In the last couple of years, it seems like the rhetoric of “evil” is making an unwelcome return in politics and casual conversation. In this week’s debate, Tom Brokaw asked McCain and Obama, point blank, whether Putin’s Russia is the “Evil Empire,” invoking Reagan’s notorious comment from 1983.

To their credit, neither McCain nor Obama took the bait, for which we can only be thankful. Obama’s answer was to the effect of “No, they aren’t, but they are engaged in evil behavior.” McCain refused to answer completely, saying that affirming Reagan’s description would reignite the Cold War, and denying it would be tantamount to condoning or endorsing their present aggression in Georgia. Obama’s response, as usual, was more nuanced and I think more descriptive, but I have to ask: How is this different from us, either individually or collectively at the national level? All of us are eminently capable of evil, even – especially – when we think we’re doing the right thing or, as Gov. Palin might say, when we’re doing the work of God. At the national level, both candidates recognize the main problem in the Russian – Georgia issue: energy. Both condemn a military act against a non-agressive, non-threatening sovereign state that just happens to be significantly and strategically located to advance the aggressor’s own national interests. How is this categorically different from the US’ action towards Iraq? I think Obama knows that it isn’t, really; if you really watched him in the first debate, he suggested as much, but of course to come out and say that would hand the election to McCain/Palin. But the Bush Doctrine has an answer on why “we” are different: “they” are evil, and we’re not. “We” are doing the work of God, and they aren’t. End of discussion. (BTW, to McCain’s answer, I’d have simply pointed out that saying “No, Russia is not the Evil Empire” doesn’t condone their action, anymore than I’d condone my kids’ objectionable, even potentially evil behavior.)

I think Tom Brokaw should know better than to ask a question like this, but I guess it shows how far we’ve sunk when we can only think of people, religions, and nations who do things that are opposed to our own interests as “evil.” Maybe this is part of the “Christian nation” illusion. I’ve heard too many times that any religion other than some version of Christianity is “evil.” Any state that has its own brand of nationalism that isn’t exactly compatible with American Republocracy is “evil.” “We,” however, are exempt from evil, since we’re the Kingdom, the new Jerusalem, the Chosen People.

I’ve had enough of this rhetorical self-righteousness. Evil is resident here. And it has apartments in the individual soul. And so how about we start making sure we’re aware of this plank in our eyes, even if we can’t get it out, before accusing everyone else. Ultimately I would really prefer it if Brokaw and others would simply leave the category of “evil” to God, and let us concentrate on what “the good” entails, because we aren’t doing so well with that either.

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