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.
I am no fan of John Kerry, possibly the stupidest and certainly the most inept Secretary of State ever to serve this country (no, I am not forgetting Madeleine Albright). But even John Kerry does not deserve Associate Professor Boyle: “[I]f the ‘war on terror’ has taught us anything,” he writes,
it is that such moralistic language can blind its users to consequences. Describing a group as “inexplicable” and “nihilistic,” as Mr. Kerry did, tends to obscure the group’s strategic aims and preclude further analysis. Resorting to ritualized rhetoric can be a very costly mistake if it leads one to misunderstand an enemy and to take actions that inadvertently help its cause.
Let’s start with those scare quotes around “war on terror.” Why are they there? Does Associate Professor think that there wasn’t a war on terror? Does he believe it was misnamed? Or is it simply the case that a term from the administration of George W. Bush is just too naff to be taken straight? Bush called it a “war on terror,” therefore we can’t use the phrase without sanitizing quotation marks.
John Kerry’s use of “inexplicable” is wrong, but not for the reasons Associate Professor Boyle suggests. (Kerry is wrong about “nihilistic,” too: the problem with members of ISIS is not that they do not believe in anything: it’s that they believe the wrong things.) There’s no mystery about ISIS’s “strategic aims”: they want to kill us infidels and establish the worldwide hegemony of Islam. What is required is not “further analysis” but vigorous military action.
There is nothing “ritualized” about calling ISIS “evildoers,” etc. It is forthright, not “ritualized.” What is costly is having a President of the United States who begins his administration by going to Cairo to tell the world that Islam is a wonderful thing and the Muslim Brotherhood is as American as apple pie and is ending his administration playing golf while Americans are beheaded.
Associate Professor Boyle writes that “After 9/11, the Bush administration’s repeated use of the language of good and evil played directly into the hands of Al Qaeda.” In my view, if Bush erred, it was by being too accommodating about Islam in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Remember him telling the world that Islam meant “peace”? (Actually, the word means “submission” which is something quite different from “peace.”)
According to Associate Professor Boyle, “Mr. Bush’s calls for a crusade against radical Islam, combined with the occupation of Iraq, confirmed that narrative and gave Al Qaeda a boost in funding and recruitment that sustained the group for nearly a decade.” In fact, President Bush’s Bush’s war on terror did a huge amount to disrupt al Qaeda and cognate groups and his occupation of Iraq established a democratic regime there. If he erred, it was in being insufficiently vigorous in his pursuit of terrorists.
The real damage, however, was done by the golfer-in-chief as part of his avowed aim to “fundamentally transform the United States of America.” Sure, Obama, relying on intelligence built up by the apparatus put in place by George Bush, managed to kill Osama bin Laden. And his use of drones has taken out some bad guys. But his drastic underestimation of the threat of radical Islam has left the country, indeed, the entire world, vulnerable to a murderous and profoundly anti-liberal ideology.
Associate Professor Boyle is correct that ISIS is even more dangerous than al Qaeda. But the problem we face is not the use of “moralistic” language. The problem is moral idiots like Associate Professor Boyle’s whose allergy to calling things by their real names renders us not more sophisticated but more impotent. The fact that he is employed teaching the young merely compounds the distasteful irony.
I am all for describing ISIS as evil, no quotation marks, and I would fully support a crusade to eliminate it root and branch. This much, I think is clear: without American boots on the ground we will see many more heads on the ground.