary, if you like. Making something seem banal.

It’s taking away the mystery. If we don’t take away the mystery we’re not gonna be able to do anything about it.

MOYERS: You mean if we don’t demythologize it?

NEIMAN: That’s right.

MOYERS: We don’t take it out of the language of theology and the supernatural?

NEIMAN: In theology you have a whole line of people who say “Look, God gave us reason and he meant us to use it. And so we need to think about God, the world, the meaning of life, why horrible suffering happens to people.”

This is a tradition that you find in all three Western religions, starting in the early middle ages. It’s a rationalist theological tradition. Alongside of it, of course, you have a fundamentalist tradition which says “Uh-uh. Don’t think, believe. I believe that because it’s absurd, you know, let’s look at what the priests tell us. Let’s look at what somebody’s interpretation of the Bible tells us and stay with that.”

MOYERS: And if God didn’t do it because God is good, it must have been done by a creature that’s the opposite of God, evil, the devil.

NEIMAN: Right. That’s one way to go. What I think is really important is not to make this into a distinction between believers and non-believers. But between, if you like, rationalists and fundamentalists. Within both a theological tradition and a secular tradition. Because I think there’s a lot of common ground that gets missed when people simply say, you know, “Are we gonna talk about it theologically? Are we gonna talk about it philosophically?” I think there’s a lot of common ground.

MOYERS: And in both cases, it’s trying to deal with something that undoes the sense of life as reasonable. Of the world as making sense, right?

NEIMAN: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

MOYERS: And both believers and non-believers are trying to wrestle with how to make sense of a world where what we call evil happens.

NEIMAN: That is —

MOYERS: Whether it’s the loss of a child or Auschwitz.

NEIMAN: That is exactly right. And at the same time, you have also fundamentalist believers and certain secular people who don’t wrestle with it at all. Who they — can I say this on the screen? Shit happens.

MOYERS: It happened.

NEIMAN: It happened.

MOYERS: It happened.

NEIMAN: It happened.

MOYERS: Fill in the blanks.

This is a downer subject. Your whole book, a beautiful book is your effort to come — to make sense of evil. Why do you spend so much time on this subject?

NEIMAN: My own interest came from two sources. The one is when I was 17 years old and I read Jean-Paul Sartre and a little Nietzsche and thought about the meaning of life and decided I wanted to study philosophy. Walked into philosophy courses where they were talking about you know epistemology, whether we know or not that things are really real.

Now a lot of people at that point walk out and say, “I’m in the wrong room. I’m gonna go study history or literature or politics or something that makes more sense.” I stayed.

And I stayed because I was convinced that something about my original questions, about the meaning of life, were in fact part of the history of philosophy. It took me an awfully long time to prove it, but one of the things that I showed in this book is that great philosophers that people do study in major philosophy courses were in fact confronted, obsessed, concerned with exactly the same problem that 17 year old kids are concerned about when they walk into a philosophy class.

The other impulse had been to do with the time that I spent in Berlin. I came to Berlin in ’82 thinking that I pretty much knew what there was to know about the Holocaust and I had come to terms with it or not simply by going to study in Berlin for a year and realized how very much more there was to know than was available over here, realized how much it was a part of the fabric of life, the way that people talked about food or named their children or raised their children or had their love affairs and were all still completely affected and infected by memories of the past. So, those two sources kept me going till I wrote this book.

MOYERS: Does the world make moral sense to you? By God, if you don’t know we’re in trouble.

NEIMAN: Look, some days it does; some days it doesn’t. There’s a Jewish legend that says that there are 36 righteous people at any point in time. One doesn’t know who they are. They’re not recognizable. It could be a beggar. It could be a king, whoever it could be.

But those 36 people keep the world going. Just simply that there are those people in the world, I think there’s something deep about that. You know, if you like there’s another, you know, old quote about better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

I mean I think as long as there is some number of people lighting candles, being righteous, the world makes enough moral sense to keep going, not more than that. It could make a good deal more. But moral sense, of course, is something that we have to make, and I guess that’s the lesson of that story.

MOYERS: In the end of your book, you say meaning is a category we assign to life.

NEIMAN: That’s right.

MOYERS: And we have to wrestle with it against that background.

NEIMAN: If life was meaningful from the beginning, there’d be a certain sense in which we wouldn’t be free. We would be living in a play in which our roles were cast and given to us from the start. Meaning is something that we have to make, and we make it precisely in those ways by trying in some small way to create more justice, more sense, more intelligibility in whatever piece of the world we find ourselves surrounded by. That’s what meaning is, if it were given to us.

MOYERS: So if evil is man-made, as we’ve discussed some evil is, and not God-ordained, how do we combat it?

NEIMAN: By individual acts of goodness. I mean, I can give you as little a recipe for what those are as I can give you a recipe for recognizing evil. We need to train ourselves to recognize both. And we train ourselves in a variety of ways, looking at history, doing a little philosophy, looking at politics, looking at literature.

I mean, these are all things that can teach us to look at particular cases, and recognize both acts of good and evil. But it won’t be done by giving recipes.

MOYERS: The book is EVIL IN MODERN THOUGHT. Susan Neiman, thank you for joining us on NOW.

NEIMAN: Thank you.

MOYERS: Some reflections, if you will, in this brief respite between past and present, between the old year and the new, and between Bowl games.

Let us, please, not count the ways Bowl games have proliferated. The only one that ever mattered, anyway, was the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. On many a New Year’s Day, the chilly blue Texas sky quivered from the roar of glorious combat on the field below. There were giants in the earth in those days — gladiators, quick and nimble and half the size of the behemoths who slug it out today; half the size and, without the steroids, twice the fun.

Alas, the Cotton Bowl went out with the boll weevil, and I can’t even recall who bought the naming rights. Doesn’t matter; the rage now is for fantasy games with fantasy teams, a sport I don’t understand, but won’t disparage.

Who can be against a little fantasy these days, reality being what it is. One of our regular viewers wrote the other day to say that her New Year’s resolution is to give up on the news altogether, this broadcast included.

“It’s too much,” she said. “You journalists remind me of everything I fear.”

All I can say, ma’am, is that if you are scared by what we journalists report, you would be terrified at what we don’t tell you.

One of my mentors in college was fond of reminding us that what governs human beings is fear of the truth. An old Turkish proverb put it this way: “Whoever tells the truth is chased out of nine villages.”

And the late George Seldes, a scourge to the powers-that-be, and a journalist hero to many, titled his memoir TELL THE TRUTH AND RUN. Truth can indeed be fearful, because reality itself is frightening. There’s evidence of that everywhere.

On a recent trip to Washington, I was struck by how the capital is now so thick with concrete barriers you might think a maginot line has dropped on the city from outer space.

Susan Neiman, earlier in this broadcast, mentioned the philosopher Rousseau on how fear is worse than death because it holds the mind hostage. Well, it can also imprison a country, turning America into a fortress of fear inside which all of us are condemned to life sentences of dread and paranoia.

So in this breathing space between past and present, between this year and last, and yes, between Bowl games if you’re still addicted, there are a couple of New Year’s resolutions we might want to agree on, no matter our politics, party, or ideology.

First, we will not be hostages to fear in this country, and second, making the world safe for democracy still begins at home.

ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS: the buying of the President.

As the political season kicks into high gear, who’s pouring big bucks into the Presidential campaigns, and what do they expect to get in return?

Chasing the money, next week on NOW.

And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS online at

Evil through the ages: find out how our definition of evil has changed. Learn more about futurists and what they can tell us. Send us your ideas for a better New Year.

Connect to NOW at

BRANCACCIO: That’s it for NOW. I’m David Brancaccio. Bill Moyers and I will be back next week.

MOYERS: We’ll be taking an early look at who’s paying to play in the Presidential race of 2004.

Until then, from all of us at NOW, good night and happy New Year.

This transcript was entered on April 22, 2015.

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