Crooked Shadows

The traitors we embrace as our own

Beverly Garside
ILLUMINATION

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A white face mask with black splatter shadow behind it
Photo by Edilson Borges on Unsplash

Traitors. They’re these rare, weird oddballs like Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot, right? They do their dirt alone and in the dark, popping up as little footnotes in history before diving back down to obscurity — where they trouble us no more.

That’s what we’re supposed to think. It’s what we’re taught in school, and how treason is framed by politicians and pundits everywhere.

Wrong. It’s all a lie. And it’s told to us on purpose.

The nasty truth

Renowned Jewish historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt exposed this lie in her 1963 coverage of the Adolph Eichmann trial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Without Jewish help in administrative and police work — the final rounding up of Jews in Berlin was, as I have mentioned, done entirely by Jewish police. … Jewish officials could be entrusted to complete the lists of persons and their property, to secure money from the deportees to defray the expenses of their deportation and extermination, to keep track of vacated apartments, to supply police forces to help seize Jews and get them on trains, until, as a last gesture, they handed over the assets of the Jewish community in good order for final confiscation, They distributed the Yellow Star badges, and sometimes, as in Warsaw, the sale of the armbands became a regular business…

This was not the work of a lone Judas. This was an entire organized bureaucracy dedicated to helping an enemy exterminate its own people. Neither was it some weird historical hiccup. It only takes a casual scratch of modern history to uncover the regularity of such traitorous groups springing up in any population, such as:

  • Numerous British collaborators with their Nazi occupiers in the Channel Islands,
  • Widespread African collaboration in the Transatlantic slave trade,
  • 20,000 white American Nazis rallying at Madison Square Garden in 1939, and
  • Stories are told and untold in every war or traumatic episode in human history.

Denial

A frightened little girl hides her eyes behind her hands
Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

There are plenty of reasons to skip over the ugly bits of history, especially our own history. Who doesn’t like to believe that our people are basically good, noble, and courageous with a glorious past of conquest or a valiant struggle for liberation? Who wants to see the stains that the traitors among us have left on our ancestry?

Racists like to cite African participation in the Transatlantic slave trade as an exoneration for Europeans’ use of it, or justification for the “inferiority” of Africans themselves. Undoubtedly, admissions about the Jewish police forces working for the Nazis would elicit similar racist volleys. And who would dare sully the great American success story — our united victory against fascism in WWII?

The fear of being defined or negated by the worst among us drives cover-up after cover-up. So we throw platitudes at it.Let bygones be bygones. What’s done is done. Forgive and forget.” And several generations on, it is indeed forgotten. We feel safe now, having whitewashed not only our history but ourselves.

But it is a lie. We are not safe. Nor are we all basically good, noble, and courageous. They are among us, and not just a weird oddball or two. They are in their thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions, feeding off our denial.

They live securely in normalcy and the lie that we are overwhelmingly good, civilized, god-fearing, law-abiding people who bring groceries to food banks on Thanksgiving and always recycle.

Snakes in every field

Traitors are unlike bullies, who practice their trade regularly and quickly get known for it. In tormenting their victims, bullies are the leaders in the situation at hand. Traitors, however, are often followers. They may not be the initiators of evil but act in a subordinate role.

Traitors are also opportunists. They wait for someone else —like a bully, thief, con man, or fascist — to arise, and then they turn around and follow them. And on that day, we reach for them, finding that they are no longer beside us, but either in front of us with a knife or behind us lighting fires.

We are shell-shocked. One day he was our friend, colleague, and highly respected physician. The next day he’s pushing snake oil cures for a notorious quack on social media. One day she’s our boss or partner in the FBI, bringing Ponzi schemers and crypto scammers to justice. The next day she resigned from the government and is working for a new crypto start-up.

What happened? Someone came by and presented them with an opportunity.

One day he was a politician speaking out against MAGA and Donald Trump. The next day he was endorsing him and proudly sporting his new red hat.

What happened? He bet on the wrong horse, saw it was losing, and quickly switched his wagon to the winning ticket. Before it was too late. Before that nexus of power and opportunity passed him by.

Shadow theater

I sometimes wonder whether the African slave traders or the Jewish police force members gave any signs to their families and communities that would have foretold their ultimate betrayal. There has to be something that can tip us off to the darkness that lies beneath the familiar skins and faces we consider friends, family, and comrades.

I have learned that taking everyone at face value is a fool's game when it comes to trust. Being a respected member of my community is not enough to earn it. I give it a little time now and look for a person’s dark side. In the bright light of noon, none of us reflect on the pavement. But wait until the sun dips down a bit and watch their shadow. These are the twists and corners I look for:

  • Extreme selfishness. Is everything framed exclusively around how it affects them personally? I once heard a man complain that he “couldn’t even become a scout leader now because they want to investigate you like a criminal.” For him, his being inconvenienced by an interview and background investigation far outweighed the trauma of hundreds of children suffering sexual abuse. I would never trust this guy to have my back.
  • Single-focused career climbing. If you have ever worked in a bureaucracy, you have seen them. They will sacrifice the entire organization, life-long friendships, public safety, and their own families to look good on paper, impress the boss, and climb that ladder. Don’t think they wouldn’t toss their country, their people, or you down that same drain if that was the price for the next rung up.
  • Flip-flopping principles. Do they switch back and forth between opinions on issues, or suddenly start singing the praises of a manager they used to dog daily? Maybe they supported an addiction recovery center for a few years, then later started calling for addicts to be rounded up and jailed. Can you be sure where they really stand on anything? The only thing they may really stand for is themselves.
  • Magnetic attraction to power. Who do they admire and why? Do dictators, frauds, and hate leaders rank right up there with heroes, explorers, and saints?
  • Unreliability. Would you trust this person to pick your grandmother up from the hairdresser? Do they normally keep their commitments? Have they never repaid the last three loans you gave them, even though they bought that new car?
  • General low character. Do they brag about cheating, stealing, or outsmarting the system? Do they think you’re stupid for being honest? If they have a business, do they abuse their employees or gouge prices in an emergency?

Wake up

Close up of the side of a womans face opening her eye in fear.
Photo by Tommy van Kessel on Unsplash

We lull ourselves to sleep with platitudes and wishful thinking. We reimagine history into a whitewashed version that spares us from the worst parts — the parts that make us face the ultimate betrayal of our friends, neighbors, and family members.

We buy into Hollywood’s triumphalism and need for happy endings, where all the goodness is with us, and all the evil is somehow confined to them.

The biggest recent example — the MAGA assault we are still fighting. How many years of denial did it take for most of us to concede that the U.S. — the great defeater of fascism and defender of democracy — was now itself an unstable democracy in the grip of a fascist insurgency? And how much did those years of delay and denial cost us in this fight?

We need to do better. We need to get over ourselves. In denying the traitors among us we only enable them.

Character is not partial to any race, religion, nation, or social group. Every community is plagued by its share of moral bottom feeders. Denying their existence and suppressing their role in our past doesn’t just make us liars — it leaves us unprepared when their shadows emerge, sometimes in vast hoards, to darken our sky.

We don’t just need to come clean about ourselves. We need to be more judicious with our trust.

History is littered with the fruits of putting trust in crooked shadows.

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Beverly Garside
ILLUMINATION

Beverly is an author, artist, and a practicing agnostic.