In a previous column, “A Letter From Satan to Santa Clarita,” I used the character of the devil as a literary device to explore certain moral questions. I’ve long wondered about the architecture of evil, being the son of a Jewish mother who had a whole branch of her family eliminated in the Holocaust.
How does it work? What are its mechanics? How do these incredible historical tragedies emerge on perfectly ordinary days?
Certainly, projection plays a major role here. With frightening consistency, predators always claim that their victims carry the qualities they do.
Adolf Hitler gave speech after speech describing the Jewish plan for the annihilation of Germany. In the Nazi mind, Auschwitz was merely an act of self-defense. You can rationalize destroying a race when you start from the premise that this said race was out to destroy you. Much in the same way one might shoot down an individual trying to harm their family.
Of course, it was all an antisemitic, paranoid delusion. But it was convincing enough to the German people to lead to the deaths of 6 million.
In our moral judgements, human beings can resemble animals in a sense. Good people work from the assumption that they are surrounded by goodness. A child is joyful and kind, because he believes reality itself is full of innocence, too, just as puppies only have the desire to lick and play.
By contrast, the bloodthirsty Nazi is convinced he’s under assault by genocidal Jews. He’s a wolf, drunk on violent paranoia and the notion that the world is full of vicious beasts like him.
That mindset is what transforms an ordinary person into someone capable of operating a gas chamber.
The moral here, which is certainly worth remembering when voting, is to pay close attention to the stories our leaders tell about humanity.
Does a politician believe that folks are generally good and deserve help trying to survive in a difficult world? If so, consider supporting them. They are not the sort of statesmen who will enter office and implement an agenda that hurts the innocent.
They have a loving heart, which shines through in their outlook on others. That’s the sort of fellow we can trust with power.
Those who adopt the opposite perspective are the stuff of which villains are made.
Unfortunately, Americans are still vulnerable to dark appeals. And it’s easy to see why. The human brain responds quickly and viscerally to fear. Leaders like Donald Trump create anxiety in the public, say, around immigration. The migrants are coming to destroy us all, is the constant refrain.
Terror reaches a fever pitch, and in response, policymakers institute brutal proposals like family separation. We place folks in packed detention facilities that resemble concentration camps rather than appropriate shelter for human beings.
But to the paranoid segment of the public, such injustice is actually quite soothing. They were told monsters were pouring across the border to eat them, and now something tough is being done to prevent the worst from happening.
State violence, in this context, becomes like a glass of wine or a couple pills of vicodin. It helps the reactionary calm down.
We should never underestimate the courage it takes to be good, to start from the premise that there are angels in this world, not predators out to get us. Embracing that courage is the surest guarantee for protecting our own souls.
It’s this sort of mindset that transforms an ordinary person into someone capable of storming the beaches on D-Day.
And fundamentally, it’s my most basic definition of what it means to be a Christian.
Whereas the cowardice and fear of the Nazis took precious, beautiful people, and turned them into ashes, the animating goal behind Christianity is: How do we achieve the opposite of a Holocaust?
What methods are necessary to approach those in the shadows and summon them forth?
Surely, there is no finer purpose in life than to help provide an answer to that question.
Joshua Heath is a Santa Clarita resident. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.