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Evil and the Oval Office: A Not-Fully-Baked Idea

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by Andrew Bard Schmookler

In our times, we have witnessed the forces of darkness and destruction take over the Oval Office. Recently, I’ve had a few moments in which it seemed not only valid, but most illuminating, to understand this takeover in the spiritual terms of “the opportunism of evil.” What greater target could evil choose in the entire world than to occupy the highest place of power in the most powerful nation on earth.

THE CONCEPT OF EVIL, RECAPITULATED
 
I’ve said many times that the most important deepening of my understanding in my two-plus years of this anti-Bushite mission has concerned the phenomenon of evil. It was toward the end of the summer of 2004 that I began thinking of the Bushite forces in terms of evil and I continued to grapple with the subject into the summer of 2005. My explorations culminated in my writing the essay, “The Concept of Evil: Why It is Intellectually Valid and Politically and Spiritually Important.”

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Andrew Bard Schmookler speaking at Washington Ethical Society on March 26, 2006.

I argued there that our religious tradition’s vision of there being at the core of the human drama an ongoing battle between good and of evil is not, as many of us have supposed it to be, a case of “primitive,” “black-and-white” thinking. It is, rather, a profound insight into a level of reality that is more vast and deep than we can generally perceive in our usual frame of mind.

My own envisioning of this battle of good against evil did not affirm the traditional ideas of God and Satan, i.e. of supernatural conscious beings who command vast forces in that battle. Rather what I believed visible –in the large perspective of human cultures moving through history—was the persistence of forces that work either to create those structures that serve the needs of life or to destroy those structures. “These forces seem comprehensible in naturalistic terms,” I wrote, “but also so vast and enduring that they require an expansion of our usual narrow perspective for us to perceive them; so subtle and transcendent in their operation that they do seem of a spiritual nature—acting as if they were animated by benign or malign intention.”

The phrase “as if” figured several times in my presentation of evil, particularly when I described the “opportunism” of the forces of evil. I described the breakdown in recent decades in America of many of the important moral structures of goodness, and then spoke of how that breakdown created an opportunity that “evil” forces and patterns have seized, “as if they were animated by some spirit of darkness looking to expand its empire.”

Much of the time, this vision of things remains too deep and too vast for me to encompass with my mind. But at moments of what feels like fuller insight, I again see evil working in this way. It is in one of those moments that, a couple of weeks ago, I felt that I grokked a dimension of how and why it is that the evil forces of the Bushites have arisen in America in this time.

THE NATURALISTIC EQUIVALENT OF SATAN

On one point I would like again to be clear: I do not believe in Satan. At those moments, however, when I am most able to encompass in my mind the complex and interlocking patterns of destructiveness, and envision their interactions and unfolding over time, I believe I glimpse the naturalistic equivalent of the Evil One: an opportunistic force that plays to win.

If you were the Evil One, and your goal was to extend the dominion of the forces of darkness and destruction as far across the world as you could, what would be the most important points on the playing board of the world to control? Surely, a big part of the answer would be: those points from which the most power is wielded. That’s because it is because it is the nature of power that –for better or for worse—it can impose its imprint upon what it touches.

The nodes of power are, therefore, central battlegrounds in the struggle between good and evil in the world. For that reason, if one grants the premise of evil’s opportunism, one would expect that any governmental power anywhere in the world would be a continual temptation and target for any “naturalistic equivalent of evil.” But this would be especially so with regard to the Oval Office in recent years, i.e. since the end of the cold war, when the United States was left as “the world’s one remaining superpower.”

With no power on the planet powerful enough to check that American power, the Oval Office presented evil with an exceptional opportunity to spread its broken ways across the world.

From the Oval Office, a great deal can be broken in the world, as we have lamentably witnessed.

And, such are the workings of the multi-dimensional patterns and forces that comprise evil that, in the United States, the Bushite forces coalesced, gathering forces on the fringe of the political arena, and proceeded to march their way into almost a degree of control over the American superpower that seemed for a time virtually unchecked.

Looking at the interlocking patterns of brokenness from the micro-level of the human soul, people suitable to serve as the agents of evil are always in adequate supply. There are plenty of individuals whose spirits have been damaged by their upbringings (their injurious socialization being itself part of the unfolding of social pathologies through the culture and the generations). And one of the natural manifestations of such damage can be the lust for power.

The lust for power is one of the ways that human brokenness can reveal itself: those who have been victimized by evil in the form of the abuse of power come to believe that fulfillment will come from wielding power on their own. But it always remains a form of brokenness because, as Alan Watts once said, we can never get enough of what we don’t really need. And so some of those who crave power find that the craving is insatiable.

And so we have witnessed people like George W. Bush, and Karl Rove, and Dick Cheney, ascend to positions of enormous power, and then proceed to conduct themselves as if their only concern is to expand their power still further. From that brokenness, they shattered the order of the world with their imperialist ventures in the cradle of civilization. And with that same insatiable lust they also set about breaking the best structures in America with their assault on the Constitution of the United States, which the Founders constructed to set limits to the power of their office.

For Cheney and Rumsfeld, in particular, I would imagine, the lure of rising to command the might of the world’s unchallenged single remaining superpower must have been irresistible. No need any longer to exercise the care that the cold war required, when Mutual Assured Destruction required sobriety and restraint even of those who controlled awesome destructive power of the American arsenal.

And when an ignorant and incurious man with a bully’s love of swagger and of humiliating his enemies and rivals presented himself as a potential “commander-in-chief” whom they might command, the forces of evil working through such broken men broke through all restraint to become a global bully. One more aspect of the spread of brokenness was the transformation of what was perhaps the most trusted and respected dominant power in the world’s history into a pariah nation, despised and feared even by its traditional friends.

But to make the bridge between the micro-level of such broken souls and the macro-level of this unmatched global power, evil needed to use the middle range of these interlocking structures of that brokenness which is at the heart of evil, the socio-cultural-political dimension of the American civilization.

American culture has among its many deep-seated currents several that could provide the means for such broken individuals to be carried forward to positions of great power.

Among these is the imperialist impulse. This is an impulse that has been present throughout American history, but hitherto it has generally been kept more in check than under the Bushite regime.

Another is the impulse of unbridled greed. This impulse is the explicit fuel of our economic system. It is, moreover, also enthroned by the design of our publicly-traded corporations, as the inherent tendency and spirit of our largest empires of wealth and production. And these empires, in turn, provide an outlet for some other broken souls whose inability to get enough of what they don’t really need manifests itself in the form of an insatiable lust for wealth.

And finally there is the twisted form of religiosity which has at its core the perception of the world as an arena of unceasing warfare between the righteous and the evil-doers, with no possibility for reconciliation and harmony in the human realm. This is a form of religiosity that glories in envisioning the imposition of the One Right Way on all by force, either by Holy War or by God’s vengeance against His enemies at the end of days.
And these are indeed the main forces that have coalesced over the past generation to bring into control of America, during this Reign of the Bushites, a truly fascistic mentality– one that is at war with other nations, at war with the opposition, at war with reality and the truth. Broken from top to bottom.

The rise to dominance of such a fascistic mentality might well have happened at this time in America regardless of the circumstances at play in the world, given the breakdown in America’s moral structures (as discussed in “The Concept of Evil”).

But what I felt I glimpsed not long ago, in a moment of deep but only partial insight, was that the extraordinary circumstances of America suddenly coming to possess a power wholly unmatched in the global sphere magnified the vortex of forces pulling evil toward that central node of American power, the Oval Office.

As the bumper-sticker says: “Frodo Failed, Bush has the Ring.”

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