Calling Bush's Views Manichean Is an Insult to the Manicheans

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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.

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.

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Nathan Andelin - 2/6/2009

[I hope you're just facetious mocking ignorant Americans' attitudes, but if not, here's my response:]

That's just the problem. You let your opinions and worldview be shaped by careless assumptions. For something as consequential as war, you ought to take a little time to learn more about the history you "believe" took place the way you assume. Muslim "terror fanatics" did not "first declare war on Europe and the united States." Before any Muslim terrorist attack, the U.S. and Europe supported Israel on their holy land, which Arabs perceived as an act of aggression. They viewed this as a continuation of a policy of Western colonial imperialism, which had been going on in many Arab countries for many years. While atrocities have been committed by both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict, as far as terrorism is concerned, it has gone both ways. Consider the Stern Gang, the Irgun, Lehi, and other Jewish forces which used terror to achieve their aims (against both Arabs and the West). Some of the officials currently in the Israeli government took an active part in the violent reprisal campaigns carried out before and after Israel was made a state (e.g. the Qibya Incident, Lavon Affair, the King David Hotel, Deir Yassin, assasination of U.N. mediator Folke Bernadotte etc.).

Aside from direct and indirect participation the Arab-Israeli conflict, the West has initiated other aggressive acts against Arab countries (such as the U.S. orchestrated coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953) which provoked and radicalized our potential allies. More recently, the U.S. attacked Iraq during the first Gulf War, and placed troops on their other Holy Land in Saudi Arabia. On top of all that, we put in place sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

These reasons have all been given by our attackers, yet we ignorantly make up self-gratifying, comforting reasons (as in the "They hate us because we're free!" canard) while ignoring the truth. Time to pull our heads out of the sand.

Unfortunately, if it is to be viewed in black and white, good and evil, what we're doing definitely falls into the evil side.

Tom Snyder - 2/18/2008

I believe it was the Muslim terror fanatics that first declared war on Europe and the United States. Terrorism against civilians to achieve political ends is always evil. If people don't help combat it, then they are indeed supporting it by their own inaction and mindless opposition those fighting Jihad terror. Some issues are indeed black and white.

tom cordle - 11/20/2007

Those who equate the Bushites and the Manicheans are half-right: both belief systems begin with "manic" - which rhymes with panic - which is exactly what we have done as a nation since 9-11.

In your description of the Manicheans, I hear echoes of Yin and Yang from a bit further East. One of the great failures of the Christian tradition - at least as it has come down to us - is its refusal to accept the duality of human nature.

This denial of reality is all too apparent in the cowboy code of Bushego, which owes its intellectual underpinnings not to Christ or even Augustine, but to the late great 20th Century philosopher Marion Morrison (aka John Wayne).

J. Michael Bergstrom - 9/29/2004

Nietzsche gets misunderstood and maligned so often. Does the author above not wonder why Zarathustra was a gentle man of the forest?

Hugh High - 9/29/2004

The term "Manichean" is also one applied to a person from Manchester, England. Indeed, when I first saw the title to Skinner's piece, that I thought that was to whom he was referring and wondered why those from Manchester would really care about American political elections, other than most casually.

Arnold Shcherban - 9/27/2004

Sorry, for the accident with the original posting...

Arnold Shcherban - 9/27/2004