In Tucson Speech, Obama Flirted With Demagoguery — By Suggesting Evil Is To Blame

President Obama, in his  Tucson speech, acknowledged that “Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.” But the main thrust of the speech was to condemn, “pointing fingers or assigning blame.” Obama said, “What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.”

The main point that I received in the speech was this message: “It’s important for us to … make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

It’s interesting that this speech urging everyone to be nice to each other has received high praise from Glen Beck and other right wing spokespersons. I guess the reason for such praise is because the thesis of the speech is that there is no responsibility.  The subtext of the speech seems to be:

  • Rather than assigning blame to Arizona’s gun laws that allows any deranged moron with the retail price to buy a powerful weapon,
  • Rather than pointing fingers at a dysfunctional educational and mental health system,
  • Rather than questioning whether Sarah Palin’s careless language or her gun target advertisement aimed at Tucson had any effect,

let’s find a way of talking about this violent act in a way that avoids hurting anyone’s feelings.

Obama quoted Job: "But when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came." Here, William Blake shows God appearing to Job.

In his efforts to deflect blame, it seems to me that Obama crossed a line when he asserted, “Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding.” Of all the phrases in the speech, this one hit my ear as demagoguery — “appealing to popular prejudices rather than by using rational argument.”

The idea of “evil” reappeared later in the speech when Obama said, “We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us.”

It’s hard to fathom, but 40% of Americans believe that, according to scripture, the earth is a “young earth” — only 6000 or 10,000 years old. When Obama says, “Scripture tells us,” he is speaking, as in code, to millions of Americans and millions of Muslims around the world who insist on accepting the literal words of “scripture” as revealed truth. In this literal view, evil is a supernatural force, and humanity is marching inexorably toward a final battle between good and evil, between people aligned with “good” and people aligned with “evil.”  Heaven help us.

No doubt, Obama, personally, has a nuanced and sophisticated POV concerning evil. I read he is influenced by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  According to this report, “What Neibuhr means by ‘evil’ … is not necessarily a will to kill and enslave, but ‘excessive self-interest’ and a ‘lust for power’ that leads to the tolerance of injustice.”

Obama, it seems to me, if called upon directly, probably would give such a Neibuhrian definition of evil.  But the definition of evil that Obama delivered in his speech was quite different — what the scriptures say about evil — that there is a supernatural force of evil in the world that causes bad things to happen. This view of evil isn’t appropriate for a president to advance. It’s an idea that downright dangerous to advance, in fact, because it gives credibility to lunatic ideas, which in turn gives rise to lunatic actions.

Obama implies that an act of violence by a disturbed 22 year old misfit is among the “terrible things that defy human understanding.” Yes, the confused and violent thinking in the mentally ill is frightful and defies human understanding — in some absolute sense. But it makes sense that disturbed thinking is influenced by the culture it lives in, the same culture that influences all of us. As a democracy we need to investigate and understand what is the source of sickness in our culture and how we can make our culture more healthful.

What doesn’t make sense is to propose that self destructive mental states are evidence of an “evil force.” Good grief. We need to rise above medieval thinking. Normal or creative mental states defy human understanding, as well. As humans we don’t understand either the negative or positive parts of ourselves.

The topic of evil is one that deserves a lot of attention — There is the theory that the reason there is starvation and war in the world is because the world is in the grip of a supernatural evil. Such a theory, or some version of, is attractive because it conveniently gets us all off the hook from making much of an effort to change things.  How to overcome evil is the question. I appreciate the scripture about overcoming evil that President Bill Clinton used in his speech after the Oklahoma bombing. Here are Clinton’s words:

To all my fellow Americans beyond this hall, I say, one thing we owe those who have sacrificed is the duty to purge ourselves of the dark forces which gave rise to this evil. They are forces that threaten our common peace, our freedom, our way of life. Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness: Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind. Justice will prevail.

Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life. As St. Paul admonished us, Let us “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

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4 Responses to In Tucson Speech, Obama Flirted With Demagoguery — By Suggesting Evil Is To Blame

  1. Stan Hirtle says:

    Evil, as something people do, clearly exists. Whether evil exists as a separate abstraction, whether people are more likely to choose it than good or are subject to some internal tendency to do it, and whether a supernatural “evil one” exists doing evil are all theological questions. Support for various views can come from various places in Judeo Christian scriptures and other religious traditions. The term “evil” can also be used to describe things in nature that are harmful to people, such as diseases, tornados, tsunamis and earthquakes. Political leaders like Obama must respond to disturbance and seemingly senseless acts of violence that challenge us. And of course this particular act is highly politicized. We are told that it is politically impossible to restrict access to assault weapons, and of course to politically disparage conservative talk media and candidates like Palin for pushing negative political discourse invites a firestorm, with his opponents having won the last round of elections. Also providing services to needy people at public cost is also controversial, particularly something as stigmatized as mental illness. In addition, Presidents and particularly Obama like to be looking at the big picture. And people often fall back on religion for answers to things we don’t understand, such as the violence in the heart and mind of a mentally ill person, and perhaps its connection to our way of life that is unparallelled in human history. In addition to Clinton, Bush of course talked about evil in connection with the 9/11 attacks and the subject came up again in connection with waterboarding and Guantanamo Bay. As you point out, talking about “evil” as some cosmic force may prevent us from overcoming it or confronting unpleasant and perhaps unwinnable short term political realities, much as happened in the 1930s. While leaders may tend to think of evil as another force to be used or managed for political purposes, we can use the right amount of humility, understanding, and speaking truth to power.

  2. Rick says:

    Good gracious, Mike, you have Palin/Conservative derangement syndrome. This man, who if his political beliefs had to be categorized, was a liberal. But to try to blame the educational system, when he came from a middle class family, the mental health system, when they had insurance or the words of Sarah Palin is malevolent and insane. Is your hatred of those who disagree with you so strong as to overpower your ability to think? Is your desire to silence those who disagree with you so strong as to overcome your conscience?

    I can’t remember what the philosophers call the method of your lack of chain of logic. But what you did was say this man must have been influenced by the culture so the culture is to blame. How about liberalism in our culture? Should we blame that? Why not? Abortion? Anarchists? They are all part of the culture.

    Get a hold of yourself.

  3. Mike Bock says:

    Rick, thanks for your comments. This post, evidently, failed to communicate to you the point I wanted to make, which is pretty much summarized in the title I gave to it: “Obama Flirted With Demagoguery — By Suggesting Evil Is To Blame”

    The right wing heaped praise on Obama’s Tucson speech, because, the whole point of the speech was to make people feel good, including the right wing. I speculate, in this post, that one reason the speech was praised was, “because the thesis of the speech is that there is no responsibility.”

    I would have written a better post — clearer in making the point I wanted to make — if I would have omitted the speculation about what Obama chose not to say. That speculation is so inflammatory that you, and, probably, others who read the post, zeroed in on that speculation, missing the larger point. The point of the post is to protest Obama’s use of the concept of “evil.” I write, “In his efforts to deflect blame, it seems to me that Obama crossed a line when he asserted, ‘Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world …”

    It is a dangerous medieval POV, one not worthy of a 21st century American president, to blame bad things on a supernatural “evil” force.

    George W. Bush liked to use the concept of evil and talked about the “axis of evil” and about “evil doers.” Obama is unwise to pick up this theme of “evil” and suggest that there is a supernatural force of “evil” at work in this world that causes bad things happen in this world. This is something Biblical literalists like to hear as a confirmation of their world view. And, Obama’s inclusion of the topic of evil — connected to a scriptural view — was calculated to gain praise and support for his speech.

    Stan, thanks for your comments. You write, “Support for various views (of evil) can come from various places in Judeo Christian scriptures and other religious traditions.”

    The topic of “evil” is explosive and dangerous. The idea of “evil,” throughout history, has been used as a rationale for incredibly evil acts — genocide, in the Old Testament, was a strategy for stamping out “evil.” Suicide bombers are steeped into a view of good and evil that somehow provides a rationale for the ultimate irrational act of taking their own and innocent human life. The topic of evil is one that gives a lot of opportunity for demagoguery, and throughout the ages political and religious leaders have sought influence and power by appealing to their listeners’ prejudice about evil. Obama only quoted the Old Testament. Clinton, I thought, had a better approach by quoting the New Testament idea that we “overcome evil with good.”

    I like your sentence, “While leaders may tend to think of evil as another force to be used or managed for political purposes, we can use the right amount of humility, understanding, and speaking truth to power.”

  4. Rick says:

    Mike, thanks for the clarification. The way I read your post originally, it did not sound like you. I,as a Christian, do believe in the existance of evil and I don’t believe that is merely a medieval concept.


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