spouts spurious oratory that
nonetheless is emotionally stirring. We think
of people such as Hitler, Mussolini, or the American neofascist Father
Coughlin when we use words such as "demagogue" or "demagoguery." These
three men had an ratorical gift, which is why I never feel totally
comfortable referring to the inarticulate Bush as a "demagogue," most
notably when he speaks off the cuff. In any case, his language has often
been marked by some of the classic devices of demagoguery. Obama, on the other hand, is superbly qualified to be labeled a "demagogue" in the tradition of a Father Coughlin or other American silver-tongued demagogues.
Such was the case when Bush informed the American people
existence of an "axis of evil." He subsequently took shots at those who dared to question his so-called wars against "evil" in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now we have a president who has pompously declared to the world that "evil exists," and he is out to do knightly battle against that "evil" with the blessing of the Nobel Peace Award Committee. Both Bush and Obama have now declared that the Middle East wars are wars against "evil."
A growing number of Americans are coming to realize
that the supposed
ongoing "war against evil" is not even a real war. It's
an imperialistic occupation of three countries. A growing number of Americans are now beginning to suspect the massive bloodshed and destruction inflicted on Iraq and Afghanistan has been done simply to create permanent outposts for Imperial America in the Middle East. As more Americans are becoming suspicious of what the "shadow cabinet" in the White House is up to, Obama has been forced to fall back more heavily on the most mundane tools of jingoistic demagoguery.
the most absurd examples of Obama's rhetoric recently took place when he
turned to an old and reliable obfuscatory term, namely "evil." Obama's
pompous declaration to a world audience that "evil exists," and he is a
self-proclaimed warrior against that evil. That kind of response seems to
be extremely handy for putting a damper on any follow-up questions.
Reporters never follow up by asking a Bush or an Obama what they mean by
"evil." It is assumed that everybody knows what the noun "evil" refers
Of all the words of the demagogic vernacular, "evil" is the most meaningless, yet it is one of the most emotionally charged words used
by demagogues. Of course, that is why they absolutely love using
So what exactly is an "axis of evil," to use Bush's vernacular? And what is Obama saying in his vernacular when he pompously declares, "Evil exists"? This thing called "evil" admittedly seems to point toward something nasty, dangerous, and dark. We tend to feel we had best keep a wary eye on those countries harboring the forces of "evil" and even to engage in illegal preemptive wars if needed to protect the world and America from that "evil."
and Obama on this kind of language. A more exact parsing of comments and
defining of words has to be somehow injected into public discourse.
Rational thinking and speaking are absolutely essential in a democracy.
Democratic theory has always embraced rational thinking as a core element
of its very being. Never forget that democratic theory emerged primarily
out of the Enlightenment, and rationality was a defining characteristic of
that age. The whole democratic ethos is directed toward rational, lucid public discourse.
I propose a small start. Let's begin with the noun
"evil." This word does not refer to anything among the furniture of the
Universe. It is an absolutely empty term. It cannot properly refer to a
single concrete object in the world. It does not, and cannot, denote a
thing. It can only vaguely connote a vague darkness or diabolism. It also admittedly suggests a powerful dislike or fear on the part of the speaker, but tells us little more. In practice, its main purpose is to
stir up negative emotions about persons or events, thereby gaining popular
support for killing or imprisoning people or making radical societal
changes that serve a ruling class.
Once strong, negative emotions are
stirred up, demagogues use those
feelings to generate popular support for
such niceties as foreign wars, empire building, concentration camps,
torture, and the elimination of civil liberties at
Philosophers refer to "evil" as a reification. Put more simply,
the word evil" has no referent whatsoever. It refers to no more than empty air, or perhaps some kind of amorphous, veiled, supposedly pernicious phantasm. We never know, even murkily, what that something is. We only know it is very, very bad, and we must destroy it before it
The pure relativity of the word "evil" becomes evident when
we note that Hitler was adored as a savior by millions, while still more millions came to see him as a dangerous menace to civilization. Those who adored him saw him as a good man, a veritable savior of the German people, while his detractors labeled him as an "evil" maniac, In the meantime, those who described him as mentally ill and being an extreme
danger to the Jewish people and to civilization itself were actually saying
Hitlers in order to suggest those people are "evil" really are not saying anything more than something like, "I hate those people." The term "evil" places targeted individuals into groups that require some attention, but does little to rationally understand or intelligently deal with such people.
This brings me back to Bush's and Obama's "war
against evil." What has
been spent in the way of treasure, human life, and
the prestige of America is incalculable. It therefore would be prudent to
be precise about exactly what it is that we have bought for ourselves with
these enormous costs. Saying we are being called upon to fight "a war against evil" is pure, unadulterated, manipulative propaganda, calculated to stir up emotions of fear and hatred. Popular attention is
thusly turned from such horrors as America's genocidal policies and its
role in global poisoning.
Amorphous, elastic, non-denotative words are
worthless noises. When
Bush tells us the current, so-called "war against
evil" will protect us from mushroom clouds, he has drained a blatant lie of
any meaning whatsoever by framing it within a "war against EVIL." We have
no idea what he has said. Is such meaningless speech worth spending lives
and treasure upon? Is it worth the devastation of our economy for decades to come? Is it worth massive destruction of environments for millions of years to come?