Friday, November 7, 2008

”Evil:” New Directions

How a bumbling, ambitious President bamboozled the nation with medieval hobgoblins.
More than an innocent Halloween prank. 65

Semantics tend to remain fairly academic issues until the rifles come out. There is very little particularly troubling when one considers, say, historians debating the specific meaning of a few words they have encountered in some ancient text. During the course of justifying the $700 billion plan, whatever it may turn out to be finally, the term “bailout” was discarded in favor of the term “rescue.” After all, the subtextual implications of the first term contradicted some carefully groomed assets of the word masters concerning, for example, the activity of the morning retrieval of some embarrassing uncle from the local drunk tank.

Unhappily, there have been some incredibly more damaging terms thrown around lately. Perhaps the most sinister will be the disastrous choice of the word “evil.” Its appearance as an “Axis of Evil” in George Bush’s now infamous State of the Union speech was probably no more than an attempt to resurrect a few drops of living blood from Reagan’s memorable “Evil Empire” of the 1980’s.

The textual and conceptual validity of the word is quite parasitic. Preachers and priests have already done all the “heavy lifting” in the matter. “Evil” is a fundamental asset to their franchised “death fear” business. They have been quite successful in devising thousands of various forms, implied meanings and examples for the idea, repeatedly presenting these to their respective “flocks,” and reaping the rewards of their despair based, tax free avarice.

For politicians, the practice apparently “grew legs” as a necessary ingredient to some more modern, neo-con recipes. Always envious of the pedestrian thrall of these dirty shirt evangelicals, the neo-cons presumed that property rights to some of the word’s utility was, somehow, transferred to them. You know. By Divine Right or some grotesque 21st-century fabrication of it. After all, it was certainly consistent with their well-managed and highly propagandized political claims to being the righteous ones among the current choices.

Now, because we seem to have chosen a more rational approach to matters previously defined by the word, “evil,” we must carefully examine both its previous, destructive use and select some more modern concepts for the path forward. Frankly, although momentarily effective in manipulating public opinion, we now face more permanent results not dissimilar from a perpetual, medieval toothache.

First, an ambitious tautology. Let’s conveniently agree that the essential nature of such utterances by politicians bifurcate into two fundamental categories. The first will be that of phenomenology. It will be contrasted by the second which will be categorized as that of the logical proposition. Since such abstractions may appear a bit “scratchy” at first blush, we can immediately introduce some examples.

The phenomenological argument is: “The Iranians are evil. They are a part of the Axis of Evil.”

The logical proposition is: “Iranian ambitions make them our adversaries. Their interests conflict with our interests.”

The “evil” classification, aside from requiring a tacit acceptance of external authority, is based on a judgment beyond question. Copius statements derived from religious mythology imply that “evil is evil,” and further, “one aspect of evil is its interest in convincing the righteous (the non-evil) that it is not actually ‘evil.’” As a consequence, once something has been convincingly called “evil,” any disagreement with such a verdict only implies that one has “been convinced by ‘evil’ that this something is not actually ‘evil.’”

The phenomenological choice at this point is clear. Would you rather agree with God that this something is “evil,” or would you prefer to foolishly question such an argument because you have already been deceived by this “evil? Further, the implied mythological treatment of “evil,” at least for nations beset with either of the most agressive and violent religions -- Christianity or Islam, is that “evil” is an eternal presence which can never be overcome by earthly powers.

That’s right. Both “No Exit” and “No Victory.”

What a wonderful invitation and justification to endless war and other unexamined insanity which simply presents itself without any rational, secular solutions. When one adds the justification of all sorts of specific atrocities, each made necessary by the needs of the moment, a “free pass” is injected into the equation for actions “evil but necessary.” Actions which might have been “evil” if taken against, any other, “less evil” enemies, become both necessary and, well, somehow slightly more justifiable, that is, slightly “less evil” when those actions are our response to these materially “evil” enemies in actual combat, The matter becomes a cosmic tort case for a negotiated divine dispensation.

Can you believe it? We bought this drivel hook, line and sinker.

The propositional alternative is attractive. This would be precisely the alternative which served John Kerry so poorly in the last election. His losing proposition was, simply enough, that our adversaries were exactly that, adversaries. His was the losing argument. The winning argument was, of course, that they were “evil doers,” not simple adversaries.

Adversaries, enemies, even, competitors, can be beaten by effective worldly approaches. Struggles against these worldly opponents can actually result in quite worldly successes. Struggles against “evil,” on the other hand, are only rehabilitated by divine judgment. No matter how ineffective and destructive such “anti-evil” struggles might be on earth, such bothersome details fade in the blinding light of the Savior’s imagined favor for having “fought the good fight.”

Not too troubling so long as one hasn’t had to bury his son as a result.

The “evil” idea progressed nicely to become the concept that these enemies, particularly the ones we “captured or purchased,” you know, the ones in Guantanamo, were criminals not combatants. The suggestion that anyone daring to fight us was “breaking the law,” was almost more convenient and useful than the “evil” designation. Since we were “fighting evil,” no one on the other side could possibly be, honestly, an outright enemy. Because , under this new line of thought, it was “against the law” to oppose us in any way, these “opposers” necessarily became criminals subject to “extraordinary rendition,” apparently President Bush’s contemporary version of the Inquisition. (See note above regarding justifiable “atrocities.”) The unspoken adjunct here was that these "opposers" were actually, of course, "evil-doers" in their day jobs.

The exquisite subtleties of history augmented this madness. Our opponents apparently had decided that we were the “evil” ones! “Egad! How incredibly wrong!” This made it quite important to constantly suggest that this was not simply a modern form of the Crusade. (GWB slipped up on this count in Jordan just before his invasion.) Planetary Muslims seemed remarkably more comfortable with the Inquisition idea than with the Crusade idea. During the Inquisition, the Christians were ripping Christian arms and legs off their Christian brothers.

“Evil” presented as, however unlikely, a feature of some logical proposition is validated by existential falsification, that is, such a position might be debated, and through that debate, disproved. The “ideological or religious underpinnings” of the phenomenological alternative cannot be disproved. In fact, even the most well behaved academic challenge is, frankly, heresy. It is a neo-con axiom that all kinds of good ideas and other advantages emerge when all debate is suppressed. (e.g. “Stay the course.” “Cut and run.” “They hate our freedom.” Did anyone notice actual, rational alternatives to any of these "pop-ups" as they were being discussed?)

It is not the substance of the counter argument these thoroughly modern reactionaries find so troubling. It is, specifically, the counter argument itself as it once again insinuates that old, disruptive existential falsification problem into the mix. If the “burning question of the day” can be transformed into a hysterically persuasive issue of “evil,” so much the better.

The breathlessly anxious introduction of the word “evil” into our national debate has led to nothing positive. George Bush’s choice of such an embarrassing term to validate his, now obviously, ill advised military schemes and his less than patriotic taste for national division to promote his political ambitions has actualized very concrete disasters for us. For you. For me. For our neighbors. For our soldiers. For our elderly. For eveyone who had anything he, or his friends, could take.

His dangerously weird Presidential dream of joining the list of Old Testament “Good Kings” has collapsed into a dreary dust bowl of incompetence and greed. This is, perhaps, and, hopefully, the final episode of this injection of religious mythology into the very real and consequential world of politics or policy. It was trotted out again in the last election, but the legs on the thing were too tired, too road weary to have traction with an exhausted and despairing electorate.

At this point, we have to suppose that fighting “evil” has no future, at least no future for those who would like to win.

"One might say that evil does not exist for subjective man at all, that there exist only different conceptions of good. Nobody ever does anything deliberately in the interests of evil, for the sake of evil. Everybody acts in the interests of good, as he understands it. But everybody understands it in a different way. Consequently, men drown, slay, and kill one another in the interests of good. The reason is again the same, men's ignorance and the deep sleep in which they live."

Ouspensky, P.D., In Search of the Miraculous. Chapter XIII. (quoting George Gurdjieff)

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