George Bush’s Legacy: A Deadly Manichean Mindset

tragiclegacycoverBy James M. Wall

Bill Moyers’ Journal interview with Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald, provides a valuable insight into the Bush legacy that is both wise and frightening. What Bush leaves behind, as Greenwald documents, is best described as a Manichean mindset, a simplistic and dangerous mental state which has spread like a disease to our media, the public and a great number of our government leaders from both parties.

Video clips and the full text of the Moyers-Greenwald interview are posted on Moyers’ website. 

Who is this fellow who makes this persuasive case?

Glenn Greenwald brings strong legal credentials to the Moyers PBS interview. He has been a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He has written three highly acclaimed books, How Would a Patriot Act (May, 2006), a critique of the Bush administration’s use of executive power, A Tragic Legacy (June, 2007), which examines the Bush legacy, and Great American Hypocrites (April, 2008), which examines the manipulative electoral tactics used by the Republican party which were enabled by the mainstream media.

The subtitle of A Tragic Legacy is “How a Good Vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency”. Greenwald explains the source of his book’s central thesis:

. . . the idea of being a Manichean comes from this third century BC philosophy that – or religion really, that basically understood the world, [as] a never-ending battle between the forces of pure good and the forces of pure evil. And all human events could be understood . . .  through that prism.

[Manichaeism is] a very simplistic idea that even early Christianity rejected as not appreciating the complexities of how the world actually is and the ambiguities, the moral ambiguities that characterize who most of us are in most situations. George Bush views the world and his followers viewed the world through this lens of pure good versus pure evil. (emphasis added).

And it’s not me saying that. He said that in virtually all of his speeches. And when you see the world that way what it means is that if you’re on the side of pure good, as he asserted that he was and we are, it means that anything that you do, no matter how limitless, no matter how brutal and immoral, is inherently justifiable because it’s being enlisted for service of the good.

And by contrast, anything that you do to those on the other side is inherently justified as well because they’re pure evil. And from the war in Iraq to the torture camps and secret prisons that we set up all of the things that have done so much damage, I think that’s the mentality that lies at the heart of it.

Anything you do to those on the other side is inherently justified because they are pure evil.  The Manichean mindset believes that there are no limits to what the good person or the good nation can do to an evil person or an evil nation. No limits. 

The Patriot Act was based on this concept. So also, are the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. The Manichean mindset demands that in a world viewed as totally evil and totally good, the good are granted permission–indeed, are required–to torture, imprison, lie, kill, without regard to the rule of law. All of this is done by the good because they know themselves to be good. 

George Bush’s simplistic good vs. evil mindset found a natural constituency in the fundamentalist Christian Right in precisely the same way radical Islamist leaders are able to recruit warriors to fight against evil by convincing them that they are purely good and their enemies are purely evil. They distort the Koran to achieve their purpose just as the fundamentalist Christian Right adherents distort the Bible.

Robert Dreyfuss, in his book Devil’s Game, describes the parallel between Christian and Islamic fundamentalists:

Both exhibit an absolute certainty about their beliefs and they tolerate no dissent, condemning apostates, unbelievers and freethinkers to perdition. Both believe in a unity of religion and politics, the former insisting that America is a “Christian nation,” the latter that Muslims need to be ruled either by an all-powerful, religio-political caliphate or by a system of “Islamic republics” under an ultra-orthodox version of Islamic law (sharia).

And both encourage blind fanaticism among their followers.  It is no accident that among followers of both Chrsitain and Islamic fundamentalists, the world indeed appears to be engaged in a clash of civilizations. (P. 13). 

The Republican administration, headed by Bush, but essentially run by Vice President Dick Cheney, did not have to believe in Christian fundamentalism to see the potential for Manichaeism to control a nation gripped by fear. For a few hopeful weeks after 911, Bush reached out to American Muslims, but almost overnight, his public utterances began to embrace the Manichean heresy (much to the dismay of his fellow United Methodists). And he has never looked back.

The attacks on 911 provided the excuse Bush and Cheney needed to implement their Manichean strategy.  The fear and anger in the nation made it an easy sell to a compliant media that likes the good versus evil story line. Politicians of both parties quickly followed suit. They there was the fortuitous Icing on the cake provided by a noted academic, Samuel P. Huntington, whose 1993 essay,  The Clash of Civilizations emerged as a convenient way to package, and sell,  modern Manicheanism.  

Huntington puts it this way: “The fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.”  Not exactly a religious conflict, but fundamentalist Christians and an empire-building White House were happy to embrace it as a template.

This fellow Huntington is an academic all star who speaks about the good guys and the bad guys. That’s good enough for a media-political-religious combine which eschews nuance and has never heard of Manichaeism. Of course, Norm Chomsky knew better, but mainstream media made sure he stayed out of sight, as This You Tube clip explains. 

There is a fatal flaw in applying Manichaeism to political decision-making. The Bush-Cheney strategy was to sell the nation on the notion that only good nations act rationally. Evil dictators, ao they promised,  will always act irrationally.

Take the leaders of Iran, for example. The White House Manicheans do not give up power until January 20.  They still have time to partner with Israel in an attack on Iran.

In his review of  Glenn Greenwald’s book, A Tragic Legacy, David Gordon addresses the rational-irrational dichotomy:

Iran is a rational state actor, which, like most other countries in the world — including American allies — will eagerly cooperate with the United States when their interests coincide with ours…. To know that a country and its leaders act rationally is to take a huge and critical step toward realizing that that country — no matter how internally repressive it might be — cannot and will not be a threat to the U.S. (p. 186).

Gordon explains further:

Greenwald’s argument is a simple one: Because of the overwhelming military might of the United States, no other country can attack us without facing utter destruction. Other countries, wishing rationally to advance their own interests, grasp this fact. Accordingly, they will neither attack us nor threaten us. A rational American foreign policy then to a large extent presents no difficulty. Military measures directed against other countries are unnecessary. Given the manifest costs of these measures, we should not undertake them.

With five weeks to go before the Inauguration, it should be comforting to know that on January 20, 2009,  the one president we have at a time will finally be Barack Hussein Obama (the full name he will use at his swearing in ceremony).  But a President Obama assumes the leadership of a nation still infected with the Manichaen mindset that traveled to Washington from Texas. The Bush-Cheney team will be gone after January 20, but the disease has spread and will be difficult to eradicate. 

Democratic members of Congress, for example, have demonstrated they were willing to trash the Constitution because of the degree to which they had been infected by Manichaeism.

In his Moyers interview, Glenn Greenwald recalls that Democratic Congressional leaders were briefed on the Bush administrtation torture procedures. If they objected, they did not say so then, nor have they revealed their culpability. Wire tapping American citizens, in violation of federal law?

Without the Democrats, the telecom industry leaders would not have gotten immunity for their part in these violations. 

BILL MOYERS: . . .  The fact of the matter is Democrats knew about this wire tapping without warrants that conducted by the telecoms. And then they voted to give the telecom communications companies immunity. Barack Obama opposed giving them immunity and then reversed himself on it. So how does an incumbent president or an incumbent party in Congress investigate itself?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think what you’re getting at is the reason why the political class on a bipartisan basis is coming together to say, “Oh, no, we don’t want to investigate these crimes. We think it’s best to let it go.” It’s not because they’re being magnanimous. It’s not because they think it’s important that Barack Obama be able to fix the economy undistracted by the controversies that would be created. It’s because exactly as you said. Top Democrats were complicit in these crimes and assented to them. I mean, it wasn’t just the warrantless eavesdropping.

In 2002, as the Washington Post documented, Nancy Pelosi was brought to the CIA and along with Jane Harman and Bob Graham and Jay Rockefeller, the key Intelligence Committee Senators, were told about the torture program that the CIA had implemented, that we were going to water board and had water boarded certain suspects, that we were going to do things like hypothermia and stress positions and forced nudity and sleep deprivation.

All of the tactics that we’ve always said characterized tyrannies that used torture. That we were going to start using them ourselves, even though they clearly violate both international and domestic law. And according to all public reports, and they’re not denied by the participants, every single Democrat in that session either quietly assented to it or actively approved of it.

And so the question then becomes, well, as a matter of political reality, how is Barack Obama going to encourage investigations of crimes to be undertaken when the leading members of his own party were, if not-

BILL MOYERS: Good question.

A good question indeed, and ironic, to boot, since the simplistic form of  Manicheanism that pervades our land today had its origins in Persia (present-day Iran, of all places): 

Manicheanism (sometimes Manichaeism or Manichaeanism) was one of the major ancient religions of Persian (ancient Iran) origin. Though its organized form is mostly extinct today, a revival has been attempted under the name of Neo-Manicheanism. However, most of the writings of the founding prophet Mani have been lost. Some scholars argue that its influence subtly continues in Western Christian thought via Augustine of Hippo, who converted to Christianity from Manicheanism, which he passionately denounced in his writings.

Because Manicheanism is a faith that teaches dualism, in modern English the word “manichean” has come to mean dualistic, presenting or viewing things in a “black and white” fashion.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
This entry was posted in Media, Religion and politics. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to George Bush’s Legacy: A Deadly Manichean Mindset

  1. Jim,

    “The line between good and evil is drawn through the human heart”. I believe that is a quote from “Hart’s War”. The photo raised an important question for me. “What does the Manichean pray for?”

  2. John Crippen says:

    The Legacy of George W Bush: (A Collection of Conflicting Opinions)

    Can a man’s legacy be drawn from an eight year period in time? What kind of a footprint has GWB left on the American people, or the world for that matter? Has he served his country well by protecting us from terrorism, or has a alienated America from the rest of the world. Has he acted as a Christian in his role as President of the United States, or has he misused the Bible as a means of procuring votes and evoking war? Was the rebuilding of Iraq set in motion years before the Twin Towers tragedy, or was this a rapid decision based on an emergent circumstance?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s