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.