Thursday, September 21, 2006

Chavez and the Devil: Bush's Use of 'Evil' Comes Home to Roost

Juan Cole
'Railing and praising were his usual themes,
And both, to show his judgment, in extremes;
So over-violent, or over-civil,
That every man with him was god or devil'
- John Dryden

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez referred to US President George W. Bush as "the devil" in his speech before the UN general assembly on Wednesday, complaining that the stench of sulphur still hung in the air at the podium. Chavez crossed himself at the mention of Bush, a folk Catholic way of fending off Satan.

Bush himself opened the way for these sorts of comments with his 2002 State of the Union address, where he mysteriously allowed the Neoconservative lightweight David Frum to put into his mouth the phrase "the axis of evil" in referring to Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Critics at the time complained that they weren't an axis.

But the real problem is that "evil" is not a political term, it is a theological one. The president of a civil republic has no business trafficking in the rhetoric of evil. Besides, the best ethical theory sees evil as an attribute of acts, not of persons or countries. "Iran" is not "evil." Iran's governing officials may occasionally do evil things, but they are actions, not essences. If you call a person or a country "evil" you are demonizing them.

Having made Iran a demon, Bush refused to talk to it. At the time he put Iran in the axis of evil, reform President Mohammad Khatami had presided over candlelight vigils in Iran for the United States in the aftermath of the al-Qaeda attacks, and had called for people to people diplomacy and a "dialogue of civilizations." President Khatami has his flaws, but he was not and is not "evil."

So, having theologized international relations and turned them into moral absolutes, it is natural that Bush is subsequently paralyzed.

Bush started it. He started talking about other countries and leaders as "evil." He bears the responsibility for this importation of the absolute into our political discourse.

And having set up these theological absolutes, Bush became bound by them. He had to invade "evil" Iraq, because it was . . . evil. Bush keeps saying that Saddam Hussein was "dangerous" even if he did not have weapons of mass destruction. Apparently he was "dangerous" because he is "evil." His dangerousness was not related to actual capability to accomplish anything (which was low). He was intrinsically evil and dangerous.

Contrast Bush's theological crusade against "evil" to the speech of then president John Quincy Adams:
'America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right. Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.'

Bush, having identified other countries as "monsters" had to go in search of them to destroy them. Hence the quagmire in Iraq.

And it was predictable that once he began calling others "evil," someone in the global south would respond by calling George W. Bush "evil" himself.

So now in Bushworld we have all these "evil" politicians and regimes in the world, with whom we won't talk and whom we wish we could just overthrow.

Bush and Chavez aren't qualified to decide that others are evil.

And the whole point of the United Nations was to foster dialogue and understanding. We had enough demonization of people after 1933. Bush's rhetoric has impeded that dialogue, and seems likely to go on doing so.


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