micah holmquist's irregular thoughts and links
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Wednesday, December 18, 2002
Now, like always, is not a good time to view the world as consisting of pure good and pure evil
It is a universal temptation to see the world as divided into two camps, with one being good and the other being evil. Not surprisingly most people believe that they are on the side of good.
President George W. Bush has certainly his “war on terror” as a good vs. evil struggle. Last year, on September 20, he said, "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Bush expanded on this theme in his January 29 State of the Union speech by asserting that there was an “axis of evil” of countries that wanted to do evil things.
University of Tennessee law professor and internet commentator extraordinaire Glenn Reynolds is a proponent of viewing the “war on terror” as a battle between good and evil. He made this clear yesterday by approvingly quoting a column by Michael Barone of U.S. & World Report that argues that the "war on terror" is a war against "evil leaders" and "evil ideas."
It might seem intuitive that a war against al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein is a war against evil –it doesn’t to me but I understand where those who think it is are coming from- but the situation gets a lot more complex when attempting to account for opponents of escalating the war with Iraq who live in the U.S. and profess no sympathy to Saddam or countries that do not support one aspect or another of the “war on terror.” Remember that in a war between good and evil where all who do not support good are evil, there can be no middle ground.
Reynolds’ response to this issue has been to charge that those who oppose aspects of the “war on terror” are siding with evil. He argued last week that those who oppose an escalation of the U.S. war against Iraq are "objectively pro-Saddam” since Saddam also does not want an escalation of the war and if those who oppose escalation get what they want, Saddam will also get what he wants.
Reynolds’ response to this issue has been to charge that those who oppose aspects of the “war on terror” are siding with evil. He argued last week that those who oppose an escalation of the U.S. war against Iraq are "objectively pro-Saddam” since Saddam also does not want an escalation of the war and if the those who oppose escalation get the what they want, Saddam will also get what he wants. As I articulated here and here, this reasoning only makes sense if one believes that anybody who opposes the use of U.S. military force to remove X is automatically a supporter of X. If you are like Reynolds and don't like Australia’s gun laws, then you need to support U.S. military action to change those laws to avoid "objectively" supporting them, according to Reynolds’ logic.
Yesterday Reynolds made a parallel argument by contending that Germany is “rooting for the other side” because Germany opposes the U.S. escalating the war against Iraq and German defense firms have worked with Iraq since 1990. Reynolds muddies the debate by throwing around the term "pacifist" around as if it was impossible to be legitimately opposed to the U.S. escalating the war without being a opposed to the use of violence in all cases but the larger problem with this argument is that it treats Germany as a single unified and undifferentiated entity where every person and business agrees with the government and the government agrees with every one of its citizens and businesses. This is absurd and the news story that Reynolds cites even notes that the deals were "covert" so it doesn't appear that the government of Germany was encouraging these transactions since 1990. Furthermore Reynolds even acknowledges that U.S. defense firms were have amongst those that have worked with Iraq. Unless the Professor is willing to nonsensically say that the U.S. is "rooting for the other side" because of these transactions, his entire argument falls apart.
That isn’t the only absurdity involved in viewing the world as a struggle for good vs. evil. In order to believe Bush's words that "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," one has to ignore that the Bush Administration is trying to work with some individuals it says are tied with terrorists. And one has to ignore that Reynolds himself said in July that he hopes Saudi Arabia's government will soon "fall to factions sympathetic to Al Qaeda" because that will provide a better justification for taking over Saudi Arabia. Sure he explains that he only feels that way so it will be easier to implement "corrective action" on, or against, the Saudis but it still represents "rooting for the other side."
It is worth emphasizing that constructing a world that consists of one good side and one evil side involves, as I pointed out two paragraphs ago, treating complex entities like countries as a single unified force. In a way viewing the world as consisting of pure good and evil is a self-fulfilling prophecy because one has to ignore a lot of nuances to get to that conclusion.
The search for all-encompassing and unified sides of pure good and pure evil may be tempting but it won’t lead to understanding the world as anything but a caricature of what it really is. Occasionally in history there are entities of pure evil but their opponents are never purely good. We need to start acknowledging this.