Political Evil by Alan Wolfe
What It Is and How to Combat It

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A timely, eye-opening examination of political evil, a concept widely misunderstood and desperately in need of clarification in our ever more chaotic world.

In an age of genocide, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and torture, evil threatens us in ways radically different from tsunamis and financial panics. Nature unleashes its wrath and people rush to help the victims. Evil shows its face and we are paralyzed over how to respond.

It was not always this way. During the twentieth century, thinkers as diverse as Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Koestler, and George Orwell made evil central to everything they wrote. Acclaimed political scientist Alan Wolfe argues 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.

Diplomats and politicians with their own agendas ignore this side of evil to grim and often tragic effect. These movers and shakers apply the concept of general evil, seemingly inconquerable, inviting only violence and despair to situations that are local in nature. Looking at examples of political evil around the globe—in the Middle East, Darfur, the Balkans, and at home in the West—Wolfe shows us how seemingly small distinctions can make an immense difference in international response. And he makes clear that much-needed change can be initiated with a shift in how we talk and think about political evil.

International shame in the years following the Rwandan genocide—after the world failed to recognize it as such—led to a large-scale campaign against genocide in Darfur. Except, Wolfe argues, in Darfur it wasn’t genocide: it was civil war. We see—surprisingly, and powerfully—that labeling the conflict incorrectly had disastrous effects, even extending the violence as soldiers waited for seemingly inevitable Western intervention. When, on the other hand, Western leaders compared Serbian president and infamous ethnic cleanser Slobodan Milosevic to Hitler, they failed to recognize that exterminating people and seeking to take over their land are both evil but they are evil in different ways; misguided Western intervention in the Balkans eventually brought ethnic cleansing to an end, but only by allowing it to run its course.

At once impassioned and pragmatic, Political Evil sheds essential light on the creation of policy and on a concrete path to a more practicable and just future.

About Alan Wolfe

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Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. A contributing editor of The New Republic, The Wilson Quarterly, CommonWealth, and In Character, Professor Wolfe also frequently writes for Commonweal, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Washington Post. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Published September 27, 2011 by Vintage. 354 pages
Genres: History, Education & Reference, Law & Philosophy, Political & Social Sciences. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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Noted political scientist Wolfe (The Future of Liberalism, 2009, etc.) brings the theological problem of evil to bear on politics and political wrongdoers from Hitler to Dick Cheney.

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The New York Times

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But the more important word in Wolfe’s title is “political.” Individual wickedness and criminality are deplorable, Wolfe argues, but political evil is many orders of magnitude more dangerous: “Organized into a movement or state and motivated by a cause that gives them passion and purpose, practit...

Oct 07 2011 | Read Full Review of Political Evil: What It Is an...

Publishers Weekly

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Despite its fire-and-brimstone title, the latest from Wolfe (The Future of Liberalism) offers a restrained and balanced inquiry into the violent world confronting America today, covering a wide variety of leaders and philosophers, including St. Augustine, Hannah Arendt, Adolf Hitler, and Osama bi...

Sep 05 2011 | Read Full Review of Political Evil: What It Is an...

The Wall Street Journal

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Mr. Wolfe objects to Arendt's psychologizing of evil: By focusing on Eichmann's supposedly unexceptional personality, she deflected attention from the defective political ideas and institutions that allowed him to supervise the slaughter of six million Jews and the want of political thought and a...

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The Wall Street Journal

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In "Political Evil," Alan Wolfe issues a compelling summons to moral and intellectual seriousness and conducts a multi-pronged and, for the most part, soberly argued inquiry into the contemporary forms of political evil and the proper means for combating them.

Nov 04 2011 | Read Full Review of Political Evil: What It Is an...

Washington Independent Review of Books

Political evil is defined as “the willful, malevolent and gratuitous death, destruction and suffering inflicted upon innocent people by the leaders of movements and states in their strategic efforts to achieve realizable objectives.” According to Wolfe, “not all evil is political evil.” Political...

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San Francisco Chronicle

A professor of political science at Boston College, Wolfe distinguishes political evil from evil in general, examines examples of genocide, ethnic cleansing, terrorism and "counter-evil" around the world, and makes a learned, lucid and gutsy appeal for responses grounded in a recognition that exc...

Oct 31 2011 | Read Full Review of Political Evil: What It Is an...


Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) October 13, 2011: In his learned new book Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (2011), Alan Wolfe of Boston College examines and discusses political evil, concentrating political evil in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

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