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Rulers Who Inhabit an Amoral World-- Part III: The Cloak of False Righteousness

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(In the first two installments of this three-part series, two patterns of clues were presented that reveal that America’s present rulers inhabit an amoral world—a world in which the restraints of good order are regarded as mere obstacles to extending one’s power, and in which the ceaseless battle of Us and against Them makes loyalty to oneself the paramount virtue in other people.)

The contrast is striking, of course, between the idea that these Bushite rulers inhabit an amoral universe and the fact that rarely in American history has the posture of moral rectitude been so central to the political strategy of a leadership group.

But this is the face that evil would have to take to come to power in America.

There are amoral rulers who make no pretense to moral virtue. Typically in history, the evil ruler has maintained his power through intimidation. Saddam Hussein, for example, invested rather little energy in posing as a good man. While on occasion he’d employ such a posture, for the most part he acted like the typical tyrant who dominates through fear: his ruthlessness and sadistic cruelty were so evident that people were terrorized into bowing to his power.

The Athenians in Thucydides’ account likewise began that speech to the Melians (discussed in the first installment) saying “[W]e shall not trouble you with specious pretenses –either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede [Persians], or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us…” They just say, obey us or we’ll kill you. And, indeed, that sad tale ends with the slaughter of all the grown men, and the selling into slavery of every woman and child, of that island community that had dared to assert its right to be left alone.

What determines whether an amoral regime will be unabashedly cruel or hide its nature under the cloak of a false righteousness?

At one level, perhaps, the face an evil ruler takes will be a function of the form in which he first experienced that wounding mixture of cruelty and power. Those who are treated with unadorned cruelty and sadism, we might surmise, will present such a face to the world. But there is another form that cruelty takes in the rearing of children.

This is the import of the title of Alice Miller’s famous book For Your Own Good, which describes how an entire culture persuaded itself that the abuse of children was actually a way of improving them. And similarly, in his book People of the Lie
, the late Scott Peck saw as part of the heart of evil the lie that an abusive parent tells the hurt and bewildered child—the lie that declares the injuries being inflicted on the child to be in the service of morality, and not the expression of the sadistic lust to dominate and hurt that it really is.

But whatever the causes of the different faces that different individuals wear while using power amorally, it seems clear that in America evil could seize control only with a smile on its face, not a terrifying leer, and only under the cloak of a false righteousness. Unlike Iraq, where Saddam could wade his way to the throne through the blood of those he killed, in America –so far at least—to get the power to rule one must persuade the people to give it to you.

In such circumstances, therefore, evil must depend for power on the moral lie. That is, it must manipulate opinion to sell a false image of the moral reality.

This is why the partnership between George W. Bush and Karl Rove has proved so fatefully dangerous for America, for the two men have a profound complementarity of talents in the realm of moral deception.

It is fitting that the partnership was formed at the initiative of Karl Rove, for the genius of Rove is in the writing of the scripts and directing the dramas of moral falsehood. From the beginning, he’s been drawn to the staging of morally deceptive theater to gain political power.

Twenty years ago, according to James Moore, et al., the authors of Bush’s Brain, he faked the wiretapping of his own office—a gesture that made his candidate appear the victim of dirty tricks from the other side. And he’s apparently orchestrated the smearing of George W. Bush’s opponents in one campaign after another—from a whisper campaign in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial race to insinuate that Gov. Ann Richards was a lesbian, to the behind-the-scenes injection into the South Carolina primary in 2000 that Sen. John McCain had fathered a black child, to the character assassination employed against both Gore and Kerry in Bush’s two presidential campaigns.

Rove’s now significant role in American history thus rests on his genius in dramatizing lies to persuade people to see his political enemies as morally worse than they really are. These moral lies are the democratic equivalent of assassination in regimes where swords rather than votes lead to power.

(With the attempt to smear Amb. Joseph Wilson, Rove may have erred fatally. Not because this smear campaign was more vicious than others, but because, with his abuse of classified information, he triggered a legal investigation. Though the legal issue here is arguably trivial in comparison with the other values at stake in the incident, such is the state of public discourse that it has required the dogged processes of the law to compel attention to dark matters from which the media and much of the American public were otherwise willing to look away.)

But Rove’s strategy of dramatizing moral lies becomes really powerful when it gets combined with its other half: the lie that presents his side as morally better than it is. And so the great dramatist of the moral lie also needed a talent for casting. And in George W. Bush, one might surmise, he recognized that he’d found an actor who was not only the heir to great power but also adept at pretending to a righteousness really quite foreign to his true nature.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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