So Called "War Against Evil"
By Richard L. Franklin
30 April, 2007
is often applied to one who 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 oratorical 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
either case, his language is nonetheless often marked by some of the
classic devices of demagoguery.
Such is the case when Bush
takes a shot at those who question his reasons for the so-called 'war'
in Iraq and Afghanistan. A growing number of Americans are coming to
realize that the supposed ongoing 'war' is not even a real war. It's
a bloody, imperialistic occupation of another country. A growing number
of Americans are beginning to suspect the massive bloodshed and destruction
inflicted on Iraq is being done simply to create a permanent outpost
for Imperial America in the Middle East. As more Americans are becoming
suspicious of what the cabal in the White House is up to, Bush is forced
to fall back more heavily on the most common tools of jingoistic demagoguery,
even though he scarcely has the verbal ability to become a true demagogue
in the tradition of a Hitler or a Father Coughlin.
One of the most absurd examples
of his rhetoric take place when he turns to an old and reliable obfuscatory
term, namely "evil". When asked by reporters what the purpose
of the current war is, he has more than once replied, "This is
a war against evil." That kind of response seems to be extremely
handy for putting a damper on any follow up questions. Reporters never
follow up be asking Bush or Rice or Cheney what they mean by "evil".
Of all the words of the demagogic
vernacular, "evil" is the most meaningless, yet one of the
most emotionally charged words used by demagogues --- which is why they
love using it.
So what exactly is an "axis
of evil"? It admittedly sounds nasty, dangerous, and dark. We tend
to feel we had best keep a wary eye on the members of an axis of evil
and even keep ourselves primed for preemptive wars.
Well, it's time we called
Bush on this kind of language. More exact parsing of comments and defining
of words need 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 came primarily out of
the Enlightenment, and rationality was a defining characteristic of
that age. The whole democratic ethos is directed toward rational, open,
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, it's 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 these feelings to generate popular support
for such niceties as foreign wars, empire building, concentration camps,
torture, and the elimination of civil liberties at home.
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 destroys us.
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;
however, those who described him as mentally ill and being an extreme
danger to world peace were actually saying something.
Those who label certain criminals
of the world as little 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 or groups into groups who require some attention,
but does little to rationally understand or effectively deal with such
This brings me back to Bush'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 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?
As my final look at the word
"evil" (or its close relative the word "bad"), permit
me to offer this prosaic example of what such words really mean, assuming
they mean anything at all. Suppose you decide to make a lemon pie. To
do so, you buy lemons and sugar. If the lemons turn out to be saccharin
sweet, you would probably label them as "bad" because they
failed to answer your interest in having tartness in your pie. If the
sugar turned out to be tart, you would probably label it as "bad"
because it failed to answer your interest in having sweetness in your
So what does this suggest
about these appellations? It simply tells us that "good'"and
"bad" have no core meaning other than being an indication
that X does or does not answer to certain wishes or interests a person
has. It's really that simple. I kid you not.
Beware of the "fog of
war", and try to avoid contributing to that fog with this kind
of metaphysical nonsense or to allow semantic folderol to confuse your
own thinking about what your government is doing or not doing. Those
who use empty terms such as "evil" should be called upon to
give us real, tangible reasons for their acts. We must challenge the
penchant of the White House illusionists to make meaningless noises
with their mealy mouths.
Richard L. Franklin
is author of “The Mythology of Self-Worth”, Oxford, 2006.
He is a former teacher of rational thinking, and former instructor at
the Rational Life Center. A major concern of his is the degree of irrationality
in American political dialogue since democracy itself rests on rational
discourse as much as fascism relies on irrational demagoguery.
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