The Magazine

Bush vs. Nietzsche

The politics of evil.

Apr 1, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 28 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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PRESIDENT BUSH is neither an intellectual nor a theologian. He is generally unpretentious when it comes to big ideas. For all we know--unlike all of the political commentators in Washington--he may never have read Nietzsche. Still, his introducing the concept of evil may prove to be more consequential than anyone imagines. Its most distinctive aspect lies in what it suggests about causality.

The modern mind is used to breaking things down and assigning to every effect some material cause, such as, in the case of the current terrorist movement, deprivation, mistreatment, or mistaken policies. The explanation of evil refuses this approach. It offers itself as its own cause: Evil is not caused; it is a cause. To attribute explanatory power to a moral or spiritual substance (or, as some might prefer to put it, to a lack thereof) is today an unusual way of thinking, and it leads to the still more unusual conclusion that for certain ills there is no remedy to be found in ordinary social policy or therapy.

Two other connotations of the concept of evil draw at least implicitly on elements of religious faith, though not Christianity alone. One is the idea that in the presence of evil, resistance is a positive obligation. The situation cannot be left to slide; one cannot take satisfaction from having merely said the right things. Bush's politics of evil is meant to fortify resolve. It amounts to a declaration that deeds count more than words, and deeds are imperative: "This is the calling of the United States of America, . . . a nation built on fundamental values that . . . rejects evil. We will not tire."

Another connotation is that in the struggle between good and evil, the universe is not indifferent. As Bush said at the United Nations: "We're confident, too, that history has an author who fills time and eternity with his purpose. We know that evil is real, but good will prevail against it. This is the teaching of many faiths, and in that assurance we gain strength for a long journey." Those with faith surely will find solace in this view, while others must discover a way to proceed in the face of their doubts.

Bush's use of the concept of evil fits into an important debate in American thought that has been going on now for well over a hundred years. Led by John Dewey, a concerted effort was undertaken early in the twentieth century by many Progressive thinkers to throw out the concept of evil. The reason, as explained by the contemporary philosopher Richard Rorty, was that it "thwarted their notion of confidence in education and social reform." The Progressives saw evil as incompatible with their notion of the infinite perfectibility of man. If, however, the term evil had to be kept, these Progressives sought to empty it of its old content and redefine it (Rorty again) "as the failure of the imagination to reach beyond itself." In this use--or abuse--of evil, the term would become little more than a synonym for "unenlightened." An evil policy would be one that was unprogressive.

This pitiful plan to place us beyond good and evil, American style, failed. It could not do justice to the horrors people saw with their own eyes in the years following the Progressive era. Yet a residue of this thinking can still be detected. It may explain, for example, a curious blind spot in many of the commentaries on Bush's rhetoric, namely the assertion that no other president with the exception of Ronald Reagan has spoken of evil. (Reagan, who famously called the Soviet Union the "evil empire," would in this view be the exception that proves the point: Reagan and Bush are the two recent presidents who somehow missed the modern intellectual revolution.)

But in fact President Clinton referred fairly often to evil--in speaking of the Oklahoma City bombing, the murders of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and James Byrd in Texas, the genocide in Rwanda, and the Serbian policy of ethnic cleansing against the Kosovars. The absence of any notable reaction, then or now, to his language is striking. It points to the fact that the term evil is frequently used by modern commentators, even and especially those who professed dismay when Bush "revived" it. Whenever an awful deed can be thought of as a regressive action, whenever it can be associated with Fascism or hate crimes towards groups left behind, whenever it can be conceived as embodying an "older" way of thinking, modern intellectuals have no reluctance to speak of evil. But while such cases do in fact encompass evil, they do not exhaust the phenomenon.