alien & sedition.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
  Manicheanism Reconsidered

Chris Floyd raises some excellent objections to Glenn Greenwald's thesis, and to my comments on it. In particular, he wonders why the present Manicheanism should be seen as unique in American history:
If anything, the Cold War "division of Good v. Evil" was far more "simpleminded" than what we see today. Imagine a Cold War president stating in public that Communism was a worthy doctrine, dedicated to human betterment, but had unfortunately been hijacked by extremists and rogue states, etc. Yet Bush has consistently made such remarks about Islam (for public consumption, at least). And of course, many of his allies in his "Terror War" are Muslims....

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?
This is a vast subject, worthy of a book of its own (there probably is one already) 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 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."

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).

I certainly agree with Floyd that Manichean thinking has influenced the range of choices available to American policy makers over the broad scope of our history. But I just don't think the modern conservative Manicheans have ever been so empowered as they have during the Bush administration.

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Perhaps someone could enlighten me, and point me to some documentation about the original Manicheans, that they killed people and conquered nations, and enslaved people, or were racists, such as what is claimed here.

From what I've read, Manicheans were dualist - but it was the duality of light (good) and matter (evil). They did not believe there were good people and bad or evil people, or that some people were better than others. They believed this earth was ruled by an evil god and that all things connected with this earth were evil, period. Their goal was to escape the confines of this known universe to a place of light. At least that's what I've read. Some info here on Wikipedia:

Why dredge them up, when the old testament will do just fine? A god that gave land to a chosen people (never mind if people were living on that land already) for conquest, rape and pillage. There's plenty of in the old testament there to keep neocons happy (and the new testament as well).
Calling Bush's Views Manichean Is an Insult to the Manicheans
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