And now for a brief word about the many faces of evil.
Hard not to contemplate that lately, amid the spate of news filled with unimaginable depravity and remorselessness. Boko Haram comes to mind. The Syrian government. Justin Bieber. Whatever.
Some people are so twisted with power, ideology, greed or just plain narcissism that they become monsters. Or Bachelorettes. The haunting question is who or what to be most afraid of.
Indian gang rapists? North Korean dictators who starve and enslave their people? Mexican drug kingpins who murder wantonly to protect their cartels?
Uh-oh. Once you assess overall risk and overall harm, these questions can yield some weird answers. The health of a society cannot be measured solely by safety. (Saudi Arabia springs to mind.) There are other threats, notably to political and economic freedom. And some evils are less than obvious. As such, this meditation will meander through the depths of hell, "The Godfather: Part II" and the Federal Communications Commission. Your snort of derision is very possibly in the offing. But this is a thought experiment, for which I beg your indulgence. Plus, you get it free -- right?
Mind you, all of the above villains certainly qualify for our fear and loathing. But the level of danger to a society isn’t necessarily proportional to the amount of immediately spilled blood. For instance, in the search for raw menace, what about American energy tycoons who bankroll demagogic climate-change deniers, lest a sane government response to encroaching atmospheric catastrophe harm their fossil-fuel interests? The planet is dying, and these bro-wads are manipulating gullible, resentful boobs with allegations of climate conspiracy.
Isn’t the greatest danger the evil that seeps into the mainstream? Think of the National Rifle Association -- one of the country’s largest membership organizations -- bribing and bullying craven legislators as the bullet-riddled corpses pile up. (At this writing, the number of mass shootings in the past week has exceeded the number of gun-control bills ever passed in Congress.) Just for fun, think, too, of the NRA’s us-against-them rhetoric. Is it not of a piece with racists, sexists, anti-Semites and homophobes, feeding on ignorance and bigotry dressed up as religious, cultural or political “belief?” Alas, all of those categories are as persistent as they are bankrupt, for there was never in all of history a bear market for demonization of a hated Other.
Spoiler alert: this began with Boko Haram and just got done hinting at Nazism. It will end with your cable bill. Hang in with me, please.
Let’s move now to corporate evil, which may not rack up a huge a body count, but which through greed and malign indifference can economically and physically harm millions or tens of millions or hundreds. The BP oil spill. The Dalkon Shield. The “Unsafe at Any Speed” Chevrolet Corvair. The S&L scandals. Enron. ADM price-fixing. GE toxic-waste dumping. The toll has been many lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, resulting in part from the faith free societies place on venerable institutions -- from the Catholic Church to General Motors -- to behave honorably.
It’s a long and horrifying list, yet I say this: of the even more mundane beware. And for the second consecutive week I say this: remember Hyman Roth.
In "The Godfather: Part II," the aging gangster sat in a Havana hotel suite with Michael Corleone, talking about the sweetheart deal he was striking with Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista: “What I am saying is, we have now what we have always needed, real partnership with the government.”
Now that is danger: unchecked greed under the sponsorship and protection of the authorities. Amorality and impunity are a bad combination. It is why Eisenhower warned us about the Military Industrial Complex. It is why Pakistan’s Khan network could smuggle nuclear weapon technology to the Axis of Evil. It is why PBS airs fun programming on pledge week.
Now then, at last, the logical extension of the inquiry: Whom should we, as Americans in 2014, most fear? Al Qaeda? No. Putin? No. Palin? No, not even her.
More likely: Big Cable.
Comcast and Time Warner have agreed to merge. Each has shown a malignant disregard for the consumer, steadily raising rates and raking in profits despite literally the worst-ranked customer satisfaction in American commerce. Each has a history of bullying suppliers for more favorable terms. Each is throttling broadband traffic (or has recently) to extort higher “fast lane” payments from online companies. Each has spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying Congress and the administration for favorable treatment.
And each has its deepest wish -- the destruction of the principle of “Net neutrality,” which till now has prohibited offering preferred service for a price -- resting in the hands of the FCC. Which is run by Obama appointee Tom Wheeler, who has just announced a rule change to permit fast lanes for services willing to pay a premium, and who most recently was the chief Washington lobbyist for Big Cable. (“…what we have always needed, real partnership with the government.”)
A combined Comcast and Time Warner, hitherto mere CRM bad boys who overcharged for inferior service, would now control one-third of the Internet in this country -- one-third of the information, one-third of the economy, one-third of the culture -- and have their financial way with us all the while. Our nation’s most strategic infrastructure asset in these rapacious hands? Why not just turn our domestic airspace over to Jeff Bezos for his drones? Or store the gold at Fort Trump?
As history tragically records, there is a misleading banality to the most dangerous actors. We spend blood and treasure and exhort against evil abroad in the name of defending our freedom from bearded men in thobes? Are we about to actually surrender freedom to clean-shaven men in Brooks Brothers suits, right here at home?