American Manichaeism

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Why do Americans of all religious and political stripes, traditionalist or “progressive,” conservative or liberal, tend to demonize individuals with which they disagree? Conservatives label their opponents as “evil” or “un-American,” while liberals label their opponents as “haters” or worse. Political and religious debate degenerates to emotion and name calling; rational arguments are at a minimum. I believe that the answer is found in the fact that many Americans are really Manichaens.

Manichaenism is an ancient religion begun by the Persian prophet Mani in the third century. It holds that there are opposite principles, good and evil, that are both necessary for the universe. Thus, it is a strongly dualistic religion, holding to the existence of absolute good and absolute evil. As such, Manichaenism clashed with Christianity, which holds that everything created by God is good, and even if a human being does evil things, that person is never absolutely evil.

Many of my students claim to be Christian but are really Manichaens. They say, for example, that the existence of evil is necessary in order that we may know good. This is not a Christian position; in Christianity, man could have remained wholly good, but when he sinned, part of that goodness was lost–not all of it But man did not have to sin, and evil is not a necessity in the universe.

A more dangerous version of Manichaemism in the United States is the tendency of Americans to label their moral, political, and religious opponents as “evil” without any redeeming qualities. Such polarizing views probably arose from the influence of New England Puritanism, which emphasized the separation of the redeemed from the evil world without. Today that Puritanism is secular in form, but it still polarizes people into “us” and “them,” into “wholly good” and “utterly evil.” Religious fundamentalists openly call those who disagree with their views “evil” and say that those individuals are going to a literal hell fire. Liberals who disagree with conservatives on moral issues such as abortion or practicing homosexuality will label conservatives as “haters” or “full of hate.” In this way, both liberals and conservative both dehumanize their opponents and avoid the difficult task of argumentation. It is always easier to name-call than to argue rationally for one’s position.

The idea of the 1960s radicals that “the politics is the personal” is also a byproduct of American Manichaeanism. It allows an individual to take as a personal insult any views contrary to his or her own. “I’m outraged” becomes a new mantra for individuals too lazy to argue for their position. Plus, this mantra gives someone a sense of moral superiority over opponents. Moral smugness, an arrogant sense of moral superiority, is found among people of every political and religious persuasion.

Manichaenism also encourages people to pigeonhole those who disagree with an opinion the Manichaean considers crucial. Thus, opponents of the death penalty are grouped together as “liberals” even though many hold “conservative” opinions such as opposition to abortion. I am a conservative on most issues, but some people might assume that I automatically support the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because of my conservative position on other issues. But I do oppose and always have opposed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and I oppose any extension of war to Iran. People are more complicated than our pigeonholes. And if people stopped demonizing their opponents and get to know them as people, they may find that they share some beliefs in common.

A final reason for Manichaenism in American life is that Americans really are deeply polarized on social issues, such as abortion and sexual ethics. Such issues cut to the core of who we are both as individuals and as members of the larger society. It is natural that they bring out strong emotions.

If someone is a Manichaen, he or she might miss out on some surprising agreements between people who are quite different from one another. Christopher Lasch was a Marxist, but many conservatives admired him. If I had read about him being a Marxist and said to myself, “I’m not going to read some atheistic communist” I would have missed out on some top-notch social critique.

People are rarely as simple as Manichaenism believes. Good people do bad things at times, and bad people do good things from time to time. We are all mixtures of good and evil. As long as we recognize that fact, we can avoid falling into Manichaeism.

The Push for War with Iran–Please, No More Warmongers!

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The push by both parties in Washington for war with Iran is the continuation of the insanity that began with the invasion of Iraq. No watchdog agency believes that Iran has the capacity to make nuclear weapons at this time, nor will it have that capacity for a number of years. This is not to say that Iran is not considering making nuclear weapons as a counterweight to U. S. involvement in the region. Even if it did gain nuclear weapons, it will not be the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons–Israel has quite a few, and Israel did not sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (Iran did). It is ironic that the United States effectively destroyed Iraq as a counterweight to Iran, with a pro-Iranian government now in power in Baghdad, and not wants to extent its aggression into Iran. The stupidity of American hubris knows no bounds.

Do those people in Congress consider the risk of strikes against Iran? American troops in Iraq would become more vulnerable, and the United States itself would most likely be subject to Iranian-instigated terrorist attacks. Wars are costly, and in a time of massive budget deficits wars only compound the nation’s debt. The cost to the civilian population of Iran would most likely be as high or higher than the cost to the civilian population of Iraq.

The war in which the United States is most active, Afghanistan, is a quagmire. Although the casualty figures are not nearly the level of the Vietnam War, they are bound to rise. If only the United States had followed the initial CIA plan of sending small units into Afghanistan to hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts, the conflict would have been limited to the police work it should have been in the first place. Now Iran is a larger country than Afghanistan with more resources, including military resources. And if the United States were to destroy Iran’s formal military, it could engage in an effective guerrilla war for decades. The war party could argue that an attack on Iran would be limited to air strikes, but does anyone believe that the war could be contained to air strikes or that air strikes could destroy Iran’s entire nuclear program.

It is long past due time that the American empire unraveled itself and formed a more humble foreign policy without the endless wars that drain U. S. resources and result in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths as well as thousands of deaths of U. S. servicemen and women. It is not too late to change for the better. One way to change is for both conservatives, moderates, and liberals who oppose endless wars to put aside their differences in other areas for the moment to find candidates who oppose the endless war machine of the military-industrial-government complex. Each political party needs to clean house on this issue–lives depend on it.