Obama and Evil

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Last year, I expressed my consternation at those who think anyone who talks about fighting evil is relying on a conception of a force of evil, some even going as far as calling it dualist in the sense of good and evil being permanent, equal forces of reality that constantly war against each other. I gave several examples that show this is a normal way of talking that has pretty much no metaphysical assumption about what it means for something to be evil.

There's a tendency on the other side to assume that those who don't speak of evil must not understand it. See, for instance, the criticisms in the comments of Jim Lindgren's post about Barack Obama from about a month ago. Lindgren's argument is very interesting, and I think a lot of what he says is right. He read The Audacity of Hope and concluded that Obama really does think the United States is the best country in the world, rather than hating it as a number of people have pretended, but he thinks it's got some problems nonetheless and most of the time focuses on those problems rather than constantly praising all that's good about the U.S. Since it's my general personality tendency to do the same sort of thing, I have no criticism of that. It's good to point out problems, because otherwise you don't know they're there and thus can't do anything about them, and spending more time pointing out problems than recognizing what's good simply doesn't amount to not recognizing what's good.

On the other hand, Lindgren was looking for hints in the book that Obama has a deep grasp of the nature of evil rather than simply thinking everyone is basically good but misguided. Since I think no one is basically good, and everyone has downright awful motivations almost all of the time, short of the grace of God (which includes common grace and thus is not present just in Christians), I would have to disagree with such a stance. I realize that most people don't share this view. It's fairly extreme, in fact. I do contend that it is the Christian view, however, and if Obama does not think of default human motivational structure as deeply evil, then he does not accept the Christian view of human nature.

I'm not especially interesting in distinguishing between what I think is the biblical view and other, less extreme, views of deeply evil motivations. One might not think most human motivations (short of God's grace) ultimately stem from sin to think that there are deeply evil motivations. What I'm interested is whether Barack Obama admits to the reality of deep evil, not whether he holds the biblical view that takes this to be the default condition of all humanity (although if he's commented on that explicitly, I'd love to hear about it). There is one reason to question whether he does. Should we think someone who recognizes so many problems in the U.S. and points them out, despite having a positive view of the U.S., would also do the same with human beings if it comes to deeply evil motivations? Lindgren didn't recognize anything like that in Obama's book, and I can't remember ever hearing anything from Obama like that.

Has Obama has given any evidence that he believes in the depths of evil rather than just unfortunate structural problems in society and misguided motivations? A number of the commenters on Lindgren's post rightly pointed out that not using the word 'evil' doesn't amount to not believing in it. On the other hand, if Obama's autobiography presents him as a believer in mostly -misguided good at the heart of those who don't see the light as he does, then we probably should wonder if he admits to real evil in the hearts of human beings, short of strong evidence in his language for such a belief. I'm skeptical at this point. I'm curious if anyone can point me to anywhere that Obama does talk about evil in this way. It doesn't have to use the word 'evil' (and a Google search for "Obama evil" isn't going to turn up much that's helpful; I already tried it). My standards for this aren't as high as Lindgren's.

9 Comments

Actually, I'm not entirely sure what Lindgren has in mind when he talks about "understanding evil." I think you and I agree on the pervasiveness of evil, but I'm not sure that's what Lindgren is talking about. I suspect that by "understanding evil," he just means "understanding how evil our enemies are."

Anyway, the only thing to come to my mind immediately is Obama's response to David Brooks about Reinhold Niebuhr, one of his "favorite philosophers":

"I take away [from him] the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."

Lurking back there could be Niebuhr's conception of the fallenness of everybody. But it's not going to be easy to draw that sort of information from any political candidate. If we asked either him or John McCain whether people are basically evil, I'm pretty sure they would avoid answering "yes," whatever their opinions might be.

My sense of what Lindgren wants is whether he thinks there are people whose basic motivational structure is evil rather than just misguided. That's what I get from his discussion of Obama's well-meaning interpretations of those who haven't come to understand moral issues the way he has. Does he think this is true of everyone? Admitting to serious evil in the world and giving the examples of hardship and pain doesn't answer that question. Those are external evils. I'm sure he'd thrown in unconscious and unintended patterns of behavior as structural evil in society. But does he admit to genuinely evil motivations?

I don't get it. Lindgren just asserts: "I think it's fair to say that John McCain understands evil in a way that Barack Obama has not yet shown that he does." No argument. Just a rhetorical tactic: He finds someone else with a more extreme view than his own -- Uncle Jimbo of Backfive! -- and now he can just allow that, well, it's at least "fair to say" that McCain understands evil in a way that Obama hasn't yet shown he does. And now we have to find some kind of proof that Obama understands evil -- proof that Lindgren has not offered in the case of McCain -- or McCain wins? Why not just assert, "Well, I think it's fair to say that Obama understands evil inn a way that McCain has not yet shown he does," and now we have to scour McCain's writings for real proof that he has the understanding of evil that I have just barely asserted that Obama does? What kind of game is this?

As far as I can see, Lindgren's only reason for thinking McCain "understands evil" is that he was tortured. At least if he has any other reasons, he's not sharing them.

Yeah, I was expecting some kind of substantiation with McCain too, but I think he's relying on McCain's stronger commitment to eliminating al Qaeda in Iraq with the surge, which he repeatedly insisted we had a strong moral responsibility to do long before anyone else signed on to the idea. I don't think it's just because of the torture, anyway, but one possibility is that he thinks McCain's statements about torture show that he thinks torture is evil in the same way he has in mind when he wonders about Obama. I'm not sure, though. Maybe he's just got a clear assumption that anyone committed to a strong view like McCain's isn't worrisome on the issue, whereas someone with a weaker view like those Obama has taken needs to meet a higher standard, and demonstrating that he understands evil would help with that. But it doesn't explain why he thinks it's clear that McCain understands evil.

I haven't actually spent a lot of time trying to understand McCain's inner psychology the way I have with Obama, because McCain never impressed me in any way but just happens to be more favorable to the policies I would want than Obama is. On the other hand, Obama on the surface at times sounds intriguing but then always disappoints when it comes to the details, and it always makes me wonder what's going on inside. I'm intrigued by a lot of what he says about race and some other moral issues where he seems to understand the other side more than many politicians, but he always ends up disappointing when it comes to the practical outworking and especially in how he treats his political opponents as lacking in compassion or as wanting to use racist tactics against him. I really am unsure about whether he's an extreme leftist on every issue who has tried but failed to disguise himself as a moderate, and his recent move to the center on some issues is purely a farce, or whether he's a mixed bag with a lot of moderate sympathies that I might agree with that somehow never get realized in his policies, and his recent move to the center on a number of issues is reflecting an inner inconsistency in his thinking. The latter is certainly more charitable, but it's harder to fit with how he himself explains these changes.

So questions like Lindgren's do interest me, whereas the question about McCain wouldn't draw my interest the same way. You're right to wonder what he was thinking about, though.

Not to derail, but I really think that it is unwise to characterize McCain's position on Iraq as "strong" and Obama's as "weak." I do not speak for Obama or the Democratic Party, but I do know that some foreign policy experts believe that the US presence in Iraq is exacerbating the underlying problems in Iraqi society, in part because unconditional US military support is delaying the hard political decisions that Iraqis need to make. Some of the "withdrawal" plans that I have seen would actually leave tens of thousands of US soldiers and marines in Iraq to support Iraqi operations against al Qaeda in Iraq. And Obama's plan is supposed to take 16 months, which the Iraqi prime minster thinks is "about right." Furthermore, one of the key reasons Obama gives for moving troops from Iraq is that they are desperately needed in Afghanistan. It seems unfair to call moving troops into position nearer Osama bin Laden the "weak" position.

My point is that these are two different strategies with the same overall goal. The Republican claim that Obama embraces "defeat" while the GOP demands "victory" against evil is a fantasy.

I meant strong in terms of having a stronger military presence there and engaging with the enemy more proactively. Obama's view has been clearly weak in that sense. I'm particularly comparing Obama's view at the time McCain was sort of a loner in advocating something like the surge. He's certainly weakened his stance on withdrawal since then (see, I'm perfectly willing to use a completely different sense of being strong and weak that goes the other way).

I do think the kind of thing Obama was saying during the early months of his campaign was pretty much abandoning the idea of victory in Iraq, and he still seems to treat the surge as being successful only accidentally. It's very hard to make the case that he's been consistently about victory in Iraq when he's mostly been treating it as if we'd already lost and just needed to get out the way we did in Vietnam, an attitude that almost turned Iraq into Vietnam and would have if not for the surge.

I can't really comment on his views now, because I'm not sure he has any. He has finally come around to some new meta-views about listening to the generals on the ground, but I haven't quite figured out what that means for the particulars of his plan.

Ah, yes. Sorry, I tend to be a bit touchy on this point, having so often been accused of wanting defeat myself. I should have read a bit more carefully. Still, it seems to me that Lindgren is connecting the "understanding of evil" with a broader concept of "strength":

If George W. Bush had not understood evil, would he have had the resolve to institute the surge in Iraq? Perhaps, perhaps not.

As I recall, the Surge was instituted by the White House largely as an alternative to the policy recommended by the Iraq Study Group. The ISG report (contrary to media characterizations) did not advocate a hard timetable for withdrawal; it urged the US to take certain political, diplomatic, and reconstruction steps so that we would have some prospect of troop withdrawal within the foreseeable future. For the most part, these recommendations still have not been followed. The Surge has decreased violence, but Iraq's constitutional and sectarian problems remain resolved. But no Republican is likely to say that this delay indicates a lack of fortitude or a blitheness about evil on Bush's part.

I agree with you: Obama does not have a clear Iraq policy. However, McCain's policy likewise seems to be pretty muddled. It seems to be a promise of more of the same as currently -- "if the Surge is working, why change it?" -- which isn't going to work simply because the situation in Iraq is going to evolve. So for the most part, I think, the two candidates are creating an artificial disagreement between them. McCain isn't just going to keep troop levels steady and ignore diplomacy; Obama isn't just going to pull troops out suddenly. McCain is pandering to the right, Obama to the left. The real question is, who's going to pick (and rely on) the best advisers so that his administration can adapt to whatever comes in Iraq in the next few years? I really don't think that understanding the depths of human depravity has much to do with this question.

This is a timely question in view of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's recent passing. Much of his world-changing power came from his awareness of evil and his conviction that it was real. (Much of it also came from his awareness of God and his conviction that He was real.)

I noticed this a while ago, but I didn't get around to linking to it from this post. Rick Warren asked this question (more or less) at the Saddleback Forum, and one place you can see Obama and McCain's responses is here (which conveniently excerpts it from the context so you don't have to search for it in a long transcript).

My initial thought is that Obama has chosen examples that involve deliberate evildoing by individuals rather than just structural evil, but he doesn't bring that element out explicitly. He deliberately steers the question away from the foreign policy context that most people have raised it in. McCain is stronger on the things Obama deemphasizes, and that's probably right. He also perceives the context as restricted to foreign policy, which is probably what Warren intended but not what he said.

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