A WORD ABOUT MONSTERS
I’ve been reading Thomas Harris’s Hannibal. It is about monsters, evil monsters to be precise. It is an important distinction. We live in an age which frowns on the idea of “evil” monsters. But we love the idea of, well, lovable monsters.
A loveable monster is a very new concept, because first and foremost monsters are about evilness. The original meaning of the word “monster” derives, via Old French, from a word for “divine omen or warning.” The Latin monstrum
comes from the verb monere
meaning “warn.” A monster was a harbinger of evil. The “creature” understanding of monster developed when people believed that misshapen or deformed animals and people brought evil with them. And the “large” or “huge” connotation of monster didn’t come until relatively late, perhaps the 16th century, when the literary notion of big slobbery dragons and beasts was well established.
In science fiction we still leave the door of our imaginations cracked open just enough to let real monsters into our waking lives. In Aliens, Independence Day, and Jaws, not to mention the recently revived vampire genre, we can entertain the notion of evil creatures. But we are still at war with the idea of people being evil monsters. We can get our brains around the idea that people can do evil things, but the idea that they themselves are evil, that’s tough.
The psychologists, sociologists, social workers, and other social cleansers have taken it upon themselves to explain that what we call “monsters” are really just things we can’t understand. “These children aren’t monsters …” we will hear some fool say on the nightly news after some child has done something particularly monstrous. “We shouldn’t demonize so-and-sos …” just because they have done something so demonic that it takes an act of supreme will to see it as something else.
In 1992 a guy I’ve never heard of before or since received the Hero’s Award from the Robin Hood Foundation. His acceptance speech was excerpted in the New York Times. I clipped it and saved it because it was so astonishing to me, that such a wonderful document could appear on that op-ed page. His name is Geoffrey Canada and he is, or was, the head of something called the Rheedlan Centers for Children and Families. I can only offer a brief excerpt:
You are probably going to be a little concerned when I tell you how happy I am to be honored as a children’s hero. Some people might say “don’t call me a hero”… But not me. I desperately want to be a children’s hero.
You see … children need heroes because a hero summons up images of supernatural powers. Heroes were meant to slay dragons and monsters, and far too many of our children face monsters every day.
Now I’m not speaking metaphorically. I’m talking about the real thing — Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy — real monsters. If you calculate the number of deaths these three monsters cause on any given night, it doesn’t compare to an average Friday night in New York City….
Our children face monsters who kill in the night and the day, monsters who lurk in the dark. They see monsters on their way to school, in the park, in the hallways at night — monsters who leave traces of their brutal work, staining floors and walls, the vestiges of which tell of horrors unspeakable to such young minds….
I do this work because I haven’t forgotten about the monsters. I remember them … I remember growing up in the South Bronx, when I was 7 and we were cooking potatoes in a hole in the ground….
Suddenly some man, who was crazy or drunk or evil or just a monster, burst on us screaming and grabbing and yelling. We all ran for our very lives, hit the fences and climbed over – all but one boy, William. He was fat; he was slow. He got caught….
Canada talks of other boys who were caught, beaten, or killed. And how heroes stop monsters from doing such things. What was so striking for me was how he used words like monster and evil without quotation marks. There are monsters. People can be evil.
I once had a professor in college who said she assumed that racists were “biologically different” from normal people. I wasn’t offended by her notion that people whom she finds offensive are somehow different from real humans. I hate racists too. But what shocked me was that this was the language of racists. Her expertise was “deconstructing” values, traditions, mores, anything that reeked of the musty notions of the past. She was a brilliant, well-published, and respected social cleanser. And yet she was talking about how the ill-informed and misled are essentially monsters, fundamentally deformed in some unredeemable way. She might as well have been a 17th century reactionary.
I think of her all of the time when monsters make their way onto the evening news. Because, hers, I believe, is the way most “intelligent” people think. If a person does something horrible, we must understand why. We must look for abuse. We must understand their evil and therefore make it potentially our own. But if someone exhibits an unwillingness to understand, if I say “I don’t care about his childhood, lock the guy up,” then I am the one who is monstrous these days.
About a year ago the American Psychological Association took a big step in “de-mystifying” pedophilia. The long and short of their conclusion was that pedophilia “… does not cause intense harm on a pervasive basis …” Every year or so, there is some brouhaha in the gay community because NAMBLA wants to march with them, or attend some conference. The vast majority of mainstream gays are understandably eager to distance themselves from child molesters. And yet, it always turns into a big fight, because so many gays don’t want to appear “close-minded.” And, I can guarantee you that in faculty lounges, editorial rooms, intellectual salons, and White House cafeterias across this great land, if I said “pedophiles are evil” people would look at me as if I needed some “enlightenment.” Hell, if I said the people on death row are “evil” and deserve to die, forks would drop at most fine restaurants.
“How can you be the judge of that?!”
Well, they murdered someone, right?
But if I said someone who committed a “hate crime” was evil, there would be sage nods. Kill an old lady for some loose change and you’re misunderstood. Paint some awful words or symbols on her house and you’re a “monster.”
Which brings us back to the beginning of this diatribe. Today, we only really believe in lovable monsters. Diversity-mania has infected every nook and cranny of our lives, and it has often been carried like fleas in the fur of lovable monsters. The don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover ideologues have so thoroughly won, it’s become easy to actually judge books by their covers — especially in the world of children. If someone appears horrible at the beginning of a movie, TV show, or cartoon, it’s a sure bet that we will learn he/she/it is the kindest and gentlest of creatures by the end.
Dr. Hannibal “the cannibal” Lector in Thomas Harris’s riveting book is a different kind of lovable monster. Yes, we learn that Hannibal had a difficult childhood himself. We learn that he too has reasons for being a monster, and we are asked, very subtly, to root for him. But Hannibal remains evil. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s summer reading, but in Hannibal we are asked to become infatuated with someone who is purely evil. This isn’t entirely new, alas; the number of films where the audience roots for the really bad guy grows every year. But there is something especially troubling in this book because Lector is so evil.
The social cleansers explain away murder all the time. They rationalized the greatest social and ethnic cleanser of all time, Stalin, because his aims — “eradicating poverty,” “creating equality,” etc. — seemed somehow in synch with their own. In fact, they were far more inclined to label as “monsters” those who sought to contain his evil. The American Psychological Association and many others are well on their way to legitimizing behavior which I think can be comfortably called evil. Social cleansers study evil until it becomes quotation-marked “evil” and then “so-called evil” and then “you know just a generation ago society would call that ‘evil’ ” and then finally “who are you to judge?”
If you countenance evil you become its abettor. My college professor loved Nietzsche, so let’s use his words: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”
THE POLLING CONTINUES
Now that that is out of the way, a word about polls. You people are a hard bunch to please. Yesterday’s poll asked what is the best political show of the “nightlies.” Now, I get e-mail from you people pointing out that I mistranslated Latin or quoted the wrong book by Aristotle, so I know you’re pretty bright. So it’s hard for me to understand how you guys could inundate me with e-mail saying, “What about The McLaughlin Group?” “You forgot The McLaughlin Group!” “You ungrateful bastard! What about Drudge?!”
Guys, get off the pipe. Unless I missed something, Dr. John does not appear every night and neither does Matt.