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December 21, 2003 The Apocalypse - It'll be just fine...

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George Bush: The Manicheism Candidiate?

Manichian?  Whatever.  Trust me.  This will make sense.

Notes on the Mentality of the Conservative Evangelicals

Manicheism: This ancient heresy divides all of reality in two: Absolute Good and Absolute Evil.  The Christian church rejected Manicheism as heretical many centuries ago.  But on the day after 9/11, the President first stated the position he would continue to maintain: "This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail."  Later Bush defined his enemies as the "axis of evil," a term that is theologically and morally loaded.

I came across this in the December 22, 2003 issue of The Nation and found it helpful: Bush's Religious Language by Juan Stam, translated by Thomas E. Ambrogi.


The longer version, in Spanish, is available at Signos de Vida if you'd like.  Juan Stam is a theologian and structural linguistics fellow from Costa Rica.  He's one of those guys who talks about religious history and about metalanguage.

Stam sets the issue like this:


George W. Bush began to take part in a Bible study group in 1985, after two decades of binge drinking.  For two years he studied the Scriptures and put his heavy drinking behind him.  In that same process, he succeeded in refocusing his life, which had been diffused and confused, into a coherent cosmic vision - or ideology - which corresponded to the mentality of the conservative evangelicals of his country.

When Bush decided to run for office, political strategist Karl Rove helped him make the link with the evangelical sector.  While other candidates were discussing polemical themes, Rove advised him that it was much better for him to simply speak about his faith.  Bush presented himself as "a man with Jesus in his heart."  When a reporter asked him who his favorite philosopher was, Bush replied: "Christ, because he changed my heart."  That corresponded perfectly to the extreme individualism of fundamentalism, and it constituted what in the metalanguage of evangelical code words is called "personal witness."

Politically, Bush's discourse has been very effective, but theologically the results have been more problematic, as evident in particular in three areas.


Well, Stam ponders how, given that "state of sublime innocence in his own country, like Adam and Eve in paradise," Bush can muster only one explanation for the terrorists' hatred of his nation: "There are people who hate freedom."


In other words, they are so evil that they abhor the good because it is good.

Say what?

And Stam asks if the terrorists hate freedom, why have they not attacked Canada, which he says in some respects is "more democratic" than the United States?  Why is there not the same hatred for Switzerland, Holland or his own Costa Rica?


Ah yep.  Good questions.

And Stam observes this:


Bush does not seem to have much hesitation in identifying God with his own project.  In a speech in September 2002, Bush cited a Christological text in reference to his war project: "And the light [America] has shone in the darkness [the enemies of America], and the darkness will not overcome it [America shall conquer its enemies]."  When he appeared in a flight suit aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, he said to the troops: "And wherever you go, you carry a message of hope - a message that is ancient and ever new.  In the words of the prophet Isaiah, 'To the captives, come out! to those who are in darkness, be free!'"


Well, we're all used to this.  Harmless enough.  Maybe.

And Stam's other gripe?


Manipulation of Prayer: True prayer does not pretend to tell God what we want Him to do but rather asks that God tell us what He wishes us to do.  We do not pray in order to enlist God in our ranks but to examine ourselves, to change and to do God's will.  Therefore, the confession of sin and repentance are crucial moments in prayer and worship.  Prayer has played a role without precedent in the Bush presidency and in the propaganda of the evangelicals who support him.  Photos of Bush at prayer are common.  Great publicity was given to the fact that during a prime-time news conference shortly before his speech giving the ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, Bush asked his advisers to leave him alone for ten minutes.  In evangelical symbolism, that meant that a man of prayer was going to commune with God, somewhat like Moses on Mount Sinai.

It is remarkable how closely Bush's discourse coincides with that of the false prophets of the Old Testament.  While the true prophets proclaimed the sovereignty of Yahweh, the God of justice and love who judges nations and persons, the false prophets served Baal, who could be manipulated by the powerful.  Karl Marx concluded that religion is "the opium of the people."  But Marx never knew committed Christians like Camilo Torres of Colombia, Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, Frank Pais of Cuba, Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua, Dietrich Bonhoeffer of Germany or Martin Luther King Jr. of the United States.  How paradoxical, and how sad, that the President of the United States, with his heretical manipulation of religious language, insists on proving Karl Marx right.


Wait a second!


This guy just said Bush is a heretic who proves Karl Marx was right, at least about religion.





What?  The apocalypse scares you?  Really?  What's your problem?


I did receive a private email about all this from an old friend in Albany, New York.

She had been listening to a fellow in a radio interview who was talking, it seemed, about this particular (peculiar?) heresy being perennial, recognized as heresy, and yet hard to root out in all three religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) involved in the Middle East right now.  And how Manichaeism is involved with the apocalyptic vision, which is averse to cooperation, accommodation and all the rest - because it posits that everything is headed for that one last showdown between good and evil.  That's why conservative fundamentalists (in all camps) really have no interest in progressive ideas that could avert calamity. 


She found it all interesting.  And scary.

Scary?  Well, I guess that depends on your point of view, and your particular flavor of theology.

There really has been a lot of talk recently about these apocalyptic views of this current war - this war that may last forever.  Or at least until the end of time (read your Bible).

The piece that I see quoted most often, and referred to most often in the last few weeks, is something Robert Jay Lifton had in The Nation.  It hit the web a while ago and I guess the print version is on the newsstands now.

See American Apocalypse
Robert Jay Lifton, The Nation, Posted December 4, 2003, from the December 22 issue...

The link will take you to it, but here are some key excerpts:


The apocalyptic imagination has spawned a new kind of violence at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  We can, in fact, speak of a worldwide epidemic of violence aimed at massive destruction in the service of various visions of purification and renewal.  In particular, we are experiencing what could be called an apocalyptic face-off between Islamist forces, overtly visionary in their willingness to kill and die for their religion, and American forces claiming to be restrained and reasonable but no less visionary in their projection of a cleansing war making and military power.  Both sides are energized by versions of intense idealism; both see themselves as embarked on a mission of combating evil in order to redeem and renew the world; and both are ready to release untold levels of violence to achieve that purpose.


Yes, Lifton is indeed arguing we as apocalyptic in our views as the folks on the other side.  That's what I was getting above.


And here's his reasoning:


The American apocalyptic entity is less familiar to us.   Even if its urges to power and domination seem historically recognizable, it nonetheless represents a new constellation of forces bound up with what I've come to think of as "superpower syndrome."  By that term I mean a national mindset - put forward strongly by a tight-knit leadership group - that takes on a sense of omnipotence, of unique standing in the world that grants it the right to hold sway over all other nations.  The American superpower status derives from our emergence from World War II as uniquely powerful in every respect, still more so as the only superpower from the end of the cold war in the early 1990s.

More than mere domination, the American superpower now seeks to control history.  Such cosmic ambition is accompanied by an equally vast sense of entitlement - of special dispensation to pursue its aims.  That entitlement stems partly from historic claims to special democratic virtue, but has much to do with an embrace of technological power translated into military terms.  That is, a superpower - the world's only superpower - is entitled to dominate and control precisely because it is a superpower.


Well, that may be coming on a bit strong, but one does listen to the Bush team and senses Lifton is close to being spot on here.

But how could this happen?  Here's what he sees:


In important ways, the "war on terrorism" has represented an impulse to undo violently precisely the humiliation of 9/11.  To be sure, the acts of that day had a warlike aspect.  They were certainly committed by men convinced that they were at war with us.  In post-Nuremberg terms they could undoubtedly be considered a "crime against humanity."  Some kind of force used against their perpetrators was inevitable and appropriate.  The humiliation caused, together with American world ambitions, however, precluded dealing with the attacks as what they were - terrorism by a small group of determined zealots, not war.  A more focused, restrained, internationalized response to Al Qaeda could have been far more effective without being a stimulus to expanded terrorism.

Unfortunately, our response was inseparable from our superpower status and the syndrome that goes with it.  Any nation attacked in that way would have felt itself humiliated.  But for the United States, with our national sense of being overwhelmingly powerful and unchallengeable, to have its major institutions violently penetrated created an intolerable breakdown of superpower invulnerability that was never supposed to happen, a contradiction that fed our humiliation.

We know from history that collective humiliation can be a goad to various kinds of aggressive behavior - as has been true of bin Laden and Al Qaeda.  It was also true of the Nazis.


Nazis?  He doesn't go so far as to say we are like them - or very much like them.  But he sees parallels.

Then too Lifton relies on Bob Woodward's book Bush at War to show how the president and his team see this all as an apocalyptic enterprise:


The war on terrorism is apocalyptic, then, exactly because it is militarized and yet amorphous, without limits of time or place, and has no clear end.  It therefore enters the realm of the infinite.  Implied in its approach is that every last terrorist everywhere on the earth is to be hunted down until there are no more terrorists anywhere to threaten us, and in that way the world will be rid of evil.  Bush keeps what Woodward calls "his own personal scorecard for the war" in the form of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged to be the world's most dangerous terrorists, each ready to be crossed out if killed or captured.  The scorecard is always available in a desk drawer in the Oval Office.


Well, that cheers me up.

But does such an apocalyptic view of things make things better?  Not exactly....


Despite the constant invocation by the Bush Administration of the theme of "security," the war on terrorism has created the very opposite - a sense of fear and insecurity among Americans, which is then mobilized in support of further aggressive plans in the extension of the larger "war."  What results is a vicious circle that engenders what we seek to destroy: Our excessive response to Islamist attacks creates more terrorists and more terrorist attacks, which in turn leads to an escalation of the war on terrorism, and so on.  The projected "victory" becomes a form of aggressive longing, of sustained illusion, of an unending "Fourth World War" and a mythic cleansing - of terrorists, of evil, of our own fear.  The American military apocalyptic can then be said to partner and act in concert with the Islamist apocalyptic.


Lifton has some idealistic thoughts on how to break this cycle.  You could click on the link and see what he has to say about that, if you scroll down to the last few paragraphs.


I just don't agree him.  His solution - "renouncing omnipotence" - is not something our current leaders are likely to embrace, nor would most Americans. 


That would be too scary - far more frightening. 


Americans like to chant, "We're number one!" as often and as loudly as possible. 


Chanting that may be cold comfort, but it is comfort nonetheless.






Oh, and in case you're wondering who this Lifton fellow is, here's his biography.  Perhaps one should take him seriously.


Robert Jay Lifton is Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the Graduate School University Center and Director of The Center on Violence and Human Survival at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at The City University of New York.  He had previously held the Foundations' Fund Research Professorship of Psychiatry at Yale University for more than two decades.  He has been particularly interest in the relationship between individual psychology and historical change, and in problems surrounding the extreme historical situations of our era.  He has taken an active part in the formation of the new field of psychohistory.


Dr. Lifton was born in New York City in 1926, attended Cornell University, and received his medical degree from New York Medical College in 1948.  Her interned at the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn in 1948-49, and had his psychiatric residence training at the Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, New York in 1949-51.  He was an Air Force psychiatrist serving in the United States, Japan, and Korea from 1951-53.  He was Research Associate in Psychiatry at Harvard from 1956-61, where he was affiliated with the Center for East Asian Studies; and prior to that was a Member of the Faculty of the Washington School of Psychiatry.


From mid-1995, he has been conducting psychological research on the problem of apocalyptic violence, focusing on Aum Shinrikyo, the extremist Japanese cult which released poison gas in Tokyo subways.  His book, Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism was published by Metropolitan Books in October, 1999.


His writings on Nazi Doctors (on their killing the name of healing) and the problem of genocide; nuclear weapons and their impact on death symbolism; Hiroshima survivors; Chinese thought reform and the Chinese Cultural Revolution; psychological trends in contemporary men and women; and on the Vietnam War experience and Vietnam veterans, have appeared in a variety of professional and popular journals.  He has developed a general psychological perspective around the paradigm of death and the continuity of life and a stress upon symbolization and "formative process," and on the malleability of the contemporary self.


Recent books include Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, (Putnam and Avon Books, 1995) (with Greg Mitchell) which explores the impact of Hiroshima on our own country; and The Protean Self; Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation, (Basic Books, 1993) which describes the contemporary "protean" self and its expressions of fluidity and change as its possible relationship to species consciousness and a "species self" (related importantly to one's connection to humankind).


Other books include:


  • The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat, (with Eric Markusen), (Basic Books, 1990).
  • The Future of Immortality; and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age (Basic Books, 1987).
  • The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (Basic Books, 1986), winner of the 1987 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history; the 1987 National Jewish Book Award for Holocaust.
  • Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1991 [1968]), which received the National Book Award in the Sciences, and the Van Wyck Brooks Award for non-fiction, in 1969The Broken Connection (which received the Martin Luther King Award in England), Harvard University Press, 1984.
  • Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case Against Nuclearism (with Richard Falk), Basic   Books, 1991, [1982].
  • Last Aid: Medical Dimension of Nuclear War (edited with E. Chivian, S. Chivian, and J.E. Mack), Redding, CT: Freeman Press, 1982.
  • Home From the War: Vietnam Veterans--Neither Victims Nor Executioners, (which was nominated for the National Book Award) Beacon Press, 1992 (with new Preface and Epilogue on the Gulf War [1983, 1968].
  • The Life of the Self: Toward a New Psychology, Basic Books, 1983 [1976]; Six Lives/Six Deaths; Portraits from Modern Japan (with Shuichi Kato and Michael Reich), Yale University Press, 1979.
  • Explorations in Psychohistory; The Wellfleet Papers (with Eric Olson), eds., Simon & Schuster, Touchstone Books, 1975.
  • Living and Dying (with Eric Olson), Praeger, 1974; History and Human Survival: Essays on the Young and the Old, Survivors and the Dead, War and Peace, and on Contemporary Psychohistory, Random House, 1968.
  • Boundaries: Psychological Man in Revolution, Touchstone, 1976 [1970].
  • Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Norton Library, 1976 [1986].
  • Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China, University of North Carolina Press, 1989 [1961].
  • Edited The Woman in America, Beacon paperback 1966 [1965]; America and the Asian Revolutions, Transaction Books, 1970; and Crimes of War (with Richard A. Falk and Gabriel Kolko) Vintage, 1971.