a little more venting

So I’d gotten a little tired of people of people talking about supposed ‘inimitable Bushisms’ like misunderestimate. I’ve also gotten tired of hearing talk of Bush’s ‘Manichean worldview’, as, for example, in this article by Yale graduate and Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michiko Kakutani. I’m afraid some of his oh-so-enlightened critics don’t know their history too well.

What did the Manichees believe? According to some dictionary definitions, their basic doctrine was that there is a conflict between good and bad in the world. They certainly believed that, but that hardly seems terribly distinctive. Who doesn’t think that there is a conflict between good and bad? It’s perhaps worth noting that the Manichees are not talking about a conflict between good people and bad people; rather, they’re talking about two cosmological forces or natures. What exactly they mean is often a bit mysterious, since their cosmology gets pretty exotic pretty quickly. At any rate, I’m pretty sure that people who complain about Bush’s Manicheanism have something more in mind than merely that he thinks there is good and bad and that good and bad are opposed.

So what is the distinctive part of Manicheanism? It might be easiest to see by reviewing an alternative view first. Christians say that there is an omnipotent God who is perfectly good and who created everything else. It’s not too hard to see where the first challenge is to the Christian view is going to come from: if God is all-powerful and perfectly good, then where did the all too-apparent evil in the world come from? The Manichees don’t face this challenge, since they deny that an all-powerful, all-good God stands at the origin of everything. Rather, there are two forces, one good, one evil, that account for everything. Since neither is omnipotent, i.e., neither has been able to eliminate the other one, we have a ready explanation for why there is both good and evil in the world. The good is the result of the good god and the bad of the bad. That’s the theoretical advantage of Manicheanism. Of course, there are also some disadvantages to the Manichean picture (Augustine had a good bit to say about those) and Christians generally weren’t keen on giving up on the idea of an all-powerful, all-good God.

Okay, so that’s the best-known doctrine of the Manichees. Now what has that got to do with President Bush again? In fact, I thought he was supposed to be some kind of conservative evangelical (all those dire warnings a few years ago about the rise of right-wing Christian theocracy …), but I’m quite confident that it is impossible to be both a good conservative evangelical and a Manichee. Of course, Bush might be not be a good conservative evangelical; in fact, he doesn’t look like that either to me. Still, are those who complain about Bush’s Manicheanism really complaining about his lack of belief in an all-powerful, all-good God? About his advocacy of an ancient rival to Christianity? Something tells me that’s not quite what Kakutani and friends have in mind …

No more venting about these sorts of things for a while, I promise. With any luck, I won’t even feel quite as strong an urge to vent from now on. Maybe, just maybe, political discourse in this country will improve at least a little bit with Obama’s inauguration. I’ll admit to some scepticism about any such prospects, but maybe there is some reason for hope.


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4 Responses to a little more venting

  1. Lisa says:

    I’m not really sure why I’m responding to this, but for some reason this post made me feel argumentative (some people have that power; apparently Sydney is one of them). So, briefly, I think you’re taking these comments too literally. My thoughts on the two terms:

    “misunderestimate” – yes, it’s been used for 100 yrs, but that doesn’t make it a stupid word. It’s redundant, and contains no additional information over “underestimate”. I’ve never heard anyone use it but Bush, but if we want to be super literal, yes, it’s imitable. “Misunderestimate” – there, I did it.

    “manichean” – I don’t know much about the Manichaeism, either, but based on what you said & the brief bit I read in Wikipedia, I’d agree that the “conflict between good and bad” is the key part. I would interpret the statement that Bush has a “manichean worldview” somewhat loosely, and take it to mean that he sees things in very black and white terms (all-good and all-bad). I think my knowledge of Christianity is lacking to make a judgment about how that affects his status as a good evangelical, so I’ll leave that here.

    So in short, none of this matters.


  2. fustianist says:

    Nothing wrong with being argumentative.

    Regarding ‘misunderestimate’. I’m actually not so certain that it contains no additional information over ‘underestimate’. That is, I’m tempted to read it as a genuine portmanteau where it would mean something like ‘underestimate due to a misunderstanding’. But perhaps fixing a meaning this precisely would require a larger body of usages than we currently have. At any rate, I agree that none of this matters, except insofar as I think that a general willingness to say things carelessly without regard to their truth does matter (cf. Harry Frankfurt’s _On Bullshit_). But if we say that this doesn’t matter, then I want to be sure that we go far enough with the thought to notice that it doesn’t matter whether Bush uses some odd expressions. I know plenty of smart people who are terrible speakers, so I’m not convinced that an inability to speak well is good evidence for a lack of intelligence.

    On Manicheanism. I suspect you’re right that people who criticise Bush for having a Manichean view mean to be criticising him for seeing things in too black and white a way. Unfortunately, that just means they have no idea what Manicheanism means, since the question of how black and white things are is completely orthogonal to the cosmological question over which Manichees and Christians differ. That is, I can believe that two opposed principles stand at the origin of the cosmos but think that pretty much everything now is a thoroughly gray mixture of the two (in fact, I think something like this would well represent the Manichean picture of things).

    Imagine that I criticised Obama for being one of those crazy Republicans. I’m met with some puzzled looks so I explain that Republicans are always talking about freedom. And Obama, broadly speaking, shares that view because, for example, he doesn’t think that we should have slavery. This sounds ridiculous, right? It strikes me as an apt analogy for calling Bush Manichean.

    While I’m in an argumentative mood myself … I take it the following sort of argument often gets made:

    1) Using words wholly inappropriately evinces stupidity.
    2) Bush uses words wholly inappropriately.
    3) Therefore, Bush is stupid.

    Well, if that argument is sound, then I also have a sound argument to show that many of his critics are stupid:

    1) Using words wholly inappropriately evinces stupidity.
    2*) Many of Bush’s critics use words wholly inappropriately (e.g., `Manichean’).
    3*) Therefore, many of Bush’s critics are stupid.

    But, to end on a slightly more conciliatory note, premise (1) strikes me as obviously false so we don’t have a sound argument yet for either (3) nor (3*).


  3. Lisa says:

    The OED suggests that “Manichaean” has broadened in its meaning to something more general than just the literal, religious meaning (similarly to how you can talk about a “platonic” friend today, without actually evoking the philosophy of Plato):

    B. adj. Of, relating to, or characteristic of Manichaeism or its adherents; (more generally) of or relating to dualism, dualistic.

    I’m still not convinced that the author was using this word “incorrectly”, in that sense.

    But I agree that there are plenty of people who are smart, but speak poorly (or not at all). And I’ll be the first to admit to using my own neologisms from time to time.


  4. fustianist says:

    I’m generally a big fan of the OED, but I’m a bit less than impressed with this definition. ‘Dualism’ can mean pretty much anything, so if Manicheanism is just dualism, then I doubt there’s anybody on the planet that’s not a Manichean. But perhaps the charitable reading would be to constrain the notion of dualism by context. If we do that, however, then I suspect we’ll end up somewhere close to what I was saying.

    Anyway, even if there are broader notions of Manicheanism around, I think my point still stands. Here’s the dilemma I would raise against those who criticise Bush for being a Manichean: either (i) they’re using Manichean in a more or less narrow sense or (ii) they’re using it in a more or less broad sense. If (i), then Bush is not in fact a Manichean. If (ii), then they’re Manicheans as well. In other words, their criticism requires a some sort of fairly narrow reading of Manichean so that the term doesn’t apply too broadly, but the term admits of no narrow reading that applies to Bush.



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