Notes on "A Tragic Legacy"

The authenticity of Bush's Christianity. The Christian war criminals of the Congo. Changing the course of our political debates.

Published June 22, 2007 10:10AM (EDT)

Several matters to note about A Tragic Legacy:

(1) This Sunday, at 5:00 p.m. EST, I will be at FireDogLake's Book Salon to discuss A Tragic Legacy. I learned yesterday that the discussion will be hosted and moderated by the newly debuted Digby. Of all the events I did last year in connection with How Would a Patriot Act?, one of the best discussions of that book was at the FDL Book Salon, and with Digby hosting it this year, it should be superb.

There are many interesting events, interviews, and the like being planned in connection with the book's release next Tuesday, including what ought to be an excellent week-long discussion of the book's Iran chapter, with a panel of 5-7 other commentators, at TPM Cafe's Book Club, the week of July 2. I will post all such events as they are confirmed.

(2) In writing about the Tragic Legacy excerpt published by Salon earlier this week, Andrew Sullivan writes:

[Our constitutional framework] depends on an elite willing to stand up against their own power, and it depends on a people alert to the erosion of their freedom. Today, both guardrails against tyranny appear weakened, and the pushback against a radically authoritarian executive has been weak. We have an elite class in Washington either too cowardly to stand up to the power grab or too co-opted by the perquisites of power to care. And we have a people seemingly content to watch freedom being stripped from them - because, right now, it's mainly people with brown skin and funny names being railroaded by the executive branch. Al-Marri and Padilla can be distanced. And the Hollywood fantasies of Jack Bauer can distract from an honest moral assessment of how far we've degenerated in so short a time.

There is still a chance to repair the damage -- but given how much we have lost since 9/11, the constitutional consequences of another major attack are likely to be terminal to the American experiment in liberty. If a Giuliani or a Cheney is in power on such a day, we can kiss goodbye to the constitution. . . .

America has exchanged some if its basic freedoms for the patina of phony security -- and so easily. The Republican party, to its historic shame, has been the main vehicle for the replacement of doubt, empiricism and calm judgment with certainty, fundamentalism and raw force.

The principal value, and the necessity, of examining the underlying assumptions and beliefs which have led us to this point -- an examination which is the primary purpose of A Tragic Legacy -- is not merely to provide some historical account of the last six years. Rather, it is to describe the extreme challenges America faces in recovering from the Bush legacy and, more important still, to expose the corrupt foundations of our political discourse -- ones embraced by the right-wing movement and our establishment media figures alike -- in order to change the terms and outcomes of those debates.

Sullivan is certainly right that, as much erosion of our political principles as we have witnessed thus far, it can get much worse. And absent some fundamental changes in the political calculus we use and the nature of the "political debates" we have, the erosion will inevitably accelerate, particularly in the event of another terrorist attack and/or the succession of George Bush by an even more authoritarian-minded president, a term which applies to several of those vying to replace him.

But until the premises and assumptions which have brought us to this point are uprooted and replaced -- beginning with the "Good versus Evil" framework in which American militarism, imperialism, exceptionalism, and their accompanying domestic liberty-infringing tools are grounded -- continuing on the same path is virtually certain.

In an excellent post written in response to the Salon book excerpt, Paul Curtis explains why such an examination is necessary if our course is to be meaningfully altered:

Right-wing Manicheanism has taken over the national debate on security matters, operating as a literally totalitarian thought system, in that it subsumes all discourse into its own unanswerable internal logic. We've become familiar with the notion of framing in political discourse: well, this is the meta-frame. It quashes every attempt by liberals and moderates to raise rational points and does tremendous damage to constitutional liberties, the national interest, and global well-being. . . .

Because it is a totalitarian framework of logic, the only way to defeat it is to attack it at its foundations, to root out its very premise, as Greenwald is doing. Conservatives have often gained the advantage in American public discourse because they build and re-enforce these meta-frames with great care; for liberals to bring reason back to the debate we'll need to do a considerable amount of foundational work of our own. This means, in the present case, repeatedly making the argument that Manicheanism is foolish and destructive, that we cannot afford to make policy according to a worldview defined by a simpleminded division of Good v. Evil.

That is a project to which many people -- liberals and non-liberals alike -- are devoted. Daily blogging provides an opportunity incrementally -- one by one -- to rebut falsehoods, expose deceit, challenge misleading orthodoxies, and identify responsible parties. But a book enables a much broader argument about the irrational and fact-free propositions at the root of our political decisions. Uprooting those premises -- beginning with the binary moralistic imperatives we use to determine America's role in the world and the power we vest in our political leaders -- is a prerequisite for the vital goal of restoring reason to our political process.

(3) I was somewhat surprised, as I indicated the other day, by the strong reaction -- in comments, by e-mail and on various blogs -- prompted by the question of whether George Bush's claimed evangelical conversion and belief in God are authentic or contrived for political gain (an issue which is ancillary, at most, to my book). One of the more substantive arguments insisting that Bush's religiosity is inauthentic was made here by Booman, and it is fairly representative of that position.

Though ancillary to the main themes of my book, the issue of Bush's religious convictions still raises some interesting points. My views on that issue were set forth rather comprehensively in the post I wrote earlier this week, but there are still two additional issues worth highlighting:

(a) By all accounts -- including his own -- George Bush had a severe addiction to alcohol for many years. Yet he was able, suddenly and with great resolution, to conquer his alcoholism and give up drinking entirely. At the same time, he transformed his life quite fundamentally -- from a carousing drunken hedonist into someone who, again by all accounts, began attending church very frequently and focusing on his businesses and career (usually with very little success, but his priorities nonetheless clearly changed). Whatever you think of George Bush, however many insulting adjectives you want to hurl at him, those are just facts.

People do not easily overcome severe addictions like alcoholism and change their lives. Some kind of very potent force is required to achieve that. The 19th Century philosopher and psychologist William James argued that religious belief was a potent substitute for harmful and addictive behaviors, a belief which is the underpinning of Alcoholics Anonymous and similar groups which contend that a belief in some universal or stronger and higher power is a necessary tool for conquering addiction.

So for those who are so certain that George Bush does not really believe in God and that his evangelical fervor is a mere act: what accounts for his ability to overcome his alcoholism and re-structure his life? It is true, of course, that one can do so without religious beliefs -- one can find other means for summoning that strength, including within one's own will -- but that requires a strength of character which many people, certainly those offended by the notion that Bush's religious beliefs are authentic, would be loathe to attribute to him. So, if he is not really religious, what accounts for the fundamental changes he made to his life?

(b) Many of the objections to the idea that Bush's religious beliefs are genuine are grounded in the premise that, somehow, to believe that Bush's Christianity is genuine is to excuse or mitigate the wrongdoing he has engaged in. It's almost as though many Bush critics have decided that it is vital to maintain that Bush's religiosity is a sham lest his behavior be excused, or -- as I heard so many times this week -- that to believe in the authenticity of Bush's evangelical certainty is to "give him too much credit." I don't understand this view at all.

Throughout history, all sorts of evil acts have been undertaken by true believers and atheists alike. To believe that someone is motivated by religious convictions is not to excuse their acts at all. The morality and justifiability of the acts are judged standing alone. What motivates those acts is a different question entirely. An unjust war, for instance, is equally unjust whether motivated by an evangelical and messianic mission or by a quest for profit or power.

Interestingly, the New York Times today has published several reports from various individuals who are traveling throughout Africa with NYT columnist Nick Kristof, and one of them -- Leana Wen -- this morning describes a visit with General Laurent Nkunda, a brutal warlord in the Congo, who has been charged with atrocious war crimes, and who leads his movement in the name of devout Christianity. She writes:

The most bizarre experience on this trip so far has been the visit to General Laurent Nkunda. It's hardly an everyday occurrence to go to the military camp of an actual "warlord" who is accused of raping and massacring thousands. (He prefers to be referred to as "liberator of the people", and denies all allegations against him.) That a journalist well known for opposing him had just been assassinated in the Congo, and that General Nkunda made several references to our security, made us apprehensive during the interview and cautious in subsequent reporting.

One of the most striking parts of the interview is the religious fervor with which General Nkunda led his troops. Apparently, he is very influenced by the evangelist movement, and as a pastor in the Pentecostal church, he helps to convert and baptize his troops. He proudly sported a pin, "Rebels for Christ." Before each drink and meal, he and his faithful prayed. "We fight in the name of the Lord," he told us. "That is what I tell all my troops. When they fight, they have God on their side." . . .

[S]omething about Nkunda's comments made me feel ill to my stomach. Was he really using God as a license to kill? Was it really his conviction that God was with him in battle, or was he using "the God card" as a way to manipulate and control his troops? It would not be the first time that the name of God has been used to consolidate power, and certainly not the first time religion has given hope and purpose to unemployed young men without good futures.

Whether Gen. Nkunda's war crimes are motivated by a genuine conviction that he is fighting for Christ or whether he merely exploits religious fervor for power (or some mixture of both) is an interesting question, but the atrocity of his crimes does not depend upon resolution of that question. His actions are heinous war crimes either way. And the need to combat and refute the framework he offers -- that those who are committed to Christian piety must join his battles -- is urgent whether or not he personally, deep down, truly believes in those claims.

(4) The pre-ordering week for A Tragic Legacy has been a great success, in large part due to the readers of this blog and Salon, as well as other blogs which discussed the book, which I very much appreciate. Even pre-release, the book was in the Top 10 Amazon best sellers, has spent the entire week in the Top 50, and is the second- or third-best-selling pre-release book on Amazon. In response, Amazon has discounted the book further still to encourage pre-release buying, and ordering now will ensure that the book -- which will be shipped on the release date of Tuesday -- will arrive in a matter of days.

By Glenn Greenwald

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