Rowing Together on the Blood-Dimm'd Tide: Further Reflections on A Tragic Legacy

(UPDATE: Arthur Silber has a few thoughts on the matter here.)

Both Glenn Greenwald and Paul Curtis have replied briefly and graciously to the comments I made in a previous post that was sparked by Curtis' analysis of excerpts from Greenwald's upcoming book, "A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency." Just to clarify my own thoughts on the matter a bit further, I would say that I find Glenn's contention that I was at some points addressing arguments that he does not actually make in his book to be a persuasive criticism. I was dealing with an excerpt, after all, and my comments on the book were meant to be -- and could only be -- provisional. I tried to give some indication of this early on, but I could have been clearer on this point.


Paul responds to my contention that the present-day "Manicheanism" of the Bush Administration is not as unique as his analysis seemed to indicate. He quotes a passage from my piece:

But the fact is, such Manicheanism has been long been operative in American history. What else but a simpleminded division of Good v. Evil, a rampant and uncritical exceptionalism, could have "justified" the decimation of the Native Americans and the theft of their land? Or the existence of slavery -- and its incorporation into the Constitution itself? Or the mass-slaughtering conquest and "pacification" of the Philippines, which the Manichean McKinley saw as a holy crusade to "Christianize" the benighted natives (many of whom were already Catholics)? Wasn't this same kind of Manicheanism -- this automatic assumption that whatever we do is "good," that whatever serves our interests (or rather, the interests of those who rule us) is right and honorable -- operative in the CIA's overthrowing of government after government throughout the Cold War?

And then responds:

This is a vast subject...and I can only offer a few tentative thoughts. Manicheanism has certainly been a force in American history before the present era, but I'm not sure I would ascribe to it all the examples above. For instance, my old pomo philosophy training tells me that inasmuch as there was any philosophical aspect to the genocide of Native Americans (as opposed to simple, brute material interest), it was more a matter of the Enlightenment's hostile indifference to the "not-rational." In fact, most of Floyd's examples strike me as being matters that were much less defined by a division of Good v. Evil than by the general Western assumption of white superiority, which manifested and was justified in all kinds of ways, but which I'm not sure can be described as "Manichean."

I think he is right in this. I was probably using  "Manicheanism" to cover a greater multitude of sins than the term, strictly understood, can really bear. However, I did note in my piece that, in the end, we were all saying essentially the same thing, albeit with different categories or classifications. To cite one of Paul's examples, the general assumption of white superiority that underlay the destruction of the Native Americans might not be ascribed strictly to Manicheanism -- I agree with this point -- but the end result was the same: those leaders (and ordinary citizens) who killed and dispossessed the Indians believed that what they were doing was right and good, and that any attempt by the Indians to resist was evil (or even "terrorism"). But I think Paul is right in saying that the driving forces behind these depredations -- and others in American history -- cannot always be ascribed necessarily to a strict "good v evil" philosophy.  Perhaps the "good v evil" often comes in ex post facto, as it were, as a justification for actions that were prompted mainly by other factors, e.g., "My god, we've killed all these people; we MUST have been right, and they must have been evil -- otherwise, how can we continue to think well of ourselves, and happily prosper from what we've done to them?" Or as Claudius says in Hamlet: "May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?" And so we pardon ourselves afterward, by ascribing exceptional goodness to our cause and implacable evil to the other.

I do have some slight disagreement with Paul's next observation. He writes:

The most proximate -- and to my mind, most challenging -- comparison is with the Cold War. Certainly the Manichean worldview was a factor in the conduct of American foreign policy during that period, and Floyd's right that it's absurd to imagine an American president praising the basic idea of communism -- though on the other hand, American leaders were perfectly willing to sell grain to and negotiate arms treaties with the communists. The real Manicheanism during the Cold War was enforced by the organized right-wing, who, notably, were the direct forebears of the modern conservative movement. They were strong enough to force Democrats to act tough so as to deflect charges of being "soft on communism," but they were too weak to, for instance, keep Nixon from going to China. It was only in Reagan's first term that they really came into their own, and even he wound up betraying them (another point worth discussing, though, is that realist policymakers can make means/ends calculations just as depraved as those made by the ideologues).

Two minor points here. American presidents were willing to negotiate arms treaties and limited trade deals with communist countries, but that is of course a far cry from plying them with billions of dollars of weapons and/or renditioning our captives to their prisons and torture chambers, as we have done with such Islamic states as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc. So I think there was a harder, more strictly Manichean mindset regarding the "enemy" ideology in those days than we see now. But I'm sure Paul would agree with this point, so again, this is not really a dispute.

However, I do think that Paul is somewhat mistaken in asserting that the "real Manicheanism during the Cold War was enforced by the organized right-wing," who "forced Democrats to act tough" to deflect charges of being "soft on communism." There is some truth in that contention, of course, but I think that the historical record will show that throughout most of the Cold War, the Democrats, in general, needed no outside "enforcement" to make them adopt rigidly anti-communist policies. They were, by and large, quite enthusiastic about it. The Cold War began under Harry Truman, who instituted the "National Security State," subjected government employees to "loyalty oaths," and essentially laid out the whole witch-hunt program that Joe McCarthy later appropriated. There were few Cold Warriors as "hard" as the Kennedy brothers, nor could Lyndon Johnson -- just elected by the largest majority in American history -- have been too worried about the then-disorganized right wing when he escalated the war against the communists in Vietnam to such tragic heights. Some of the fiercest opposition to the Nixon-Kissinger policy of detente with the communist world came from Democrat Scoop Jackson. In fact, many of today's most notorious neo-cons, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, worked for Jackson, who is considered a tutelary deity by the neoconservative movement. (Indeed, the main neocon organization in the UK is the "Henry Jackson Society.") Thus the "direct forbears of the modern conservative movement" were not only the organized right-wing from the Cold War days; there is strong Democratic lineage as well.

Again, though, I think the disagreements here are more evident than substantial, having to do with historical details or linguistic usage -- unimportant issues when set against the dire and immediate dangers posed by the criminal regime now in control of the government, and of history's most powerful war machine as well. Certainly I agree with Paul's closing statement: "I just don't think the modern conservative Manicheans have ever been so empowered as they have during the Bush administration." That is demonstrably true, and I've tried to detail this truth in many ways over the years. So we're all in the same boat, fighting against the same "blood-dimm'd tide" that threatens to swamp us all.
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