Bush’s So-Called War Against Evil

“Demagogue” is often applied to one who spouts spurious oratory that
nonetheless is emotionally stirring. We think of people such as Hitler,
Mussolini, or the American neofascist Father Coughlin when we use words
such as ‘demagogue’ or ‘demagoguery’. These three men had an oratorical
gift, which is why I never feel totally comfortable referring to the
inarticulate Bush as a ‘demagogue’, most notably when he speaks off the
cuff. In either case, his language is nonetheless often marked by some
of the classic devices of demagoguery.

Such is the case when Bush takes a shot at those who question his
reasons for the so-called war in Iraq and Afghanistan. A growing
number of Americans are coming to realize that the supposed ongoing
‘war’ is not even a real war. It’s a bloody, imperialistic occupation
of another country. A growing number of Americans are beginning to
suspect the massive bloodshed and destruction inflicted on Iraq is
being done simply to create a permanent outpost for Imperial America in
the Middle East. As more Americans are becoming suspicious of what the
cabal in the White House is up to, Bush is forced to fall back more
heavily on the most common tools of jingoistic demagoguery, even though
he scarcely has the verbal ability to become a true demagogue in the
tradition of a Hitler or a Father Coughlin.

One of the most absurd examples of his rhetoric take place when he
turns to an old and reliable obfuscatory term, namely “evil”. When
asked by reporters what the purpose of the current war is, he has more
than once replied, “This is a war against evil.” That kind of response
seems to be extremely handy for putting a damper on any follow up
questions. Reporters never follow up be asking Bush or Rice or Cheney
what they mean by “evil”.

Of all the words of the demagogic vernacular, “evil” is the most
meaningless, yet one of the most emotionally charged words used by
demagogues — which is why they love using it.

So what exactly is an “axis of evil”? It admittedly sounds nasty,
dangerous, and dark. We tend to feel we had best keep a wary eye on the
members of an axis of evil and even keep ourselves primed for
preemptive wars.

Well, it’s time we called Bush on this kind of language. More exact
parsing of comments and defining of words need to be somehow injected
into public discourse. Rational thinking and speaking are absolutely
essential in a democracy. Democratic theory has always embraced
rational thinking as a core element of its very being. Never forget
that democratic theory came primarily out of the Enlightenment, and
rationality was a defining characteristic of that age. The whole
democratic ethos is directed toward rational, open, lucid public

I propose a small start. Let’s begin with the noun “evil”. This word
does not refer to anything among the furniture of the Universe. It is
an absolutely empty term. It cannot properly refer to a single concrete
object in the world. It does not, and cannot, denote a thing. It can
only vaguely connote a vague darkness or diabolism. It also admittedly
suggests a powerful dislike or fear on the part of the speaker, but
tells us little more. In practice, it’s main purpose is to stir up
negative emotions about persons or events, thereby gaining popular
support for killing or imprisoning people or making radical societal
changes that serve a ruling class.

Once strong, negative emotions are stirred up, demagogues use these
feelings to generate popular support for such niceties as foreign wars,
empire building, concentration camps, torture, and the elimination of
civil liberties at home.

Philosophers refer to “evil” as a reification. Put more simply, the
word “evil” has no referent whatsoever. It refers to no more than empty
air, or perhaps some kind of amorphous, veiled, supposedly pernicious
phantasm. We never know, even murkily, what that something is. We only
know it is very, very bad, and we must destroy it before it destroys

The pure relativity of the word “evil” becomes evident when we note
that Hitler was adored as a savior by millions, while still more
millions came to see him as a dangerous menace to civilization. Those
who adored him saw him as a good man, a veritable savior of the German
people, while his detractors labeled him as an “evil” maniac; however,
those who described him as mentally ill and being an extreme danger to
world peace were actually saying something.

Those who label certain criminals of the world as little Hitlers in
order to suggest those people are “evil”, really are not saying
anything more than something like, “I hate those people”. The term
“evil” places targeted individuals or groups into groups who require
some attention, but does little to rationally understand or effectively
deal with such people.

This brings me back to Bush’s “war against evil”. What has been spent
in the way of treasure, human life, and the prestige of America is
incalculable. It therefore would be prudent to be precise about exactly
it is that we have bought for ourselves with these enormous costs.
Saying we are being called upon to fight “a war against evil” is pure,
unadulterated, manipulative propaganda, calculated to stir up emotions
of fear and hatred. Popular attention is thusly turned from such
horrors as America’s genocidal policies and its role in global

Amorphous, elastic, non-denotative words are worthless noises. When
Bush tells us the current, so-called “war against evil” will protect us
from mushroom clouds, he has drained a blatant lie of any meaning
whatsoever by framing it within a “war against EVIL”. We have no idea
what he has said. Is such meaningless speech worth spending lives and
treasure upon? Is it worth the devastation of our economy for decades
to come? Is it worth massive destruction of environments for millions
of years to come?

As my final look at the word “evil” (or its close relative the word
“bad”), permit me to offer this prosaic example of what such words
really mean, assuming they mean anything at all. Suppose you decide to
make a lemon pie. To do so, you buy lemons and sugar. If the lemons
turn out to be saccharin sweet, you would probably label them as “bad”
because they failed to answer your interest in having tartness in your
pie. If the sugar turned out to be tart, you would probably label it as
“bad” because it failed to answer your interest in having sweetness in
your pie.

So what does this suggest about these appellations? It simply tells us
that “good” and “bad” have no core meaning other than being an
indication that X does or does not answer to certain wishes or
interests a person has. It’s really that simple. I kid you not.

Beware of the “fog of war”, and try to avoid contributing to that fog
with this kind of metaphysical nonsense or to allow semantic folderol
to confuse your own thinking about what your government is doing or not
doing. Those who use empty terms such as “evil” should be called upon
to give us real, tangible reasons for their acts. We must challenge the
penchant of the White House illusionists to make meaningless noises
with their mealy mouths.

Richard L. Franklin is author of The Mythology of Self-Worth. He can be reached at usereason@earthlink.net. Read other articles by Richard, or visit Richard's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. bobw said on May 2nd, 2007 at 7:44am #

    There are many such reified words in political discourse, and they’re not limited to Republicans. In fact, reifications of empty concepts seem to be the bread and butter of politics. “Democracy” and “freedom” are examples. So are “national security”, “national interest”, “rule of law”. Along with these empty words that stultify thought are familiar national myths, such as American innocence, exceptionalism, pioneer spirit (which Bush invokes when he says of the war “it’s hard work” and “stay the course”), and patriotism when it is used to mean going along with whatever the government or the majority says.

    The two major parties guard the portals of government with myth, to prevent the people from seeing what’s really going on inside.

  2. Sandy D. Hammond said on August 31st, 2007 at 7:27am #