The American Bear

Sunshine/Lollipops

Walking into the Iran Trap: Mythic War, and Endless Enemies

[During the runup to the Bush-Kerry election, Matt] Taibbi went to work as a volunteer for Bush for Florida, to try to get a better understanding of what motivates many Republicans. Here is the most important part of what he came to understand:

The problem not only with fundamentalist Christians but with Republicans in general is not that they act on blind faith, without thinking. The problem is that they are incorrigible doubters with an insatiable appetite for Evidence. What they get off on is not Believing, but in having their beliefs tested. That’s why their conversations and their media are so completely dominated by implacable bogeymen: marrying gays, liberals, the ACLU, Sean Penn, Europeans and so on. Their faith both in God and in their political convictions is too weak to survive without an unceasing string of real and imaginary confrontations with those people — and for those confrontations, they are constantly assembling evidence and facts to make their case.

But here’s the twist. They are not looking for facts with which to defeat opponents. They are looking for facts that ensure them an ever-expanding roster of opponents. They can be correct facts, incorrect facts, irrelevant facts, it doesn’t matter. The point is not to win the argument, the point is to make sure the argument never stops. Permanent war isn’t a policy imposed from above; it’s an emotional imperative that rises from the bottom.

In a way, it actually helps if the fact is dubious or untrue (like the Swift-boat business), because that guarantees an argument. You’re arguing the particulars, where you’re right, while they’re arguing the underlying generalities, where they are. Once you grasp this fact, you’re a long way to understanding what the Hannitys and Limbaughs figured out long ago: These people will swallow anything you feed them, so long as it leaves them with a demon to wrestle with in their dreams.

… The key lies in these two sentences from Taibbi’s piece: “Permanent war isn’t a policy imposed from above; it’s an emotional imperative that rises from the bottom.” And: “These people will swallow anything you feed them, so long as it leaves them with a demon to wrestle with in their dreams.” What I want to emphasize is that, although it is certainly true that the most zealous of Bush’s followers exhibit[ed] this approach in a dangerously extreme form, the underlying perspective is one that influences Western thought generally: the idea that we represent Absolute Good, in the form of “universal” values that everyone ought to live by, and that our enemies represent Absolute Evil, bent on destroying all of those “universal” values, without exception.

This is a perspective that, by necessary implication and at its most dangerous, must have opponents and enemies, and that requires “permanent war” to ensure its own continuing survival. It is a perspective that all too frequently courts Armageddon — because it must have “a demon to wrestle with,” and an enemy to vanquish.