Thursday, June 21, 2007

Just Making Sure the Horse is Dead

As if to underscore my point, Glenn Greenwald is releasing another book:

One of the principal dangers of vesting power in a leader who is convinced of his own righteousness -- who believes that, by virtue of his ascension to political power, he has been called to a crusade against Evil -- is that the moral imperative driving the mission will justify any and all means used to achieve it. Those who have become convinced that they are waging an epic and all-consuming existential war against Evil cannot, by the very premises of their belief system, accept any limitations -- moral, pragmatic, or otherwise -- on the methods adopted to triumph in this battle.

Efforts to impose limits on waging war against Evil will themselves be seen as impediments to Good, if not as an attempt to aid and abet Evil. In a Manichean worldview, there is no imperative that can compete with the mission of defeating Evil. The primacy of that mandate is unchallengeable. Hence, there are no valid reasons for declaring off-limits any weapons that can be deployed in service of the war against Evil.

Equally operative in the Manichean worldview is the principle that those who are warriors for a universal Good cannot recognize that the particular means they employ in service of their mission may be immoral or even misguided. The very fact that the instruments they embrace are employed in service of their Manichean mission renders any such objections incoherent. How can an act undertaken in order to strengthen the side of Good, and to weaken the forces of Evil, ever be anything other than Good in itself? Thus, any act undertaken by a warrior of Good in service of the war against Evil is inherently moral for that reason alone.

It is from these premises that the most amoral or even most reprehensible outcomes can be -- and often are -- produced by political movements and political leaders grounded in universal moral certainties. Intoxicated by his own righteousness and therefore immune from doubt, the Manichean warrior becomes capable of acts of moral monstrousness that would be unthinkable in the absence of such unquestionable moral conviction. One who believes himself to be leading a supreme war against Evil on behalf of Good will be incapable of understanding any claims that he himself is acting immorally.

These principles illuminate a central, and tragic, paradox at the heart of the Bush presidency.
Um....okay. Sure.

One little trick I like to use when reading something like this is to try to imagine Molly Ivins writing it. Or Joe Conason, if you prefer; or even Gene Lyons. Or, since we're talking about a fairly arcane and archaic branch of Christian theology and ecclesiastical history here, any competent scholar, theologian, or historian.

No; I can't imagine it, either.

The distinction is that Ivins, Conason, and Lyons were all journalists, and, like scholars (my own peculiar bias), they all knew that what you said about the world, had to be grounded in facts identifiable in the world. Let's start with Manicheism, shall we? Well, in fact, let's not; that's a whole subject of study in itself. Does it really boil down to: "the principle that those who are warriors for a universal Good cannot recognize that the particular means they employ in service of their mission may be immoral or even misguided"? I mean, what source of study of Manicheism, what document, what statement of Manichee or his followers, does Greenwald base that on? Where does this cartoon notion come from?

Just curious, frankly. He builds quite a bit of his argument on it, but it's pretty much the same argument George W. Bush uses to oppose Al Qaeda. It is, in fact, pretty much the same argument used by our military leaders:

AMY GOODMAN: Tommy Franks. You asked the general to start talking to Al Jazeera.

JOSH RUSHING: I did, yeah. I asked him. Actually, it was just simply to call on an Al Jazeera reporter first at a press conference, as kind of a sign of respect. And his response was, “Yeah, sure, right after I rip off his head and” -- well, I can’t say the word -- “I crap down his throat.” And then it kind of moved on. And he’s a four-star general, and I was a young lieutenant, and there’s not much I can say in response to that. But it clearly showed their attitude about, you know, engaging Al Jazeera. I mean, if you won’t even call on them first at a press conference, forget about giving their reporters any kind of access to senior leadership or, you know, to information, to empowering their reporters in a way that they could tell the CENTCOM story. Absolutely forget about that.
It is, as "the Left" likes to say (except I didn't learn it as a political ideal, but a philosophical/theological one, from Emmanuel Levinas while in seminary), the creation of the "other" which we can then demonize. I have to say, I'm having a real hard time distinguishing Greenwald from Bush at this point: both are so convinced they are fighting on the side of the angels that their opponent can only be painted in the absolute colors of Evil. What I mean is: is his premise itself even challengeable? Because in all those paragraphs, he gives absolutely no basis either for the terms of his analysis (is this his private and personal definition of "Manicheeism"?), nor does he give any hard and fast evidence that this is, indeed, the thinking of George W. Bush. What he offers are vague and glittering generalities which he asserts, by sheer force of rhetorical passion, are indeed true.

But has he ever interviewed George W. Bush? Has he studied his speeches, his public statements, investigated his life, is policies in Texas as governor? I know Molly Ivins did, and yet I can't imagine her writing such sweeping generalizations as this. Does Greenwald give us any facts in support of his claims, other than he read it in a newspaper/saw it on TV/found it in a blog somewhere online?

Not in these paragraphs, anyway.

Greenwald's schtick, it seems to me, is hyperbole; which is the bread and butter of "blogger-pundits." Froomkin quotes this from his book (which I don't find at the link Froomkin gives):

[T]he great and tragic irony of the Bush presidency is that its morally convicted foundations have yielded some of the most morally grotesque acts and radical departures from American values in our country's history. The president who insists that he is driven by a clear and compelling moral framework, in which the forces of Good and Evil battle toward a decisive resolution, has done more than almost any American in history to make the world question on which side of that battle this country is fighting. The more convinced President Bush and his followers become of the unchallengeable righteousness of their cause, the fewer limits they recognize. And America's moral standing in the world, and our national character, continue to erode to previously unthinkable depths.
Well, except there was that whole slavery thing in the 19th century, not to mention to wholesale slaughter of the natives across 2 centuries, not to mention the wars in the Phillippines (see, e.g., Twain, Mark), Bull Connor and "Bloody Sunday" and the Dixiecrats and George Wallace in the schoolhouse door, the assassinations in the 1960's (two Kennedy and MLK), not to mention Cuba, Mexico, Central America, South America, the whole dubious and sordid application of the "Monroe Doctrine," the "banana republics", the horrors of life in Central America as recently as the Reagan Administration as documented by people like Joan Didion and suffered by people like Oscar Romero and Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel.

You get the point. "Previously unthinkable levels"? Depends on who's doing the thinking.

So, does this mean blogs are bad? No. They have their purpose. But if the hallmark of blogging is going to be rapid response correction, well...let the corrections begin.

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