Do Modern Politics depend on some Manichaeist outlook, an almost perpetual Good/Evil conflict? On President Bush’s Farewell Address

for George W. Bush, with thanks

1. Before I address the question in the title, a few scattered observations:

  • I don’t know about you, but it definitely feels like in this country the s**t has hit the fan after Obama’s election. The inability to get rid of this Blagojevich loser and that Burris nutcase, who is now a Senator – I mean, shouldn’t public opinion be centered on that instead of still blaming Republicans for everything? And then, with Israel and Gaza, this sort of thing, which I cannot believe is protected by the First Amendment. It may be the case – this is obviously a biased comment – that Leftist/morally libertarian politics make people more like animals: like animals, we would sleep at strange times, and like animals, we would turn on each other with especial viciousness.
  • There has been much griping that the President can’t speak well. I can vouch for three very sensible, powerful speeches – the Second Inaugural, remarks made at the anniversary of 9/11 this year, and now this.
  • Some believe the isolation of the executive is a factor that really needs to be accounted for, but at his last press conference, President Bush talked about how way too much is made of that, and how one’s own family keeps one strong. I think this is probably far more accurate than the “someone has power, I don’t, so let me call him nuts every time I don’t agree with him” thing underlying the other argument. Fleshing this out a little bit will occur in the remarks below…

2. President Bush’s Farewell Address, 1/15/09 | Manichaeism, courtesy Wikipedia

My political scientist colleagues, who are not exactly the most conservative of individuals, peddle ideas about things like “soft power” and bemoan the supposed loss of this magical “goodwill” the US had before it started actually fighting terrorists and blah blah blah. Generally speaking, the nutcase Leftist argument against the GOP, which has become mainstream, is that a bunch of Christian fundamentalists want to conquer the world for the sake of Jesus or Israel or something, and while they’re doing this they want to steal a lot of oil and stop everyone from having sex and rig elections, and al-Qaeda and radical Islam are just an excuse for conquest, and don’t exist unless Barack Obama is fighting them. In which case, they do exist, because they’ve been armed by previous Republican administrations under the pretense of fighting Communism, which we all know also didn’t exist and hurt absolutely no one.

So the deep problem with 99% of the argumentation we see in political life is that it cannot be taken seriously. When President Bush says

…with strong allies at our side, we have taken the fight to the terrorists and those who support them. Afghanistan has gone from a nation where the Taliban harbored al Qaeda and stoned women in the streets to a young democracy that is fighting terror and encouraging girls to go to school. Iraq has gone from a brutal dictatorship and a sworn enemy of America to an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States….There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions. [boldface mine]

he’s being more diplomatic than anyone can afford to be even on a philosophic level. Either people who massacre others for sport are bad or they’re not. If you don’t think they’re bad, you’re either delusional or masking another agenda, and the dishonesty regarding the latter makes deliberation to any serious degree impossible.

Point is, one way of making sense of remarks like the following

The battles waged by our troops are part of a broader struggle between two dramatically different systems. Under one, a small band of fanatics demands total obedience to an oppressive ideology, condemns women to subservience, and marks unbelievers for murder. The other system is based on the conviction that freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God, and that liberty and justice light the path to peace.

is to say that there is a point at which we cannot deliberate, and to that end democracy must embrace a good/evil outlook and insist on preconditions for others. Those preconditions come loaded with values of necessity: people within the democracy do the fighting, so they have to be convinced the fighting they’re doing is for a good they understand. You can call this imperialism, but unless you can show me people willing to die for academic relativism, you’re out of your mind. President Bush hits at the truth exactly when he says

And in the long run, advancing this belief is the only practical way to protect our citizens. When people live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who pursue campaigns of terror. When people have hope in the future, they will not cede their lives to violence and extremism. So around the world, America is promoting human liberty, human rights, and human dignity. [boldface mine]

3. So what we’ve established at this point is that good/evil rhetoric can be justifiably used now, as it seems to be necessary in order to even have a political order. Now we can finetune the analysis and ask some questions which will undermine my rhetoric above: we just need to distinguish more clearly between the “necessary” and the “good.”

We start with what could be Machiavelli’s take on founding myth – does a founding myth need an Other, some being that is evil, in order to be effective? It doesn’t seem like it: if we recall the operation of The Prince, all that matters for Cesare Borgia is that he pins all the necessary butcheries on d’Orco, and then butchers d’Orco. If there’s a myth, it’s not so much  dependent on “there’s perpetual evil,” but more an attempt to spin  “look at what a good ruler we have.”

But then again, Borgia turns out to be a failure. Even with Daddy as the Pope, he couldn’t get the Cardinals he needed on his side when he needed them. It seems a stretch to say The Prince is about founding myth: it is more about mythical founders, and that distinction might have some import for this discussion. It could be the case that the book is only unleashing the ambitions of would-be princes, showing them that the Church is an obstacle to history featuring them, and that they need to focus on deeds more than speech in order to get what they deserve.

Maybe, then, we should take a step back in time, to when myth was taken  a bit more seriously. We all recall the myth of the metals in the Republic, and can see its primary purpose: civic order and peace. It doesn’t seem necessarily martial, but remember what the Republic itself is. It is dedicated to a guardian class  of super soldiers who can beat multiple cities in war if  they wish, but they’d rather attempt to be just by nature. Being just by nature, of course, means being continent even while being able and working hard to acquire all: the true source of moderation is not justice alone, justice making universal claims in some instances, and the city falls apart because of this tension. In Xenophon, the tension is more pronounced: Cyrus is raised to be continent for the sake of temperance and justice in Persia, but finds that continence makes you an unbeatable soldier. This causes Cyrus to literally conquer the world.

Again, it doesn’t seem like these narratives require an irreducible “evil” in order to make the myth work. But then again, if you want the quick and dirty way out of this, note that President Bush’s rhetoric doesn’t require the presence of “evil” necessarily. Rather, it is adamant, like all myth, about what is good. Quite literally, we can say that is not a bad thing.

4. But all of you readers of this blog know that the good is something we debate and philosophize about, while necessity and justice govern our other functions daily. It isn’t that we fail to pursue the good, but it is that we don’t accept uncritically at the higher levels what myth tells us is good (stop laughing. Okay, I’ll put it this way: we don’t try to accept the good uncritically).

Now we’re at the question of deliberation. If we’re serious about deliberation, does this conflict with our mythologizing of the good to get things done? At the highest levels, of course. But is politics conducted at the highest level?

We all know that despite how incompetent and flawed Congress is, they’re really not there to deliberate – they’re there to be useful. When utility is the primary goal, you always end up listening to experts. Inasmuch as they “deliberate,” they voice interests that represent us – in other words, their deliberation is a function of utility, but one stemming from a general will.

This brings up the issue of whether deliberation is a wholly private thing, or a part of public life that is independent of government. I can safely tell you that I’m very concerned about the state of media – to have the tabloidish cartoonish agenda-driven crap that passes for news define “being informed,” when even National Review and The American Prospect, from different sides of the aisle, are doing a great job of being partisan and informative, is utterly unacceptable unless the American public starts reading the latter sort of publications regularly. My suspicion is, independent of Enlightenment and this idea everyone can learn everything via method, that there are forces which help educate, and forces that make us dumber. Obviously, to the degree that radical Islam or cheap populism refuse to concede education is a good, elimination is the only realistic prospect.

I lean to the idea that real deliberation is private, that we seek friends – sometimes even across the ages – to share the best of our thoughts and hear the best responses. And I obviously lean to the idea that this is not for everyone, and there are a lot of bright people who can’t cut it even though they think they can.

One major reason they can’t make the grade is their own attitude. I don’t know that Socrates can be characterized by pride or humility, for both terms don’t seem to fit. Xenophon talks about his “big talking,” and certainly Socrates had a big mouth, but that shows a nonchalance about being honored more than anything else. When President Bush concludes his remarks with

I will always be honored to carry a title that means more to me than any other – citizen of the United States of America.

that’s about the extent of Socratic honor. Sometimes you love your country enough to disagree with it and where it’s going very strongly, and this can occur at a political and philosophical level.

You need courage to make real friends, strangely enough. The real story is not that our politics, but who we are privately now, depends on something like a Manichaeist outlook. Many of us are not content to be citizens: we want to be in control of everything, from every atom in our own bodies to the parties to the Presidency.  We want to be justified in that control. Wanting to be in control by itself isn’t courage – it is lazy thinking, a desire for comfort purely. What you should want, in a nation “conceived in liberty,” is to be the best citizen you can be, on your own terms, terms which all of us are happy to help you achieve.


  1. I had to look up Manichaeist to figure out what your comparison was.
    Many of us are not content to be citizens: we want to be in control of everything, from every atom in our own bodies to the parties to the Presidency. We want to be justified in that control. Wanting to be in control by itself isn’t courage – it is lazy thinking, a desire for comfort purely. What you should want, in a nation “conceived in liberty,” is to be the best citizen you can be, on your own terms, terms which all of us are happy to help you achieve.

  2. Once again, very interesting insights. Whenever anyone complains about Bush’s speech, it tends to be about diction rather than ideas (as that seems to be as deep as anyone is willing to grapple with the speeches). Bush is very much a successor of Reagan though (which I thought we had learned was a good thing following the 1980s?).

    Believe me, I’ve had to defend neo-con policy time and time again against the typical left arguments over Iraq, etc. It always comes down to the same-old WMD, ‘the world hates us,’ lamentation. I think it was off of a link on this blog that I had read 58% of Germans think us ‘more dangerous’ than Iran. But really what they mean is that the United States of America is more than willing to be ‘mean’ when it sees something unjust happen–and feels that for a prosperous America, freedom (and ad hoc) justice must prevail.

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