Good and evil in a troubled world

December 17, 2009

Nobody seems happy. Not the democrats who want to get out of Afghanistan; not the Republicans who want to bomb devils and wipe out evil. Not the prophets of non-violence and not the advocates of strength. Obama’s autumn strategy is a collage of contradictions. On the one hand, he is for peace; on the other hand he is engaged in the escalation of war.  On the one hand he is for the public option in health care and on the other he holds to the conviction that right and left must both be accommodated.

Dick Cheney, on the right, says that Obama is weak. Greg Palast, on the left, says that Obama is weak. It would surely have taken courage to come down wholly on one side or the other in any of these battles and since Obama has not done so, both left and right find him lacking in courage.

All of history accustoms us to this way of thinking.  Communists are evil; capitalists are good. Taliban are evil; bombings by unmanned American drones are good. We are the people of light; those whom we oppose are people of darkness. 

Such simple slogans led Americans to wholeheartedly follow Ronald Reagan in his cold war against government and George W. Bush in his hot war against Saddam Hussein. In each case the slogans over simplified the problem and under simplified the solution. Reagan’s free-market-is-good-and-government-is bad simple dichotomy led to runaway corporate greed and eventual collapse.  Bush’s concocted illusions about Iraq led to hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi deaths. Such imagined simplicity keeps Fox News going, and Rush Limbaugh, and sometimes, Air America. It is that simplicity that lines up nearly 100% of republicans against every Obama initiative and nearly 100% of liberals in favor of the public option in health care reform.

But the world is not, in reality, either this or that. It is not good or evil. It is not “for us or against us.” No family quarrel is that clear. No global quarrel is that clear, not really. No simple path exists for Afghanistan, or for health care, or bringing down the oligarchies of extreme wealth.  To see only two sides in a world that is essentially complex is to speak clearly, yes, but it is a clarity that is profoundly delusional.

It was the philosopher Hegel who first described the world in terms of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. He saw that underneath apparent contradictions lay the possibility of reconciliation at some deeper level and that it has always been that deeper reconciliation that produced new energy, creativity and even human freedom.

Now in 2009, history has presented Barack Obama again with apparently irreconcilable contradictions between war and peace, rich and poor, oligarchy and democracy. It is his way of dealing with these contradictions makes him unusual. Rather than using democracy to gain victory over his enemies he seems to use enemies to build the processes of democracy.

In his speech in 2008 on race and in his Oslo speech on war and peace, Obama sought to reach beneath any formula of good versus evil and in so doing dignified the reality and complexity of a tragically violent real world.  While all about him, on the airwaves and in the Congress, liberals on the one hand and conservatives on the other cry out for slogans of decision and sound bites of solidarity, here is this fellow who refuses to play the game as it has been played for at least the last 30 years in American politics, and, perhaps in the larger sense, for the last 3,000 years. 

It would be unwise to write off such a man. It would be unwise to reject out of hand such unusual willingness to bear openly and thoughtfully the pain of the world’s horrible contradictions.  In Obama’s search beneath the surface of history’s struggles we see shades of the kindness of Dwight Eisenhower and sometimes the multiple purposes of FDR. But here is a fellow with a wider reach than either of them. We have not had this kind of mind dealing with the real world since Abraham Lincoln.