Against Lesser Evilism

Whenever A and B are in opposition to each other,” wrote George Orwell in 1945, in “Through a Glass, Rosily,” “anyone who attacks or criticizes A is accused of aiding and abetting B.” He added: “It is a tempting maneuver, and I have used it myself more than once, but it is dishonest.” Orwell lived and wrote in a period when the pressure on intellectuals to “take sides” was ostensibly much more palpable than it is now, and when with that pressure came a surreptitious invitation to moral blackmail: the element that tells thinking people that the less adventurous the use they make of their ratiocinative capacity, the better. When the big decision has already been taken, what need of paltry misgivings? Who desires to be called a wavering intellectual dilettante when grand enterprises are on foot, and when the engine of destiny has gone to all the trouble of revving itself up?

In our time, of course, the great question has become more banal. It is most commonly stated as the theory and practice of the “lesser evil.” And, as argued in its conventional form, it has become worn as smooth as a stone. Thus A will exhort B, how can you vote for Clinton when…(list of betrayals and depredations follows) and B replies, without the slightest rehearsal, do you suppose that the right wing (taxonomy of depredations and fell intentions ready to hand) would be preferable? And that’s the whole exchange. And not just in a nutshell either, since the amount of time and of mental effort expended is usually less than it has taken me to set it down. However, as Prince Hamlet once exclaimed, one may be confined in a nutshell and still count oneself a king of infinite space. Folded inside the “lesser evil” argument, there is a worthwhile confrontation waiting to be enacted. The smooth stone can become an effective projectile, to be employed with care by either antagonist.

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