It's only on stage and in other dramatic works of fiction that Evil may appear in appropriate bright-red garb. That's when Old Ned is reduced to a cartoon figure that no one really fears. There he is, speaking with forked tongue and tail to match. Holding a pitchfork and breathing fire and brimstone, he could be a character in an amateur theatrical production of a comic strip, clattering into the spotlight on his cloven hooves. Not anyone in real life or realer death. How could anyone be afraid of the Big Bad Devil? Why, he's an almost lovable character, as clumsy as he is fictive. He might as well be a kid in a Halloween skit going Boo! Big devilish deal. The only response he may get is a barely stifled yawn.
Old Ned himself is a much subtler tempter than this overworked stereotype of him. He may favor well-tailored suits or maybe a prep kid's simple khakis worn with an all-purpose blue blazer; the Old Boy could look much like you or your progeny. Want to see him in the flesh? Just take a good long look in the mirror. Much like the evil in man, he's always there whether showy or subtle or in between. And he never goes away. No matter how much we mere mortals might wish he would.
Procrastination is not only the thief of time but of good intentions. The day of reckoning with conscience can be put off, but not canceled--until it is too late to correct all the wrongs we committed against our fellow man. Which may be just what the fallen angel that embodies evil may be counting on. Perhaps his most effective ploy is to deny that he exists at all. Take the mod, oh-so-enlightened relativist position that there is no embodiment of good or evil in the world--no devils, no angels, but just a remnant of the ancient superstitious belief in both. It's positively medieval to think in such terms in our ever up-to-date world, don't you think? Denial can be the first refuge of those lost souls in this world or the next. Why fear evil or imitate the good if neither exists except as a relic of the past?
Perhaps the devil's most effective technique to snare souls is to pretend that sacrificing the good that men can do is surely worth it in order to save one's moral or political capital for use at some future time. Think of the politico who carefully hedges his bets for now, telling himself he'll get around to doing some disinterested public service later, when he'll use all that power and influence he's amassed to further a cause higher than his own precious career. Yet somehow he never gets around to expending any of it.
Political obituaries will never be complete until they make mention not only of the good, bad, beautiful and ugly in the subject's résumé, but all the things intended to be done but never gotten around to. Till then, the guest of honor at his own funeral may not rest in peace with all that unfinished business haunting him. But he'll always have an excuse to offer, whether in this world or the next. "I just didn't have the time," he can tell the recording angel at the pearly gates, though he always had enough time to get together with old cronies to recount transient triumphs years ago.
And so politicos of varied skills, ambitions and qualities in general--or lack of same--will get together to celebrate or condemn each other, but seldom if ever to confess any faults or failures. Just the other Sunday, a front-page photo depicted both Clintons and the chief of their war room in the presidential campaign of 1992--James Carville, now a gray eminence of American politics. Oh, the stories he could tell, and all too often does. He can talk politics with all the zest of a Looziana boy born and bred to be a high-stakes player in the great American quadrennial circus known as a presidential campaign.
Looking at that picture of the Big Three, an aging newspaper columnist could think only of Bob Dole's classic description of a similar threesome posed in the style of one of those statuettes of monkeys that used to adorn desks back in another era: Hear no evil, see no evil, and evil.
In this trumped-up age, the country has a president who can twist and turn with the best or maybe worst of them as his ever-changing mood may dictate. His ends, he is always ready to explain in one of his never-ending tweets, justify his means. And what end could be better than assuring the peace of the world? It's an old justification, or at least rationalization for appeasing the world's dictators.
Peace in our time, old Neville Chamberlain proclaimed back in the tumultuous 1930s, which would soon enough be followed by the Ferocious '40s as a second world war followed the first as surely as disaster follows appeasement. It was a corrupt and only tenuous bargain--peace in exchange for security--that brought neither.
So what's the moral of this short story made long? That no one can corrupt us so gradually and effectively as ourselves. What is it that marks the difference between good and evil in this world? Just one step. For each of us can decide which way to face--toward good or evil--at any time. Or we can go blithely on, never stopping to examine our motives.
Confession being good for the soul, take this column with a boxcar of salt. For do I write in search of some objective truth, if there be any such thing? Or just to settle old scores and put my own version of events on the mutable record before it, like all the other works of man, fades into that vast and much disputed territory known as the past? You decide--if I have piqued your interest sufficiently. For no mere columnist can aspire to any higher goal than that, Dear Reader.
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 11/22/2017
Print Headline: How to corrupt yourself