July 4, 2014
FROM THE ARCHIVES: DENY EVIL, DENY AMERICA:The new Nero (Francois de Bernard, 3/31/03, Ha'aretz)
[T]he time has come for us to open our eyes. The time has come to forget the old idea - forged during the course of two centuries - of the United States as the bridgehead of the "free world" and "democracy."
The reality that we are trying to keep at a distance is that the United States has become a theocracy and a pathocracy. It has become a theocracy because nearly all the important decisions of President George W. Bush's administration are taken "in the name of God" - an angry and vengeful God, not a God of love and compassion - and because this system is not encountering any serious opposition on the part of the legislative and legal institutions, not to mention the media.
We are Democracy, by the will of our angry God, and our role is to promote it in His name and for His sake. The fact that this democracy has only a marginal and metaphorical connection to 2,5000 years of political tradition is of no importance. The self-definition and the self-justification are the two breasts of the empire. Just as the United Nations is a negligible factor that can be ignored when it opposes our plans, we were established in order to impose on the rest of the world the idea of democracy that corresponds only to our convictions.
For two years now - and increasingly since September 11, 2001, there has been a great deal of focus in the discourse on the subject of "good and evil" and the strategy derived from it with respect to the "axis of evil." This has generally been based on the return, in full force, of the primitive moralizing that runs through a large part of the political and intellectual history of the United States. But in fact, it is something of an entirely different nature. It is the brutal transformation of an oligarchic republic tinged with democracy into a republic that is essentially theocratic.
If we realize this, then it is possible to understand that everything becomes possible from the point of view of Bush's administration, from the rejection of the Kyoto treaty to the perpetuation of the death penalty, from the attempt to marginalize the UN to the approaching exit from the World Trade Organization, from the war in Afghanistan to the war in Iraq.
But the United States has also become a pathocracy, that is, a regime that is neurotic in essence, the leaders of which are, quite simply, psychopaths. I offer the hypothesis that the American president is personally suffering from a paranoid psychosis and that the quartet he has formed with Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld constitutes a government that is both theocratic and pathocratic.
Mr. de Bernard states the difference between Europe (and the Left generally) and America (and the Right generally) about as starkly and honestly as you'll find anywhere: the two sides divide over the question of good and evil. It is actually he and his ilk who deny the Western political tradition, for what does that tradition consist of if not the central insight of the Fall of Man, that we are inherently sinful and incapable of changing our nature, though we must strive to contain the evil of which we are all capable, towards which we may even be inclined? You'd be hard pressed to find a Founder more closely associated with the celebration of humanity than Thomas Jefferson, but recall his words when it comes to how men should be governed: "In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution." And, of course, the most famous passage in the Federalist Papers, and thus the most authoritative statement of how we view our political system, is Madison's (?) in Federalist 51:
[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other
that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State. But it is not possible to give to each department an equal power of self-defense. In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit.
Thus is American Republicanism deeply premised on the desire of men to encroach upon each others' rights. It is no exaggeration to say that America's genesis lies in Genesis, in the millennia old revelation that men are not angels, are not "good". The United States is not, of course, a theocracy, but it very much owes its existence and endurance as the world's freest and longest-lived democracy to Judeo-Christian theology. Yet this foundation is precisely what Mr. de Bernard is proposing should be viewed as our "pathology" and "psychosis".
Indeed, Mr. Benard's view--that there is no such thing as good and evil and that religion is a kind of dangerous neuroses--informs modern European intellectual life (and that of the American Left) and has driven Europe's seemingly inexorable decline. Everything from the massive Social Welfare states they've created, with their now thoroughly discredited assumption that men will not eagerly become dependents of the State; to their permissive moralities; to their willingness to cede national sovereignty to EU and UN bureaucrats; to their increasing isolation from world affairs, as in their refusal to confront Iraq; are all fundamentally outgrowths of a fantastical belief that man is essentially good, that we can impute the best of motives to all and sundry, and that every conflict between men is a function of mere misunderstanding, rather than a clash of values, some of which are superior
The Franco-European vacation from reality can in large part be traced to Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose philosophy Mary Ann Glendon describes as follows (since we, as Americans, basically ignore Rousseau as nonsensical utopianism, it will be appropriate to quote her at length):
He began his Discourse on Inequality by scoffing at previous attempts to account for the origins of government by describing what human beings must have been like in the "state of nature." The mythic tales told by Hobbes and Locke had recounted the progress of mankind from "a horrible state of war" (Hobbes) or from a "very precarious, very unsafe" existence (Locke) into a more secure way of life in organized society. According to Rousseau, such accounts had it backwards. Prior writers had failed to understand the natural condition of man, he claimed, because they "carried over to the state of nature ideas they had acquired in society; they spoke about savage man but they described civilized man." The complex fears and desires they attributed to our early ancestors could only have been produced by society.
Rousseau then presented his own version of pre-history as universal truth: "O man, of whatever country you are, and whatever your opinions may be, listen: behold your history as I have thought to read it, not in books written by your fellow creatures, who are liars, but in nature, which never lies." The earliest human, as Rousseau imagined him, was a simple, animal-like creature, "wholly wrapped up in the feeling of [his own] present existence." He was not inherently dangerous to his fellows as Hobbes had it. But neither was he fallen as the biblical tradition teaches. Rather, he must have led a "solitary," "indolent" life, satisfying his basic physical needs, mating casually without forming ties. He possessed a "natural feeling" of compassion for the suffering of other sentient beings that made him unwilling to harm others, unless (a big unless) his own self-preservation was at stake. He was not
naturally endowed with reason, but existed in an unreflective state of pure being. The transition from this primitive state into civil society represented a "loss of real felicity," in Rousseau's view, rather than an unambiguous step forward.
Rousseau next took aim at the social contract theories of his predecessors. As he saw it, what drew human beings out of their primeval state was not rational calculation leading to agreement for the sake of self-preservation (as Hobbes and Locke thought), but rather a quality he called "perfectibility." Previous thinkers, he claimed, did not pay sufficient attention to the distinctively human capacity to change and develop, to transform oneself and to be transformed. In other words, they failed to consider the implications of the fact that human nature itself has a history. Or that human beings, through their capacity to form ideas, can to some extent shape that history. These were the insights of the Discourse on Inequality that won the admiration of such a dissimilar personality as Immanuel Kant and stirred the historical imaginations of Hegel and Marx.
With the development of human faculties, Rousseau continued, came language, family life, and eventually an era when families lived in simple tribal groups. That centuries-long stage of communal living, succeeding the state of nature and preceding organized society, he wrote, "must have been the happiest and most stable of epochs," which only a "fatal accident" could have brought to an end. That accident was precipitated by the ever-restless human mind that invented agriculture and metallurgy, which led in turn to the state of affairs where human beings lost their self-sufficiency and came to depend on one another for their survival. ("It is iron and wheat which have civilized men and ruined the human race.")
In contrast to Locke, who taught that property was an especially important, pre-political right, Rousseau wrote:
"The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, 'Beware of listening to this imposter, you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.' "
Contrary to Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau contended that it was civil society, not nature, that gave rise to a state of affairs that was always in danger of degenerating into war. Civil society begat governments and laws, inequality, resentment, and other woes. Governments and laws "bound new fetters on the poor, and gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, eternally fixed the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labor, slavery, and wretchedness." It would be absurd to suppose, he went on, that mankind had somehow consented to this state of affairs where "the privileged few . . . gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life."
Though Rousseau's evocative imaginary depictions of primitive societies were to swell the tide of nineteenth-century romantic "nostalgia" for the simple life, he himself insisted that there was no escape from history. There was no going back, he explained, because human nature itself had changed: "The savage and the civilized man differ so much . . . that what constitutes the supreme happiness of one would reduce the other to despair." Natural man had been sufficient unto himself; man in civil society had become dependent on his fellows in countless ways, even to the point of living "in the opinions of others." Reprising the theme of his Dijon essay, Rousseau concluded that modern man, though surrounded by philosophy, civilization, and codes of morality, had little to show for himself but "honor without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness."
The radical character of Rousseau's political thought is nowhere more apparent than in his treatments of reason and human nature. Together with early modern and Enlightenment thinkers, he rejected older ideas of a natural law discoverable through right reason. But by insisting that human beings are not naturally endowed with reason, he struck at the very core of the Enlightenment project, subordinating reason to feeling in a move that would characterize the politics of a later age. Like others within the modern horizon, he rejected the older view that human beings are naturally social or political. But by exalting individual solitude and self-sufficiency, he set himself apart from his fellow moderns, anticipating the hyper-individualism of a much later age--our own.
Not without justification, then, did Bloom call the Discourse on Inequality "the most radical work ever written, one that transformed the way people thought about the world." This one essay contained the germs of most of the themes Rousseau would develop in later works, and that would be further elaborated by others who came under his spell. Rousseau's lyrical descriptions of early man and simple societies fueled the nineteenth-century popular romantic revolt against classicism in art and literature. His criticism of property, together with his dark view of the downside of mutual dependence, made a deep impression on the young Karl Marx.
The thesis of the Second Discourse, that the most serious forms of injustice had their origins in civil society rather than in nature, foreshadowed Rousseau's famous charge at the beginning of The Social Contract that virtually all existing governments were illegitimate: "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains." Having raised the explosive issue of legitimacy, and sensing that Europe's old regimes were about to crumble, Rousseau turned to his most ambitious project to date: the question of how better governments might be established. "I want to seek," he wrote, "if, in the civil order, there can be some legitimate and solid rule of administration, taking men as they are and the laws as they can be."
Like many critical theorists before and since, Rousseau was less successful at developing a positive political vision of his own than he had been at spotting flaws in the theories of others. In The Social Contract, he framed the problem of good government as that of finding a form of political association which would protect everyone's person and property, but within which each person would remain "as free as before." The solution he devised was an agreement by which everyone would give himself and all his goods to the community, forming a state whose legislation would be produced by the will of each person thinking in terms of all (the "general will"). The state's legitimacy would thus be derived from the people, who, in obeying the law, would be obeying themselves.
That solution to the problem of legitimate government would obviously require a special sort of citizen, a "new man" who could and would choose the general will over his own interests or the narrow interests of his group. The concept of the general will thus links The Social Contract to Rousseau's writings on nurture, education, and morals, particularly Emile, which contains his program for forming the sentiments of the young so that they will retain their natural goodness while living in civil society.
The legitimate state, as Rousseau imagined it, would need not only virtuous citizens, but an extraordinary "Legislator" who could persuade people to accept the rules necessary for such a society. Law in the properly constituted state would be, among other things, an instrument of transformation: "He who dares to undertake the making of a people's laws ought to feel himself capable of changing human nature." Rousseau had learned from the classical philosophers, however, that good laws can take root only amidst good customs. It was thus implicit in The Social Contract that many existing societies were already beyond help. "What people," Rousseau asked, "is a fit subject for legislation?" His answer was not encouraging to revolutionaries bent on overthrowing unjust regimes: "One which, already bound by some unity of origin, interest, or convention, has never yet felt the
real yoke of law; . . . one in which every member may be known by every other, and there is no need to lay on any man burdens too heavy for a man to bear; . . . one which is neither rich nor poor, but self sufficient. . . . All these conditions are indeed rarely found united, and therefore few states have good constitutions."
Once a legitimate state is established, it needs to be maintained and defended. Thus, according to Rousseau, there should be no "particular associations" competing for the loyalty of citizens; religion should not be left independent of political control; and those who refuse to conform to the general will would have to be "forced to be free."
The contrast between Rousseau's program and the practical ideas that guided the American Founders could hardly be more striking. The legacy of the most influential political thinker of the eighteenth century is thus at odds with the era's greatest political achievement--the design for government framed by men who believed that good governments could be based on reflection and choice. The pragmatic authors of The Federalist had their own, clear-eyed, understanding of human nature with its potency and its limitations. They knew that human beings are creatures of reason and feeling--capable of good and evil, trust and betrayal, creativity and destruction, selfishness and cooperation. In Madison's famous formulation: "As there is a certain degree of depravity in human nature which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence."
And so we have Franco-European thinkers, the children of Rousseau, who imagine that governmental institutions--the State, the EU, the UN, etc.--will have a transformative effect on mankind, will create the "new man". This could not be more antithetical to Americans, children of the Founders, who erected an elaborate system of checks and balances even against fellow citizens and who know human nature to be immutable and who scoff at the idea of trusting the folk of other nations or the bureaucrats of transnational institutions with political power. Mr. de Bernard refers to us as "paranoid" because we do not trust the French, UN, the Taliban, Saddam, etc., but paranoia is a condition of irrational distrust. American distrust of their fellow Americans and even more so of non-Americans and even more than that of institutions that concentrate power is entirely rational and is justified by
long and bitter human experience. It is Franco-European faith in the good intentions of governments and bureaucrats and radical Islamicists that is in fact the product of irrational fantasy. It has been common, especially on the American Left, to dismiss the current split between America and Old Europe as driven by emotion and only temporary. Such folks contend that we are bound by more commonalities than are we divided by our differences. This is simply untrue. We diverged over two centuries ago and though it has taken some time for that to become obvious to all, the precipitous decline of Europe, as a result of the false path it has followed, is going to make it impossible to ignore any longer.
Desperately Wicked: Reckoning with evil. (Alan Wolfe, March/April 2003, Books & Culture)
"The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe," wrote Hannah Arendt in 1945. She was wrong. To be fair, her comment was not directed at the United States, and it applied to intellectual life in general rather than to academic trends in particular. Still, postwar thought in the West in the last half of the 20th century did not make evil central to its concerns. On the contrary: philosophers retreated even more deeply into analytic preoccupations with logic and language; social scientists reacted to the massive irrationalities of war and totalitarianism by treating all human behavior as if it were ultra-rational; both literary theorists and novelists were attracted to forms of postmodernism that denied any fixed distinctions, including the one between good and evil; and the most influential theologians studiously avoided neo-Augustinian[originally posted: 2003-03-31]
thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr. The one European thinker who comes closest to Arendt in breadth of knowledge and passionate concern with the fate of humanity--JŸrgen Habermas--has devoted his work not to exploring the horrors of the modern world, but to the conditions under which meaningful human communication is possible.
What was not true of the past fifty years, however, may turn out to be true of the next fifty. Evil is getting increased attention. Presidents Reagan and Bush used the term in their rhetoric to significant public acclaim. Popular culture addicts know all about Hannibal Lector and consume the plots of Stephen King. And the books under review here are representative of a much larger number of recent titles, suggesting that academic fields as diverse as philosophy, theology, and psychology are turning with increasing frequency to a subject they once ignored. It has taken a half-century since the end of World War II for the study of evil to catch up with the thing itself--perhaps, given the traumas of the evils uncovered at war's end, not an unreasonable amount of time.
Now that evil is once again prominent on the intellectual and academic radar screen, the problems of understanding it have only just begun. These books not only fail to agree on what evil is, they disagree on how it came into the world and whether it ever can be expected to leave. Consider them, as all of their authors save one would want them to be considered, provisional efforts to start an inquiry rather than foundational attempts to solve a problem. [...]
Although many of the thinkers who tried to make sense out of the Holocaust were Jewish, they were influenced by Christian theology; Hans Jonas was a student of Rudolf Bultmann, and Hannah Arendt, as Charles T. Mathewes reminds us, always worked in the shadow of Augustine. Evil and the Augustinian Tradition features Arendt, along with Reinhold Niebuhr, as representing alternatives to what Mathewes calls "subjectivism," which he defines as "the belief that our existence in the world is determined first and foremost by our own (subjective) activities."
Niebuhr is often assumed to be a conservative, but, as Mathewes points out, this cannot be easily reconciled with his political activism, most of which was concentrated on left-wing causes. Moreover, because American conservatism is so tied to a Smithian love of the marketplace, it has never--with the exception of now somewhat forgotten figures such as Whittaker Chambers or the Southern agrarians--been able to develop the ironic, and often pessimistic, stance toward modernity that any good conservative mood should reflect. In Augustine's theology Niebuhr found an alternative to the prevailing American optimism of his day.
Niebuhr's voice was tragic. Evil, the realist in him recognized, is "a fixed datum of historical science"; not for Niebuhr the kind of naivete that has often characterized religious leaders' involvement in politics. At the same time, our sins are not of such a depraved nature that any hope has to be ruled out of order. We can take responsibility for our acts, and Mathewes is especially good as describing this Niebuhrian sense of responsibility. "We have no intellectual resources for 'handling' evil," he writes, "if 'handling' it means managing it." Our thought is always torn open at its side, as it were, and bleeds from the knowledge that we sinners, we evil doers, are at fault and are yet the vehicles whereby God's salvation is made manifest." [...]
We live with evil because evil has chosen to live with us. The best we can do is to be as ambitious as we can in trying to tackle one of the great mysteries surrounding us, without becoming so ambitious that we bring evil down to the level of ordinary existence. As Richard Bernstein concludes in an especially reflective summary of what we know and what we do not, evil is "an excess that resists total comprehension." Yet, he continues, "interrogating evil is an ongoing, open-ended process" which requires not only a reaffirmation of the importance of personal responsibility but also a commitment to rethinking what responsibility means. Whether we are followers of Augustine or Kant, we are individuals with free will. Faced with the Holocaust, some people chose to do the right thing--even while far more chose evil.
Posted by oj at July 4, 2014 6:00 AM