Jim Swanson Examines Good and Evil, Hitler and
Terrorism, Art and Politics
Black and white...one or the other...good or evil...we still,
in many ways, use that today because complexity takes too much effort.
Our brains, as powerful as we want to believe they are, actually canít
handle very many ideas at the same time. Our recent election is an example
of this. The problem of John Kerry for most Americans was that he wanted
to see things in shades of grays, as complex, and that doesnít make
people comfortable. George Bush pretty much set them out in black and
white, early, to give the illusion that he saw the world in black and
white, and that made people feel more comfortable. -- Jim Swanson
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
In the Fall of 2003, Jim Swanson and the Chicago art gallery Qualiatica
staged an exhibit that explored the mythology of evil. That show has
both a limited edition art book and a dvd, which are together a
BuzzFlash premium. "Evil is a reactionary, emotional frame,"
according to Swanson. "We must replace concepts of sin and evil
with a nurturing and positive frame that recognizes harmful actions
causes, and encourages appropriate remediations." Axis
of Evil and this BuzzFlash conversation with Swanson bring
new insights to the historical and artistic concepts of evil, and how
concept has been used in politics today.
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BuzzFlash: Your new book, Axis
of Evil: Perforated Praeter Naturam, is an examination
of the concept of evil through stamp art, intermixed with thought-provoking
Tell us how and why you created this art book.
Jim Swanson: After George Bush gave his State of the
Union address in which he used the term "Axis of Evil" to refer
to the three countries -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea -- Iíd gotten interested
in trying to do something on the perceptions of evil. In discussions with
a stamp artist -- thereís a large field out there of artist-created stamps
that is separate from the real stamp world -- he suggested using stamp
art as the medium in order to have the artist do it. Thatís where the
title came in -- itís kind of a pun: perforated because the stamps are
perforated, and perforated trying to expose the supernatural aspects of
BuzzFlash: Give us a little history of stamp art and
how it has evolved.
Jim Swanson: It probably can be traced back to the 1930s
or 1940s, and the first examples of it were pretty much the counterfeiting
of stamps, either by anarchists or artists who couldnít afford to purchase
stamps. You saw quite a bit of this in Europe at the time of the Second
World War. Eventually, the artists started playing around with it, instead
of just counterfeiting the stamp or slightly altering the original design,
either in a sign of protest or for comedic value. It has steadily grown,
and there are thousands of stamp artists throughout the world. In our
book, weíve got artists from 11 different countries, and some of the most
provocative are a group of artists in Russia who are using it.
BuzzFlash: I would imagine a big reason is that one of the advantages
to the medium of stamp art is it allows people to manipulate and challenge
cultural icons and popular images.
Jim Swanson: There are groups of stamp artists that are
anarchists. There are groups of Dadaists. I mean, there are a whole bunch
of different subcultures of stamp artists. In fact, because of this book,
I am now purchasing a collection of about 3,700 different pieces of stamp
art that has been collected over many years, representing 400-and-some
BuzzFlash: How do our conceptions and definitions of
evil affect our behavior and even lead to government policy?
Jim Swanson: Evil is a metaphor. But for most people,
it has a basis in reality; they believe it actually exists. The majority
of Americans are very religious and they see life as a battle between
good and evil. So when George Bush and Tony Blair use the term "evil,"
in reference to Saddam Husseinís regime in Iraq, they saw invading Iraq
as a necessary battle that had to be engaged in so that good could prevail.
Personally, I believe that itís a metaphor, and that when you use that
metaphor, you quite often run the risk of then making the concept become
real. In our documentary film, a philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, says she
doesnít like to use the word evil because of that.
BuzzFlash: Perhaps the true power is the ability of some
type of an entity, whether itís a politician, an institution, or a religious
or political movement, to define what evil is. That seems to be more important
than evil itself. Our contemporary definitions of terrorism come to mind.
So even if a person in Fallujah or somewhere in the Middle East joins
some kind of a rebellion or an insurgency or a nationalist movement, and
theyíre labeled a terrorist, theyíre being equated with evil. Once someone
labels you as a terrorist, or as being evil, how can you refute it?
Jim Swanson: The cognitive linguist George Lakoff at
Berkeley uses the word "frame" for this. Once you frame something,
every time the term is used, everyone has an accepted belief in that frame.
We went into this quite a bit in the documentary film. Terrorism originally
was defined as a brutal state action at the time of the terrors in France
and the French Revolution. But for modern people, terrorism is an individual
action or non-governmental action against a group of individuals. So for
most people, terror is something thatís real. The reality here in the
United States is that, apart from September 11th, terrorism doesnít harm
very many people at all, certainly not on a day-to-day basis. Itís not
a threat to us. But because weíve framed it as such a major threat, we
now assume it is, and then we have to do battle with it, the same as we
do with evil.
BuzzFlash: What does evil mean to you? How would you
Jim Swanson: "Evil" is just a shorthand for
something that we find unpleasant or dislike. Life is too complex for
us to constantly go around and analyze everything. And so we use shorthand.
The way we treat African-American men in the United States I can call
evil because I think that itís wrong. Itís shorthand.
BuzzFlash: How has evil been defined historically? Give
us some competing definitions or examples across cultures and time. Certainly
thereís not a universal definition of evil, and in fact, it has evolved.
Jim Swanson: In Western culture, you see discussions
of evil starting back with Aristotle, and then coming up through the early
Roman Catholic philosophers. You have Saint Augustine talking about good
and evil. Saint Augustine, before he was Catholic, was a Manichean, and
Manicheans pretty much see the world as good or evil, and thatís it. Black
and white -- itís one or the other. So in some ways the concept of evil
is integrated into the Catholic Church, but in other ways that was resisted
because it was too simple. We see it continuing now for 3,000 years in
Western culture. Most of Western religion has just adopted it as something
that religion fights.
In a religious society, anything is evil that is in opposition to our
religious beliefs. We call drugs evil because the use of drugs is in opposition
to most peopleís religious beliefs. We call terrorism evil because it
harms people. We call Saddam Hussein evil because itís convenient to call
BuzzFlash: Many people would say that evil is almost
a primitive religious concept because, as you indicated, it removes complexity
and personal responsibility from the debate, and it also creates some
kind of an identity and a focus separate from ourselves. Evil then becomes
Jim Swanson: Well, the Manichean thoughts are roughly
2,000 years old, and if you go back even to much of the primitive cultural
beliefs, people didnít have the luxuries of contemplating the complexity.
That tiger approaching is either good or evil. That man that you donít
know approaching you is either good or evil, and you have to make that
immediate decision. You donít think that maybe itís just a tiger that
is wandering over to see who you are, or itís a man who is lost and looking
for his way. Weíve integrated that and we still, in many ways, use that
today because complexity takes too much effort. Our brains, as powerful
as we want to believe they are, actually canít handle very many ideas
at the same time.
Our recent election is an example of this. The problem of John Kerry for
most Americans was that he wanted to see things in shades of grays, as
complex, and that doesnít make people comfortable. George Bush pretty
much set them out in black and white, early, to give the illusion that
he saw the world in black and white, and that made people feel more comfortable.
BuzzFlash: Do you think that, in a secular society, the
concept of evil is more difficult to define, since a secular society inherently
sees life as more complex and nuanced? Do you think that secular societies
are less prone to being indoctrinated with a contemporary or politically
motivated concept of evil?
Jim Swanson: I think in a secular society, you wouldnít
use the term evil, because itís too simplistic. There are too many shades
to it. In a secular society, you remove the frame of "evil"
and you look at it in degrees. Most people that knew Adolph Hitler personally
found him a very nice person who is kind to animals and children. And
so if you wanted to look at it, heís much more complex. Hannah Arendt,
in her writings in the 1950s about the Nazis, said they were just a bunch
of ordinary people with kind of weird beliefs.
BuzzFlash: The concept of evil has divided people, even
philosophers and intellectuals, and some say that we should not try to
understand evil, such as some of the most vile and horrific acts committed
at Auschwitz and in the Holocaust. Many critics believe that in an attempt
to come to grips with evil, a person inherently and inadvertently will
begin to explain it, understand the underlying factors that generated
or allowed evil acts to occur, and that humanizing and trying to understand
evil is just unacceptable to some people. Do you think there are moments
in history that are so horrific or so evil that we should not attempt
to understand them? Is there essentially any advantage to dismissing tragedy
as pure evil?
Jim Swanson: No, in fact thereís tremendous risk in it. Letís
go back to Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. When we see them as pure evil,
we tend to ignore how it came about and why it happened, and how it could
easily happen here in the United States or anywhere else. Thatís the major
risk of seeing things as evil, is that then we cannot see ourselves as
evil. So if we commit similar acts, we arenít evil. It has to be something
Weíve been going down a slippery slope here in the United States toward
a very restrictive government that punishes people not only because of
their beliefs, but because of their status. And we can accept that as
long as we call Hitler and the Nazis evil. Another reason why George Bush
was reelected is a lot of us on the left called him evil. After Saddam
Hussein or Osama bin Laden were labeled evil, in most peopleís eyes there
was no way that George Bush could also be evil by comparison. The labeling
of anyone or any act or any event as evil then limits the understanding
BuzzFlash: Do you think it is a default mechanism in our minds
that we as human beings so easily slip into these absolute definitions
of good and evil? Or nowadays is it just a constant advantage for people
to use those terms to manipulate the masses?
Jim Swanson: Itís comforting, so that makes life a lot
easier. Run back to my comments earlier about the limits of our conscious
ability to understand the world around us, and our lack of acceptance
of the fact that we have those limits. By necessity, we have to label
things. Even recent studies of sheep have found that they react differently
to sheep that arenít of the same tribe as they are. They react with stress.
Labeling something as evil in such clear terms, in an odd way brings comfort
BuzzFlash: Some of the artwork is provocative, even offensive.
Did any of it shock you?
Jim Swanson: Iím just getting ready to meet on our next
project, which is "Enemies of the State." One of our criteria
for the artwork is, if it doesnít upset me or someone else, it probably
wonít be included. I found some of the artwork in here that I would not
want to comfortably hang on the walls of my house. I found some of it
to be very anti-Semitic. I found some of it to be sexist. I found some
of it to be homophobic. But the reason itís there is that we feel those
emotions. When we get upset by it, we then have to start wondering why
we get upset.
Each artist is told to just either create a work or submit a work they
already possess that in some way dealt with evil. Some of it is extremely
comedic. Some of it is extremely subtle. And some of it is completely
in your face. Thereís a lot of fascination with Nazis in the artwork in
the book. To many of us, it bothers us. I had a person who was working
on the project withdraw from it because of the anti-Semitism in some of
the art. I thought the fact that someone could see that it was anti-Semitic
and start to wonder why would an artist create something like this would
get us to discuss the subtle nature of our discriminations.
BuzzFlash: The language that a visual artist speaks is,
at least in this particular book, one of complexity. In some ways complexity
in and of itself is a challenge to a concept of evil.
Jim Swanson: Right. Well, also, whatís quite interesting
is, in discussions with some of the artists, those of us who worked on
the book had completely different interpretations of the artistís attempts
than the artists did. And some of the art had to do with their own personal
inner conflicts, and they were trying to put them on a page, whereas we
thought that they were making a political statement.
One of the pieces showed George W. Bush with a gun to his head against
a backdrop of the American flag and the words "Patriot Act"
underneath it. Now there are many different ways of looking at this piece
of stamp art. Did George W. Bush put a gun to his head when he backed
the Patriot Act? Does the Patriot Act put a gun against a personís head?
Would it be a patriotic act to assassinate the President? Those are all
different interpretations. The artist that created that didnít really
have any one intent. He just found it to be a very powerful image.
BuzzFlash: Jim, thank you for your time.
Jim Swanson: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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