News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: September 2001

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Texas George Rex Judas (4b)

What I will suggest in the following is that Pres. Bush's new-found interest in history and his previous statement are all of a piece. That is, both Bush statements about history exhibit a reluctance to accept responsibility for his actions. By this I mean an inward responsibility, a psychological and spiritual awareness that he is indeed part of a community. And his reluctance to do so exhibits that Judas-like disruption and destruction of the very motives that bring about concord and understanding between neighbors, which the Christian Testament says is the primary commandment.

To make this point, I rely once again on Kierkegaard. In his analysis of what he calls "inwardness" and its relationship to the study of world history, Kierkegaard shows that there is nothing in the external world that can serve as proof for a person to act ethically. I might appeal to history as a reason for why I act or for a belief. Kierkegaard argues, though, that I'd be appealing to something hypothetical. For however precise historical methods get, they will always be approximations.

Kierkegaard uses this analysis of the chasm between truth and world history to show that ultimately any decision to act--and the motives driving me to act--in the right way is always open to question. This openness to question involves both why I do something and what my motives for doing it are. This follows from the idea that we are transient beings who do not have access to absolute truth. We can believe that something is true and right, but we can never prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. We can act as though what we do is the right thing to do, but we must always face the possibility that it is not.

Because of this potential for acting on less than honest and authentic motives, other than the passion to follow what I believe is right and good as well as true, I must remain vigilant about how I am acting. This "how" relates to "why" I am acting in the sense that my motivations for doing something are just as important as why I do it.

How does this make sense? There are many examples that might show that the reason for doing something is tainted by less than ethical motives. I might pay my taxes because it's the law but not because I owe something to the community that sends my children to school, paves the roads, or provides health care for the indigent. I can say I love someone and carry through the external actions of a loving spouse but do them without either true emotion or perhaps true love.

So Kierkegaard sets a high standard on what it means to be an ethical person. We must not only do the right thing but we must do it for the right reason. Reason here means motive and desire. Of all those things that might sway me to follow unethical demands or make even more questionable decisions, motive is paramount. There simply is no way around the fact, as Kierkegaard sees it, that acting ethically in the world is a risky and daunting business.

Of course, Kierkegaard could be wrong. Even worse, acting ethically does not get easier; the more we become aware of our interrelatedness with others as well as God, our responsibility and awareness of how deeply we are enmeshed in interrelatedness becomes more and more profound. It becomes more and more strenuous and impossible. But it is an impossibility, Kierkegaard believes, that belief in God can help you shoulder and confront. It's an eternal task that is ultimately never over until death.

Because of this strenuousness and objective uncertainty, we are prone to want to blame someone or other, usually outside of us, for making us do what we do. Blaming events or perhaps society is a well-known strategy used by criminals and non-criminals alike. These strategies of evading responsibility to being who we are in our actions and behavior lead to diverse forms of despair according to Kierkegaard. There are three main forms, the most prevalent of which is unconscious despair. For Kierkegaard (whom Thoreau unknowingly echoed years later) most humans lead lives of despair that they know nothing of.

Equally true, though, is the fact that we never make decisions in a vacuum. Ethical action is never simply the great and isolated act of an individual standing above or outside the community, as conservatives and others might lead you to believe. Given the social nature of our very selves, we must always be prepared to justify those decisions in rationally determined ways. No one has God's ear, and because of this, decisions affecting the welfare of others must include them in what I intend to do.

The latter comments are important for two reasons:

    1) Kierkegaard is often interpreted as being someone who advocates the "Great Man" theory of individualism. This is the theory that the crowd is always wrong and to find the truth I must isolate myself from it to formulate true and authentic acts. Kierkegaard does believe that the crowd is wrong. He does not, though, think that we only act as members of a crowd. Instead, we can, as individuals, act as members of a true human community.

    In fact, the only way to get to that community is by becoming individuals in the way that Kierkegaard describes. As some scholars note, another way is for people to debate issues rationally. This brings people out of their shells, so to speak, and gives them a platform on which to exhibit that individuality that is crucial to authentic community.

    As a correlate to the Great Man theory, there seems to be the notion that moral decisions are made in isolation from the concerns and interests of others. This view sinks very deep into the American psyche. Yet, any time spent reflecting on this shows that no one makes decisions without in some way being influenced by others. The point that people who try to talk about the isolated individual is that one must ultimately accept responsibility for one's actions.

    This is true, but an authentic decision is one made from an inward awareness not only of individual responsibility but also with the awareness that I make those decisions as part of a community. The community I grow up in has shaped me as much as I hope to shape it. The honest individual has simply become conscious of these influences and thereby critically assessed the good and the bad in them.

    2) Supporters of Pres. Bush's decision to go to war often say that he is courgaeous for standing up to public opinion and not simply following the dictates of popular sentiment. In this scenario, the President is often pictured as one who's acting for the good because he knows it's the right thing to do, whereas public opinion is based on ignorance and even justifies itself just because it is somehow popular. "They're just doing it because others are doing it," expresses this sentiment.

    Needless to say, the question begged here is whether the President is right or not and whether public opinion is always or even most of the time just such a doing or following what others say to do or think. Public opinion is not always the opinion of a crowd, a faceless, mindless, mass that knows nothing except supericial feeding at the consumer trough.

    There's no doubt that someone who stands up in the face of criticism--especially that of a crowd of unthinking and faceless ones--might exhibit courage. On the other hand, it could also be syubborness or a desire not to admit one is wrong or ignorance. Any number of things are possible. So, just because the President is willing--for one reason or another--to go against the grain of public opinion in no way says that what he is doing is the right way or not.

    As I have argued, perhaps tediously, Kierkegaard would say that there is simply nothing, nothing, to support the view that a decision you make is abolutely and inherently right. Indeed, to make any comment o the contrary and try to justify your actions will not only embroil you in a betrayal of the reasons spurring you to act but ultimately betray the very notion of existence itself.

Needless to say, on the way, you will also betray those who inhabit the planet with you.

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Texas George Rex Judas (2a)

Bush's statement about history and death, though, might strike a believing Xtian as nihilistic as well. Though I have many arguments with Xtians, I do think they have an understanding of the fundamentals of their faith. One of those fundamentals is that there's an accounting for one's deeds after death. The idea that you'll be dead and not have some sort of settling up with God about what you did would strike such a believer as indicative of an atheist, not a religious person, especially a Christian.

While I am not going to debate the existence of an afterlife, I do think that the Xtian fundamentalist would have a point. Kierkegaard, a religious thinker by any measure, once wrote:

To study the demonic properly, one needs only to observe how the eternal is conceived in the individuality. ...[W]hoever has not understood the eternal correctly, understood it altogether concretely, lacks inwardness and earnestness. (CA, trns. Hong, p. 151)
The eternal here can mean a life--in some form--that continues after death. But Kierkegaard's point is that one's relationship to that concept of eternity will determine who and what I am and how I act in this life toward myself, others, and the world. If I see the world and its meaning in a certain way, I will act honestly and sincerely with the world and others or not. My motivations determine whether I act ethically or not.

One way that Kierkegaard understands eternity is as possibility. That is, the individual--I or you--is comprised of dualities, necessity and eternity, actuality and possibility. The eternal, in this sense, means all those things that I imagine and see as potentially open to me to become. As indicated, the eternal is infinite; just as possibility is infinite. Everyday life brings the problem of bringing the infinite demands of conscience and dreams and other terms of possible behavior into relationship with the other side of the equation: necessity or actuality.

Actuality includes the world I am born into in all its dimensions. These aspects make me who I am before I even begin to attain a sense of who I am. They include genetics, environment, biology, physiology, and social and cultural constraints. These things determine who and what I am. They are the necessary, the actual, as I encounter them in becoming human.

Just as the world has a natural, political, and social history, individuals have histories too. The individual's history is comprised of the history of the world as well as of those behaviors I enact in response to that other history.

To become an individual is not an easy matter, according to Kierkegaard--something many adolescents know all too well. But it's not only teens who experience crises of identity and motivation. Throughout life most humans encounter problems--personal and social--that undermine their understanding of the world.

The modern world seems to pose more of these identity problems than traditional societies. This fact has posed the major issue for many religionists and political thinkers. Since a society requires stable identity-forming processes and thereby stable personalities to function, the dissolution of such processes throws traditional cultures into disarray and breeds certain forms of alienation and nihilism.

As part of what sociologists call the socialization process, we find not only family and friends trying to tell us what to do or be, we also experience biological and psychological drives pushing and pulling us in different directions. But the modern crises of identity, creates crisis after in this regard.

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Texas George Rex Judas (4a)

It's now time to bring together the loose strands of this study. As I note in the preface to this series of posts, this study can be seen as not just an analysis of George Bush but also a study of those who find in Bush an exemplar of their own theo-political aspirations. This is a blanket statement and obviously over-generalized, yet it is only meant to orientate a deeper and more profound investigation.

The last post ended with comments about the relationship between the imagination, art, and actuality. This is an important point to bear in mind when it comes to the study of evil. As I have mentioned in previous remarks at this blog, the nature of evil is never as spectacular and insidious as those devised by artistic renditions lead us to believe. In real life, the life we live with others, evil often goes unnoticed because it simply blends in with the background of everyday life.

This "blending in" exhibits the moral ambivalence or neutrality of what we take as the routine processes of ordinary life. In most cases, these are simply taken for granted and rightly so. In extreme cases of breakdown, however, this neutrality takes on a more insidious character and quaility. Think, for instance, of those who went about their 'normal" lives while Jews were carted off from next door to concentration camps.

One can also think of the revelations that sometimes come out about people's double-lives. One often hears in the news about a serial killer or rapist whom others express surprise about because they were "just ordinary" folks.

Hannah Arendt has probed the disturbing aspect of everyday life in what she famously termed "the banality of evil." In her study, she explores how a person like Adolph Eichmann could perpetrate his monstrous machinations of exterminating millions of Jews while apparently living the life of a normal, hard-working technocrat. Eichmann's defense, of course, was that he was following orders and simply "doing his job."

Philip Zimbardo, "the psychologist who conducted the classic Stanford Prison Experiment" puts some meat on this demonic side of the normal and everyday:

The systematic torture by men of their fellow men and women represents one of the darkest sides of human nature. Surely, my colleagues and I reasoned, here was a place where dispositional evil would be manifest. The torturers shared a common enemy: men, women, and children who, though citizens of their state, even neighbors, were declared by “the System” to be threats to the country’s national security — as socialists and Communists. Some had to be eliminated efficiently, while others, who might hold secret information, had to be made to yield it up by torture, confess and then be killed.

Torture always involves a personal relationship; it is essential for the torturer to understand what kind of torture to employ, what intensity of torture to use on a certain person at a certain time. Wrong kind or too little — no confession. Too much — the victim dies before confessing. In either case, the torturer fails to deliver the goods and incurs the wrath of the senior officers. Learning to determine the right kind and degree of torture that yields up the desired information elicits abounding rewards and flowing praise from one’s superiors. It took time and emerging insights into human weaknesses for these torturers to become adept at their craft.

What kind of men could do such deeds? Did they need to rely on sadistic impulses and a history of sociopathic life experiences to rip and tear the flesh of fellow beings day in and day out for years on end?

We found that sadists are selected out of the training process by trainers because they are not controllable. They get off on the pleasure of inflicting pain, and thus do not sustain the focus on the goal of extracting confessions. From all the evidence we could muster, torturers were not unusual or deviant in any way prior to practicing their new roles, nor were there any persisting deviant tendencies or pathologies among any of them in the years following their work as torturers and executioners. Their transformation was entirely explainable as being the consequence of a number of situational and systemic factors, such as the training they were given to play this new role; their group camaraderie; acceptance of the national security ideology; and their learned belief in socialists and Communists as enemies of their state.
It is this moral vacuum of routine and bourgeois life-styles that has led philosophers like Kierkegaard to explore the life behind the scenes. That is, he studied what Martin Heidegger called the "They", the crowd of faceless others given to following rules and customs without questioning them. I have given some taste of this in my analysis of the eternal and the demonic in section 2. Without coming to consciousness as a responsible human being, we run the risk of taking on these practices and thereby conspire unwittingly--but no less culpably--to perpetrate evils whose monstrosity we may never know in this life.

Having said this, I need to link the demonic in with the contention that George Bush is a type of Judas. I have tried to show that taking responsibility for one's actions includes being aware of the future and the effects that what one does has on that future. Bush, a confessing Xtian, has said it doesn't matter about history since he'll be dead. He's also, however, supposedly taken a recent interest in history and made statements to the effect that it will prove his decisions vis a vis Iraq (and Iran?) right.

There's an apparent disconnect here. Has Bush finally realized that he does indeed have an eternal dimension to his self? Has he, perhaps, woken up to the reality that the future--at least in terms of external history--is indeed important and that he should take cognizance of it?

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Texas George Rex Judas (1)

"Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus ..."

(With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)

"For," said Peter, "it is written in the book of Psalms,
" 'May his place be deserted;
let there be no one to dwell in it,' ... " (Acts 1:16)

President George Bush has been talking a lot about history lately. In a recent speech before assembled war veterans, he compared Iraq to Vietnam, asserting that Vietnam was a loss we could've avoided. The assumption of his speech is that he does not intend to lose Iraq in the same way. In a similar way, he asserted that Korea was lost for lack of will, and this lack now plays out in the form of a divided Korea, with the evil north playing roulette with visions of nuclear Armageddon.

There's much disagreement about Bush's analogy comparing Iraq with Vietnam and Korea. The historians have lined up on both sides of the issue. While I agree with those who see the speech as another piece of fallacious reasoning, that is not the important point that I'll make below. Nor is it that Bush is wrong or right about history. Instead, it's a rather simple, though highly nuanced proposition that I'll make: that by invoking history as final arbiter of whether his decision to go to war Bush is saying something analogous to Judas selling Jesus to the highest bidder.

Politicians, you might think, always appeal to history when the going gets tough. When they unpopular decisions that the public disagrees with, they will say that history will vindicate them. I don't know how many politicians have actually said this. Nor do I know which ones said it. I am willing to bet, though, that Abraham Lincoln rarely if ever made such statements. In the context of what I say below, when and where such statements were made might mitigate somewhat the moral culpability of someone appealing to history in this way.

President Bush has made several statements that appear to line him up with those who assert that history will prove them right. He has famously said:

Asked by Woodward how history would judge the war, Bush replied: "History. We don't know. We'll all be dead."
Such words almost come across like a Yogi Berra quip, one of those oh-so-obvious truisms that they're funny because quirky, yet also somehow profound because it's just--you know--true.

Yet, this statement verges away from Berra's goofy naivety. Given the context and the subject, the comment borders on the supercilious. I would even argue that it gravitates to nihilism, where that means a way of seeing the world as unimportant and empty and thereby fungible.

The philosopher Nietzsche called religious people, especially Xtians, fundamentally nihilistic. he meant that they see the world as just a vale of tears and suffering, with ultimate reality existing in some other realm like heaven. Bush's purported Christian views might support a Nietzschean interpretation of his remarks. What I will suggest below, though is that they can be seen from within an authentic Christian framework as demonic.

When I spend some time with Bush's words reverberating in the silence, they begin to take on a slightly demented hue. For a man driving down the highway of history, the words veer like a drunken car towards an abyss and appears almost hell-bent on driving over. While such a view might give a Stephen-King-like dimension to Bush's saying, there's a deeper sense than simple horror flicks that the man's words, and ultimately his actions, have the character of the demonic.

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Texas George Rex Judas (3)

Judas is a prototypical villain in Christian theology and secular mythology and history. Characterized as the epitome of evil, he haunts Dante's description of Hell as the ultimate sinner. Gnawed by one of the faces of Satan in Dante's vision, he symbolizes for the great Italian poet not only the the betrayal of God's Son but of the very principles that make human society possible. Alongside him is the Roman Senator Brutus, assassin of Caesar.

For Dante, Judas and Brutus both betrayed God--Judas betrayed God's eternal plan for humanity, Brutus betrayed the Roman Empire. For Dante the Empire was the supreme government and had been set in place by God to usher in the New World spoken of in the Gospels.

In recent literature, no one has plumbed the depths of Judas' betrayal more profoundly and more hauntingly than the French playwright and novelist, Jean Genet. In his novels, the theme of betrayal is a constant. In homoerotic and narcissictic terms, Genet's main characters act as fantasy characters of his own desires and passions. In his resentment at society's hypocrisy toweards his homesexuality and his early childhood of severe poverty, he has them carry out the ultimate evil act. For him, this is betraying the trust and love of others.

Genet was a life-long criminal--mostly petty thievery. His fantasy novels depict a world peopled by the Paris underworld and explorations of the criminal mind. What's compelling in Genet's portrayal of criminality is that he believes in evil for evil's sake. It is obvious that his hatred of society--perhaps for its disgust at his homosexuality--was so deep that he was motivated to commit the ultimate evil, the ultimate crime.

But Genet's evil intentions are not just aimed at the bourgeois world that rejected him outright. It is also directed at the idea of society itself, the very principle that brings people together in a bond that cannot--must not--be betrayed. Though he obviously identifies with criminals whom he knew so well, he also knows that no one is more hated among criminals than a snitch--a Judas. For Genet, therefore, Judas represents the ultimate evil being and his act of betrayal is an act in defiance of God for it undermines all good that God could mean for humans. The ultimate good, of course, is eternal and lasting love and friendship.

It is this intimate bond of friendship that Judas symbolizes not just for Genet but for other writers. Jorge Borges explores the temporal dimensions of Judas' betrayal. For Borges, Judas is a keystone in the eternal plan such that someone must be sacrificed for God's plan to work. In a mirror image of Jesus' sacrifice, Judas himself is a kind of sacrifice that enables that eternal act. For Borges, the profoundly ironical nature of this anti-sacrifice has metaphysical implications that call into question the human understanding of God's benevolence.

It is these dimensions of temporality and social bond that Kierkegaard discusses in his elaboration of the demonic. The virtue of Kierkegaard's understanding is that it tries to capture and express life as it is lived, in all its triviality, boredom and everydayness. Kierkegaard understands the tendency of fiction and works of art to project falsely stylized pictures of the world. Because of this aestheticization of life, the real nature of actuality is not captured by art. Only an idealized, static picture arises from art. While these works can teach much about possibility, they eventually lead to an imaginary reality of pure possibility that is simply unlivable and finally unethical.

Projecting into possibility the human striving for dignity and wholeness is at the basis of being who are are. As discussed before, possibility is the eternal aspect of human personality. Humans must balance in an unending work of passion the interplay between possibility and actuality. To allow one aspect to gain dominance is to falsify not only our understanding of the world but also ourselves. This unbalanced understanding will eventually affect the way we treat and value others.

As I noted in the previous section, the human being must understand him or herself as beings in time. They must understand that history forms them as much as they form it. Our understanding of ourselves and the world is paramount in this effort to engage our temporality. We accept the past in order to live towards the future in the present.

This ever-intensifying living in the present is a matter of passionate pursuit for what will outdo everything that would limit falsely or expand unconscionably our effort to be who we are. The effort demands an ever-vigilant undertaking not only not to deceive myself about why I do what I do, but also to accept responsibility for how I act and undertake that confrontation and engagement with the world.

One way that I can refuse to accept this responsibility is to say that something or other made me do what I did. Children obviously do this. Criminals often blame something or other for their behavior and actions. Kierkegaard understands that the demonic intersects with not only betrayal of oneself but also God. Judas, therefore, from this perspective symbolizes the propensity of all humans to run away from their duties to others and themselves as well as God. But Judas' betrayal is profound in that it rejects the very idea of what it is that would enable people to live together in a loving and compassionate way. Genet was right to focus on Judas as not only a narcissist but also an extreme anarchist, perhaps the only pure form of evil possible in this world.

I will take up the figure of George Bush and Judas in the next section, trying to show how Bush's interest in history is an attempt to flee from the truth of his actions in Iraq and thereby not only as a form of the demonic but a Judas-like act that betrays the true bases of human community.

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