In the Jewish ethical-religious tradition, evil is that which tends toward more selfishness, less truth, less caring for other people, and less justice. The yetzer hara - the evil inclination - is the selfish ego that doesn't care about anything other than satisfying its own desires. It denies value and fairness. We may understand evil dualistically (as alienation) or nondualistically (as illusion), conventionally or mystically. But its general shape exists in most religious traditions, even in Bush's own view, that evil has something to do with violence and coercion (I will not take the more extreme anti-Bush view that he sees evil as simply anything anti-American or anti-Christian. It may be true, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt.)
But there is much more to it than that. Let's rescue the notion of moral depravity from the binary opposition of "good and evil." Evil is not black and white. It is not even a single continuum of grays. There are many forms of evil, too many to count, and one may be involved with evil even as one combats it. Moreover, evil is not sua sponte. Bush seems to believe that people simply "are" evil. He may even believe this about himself, prior to his late-70s rebirth into Christ. Yet evil actually has causes and explanations. It is, as Hannah Arendt suggested, a phenomenon of surface, not substance. Conventionally, because evil's consequences are so awful, we suppose that evil is a deep phenomenon. This may be manifested in silly motifs of black hats and deep, dark laughs, or in more sophisticated but still misguided attempts to understand the heart of darkness beneath a Stalin or a Hitler.
In fact, what Arendt meant by her popular phrase "banality of evil" was not only that evil emerges in banal ways (train schedules, gas recipes) but that it is often without intrinsic depth. Eichmann was an ordinary man. We might try to psychoanalyze him, or attribute his evil to this or that character trait, but in fact his evil was more accurately a feature of what he did, not who he was in any deep sense. Likewise, the destruction of the World Trade Center was both evil and caused by a large number of causes, some of which were actions for which the U.S. was responsible. And likewise, though less severe, destroying vast swaths of the beautiful, pristine Tongass National Forest in Alaska for the sake of unnecessary logging is readily explicable (economically, politically), and also evil. Stealing billions of dollars by awarding government contracts to Halliburton and other cronies, when they are known to be frauds, is evil. Starting a war, which has killed 500 Americans and thousands of Iraqis, when it was not absolutely necessary, and on premises now known to be false (and known to be false at the time), is evil.
Think of one innocent person dying. A soldier on our side. A civilian on theirs. Think of that person's family, and the pain they must be going through. War is sometimes necessary, and when you're in one, every soldier knows you fight to win. But when it is not necessary to begin with, can causing such suffering be anything but evil? And where is the Jewish consensus on this issue, while pompous blowhards and self-serving rabbis cozy up to the real evildoers so that their fears or, worse, their parochial interests in Israel can be coddled?
The recent Bush administration has been the most damaging, deceitful and corrupt in the nation's history. And these characteristics are evil, as understood by the Jewish tradition and most other ones. If they were graded on the Ten Commandments, the Bush administration would fail, having broken at least five. They have lied, they have stolen, they have killed unnecessarily. They have violated the commandment to honor our parents by selling the elderly out to drug companies, and by ensuring the eventual bankruptcy of Social Security all part of a deliberate plan to "starve the beast" of big government. And, although not all of these are listed in the Bible, they have:
Lied about Iraqi weapons in order to pursue a war, because they knew its true strategic mission would not be supported by our population or allies. As of July 1, 2004, that war has caused 907 American deaths, 5394 wounded, and uncounted Iraqi civilian and military dead.
Stolen billions of dollars straight from the treasury and doled it out to large corporations in the form of "Emergency Economic Stimulus." (NY Times, Oct 27, 2001)
Steered millions of dollars of business to Halliburton, a corporation that has been found guilty of swindling governments out of fees and lying, in which the Vice President holds an economic interest (and was the CEO during some of the periods of misconduct).
Supported unfettered globalization, but not free trade, marrying neo-liberalist economic policies with massive farm subsidies to corporations and other programs which decrease market efficiency but cater to powerful constituencies.
Exploited the fear of terrorism, has trampled on civil liberties, and used laws such as the Patriot Act to expand surveillance of non-terrorism related activities.
Dismantled our nation's environmental laws, placing industry lobbyists at the head of key agencies. (For detail, see this earlier Zeek article.)
Virtually ignored the criminals at Enron, who embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars and ruined people's lives in the largest financial scandal in our nation's history, while lying and obfuscating about their own connections to Enron. (To take only one example, Enron executives helped write Cheney's Energy Plan, and sat on the Energy Task Force, whose minutes the administration has refused to divulge. Cheney's spokespeople said Enron got "not one thing" from the energy plan, but actually they got billions of dollars in tax breaks, incentives, and investment,' not to mention $254 million in corporate tax "rebates" from the Bush "stimulus" plan even though Enron hadn't paid any taxes at all in the last five years. NY Times, Jan. 19, 2002.)
Seized power because over 30,000 people were wrongfully excluded from Florida voting rolls, and because, during the disputes regarding the Miami ballots, Bush's campaign director was in charge of the election. As Secretary of State, she made 37 discretionary decisions during the month of November, 2000 every one of them in favor of Bush.
Censored their own scientists' unambiguous confirmation that climate change is real, and withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in favor of "voluntary limits," written by oil companies, which fewer than 1% of applicable American industries have chosen to adopt. (NY Times, Feb. 15, 2002, Dec. 4, 2003). The administration lies that scientists are divided, when in fact no non-industry-paid scientists doubt that human-created climate change is occurring. (N.Y. Times, Sept. 10, 2000, June 24, 2002) And to do all this, Bush broke an explicit campaign promise to cap CO2 emissions. (NY Times, Mar. 14, 2001)
So, where is the Jewish moral voice? There are plenty on the Right who preach of moral decline. Where are the Jeremiahs of the Left?
Just look at the record, and compare. President Clinton lied about oral sex; Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction. President Nixon spied on the Democratic headquarters; Bush's agents stole an entire election. President Harding presided over an oil speculation scandal; Bush's close friends and supporters ran Enron. I defy anyone to name a more dishonest administration that did more for the most powerful at the expense of the weak than this one.
To attack Bushism effectively, we must attack its spiritual foundation: get to the fear, and meet fear with evil. We must understand these (and countless other) policies as ethically evil, just as the Republicans understand gay marriage and rap music to be. They see us as traitors, perverts, and corroders of the American dream, and they use their convictions to great effect. They know they are fighting over values of good and evil, and they know that, because of fear, Americans will respond viscerally to such appeals. We too must use the failures and evils of the Bush administration to speak to the fears held by most Americans.
The Spiritual Foundations of Bushism
Sex and the Golem
How Jewish is Modigliani?
Steel and Glass
No Matter What, I Wish You Luck
Our 500 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Spring/Summer 2004 issue now on sale!
From previous issues:
A Song of Ascents
The Truth about the Rosenbergs
You are God in Drag