Connoisseurs of obtuse moral idiocy have long cherished The New York Times. Is there any other contemporary organ of opinion that so reliably combines the odor of sanctimoniousness with a seamless adherence to “progressive,” left-leaning orthodoxy? It’s not just the positions espoused by our former paper of record: it’s the combination of those echt correct opinions with the aura of smug self-satisfaction that makes the paper such a remarkable source of nausea-inducing pontification.
Today’s paper provides a particularly egregious example on its op-ed page (I mean the one at the back of the first section, not the one the Times has taken to running on its front page). The column in question is called “The Problem With ‘Evil’.” It’s by Michael J. Boyle, an Associate Professor at La Salle University. Really, it is something special — though I should perhaps add that by “special” I do not mean “commendatory” but rather depressingly singular, as when educationists denominate the academically or intellectually deficient portion of the class as one of “special needs.”
Associate Professor Boyle’s column is about the world’s response to the beheading of the Sunni-loving jihadist James Foley by ISIS barbarians. That’s not how Associate Professor Boyle puts. On the contrary, the burden of his column — as those knowing scare quotes around the word “evil” suggest — is to chastise us imperfectly enlightened folks from the use of “moralistic language” when we describe the knife-wielding pastimes of ISIS.
Not that Associate Professor Boyle is a fan of ISIS. He is on board with the “global condemnation of the insurgent group and its horrific tactics.” But he is alarmed that some of those who condemn separating Mr. Foley’s head from the rest of him should resort to the “moralistic language once used to describe Al Qaeda in the panicked days after the 9/11 attacks.” Got that? Those bad “panicked days” of yore, back when our reason was occluded, made us “moralistic” in our use of language. You remember: before 9/11 no one, near enough, had ever heard of al Qaeda. On September 12, 2001, most people — not people like Associate Professor Boyle, of course — would have described al Qaeda as an evil organization whose members were savage, theocratic barbarians that the civilized world should exterminate eftsoons and right speedily. Is that “moralistic”? Or merely, considering the existential threat posed by al Qaeda, commendably moral, as well as, let’s face it, justifiably pragmatic?
If you think that, you are, according to Associate Professor Boyle, insufficiently sensitive and imperfectly enlightened. What’s the worst thing a contemporary academic can say about someone? Yes, you got it. That “moralistic language” — you know, the impulse to describe ISIS as “evil” — is “an eerie echo” of . . . of who? Yes! It’s an “eerie echo” of “President George W. Bush’s description of the global war on terrorism as a campaign against ‘evildoers,’ . . .” Have you ever heard anything so outrageous! Imagine, calling the chaps who steered airliners into buildings tall and squat for fun and profit as “evildoers.” Have you ever heard anything so un-nuanced, so politically incorrect, so unbefitting an Associate Professor, or even a Distinguished Full Professor with a named chair?
In fact, while Associate Professor Boyle invoked President Bush the way a priest might invoke Satan, the “eerie echo” extended beyond President Bush to President Obama and, John Kerry, and even David Cameron. Yes, really:
In an eerie echo of President George W. Bush’s description of the global war on terrorism as a campaign against “evildoers,” President Obama described ISIS as a “cancer” spreading across the Middle East that had “no place in the 21st century.” Secretary of State John Kerry condemned ISIS as the face of a “savage” and “valueless evil,” while Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, called the group “barbaric.”
What would you call it? My own feeling is that the rhetoric employed by all of the above was measured and correct. But Associate Professor Boyle inhabits a more rarefied moral universe. Hark: “Indeed, condemning the black-clad, masked militants as purely ‘evil’ is seductive [“seductive,” eh?], for it conveys a moral clarity and separates ourselves and our tactics from the enemy and theirs.”
Now let’s pause over this sentence. Note, for example, the adverb “purely”: where did that come from? I suspect most people would cavil over “purely evil” because those masked men, unlike the Lone Ranger, are also political fanatics, grandstanding narcissists, crazed theocratic throwbacks, and a dozen other things. Note, too, Associate Professor Boyle’s use of the word “seductive.” If we are seduced into calling something “purely evil” (or even just evil) that suggests something illegitimate. Lydia Bennet was seduced by Wickham: she was not really (well, not wholly) to blame. Finally, note the implication of moral equivalence by litotes. That “moral clarity” that separates us from the knife wielding followers of a barbaric religion: no Associate Professor worth his salt believes in such “moral clarity,” for that would be to affirm that we really are different from, and better than, the sorts of people who enjoy sawing people’s heads off.