Author Meets Critics: Political Evil by Alan Wolfe

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Alan Wolfe, Boston College
Martha Minow
, Harvard Law School
James Traub, New York Times Magazine
Moderator: Erik Owens, Boston College

Date: September 21, 2011

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Acclaimed BC political scientist Alan Wolfe argues in his latest book, Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (Knopf, September 2011), that in an age of partisan blame-assigning, therapeutic excuse-making, and theological question-dodging, we need to get serious about the problem of evil once again. While there will always be something incomprehensible about evil, we are very much capable of understanding and combating the use of evil means to obtain political ends. Wolfe’s new book is a provocative challenge to widely-held beliefs about genocide, intervention and the use of force to combat evil in the world. In this panel discussion he will address critical responses from distinguished thinkers Martha Minow (dean of Harvard Law School) and James Traub (international affairs journalist for the New York Times Magazine). 

Speaker Bios

Alan Wolfe

Alan Wolfe is the founding director of the Boisi Center and Professor of Political Science at Boston College. He is author of more than a dozen books, including, most recently, Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (2011), The Future of Liberalism (2009), Does American Democracy Still Work? (2006), Return to Greatness (2005), The Transformation of American Religion: How We actually Practice our Faith (2003), Moral Freedom (2001) and One Nation After All (1999). Widely considered one of the nation's most prominent public intellectuals, he is a frequent contributor to the New York TimesWashington PostThe New Republic and The Atlantic, and has delivered lectures across the United States and Europe. 

Martha Minow

Martha Minow is the Dean and Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor at Harvard Law School where she has taught since 1981. An expert in human rights with a focus on members of racial and religious minorities and women, children, and persons with disabilities, her scholarship also has addressed private military contractors, management of mass torts, transitional justice, and law, culture, and social change. She has published over 150 articles and her books include In Brown’s Wake: Legacies of America’s Educational Landmark (2010) and Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence Politics and Law (1998). Her edited and co-edited books include Government by Contract (2009), Imagine Co-Existence: Restoring Humanity After Ethnic Conflict (2003).

Following nomination by President Obama and confirmation by the Senate, she serves as vice-chair of the board of the Legal Services Corporation. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan and the Harvard Graduate School ofEducation, Minow received her law degree at Yale Law School before serving as a law clerk to Judge David Bazelon and Justice Thurgood Marshall. A member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, her awards include the Sacks-Freund Teaching Award at Harvard Law School; the Holocaust Center Award, the Radcliffe Graduate Society Medal and honorary doctorates in Education (Wheelock College) and law (University of Toronto).

James Traub

James Traub is an international affairs journalist for the New York Times Magazine, and a former writer for The New Yorker. After publishing a number of books and articles on domestic issues, he began to focus on foreign affairs in 1999. Traub has since traveled extensively through the Middle East and remote regions in Africa and has written on issues of peacekeeping, state-building, repression and democracy. He is the author of The Freedom Agenda, which explores the Bush Administration’s attempt to foster democracy in the Middle East, and The Best Intentions, a commentary on the complex relationship between the United States and the UN. Traub appears frequently on CNN’s “In the Arena” and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is currently writing a biography of John Quincy Adams, tentatively titled Militant Spirit (expected 2014). Traub graduated magne cum laude from Harvard University. He has taught at NYU in Abu Dhabi and is a fellow at both the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in New York City and the Center for International Protection in Kyrgyzstan.

Event Photos

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James Traub, Alan Wolfe, and Martha Minow speaking on Wednesday, September 21, 2011 (moderated by Erik Owens, left).

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Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center (Boston College) and Author of Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011.

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James Traub, The New York Times Magazine

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Alan Wolfe and Martha Minow respond to questions from the audience, Wednesday, September 21, 2011.

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Erik Owens (Boston College) moderated the panel on Wednesday, September 21, 2011.

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Martha Minow, Harvard Law School Dean, on Wednesday, September 21, 2011.

Event Recap

Evil does in fact exist in the world today, argues Boisi Center director Alan Wolfe in his newest book, but too many of us confuse and conflate its different varieties, and as a result we make poor decisions about when, where and how we should act to combat it. Political Evil: What It is and How to Combat It (Knopf, 2011) aims to clarify the issue and analyze its implications for American foreign policy. On September 21 the Boisi Center hosted a vigorous conversation about the book’s central themes with James Traub and Martha Minow, two distinguished authorities on international relations and conflict resolution.

Wolfe opened the discussion with a summary of his key arguments. When considering the need for military intervention around the world, he emphasized, we must first understand which kind of evil is operative in the conflict. “Political evil” is strategic in nature, focused on realizable objectives, and can therefore be opposed and redirected through strategic negotiations and/or the use of force. Not all evil is amenable to political resolution, however: the “radical evil” of dictators like Hitler and Stalin is employed in pursuit of unrealizable and abstract goals (such as the extermination of a race or class), while the “everyday evil” of serial killers or isolated random shooters have no political relevance at all. Still, Wolfe said, four of the central problems we now face—terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide and “counter-evil” (i.e., torture and other evil acts employed by states to combat evil)—are forms of political evil with specific means and ends that call for specific responses.

New York Times Magazine contributor and Foreign Policy columnist James Traub focused his comments on the conflict in Darfur, which Wolfe argued the West was too hasty to call “genocide.” On the ground, Traub said, the Darfur conflict clearly combined civil war and genocide, and a purely local and political response would have been insufficient to stop the massacres. Traub agreed that the world’s response to Darfur has been a failure, but not because of the moral hyperbole Wolfe criticized. Rather, the existing lack of international support for large-scale military intervention was bolstered by rhetoric from Sudan’s African neighbors that cast the conflict as nothing more than a regional political dispute.

Martha Minow, Dean of Harvard Law School and author of several books on post-conflict reconciliation, applauded Wolfe’s analysis of political evil but questioned how, in the midst of an unfolding conflict, we can know when atrocities are committed for “political” instead of “radical” ends. Imperfect information makes the proper response difficult to discern, she said. Furthermore, if we want to educate and inspire the American public to act to end massacres like those in Darfur, we must employ precisely the sort of strong moral language that Wolfe deplores.

Following Wolfe’s brief response to each of the other panelists, the packed audience leapt into the conversation with a number of incisive comments and questions about humanitarian intervention, the continuing perils of colonialism and empire, and above all, the many ways we talk about evil in the world today.

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Further Reading

Alan Wolfe. "Evildoers and Us" in the Chronicle of Higher Education, September 11, 2011.

An excerpt from his book, Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (Knopf, 2011).

"Evil," The Hedgehog Review. Summer 2000.

This special issue on evil offers reflections on the sociology of evil, its transformation and relationship with suffering, and its history.

Hitchens, Christopher. "Simply Evil." Slate Magazine. 5 September 2011.

Hitchens writes that a decade after 9/11, "simply evil" remains the best description and most essential fact about al-Qaida.

Mamdani, Mahmood"The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency,” in London Review of Books 5: 5-8 (2007).

In The Politics of Naming, Mamdani calls attention to the often times ambiguous manner in which we brand conflicts and violent situations. He suggests that the confusion of terms such as genocide, civil war, and insurgency might yield greater consequences than a slap on the wrist for poor word choice.

Minow, Martha. 1999. Between Vengence and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence. Beacon Press.

Minow prioritizes healing and the restoration of human dignity as the pathway to eliminating the political evil responsible for atrocities against mankind.

Schrag, Calvin. “Otherness and the Problem of Evil: How Does That Which Is Other Become Evil? in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 60 (1/3): 149–156 (2006).

Schrag’s attempt to comprehend the “Problem of Evil,” revolves around a pressing question: “How does that which is other become evil?” In this piece, he examines the intensification of moral evil in our domestic international affairs.

Traub, James. 2008. The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did). Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Traub offers a narrative of America’s effort to promote democracy around the world. While he acknowledges some of the agenda’s failed attempts, he remains hopeful about America’s ability to spread liberal democracy in a “more honest, more modest, and more generous” way.

"It seems like a handy word." The Economist. 6 June 2011.

This piece comments on the frequent misuse of the term genocide and explores how we have expanded its definition in order to more easily converse about violence and oppression.

"The uses and abuses of the G-word." The Economist. 2 June 2011.

In the same vein, the Economist criticizes the overuse of the word genocide, maintaining that it must be reserved to characterize only the most horrific crimes so as to note dilute their severity.

In the News

In his recent Slate article, "Simply Evil," Christopher Hitchens writes that a decade after 9/11, "simply evil" remains the best description and most essential fact about al-Qaida."