The Perfect Enemy: Summer Blockbusters and Civilized Evil

As I reach the halfway point of this project, I would like to record the few tenets of transcription that I’ve managed to pick up: 1. there will be things that I will not and cannot catch; 2. with every repetition, words lose their meaning until they are reduced to senseless sounds; and 3. on a good day, 10 minutes of audio will take on average 2 hours of work. The last one is a bit shocking to me because I imagined a realistic schedule as double the audio time, accounting for typing and backtracking. So a 20 minute testimony could, in theory, be completed within the hour. I suppose that’s why I felt so frantic working. I felt some sort of invisible sense of urgency pushing me to move faster. Not to mention, I spent the beginning of this week and the last trying to transcribe and translate subtitles for a documentary, which poses its own set of challenges. The repetitious and organic nature of speech doesn’t necessarily translate well into the written.

Although, even seeing these points unfolding before me like a map, accompanied by the neat, gentle clacks from my keyboard, transcription and translation still seem like a distant land I could only hope to inhabit. In times like these, when the seduction of inadequacy begins to whisper sweet nothings, it’s best to step back and indulge oneself, whether that be in carbs or the company of others. Or in my case, both. I went out with some friends to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes expecting very little. I hadn’t seen any of the originals, and I figured it would be like any other war movie, about hero complexes, ‘human nature,’ and, ultimately, thinly veiled patriotism and destruction of the enemy. Certainly, the film touches on themes of corruption and the struggle for power, but it goes so much farther than that. In the end it forges strong and really engaging anti-war sentiments. Without spoiling the plot or letting this post devolve into a film review, I want to address one of the movie’s overarching motifs: the idea of civilized evil.

Unlike the obvious hallmarks of Evil (with a big ‘E’) like massacres, demonic features, and comedic cackling, civilized evil is far more subtle and looks less at the individual per se and more at the community. How do we as a nation justify war? How do we reconcile our values with the complete destruction of others through violence and terror? How do we construct the enemy as incompatible to ourselves? And does the end justify the means? What’s more, the film seems to suggest that we, as individuals, are capable of being rational and noble creatures, but as a society we become morally ambiguous in the name of some greater good, the irony being that in the quest to preserve our values we actually end up destroying ourselves, literally and figuratively. And I think what’s truly terrifying is that we may be unwitting yet active participants, failing to see the damage done.

I refer back to the montage of testimonies in the documentary La Sauceda, de la utopía al horror, in which locals speak about their families’ experience during the war, focusing primarily on the injustices of the rebel troops. Stories about separation, about the almost utilitarian executions as if fulfilling death quotas, and all in the context of burning houses and mass graves. I’ve noticed that in all the stories, though the victims speak about the nationalists as an entity rather than as a group of people, the focus always returns to the pain they suffered and their desire to find closure. The testimonies sought primarily to mourn rather than condemn. I’m reminded of the poet Marcos Ana, who spent 22 years, the majority of his youth, imprisoned under Franco’s regime. Articulate and poised, Marcos identifies the true enemy as not the nationalists but rather the institutionalized fear and evil that manipulates the people into justifying the unjust: “It’s the system you should hate, you know? The system that creates monsters who are capable of torturing other human beings. Personal vengeance is useless […] Revenge is a serious business: it must put an end to the system.”

And rightly so. What use is it to punish the individual when the underlying source of the problem is precisely a society that condones such injustices in the first place? In a war where brothers find themselves on opposing sides only to rationalize, however convolutedly, the murder of the other, surely we must examine the logic behind civilized evil. I recall Spanish historian Joaquin Ramon’s transcription, in which he discusses how the nationalists fostered a society that could patrol itself in the name of racial purity and self-preservation. Joaquin refers to military leader Queipo de Llano’s radio programs as a major influence in shaping a nationalist Spain by perpetuating Franco’s agenda through an unyielding and pervasive patriarchy, one that dictated what men and women, alike, could and couldn’t be. Joaquin continues to contend that the wide-spread dissemination of nationalist sentiments would serve to justify the humiliation and rape of women who were associated with republican ideals, an act of male aggression that embodied the very core of the nationalist movement: to destroy is to save, the aesthetics of salvation through suffering and punishment. Indeed, he observes that Franco was not just a dictator but rather an institution, a system of civilized evil.

However, I don’t think that such systems are limited to this sort of moral ambiguity that compels us to accept necessary evils. Rather there is something to be said for the individual’s role in indirectly sustaining or dissolving injustice. That is to say, whether we realize it or not, we as individuals are also participants. Antonio Altarriba’s poignant graphic novel El arte de volar, which details the author’s attempt to portray his father’s life during the war and post-war, beautifully illustrates this through his themes of reconciliation and fragmentation, reflected in the very medium itself. The frames divide the narrative and must be completed to continue. In essence, the reader becomes the connective tissue that binds the relationship between son, father, and narrative and is subsequently transformed into a witness to the greater part of the 20th century. A true collaboration between reader and text.

Antonio proceeds to pose questions of social complacency as he talks about his father’s struggle to transition into a post-Franco democracy. I would argue the issue is twofold, the first being that we must not adopt the whims of the government uncritically, lest society descend into a state of political apathy where its citizens relinquish their agency, because this is the source of civilized evil; the second being that a change in values requires a change in how we express dissent. Or, more accurately, how we criticize injustices during an era of democracy and peace. If we do nothing, if we are complacent and refuse to take responsibility, then we accept injustice. Instead we must fight. The battle is no longer fought with guns but rather ideas and public participation, and perhaps it is the medium itself, as Antonio finds, which is both question and answer. The reader’s journey through the graphic novel -a metaphorical quest to reconcile Antonio and his father’s trauma as well as the narrative on a literary level- is transformed into an act of participation that seeks to combat complacency as the reader becomes an inadvertent witness.

To look at civilized evil as a social construct meant to mend the discrepancies between morality and immorality is rather terrifying as one starts to wonder what this means in our personal lives, whether or not we unknowingly allow injustice to prevail based on our own prerogatives. And I think Joaquin would agree as he calls for a moral obligation to remember the past for what it is. He wonders, how many deaths must the dead endure? How many ways do we kill them? For me, I question if, at an individual level, civilized evil and relative morality are not interchangeable. Is there a difference, and does that matter? Furthermore, is civilized evil necessary? I think these questions are important to keep in mind as I continue to transcribe.


  1. Sara Suarez says:

    Thanks for a great meditation on ‘civilized evil’ Michael!

    Blockbuster movies often deal in terms of evil and good; of villains and heroes. (Even in a movie about an ‘anti-hero’, we know who’s supposed to win, who will be saving humanity from annihilation this time). ‘Civilized evil’ though it’s an interesting phrase, might distract from what you identify as its source: the apathy and complacency of citizens. Things become more complicated than ‘evil’ when we fail to consider the impact of our minor self-interests, before there is even a political or violent threat that demands a response; and through collective disengagement societies may wind up complicit in their own jeopardy.

    You might find interesting this 2003 essay from Joan Didion — she hits on some similar themes. Good luck with the transcription/translation!

  2. robertobohnke says:

    I appreciate how you so eloquently state the big picture implications of what Spanish Society has been through since their Civil War. I think that as I’ve listen to the stories of appalling violence during the war, or the lives lived in fear during the dictatorship, I have trouble doing more than restating the horrifying situation that so many of their lives devolved into. As I get wrapped up in the excitement of translating a little known foreign history into a language that our peers can understand, I feel compelled to leave it to the (probably nonexistent) reader to interpret the meaning of it all for themselves. But reading your posts makes me appreciate the value of taking a more profound stance on things. The implications of what we’re studying go far beyond Spain, indeed they reach into our personal lives and should cause us to reflect on the forms of civilized evil in which we ourselves are complicit.

  3. Thank you for reading and commenting! I really appreciate the link to Joan Didion’s essay; she produces wonderful work, and her comments on how we manipulate situations and what is deemed appropriate and inappropriate are particularly insightful. And I think they can also apply to Spain’s political situation during and Franco’s era, which, by all means, was far from a dialogue. There was a movement for disremembering, what was in effect a national amnesia of sorts that sought to sweep all the atrocities of the war under the rug, in particular the mass murders amounting to near genocide of Republicans (and Nationalists, alike). It was this use of trauma to promote certain political interests, in this case reconstruction, by making certain topics or words or even sympathies/critical challenges to be taboo, which Joan picks up in her essay. Very much a great read! Thank you, again for posting it.