Christmas thoughts from a Jewish blogger

I’m about to wade into theology here, so feel free to beat me around the head (politely, of course), if I’ve committed some egregious doctrinal sin.  Before you do, though, please follow my argument to its conclusion, to see whether I’m on the right track.

I got to thinking about evil today. In my earlier post, I took it upon myself to define what I believe constitutes good (as opposed to evil) at a societal level:  Maximum individual freedom within a framework of stable laws.  What I want to discuss in this post is the evil of the individual, whether it’s just a handful of individuals committing acts of great evil, or evil on the vast scale of Stalin, Hitler, Mao or Kim Jung-Il (as well as their minions, who kept the leaders’ hands free of actual blood).

As I contemplate evil men, what always strikes me is that they are distinguished from “merely” bad people by the way in which they view their fellow man.  Your ordinary bad guy is motivated by greed, fear, anger, jealously, etc.  His own feelings drive him.  He’s not thinking about the relative worth of the people against whom he acts.  He’s simply thinking about his own needs.

People who commit evil on a grand scale, whether their victims are small in number or large, may fall prey to these passions, but these all too human emotions are not what drive them.  Instead, they commit their evil acts because they feel separate from and above ordinary humanity.  In their own minds, they are a superior species, a pleasant fact that entitles them to starve the kulaks, kill the Jews and gypsies, or turn their own nation into a giant prison camp.  The root cause of evil isn’t an unloving mother or a bourgeois upbringing or a racist society.  Instead, it is the evildoer’s fundamental lack of humanity.

Which gets me to the birthday the Christian world celebrates on December 25.  Christ was not like other gods.  The Greek and Roman panoply of gods was filled with beings who, while they suffered from more than their fare share of human foibles, nevertheless were always aware of their separation from mankind, and treated mankind as pawns in the godly games.  Christ, however, embraced human-kind.  His passion was the human passion.  Rather than rejecting human-kind, he took upon himself human pain and, in return, gave grace.  By giving himself over to humanity, rather than holding himself above it, Jesus was the antithesis of evil.

(To those of you who are hoping I’ve converted, I haven’t.  If there is any religion in me, my allegiance is to the Jewish God, an abstract, overarching figure that created human-kind, embraces His creation, and judges human-kind with a creator’s loving objectivity.  To my mind, both good and evil are concepts too small to describe the enormity of the Jewish God.)

So, while I am not now, and probably never will be, a Christian, I join with all of you in celebrating Christmas — a holiday that truly celebrates the good in all of us.

Merry Christmas!

Hospital bedside blogging, with my thoughts turning to evil

Mom’s in the hospital again and suffering greatly, not in body, but in mind. She’s mildly delusional, and very paranoid, angry and anxious. I can’t imagine how grim it is to live in her head.

I slipped away for an hour and had lunch with Don Quixote. Our conversation turned to evil. I believe evil exists. Don Quixote pointed out, correctly, that many people who commit evil believe in their own heads that they’re doing a good thing.  They believe in their revolution or their God, and believe that they are serving that revolution or God (and, therefore, the greater good) by torturing or murdering mass numbers people who “get in the way.”

I’m going for moral absolutism here:  I believe that my system, which is predicated on maximum individual freedom within a framework of stable laws, is the best.  If two systems, mine and another that is more repressive, find themselves clashing over physical or mental control of people, I believe my system must win, and the other system must be defeated, even if that battle spills blood and causes the death of innocents.  I justify these deaths on the ground that, over the long run, my system will provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people, while any other system (e.g., Communism or radical Islam) will force great suffering on people for an indefinite amount of time.

At this point in my thinking, I don’t care that the Islamist or the Communist things I’m the evil and he’s the good.  If I lie down right now and refuse to do battle, he wins, and I will have perpetuated what is, in my absolutist universe, the greatest wrong of all, which is to allow evil — admitted evil as I define it — to flourish.

What do you say?  Does evil exist?  Am I evil for taking an absolutist position and being willing to fight and kill to defend it?  (Or more accurately, given my armchair warrior status, sending others to fight and kill to defend it?)

I am very interested in what you have to say on the subject.

Incidentally, it’s worth thinking in this regard that part of my Mom’s continuing mental anguish is that she spent WWII interned in a Japanese concentration camp in a war the Japanese started and that she spent the Israeli War of Independence getting shot at by Arabs who refused to recognize the Jewish state.  Those events created a lifelong anxiety that kept her alive during war, but that is slowly and depressingly killing her in old age.

Penn State and the slow death of American self-reliance

In the wake of the horrific child abuse scandal roiling Penn State, many have been trying to understand how Sandusky’s predatory behavior could have continued unchecked for so long.  The focal point of this “how could this happen” question is the fact that Mike McQueary actually witnessed an assault.  Rather than rearranging Sandusky’s face, McQueary slipped out quietly, called his Daddy, and than made a chain-of-command report.  As far as he was concerned, he’d then done what he needed to do.  Paterno did exactly the same:  chain-of-command report.  And so on, up the ladder, with each person punting the problem higher, and each higher level official diluting the story so that it transformed from child rape into inappropriate behavior — and we all know that inappropriate behavior needs to be dealt with tactfully and in a way that doesn’t embarrass the institution.

So, again, we have to ask why?

Because — and this is not an idle boast — I have some of the smartest readers in the blogosphere, I can take a good stab at an answer.  In an open thread about Penn State, my readers chewed over the fact that in Pennsylvania, the law allows employees who witness a crime to go up the chain of command, whereas in Texas (for example) the law requires that every person has the responsibility to report to the authorities cases of suspected child abuse.  In other word, the culture is different in the two states, with one allowing people to pass the buck, and the other mandating that people take independent action.

There are already demands that Pennsylvania change its laws about reporting child abuse in order to bring them closer in line with the Texas standard.  While that wouldn’t be a bad idea, it would be a small bandage over a gaping wound in the American psyche:  the death of self-reliance.

Agrarian and frontier societies are, of necessity, self-reliant.  (Yes, even Europeans once knew how to make do.)  Right up until the 1960s, what separated America from other nations was that, until very recently in historic terms, it managed to be an amalgam of Western intellectualism and frontier self-reliance.  This meant that, even as increasing population density and industrialization made it unnecessary for an American family to be almost completely self-sustaining, our Judeo-Christian heritage was sophisticated enough that we nevertheless enshrines as a virtue that personal independence.

And, by gosh, if self-reliance is the standard, those pioneers were virtuous.  Here, from one of my favorite books, No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting, you can get a good thumb-nail sketch of how a family prepared to leave East Coast civilization to head for the Wild West:

Once a conveyance was determined, the woman cut and sewed the double-cloth wagon tops and sides . . . with muslin on the inside and heavy linen on the outside for extra warmth and protection . . . and attached pockets or “pouches” so that items such as knives, firearms, cooking pots, mother’s sewing and knitting basket and essential toilet articles could be tucked away safely.  [Snip]  Each item — all the food, tools, bedding, clothing, a veritable pharmacopoeia of medicinal roots and herbs, axle grease, spare wagon parts, furniture and so forth — was sharply scrutinized to make certain that it was critical to the survival of the family, the wagon and the animals both on the trail and for the first homestead.  (p. 73.)

After the pioneers finally reached their destination (and truly, only the strong survived the journey), Dad (and sons and neighbors) began the backbreaking work of hunting and farming so as to tease food out of the land, while Mom (and daughters and neighbors) kept the home fires burning.  In No Idle Hands, one can read in their own words how the children of these pioneers remembered their mothers’ accomplishments:

“Mother bore and cared for the babies, saw that the floor was white and clean, that the beds were made and cared for, the garden tended, the turkeys dressed, the deer flesh cured and the fat prepared for candles or culinary use, that the wild fruits were garnered and preserved or dried, that the spinning and knitting was done and the clothing made.  She did her part in all these tasks, made nearly all the clothing and did the thousands things for us a mother only finds to do.”

[snip]

Another mother, in addition to her regular routine of “water carrying, cooking, churning, sausage making, berry picking, vegetable drying, sugar and soap boiling, hominy hulling, medicine brewing, washing, nursing, weaving, sewing, straw plaiting, wool spinning, quilting, knitting, gardening and various other tasks,” found time to exchange work with other neighbors when they gathered together to spin and knit, skeining yarn for immediate use by simply winding it from hand to elbow and hanging it from her arm while she knit.  (p. 87-88.)

I am not advocating a return to that level of self-reliance.  My family and I would be dead within week if that were the case.  I am pointing out, however, that this was normative for large chunks of America only a century and a half ago, and that, even more importantly, this level of competence became part of America’s self-image.  We were the can-do generation.  While the Roosevelt administration, in the 1930s, jump-started the notion of a comprehensive welfare system, the generation that scrabbled through the Depression and World War II did not succumb to the cultural inertia of the socialist state.

It took the 1960s and beyond to change us into a don’t-do culture.  The “why” of that change would take a whole post (no, make that a whole book), but one can target lots of wealth, lots of youth, and a media and academic establishment that relentlessly propagandized both the virtues of socialism, while simultaneously denigrating traditional American culture and playing up the dangers of America’s home grown self-reliance ethos (“So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”).

Whatever the root causes (I can speak Marxist-speak just fine, myself) the end result is that Americans are slowly put surely slipping into the type of passivity that characterizes people living in an excessively bureaucratized, government-heavy society.   Some like this.  At a recent speech to financially powerful supporters, President Obama warned that, if he’s not re-elected, Americans might have to leave the comforts of government dependence and enter a dangerous era of self-reliance:

At a million-dollar San Francisco fundraiser today, President Obama warned his recession-battered supporters that if he loses the 2012 election it could herald a new, painful era of self-reliance in America.

“The one thing that we absolutely know for sure is that if we don’t work even harder than we did in 2008, then we’re going to have a government that tells the American people, ‘you are on your own,’” Obama told a crowd of 200 donors over lunch at the W Hotel.

“If you get sick, you’re on your own. If you can’t afford college, you’re on your own. If you don’t like that some corporation is polluting your air or the air that your child breathes, then you’re on your own,” he said. “That’s not the America I believe in. It’s not the America you believe in.”

Nothing could more neatly distill Obama’s hostility to the classic American dream, one that believed it was a virtue for people to make it on their own.  That the reality didn’t always match this cultural image, since many failed to make it at all, while others made it with substantial government help, is irrelevant.  What matters is that, for ordinary people, growing up, working, raising children, personal accomplishment was the cultural paradigm.  By contrast, Obama’s American dream, the one that he desires as the overarching cultural paradigm, is one that sees people utterly dependent on the government.  It’s impressive that Obama so resolutely clings to his dream, even as the Europeans actively prove that, during the waking hours, the dream is a nightmare.

As more and more people, with media and academic help, enthusiastically turn the government into their paterfamilias, and as more and more rules and regulations mandate that people abjure individual action, we get a rash of stories, culled from headlines in both England, where the dependency rot runs deep, and America. Watching people drown is getting to be an ordinary day’s work in dependency cultures. This story comes from the San Francisco Bay Area:

The Oakland Tribune (via Mercury News) reports on a tragic story of a 57-year-old man who drowned in the bay in Alameda on Monday after wading chest-high in the water fully clothed for nearly an hour before rescuers could reach him.

Witnesses told the Tribune that police and fire crews responded quickly to the scene, but because the Alameda Fire Department is not certified in land-based water rescues, they had to wait for the United States Coast Guard to arrive.

The Coast Guard reportedly responded within 20 minutes with a rescue boat, but because the man was in fairly shallow water, they had to wait for a helicopter instead. The helicopter took 65 minutes to arrive because it had been out on another mission and needed to refuel.

In the mean time, a woman in her late 20s who’s trained as a water rescue nurse, was able to pull the man out when he was about 50 yards from shore. Unfortunately, rescuers were unable to revive him, and he was later pronounced dead at Alameda Hospital.

One can argue, as a surprising number did at the time, that the guy in Alameda wanted to commit suicide, thereby justifying the fact that rescue work suddenly became a spectator sport.  That’s not always the case, though.  In a surprisingly similar story from England, the person wasn’t committing suicide, but rescuers again stood by, watching:

More than a dozen emergency workers refused to pull a man from a waist-deep boating lake because of ‘health and safety’ fears.

For half-an-hour charity shop worker Simon Burgess, 41, was left face down in the shallow water as they waited for a specialist rescue crew.

Mr Burgess, who had gone to the lake to feed the swans, was pronounced dead at the scene but friends claim that if rescuers had waded straight into the water he could have been saved.

The crews of two fire engines, two police cars, two ambulances and an air ambulance were told not to enter the lake, which is no more than three feet (one metre) at its deepest point, in case they ‘compromised their safety’.

That’s just two stories, right?  What if I add a third, again from England?

A jobsworth ambulance boss refused to allow his staff to enter six inches of water to treat a man with a broken back – because it breached heath and safety.

Stricken Brian Bendle, 45, suffered the agonising injuries as he stood in shallow water at a leisure lake in Somerset.

He was waiting to take his £10,000 jetski out onto the water when he was hit by another rider travelling at around 50mph.

Shocked onlookers immediately ran into the lake as Mr Bendle, from Bristol, lay face down in the water.

They floated the dad-of-three in the six inch ankle-deep water, where they supported him until an ambulance arrived amid fears moving him would aggravate his back injury.

But they were stunned when a paramedic arrived and refused his pleading staff to enter the water – because they weren’t trained to deal with water rescues.

They had to slide a spinal board under him themselves and carry him to ambulancemen, who were stood on the bank just 6ft away.

At least in the story above, onlookers weren’t so shocked that they became incapable of saving the man themselves.  It’s good to see that some initiative survives.

(I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t note that we here in America have a long and surprisingly honored history of an individual cavalierly walking away from a person trapped in water.)

Passively falling back on regulations when the situation demands immediate individual action isn’t just a water-related activity.  Here’s a recent story about someone who watched an atrocious act, did nothing at first, and then acted in the most passive way possible.  No doubt his superiors approved, as they engaged in behavior that was either just as passive or, worse, actively complicit:

[Mike] McQueary, according to his testimony in the grand jury report, witnessed Sandusky subjecting what McQueary estimated to be a 10-year-old boy to anal intercourse in the showers of a football building on campus in 2002. According to his grand jury testimony, McQueary, upset, went to his office and phoned his father, who advised him to go home, according to testimony. The next day, McQueary reported what he had seen to Paterno, according to the grand jury report. Paterno passed information that an incident of “a sexual nature” had occurred to athletic director Tim Curley and vice president of finance Gary Schultz. Curley and Schultz were charged with counts of perjury and failure to report.

I’d like to think that, had I been there, Sandusky would have received some immediate, albeit crude, facial reconstruction.  I’m small, but I’m game — and a child was involved.

Looking at these few examples, I can’t help but think of another culture that allowed itself to lapse into such a bureaucratic mindset that citizens either passively watched or actively engaged in the most heinous acts.  I’m thinking, of course, of the Nazis.  If one subordinates people completely to the state, can one be surprised if they lose both will power and moral strength?

As many of you know, I’m an enthusiastic amateur martial artist.  (If only my skills were equal to my enthusiasm….)  I do martial arts because I really like it — but I also do it so that I can act.  After a long hiatus to have children, and then to moan about how having children prevented me from exercising, I read a story in the papers that send me off like a rocket to the nearest dojo.  Back in 2008, a man stomped his child to death in front of myriad witnesses, none of whom intervened.  All of them fell prey to analysis paralysis, shock, denial (“this can’t be happening!”), etc.  I’m willing to bet, though, that a fair number of them were waiting for someone else to take care of the situation.  I go to martial arts so that I can be that someone else.

Fortunately, despite socialist government’s best efforts to mandate inaction (or, at least, to give people an excuse for failing to get involved), all is not lost.  There will always be decent people who do get involved.  As I pointed out above, in the case of the man hit by the jet ski, even though the bureaucratized aid workers refused to do anything, bystanders willingly rescued the injured man.

I doubt, too, that many of us have forgotten the story of the bridge crew that acted with incredible speed and ingenuity to rescue a drowning woman:

“They just harnessed me up and dipped me down in the water and I grabbed her and the crane drug her to the boat and that’s it,” Oglesbee said. “What are you going to do if she’s like that? It’s no big deal. The whole crew did it.”

So spoke Jason Oglesbee after being the last man in the chain that daringly rescued a woman who got swept into a dam. The story says so much about the ingenuity and courage that we like to see in the average American.

Recently, a motorcyclist trapped under a car was lucky enough to find himself in the presence of proactive people, unconstrained by analysis paralysis, government regulations, or career worries.  At great risk to themselves, these people acted:

Penn State is a tocsin, warning us what happens when our cultural paradigm encourages us to pass the buck.  The nation, as a whole, hasn’t yet reached the moral abyss that is the Penn State athletic department, but Barack Obama has stated clearly that his goal is to create precisely the bureaucratic, dependency culture that makes Penn State’s (and Nazi Germany) possible.  This is not to say that Barack Obama and his team have as their goal mass child rape, genocide, crime waves, etc.  It is to say, though, that once one creates a government system that turns people into mindless, amoral automatons, the possibilities are endless for mass evil, unconstrained by individual morals.

photo by: a

Liberals suffer from a complete failure of imagination when it comes to true evil

I took my daughter to the doctor today for what turned out to be a sinus infection.  The pediatrician is a lovely man — kind, skilled at his work, and (obviously) good with children.  I trust him as a doctor.  As a deep thinker, though, well . . . the jury won’t be out very long.

My daughter is a chatterbox and somehow she drifted into the fact that she met the flight surgeon for the Blue Angels and that’s the job she wants:  to be in the military, but not have to kill people, except in defense.  The doctor said, “I can understand why you want to be a doctor, but why would you want to be in the Navy?”  My daughter looked at him blankly.  She’d just described to him an incredibly exciting and responsible job with amazing people.  What more could she say?

I filled the silence:  “Join the Navy, see the world.”  He looked at my as blankly as my daughter had looked at him, and then said, “Join the Navy, kill people.”  Out of deference to the situation, and recognizing the fact that his mind was locked, I refrained from saying, “Some people need to be killed.”  In my head flashed pictures of Mao (70 million dead under his leadership), Stalin (around 30 million dead under his leadership), Hitler (25 million or so dead as a result of his war), and Pol Pot (one third of his country laid in shallow graves).  But I didn’t say anything.  I knew that he, being a liberal who cannot seem to accept the lessons of history, wouldn’t have understood.

My daughter, bless her heart, did understand.  In the car on the way home, I discussed with her the fact that there is evil in the world.  I said causes are often irrelevant.  Whether the perpetrator didn’t get enough oxygen at birth, belongs to a religion committed to the deaths of others, got beaten as a child, or intersected with any other root cause no longer matters once the perpetrator is arrayed against you with weapon in hand.  It’s a no-brainer that, if you face this situation as an individual, you must and would defend yourself.  In the same way, a nation facing an enemy determined to annihilate it must also act to defend itself.  Further, when you see the guns aimed at you, self-defense often means firing the first shot.  (Something every American who watched old Hollywood westerns easily understood).

In America, it’s our volunteer military that provides this defense.  These men and women willingly do the dirty work to keep us safe.  My daughter instantly understood the saying, often attributed (wrongly) to Orwell, that “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

As if to underline my point, as we drove home, the 40s channel on my XM radio played a song paying homage to General MacArthur.  I said to her, “Can you imagine a song nowadays praising the military?”  There was a huff from the back seat.  While her imagination can encompass evil, it couldn’t stretch to an American popular culture that openly admires our volunteer military.  Or, as she said, “It’s despicable that there aren’t songs like that.  I’ll write one.”  And as musical as she is, she just might.

Is Barack Obama evil?

While we were having lunch today, my dear friend Don Quixote asked “Do you think Barack Obama is evil?”

I hedged.  “That’s an interesting question.  Why do you ask?”

“I’m getting the feeling,” he answered, “that conservatives are starting to define Obama as being evil.  At least, that’s the impression I get from the emails my father sends me.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m not comfortable with the word evil.  However, if you define evil as someone who has a personality disorder, who is a malignant narcissist, or even a sociopath, then I guess I would say he’s evil.  However, to me, evil is a very fraught word, with a lot of . . . um . . . theological connotations.”

DQ picked up from there and said he thought the word “evil” was being overused and devalued.  “For one thing,” he said, “contrary to the grinning Hollywood maniac, the type who delights in his own malevolence, most evil people in real life are driven by good intentions.  They think they’re doing the right thing.”

“Careful,” I said.  “What you’re saying sounds a lot like moral relativity.”

“No,” he replied.  “I’m not excusing what they’re doing by saying that one man’s evil is another man’s good.  Their acts are still evil.  But their motives may be ordinary or even, in their own minds, good.”

You can tell, can’t you, why I love having lunch with DQ?  There is no one else with whom I can have deep philosophical questions about the nature of good and evil.

Even when lunch ended, my thoughts about evil kept going and going.  (Indeed, I warned DQ that I’d almost certainly write a post on the subject.)

The big question, of course, is “what is evil?”  Go check out the word in the dictionary and you get what amount to a series of synonyms.  Evil is immoral, wrong, bad, wicked, etc.  All true, but that really doesn’t take you anywhere.  When I think about evil, I have two mental definitions.  The first is a theological one, where evil represents the absence of God’s goodness or justice.  Simplistically, evil is the anti-God.  In that sense, I’ve never imagined the Devil as some personified being, with or without a tail and horns.  Instead, evil is the absence of everything that is moral as defined by the Judeo-Christian tradition.  But that’s still an abstract.  What is evil in practice?

And now I get to my second definition.  I think evil is the furthest end of the scale of “bad.”  If you imagine a line with neutral acts at one end, and the worst kind of acts at the other end, that furthest end would bear the label evil.  That’s why not all war time leaders are evil, but Hitler is.

War is a human condition (whether the peaceniks like it or not).  During war, people, even ordinary, normally good people, do bad acts.  When war ends, most people resume their normal lives, and put behind them the barbarity, the cruelty, that war brings out.  I come by this belief honestly.  Although she spent four years suffering terribly in Japanese concentration camps in Java, my mother never bore a grudge against the Japanese.  “It was war,” she said.  “Bad things happened.  Even though they were cruel to us, and didn’t care if we lived or died, they weren’t committing genocide against us, the way the Germans did.”

And my mother is absolutely right.  Hitler expanded to realms hitherto unknown the scope of ordinary wartime cruelty and death dealing.  Under his aegis, and in response to his desires and imagination, a nation embarked on a concerted, mechanized killing spree the likes of which had never before been seen.  The scope of his enterprise was so large that it no longer could possibly fall within DQ’s theory that many evil people actually think they’re acting appropriately or for the best, or under my Mom’s theory that war is always Hell.  Hitler and his minions deviated so far from the scale of human behavior — even human behavior in the worst of times — that they clearly qualified as “evil.”

The same holds true for Stalin and Mao.  Their defenders can argue that they were simply doing what was necessary to advance their political ideologies, hold their countries together, bring their citizens into the future (or, at minimum, into the present), update their economies, or whatever other apologetics these followers’ fertile minds can devise.  But none of that excuses the scope what Stalin and Mao did.  As Dennis Prager explains, we in the West may be forgiving because they visited their excesses on their own people, but the fact remains that they committed their abuses on an unimaginable scale.  Best guesses for Russian deaths under Stalin are about 20-30 million; for Mao, up to 70 million.  No good intentions can explain away that road to Hell.  That is evil.

Evil can also exist with smaller numbers, but heinous acts that are outside the pale of even the worst kind of behavior humans ordinarily commit.  Although the major papers gave it scant coverage, decent people were aware of the unbearable acts of cruelty that four men and one woman committed in connection with the murders of Hugh Christopher Newsom, age 23, and Channon Gail Christian, age 21:

While Channon was forced to watch, her boyfriend was raped prison style and then his penis was cut off. He was later driven to nearby railroad tracks where he was shot and set afire. But Channon’s hell was just beginning. She was beaten; gang raped repeatedly in many ways, had one of her breasts cut off and bleach poured down her throat to destroy DNA evidence-all while she was still alive. To add to Channon’s degradation the suspects took turns urinating on her. They too set her body afire, apparently inside the residence, but for some reason left her body there-in five separate trash bags.

That may not be 70, 20 or 6 million dead, but that is two people dead in a way that is an utter repudiation of all humanity.  Heck, even animals are more humane when they kill.  Although the murders of Newsom and Christian were small in number, in scope they established the actors as irredeemably, absolutely evil.  Those four people (and the word people has to be used lightly in connection with those hideous life forms) broke even the most tenuous bonds they might have had with basic civilization.

With those thoughts in mind — with a definition of evil as the committing of ordinary bad acts on a scale that should be unimaginable (i.e., the stuff only of nightmares) — I cannot say that Obama is evil.  I can apply all sorts of negative descriptions to him (arrogant, ill-informed, thoughtless, unkind, selfish, willful, morally obtuse), but he is not evil.

To say that he Obama is not evil does not mean that I don’t fear the acts he is committing.  I do not know whether he deliberately intends to provoke America’s downfall or whether his arrogance and commitment to his ideology prevent him from recognizing that his acts will lead to that downfall.  Nevertheless, whatever is currently motivating him, he has not left the pale of humanity.  Currently, he’s still just a politico with some damn bad ideas — but ideas that have defined Europe (which is quite a functional, and often a very civil, society) for decades.  Obama may in future commit acts that are genuinely evil because they go beyond the pale of ordinary humanity, but he has not yet done so.

This is an important point.  Conservatives devalue their arguments against Obama’s policy if they start throwing the word “evil” around.  While that may work with the converted, it frightens the vast middle.  Rather than looking like wise men (and women) with a better plan, conservatives start looking like wild-eyed street corner prophets.  We may be right, but no one will listen.

One of the most important things young lawyers learn (or, at least, should learn), is not to use ad hominem attacks against opposing counsel.  If your opposing counsel is indeed dishonest (which is usually the direction ad attacks take), you get much further with the Court if you provide proof of that dishonesty, and then let the Court draw the obvious conclusion itself.  Calling opposing counsel names denies the Court the necessary proof and merely makes you look bad.

In our discussions about Obama and the Democrats, we should make sure that we lead our readers to the truth.  Let them draw the ultimate negative conclusions.  As Socrates knew, a lesson is always learned better if the student has his own epiphany, rather than having a point, no matter how good it is, forced down his throat.

Cross-posted at Right Wing News

Obama — Philosopher in Chief

I’ve been traveling, so I missed the Saddleback conversation with the candidates.  Nevertheless, through emails and Mike Devx’s comments, I’ve become aware of the question Rick Warren posed to the two candidates about evil.  Here’s the transcript:

REV. WARREN: Okay, we’ve got one last — I’ve got a bunch more, but let me just ask you one about evil. Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it, do we defeat it?

SEN. OBAMA: Evil does exist. I mean, I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. And I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely.

And one of the things that I strongly believe is that, you know, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world. That is God’s task. But we can be soldiers in that process, and we can confront it when we see it.

Now, the one thing that I think is very important is for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil because, you know, a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.

REV. WARREN: In the name of good.

SEN. OBAMA: In the name of good.

REV. WARREN: Yeah, okay.

SEN. OBAMA: And I think, you know, one thing that’s very important is having some humility in recognizing that, you know, just because we think our intentions are good doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good.

[snip]

REV. WARREN: All right. How about the issue of evil? I asked this of your rival in the previous thing. Does evil exist? And, if so, should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it, or defeat it?

SEN. MCCAIN: Defeat it. (Applause.) A couple of points. One, if I’m president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. (Applause.) I will do that, and I know how to do it. I will get that guy. (Applause.) No one, no one should be allowed to take thousands of American — innocent American lives.

Of course evil must be defeated. My friends, we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century — radical Islamic extremism. Not long ago in Baghdad, al Qaeda took two young women who were mentally disabled and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a marketplace, and, by remote control, detonated those suicide vests. If that isn’t evil, you have to tell me what is. (Applause.)

And we’re going to defeat this evil. And the central battleground, according to David Petraeus and Osama bin Laden, is the battle — is Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Iraq. And we are winning and we are succeeding, and our troops will come home with honor and with victory, and not in defeat. And that’s what’s happening. (Applause.) And we have — and we face this threat throughout the world. It’s not just in Iraq. It’s not just in Afghanistan. Our intelligence people tell us al Qaeda continues to try to establish cells here in the United States of America.

My friends, we must face this challenge. We can face this challenge, and we must totally defeat it. And we’re in a long struggle. But when I’m around the young men and women who are serving us in uniform, I have no doubt — none. (Applause.)

Others have commented on the fact that Obama obliquely castigated the United States with his comment about how “we” have done evil in the name of good.  As it happens, that true.  Few people set out to do evil, and most people can convince themselves that they’re not doing something evil.  It helps if you have fixed moral principles, because then you can look beyond your own selfish desires to a “greater good,” but you can still make mistakes.

The problem with Obama’s approach, however, is that it’s one that leads to complete paralysis.  If you’re always afraid of yourself, and of your own motives, you’ll do nothing at all.  Obama’s approach is also a purely philosophical one.  He has no real enemies in mind — and, indeed, the only one he could think of, while evil, has nothing to do with the US — he has no solutions in mind, and he’s scared of himself.

McCain could not stand in starker contrast.  His response was as concrete as Obama’s was philosophical:  he identified an entity that is evil and that is a distinct threat to America, and he talked about what America needs to do to confront this evil.  So concrete was he in contrast to Obama’s high flown philosophies that some stalwart members of the MSM instantly leapt to his defense and accused McCain of cheating.  After all, how could McCain have had so many details at his fingertips without cheating?

Mitchell misses something fundamentally different between the two men, and it’s something that is very important to keep in mind when considering the office to which they aspire.  McCain is a do-er.  He sees problems, he analyzes the data, and he comes up with a plan for dealing with it.  Obama sees big, existential issues.  He debates with himself if anything really matters.  He deconstructs meaning.  Everything is a debate; few things are a solution.

If Obama were running for the office of Philosopher in Chief, he’d probably be an excellent candidate.  He’d lead the nation through deep philosphical talks about the meaning of good and evil, with sideline discourses into which nations, at any given second, can lay claim to the titles of most good or most evil.

But the office at issue is the Executive Office, with the office holder taking on the alternate title of Commander in Chief.  Do we really want a philosophical waffler in that office, or does it make more sense in a chief executive/commander to have someone who deals in pragmatic realities, and who is firmly on our side?

Evil is as evil does

Michael Ledeen has a written a wonderful article that uses the evil in the world’s recent past (Hitler, Stalin), as a springboard for discussing the West’s resolute refusal to see the evil in its midst. I think the following paragraphs are the core of his argument, but the whole article is well worth reading:

By now, there is very little we do not know about such regimes, and such movements. Some of our greatest scholars have described them, analyzed the reasons for their success, and chronicled the wars we fought to defeat them. Our understanding is considerable, as is the honesty and intensity of our desire that such things must be prevented.

Yet they are with us again, and we are acting as we did in the last century. The world is simmering in the familiar rhetoric and actions of movements and regimes – from Hezbollah and al Qaeda to the Iranian Khomeinists and the Saudi Wahhabis – who swear to destroy us and others like us. Like their 20th-century predecessors, they openly proclaim their intentions, and carry them out whenever and wherever they can. Like our own 20th-century predecessors, we rarely take them seriously or act accordingly. More often than not, we downplay the consequences of their words, as if they were some Islamic or Arab version of “politics,” intended for internal consumption, and designed to accomplish domestic objectives.

Clearly, the explanations we gave for our failure to act in the last century were wrong. The rise of messianic mass movements is not new, and there is very little we do not know about them. Nor is there any excuse for us to be surprised at the success of evil leaders, even in countries with long histories and great cultural and political accomplishments. We know all about that. So we need to ask the old questions again. Why are we failing to see the mounting power of evil enemies? Why do we treat them as if they were normal political phenomena, as Western leaders do when they embrace negotiations as the best course of action?

No doubt there are many reasons. One is the deep-seated belief that all people are basically the same, and all are basically good. Most human history, above all the history of the last century, points in the opposite direction. But it is unpleasant to accept the fact that many people are evil, and entire cultures, even the finest, can fall prey to evil leaders and march in lockstep to their commands. Much of contemporary Western culture is deeply committed to a belief in the goodness of all mankind; we are reluctant to abandon that reassuring article of faith. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we prefer to pursue the path of reasonableness, even with enemies whose thoroughly unreasonable fanaticism is manifest.

This is not merely a philosophical issue, for to accept the threat to us means – short of a policy of national suicide – acting against it. As it did in the 20th century, it means war. It means that, temporarily at least, we have to make sacrifices on many fronts: in the comforts of our lives, indeed in lives lost, in the domestic focus of our passions – careers derailed and personal freedoms subjected to unpleasant and even dangerous restrictions – and the diversion of wealth from self-satisfaction to the instruments of power. All of this is painful; even the contemplation of it hurts.

Then there is anti-Semitism. Old Jew-hating texts like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” now in Farsi and Arabic, are proliferating throughout the Middle East. Calls for the destruction of the Jews appear regularly on Iranian, Egyptian, Saudi and Syrian television and are heard in European and American mosques. There is little if any condemnation from the West, and virtually no action against it, suggesting, at a minimum, a familiar Western indifference to the fate of the Jews.

Finally, there is the nature of our political system. None of the democracies adequately prepared for war before it was unleashed on them in the 1940s. None was prepared for the terror assault of the 21st century. The nature of Western politics makes it very difficult for national leaders – even those rare men and women who see what is happening and want to act – to take timely, prudent measures before war is upon them. Leaders like Winston Churchill are relegated to the opposition until the battle is unavoidable. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to fight desperately to win Congressional approval for a national military draft a few months before Pearl Harbor.