Evil makes a 'comeback'

Posted: Jan 08, 2002 12:00 AM
"The Fellowship of the Ring" again led last weekend's movie box office, indicating (I didn't, of course, say proving) the growing appetite of Americans for good old-fashioned non-ambivalence. Will wonders never cease? J. R. R. Tolkien's tale, compressed here, elaborated there, for the cinema, is a straightforward tale of straightforward good and evil. The Dark Lord Sauron and his slimy allies -- Ringwraiths, Orcs, Balrogs and the like -- threaten truth, love and all the homely verities, like good beer. Against these scuzzballs stand the Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves and plain, old ordinary men of Middle Earth, often terrified, but nearly always resolute and courageous. There are good guys and bad guys. We know whom to cheer for, whom to boo or shrink from. We always more or less knew in the past, of course, but over the last 40 years or so, we sort of lost the knack. Well (as we were assured by our Intellectual Betters, from TV newsroom, pulpit, academic lectern or signed column), it's not so simple as all that. You have to consider Root Causes. Oh? And what would some of those be, we asked. Poverty, oppression, sexism, racism, we were informed. This smelled funny. We know such human disasters existed; our problem (as our Intellectual Betters saw it) was our failure to understand how these disasters connected authoritatively, and often excusably, to bad behavior. We were enjoined to quit worrying about hierarchies of thought and action. This implied discernment, differentiation; worse, judgment. Who were we, in Western civilization (so-called!), to judge? It was not for us to deride or punish others' ways; it was for them to devise for themselves the kinds of lives they found most suitable, enjoyable or (preferably) both. Well, excuse the rest of us for imagining that evil ways deserved condemnation. We would try, if we could act like good, modern, ambivalent Americans. Or so our Intellectual Betters hoped. Then came Sept. 11. Suddenly we looked evil in its gray-bearded face. It had a familiar look. Where had we seen it before? Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao -- such names came to mind, and others as well. President Bush spoke of "the evil one" -- Osama bin Laden -- and Americans nodded assent. Some of our Intellectual Betters failed to grasp the point, but probably more did than didn't. The United States undertook a military campaign in behalf of what might be called Good, and Bush, who ordered and directed the campaign, soared to the top of the popularity charts. The New York Times reports that Florida blacks, who once accused him of stealing the 2000 presidential election, stand firmly behind his Afghanistan policies. "The Fellowship of the Ring," a popular phenomenon in book form (remember "Frodo Lives" graffiti?) was in the production pipeline long before Sept. 11. It would have done well on any timetable. Yet, Osama's varied malignancies must have helped. (Perhaps he deserves royalties?) Moral clarity, after so many years of moral ambivalence, is what many long have sought. The enterprise of our Intellectual Betters has for some years been the pulling down of hierarchies, whether social, cultural or moral. It's gone pretty well. Moral hierarchies, though, are tough work. It would seem we don't have to read somewhere, or figure it out in a movie, that moral hierarchies exist. The reason, seemingly, is that such hierarchies exist in the heart. Humans tend to know that murder is, well, evil. The boff ratings of George W. Bush and, to some probably marginal but nonetheless real extent, the box office success of the "Fellowship of the Ring" are both due to this abiding apprehension. We yearn for a good show, and when the show shows us Evil on the run and Good triumphant, why, that's how it should be, isn't it? We high-five, we cheer, we punch the air, and we recall, even if belatedly, what it means to be human.