Beyond Good and Evil
or, Haven't we had enough Manichaeism for one millennium?
First, here's a (rather long, sorry) excerpt from the transcript of the Saddleback event from the Chicago Sun-Times, courtesy of Federal News Service:
REV. WARREN: Okay, we've got one last -- I've got a bunch more, but let me just ask you one about evil. Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it, do we defeat it?
SEN. OBAMA: Evil does exist. I mean, I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. And I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely.
And one of the things that I strongly believe is that, you know, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world. That is God's task. But we can be soldiers in that process, and we can confront it when we see it.
Now, the one thing that I think is very important is for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil because, you know, a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.
REV. WARREN: In the name of good.
SEN. OBAMA: In the name of good.
REV. WARREN: Yeah, okay.
SEN. OBAMA: And I think, you know, one thing that's very important is having some humility in recognizing that, you know, just because we think our intentions are good doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good.
REV. WARREN: All right. How about the issue of evil? I asked this of your rival in the previous thing. Does evil exist? And, if so, should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it, or defeat it?
SEN. MCCAIN: Defeat it. (Applause.) A couple of points. One, if I'm president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. (Applause.) I will do that, and I know how to do it. I will get that guy. (Applause.) No one, no one should be allowed to take thousands of American -- innocent American lives.
Of course evil must be defeated. My friends, we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century -- radical Islamic extremism. Not long ago in Baghdad, al Qaeda took two young women who were mentally disabled and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a marketplace, and, by remote control, detonated those suicide vests. If that isn't evil, you have to tell me what is. (Applause.)
And we're going to defeat this evil. And the central battleground, according to David Petraeus and Osama bin Laden, is the battle -- is Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Iraq. And we are winning and we are succeeding, and our troops will come home with honor and with victory, and not in defeat. And that's what's happening. (Applause.) And we have -- and we face this threat throughout the world. It's not just in Iraq. It's not just in Afghanistan. Our intelligence people tell us al Qaeda continues to try to establish cells here in the United States of America.
My friends, we must face this challenge. We can face this challenge, and we must totally defeat it. And we're in a long struggle. But when I'm around the young men and women who are serving us in uniform, I have no doubt -- none. (Applause.)
Interesting differences there. Let's not talk for the moment about things like whether a preacher (a Creationist, literalist preacher at that, albeit a pleasant one) should even be interviewing presidential candidates at all - that horse is well and truly stolen - or whether or not McCain listened to Obama; it doesn't matter. Instead let's talk about a couple of points in their answers.
So there's the first difference. For Obama, evil is part of the human condition. For McCain, evil is al Qaeda. Thus for McCain, evil is always external, always the other. And when you define evil as the other, then you have defined the other as Evil. Which is where the thinking ends.
Also, note that McCain knew what the interview was for. He used the problem of Good vs Evil as an occasion for a pep-rally. He doesn't answer Warren; he addresses the crowd. He trots out his great new line ("My friends, we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century"), rallies us behind "the young men and women who are serving us in uniform", and swears " if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice" (although this doesn't involve violating the sovereignty of any earthly nation, such as Pakistan): all of these are whistle-stop crowd-pleasers, designed not to examine the problem but to excite the faithful. In the words of General Martok, it's a slogan, not an answer.
And secondly, Obama confronts squarely the problem of doing evil in the name of good. McCain (like Bush) doesn't even think that's possible, so he doesn't address it. If Evil is al Qaeda, and al Qaeda is fighting us, then we are cannot be Evil. For McCain - as for our current president, and most of those advising both of them - it really is as simple as that.
For them the world and America's place and actions in it come down to that. We are Good and we face Evil across the world, everywhere. We must fight it in a Holy War, fight it and defeat it. "Evil must be defeated," McCain proclaims. "Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Iraq. And ... throughout the world. It's not just in Iraq. It's not just in Afghanistan. [even] here in the United States of America." And because we must defeat them, we will defeat them: "we are winning and we are succeeding, and our troops will come home with honor and with victory, and not in defeat" and there can be no questioning that. Notice that Obama’s actual answer is "confront it" - the triumph of good over evil is not a given for him ("we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world"); it is the battle which is a given. For McCain, as for Bush, the battle is already won; loss is unthinkable, therefore triumph is not only assured but (in some way) already achieved, no matter what things look like to those without the faith of the holy warrior.
Moreover, this line of thought allows us to do anything we want. Where Obama acknowledges that it "is very important ... for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil because, you know, a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil," this thought doesn't even begin to speculate about the merest possibility of crossing McCain's mind. Doing evil in the name of good, doing evil "based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil" - for McCain this is an impossibility. Just as George Bush can with no apparent sense of irony inveigh against Putin's actions in Georgia, McCain can with an equal tin ear say "Whatever tensions and hostilities might have existed between Georgians and Ossetians, they in no way justify Moscow's path of violent aggression. Russian actions, in clear violation of international law, have no place in 21st century Europe" (leading Putin to sarcastically retort that "Of course, Saddam Hussein ought to have been hanged for destroying several Shiite villages ... And the incumbent Georgian leaders who razed 10 Ossetian villages at once, who ran over elderly people and children with tanks, who burned civilians alive in their sheds -- these leaders must be taken under protection."). McCain can swear to "face the challenge" without seeing that the actions he advocates are same ones he calls evil if another country or group performs them. For him, Evil is not what is done but who does it. And Good is the same.
Obama's more nuanced view is that people who think they're doing good may do evil things. CS Lewis allowed Emeth the Calormene, servant of the god Tash, to enter Heaven while damning some Narnians to eternal darkness: "if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash that he serves" the Lion says. It's an uncomfortable concept for a believer, I imagine: to be told by your god that the enemy is saved and your ally (or you!) is not. McCain's view of Good and Evil rejects this notion wholly: those who are Good cannot do Evil, and those who are Evil cannot do Good. For McCain, ends not only justify means, they sanctify them.
We've seen a lot of that in the past seven years, haven't we? Sacrifice our rights, attack Iraq, threaten Iran, lock men up for years, alienate the world, torture - and justify torture ... all because we are, like Jake and Elwood, on a mission from God. What we do is right because it is we who do it.
That's hubris. And it's dangerous. In more ways than one.
Haven't we had enough of that simplistic Us-vs.-Them, Good-vs.-Evil worldview?