nthposition online magazine

The President of Good and Evil


[ bookreviews ]

This is the book Michael Moore could never bring himself to write. For those (and they are legion) who think Dubbya has the IQ of a fencepost and morals to match, the idea of taking his 'ethical' pronouncements at face value is as risible as the great man's valiant attempts at human speech and English grammar. But the rhetoric of good and evil, the war on terror, with us or with the terrorists, for all the mouth-mangling malapropisms they are garnished with, furnish the vocabulary of the political scene; maybe we should take the man seriously - after all, the effects are serious enough.

Singer's book might glibly be called the power of philosophy versus the philosophy of power. Not that Singer is in competition with Bush or his rhetoric; this is an honest attempt to make sense out of the moral/moralistic language and metaphorical landscape of the American elite, and to see how it connects to its actions on the ground. At the same time, it places the recent actions of the American government in a broader ethical context where, not unnaturally, it falls somewhat short of virtuous.

Bush's popularity at home rests in large part on his ability to make a language that ordinary Americans can relate to; a language which makes the world look a relatively simple place, with good guys and bad guys, each easily recognisable by the colour of their hats; where the right religion is in conflict with the wrong one, just like it says in the good book, and things are coming to a final head; where economics is just a matter of how much is in your pocket, and how much could be.

This rhetoric may make you cringe with its swingeing simplicity, but you cannot deny its effectiveness. As for its apparent honesty (or otherwise, depending on your view), perhaps Bush "belongs to a class of deceivers who have a pious end in view"; after all, if you believe the world will end in your lifetime, and Christ will return in glory amidst the carnage, your belief is quite likely to colour your speech and your policy.

The genius of Singer's conceit is to examine Bush's statements for their intrinsic ethical content, and to look at the consistency of that ethic across the spectrum. Needless to say, the Bush canon fails both tests in most cases. It's not that he says things which are intrinsically unethical; the sanctity of innocent human life has a noble ring to it, as does the intention of bringing freedom and democracy to oppressed peoples. He may even believe in at least some of the things he says; but that in itself is dangerous, given the beliefs he seems to hold.

Singer dissects each class of statement, and discovers a deeply confused brand of Christian fundamentalism, with an admixture of desperate realpolitik. Ironically, taking George seriously ultimately makes him look profoundly, murderously stupid, rather than a bumbling village idiot accidentally tossed into the hot seat of power.

Behind the people who are behind Bush, Singer identifies the acolytes of Leo Strauss, an atheist with a peculiarly religious project; that is, religion as a tool for keeping people on message without telling them what you are really doing to their lives and their world. This is where the real tragedy of American idealism becomes apparent; suffused with religiosity, and an inherent sense of the benign nature of American culture, the people are sedated by rhetoric which confirms their delusions, and real events take second place to the comfort of teleological virtue.

Evil is the key here. Evil stalks the American worldview, bearded and turbaned for some, shapeless but pervasive for others. Since it's hard to believe that evil could have a natural place in the benevolent air of America, it must come from outside; this flies so hard in the face of the evidence that those of us who do not share the worldview are dumbfounded anyone can accept it with a straight face, but the whole point of ideology is that it provides meaning in spite of the facts - perhaps that's why Christianity (a religion founded entirely on the factual meaning of fictive events) is so ripe for ideological grooming.

Singer presents his analyses in simple clear language, laced with lucid analogies, and he patiently unravels the tangled web of illusory certainties with which the Bush administration pulls the corporate wool (50% cheap acrylic) over the collective American eye. Because he takes its seriously, he is far more successful in its deconstruction; because he takes the discipline of ethics seriously (this alone marks him out among contemporary thinkers) he is able to both destroy the illusions and point out the realities, factual and ethical, without the cynicism that mars much criticism of things American (if you're trying to shoot down the Bush project, don't shoot yourself in the ethical foot: a salutary proverb for 'structural' anti-Americans everywhere).

I have a small quibble with the title; 'Taking George Bush seriously' is a far better title than 'The President of Good and Evil', which is both portentous and strictly inaccurate. But past the front cover this book is worth every page and penny, and should be read by all who think they know what they're talking about, seriously.