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Life Arts

Alan Wolfe on Political Evil (BOOK REVIEW)

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Headlined to H4 10/14/11

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Even so, Wolfe reminds us that modern democracy as exemplified by American democracy did not emerge in all parts of Western culture at the same time that it emerged in the United States:

"Totalitarianism came into existence when the countries attracted to it were undergoing rapid militarization and industrialization without many of the features of modernity already in place. Germany and Italy were among the last in Europe to become unified nation-states, and the borders of the Soviet Union were never fixed. In both Italy and the Soviet Union, some lived traditional lives not unlike the peasants of the feudal period while others embraced futurism in art and politics and worshiped the avant-garde. None of these countries had had much experience with liberal democracy, and in one of them, Germany, the short and unhappy life of the Weimar Republic only contributed to liberal democracy's destruction. Totalitarianism, in other words, offered the lure of a quick journey into the modern world. Industrialization and militarization would take place at so fast a rate that liberal democracy would be put to shame" (pages 123-24).

So modern democracy is good; it may potentially be a universal good; but American foreign policy efforts at democracy promotion in the world today should not be unrealistic, as former President George W. Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were and are as ways of promoting democracy in those two countries.

So my two-way way of thinking does not closely parallel Bush's two-way way of thinking about good and evil in the world today. Nevertheless, my two-way way of thinking could be used to counter Bush's two-way way of thinking.

In any event, Wolfe criticizes Bush for "flawed ways of thinking about evil" (page 109). Yes, Bush's central problem was his flawed ways of thinking about evil. A closely related problem was his flawed ways of thinking about the democracy promotion.

But the way to combat flawed thinking is to subject the thinking in question to pro-and-con debate. In short, the way to combat Bush's flawed ways of thinking about evil is to debate his flawed thinking about evil. Similarly, the way to combat Bush's flawed thinking about democracy promotion is to debate his way of thinking about democracy promotion.

WOLFE'S VIEW OF TERRORISM TODAY

Is terrorism today "a form of unreconstructed evil that must be eradicated from the face of the earth through mobilization of military might" (page 149), as certain political leaders such as Bush have suggested? No, says Wolfe. He says that terrorism is a form of political evil. As a result, "we should deal with the political realities that . . . lead terrorists to go on their killing sprees" (page 148). Sounds reasonable enough to me. How does this sound to you?

But Wolfe quotes the following statement from Benjamin Netanyahu's 1995 book: "The salient point that has to be underlined again and again is that nothing justifies terrorism, that it is evil per se -- that the various real or imagined reasons proffered by the terrorists to justify their actions are meaningless" (quoted on page 150; italics in the original).

In the final analysis I agree with Netanyahu that nothing justifies terrorism. However, I am not convinced that it is relevant to claim that "the various real or imagined reasons proffered by the terrorists to justify their actions are meaningless." I might agree that the reasons proffered to justify their actions do not justify their actions. Nevertheless, I think we should find out what their reasons are for acting in the ways in which they act as terrorists.

Wolfe summarizes three general forms of counterterrorism policies: (1) the war model, (2) the criminal justice model, and (3) the reconciliatory model (page 150). He clearly favors the reconciliatory model. "The key proposition of the reconciliatory model," he says, "is that terrorism is a form of politics and that the best venues for responding to it are through diplomacy and negotiation" (page 151).

In his speech on September 20, 2001, former President George W. Bush made "his case that terrorism was evil, pure and simple" (page 160). He clearly opted for the war model by leading the nation into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Wolfe credits President Barack Obama with having a less Manichaean rhetorical style than his predecessor had: "the less Manichaean rhetorical style of Obama," Wolfe says, "is one of the few hopeful signs that the United States could possibly shift to a more sensible way of thinking about the threat that terrorism represents" (page 172). After all, terrorism "is a tactic relied upon by the weak," Wolfe notes, and "no terrorist campaign has ever gone on forever" (page 170). He observes that "[t]errorists are few" (page 173). However, because "[t]hose inclined to support their goals can be many," "[r]educing the number of the latter is crucial to limiting the damage inflicted by the former" (page 173).

"That can best be done," Wolfe claims, "by promoting the democratic way of life not as a rhetoric weapon in a long-term ideological struggle but as concrete proof that those who learn to live with differences by not killing those with whom they disagree have discovered a way of practicing politics that works better than any other available method" (page 174).

So democracy is a way of practicing politics that works better than any other available method for practicing politics, as Wolfe says it is. But American democracy needs to work through its foreign-policy efforts to reduce the number of people in the world who might be inclined to support terrorists' goals against the United States.

As flawed as President Obama obviously is, I am sure that his Republican opponent in the 2012 will not be as qualified as Obama is to carry on American foreign policy effectively so as to reduce the number of people in the world today who might be inclined to support terrorists' goals against the United States.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 
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Because President Obama has been such a great disa... by Thomas Farrell on Friday, Oct 14, 2011 at 9:11:09 PM
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