A 2006 sketch from the British comedy show That Mitchell and Webb Look features a conversation between two Nazi officers before a battle. One of the men raises the question about why their uniform caps have skulls on them. The pair go back and forth with various speculations for a few minutes before one finally asks the other, “Are we the baddies?”
Since everyone agrees that Nazis were and are bad guys, it is comedy gold to depict arriving at the conclusion as a matter of debate. Likewise, browsing this week through old clips from the recently deceased comedian Norm Macdonald, I found a great routine he did in an interview with David Letterman. Talking about his father’s bravery in helping to liberate the Dutch from the Nazis in World War II, Macdonald says nonchalantly about Hitler, “The more I learn about that guy, the more I don’t care for him.”
In the face of good and evil, identifying and laughing at a common enemy makes us feel good, especially when there is no ambiguity about our enemy’s moral depravity. However, conflating the perceived misdeeds of lesser enemies to those of the deepest and darkest wickedness is a tool employed to discredit people we wish to see fail. The political philosopher Leo Strauss described this scapegoating phenomenon with the term reductio ad Hitlerum. Hitler is Hitler. The person who opposes this or that policy you want, or who has committed some public scandal, probably is not Hitler.
Fairy tales reflect the culturally unifying power of identifying good guys and bad guys. The nature of the tale is not to teach us about the complexity of human interactions in a fallen world but to prepare us for the large and small moral crises we must all face in life. We need to learn, in general, what is likely to go into categories like “good” and “bad.” But with the publication of John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel, which retold Beowulf from the perspective of the monster, we began to think outside of black-and-white, good-and-evil categories of popular stories. And Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel and accompanying hit Broadway show Wicked, which offered a sympathetic origin story for the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, may have ruined the idea of a pure villain in popular culture for the foreseeable future. Some of Disney’s most popular recent offerings seem to suggest that if we only knew more about villains, they would cease to be villains. The Maleficent films, Descendents, and Cruella are just a few recent examples.
Overall, we should find this trend in storytelling disturbing. We need the villain archetype to provide a useful—and, as I have noted, unifying—contrast with a model of virtue that we should all strive to emulate. We know our heroes aren’t all perfect, but they’re a far cry from their evil enemies. Likewise, we should not get used to relativizing everything—wrong is wrong. Satan is real, and so was Hitler.
But our innate need to see the world through the lenses of good and evil sometimes causes us to see only what we want to see or to settle for just the part of the story that fits the categories we have constructed. We all agree Hitler was a bad guy, to put it mildly. But what about an NBA player who went into the stands to assault a fan? Could we possibly understand his crime? Or is he simply a “thug” that deserves no further consideration? I ask, because just about everyone agreed on the term “thug” for Ron Artest, who now goes by Metta Sandiford-Artest, when he was at the center of one of the most scandalous sights in sports history in a game against the Detroit Pistons in 2004.
The recent Netflix documentary Untold: Malice at the Palace explores that infamous on-court fight that turned into a near riot in a Detroit arena and resulted in the suspension of nine players, including an eighty-six-game penalty and nearly $5 million in lost salary for Artest. I remember when it happened, and it was shocking to see it again in the film; and yet, looking below the tip of the iceberg this time, I am thinking about our need to examine real-life stories of good guys and bad guys more closely. We have real good and evil. There are lots of real “baddies” both in stories and in the real world, but there are also a lot of good guys who do dumb things, and good guys who make mistakes because of illness and stress and pain that we do not see. In fact, if we take sin seriously, we’re all convicted. Are you really the monster you present to the world on your worst day?
Untold focuses mostly on the three Indiana Pacers players whose reputations were ruined most severely by the brawl: Artest, who took the fight into the stands when he was hit by a flying beer cup; Stephen Jackson, who ran to Artest’s aid in the crowd; and Jermaine O’Neal, who hit a fan who came onto the court. Artest and Jackson both had histories of difficulties with teammates and coaches. All three men had a history of hard work, overcoming numerous obstacles to make it to basketball’s biggest stage. Artest was also struggling with anxiety and depression at the time of the fight, and just before the brawl escalated beyond the point of no return, we see him lying down on the scoring table and counting to three, trying to regain his composure. We also see a woefully inadequate security set-up, which left just three uniformed police officers responsible for controlling a crowd of almost 20,000 people. We then consider the strange double standard of the kind of comportment expected of basketball players compared to hockey players, let alone blood-sport athletes like boxers. We cringe at the lack of self-awareness—privilege, even—of fans who define good and evil and think they can verbally abuse professional athletes, as if they are characters in a video game rather than real people. We move quickly to a professional media class that tells a tale of wild prima donnas over and over again, without probing more deeply into the related issues. It’s easier for them, and us, to tag Artest and his teammates as “thugs” and move on, grateful that we’re not like them.
I remember at the time how the horror of the Malice at the Palace quickly gave way to comedy. It was an easy target for late-night pundits, and we see in the documentary how years later, when Artest changed his name to Metta World Peace, Jimmy Kimmel, local sports pundits, and others made fun of him relentlessly. I admit I found it funny too. But I did not know that Artest was in emotional distress the night of the brawl, nor did I bother to find out that his name change—as odd as it seems on the surface—was meant as an aspiration to inner transformation. He says in the documentary, “I want to communicate. I want to be a better person.”
As with Nazis, but on a much lower level, it can be unifying to agree on a common enemy and laugh at him—a baddie who does something awful, and then does something absurd. But Christ says, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matt. 7:5). Most baddies are more like us than not.
Watch Untold: Malice at the Palace for a wake-up call about good and evil. On this side of eternity, all is not what it seems.