Go to previous post:
George W. Bush, theologian.

Go to Electrolite's front page.

Go to next post:
Up which creek, and exactly how far.

Our Admirable Sponsors

April 21, 2004

Red State World. Discussing George W. Bush’s startling claim that some people have “no soul,” Mark Kleiman opines that “it’s obvious from context that ‘no soul’ was a slip of the tongue for ‘no conscience’”. Having just seen Whopundit’s overview of Bush’s evident history of remarks to this effect, I’m not so sure about that.

However, Kleiman goes on from there to make some very good points:

There certainly are Iagos in the world: people without much in the way of conscience, who can do things they know are wrong and feel no remorse. Psychiatry calls them “sociopaths,” and Christianity, as far as I know, has never denied their existence.

But it’s a dangerous mistake to imagine that most terrorists fall into that category, for precisely the same reason it’s a dangerous mistake for “progressives” to think that about the right wing.

“Doing objectively rotten things” and “having no conscience” simply aren’t the same thing.

Lincoln saw that with respect to slavery. It was clear to him that slavery was wrong, but he never denied that its defenders thought they were fighting for the right. He said, of the Union and the Confederacy:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

President Bush, with his own religious commitment, ought to be able to understand that other people have religious (or politico-religious) commitments that lead them to commit awful crimes. Do the abortion clinic bombers of Operation Rescue have “no conscience”? Not at all. They’re extremely conscientious. It’s just that their consciences are warped by their fanaticism.

It’s also notable that Bush is now well advanced into rhetorically conflating people who fly airliners into skyscrapers with people who take up arms against a military occupation of their country. Or, as Jim Henley has recently observed:
This country’s conservatives of old were smarter about this kind of thing: they didn’t think they were the only conservatives in the world.
And even more recently:
One of my regular correspondents today was complaining about the war being supported by “Red Staters.” The irony is that most of the world consists of “Red States.” They just don’t happen to have Americans in them.
Back to Kleiman:
The first “suicide bomber” in world literature was Samson, and there is not a hint anywhere in the text, or in subsequent theological or popular opinion, that his death (and the thousands of people he took with him—more, if the text is to be taken literally, than died on 9-11) ought to be thought of as anything but redemptive and heroic.
If we’re really going to get into the habit of thinking of those who fight foreign occupation of their own country as monsters on the order of the 9/11 perpetrators (“soulless” or otherwise), then what we’re declaring war on is world conservatism: the attachment of people everywhere to their land, their family, their established way of life. The cognitive dissonance of thinking this makes us “safer” is so intense as to suck all the oxygen out of the room and make nearby animals dig themselves into holes. [08:27 AM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Red State World.:

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 09:53 AM:

Please, citizen! It’s “liberation”, not “occupation”.

(Side note: Having been out of the country when it was on the air, I finally got around to Babylon 5 this week, seasons two and three. Not half bad — I really appreciate what they’re trying to do, even if they sometimes fall short of it. But it does make me wonder how the political storyline would play if it were being broadcast now for the first time. The parallels aren’t that close, but I’m sure Mr. Straczinski would get a lot of inspiration from current events . . .)

aphrael ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 11:28 AM:

Isn't declaring war on the conservatives of the world one of the first acts of every revolutionary regime?

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 11:32 AM:

If we’re really going to get into the habit of thinking of those who fight foreign occupation of their own country as monsters on the order of the 9/11 perpetrators (“soulless” or otherwise), then what we’re declaring war on is world conservatism: the attachment of people everywhere to their land, their family, their established way of life.

Well said.

rea ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 11:48 AM:

"Isn't declaring war on the conservatives of the world one of the first acts of every revolutionary regime?"

Well, maybe not--I don't remember the newly-formed US attacking Louis XVI

Jeremy Osner ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 11:52 AM:

This line of argument appeals to me way more than does "Bush is a bad Christian because he does not believe Iraqis have souls". Mark's post just about knocked me over when I read it this morning; yours would have done so too had I not just recently read Mark's and so had the points in mind already.

cleek ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 12:09 PM:

about that "soul" = "conscience" thing...

Not a chance. Look at the context of the speeches in which he uses the "no soul" phrase: they're full of religion ("the Almighty", "the Lord", "God", "blessed", etc). In that context, "soul" means the thing we're supposed to save for god. If Bush was filling his speeches with references to psychology or artificial intelligence and not religion, maybe we could interpret "soul" as "conscience". But he's not. It's not The Soul Of a New Machine, it's the immortal soul that each one of us is supposed to carry around - unless we're "sub-human" beasts, of course.

Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 12:13 PM:

If you want to go by the definition we use of "classical conservative", they're more radicals than conservatives. We've got people like them here. The right wing appeals to them because it happens to be based on their religion.

I think saying we declared war on a people's way of life is too simplistic. We are reacting to terrorism, which isn't everyone in the middle east's "way of life". Mind you, we're reacting inefficiently, and the invasion of Iraq made things worse, not better, but the invasion wasn't in response to the Iraqis way of life. The Iraqi way of life was nothing that Bush really cared about enough to justify an invasion. No, we invaded because Bush hated Saddam Hussein, and because he was convinced by his advisors that an allied state in the middle east could be achieved by a "cakewalk" invasion of Iraq.

The pretext was WMDs, a horrible tyrant, and the war on terrorism. But no one really buys that, right?

/ looks at the poll numbers

Oh. Well, I guess they do.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 12:44 PM:

I have just enough ego (and lots more besides) to feel good that I was able to make that point ahead of Mark yesterday. He just did a much better job of it, that's all.

And Cleek, if you will actually read the transcript of the speech or my post yesterday that quoted the entire paragraph you might notice that the sentence in question was:

We've got to be strong and resolute and determined. We will never show weakness in the face of these people who have no soul, who have no conscience, who care less about the life of a man or a woman or a child. (emphasis mine)

Actually, Bush is not alone in connecting the two conditions. There are psycologists that have used the same language, with fewer theological connotations, of course.

Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 01:23 PM:

what we’re declaring war on is world conservatism: the attachment of people everywhere to their land, their family, their established way of life

Well, some of the neoconservatives are reformed Trots, and the Halliburtons of the world are certainly attuned to the creatively destructive attributes of capital, so I'm not the least bit surprised by this conclusion.

cleek ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 02:54 PM:

and Claude, if you look at the, umm, rest of the paragraph, you'll see that Bush brings up religion, not phsychology:

    ...We've got to do everything we can here at home. And there's no doubt in my mind that, with the Almighty's blessings and hard work, that we will succeed in our mission.

and, it's not the first time he's used the "no soul" phrase in a religious context.

come on, do you seriously think Bush is trying to use psychological references to communicate with his constituency and not religious ones ? it's a safe bet that Bush's audience hears "soul" and thinks of the religious one, not the psychological one: as the religious connotation is much stronger than the other.

sean bosker ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 03:24 PM:

After I heard Bush's speech, and heard the quotation from Woodward's book about Bush not consulting his father in Iraq because he only need consult "the heavenly father" I had an abrupt realization about GWB.

I used to believe that Wolfie, Rummy, Perle, and co. had duped Bush into war. Now I think that dubya and the pro-war advisors have a symbiotic relationship. The ideologues get to invade Iraq and try out their hand at 'democratizing the region' while Bush gets to carry out a religious crusade. Bush simply thinks it's God's will to take on the Mooooslims, while his cohorts think they are Gods themselves.

As for the soulless...a lot of my sypmathy drained away when they bombed a busload of kids this morning. I just want the US out. The spoils of Iraq will go to the victor, the most ruthless and vile leader to scramble atop the growing pile of bodies. The US won't stop that, nor will we win such a campaign. We're only prolonging our, and their, agony.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 04:12 PM:

Yes, Cleek, but the very quote you cite, in full, says:

We've got to continue to work together; those of us who love freedom must work together to do everything we can to disrupt, deny, and bring to justice these people who have no soul, no conscience, people who hate freedom (emphasis mine)

And if we look at the entire statement as opposed to the pull quote below a picture, it becomes quickly obvious that the context in this case is not religious at all.

C'mon, Cleek, stop giving Bush so much credit. The evidence of the past three years show that this man could not come up with this kind of phrase off the cuff if you held a pistol to his head. He's no Clinton -- in fact he's no Al Gore. (Which is of course, one of the main points of this election.)

This is clearly a stock phrase that one of his speechwriters likes. We can tell because the sentences are gramatically correct, complete, and make sense. (As opposed to some of mine.) I am willing to wager a truly valuable no-prize that if we start searching all of Bush's statements since 9/11 we'll find this or something similar repeated any number of times, at least in the prepared opening statements that he reads as opposed to extemporaneous statements.

And as any number of other and better commentors have noted, Bush apparently has no intention of making any kind of substantial theological statements in his speeches (and I think I am theologically literate enough to notice if he did it by mistake). All he and his handlers want to do is drop enough well tested stock evangelical phrases in to catch the ears of one target group, and to enhance his position as a "man of the people". Don't fall for it.

Gareth Wilson ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 04:34 PM:

"It’s also notable that Bush is now well advanced into rhetorically conflating people who fly airliners into skyscrapers with people who take up arms against a military occupation of their country."

Well, when they "take up arms" against local policemen, UN workers, and preschoolers, that doesn't sound much of a stretch.

ElizabethVomMarlowe ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 04:41 PM:

There are plenty of classical texts that debate whether or not women and animals and slaves have souls (Aristotle sure went on about natural laws that dictated who ought to rule whom). I think W and his group see all of those folks over in the Mideast as, basically, animals.

I don't think he sees them as people; whether it's theological or not, it's a familiar and very old rhetoric whose main goal is to maintain the status quo of domination. (See, we have to dominate those slaves/women/Arabs because they are naturally weak/lesser/soulless).

Why would W want to see the difference between (Iraqi) people defending their country against invaders and people who invaded (on 9/11)? No benefit to it for him.

He's made it plain that he wants to shoot someone down like dogs. Whoever they are. Soulless is just another dehumanizing way to convince us it's a swell idea.

cleek ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 05:13 PM:

Claude, I certainly agree that any Bush speech or public statement is a mish-mash of stock phrases.

All he and his handlers want to do is drop enough well tested stock evangelical phrases in to catch the ears of one target group

Well, yeah. That's what I've been trying to say.

Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 07:36 PM:

The estimable Claude Muncey writes:

I am willing to wager a truly valuable no-prize that if we start searching all of Bush's statements since 9/11 we'll find this or something similar repeated any number of times, at least in the prepared opening statements that he reads as opposed to extemporaneous statements.

I claim the first No-Prize: Columbus Day, 2002. Aftermath of Bali attack:

"We've got to continue to work together; those of us who love freedom must work together to do everything we can to disrupt, deny, and bring to justice these people who have no soul, no conscience, people who hate freedom."

I am aware that I'm not really adding anything to this important discussion. Forgive me; it was a geek reflex to go looking.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2004, 08:05 PM:

No question, Bill, you get the first one.

Cleek -- excellent. We were problably just agreeing with each other in particularly emphatic fashion.

aphrael ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2004, 05:39 PM:

Rea - and there's a significant debate as to whether or not the American Revolution was, in fact, a revolution. :) There's something somewhat circular about that: "revolutions have quality [x], the American Revolution did not, therefore it wasn't a Revolution" ... but the point remains that the American case is somewhat unique among industrial age revolutions insofar as it did not attempt - as was done in Spain, Portugal, France, Russia, and much of Latin America - widespread change in the domestic social order, nor - as was done in France, Latin America, and Russia - did it attempt to overturn the established international order. Indeed, aside from the minor bit about severing ties with Britain, the American revolution was profoundly conservative.

rhc ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2004, 06:13 PM:

Theresa's last statement goes to the heart of the current paradigm shift that has taken place in our society:

"If we’re really going to get into the habit of thinking of those who fight foreign occupation of their own country as monsters on the order of the 9/11 perpetrators (“soulless” or otherwise), then what we’re declaring war on is world conservatism: the attachment of people everywhere to their land, their family, their established way of life."


And that paradigm shift is that the current administration has transformed us into the Empire from "Star Wars." It's pretty tough these days, waking up and knowing that we are the representatives of all those faceless guys in the terrifying white body armour, whacking up the doughty galactic rebels. It wasn't supposed to be this way, but there you have it. I've never had to deal with current reality that is so far opposed to my inner reality.

mythago ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2004, 10:26 PM:

then what we’re declaring war on is world conservatism: the attachment of people everywhere to their land, their family, their established way of life

Isn't the fighting about whether it is "their" land in the first place, and if not, whose it is?

The Bible has plenty of descriptions of things that we find horrible or inexcusable today. I'm rather surprised at the idea that the story of Samson means we should not condemn suicide bombers.

rhc ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2004, 12:10 PM:

Hey Mythago, you wrote:
"Isn't the fighting about whether it is "their" land in the first place, and if not, whose it is?"

My response is: I thought we were talking about Iraq. If someone other than those who are currently living in Iraq has a more valid claim to their land, please let me know.

If I was a native Iraqi, I would certainly view the current hostilities as an invasion rather than a liberation, particularly as the occupying host has been there over a year with no withdrawal in sight.
rhc

Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2004, 03:27 PM:

There are at least two sets of people (as broad classes) at work against the U.S. in Iraq.

One group (much smaller than depicted) is of those who are against the "West". I am tolerably certain the suicide bombings, the attacks on NGO and children are of this ilk.

Evil men all (by my lights, being a liberal sort of person).

The other group is composed of, primarily, nationalists. People who were willing, for a while, to tolerate us, because we couldn't just (much as some might have liked us to) just (for whatever pretext) just topple Hussein and scarper.

But we've outworn our welcome. We've not made things better. We've not even managed to keep them at the level they were at when we arrived. They want us out.

And those people (who tend to shoot at Americans and, "collaborators") are not evil. One may think them misguided, perhaps even decieved by men of evil intent, but some of us (me among that number) can see ourselves acting in similar ways, were the shoes on other feet.

Terry