September 16, 2004
Most Americans, caught up in what is probably the most intense political campaign of our era, haven't paused to reflect that this contest is not only more intense, it is more philosophical than any we've known. The central question underlying it has to do with the nature of evil. What is it? Is it merely a term we use to denote mean-spirited, vicious behavior? Or is is an active force flowing out of a supernatural entity? You could put the question more simply by asking if it comes from our own less-than-admirable impulses or if it has its source in an immortal prince of darkness?
This is not usually how we talk about public issues, but, nonetheless, the nature of evil is the most important political question of our time.
Why is that the case? Because how we think about evil determines how we respond to the problems we face in the world. Those who consider themselves conservatives generally support the active force theory of evil. According to this way of thinking, when people are in the grip of evil, they are beyond the reach of all reason. There is simply no way to respond to them other than to kill them.
Liberals, on the other hand, view evil as a shorthand name for human imperfection. Evil people are in many ways like ourselves but they've got their thinking screwed up. They can be reached as any other people can be reached, if the effort is determined and skillful enough.
Consequently, the principal instrument of conservatives is war whereas the principal instrument of liberals is diplomacy.
Therefore, the main question we should be putting to conservative politicians is, how many people do we have to kill in order to banish evil? And, the main question for liberals is, how can we know when diplomacy alone is not serving our ends and we need to adopt more drastic measures? At the moment, neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Kerry is answering the questions he should be answering. And the reason is that no one is putting the questions to him clearly enough that he can't squirm away from them. Neither wants to acknowledge what the real question for him is because the answer to either question is difficult and would require public demonstration of a mind actually thinking, which is, of all things, the single thing a politician most wants to avoid.
The media, of course, are doing their usual abominable job in addressing the questions that most need to be answered. Whether this comes from cowardice, or laziness, or outright stupidity is perhaps the second most important question of our time.
Democracy in America is being put to the test. It needs to find some way to ask the right questions and demand answers. Right now, less than two months before we have to choose the way we're going to deal with evil over the next four years, we are not responding to our test very well.
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