There was a man at my college who was, literally, the most beloved person in town. He was involved in the athletics program, but heavily invested in the school's academic life. He donated time and money to pretty much everything on campus, and he would give talks on the importance of things like honor, respect, and hard work. He'd been around for decades, and we saw him as a type of school grandpa. We named the library after him, and there were statues and murals of him all over town.
His name was Joe Paterno. As we now know, he knew about a pedophile on his staff for 35 years, and allowed him to remain on staff for all of that time. Because Joe Paterno was the football coach of Penn State, and because Big 10 football teams run camps for young kids, he basically allowed the pedophile to have unfettered access to children for three and a half decades.
Joe Pa, as we called him, was fired when this came to light, and died shortly afterwards. He is, among Penn Staters who are living in just a tiny bit of denial, still a blameless god. He's reviled elsewhere.
I grew up Catholic, so the Penn State pedophilia scandal felt like a strange little bit of deja vu to me -- I'd seen priests, the most respected members of our community, arrested for molesting children. Or I'd see priests we respected defending these molesters, or explaining why their criminal offenses should be dealt with "in-house."
When the Paterno thing hit, then, I had a bit more perspective than most Penn Staters -- I knew that even gods can fall. So I didn't have trouble reconciling the Joe Paterno who improved the lives and education of tens of thousands of students with the Joe Paterno who enabled the molestation and rape of young kids.
My alma mater has been running tributes to Joe Paterno during every home football game so far this season, a move which justifiably has the rest of the country being like, "Dafuck, guys?"
And from the outside, I understand this -- it's easy to judge Penn State's deification of a man who was, at best, deeply flawed, and probably criminally negligent of the welfare of children placed into his care.
Columbus Day and FDR
You lose a little bit of the holier-than-thou element when you pull back a ways, though. There's something fundamentally human about glossing over the terrible things our heroes have done. We still celebrate Columbus Day, for example, and Christopher Columbus was responsible for the start of the largest genocide in history.
But without Christopher Columbus, none of us in the western hemisphere would be here. Or maybe we would, but our world would be fundamentally different -- do we look at our day-to-day lives and think, "all this is built on evil, so I, by extension, must be evil"?
We could -- a little bit of white guilt is okay -- but if we let all the crimes and inhumanities that carried us to this pleasant point flood in, it would be crippling. It's literally our whole history as a species. Our brutalities brought us here just as much as our kindnesses did.
To use a more recent example, take Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR started the New Deal, which empowered the American worker, built the American middle class, narrowed the gap between rich and poor, and built our country (with a little help from the industrialization that comes with a World War) into a genuinely pleasant place to live.
He also, in that time, signed Executive Order 9066, which interned 120,000 Japanese people in concentration camps during WWII. This was a human rights violation of -- well, not the highest, but of a pretty high order.
If you condemn FDR as evil, does that kick all of the good he did out from under him? Or, if you're a conservative and you hate FDR, take Ronald Reagan -- does all the good he did by gutting welfare, demolishing our civil society, dismantling our labor unions, and stepping up the criminalization of people with color all in the name of cutting taxes[note]I'm sorry, I know this is a weak list of Ronald's strengths, but I honestly don't understand how anyone can defend Reagan's presidency as a good thing, and at least I didn't mention how he let his wife give him advice based on astrology.[/note] balance out the bad he did by supporting far-right death squads and conducting illegal covert operations?
This good vs. evil lens through which we view the world is, at the end of the day, useless. I've done some bad things -- things which some people, no doubt, would call "evil," -- but I can't live with myself if I believe I'm evil. So I don't. I try to become better in some cases, and I justify my actions in others.
There was an amazing interview done by AJ+ recently with a CIA agent, where she talks about how jihadists picture themselves as, for example, the rebels in Star Wars, with the United States being the evil Empire. "If I've learned one lesson from my time in the CIA, it is this: Everybody believes they are the good guy."
Evil is not a useful construct for the day-to-day -- it is less a judgment on an act, and more of a permanent verdict on someone or something's inherent nature. And, by dividing the world into good and evil, the existence of evil relies entirely on the existence of good.
For example: Say you stand up to someone who's bullying a kid. That's a good action, right? You can say, "Hey, I'm a good person for doing that. The bully, on the other hand, is evil."
But here's the thing -- without the bully being evil in the first place, you wouldn't have been able to do good. Without the bully, the world would undoubtedly be a little bit better of a place, but it would also have one less good act. If you erase evil far enough back, you erase, too, all the good[note]If you think this sounds ridiculous, I agree. The entire concept of evil is ridiculous.[/note].
That may be an abstraction, but it's worth mentioning in the lead-up to the Presidential election. A popular saying among third-partiers right now is, "If you choose the lesser of two evils, you're still choosing evil."
The question is this: who on earth is this mystery third party candidate who is 100% good? Who is this angelic paragon of virtue and light? Gary Johnson's not a bad dude, but his economic policies are incoherent, and would do serious damage to less-privileged communities if they were ever implemented. And Jill Stein's also a fundamentally decent person who has, in the past, pandered to new-age pseudoscience, has flirted with the anti-vax left (though it's not accurate to call her an anti-vaxxer herself), and her economic policies, while more on track than Johnson's, are still not really in touch with reality. Having bad policies may not strike you as "evil," but keep in mind that the War on Drugs is policy. Keep in mind that the boring, who-gives-a-shit world of sub-prime lending was a matter of regulatory policy.
And it's not just among the Presidential candidates That person doesn't exist anywhere. Mother Theresa was a virulent opponent of women's empowerment and divorce, and openly praised one of the western hemisphere's worst dictators. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an adulterer. Gandhi refused to allow doctors to give his wife medication, as it was "alien," and she died. Shortly after, when he got sick, he accepted life-saving medication for himself.
The point of this list isn't to ruin all of your heroes, it's merely to point out that there is no person or place that is untouched by evil. A division of a world into good and evil is nonsensical, and if you choose to only ally yourselves with unsullied goodness, you are going to find yourself very alone in a clean white room, walled off from the messy, sinful world.