TV UK, 12 December

The axis of evil thoughts.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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Ian Rankin’s Evil Thoughts is an unusual and interesting series. The Scottish crime writer has been exploring the idea of evil, beginning with religious accounts in the opening episode, and moving on to scientific accounts in the second. The final episode (Channel 4, Saturday at 7pm) deals with punishment and forgiveness.

The starting point is the observation that, while we live in a secular and relatively enlightened society, the word evil still seems to trip off the tongue. Rankin showed his politics as much as his age by using clips of Thatcher and Reagan railing against evil in the 1980s. But of course that walking rerun George W Bush could be relied on to provide a more up-to-date example – I’ll come back to that.

The first episode was the most interesting because it asked the simplest question. What is evil? Rankin began with Augustine’s idea that evil is the absence of good, and subsequent accounts seem to be so many steps back from that partial insight. Several talking heads suggested that it is those who raise the spectre of evil in moral and political controversies who are truly reprehensible, though Rankin seemed to develop a soft spot for the Vatican’s official exorcist – unlike his affable opposite number in the Church of England, the padre really seemed to believe in the Devil. For Calvinists like Rankin and me, disapproval of this sort of thing has turned to amusement.

The scientific account of evil is even worse. Rankin talked to psychiatrists and neurologists who have been grappling with the problem, trying to explain what makes people commit heinous acts. To be honest, they don’t know, and they kept taking us back to the theological problem of free will, which they are able to resolve only by making an absurd distinction between the self and the body. (It wasn’t me, your honour – it was my evil brain!)

And so to the Axis of Evil, and a Newsnight report smuggled out of Iran (BBC2, last Tuesday). Reporter Sue Lloyd-Roberts explained that the (Mad) Mullahs don’t want journalists to know about ‘the millions of young people who are turning their backs on Islam and who want a Western lifestyle’. This was immediately followed by an interview with a young man in the street: ‘When we can get drugs, we take them’, he confirmed. I don’t know which is stranger: the young Iranian’s apparent belief that drugs are a defining part of Western life, or the reporter’s.

In any case, it seems that drugs are rife in Iran anyway. ‘You wouldn’t believe what those Mullahs are up to!’ said a snazzily made-up young woman (or rather an English interpreter, who surely made it sound funnier than it was meant to), before going on to allege that the Mullahs themselves were smuggling drugs into the country.

Drugs or no drugs, though, it seems that the Mullahs are losing their grip on Iran’s youth. ‘We’ll shout “Death to Israel!” when it suits us’, said a pair of dapper young fellows, ‘but to be honest, we’re more interested in fashion’. Right. So we’re not exactly talking about a revolution either, except in the sense that David Beckham’s sarong was revolutionary. But Iranians don’t believe that the USA is the Great Satan any more than Americans believe in the Axis of Evil (and the exceptions are an embarrassment to both sides).

The persistence of evil in political rhetoric indicates a degraded level of intellectual engagement with the world, and an uncertainty about what we mean by good: are we fighting for the right to do drugs, or are we making war on drug smugglers? 1600 years on from Augustine, it seems that good is now defined as the absence of evil, and evil is, uh…child molesters?

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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