Devil’s Greatest Trick: A Sermon of Sorts for Sunday (It Was Sunday Where I Posted It)



     “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled
is convincing the world that he doesn’t exist.”

     This is a quote from 1995’s The Usual
Suspects, but actually has its origins in 1864 in The Generous Gambler by
Charles Beaudelaire.

     So does evil really exist and how do we
recognize it?

     After the 20th century it would
be difficult to brush off the existence of true evil. It may be banal as Hannah
Arendt suggested when it came to Adolph Eichmann, but its existence is hard to
deny after Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia and frankly after My Lai, Abu Ghraib
and some of the other American behaviors both overseas and here at home. The
on-going battle by many segments of the American population for equal rights is
not won. And I include all women among those wronged in America. We should know
better. Women like African-Americans, homosexuals, and those with HIV have been
stigmatized, stereotyped, judged, juried and underpaid to their detriment. This
is evil to me.

     The struggle that I have about evil is not
whether it exists, but why.

     The vast majority of hurtful behavior that
I see around me in Houston, Texas and the United States, I actually attribute
more to incompetence or mindlessness than to premeditated malevolence. But, as
I tell one of my good friends from Anderson, that does not mean that really mean
people do not do really bad things. They do. They may rationalize it as being “just
business”, but that doesn’t make it less evil. Stupidity is still the greatest
force in the universe, but evil is a close second.

     First comes selfishness, then moral
relativism, then a mind prepared to do anything and inured to the pain of
others, then a psychotic lack of empathy towards other humans who are viewed as
being less than ourselves. Once that pathway is activated, evil is just around
the corner.

The human mind can progress from I must watch out for me,
to everyone else is doing it, to I have power meaning I can get away with
anything, to literally not caring what happens to anyone else as long as I get
mine, and the next thing you know, you’re promoting a specific, soon to be disapproved
experimental therapy as a content expert on cancer research on national
television. It could happen to anyone. Yes, it could. It happened to me.

     Back in 2002 when the Washington Post ran a
front page story about 195 human subjects at MD Anderson who participated in a
trial of Erbitux without being informed of the then-President’s financial stake
in the results of those trials, I was a Vice President and media spokesperson
for MD Anderson. I had to defend the President when the press came knocking
looking for an explanation for this apparently tolerated and tolerable
conflict-of-interest. I did my job, but it was the greatest error I ever made
in my 12 years as an administrator.


The right response should have been, “we screwed up and we
are sorry.”

     Instead I was an apologist for my superiors
and was rightly excoriated along with them on the Chronicle editorial pages for
my less than forthright statements about the inadequacies of the conflict of
interest policy at Anderson and its enforcement when the Post story broke. My
selfishness was about keeping my title as a VP. My moral relativism was
suspending my personal judgment about right and wrong in favor of the
prevailing view of the institution’s hierarchy. I was then fully ready to say
anything. And, I did. Only looking back do I realize that I should have just
resigned then and there because I was being asked to and was actually doing
things I should have known were frankly wrong.

     Recently I was once again faced with a
decision about what I was going to do in a morally questionable situation. This
one, fortunately, did not involve patients exposed to potentially unethical
policies or the whims of leaders. This time I rose to the occasion and risked
my job. I was lucky. So far, I have survived, but I swore to myself all those
years ago that I would never again compromise my personal sense of right and
wrong just for the job or the money.

As many of you know, as I have related it in the blog
before, just last year I had also been asked to stop my highly critical writing
in exchange for an extra year of tenure protection at Anderson. There too, I
turned that down as I thought that would be as much of a cop out as my behavior
11 years before had been.

     I write all of this and all of these blog columns so that anyone who reads them can learn from my errors. I believe that
most of the faculty of Anderson get up each day wanting to do good for
themselves and more importantly for their patients with cancer. I also believe
that everyday a host of people in the Anderson administration, often with the
best of intentions, put more and more barriers in the way of those wishing to
do good. It may be more bureaucracy. It could be inadequate IS support. It
could be the threat of reprisal from superiors. It may be fear of losing a
merit raise or a grant or even a job. There are a host of fears perpetrated on
good people by incompetent and malevolent ones that lead to difficult choices
that subsequently lead to big errors in judgment.

     Compliance, what I shall call “following
the rules”, is easier when the systems under which any regulated activity is
done makes complying with the regulations easy. Making it hard is what I call
“playing gotcha.” Administrators should make doing the right thing as easy as
possible, but they rarely do. Hell, I rarely did despite trying.

When it isn’t easy to comply due to time constraints,
over-demanding situations, too much stress or simply because the rules appear
to be arbitrary, superfluous or stupid, please remember the quote with which I
began. Remember and recognize it and you will stand a chance of beating the
evil back and doing the right thing.

     Never let the Devil fool you. He’s here
with us every day. He walks the halls and the bridges, the parking lots and the
labs. Be mindful of his presence and you can escape his clutches. Convince
yourself he is not a threat and he’s got you.

     I have seen the Devil in the eyes of many people
from Houston, TX to Capitol Hill and back. He is usually the color of money.
Resist cashing in. You’ll feel better. I wish I had.  

     Without being more preachy than I have
already been, I leave you with Deuteronomy 30:19:

“I call heaven and earth to
witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the
blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your

It is OUR choice. Choose wisely. When faced with evil,
choose life instead.

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