Sunday, December 02, 2007

For the Manicheans, this dualism—Good and Evil—constituted the structure of the spiritual world

9-27-04 Calling Bush's Views Manichean Is an Insult to the Manicheans By Dan Skinner Since George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech on January 29, 2002, his polarizing politics have often been characterized in terms such as a “Manichean struggle with a single overarching enemy called terrorism” (Washington Post, April 19, 2002). Since September 11 the term “Manichean” has been bandied about carelessly in the media as though it were a mere synonym for “binary” or “polar”—suitable for use in describing any worldview comprised of forces of “Good” and “Evil.” A closer look at the etymology of the term, however, reveals that we might have been better off had we elected an actually Manichean president.
The Manicheans were a syncretic religious sect led by Mani, a Buddhist-influenced ascetic born in Baghdad in the 3rd century AD. Like Bush, the Manicheans carved the spiritual world up into two categories—Good and Evil—but, as orthodox dualists, they believed that the forces of Good and Evil were not engaged in some continuous and messianic struggle, but rather that their contrasting presence was the very basis of the spiritual order. For the Manicheans, this dualism constituted the structure of the spiritual world that framed each individual’s relationship with reality. Everyone, they believed, would benefit from identifying the presence of Evil within themselves and should endeavor a personal journey to allow Good to dominate. Evil could never be eradicated; it simply wouldn’t make existential sense to think it could be.
Bush’s public pronouncements of faith have somewhat successfully hidden from the public the reality of how unchristian his particular form of dualism is. The so-called “Doctors” of Catholic theology—Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm—rejected any such battle between Good and Evil and, in the case of Augustine, rejected the idea that Evil really existed as a concrete entity, for to admit this would be to admit that God creates Evil. Instead, the Doctors conceived of reality as a continuum, where sins take people away from the ideal, but where all human action is gauged in its relative position to “Good,” with the sinful being simply less Good than those who live their lives closer to the word of God.
Ironically, if there is any theological tradition that Bush’s politics embody it is that of another ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism—but with a twist. Unlike the Manicheans, Zoroastrian theology was eschatological, premised on the ultimate destruction of Evil, and the collapse of the quasi-dualistic system of Good and Evil that defined its primitive stages. The forces that Zoroaster thought comprised the world were conflicted poles that had not yet reached their point of rest with the triumph of Good. The final state, characterized by a monolith of Good, would rid the world of spiritual weakness and impurity caused by Evil forces. But for the Zoroastrians, and unlike Bush, the triumphant party in this struggle was the entire spiritual world, whhich benefited from a real and non-discriminatory peace. The Zoroastrian quest was spiritual, which eliminated force or violence as options for obtaining peace.
It should be noted that Zoroaster was the same man that Friedrich Nietzsche called Zarathustra, from whose ontology Nietzsche challenged enlightenment conceptions of progress, shunned democracy and surmised that the weak were albatrosses around society’s neck. Nietzsche took the peaceful and hopeful philosophy of Zoroastrianism and stripped it of its optimism, leaving behind not the triumph of Good over Evil, but conflict itself. The one who would triumph in Nietzsche’s dualistic struggle was the “overman,” a superior human who, emancipated from the shackles of morality, embraced struggle as the highest articulation of human existence. For Nietzsche, conflict was a desirable end in and of itself.
This brief theological excursion is only politically relevant today because modern politicians such as George W. Bush have made it so. In drawing upon a dualistic political framework (“Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”), Bush has positioned himself as the arbiter of good versus evil, a struggle which has come to define the public face of his foreign policy.
The major problem with this mode of thinking is that, aside from Bush’s role as ontological authority, his rigid dualistic politics forces yet another logical distinction: friends and enemies. In Bush’s Zoroastrian world, life is defined not by positive categories that envision a better world, but by a preoccupation with destruction of the Other. Who we are as Americans—at least in W’s America—is determined by who we are not. Once we determine who we are not, then the task at hand becomes to destroy who we are not. The paradox inherent in this formulation is even scarier than it might first appear, for this ontological system is incapable of envisioning a world without enemies and is dangerously close to the ideas suggested by the title of Chris Hedges’s recent book: War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. In military parlance, an “exit strategy” from this battle would result in a loss of our own identity. Therefore, there can be no such exit strategy.
The student of politics will also recognize the more stark historical manifestation of Bush’s ontology. It was the patron philosopher of the Nazi party, Carl Schmitt, who suggested that the state has one essential function: distinguishing friends from enemies. This friend-enemy distinction has two classifying functions: friends make up the members of the national body (based on a number of possible criteria for inclusion and exclusion—race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious and political beliefs) while enemies are targeted for destruction in an effort to rid the state of the inconvenient schisms caused by a pluralistic society. It was this pluralism that Schmitt blamed for the weakening of the German state in the 1930s.
In today’s political climate the question is often asked, when or how does this end? The honest observer would be forced to acknowledge that an end is unattainable so long as dualisms remain the ontological building blocks of our political understanding. The Cold War dualism that shaped his father’s worldview has been replaced by new categories, but their fundamental effects are the same. Should the “war on terrorism” somehow end, or at least be rendered insignificant, a new opponent will need to be created, lest America lose a sense of identity in a world of shared values. There needs to be something to be destroyed when the Messiah returns, or else we will have to acknowledge that there really is no urgent need for such a return.
Manicheans—those great dualists who gave the Catholic theologians such a hard time—at least had the vision necessary to find non-destructive meaning in their distinction between Good and Evil. The permanence of these forces allowed individuals to reconcile themselves with the spiritual world as they found it, and not attempt to do violence to what they saw as the very structure of the world, the opposing forces that “give life meaning.” Bush seems willing to put his chips on the triumph of Good over Evil, even at the cost of antagonizing these forces to the point where life during wartime becomes unbearable for those who actually have to put their lives at risk. Meanwhile, we spectators of a purportedly democratic society can only wait for the grand struggle to reach completion.
In this sense Bush’s “Freudian slip” in calling the post-9/11 U.S. mission a “crusade” was a necessary extension of his particular dualistic world view. There is really no alternative in this battle; Good must confront Evil and to “smoke it out of its cave.” The battle, in fact, must be forced. Good says to Evil: “Bring it on.”
Underlying all of this is the question that might follow the construction of any dualism: Did Bush get the categories right? Is he sure who is Good and who is Evil? If not, he is energizing a high-stakes dualistic game based on false distinctions. Of course, those with cooler heads know that the world is too complex and too diverse for such frigid black and white distinctions. But the political reality is that Bush has already made the first move in a risky game that, if not stopped, will yield unpredictable results. Bush has manufactured a political world order out of a spiritual ontology intended to make us better human beings.
Mr. Skinner is an instructor of political theory at Hunter College at the City University of New York. He is a PhD student of Political Theory at the City University of New York Graduate Center, focusing on the relationship between language and politics. Comments (5) Home Newsletter Submissions Advertising Donations Archives Internships About Us FAQs Contact Us All Articles

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