Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Politics, heresies, Good, Evil, hope and humanity

There is now a huge majority (71%) of the citizenry of the United States of America who disapprove of the way George W. Bush is performing his duties as President, and of how Richard Cheney is acting as Vice President.

The tide continues to turn. Fears based on knee-jerk reactions to the mayhem of September 11, and terrorism in Madrid and London are being confronted, and many people are beginning to develope enough perspective to think clearly, and carefully about what steps will have results beneficial not only to our national safety interests, but which will enhance our self respect, coincide with national traditions and promote life globally.

In his book, Tragic Legacy, Glenn Greenwald explains how Bush's adherence to a Manichean world view of Good vs. Evil has undermined the Constitution, shredded the international reputation of the United States, and scared thinking citizens a lot more than past or future terrorists. Manichean dualism has been treated as a heresy by Christians for 1626 years. Ironically, it's deepest roots are in Persia, the very part of the world with which the United States government has engaged in an undefined, unwinnable and immoral battle.

I hope you will read the lengthy exerpt below. Better yet, get the book and read the whole argument. Recognize that what people believe MAKES A DIFFERENCE. Careful thinking MAKES A DIFFERENCE. Reative thinking has consequences. Educate yourself.

The second excerpt is Alexander Solzhenitsyn's description of how he stopped believing that humans, including himself, were entirely good (or entirely evil). Have you the courage to acknowledge that shifting, oscillating line within you that separates good and evil?

Yes, this is different from what I usually post. I hope you will consider Mr. Greenwald's theory. I hope you will examine your own beliefs about safety, extremes of good and evil, and the kind of contributions you are willing to make to creat a society (or world) in which you are pleased to live.

Historians will almost certainly ask about the Bush presidency: Did America adhere to its values and principles when defending itself against the threat posed by terrorism, or did it succumb to fear, overreaction, and violate its core beliefs in pursuit of illusions of maximum protection? As history professor Joseph Ellis wrote in 2006 in the New York Times:

"My second question is this: What does history tell us about our earlier responses to traumatic events?

"My list of precedents for the Patriot Act and government
wiretapping of American citizens would include the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which allowed the federal government to close newspapers and deport foreigners during the "quasi-war" with France; the denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, which permitted the pre-emptive arrest of suspected Southern sympathizers; the Red Scare of 1919, which emboldened the attorney general to round up leftist critics in the wake of the Russian Revolution; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which was justified on the grounds that their ancestry made them potential threats to national security; the McCarthy scare of the early 1950's, which used cold war anxieties to pursue a witch hunt against putative Communists in government, universities and the film industry.

"In retrospect, none of these domestic responses to perceived national security threats looks justifiable. Every history textbook I know describes them as lamentable, excessive, even embarrassing.

"But it defies reason and experience to make Sept. 11 the defining influence on our foreign and domestic policy. History suggests that we have faced greater challenges and triumphed, and that overreaction is a greater danger than complacency [emphasis added]. "

The scare tactic of telling Americans that every desired expansion of government power is justified by the Evil Terrorist Threat and that there is no need to worry because the president is Good and will use these powers only to protect us -- is effective because it has immediate rhetorical appeal. Most people, especially when placed in fear of potentially fatal threats, are
receptive to the argument that maximizing protection is the only thing that matters, and that no abstract concept (such as liberty, or freedom, or due process, or adhering to civilized norms) is worth risking one's life by accepting heightened levels of vulnerability.

But nothing in life is perfectly safe. Perfect safety is an illusion. When pursued by an individual to the exclusion of all else, it creates a tragically worthless, paralyzed way of life. On the political level, safety as the paramount goal produces tyranny, causing people to vest as much power as possible in the government, without limits, in exchange for the promise of maximum protection.

All of this is independent of the fact that vesting ever-increasing and
unchecked power in a political leader most assuredly does not make a country "safer." Though it is beyond the ken of the discussion here, it is well-established that open governments with substantial checks and oversight operate far more efficiently than highly secretive, unchecked governments run by unaccountable political leaders. As the American founders well understood, transparent government is critical for detecting errors, uncovering corruption, and ensuring accountability, while political leaders who operate in the dark, wielding vast powers with little oversight, virtually always conceal their mistakes and act to maximize their own interests rather than the country's.

For that reason, the most radical and controversial Bush policies -- from warrantless eavesdropping to detentions, torture and rendition carried out in secret and with no oversight -- have not made us remotely "safer." But even if one assumes that they had, our core political values are profoundly betrayed by the notion that we should vest blind faith and tyrannical powers in the president in exchange for promises of "protection." The central rhetorical premise of the Bush presidency, however, has been that eliminating all risk of the Evil Terrorist Threat is paramount. Hence, the whole array of authoritarian powers seized by this administration is justified because none of the principles and values that are destroyed in the process really matter when set next to the scary prospect that The Terrorists will kill us. In his 2004 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, the president described his all-consuming mission this way:

THE PRESIDENT: This election will also determine how America responds to the continuing danger of terrorism -- and you know where I stand. (Applause.) ... Since that day [9/11], I wake up every morning thinking about how to better protect our
country. I will never relent in defending America, whatever it takes.

This approach has radically transformed America's national character and has led us to engage systematically and openly in behavior we previously scorned when engaged in by other nations. That is why the Bush legacy has left the U.S. with the burden and danger of rising anti-American sentiment. A superpower -- especially the world's only superpower -- can be either respected and admired or despised and feared. Since the end of World War II, America -- albeit with numerous exceptions -- has largely chosen the former. America's leadership in advocating and defending universally applicable principles did not weaken it, nor did our efforts to avoid war make us appear "weak." Quite the contrary. America's strength has been grounded in the legitimacy and moral credibility of its power.

But with his monomaniacal obsession with annihilating perceived Evil, the president has squandered virtually all of the goodwill and respect that the United States built up in the last century. Accurately or not, large numbers of people around the world, on virtually every continent, now perceive the United States as a threat to peace. As they watched us invade and relentlessly bomb Iraq, a country that had not attacked us, and as we threaten still more countries with invasion, citizens around the world -- including many of our own allies whose citizens had previously admired America -- have come to view our country as a source of instability and aggression. Eight years is a long time, and millions and millions of young adults around the world have formed their perceptions of "America" based on its actions during the Bush presidency.

What is "Good" and what is "Evil" are not determined by some preordained or intrinsic distinction. Those are designations determined only by one's conduct. America has always touted its principles as the source of its moral credibility in the world. But once those principles are relinquished and violated, America's moral credibility and its legitimate claim to "Good"
cease to exist.
Tragic Legacy (2007) Glenn Greenwald

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhlemed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

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