The Making of Devils

I am not the devil, though I have performed some convincing impersonations.  I mention this to save time because, in our highly distilled political environment, this is one of the categories to which we are easily assigned.

One of our presidential candidates, for example, is the devil.  You may have received clues as to that person’s identity, arising from (ahem) years of disinterested research and even-handed reporting.  For my purposes, it doesn’t matter which candidate that is, or if both have an equal claim to the title.  I simply want to consider the process of devil-making.

Devils themselves are sometimes confused by their role in our society.  On the one hand, their time-tested formulas, so frequently disparaged throughout history, are generating renewed interest here.  On the other hand, devilry itself retains unpleasant associations.  On the whole, I believe they suspect us of cultural appropriation.

Be that as it may, presenting your adversary as the devil simply works. 

It is less effective to accuse a man of being good.  The charge seems improbable and is hard to prove.  Stories of goodness are more complex than stories of badness because goodness itself is a strange thing and requires explanation.  Curiously, the explanation always points away from the man himself and toward something higher.  He may love a child or a nation or a God – even a dog might do – but he must (unlike the devil) believe there is something higher and sacrifice himself for it.

But stories of goodness are easily smashed.  Accusations, especially when false, are like bricks hurled through the brittle glass of reputation.  And you can wear a mask while you smash, merrily shattering the subject’s identity while concealing your own.  As political transactions go, this one is a bargain.

And that’s only the beginning.  Demonizing your adversary is emotionally satisfying, even addictive.  It’s cheap and concise: a party platform that can fit on a bumper sticker.  It’s distracting, removing the need to offer competing ideas.  It’s fast, allowing a lifetime of achievement to be canceled in about the time it takes to pull down a statue.  Most of all, it’s flexible and comprehensive: Love may cover a multitude of sins, but hate can spray paint anything.

Still, at the end of the day, there is one story of goodness we choose not to smash – a story each one of us has narrated, if not written down, and that is the story of our own life.  In this story, though we have access to the most lurid details, the protagonist comes out – if not a hero – a very decent fellow at least, given the circumstances.

We don’t need to be convinced that humans fail in miserable ways, because we have done it.  We find it easy to believe that _____ is the devil because we have been the devil.  We are practiced in the art of remembering others’ failures while forgetting our own.  We are – if we are not very careful – well qualified to take on a mission of hate.

And it seems that many of us have done that.  We spend little time asking what our candidates have sacrificed or what they believe to be higher than themselves, and too much time posterizing their failures, as if we had never failed.  We ask too much who the devil may be, and not who does the devil’s work.      

The Experiment

As good experiments sometimes do, my experiment proved me wrong.

It’s only one experiment, but the results are spectacular, and you can easily run the test yourself. 

I got the idea a while ago, remembering this story I heard as a kid – a story that has haunted me ever since.  The story was so big, so crazy that I imagined it with a dramatic backdrop – earthquakes, signs in the sky, vast armies marching across the countryside.  Well, it’s been a strange year in America, but not that strange.  Still, I thought I would give it a try.

I began at a restaurant I’ve frequented for years and, yep, it worked.  Then I tried the bank.  And then the grocery store.  Finally, the church.

I’ve been running the experiment for weeks now and it works every time.  It works so well that I’m reconsidering that old bible story, which describes a massive social shift – a movement to unite behind an idea and bake that idea into the daily processes of life.  If you show support for the idea, your life is allowed to continue, much as before.  You don’t have to believe; you just have to go along.

Well, as good experiments sometimes do, my experiment proved me wrong.  I thought that story could not happen here, or that it would at least be accompanied by earthquakes and armies.  I thought it would take longer, or that we would think harder, or be more inclined to resist, or be more loyal to old neighbors than new rulers.

In fact, my experiment proved that the story I feared has already come true.  I have been turned away from the restaurant and the bank, the grocery store, and the church; turned away by old friends who doubt whether the idea behind the current story is even true.  I don’t blame them for turning me away.  That’s the way the story works.  You don’t have to believe, but if you want to participate in this society – to buy or sell or bank or worship – you do have to go along.

And go along, we do.  The book of Revelation tells of a “mark” that will be required by the government “to buy or sell”.  We’re not there yet, but if the story seems far-fetched to you, take off your mask and try.

Screwtape Explains a Crisis*

My dim-witted Wormwood, I write in haste. Stand down and – if you value your life – say no more of your proposal to anyone. For one thing, it has been tried (and how exquisitely that fool suffered for it – Satan digest his soul). For another, it shows how little you understand our program.

Yes, the fat is finally in the fire, but do not be intoxicated by the fumes. We have far to go and naturally our journey will end with a bonfire of churches, but for now we want them as they stand – bright white and innocuous.

I have not forgotten your inexperience, but can even you fail to see their importance? The humans have a term for changing bad resources into good – “money laundering”, I think it is – and this is our use for the Church. As you say, the Enemy’s words are heard there, and that is a risk, but less than you think. We have convinced many in the Church to set aside his words and promote our own views of sex and life and race and the rest – all under his flag! The laundering of our Father’s principles, the deprecation of the Enemy’s ideas, the marketing value of the Church marching alongside us, the embarrassment and suppression of those inside the Church who might have done us harm… All this, my short-sighted apprentice: THIS is the profitable enterprise you propose to burn down?!!

Now attend, and I will correct your thinking on the other project you mention.

Our hope for the virus is not to kill humans (they live briefly enough in any case), but to marinate them for our later enjoyment. The Enemy would have them prepare for their death by living bravely and well. We want them to consider death a surprising and preventable event. (I hear you laugh, but you know it works.) Give them terror of what they cannot avoid. Give them a sense of control that will always be frustrated. Set them at war against their own creaturely nature. That is the stuff that seasons their soul.

And there is a broader application. Your human’s nation, though substantially repaired in recent years, remains tainted. The little beasts are taught they were born to be free and they still speak openly of the Enemy and his ideas, even at state-sponsored events. I don’t need to tell you how this increases our workload. A decision has been made by the Lower Downs to deal with the country as a whole.

A task force is working to shift the nation to a new foundation, built upon the timeless and bracing themes of control and conflict, similar to our own organization’s constitution. Their current health crisis will advance this effort in several ways.

1. In times of peace, the creatures’ minds wander to beauty and the greater good, and we must prevent this. Keep them in a state of perplexity and fear through the next election – wearing face-masks wherever they go, separated from their friends and routines, hanging upon the “news” (delicious word!). We must, at all costs, preserve in their minds a state of emergency.

2. Like all good things, the virus will come to an end, but with care, we can draw it out a few more months. Of course, most humans are not physically affected and, if they once stop to think about this, they might go back to their lives, become immune, and our beautiful emergency would soon be over. By all means possible, we must flatten the recovery.

3. Our primary goal is to improve their elections, allowing us much greater influence in the process. The fear we nourish will obviously draw voters away from principle and toward perceived safety. Far more important, it will justify our plan to create wide-open spaces between voters and vote counters. We cannot yet control voters, but we will control their ballots, and that is enough for the moment.

I trust you now see, Wormwood, that your personal initiative is both unwanted and potentially harmful to our ongoing work. In the future, take care to do as you are told and lure your human patient along, or you may find yourself an entrée at the next quarterly barbecue.

Your voraciously affectionate uncle,

Screwtape

*Apologies to C. S. Lewis, author of the brilliant Screwtape Letters, from which the characters and concept are derived (https://www.amazon.com/…/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_GCTfFbB6G35…)

The Strange Tattoo

It’s a strange story, but it’s been told for thousands of years.  An irresistible crowd, following an irresistible leader, all wearing the same tattoo. 

It sounded sinister when I read the story as a kid, but I was missing the point.  There’s a lot to be said for irresistible force, as long as you’re moving with it.  And that tattoo – well, it doesn’t just get you into the crowd, it also gets you into the grocery store and the bank. 

I’m slow, but I think I finally get it.  The story is not about the leader.  It’s about us.

If this year has taught us anything, it’s this: America has become a wave pool of passion, and Americans are far more likely to dive in than ask where the waves are coming from.

And the waves are spectacular.  In just a few months we have all faced death, and then become systemically racist, and finally realized that our nation was always evil.  That’s quite a summer, and there’s more to come.

There’s more to come because waves don’t last very long.   They soar and smash and disappear.  They are big because they are big, and not because they are true.  They may be led by swimmers, but they are fed by floaters – by the much larger body of people who decide that resistance is futile, or at least too expensive.  Floaters are the real power behind every wave.  They magnify its force by bobbing along, adding their own weight to its influence.

Waves soar and smash and disappear, and all that remains is the damage… which makes you wonder where these waves are coming from because they all point at the same target.  In the old days of, say, six months ago, we called ourselves “a nation of laws and not of men”.  Today, we watch the lawless on TV, left free to destroy whatever they will.  Our leaders, too, are lawless, claiming for themselves new powers or standing quietly aside as others do, dismantling the system they were hired to protect.  We are quickly becoming a nation of men and not law.

I don’t think the beast of the Bible story is here, or that his mark is a mask or BLM t-shirt, but we begin to see how easy it will be.  The Antichrist will be a bum, of course, but he will have a few tricks up his sleeve, and that will be enough.  He will make waves, and many will dive in, and most of the rest will play it safe and bob along.  For the few who refuse, there will be fear and shame and a guy in front of the grocery store checking tattoos.

The Iconoclasts

It’s fun to be an iconoclast and it requires little training. You don’t need to understand what you’re smashing. You don’t need to be better than what you condemn. You don’t need to offer anything in exchange for what you destroy. If you seem angry enough, people will assume you have something to be angry about. They will assume that what you hate is evil.

It’s harder to take the other position. We’ve never met Lincoln, Grant, Washington, or the rest. There is a layer of dust on our memory of their lives. We didn’t build their statues or experience the problems they helped solve. We know they were real people, flawed as we are flawed, who nonetheless accomplished important things, but our loyalty to them is a dim, cobwebby, inherited thing.

And this is the battle of the moment. Our hazy memories against kids with ropes and spray paint. Our faded gratitude against their frantic rage. Our half-hearted defense of half-forgotten people against a frenzy of self-righteous indignation.

There are arguments to be made against every man, and history would have us make them, and then evaluate those arguments in the full light of day. But the iconoclast does not want light. His hour is darkness, hidden within an anonymous mob that honors no law and tolerates no debate.

He weaponizes history, ignoring his subjects’ culture and denying their suffering, reducing them to comic-book villains, representative of their villainous eras. He rejects his subjects’ limitations and humanity – makes them gods in order to make them devils. He makes them devils in order to discredit their gods.

But, of course, these famous men were not gods. They were humans born into a culture, just as we were born into a culture – humans who suffered and struggled and stood apart from their culture, often leaving it changed for the better. They were brave men, now being mocked by masked men. They were humble and dedicated men, now being judged by self-righteous and cowardly men. They were imperfect men, now being slandered by abysmal men.

It is our forgetting that makes us ripe for this revolution. We have forgotten the price that many paid for this freedom we were born into – our globally and historically unprecedented American privilege. We have forgotten the Creator who inspired our ancestors’ revolution and their painful journey toward equality. We have forgotten our own generation’s brutality to the aborted, even as we criticize their generation’s slow liberation of the enslaved.

It’s fun to be an iconoclast, until you have finally torn down everything you don’t understand. Then, at least, you may begin to understand.