Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Manichean Style in American Politics

“If anyone dared to say now, 'whoever is not for me, is against me,' he would immediately have all men against him – This does our time honor.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

"You're either with us or you're against us." - George W. Bush

Good Versus Evil

The central premise of Glenn Greenwald's A Tragic Legacy is fairly simple to describe seeing as it's summed neatly in the book's subtitle: How a Good Versus Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency.

But to expand a bit, I'll quote a key section of the preface

[W]hat lies at the heart of the Bush presidency is an absolutist worldview capable of understanding all issues and challenges only in the moralistic, overly simplistic, and often inapplicable terms of "Good vs. Evil." The president is driven by his core conviction that he has found the good, that he is a crusader for it, that anything is justified in pursuit of it, and that anything which impedes his decision-making is, by definition, a deliberate or unwitting ally of Evil. This mentality has single handedly prevented him from governing, changing course, and even engaging realities that deviate from those convictions. The president's description of himself as "the Decider" is accurate. His mind-set has dominated the American political landscape throughout his presidency, and virtually all significant events of the Bush Era are a by-product of his core Manichean mentality.
Before we go on, I'd just like to take a moment to note that in The Assault on Reason Al Gore also noted that although President Bush is an evangelical Christian his political worldview is actually animated by the dualistic 3rd century BCE Persion religion of Manicheaism - a form of Christian heresy.

And while we're at it, I should point out that Peter Singer in The President of Good and Evil which explores the incoherent nature of the president's ethics (and is a book I recommend reading in conjunction with A Tragic Legacy) identified the Manichean streak of President Bush, writing

Don Evans, who is not only Bush's commerce secretary but also his very close friend, says that Bush's religious faith gives him a "very clear sense of what is good and evil." Seeing the world as a conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil is not, however, the orthodox Christian view, but one associated with the heresy of Manicheaeanism. The Manichaeans were ferociously attacked by Augustine, who thought that seeing some kind of evil force as the source of all that is bad is a way of masking one's own failings. Centuries of suppression and frequent persecution, however, did not eradicate the Manichaean way of looking at the world. After the Reformation, the Manichaean view appeared in some Protestant sects and was brought by them to America, where it flourished. Writing at a time when America entered World War I, the commentator and critic Walter Lippman called the idea of a war between good and evil forces "one of the great American traditions." Bush's readiness to see America as pure and good and its enemies as wholly evil, has its roots in the American-Manichaean tradition.
Holding a Manichean worldview has come to mean seeing the world in black and white terms of an ultimate struggle between the forces of Good with the forces of Evil, and that is how Greenwald employs the term (and its how I use it, too) although it might be worth pointing out that describing the politics of President Bush as Manichean might actually be unfair to the Manicheans. And according to the author in the preceeding link, Bush's tendency to define the "war on terror" in terms of Good America fighting its Evil Enemies have some disturbing implications

In drawing upon a dualistic political framework (“Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”), Bush has positioned himself as the arbiter of good versus evil, a struggle which has come to define the public face of his foreign policy.

The major problem with this mode of thinking is that, aside from Bush’s role as ontological authority, his rigid dualistic politics forces yet another logical distinction: friends and enemies. In Bush’s Zoroastrian world, life is defined not by positive categories that envision a better world, but by a preoccupation with destruction of the Other. Who we are as Americans—at least in W’s America—is determined by who we are not. Once we determine who we are not, then the task at hand becomes to destroy who we are not. The paradox inherent in this formulation is even scarier than it might first appear, for this ontological system is incapable of envisioning a world without enemies and is dangerously close to the ideas suggested by the title of Chris Hedges’s recent book: War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. In military parlance, an “exit strategy” from this battle would result in a loss of our own identity. Therefore, there can be no such exit strategy.

The student of politics will also recognize the more stark historical manifestation of Bush’s ontology. It was the patron philosopher of the Nazi party, Carl Schmitt, who suggested that the state has one essential function: distinguishing friends from enemies. This friend-enemy distinction has two classifying functions: friends make up the members of the national body (based on a number of possible criteria for inclusion and exclusion—race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious and political beliefs) while enemies are targeted for destruction in an effort to rid the state of the inconvenient schisms caused by a pluralistic society. It was this pluralism that Schmitt blamed for the weakening of the German state in the 1930s.
Greenwald begins the book by tracking the arc of President Bush's popularity, noting that his approval ratings have plummeted and even members of the conservative movement who have supported him for most of his presidency have begun to distance themselves, with some like Michael Ledeen going to absurd lengths of historical revisionism to do so.

The collapse of the Bush presidency brings to mind the plights of the Greek tragic figure Icarus, whose father built wings made of feathers and wax to enable them to escape their exile on Crete. Intoxicated by hubris and uncontrollable sensations of his own potency, Icarus exceeded his limits and flew too close to the sun, which melted his wings and caused him to plunge helplessly into the sea.
The problem, Greenwald points out, is that someone who holds a Good vs. Evil mentality will not even let the reality of a failed presidency stand in his way. If you begin with a "gut instinct" that your actions are in the service of an absolute Good, then it is easy to rationalize any unwelcome reality as an attempt of Evil to push one off the chosen path. Like the believers in Antony Flew's "Theology and Falsification," there is nothing that can disconfirm the President's assumptions. President Bush is as resolute as ever, and is determined to continue forward on his ideological quest. Bush will not be deterred by reality (aka "Evil").

A consequence of the premise that the world can be divided into absolute categories of Good and Evil is that an Evil must be defined. And it follows that those waging the battle for Good against this Evil can not be restrained as any of their actions are by definition good and necessary.

[F]or the Manichean believer, the battle between Good and Evil is paramount. It subordinates all other considerations and never gives way to any conflicting or inconsistent goals. Measures intended to promote Good or undermine Evil are, by definition, necessary and just. They cannot be abandoned for pragmatic or prudential reasons, or because of growing opposition, or in response to evidence of failure. Insufficient progress when attacking Evil never justifies re-examination of the wisdom of the action, but instead compels a redoubling of one's determination to succeed. In sum, complexities, pragmatic considerations, the restraints of reality are trumped by the imperative of the moral crusade.
This might help to explain why the "conservative" Bush has sought to expand the power of the president beyond the limits of the Constitution. It is this ideological bent of the presidency that properly categorizes the President as a pseudo-conservative, rather than a conservative.

Greenwald believes that Bush's Manichean worldview may or may not be sincere but what is indisputable is the framing of his policies in terms of Good and Evil. Whatever the truth or his degree of sincerity is, it remains important to examine Manichean premises on their face as they have come to shape much of our politics and look to shape the policy of future presidential candidates. He also notes that there are political factions that are willing to use black/white moralism to manipulate public opinion (and perhaps even the President), which further makes the Manichean style of President Bush worth examining.

Manichean warriors are reactionary in the sense that they define themselves in terms of an Other to be battled. When the world has been divided into Good and Evil there is no space for anything but war - be it real or ideological.

At its core, the Bush administration has defined itself by that which it is not rather than by identifiable, affirmative ideas. Its foreign policy objectives are identifiable by one overriding goal - destroy and/or kill the enemy, potential or suspected, often including everyone nearby. And it has come to view its domestic objectives through the same lens. It is a movement in a permanent state of war. All matters, foreign and domestic, are framed in terms of that war and ritualistic attacks on the enemy du jour - the terrorist, the Communist, the illegal immigrant, the secularist, and most of all, the "Liberal."
The conservative movement is really a group of factions with differing agendas that are held together by their common goal of battling Evil (i.e. "Liberals" or communism or terrorism.) It is an ecumenicism of hatred that gives the movement its sense of unity.

[John] Dean's answer [in Conservatives Without Conscience to the question of what holds the conservative movement together] is that [the] disparate enclaves hold in common the need to wage war against perceived Evil, and the shared (related) hatred of common enemies. Their collective attacks on those enemies have become the Bush movement's defining attribute. That commonality is sufficient to mainstain allegiance because, argues Dean, it provides a tonic to a morally ambiguous, uncertain, and complex world - a world they perceive to be filled with dangers in every facet of life. All of these factions, like the devotees of Manicheanism, are in thrall to promises of a comforting and liberating moral simplicity, a framework that provides refuge from a complex, confusing, and frightening world. A unified crusade against Evil enemies bestows purpose, excuses failure, alleviates confusion, and enables sensations of power.
In other words, Hate is a force which gives the conservative movement meaning.

Secular fundamentalism

Greenwald points out that the tactic of framing policies in black and white is decades old, but that the genuine evil of 9/11 made it more effective than ever. A narrative was developed to account for the attacks which provided a simplistic explanation for the nation to rally around: They attacked Us because we are Good and they are Evil. The dualistic worldview marketed by the White House and echoed by the noise machine subsumed rational debate and realistic considerations of how best to confront terrorism. To oppose or question the President was to join forces -willingly or unwittingly - with Evil.

Bush's Manicheasm is coupled with his evangelical belief that he's doing the Lord's work, leaving little room for doubt and, subsequently, the possibility of re-evaluating and changing course.

The principle attribute of those who are true believers is that, by definition, they will not re-examine their core premises. Any evidence that cannot be interpreted in accordance with those premises will simply be steadfastly ignored or, when it cannot be ignored, discredited. New events that undermine such convictions must be the product of bias or intentional deceit. A failed course chosen on the basis of evangelical truths cannot fail. Failure simply means that there is insufficient resolve, or that the forces of Evil are impeding success and more efforts must be devoted to defeating them.
The last sentence sounds familiar and it warrants a digression. In "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt," Richard Hofstadter wrote that

[The pseudo-conservative] sees his own country as being so weak that it is constantly about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may experience in getting its way in the world ... cannot possibly be due to its limitations but must be attributed to its having been betrayed.
Hofstadter's observations are as relevant now as they were then (witness the cartoonish vision of the modern conservative movement that women will soon be wearing burquas after we're conquered by "Islamofascists" Red Dawn style if Democrats are elected.) It is not difficult to see how the Manichean outlook of pseudo-conservatism so easily adopts and adapts the "stabbed in the back" myth.

Every state must have its enemies. Great powers must have especially monstrous foes. Above all, these foes must arise from within, for national pride does not admit that a great nation can be defeated by any outside force. That is why, though its origins are elsewhere, the stab in the back has become the sustaining myth of modern American nationalism. Since the end of World War II it has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.
Returning to Greenwald, we see the standard m.o. of pseudo-conservatism dileneated. Evidence that supports the President's "gut instincts" is Good and evidence that does not is "liberally" biased and/or the product of Evil. Reality confirms the Manichean's views no matter what it turns out to be. See here to witness this process of reality revision.

Another by-product of an Us vs. Them mentality is conformism.

Among the most striking aspects of the Bush administration has been the extent to which loyalty has been demanded of, and recieved from, those who work near the president.
This is striking, but not surprising if we recall that Hofstadter had noticed conformism as being a defining characteristic of the pseudo-conservative revolt. He observed, "unlike most of the liberal dissent of the past, the new dissent not only has no respect for non-conformism, but is based upon a relentless demand for conformity."

This conformism is necessary to hold together a belief system that is founded on dogmatism rather than empiricism. Recall what Robert Altemeyer wrote in The Authoritarians

They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority, and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason, and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use a lot of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times, and are often hypocrites.
Although Altemeyer was characterizing religous fundamentalists, it might also be said to apply to the conservative movement in general. Take, for instance, this bit from The Terror Presidency by Jack Goldsmith.

"The President has already decided that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections, "[David Addington] barked. "You cannot question his decision."
That bullying from Vice President Cheney's legal counsel Addington is quike remarkable considering that it was the job of OLC director Goldsmith to determine whether or not the 4th Geneva Convention applied to terrorists who are Iraqi citizens and then forward his decision to the White House. In Addington's mind, however, it was the job of Goldsmith to provide legal cover for what his Leader had already decided inspite of any laws that may say otherwise. The Leader cannot be questioned.

What this all sounds like is the fusion of fundamentalism and authoritarianism that Jimmy Carter argued in Our Endangered Values has merged to produce a kind of secular fundamentalism that is overtaking the Republican party and has become a significant force in American politics. It is worth noting that Hofstadter recognized this development over 40 years ago in his Pulitzer winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:

There seems to be such a thing as the generically prejudiced mind. Studies of political intolerance and ethnic prejudice have shown that zealous church-going and rigid religious faith are among the important correlates of political and ethnic animosity. It is the existence of this type of mind that sets the stage for the emergence of the one-hundred percenter and determines the similarity of style between the modern right wing and the fundamentalist. In fact, the conditions of the cold war and the militant spirit bred by the constant struggle against world Communism have given the fundamentalist mind a new lease on life. Like almost everything else in our world, fundamentalism itself has been considerably secularized, and this process of secularization has yielded a type of pseudo-political mentality whose way of thought is best understood against the historical background of the revivalist preacher and the camp meeting. The fundamentalist mind has had the bitter experience of being routed in the field of morals and censorship, on evolution and Prohibition, and it finds itself increasingly submerged in a world in which the great and respectable media of mass communication violate its sensibilities and otherwise ignore it. In a modern experimental, and “sophisticated” society, it has been elbowed aside and made a figure of fun, and even much of the religious “revival” of our time is genteel and soft-spoken in a way that could never have satisfied the old-fashioned fundamentalist zeal. But in politics, the secularized fundamentalism of our time has found a new kind of force and a new punitive capacity. The political climate of the post-war era has given the fundamentalist type powerful new allies among other one-hundred percenters: rich men, some of them still militant against the social reforms of the New Deal; isolationist groups and militant nationalists; Catholic fundamentalists, ready for the first time to unite with their former persecutors on the issue of “Godless Communism”; and Southern reactionaries newly animated by the fight over desegregation.
Substitute in Islamic terrorism for communism, issues like abortion for desegregation, neoconservative for isolationist and we can see how 9/11 has yielded a political climate that has allowed secular fundamentalism to thrive.

The Politics of Fear

Bush used the politics of vicarious traumatization by linking the tragedy of 9/11 burned in America's mind to Iraq in order to bypass reasoned debate by eliciting a fear response from the populace. Iraq and 9/11 were conflated over and over again, with the end result that 6 months after the invasion 70 percent of the country thought Saddam was personally involved with 9/11. The White House used the emotionally charged frame of Saddam as Hilter, with anything less that war as appeasment and anyone who questioned war as Neville Chamberlain. This is a tactic to preclude debate (who compromises with Hitler?). The implicit message of the White House's fear campaign was to get Americans to believe that either we went to war with the new Hitler in Iraq or die in a mushroom cloud while simultaneously linking this image to the emotionally charged memory of the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda operatives. Mix in an Evangelical belief that we're fighting war for God and the likelihood of any other course of action virtually dissappears. As Andrew Bacevitch observed in The New American Militarism, Christian Just War theory seems to have been replaced with a Crusade theory of war.

In a nation on a Manichean crusade, there's little room for dissent. The press did not want to appear to be on side of terrorists and it thus reported the propaganda of White House "anonymous officals" uncritically. Democrats feared being labeled unpatriotic so they gave Bush whatever he wanted so long as he said it necessary to fight terror.

The term propaganda rings melodramatic and exaggerated, but a press that - whether from fear, careerism, or conviction - uncritically recites false government claims and reports them as fact, or treats elected officials with a reverence reserved for royalty, cannot be accurately described as engaged in any other function. The nation suffered from a profound failure of its journalistic institutions throughout the Bush presidency; a principle cause of that failure has been the intimidating Manchean framework, in which there exists no middle ground between fighting the terrorists on George Bush's terms or being one of them.
After it became clear that the case for war was bunk, the press adopted the tactic of saying that it was an honest mistake - everyone was duped. Yet, as Greenwald reminds, there were anti-invasion voices before the war who turned out to be remarkably prescient, but during the pre-war "debate" they were only talked about to the extent that they could be used as foils to be depicted as unserious "useful idiots." Individuals who gave reasons for not invading:

were scorned and demonized by the all-knowing pundit class, by our nation's media stars, and by the president's core supporters. Because they opposed the president and his crusade against Evil, individuals urging caution and deliberation were week an unserious; they were pacifistic, borderline subversive losers who, like the hippies in the gernation before them, were not even worth listening to. Saddam was Evil and had to be stopped; and, by defition, no serious person could deny that. Those who did immediately stood as fringe, radical figures whow ere at least indifferent to threats posed by the terrorists, if not actually on the terrorists' side.
Case in point: Scott Ritter.

And there was also the demonization of Howard Dean as some sort of far left ideologue for daring to question the White House's case for war with Iraq.

Dean is a medical doctor and was the governor of Vermont, having been elected five consecutive times by the citizens of that state. During his ten years governing Vermont, Dean was best known for his extreme frugality with taxpayers' money and his unyielding refusal to present anytihg other than a perfectly balanced budget, which is what Vermont enjoyed for his entire governorship. He battled endlessly with the progressives of his state over his relentless budget cutting.

Dean was also one of the most favored plitical officials of the National Rifle Association due to his steadfast opposition to gun control laws - a veiw that was grounded in his unusually firm commitment to states' rights, i.e, if hunters in Vermont want to live without gun control but residents of a state with high urban crime rates (such as New York or California) want such restrictions, the autonomy of both states should be respected. Prior to becoming governor, Dean had a smal-town medical practice, and he and his wife rasied their two children in the Green Mountain State. Until he exploded onto the national political scene in 2002, Howard Dean had lived as a typical American, and there had been nothing remotely radical about him, his life, or anything he had said or done.
As soon as Dean started questiong the march to war with Iraq and voicing concerns he was almost instantly transformed into an unhinged far leftist. That Dean was right and the Manichean warriors were wrong doesn't seem to matter.

But though the war advocates have proved disastrously wrong they still manage to portray themselves as serious and correct, and those who were right (e.g. Jim Webb, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Howard Dean, Scott Ritter, etc.) are still the unserious marginal unhinged far leftists who are alligned (deliberately or not) with the Terrorists and/or the Islamofascists.

But even after it became abundantly clear that Iraq had no link to al Qaeda and did not have "weapons of mass destruction", the White House continued to define our mission in Iraq as fighting terrorists, unable and unwilling to abandon its Manichean frame.

Throughout the 2004 presidential election, the Bush campaign endlessly, wielded this rhetorical tactic by defining the Iraqi insurgents not as Iraqis resisting foreign occupation but as "terrorists." With that premise in place, those who favored the war in Iraq by definition favored fighting the terrorists, while those who opposed the war by defintion wanted to "surrender" to the terrorists - and as a result, real debate over the war, as intended, became impossible. After all, terrorists are the people who flew those planed into our buildings. Who could oppose waging war against them - the terrorists?
The war in Iraq has been an unmitigated disaster, yet President Bush is impervious to reality, still believing that things are steadily progressing. ("[W]e have not succeeded as fast as we wanted to succeed"). Greenwald recaps

There were never any WMDs, the proliferation of government death squads and militias in Iraq means that even compared to the Saddam era, human rights violations and torture have increased to record levels. Iranian influence has risen massively, as a result of a Shiite fundamentalist government loyal to Tehran replacing the former anti-Iranian regime. Iraq was a country in which Al Qaeda could never operate, but now it holds virtually free rein over large swaths of that country. We have squandered hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives. At least tends of thousands, and more likely hundreds of thousands, of innocent Iraqis have died as a result of our invasion. And we have - according to the consensus of our own intelligence community - directly worsened the terrorist problem, and continue to exacerbate it with our ongoing occupation. But those who objected to the war plans on the ground that it would result in precisely these outcomes were demonized as weak-willed allies of Evil and thus ignored.
It's always 1938 ...

The most important chapter in the book is on Iran (see here for an extensive excerpt from it), and how we are poised to see a repeat of the lead up to the war with Iraq. All of the unpopularity and failed policies and low public opinion instead of giving Bush the motive to re-examine his premises have only reinforced his conviction that he is right (as evidenced by his deciding to escalate the conflict in Iraq after his party was turned out in the 2006 election and his rejection of the reccomendations of the bipartisan Iraq Survey Group - renamed the Iraq Surrender Group by the President's Manichean warriors)

Iran gives fuel to the Manichean and paranoid world view: if the mighty United States is losing in Iraq it must be because we haven't gone to war with the meddling Iranians who can be blamed for our failures in Iraq. Since we are fighting in Iraq against the Evil of "Islamofascist" terrorists ("they attacked us" on 9/11, says White House front group Freedom's Watch) then we must go to war with Iran as a necessary part of the War on Terror and anyone who says otherwise has forgotten 9/11 or doesn't want the United States to win the "war on terror." Manichean warriors cannot or do not distinguish between al Qaeda, Iraqi insurgents, Baathists, Shia, Sunni, Iranian mullahs, etc. - they are all the Terrorists. They are all "Islamofascists" and we are in a world war against Them because "they" attacked us on 9/11.

The administration's approach to Iran can be seen as thus:

Iran is governed by Evil leaders. They are the moral and practical equivalent of Hitler's Nazis. They are intent on regional, perhaps even world, domination. They are so insane and so Evil that they will attack other countries with nuclear weapons even if it means that they would then be annihilated. Particularly if they acquire nuclear weapons, they would pose a grave, imminent, and undeterrable threat to the United States. Their leaders do not fear death, and in fact crave it as a result of their religious extremism. They cannot be negotiated with because they are both Evil and deranged. The only feasible course of action with Iran is to treat it as a Nazi-like enemy, refuse to negotiate, and stop it by any means necessary, which -- due to its leaders' inability to be reasoned with -- inevitably requires "regime change," by military confrontation if necessary.
From this any potential diplomacy has devolved into two options for Iran: 1. Do as we say or 2. Face some sort of inevitable military retaliation.

In this Manichean framework, it is 1938 again and we are facing Nazi Germany. Anyone who doesn't see the need to stop Iran (Nazi Germany) is Neville Chamberlain. Reality (such as Iran's efforts to normalize relations with the U.S. after 9/11, its cooperation in the battle against al Qaeda, the fact that allies of the US such as the United Arab Emirates also refuse to recognize Israel's legitimacy, our military being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc.) shrinks away from this debate ending demagogery, and war looms as the only option for the Manichean warrior.

This apocalyptic mind-set is best summarized by the following passage from Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics"

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.
And once one becomes convinced that he/she is figting absolute Evil for the sake of absolute Good, moral constraints dissappear. As Greenwald puts it (see here for another extended excerpt)

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.
As I have written previously, this logic is totalitarian. It is this mentality which has led to the torture, rendition, unprovoked war, secret prisons, domestic spying, arbitrary detentions (including that of U.S. citizens) and un-Constitutional lawlessness that is now what comes to mind for much of the world when it thinks of America.

Speaking of the administration's roll-back of habeus corpus, Greenwald writes

There are only two choices recognized by advocates of these radical policies: (1) suport the War on Terrorism by endorsing the administration's lawless imprisonment and treatment of detainees, or (2) side with the terrorists. To them, there is no third option (such as charge detainees with terrorism and then determine in a hearing, with due process, if the Bush administration's accusation is true) because, to those inhabiting Bush's Manichean world, the president's accusation of terrorism is tantamount to proof. Anyone who objects to the Bush administration's detention of any detainees is, by definition, objecting to the "detention of a terrorist." Why wait to figure out if the detainee really is a terrorist? The Leader, who is Good and seeks to protect us, has said it is so. Thus it is so.

This mindless belief in presidential infallibity repeats itself in almost every debate we have had over the Bush administration's expansion of presidential power. The American founders viewed checks and limits on government power as vital for avoiding tyranny. The Bush movement sees such limits as "terrorist rights," unnecessary interference with the Good Leaders' efforts to protect us.
America's shift towards authoritarianism since 9/11 (authoritarianism tends to increase in times of violent crisis; "Most people seem spring-loaded to become more right-wing authoritarian during crises," writes Altemeyer in Chapter 2) has contributed to the facility of the Manichean framework. It is interesting (and at the same time depressing) to watch the Manichean mind dissipate the cognitive dissonance that should arise between a patriotic belief in an America that is a moral beacon to the world and one that simultaneously embraces a "might makes right" mentality in which laws become a burden that can not be allowed to deter the nation from is ultimate confrontation with the forces of Evil. Altemeyer covered in detail the profound sense of ethnocentrism and self-blindness that characterize an authoritarian mindset, but George Orwell expressed the danger of authoritarian nationalism many years before him and most succinctly in "Notes on Nationalism"

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side ... The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.
That is to say, a nation on a Manichean crusade can engage in activity that were another country to do the same that nation would would be appalled.

The Future

As the 2008 election approaches, the most important issue facing the nation is whether or not America decides to repudiate the Manichean style of the Bush administration in order to recapture our lost democratic values.Will we return to the world of the real or will we continue to inhabit the fantasy world of Good and Evil while democracy continues to crumble into dust?

Will we learn, at least, the lesson that this president has taught us?

The president's inability to view the world as anything other than a paramount battle between the forces of Good and Evil - along with an unshakable conviction that not only he, but every decision he makes, is in service of that Manichean crusade - has kept him wedded to a war and to a method of governance long past the time when both have been revealed to be utter failures. And his core belief in both his own righteousness and the moral imperative of his mission have led him to engage in behavior that has all but destroyed America's credibility and moral standing in the world.
Will we continue to stare into the monstrous abyss of a Manichean crusade in which we abandon our basic democratic values and principles in pursuit of the impossible goal of eliminating Evil from the planet?

The president who insisted that the key to American security was our moral credibility in the world single-handedly destroyed that credibiliy. The president who vowed to defend Good from the forces of Evil relied in that battle upon the very practices the United States has long insisted were the hallmarks of Evil - from an unprovoked, offensive invasion of a sovereign country that was not threatening us; to the creation of a secret and lawless worldwide prison network stocked with detainees who, in many cases, were abducted, tortured, and given no process of any kind to demonstrate their innocence; to the assertion of a limitless entitlement to act outside of any international conventions of law and ethics; to bellicose threats toward still other sovereign countries of more invasions, bombing campaigns, regime changes, and wars. The very values that the president insisted demonstrated America's moral righteousness and political exceptionalism have been precisely those he has most vigorously repudiated and, indeed, betrayed.
It is now up to us to to restore reason to its proper place by rejecting the President's Good Versus Evil worldview before his tragic legacy becomes ours.

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As I wrote this post, I was hoping to work the passage I quote below in somewhere. I couldn't quite figure out where to put it, so I include it here as supplementary material. It is from Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and is a terribly acute description of the Manichean mind. Although it's dated, I expect the reader can easily see how it would apply today.

One reason why the political intelligence of our time is so incredulous and uncomprehending in the presence of the right-wing mind is that it does not reckon fully with the essentially theological concern that underlies right-wing views of the world. Characteristically, the political intelligence, if it is to operate at all as a kind of civic force rather than as a mere set of maneuvers to advance this or that special interest, must have its own way of handling the facts of life and of forming strategies. It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise. It shuns ultimate showdowns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.

The fundamentalist mind will have nothing to do with all this: it is essentially Manichean; it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities. It cannot find serious importance in what it believes to be trifling degrees of difference: liberals support measures that are for all practical purposes socialistic, and socialism is nothing more than a variant of Communism, which, as everyone knows, is atheism. Whereas the distinctively political intelligence begins with the political world, and attempts to make an assessment of how far a given set of goals can in fact be realized in the face of a certain balance of opposing forces, the secularized fundamentalist mind begins with a definition of that which is absolutely right, and looks upon politics as an arena in which that right must be realized. It cannot think, for example, of the cold war as a question of mundane politics – that is to say, as a conflict between two systems of power that are compelled in some degree to accommodate each other in order to survive – but only as a clash of faiths. It is not concerned with the realities of power – with the fact, say, that the Soviets have the bomb – but with the spiritual battle with the Communist, preferably the domestic Communist, whose reality does not consist in what he does, or even in the fact that he exists, but who represents, rather, an archetypal opponent in a spiritual wrestling match. He has not one whit less reality because the fundamentalists have never met him in the flesh.

The issues of the actual world are hence transformed into a spiritual Armageddon, an ultimate reality, in which any reference to day-by-day actualities has the character of an allegorical illustration, and not of the empirical evidence that ordinary men offer for ordinary conclusions. Thus, when a right-wing leader accuses Dwight D. Eisenhower of being a conscious, dedicated agent of the international Communist conspiracy, he may seem demented, by the usual criteria of the political intelligence; but more accurately, I believe, he is quite literally out of this world. What he is trying to account for is not Eisenhower’s actual political behavior, as men commonly understand it, but Eisenhower’s place, as a kind of fallen angel, in the realm of ultimate moral and spiritual values, which to him has infinitely greater reality than mundane politics. Seen in this light, the accusation is no longer quite so willfully perverse, but appears in its proper character as a kind of sublime nonsense. Credo quia absurdum est.

2 comments:

Alan said...

The much anticipated Tragic Legacy review is here!

I don't normally check my blog aggregator in the evening, but I was on-line to see what blogging was happening in the wake of the PBS Nova Judgement Day documentary on the Dover trial.

I also caught up on Greenwald's Ron Paul followup and saw that you were active on the Ornicus comment thread today as well....

Anyway, thanks for the post. I'll probably read this sometime tommorrow.

Charles Sawicki said...

Great post! Have you read papers by Jonathan Haidt (probably the best experimental moral psychologist)? Part of the differences between conservatives and liberals that explains a lot about their behavior is the different bases for their morality. His published surveys indicate that purity and in-group are much more important to conservatives while harm and fairness are more important for liberals. Twin studies indicate that a good part of these differences are probably inherited. Strong purity and in-group feelings provide a solid base for Manicheanism.