Political Rhetoric and the language of "evil"

At St. Alban's Chapel at LSU there is on Wednesdays an event called “Lunch with C.S. Lewis” that I try to attend when able. Recently there was a conversation that got me to thinking some more about the use of theological concepts in political discourse, particularly the rhetoric being used to rally support for “the war on terror” which we Americans are now fighting.

I began thinking that there may be a sort of dualism in the language that is used by the President and others painting the “terrorists” as pure evil, as haters of freedom and democracy. Our Freedom and Democracy, as we were all taught in school (and probably church) are intrinsically good (you should detect sarcasm here, because I certainly do not think this is the case), and of course those who hate absolutely that which is intrinsically good must therefore be intrinsically bad. So memorable phrases like “the axis of evil” come to mind used to paint those who have attacked us as essentially “the devil” and, if they are, we therefore leave ourselves no choice (if we are good) but to exterminate them utterly. Note that in America we haven't made the jump (as Tony Blair has rightly done) from talking about "fighting Terrorists" to "fighting the ideology that breeds terrorists" (which is essentially a religion, I should point out).

I wonder if anyone has stopped to ask (and I do not believe the President has done so) “What have freedom and democracy ever done to them?” Because the answer might actually be “something very bad.” I think those who are being labeled “Islamo-fascists” may have some very legitimate concerns that we in the West are not even aware of. If we were, we might be able to diffuse terrorism. We simply do not understand that our democracy and our freedom (our free-market economy) is intruding upon and destroying their culture, and they don’t like it. Their children are watching “Desperate Housewives” and learning American made ideas and so those “Islamo-fascists” are watching their own culture and their own family values be consumed by the aggressive marketing strategies of the world’s biggest and most powerful (read “Western”) corporations who are trying to enlarge their markets into the newly discovered "global economy." In other words, as has been pointed out by a number of scholars, a free market economy like ours when it is combined with the globalization of economics creates a sort of cultural and economic imperialism. Unlike the imperialism of the European powers from the 18th to early 20th centuries, this imperialism is not spread by the military (usually), but by the engines of mass communication (internet, cable/satellite TV) and economic expansion. And this new imperialism is killing traditional Muslim culture (we may debate whether or not that is actually a bad thing, but I think we can all understand how traditional Muslims must see it).

The use of the sort of language that says “these people are the devil and must be destroyed” ends up sweeping reality under the rug. Reality is more complicated than that. Unfortunately, we Americans (and everyone else I think) like to keep things simple. Those who want to take and keep political power in our system are those who can capture our imaginations with a sound-bite or a bumper sticker slogan. Reality gets lost in the shuffle for (duly-elected) power.

The truth is (this is the important part) that the use of this absolutist, over-simplified language by both sides (language such as “America is the great Satan”) can only bring us to one possible place if we follow it out logically. We think they are the devil; they think we are the devil. The world is a better place if the devil is dead. Therefore both sides continue to fight until either 1) one side kills the devil (which considering the numbers of people involved and the resilience of ideology in general is highly unlikely as long as there are any people left on the planet) or 2) both sides recognize that reality is more complicated and grow up enough to address the real issues in responsible and rational ways. Sadly, based on the irrational and immature world-wide response to the pope’s comments that no one seems even to have read (I hope to comment on this in the near future), this doesn’t look too likely to happen in the near future either.

Maybe if we take a step back, stop "winning the war on terror" with military force and look at the whole situation as it has developed over the last 3 centuries or so, we might see where the real Devil has been at work and how to address it with Christian charity. But, then, it is an election year...

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Anonymous Wes said...

I'm always amused by people who have to set apart terms with quotes: "war on terror", "winning the war on terror". Seems to me this pretty much qualifies as language dualism, too.

9:43 AM, September 25, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are becoming more liberal every minute, Daniel! :)

But seriously, to go with your last post, I think all people really want to hear is rhetoric. We have choosen to "dumb" ourselves down unfortunately.

1:33 PM, September 25, 2006  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

dumb is easier for us.
If i ever finish refining my commentary on the "Papal remarks crisis" you won't think me liberal :)

2:30 PM, September 25, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the real issue is that churches have been cheering on "the war of terror." Now you know I'm conservative and am not anti-war, but I strongly dislike the church being so political and basically becoming a puppet for my party.
As far as your comments...you're right. When we just attack others who seem "evil," we are causing more problems.
But in a positive view of the war: they aren't just using military police; they are sending in peace agents who build schools, provide medical care, etc. This is how things are changed; and you know--I think people on their side have begun to realize that to because they're definitely doing that in America as well: some fight and cause terror or wars; others try to win you over to their idiology. --Bethany

10:09 AM, October 03, 2006  

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