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Broken Journophone?

Glenn Reynolds (InstaPundit) writes, "LIBERAL FASCISM: Will Smith says nice things about Hitler." He links to this short World Entertainment News story:

Will Smith has stunned the world by declaring that even Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was essentially a "good" person.

The Men In Black star, 39, is determined to see the best in people, and is convinced the former German leader did not fully understand the extent of the pain and suffering his actions would cause during his time in power in the 1930s and '40s.

He says, "Even Hitler didn't wake up going, 'Let me do the most evil thing I can do today'.

"I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was 'good'. Stuff like that just needs reprogramming."

Hitler's totalitarian leadership as Fuhrer during 1934 until his eventual suicide in 1945 resulted in the persecution of an estimated six million Jews in the Holocaust, and his invasion of Poland in 1939 led to the start of the Second World War.

But did Will Smith really "declar[e]" that Hitler "was essentially a 'good' person"? The World Entertainment News story seems to be based on an interview with the Daily Record (Scotland), the relevant portion of which reads this way:

Remarkably, Will believes everyone is basically good.

"Even Hitler didn't wake up going, 'let me do the most evil thing I can do today'," said Will. "I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was 'good'. Stuff like that just needs reprogramming.

"I wake up every day full of hope, positive that every day is going to be better than yesterday. And I'm looking to infect people with my positivity. I think I can start an epidemic."

It seems that "Will believes everyone is basically good" is just the reporter's characterization of Smith's statement. Nothing in the quoted material suggests that Smith was saying that Hitler was a good person. Rather, the quoted material simply reports Smith's quite plausible view that Hitler, like many other people who do evil (Smith must have used Hitler as a referent precisely because Smith acknowledges that Hitler did do evil), believe that they are doing good. I'm hardly a Hitler scholar, but my sense is that Hitler did indeed believe that he was doing good, as did Stalin, Bin Laden, and various others.

At most, given the upbeatness of the rest of Smith's message, Smith might be saying that everyone has the potential for good, if only they can be "reprogramm[ed]" away from their "twisted, backwards logic." This is not clearly true; perhaps people can't be so easily reprogrammed even in theory, certainly they often can't be in practice, and there's also the question of how they should be held accountable for what they did before their reprogramming. Sometimes stuff like that needs killing, as in Hitler's case and quite a few others. But surely Smith's message isn't outrageous, either, at least unless he said something stunning that the reporters for some reason decided merely to paraphrase rather than quote -- possible, but in my view far from certain. What Smith is actually quoted as saying doesn't seem like a statement that Hitler is a "good person," evidence of "liberal fascism," something that should "stun[] the world," or even particularly "nice things about Hitler."

On the other hand, to give blame where blame is due, the World Entertainment News should certainly be faulted for talking about "persecution of an estimated six million Jews in the Holocaust" (as InstaPundit points out, quoting a reader).

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31 Comments
"Good" Intentions and the Nature of Evil:

I think Eugene is right to suggest that Will Smith did not really say that Adolf Hitler was a good person, but merely claimed that Hitler himself believed that he was doing the right thing. The latter is, as far as I know, an uncontroversial statement among experts on Nazi Germany. However, it's striking that so many observers - including the reporter who interviewed Smith and Instapundit - seem to conflate the two.

The confusion is at least in part the result of a shortcoming of the pop culture image of evil. We tend to think of evil people as those who know what they are doing is wrong, but do it anyway. In reality, most of the world's greatest evildoers, Hitler included, actually believe that their evil actions are morally praiseworthy. Many - notably the Nazis, Communists, and today's radical Islamists - have elaborate ideologies that validate those actions. Indeed, it is striking that most of the great mass murders of the last century were committed by Nazi or Commmunist regimes in order to advance their strong ideological and moral commitments. If Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao had cared only about their narrow self-interest and holding onto power, they would have killed many fewer people. Even serial killers often believe that their actions are justified - either on weird ideological grounds of some kind or as a response to real or imagined slights that they have suffered. In real life, there are very few cackling villains open reveling in (what they admit to be) their evil ways. As Smith said of Hitler, the typical mass murderer "woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, . . . set out to do what he thought was 'good'."

We often praise those who seem "principled," are "people of faith," or show other signs of genuine moral commitment. The most dangerous evildoers, however, are not those who lack principles altogether, but those who believe all too fervently in the wrong ones.

UPDATE: I do, however, think that Smith was naive to suggest that Hitler's type of evil could be addressed through "reprogramming," at least not if "reprogramming" simply means education and persuasion. By all accounts, Hitler was strongly committed to his ideology and was unlikely to change his mind about its fundamentals. Of those prominent Nazi leaders taken alive by the Allies at the end of World War II, very few (such as Albert Speer) ever admitted that Nazi ideology was wrong, despite extensive efforts to persuade them to do so.

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