Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, January 20, 2005


I’ve been inspired by most of the Bush speeches that I’ve seen in the past year. This one, while impressive, did not quite inspire me. It was an attempt to frame a national ideology, of a very radical character, and rooted in an almost Manichean worldview: freedom and decency vs. tyranny and terror. The only way in which the ideology was “conservative” (the label traditionally applied to the Republican party and its constituency) was in its effort to draw on US history and synthesize it into a narrative that buttresses the ideology and renders it an extension of tradition. This effort was fairly successful, and I think American history lends itself to that interpretation.

The speech reminded me almost of the Communist Manifesto, with its clear, prophetic goals, its universal ideals, its proclaimed solidarity with the oppressed and opposition to tyrants. “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” would not have seemed out of place. If the exact same speech were made in 18th-century France, it would have been a call for revolution.

If the same speech were made by Clinton in the 1990s, on the other hand, it would have seemed vapid and rhetorical. Of course we all like freedom. But, oh yeah, it is to be achieved “not primarily by force of arms.” In other words, we do nothing but wish people who want freedom well, right? If the same speech sounds cogent and unanswerable while slightly frightening coming from Bush, that is because of the event that was never mentioned by name: Iraq. He challenges critics of the war to explain themselves, to reconcile any lip service they may want to pay to freedom and democracy with their preference for leaving Iraqis under the totalitarian rule of a murderous tyrant. The challenge is unanswerable because most critics of the war have always been in bad faith: most of them are not willing to utter the endorsement of Saddam’s continuing rule that was logically implied by their anti-war stance.

Bush’s radical worldview—“Trotskyite libertarianism,” a colleague of mine aptly called it—is too narrow, too dogmatic, and afflicted with irony deficit. I think I can already sense the coming day when Bush will be ready for the dustbin of history. But not yet. For the moment, Bush—or his speechwriters, or whatever—is the world’s most important political thinker. The world needs to listen and internalize a lot of what he has to say before we’re ready to move on.

Four more years. Congratulations, America!

Meanwhile, here’s a challenge to Republicans to put their conservative political philosophy into practice. And a reminder that, by the way, ten years after the Contract with America Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994, they haven’t done a lot to roll back government. Paul Gigot makes good points against the notion that Bush represents the far right. That was always a lot of baloney. But I give the Contract with America credit for more accomplishments than some do. For example, I think they deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the 1990s boom.


  • Okay, almost the first thing I did this morning was trot over to see what you had to say. I agree it was weird when viewed as an American inaugural speech, but I think the whole thing was aimed at the Arab world.

    The strongly religious songs, presentation and many passages in the speech were, IMO, designed to both appeal to the growing band of reformists in Arab countries and offer a way for Muslims to view America's armed successes as a triumph of Allah's activity and an example that modern societies need not be secular in the way Europe is.

    The image Bush was trying to put across was that of sincere commitment to global rights stemming from a nation that has modernized but remains a nation under God and guided by God. This message was lifted, I think, almost straight from some writings by Arab reformists. Call it de Tocqueville for the ummah and the imam: America is great because America follows the teachings of God.

    Naturally, it is not likely to receive rave reviews in Europe. I imagine there is a lot of hyperventilating in NY as well.

    And speaking of hyperventilating, that is what I did when I read this Spiegel article about Sudan. If you have the time and a strong enough stomach, I'd sure like to know what you think.

    By Blogger MaxedOutMama, at 7:09 AM  

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