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Breakfast with Satan

At the beginning of my journalistic career I went to interview a chap called Magnus Malan.  It was in Pretoria, and early in the morning.  General Malan had been at the heart of South Africa’s apartheid government.  He’d been head of the army and the Minister of Defence.  He had, no doubt, been responsible for some horrendous actions on behalf of a racist state. 

I think when I walked into General Malan’s office I expected to be confronted with a stinking ogre with fangs (no doubt this reflects my own prejudices), because I can still recall leaving the meeting in shock.  He’d been polite and attentive, had worried that I hadn’t had time for breakfast and had tried to order food on my behalf (I refused).

The story comes to mind because this weekend I attended a lecture by a friend and colleague, Allan Little, on ‘Dictators I Have Known’.  Allan has known – or observed – a vat full of dictators and spoke brilliantly and movingly on their methods of control and the devastation they’d wrought.

He didn’t, however, address a question that has always bothered me.  It’s perhaps not surprising that some dictators and high officials in totalitarian regimes are charming, charismatic, and smart: they’re unlikely to have achieved power through force, brutality and fear alone.

Is it a moral flaw to find oneself beguiled by such men?  Presumably the answer depends on the scale of the crimes in which the individual is implicated.  But I think somehow it must be.  A truly virtuous person should have an automatic off-switch on their charm receptors – triggered by the knowledge of another’s evil deeds.  I seem to be missing that switch.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. I remember what Andre Comte-Sponville said in his “Small treatise of the great virtues”; that politeness is a very ‘borderline” between ethical virtues and aesthetical virtues; it is tempting to think of it as a beginning/precondition of virtues, yet when it is not accompanied by any other ethical virtues it bears no value whatsoever, but on the very contrary: a deeply immoral yet polite person appears even more heinous/dislikeable than a deeply immoral and rude/brutal-one.

  2. Interesting. I want to resist being charmed by ‘deeply immoral’ people – since their charm is a negligible virtue compared to their vice(s). But it seems a bit perverse to argue that their charm provides an additional reason for further downgrading our judgement of them…doesn’t it?

  3. As a South African involved in post-apartheid politics, I realised that there were numerous sociopaths whose charm and ability to present the required face have moved them right up in the society, into positions of wealth, respect and privilege. It has been disheartening to see how little justice has prevailed. I was mortified to be seated a couple of tables away from Wouter Basson, smiling and carefree, in a Cape Town restaurant. What bothers me most is how little most people are concerned with the torture, murder and greed that have characterised some public figures. Respect is giving to the wealthy, regardless of how the wealth was made, while the poor are generally despised. The applies to people who sat in jail, and the followers of apartheid.

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