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"Biedermann and the Arsonists"
Reflections on why we often fail to see malfeasance and malevolence.
As an investigative author, I must always be careful to avoid speculating about major events such as the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 Pandemic Response, and the Lahaina Fire. The proper way to approach these disasters is to conduct a thorough investigation. It’s standard procedure to form an investigative hypothesis based on initial reports, knowledge of basic circumstances and context, and deductive reasoning. However, until a full investigation if performed, it is imprudent to jump to conclusions.
Of the many divisions that now run through our society, one of the most salient is the vast gulf between the camp that has retained its trust in our state and federal governments, and the camp that now gravely suspects that our agencies and officials have been captured by powerful, unelected interests.
The Lahaina Fire reminds me of Chapter 30: “The best disguise is the truth” in our book The Courage to Face COVID-19: Preventing Hospitalization and Death While Battling the Bio-Pharmaceutical Complex.
In the case of the Lahaina Fire, what is emerging is that state officials had been warned of the fire hazard but did not sufficiently heed these warnings by taking vigorous measures to prevent it. Some of our Substack readers suspect that this failure was an expression of corruption and even intentional acts of malevolence for the benefit of shadowy actors and interests. I don’t know because I’ve not yet conducted an investigation or read what I believe to be a reliable investigative report.
However, even if the available evidence does not reveal that any particular state official is guilty of criminal negligence or worse, it’s already clear that in the United States today, our state and federal governments are persistently inclined to spend resources on incredibly stupid, macro projects with no means of measuring success, and precious little on clearly defined projects whose benefits can easily be measured.
In addition to its residential community, the beautiful, historic town of Lahaina had a flourishing business community and was one of the biggest draws for Maui’s $5.7 multi-billion per year tourist trade. Protecting the town from fire should have been Maui County’s greatest priority. Why the County did NOT do more to protect Lahaina should be rigorously investigated.
Why do we often fail to see gross malfeasance and even malevolence until it’s too late? Please see the following excerpt and consider buying the book if you finding it interesting.
CHAPTER 30: “The best disguise is the truth.”
In his 2019 book Code Blue: Inside America’s Medical Industrial Complex, Dr. Mike Magee, an MD and former physician-spokesman for Pfizer, memorably described the corruption of the U.S. healthcare system.
Cozy relationships and generous gratuities have demonstrated a remarkable ability to corrupt even those we would instinctively put on the side of the angels, including members of the biomedical research community, deans of medical schools, directors of continuing medical education programs, officers at the NIH and FDA, and even seemingly altruistic patient advocacy organizations like the American Cancer Society.
A theologian looking at all this might conclude that American health care has lost its soul. A behavioral economist would point us toward studies showing that the exercise of moral judgment in a business context draws on a completely different cognitive framework from the one we use in making such decisions in our personal lives.[i]
Dr. Magee is one of many observers who has perceived that the American healthcare industry—in its close relationship with U.S. government agencies and funding—closely resembles what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” In his 1961 Farewell Address, he warned:
We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.
Eisenhower’s warning wasn’t new. Presidents Washington and Madison also warned about the danger that could arise if the new American Republic allowed the establishment of an organized interest in waging war. Because entanglements and conflicts with foreign powers would necessarily result in massive government spending on the army and navy, this would likely result in organized military interests seeking such entanglements and conflicts, even if they in no way benefitted the American citizenry.[ii]
The inner workings of such complexes, in which participants are motivated by financial rewards, raise a question that goes to the heart of the human condition. Under certain circumstances, can normal and decent people lose their moral judgement to the point of “losing their souls”? As Dr. Magee pointed out, studies have shown that people working together in a profitable enterprise tend to be less constrained by ethical considerations than they are in their dealings with family and friends. Their highly focused, goal orientation is perhaps reminiscent of Paleolithic hunters in single-minded pursuit of valuable prey. It seems that when we are engrossed in this mental state, we tend not to think about the negative consequences of our behavior for others outside of the enterprise.
People may be slow to recognize that their organization or community has been corrupted if they benefit from it. As Upton Sinclair famously put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Herein lies the power of patronage. If your patron—i.e., the wealthy man or company that pays your salary and benefits—starts behaving dishonestly, you will probably be reluctant to see and oppose it. This isn’t a matter of willful denial. Because your status, sense of purpose, and remuneration are provided by your patron, you may never even think about questioning his conduct.
Amplifying this is what cognitive psychologists call “normalcy bias.” When immoral conduct seeps into an organization and goes unopposed for a long time, it may become endemic and therefore seem normal. Americans witnessed this in the corporate scandals of the 2000s, starting with Enron in 2001. This period of financial malfeasance culminated in the great Financial Crisis of 2008, largely caused by the massive sale of fraudulently valued mortgage-backed securities. After the crisis erupted, many wondered why regulatory agencies hadn’t seen it coming and stopped it. At root of the problem was “regulatory capture”—that is, incentives for the people who worked for agencies, and especially bond rating agencies, to turn a blind eye to the corruption they were supposed to be preventing.
A singularly terrifying corruption of a society occurred in Germany during the 1933-45 period, when the country—previously the most advanced and cultured in the world—lapsed shockingly far from civilized norms. Likewise, many intellectuals who prided themselves on their moral and intellectual discernment failed to recognize the criminal nature of the Soviet Union and its allied regimes in Central and Eastern Europe.
Reflecting on this disturbing reality, the Swiss playwright, Max Frisch wrote a black comedy titled Biedermann and the Arsonists, published in 1953. The play’s protagonist, a businessman named Gottlieb Biedermann, reads in the paper that arsonists are afoot in his town. Their modus operandi is to introduce themselves as door-to-door salesmen in need of overnight accommodations, and to talk the house owners into allowing them to stay in the attic, where they then set fire to the house. Mr. Biedermann marvels that anyone could be so gullible, and he is confident that he would never be taken in by such an obvious trick.
The arsonists then arrive at his house, and through a combination of apparent normalcy and charm, they persuade Mr. and Mrs. Biedermann to allow them to stay in their attic. In a key scene, one of the arsonists proclaims, “The best disguise, even better than humor and sentimentality, is the truth, because no one believes it.” The naive couple can’t see what is about to happen to them precisely because it is so out in the open. They mistakenly assume that such perfidy would be cleverly concealed and not hiding in plain sight. The arsonists then set the house on fire, which spreads to the neighboring houses and burns down the entire town. In the final scene Mr. and Mrs. Biedermann are transported to the gates of hell, where they encounter the arsonists, who introduce themselves as the Devil and his companion Beelzebub.
Mr. and Mrs. Biedermann’s trip to the gates of hell is suggestive of observations made by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who believed that all human beings have a dark side that renders them capable of committing or participating in grossly immoral and even criminal acts. Those who fail to recognize the “Shadow,” as he called the dark side of human nature, often fail to recognize that they are participating in a corrupt enterprise. Preferring not to see evil makes them susceptible to it. As Jung put it:
The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.[iii]
A dramatic twist of people failing to see what’s right in front of them was presented with delightful effectiveness in the 1995 film, The Usual Suspects. In this iteration, people don’t recognize the arch villain because, though he is constantly in their midst, he seems harmlessly inept. He emphasizes his method, and the reality of humanity’s fatal delusion, with the famous line, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.”
Within the context of current affairs, a similar aphorism may be said of powerful interest groups—namely, “The greatest trick that powerful interest groups ever pulled was convincing the world that everyone who detects and reports their activities is a conspiracy theorist.” Only the naivest consumer of mainstream news reporting would fail to recognize that powerful interest groups in the military, financial, and bio-pharmaceutical industries work in concert to further their interests. Their activities cross the line into conspiracy when they commit fraud or other crimes to advance their interests.
[i] Magee, Mike MD Code Blue: Inside America’s Medical Industrial Complex. New York: Grove Atlantic, 2019. Kindle Edition. (p. 19).
[ii] American Resistance to a Standing Army. Teaching History.org https://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/24671
[iii] Jung, Carl. “The Shadow.” Collected Works of C.G. Jung. 9ii, par. 14.