The Laboratorium
November 2004

Diplomat Plates


I was behind a car with UN diplomat plates merging onto the George Washington Bridge the other day. It was trying to merge right, but then it hesitated and started flopping back and forth. Then it slowed down almost to a standstill and became an obstruction in the road to progress.

No kidding.

Not Just Useful


Almost the only complaint she makes about Toqueville is that he says too little about the Founders’ concern with religion [Ed: what concern?] … . But it is of a piece with her enthusiasm for her “benign and tolerant President” [Ed: she means George III. Benign?] who, she wrote last year, has taught Jews in particular not to be afraid of religious rhetoric and to understand what a force for political good religion can be. Like all such claims, it raises some awkward and here unaddressed questions: What does Ms. Himmelfarb herself think about the credibility of any particular faith? Is religious belief something that other people should take seriously, but which the enlightened need not? Ms. Himmelfarb neither asks nor answers such questions. She seems entirely uninterested in real religious conviction—even when she writes about John Wesley. And yet, as many writers have pointed out, religion can be useful if a sufficient number of people believe that it is not just useful, but true.

—Alan Ryan, Faith-Based History.

Bam. That’s the problem with Gertrude Himmelfarb, and it’s the problem with her hero, Edmund Burke. Burke was a smart man, a classical liberal, and foresighted enough to see where the French Revolution was going. But the brand of conservativism that he promoted as a counterweight to radical excesses was internally inconsistent and rested on an unsustainable devil’s bargain with religion.

The French Revolution led to the blood of the Terror, the dictatorship of Napoleon, and a generation of war in Europe. But the ancien regime was an oppressive system of leftover feudal privilege and corrupt absolutist power. For all of the humanitarian tragedy that followed, the basic ideology of the Revolution was right. Liberte, egalite, and fraternite are good principles, and there’s a reason the French still celebrate Bastille Day. The anti-rationalism that runs through Burke’s lament for Marie Antoinette’s lost decency is ugly: he and his enemy Paine are of a piece in their willingness to countenance awful suffering in order to protect their favorite abstractions.

As for religion, Ryan’s point is worth reiterating: religion can be useful if a sufficient number of people believe that it is not just useful, but true. In the 18th-century English mind, the religiously inflected cataclysm of the 17th century loomed large. The Civil War was probably the second largest tragedy in English history, surpassed only by the Black Death. Avoiding a repeat of such bloodletting became an important priority of the political order in England.

Whether between Catholics and Protestants or among Anglicans and Dissenters, religion was taken from the table of things worth fighting about. The Methodists would challenge the complacent Anglican orthodoxy, but neither side would pick up arms. By the end of the 18th century, when Burke was writing, the bases of this compromise seemed utterly beyond challenge. Religion was something moderating, a force around which individuals organized their consciences and social relations, not their wars. Thus Burke’s endorsement of it as something useful in preventing the madness of radical rationalism.

But note carefully the contradiction. What made it possible for Burke to think of religious devotion as something moderating, rather than as the very source of violence and utter social upheaval, was a century of tamping down religious passion. By “religion,” Burke had in mind something that many truly religious people would not recognize as genuine religion. The alignment of “religion” with the principles, both liberal and conservative, Burke held so dear, was a purely contingent matter. As Ryan notes, John Wesley was a “self-described enemy of democracy, and deeply hostile to American independence;” other Methodists were radical trade-unionists.

To be a Burkean in any age, then, is to face an unappetizing choice. One may be pro-religious, but make exceptions for anything too religious. Osama bin Laden is too religious for Gertrude Himmelfarb, I suspect; so, too are those Christian evangelicals hostile to women working ouside the home (e.g. Gertrude Himmelfarb, writer and professor).

Or, one may go ahead with the endorsement, and live with the perpetual unease that comes of throwing one’s lot with useful illiberals: one day, the illiberals may come to power. And on that day, your endorsement of their utility will avail you little as they run roughshod over the moderate Enlightenment values you hold so dear.

Such is the original sin of neoconservatism. It so recoils from what it thinks are the excesses of postmodernity that it would risk overthrowing modernity itself. For those who believe in aristocracy or theocracy, this possibility may not seem all that bad. But for the rest of us, it would be a tragedy.

Res publica reficienda est!

Golden Boy


The unifying theme of the policies of the George III regime is childishness.

Small children smash their toys and demand new ones. George III’s henchmen, having grown bored with their pet projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, are making googly eyes at the brand new Iran in the shop window.

Small children throw tantrums when contradicted. Dr. Evil, also known as Dick “Fuck You” Cheney; the France-bashers in places high and low; and the character assassins called in on Richard Clarke, John DiIullio, Paul O’Neill, and other dissisdents stand as cases in point.

Small children have little concept of planning for the future. George III’s mammoth budget deficits, anti-earth environmental policies, and petrochemical-based energy plan offer a glorious banquet of corn syrup now and a massive stomachache later.

Small children don’t like to share. They don’t like to share their invasions with foreigners; they don’t like to share their conference committees with Democrats; they don’t like to share the economy with the poor.

The Republicans like to think of themselves as a party of grown-ups. Historically, they’ve had many of the virtues and vices of the old: patience, but also crankiness; foresight, but also closed-mindedness; sobriety, but also judgmentalism. But something has happened since the days of Eisenhower, and something has especially happened in the last four years. Why have the Republicans under George III come to stand for all that is immature, whiny, and selfish in government?

Because George III and inner circle may be childish, but not just any child. No, they’re Anthony Fremont. Anthony is the 10-year-old boy at the center of “It’s a Good Life,” a classic Twilight Zone episode. Anthony can hear people’s thoughts and can teleport people or break them with his psychic powers. His entire town lives in fear of him.

The grown-up Republicans have learned their lesson well. They saw Anthony turn Richard Clarke into a jack-in-the-box; they saw him crack Colin Powell’s will; they saw him destroy Paul O’Neill utterly. Some of them enjoy seeing Anthony turn his destructive powers on other nations and on Democrats; others have learned to think happy thoughts. Anthony doesn’t like unhappy thoughts; people who think unhappy thoughts, or worse, speak their minds, get sent to the cornfield.

Things can’t go on like this, Dan Hollis said, someone hit that kid over the head. But then Anthony called Dan “a very bad man” and did his thing, and everyone nodded in agreement and said that what Anthony had done was good. And it was good that Anthony was making it snow, and tomorrow was going to be a very good day. Even if, in the back of their heads, they knew the snow would ruin the crops, but shhhh, don’t get caught thinking negative thoughts.

This is what it means not to live inside the reality-based community: George III is reshaping reality with the pure force of his will. Only those oldthinkers who don’t understand Anthony’s true powers are concerned with mundane details of reality. The Republicans are gritting their teeth and thinking happy thoughts over and over until they have themselves convinced.

Grown-up Republicans have a choice to make. They can be Republicans, or they can be grown-ups. George III has made it impossible to be both.

Res publica reficienda est!

Papers, Please


I realized this weekend that there is a sort of person who expects the authorities to demand his papers at any moment—and I am one of them.

Shrub Scrum


From the Times:

In the altercation on Saturday night, Chilean security agents initially prevented Mr. Bush’s lead agent from following him into a dinner being held for heads of state attending the conference. When Mr. Bush noticed the commotion, he walked back outside, reached into a scrum of scuffling guards, and grabbed his lead agent by his suit, pulled him out of the melee and escorted him into the dinner. Mr. Bush shook his head, as if in disbelief, and proceeded into the dinner.

Normally, I’m not such a fan of George III’s unilateral solutions to diplomatic tensions, but this one I like. Don’t start stepping to Big Dub’s main man, unless you want Big Dub stepping to you.

A Note on Conservatism


Phil Agre has produced a helpful field guide to conservativism and how to resist it:

Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

It helps enormously to keep Agre’s definition in mind when reading the propaganda conservatives produce for public consumption (and often talk themselves into believing). Among other things, it makes David Brooks comprehensible, rather than just risible. Thus, Brooks writes:

But he’s located one of the paradoxes of the age. Highly educated young people are tutored, taught and monitored in all aspects of their lives, except the most important, which is character building. When it comes to this, most universities leave them alone. And they find themselves in a world of unprecedented ambiguity, where it’s not clear if you’re going out with the person you’re having sex with [sic], where it’s not clear if anything can be said to be absolutely true.

Note well this passage: it is a sugarcoated version of the noxious idea that people are naturally incapable of telling right from wrong without the firm guidance of their betters. David Brooks is an intellectual money-launderer; he repackages the elitist misanthropy that is conservatism into vaguely humorous but reassuringly bland “observations.”

Don’t be fooled. College life, like the rest of life, has always been complex. The “character building” view of higher education, for which Brooks doesn’t bother to conceal his longing, is about enforcing deference to authority. Its main use is to so thoroughly indoctrinate those who will one day wield authority themselves that they will demand deference in turn. Like so much else in conservative ideology, it is a dangerously simple idea.

Ask yourself this: would you prefer to live in a world in which colleges told students whether they were going out with the people with whom they’re having sex? I wouldn’t.

Strange Dreams


Last night I had a dream about an iPod-like device that records audio onto uncooked meat. A pound of ground beef could hold about an hour, if I remember correctly.

Worse Than Ashcroft


Alberto Gonzales is unfit to be Attorney General for two related reasons, both made evident in the infamous ‘war crimes’ memo (PDF) he wrote in 2002: he lacks both competence and conscience.

The memorandum itself is an analysis of the applicability of the Geneva Convention (III) Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War to prisoners captured in Afghanistan, during the first war of the reign of George III (and yes, he is the third President of the United States to be named “George.”) Gonzales first concludes that the Convention is per se inapplicable to al Qaeda members, and that the President has the authority to declare it inapplicable to Taliban members. He then goes on to argue that George III should, as a matter of prudent legal policy, declare the Convention inapplicable. Both pieces of the argument are inexcusable.

Gonzales’s problems begin with the name of the Convention. He refers to it as “The Geneva Convention III on the Treatment of Prisoners of War,” substuting “on” for “Relative to.” This is a minor quibble, but I think it illustrates several things. First, the memo is slipshod; junior associates in law firms who make similar mistakes get screamed at. Gonzales was clearly not working with the full set of source materials in front of him. Second, this is the sort of mistake you make when you don’t know what you’re talking about in detail. I’ve never studied international law, but I know that at least some of the Geneva Conventions are “relative to” something. These are words that stick in your head. You don’t mess them up unless you are someone who doesn’t pay much attention to the Geneva Conventions and never has.

Now, for his determination that the third Convention doesn’t apply to treatment of captured alleged Taliban and al Qaeda members, Gonazles defers to another memo, one written by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. In his words:

OLC’s interpretation of this legal issue is definitive. The Attorney General is charged by statute with interpreting the law for the Executive Branch… . He has, in turn, delegated this role to OLC.

But this conclusion is wrong, for two reasons. First, it is simply untrue that the rest of the Executive Branch is required by statute to agree with the opinions of the Attorney General. Statute 5 U.S.C. ch 31 does require the Attorney General to provide opinions on matters of law at the request of Executive Branch officers. It also reserves the ability to litigate for the government to DoJ. What this means is that opinions of the OLC are binding on the Executive Branch for litigation purposes. Courts ordinarily defer (to an extent) to agencies’ interpretations of federal law, but they will not defer to an agency interpretation in the face of a contrary interpretation from Justice.

To recognize the absurdity of Gonzales’s statement, note that if we take it at face value, he would find the President himself legally unable to disagree with an opinion by one of his subordinates. You don’t have to believe in a unitary executive to think that there is something wrong with this picture. Gonzales is distorting the sense in which the OLC’s opinions can be said to be “binding.” Why?

Because if he looked beneath the cover of that opinion, he’d have to confront the speciousness of its reasoning. The OLC memo goes so far as to say that international laws of war are not binding on the U.S. but can nontheless be used by the U.S. to prosecute its enemies for war crimes. The State Department’s rebuttal memo is quite forceful, pointing out many places in which the United States notes itself bound by customary international law and noting the numerous fallacies of the OLC memo. For Gonzales to have reiterated its logic would have meant that he, as a lawyer, would be giving advice that was ridiculous on its face and that he had seen convincingly debunked; by passing the buck, he tried to avoid getting into those deep waters.

No matter, the memo is malpractice anyway. Gonzales owes his client—George W. Bush, in his official capacity as George III—a duty not just of zealous advocacy but also one of diligence. And that means giving legal advice that is as correct as Gonzales can give with reasonable effort. Treating the Convention’s inapplicability as settled legal fact is not a conclusion that a lawyer who looked into the matter with any degree of care would reach. The United States signed and ratified the Convention; the Constitution makes treaties binding; the standards of international law don’t recognize the sorts of distinctions that Gonzales wanted to make.

Indeed, his giving such advice was a breach not just of his duty of diligence but of the much lower ethical standard of competence. Calling the Convention “quaint” is not a legal argument; you cannot un-ratify a treaty by asserting that a “new paradigm renders [it] obsolete.” He had in front of him a memo that carefully rebutted the OLC memo; in any world except the up-is-down zone emanating from George III, disregarding it so utterly would be an open-and-shut case for professional discipline.

Indeed, were George III himself to be tried for war crimes someday—as well he may, should the rest of the world collectively decide to stop putting up with this shit—it might console him to know that he could get a nice civil damage award from Gonzales for giving him incompetently bad legal advice. (Yes, the MPRE is this Friday. Can you tell that professional responsibility issues have been in my mind?) As for the families of Americans beheaded in Iraq, well, I wish that our legal system gave them a remedy against Gonzales for lowering the bar of civilization.

So much for Gonzales’s worthlessness as a lawyer; now for his worthelssness as a human being. We might start with giving incompetently bad legal advice that just so happens to authorize torture and maltreatment of prisoners. His defense there is the same as that of the lawyer who tells his client to murder his parents so as to have a better case for mercy: “I vas only helping my client.”

To which the reply is that a lawyer’s duty to avoid assisting his client commit crimes takes precedence. When those crimes involve the death or serious bodily harm of others—as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib certainly have—the precedence is absolute in many states: the lawyer must come forward to prevent the injury. Still, I suppose Gonzales might get off this particular hook on account of his incompetence: if he’s too stupid to know the law and too lazy to look it up, maybe he really did think that George III has an official right to authorize brutally coercive interrogation techniques.

But that excuse won’t help with the second half of the memo, the one in which Gonzales advises George III to declare the Third Geneva Convention inapplicable. That’s right, the part in which he says not that George III can authorize torture but that George III should. Here, there is no defense of zealous duty to the client available. Alberto’s client asked him for advice as a matter of policy, and Alberto gave it. That advice reveals him to be inhumane and utterly unconcerned for justice.

Alberto Gonzales thinks that “flexibility” and the need to “avoid foreclosing options” are more important than basic human rights. Alberto Gonzales thinks it’s a “[p]ositive” thing to help Americans who have committed “grave breach[es]” of the laws of war or “outrages against personal dignity” avoid prosecution. Alberto Gonzales looks for definitional loopholes to avoid the application of a statute enacted to prevent some of the vilest conduct imaginable. Someone for whom these are positive goals lacks the sense of justice necessary for any government lawyer, let alone an Attorney General.

An Attorney General must be an excellent lawyer, capable of representing the United States with skill, of enforcing its laws effectively, and of rendering excellent legal advice to its government. Alberto Gonzales is an incompetent lawyer, who has shown himself a poor judge of his client’s interest, a contempt for laws of the United States, and an inability to render accurate legal advice.

An Attorney General must also be an excellent human being, always seeking to punish criminals, to protect the innocent, to uphold the standards of justice, and to preserve those qualities that make a nation worthy of respect. Alberto Gonzales has sought to protect wrongdoers from the deserved legal consequencs of their actions, to leave those who may be innocent without legal recourse, to pervert justice, and to spit in the face of dignity, liberty, benevolence, moral authority, human rights, and the rule of law itself.

Alberto Gonzales has blood on his hands. All those who help to confirm him will share in it.

Addendum: I don’t mean to pass in detail on Gonzales’s other merits and demerits. There are certainly other ways in which he might be less awful than Sheriff Ashcroft of Nottingham. His demonstrated history of personal loyalty to George III strikes me as a negative, and he seems to be at the periphery of a few too many of the investigations swirling around the White House, but he does seem to have at least a less confrontational working style than the Sheriff.

My point is Gonzales’s record on the abuse memos alone disqualifies him. Their moral repugnancy is unacceptable; you give someone who signs off on evil his walking papers, not a promotion. It doesn’t matter what he says about them now; he’s already demonstrated the defective quality of his moral and legal judgment.

Justice Comma Cosmic


I think the guy who came in half an hour late to class would have made to his seat unnoticed it if he hadn’t let the door slam shut behind him.

Mandates: Methodology and Mythology


Given the degree of introspection Democrats are engaging in, a few more words on the subject seem advisable. I have my views about what genuine progressives ought to be doing now, but these ideas are geared towards the upcoming century, not the upcoming four years. Modern conservatism was not built in a day, and the renewed liberalism that will ultimately displace it will not be built in a day, either. Much of the organizational and intellectual seeds that progressives should be planting now will not bear political or legal fruit for decades. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be planting them; we are, after all, supposed to be the ones who can take a charitable and principled long view of the future.

In the here and now, while good strategic thought and careful tactical follow-through will both be necessary, it is important not to mistake the nature of the immediate political problem. The problem is not that the country, in any meaningful sense, has reached a consensus that repudiates liberalism. Nor have Americans agreed that Democrats are morally and culturally bankrupt. If the Democratic party collapses now, it will be from suicide, not from starvation or suffocation.

55 million Americans — 48.4% of those who voted on the second — voted for John Kerry. He came quite plausibly close to being elected, and drew a majority of the popular vote in nineteen states and the District of Columbia. That’s a lot of people in a lot of places. That an election so down-to-the-wire is read as a repudiation of the Democratic Party is due to two factors: expert spinning from Republicans and the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the Senate.

The Senate overrepresents small states; by extension, the Electoral College does, too. The effect is to give states with small populations disproportionate representation in government (by a ratio the Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional when applied to state districting plans). And the effect of this distortion is to give the party with a more rural base—the Republicans—disproportionate electoral influence.

A winner-take-all system like ours (both nationally and state-wide) can appear to magnify small victories. But that’s not itself so much a problem; had Kerry won 311 electoral votes with 50.5% of the popular vote, he’d have been equally thrilled at the distortion of having winner-take-all state elections to the Electoral College. No, the reason the Democrats are despairing now is that under such a system, the degree of in-built bias towards small states is enough to make it seem unlikely that even a better showing next time would tilt things back in the Electoral College or the Senate.

Between two high school runners, a five-meter head start in the 100 is a heavy thumb on the scales. Between two Olympic-class sprinters, it’s close to conclusive. There is not something profoundly wrong with Democratic candidates; most Americans do not hate Democrats. But those five meters matter. The frustration many feel is not the frustration of the thick-fingered pianist who just can’t seem to hit the right keys; it’s the frustration of the loser in a fixed fight.

Now, the Senate isn’t going away. Even leaving aside political inertia and the desire of winners in power to extend their streak, the one thing you can’t amend out of the Constitution is the discriminatory structure of the Senate (nota bene: easier to end slavery than to tamper with the Senate). And the Democrats will have to deal with this reality; they’ll have to shape their message and perfect their organization so as to make the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt. But losing an unfair game is not evidence of moral failing, nor is it proof that one is incompetent at play.

Addendum: Much of what I say in here is applicable to various other forms of systemic bias in the electoral process. Most notably, voting technologies are unevenly distributed in a way that distinctly favors Republicans. Poorer districts with high populations, which are disproportionately Democratic, disproportionately use cheaper technologies that involve higher levels of ballot spoliation, which effectively dilutes Democratic votes due to lost ballots. (This disproportion is often racially-tinged, as has been documented in several swing states, where the poorer urban counties are often predominantly African-American.) Just another systematic bias whose beneficiaries are unlikely to seek change any time soon.

Let Us Be Clear


Let us be clear.

Since we are to live with George W. Bush for another four years, and since he is a self-avowed man of clarity, and since he wishes us always to know what he stands for, let us be clear what it is that George Bush stands for.

He stands for evil.

There is a single word that describes what George W. Bush and his administration have been doing and promise to continue doing, and that word is “evil.” When judged by the objective standards of morality that apply to our complex and dangerous world, Bush and his followers fare poorly. Their actions are immoral, irresponsible, reckless, malicious, unethical, and unreasonable—in a word, “evil.”

Evil comes in many forms. There is active malice and there is callous indifference. There are are wrongful ends, but there are also unjustified means. Arrogance, selfishness, cowardice, and stupidity can all give rise to deeds that we condemn as wrongful. What is perhaps remarkable about Bush is that he manages to act immorally in so many of these different ways.

The act for which he most seeks history’s approval—the invasion of Iraq—is also the pinnacle of his immorality. A hundred thousand Iraqis and a thousand American soldiers are dead today who would be alive had there been no invasion. George W. Bush killed them; he set in motion an invasion whose predictable consequences included their deaths. He is a hundred and one thousand times a murderer.

Against this grim toll may be offset the consequential goods that flowed from the invasion. But those consequences, taken all in all, make the invasion worse, not better.

First, the supposed ties between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda terrorists. The president knew or should have known that such ties were fictional. A corporate officer who made such unfounded claims could be convicted of securities fraud; the “CEO president” lives with neither the managerial competence nor the accountability of a real CEO. The many lies of this president and his administration are offenses, too, offenses both against the moral duty of truthfulness to others and against the moral duty of preserving the institutions of democracy.

Second, the security interest of the United States in avoiding the proliferation of dangerous weapons has been harmed, not helped, by the invasion. The supposed vast stores of nuclear pre-weaponry turned out to be chimerical, a truth that once again Bush was in the best position of any of us to know, but one that he once again chose to avoid and to conceal. Instead, the chaos of the invasion resulted in the looting of vast stores of high explosives and other conventional weapons, munitions that are now being used in acts of terrorism against civilians and against American soldiers. A distant and receeding threat has become one being used against us daily.

It is true that deposing Saddam Hussein was an effective way to end whatever desire he had for obtaining nuclear weapons. But deposing has only led other nations with such desires, including ones led by mentally unstable and openly hostile leaders, to redouble their efforts to secure their arsenals before the U.S.’s baleful gaze turns their way. And when it comes to nuclear materials reaching the hands of terrorists, Bush and his agents have been astonishingly negligent in securing Soviet stockpiles and in the other less glamorous but more critical basic work of nuclear nonproliferation. To fail so seriously at such an important responsibility that one assumed voluntarily—this too is a form of evil. It is the evil of betrayal, of the breach of a grave and solemn trust. Dante would assign Bush to the ninth circle of Hell, together with Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, who also betrayed their benefactors.

But Saddam was evil, comes the cry, and so toppling him was good. That he was acting evilly is indisputable, but there is room for more than one kind of evil in this world. One act of justice against a hundred thousand deaths does not make a balance. And as for Iraq and the fate of the Iraqis, the government that they are likely to wind up with across the next decade (or, perhaps, the lack of government) may well prove to be worse. Hobbes had a point: people far far prefer the depradations of Leviathan to the brutality of unrestrained anarchy. Ba’athism was not warlordism or Islamic theocracy. If you’re going to topple a dictatorship in the name of democracy, you don’t get the moral credit unless you actually establish democracy.

The familiar slippage between the ‘war in Iraq’ and the ‘war on terror’ to which Bush is prone is an attempt to whitewash the moral squalor of the invasion with a coating of self-defense. But “war on terror” as Bush practices it fails every component of the legal and moral test for self-defense, which requires that violence be both unavoidable and proportional to the threat to be prevented.

The main tactics of “war on terror,” so named, and as practiced by Bush and his deputies, have been straightforwardly criminal and blatantly wrong. There is no way to justify the barbaric practices of Abu Ghraib or the indiscriminate carelessness of Guantanamo Bay. The mindset that makes such abuses possible is the one that sets the moral rights of “them” at nothing. These abuses are the product of a deep selfishness and unconcern for others. They are evil incarnate.

At home, the economic policies of Bush and his allies are immoral too: they are the abdication of responsibility, the abuse of one’s powers of stewardship. The giveaways of the recent corporate tax bill were an insult to basic norms of distributive justice. The repeal of the inheritance tax was a direct attack on egalitarianism and individual opportunity. The policy of disguising long-term tax benefits to wealthy investors as short-term economic stimulus counts as a lie. But it is a lie with real harm; it interfered with attempts to pass a genuine stimulus package and it disguised the seriously regressive effects of the Bush pacakge. To Aquinas, then, Bush’s lies over his first round of tax cuts (and over the Medicare bill, and so much else) would count as mortal sins.

It is easy to multiply examples. The continuing destruction of the earth’s natural environment is a grievous wrong against future generations. Death sentences are usually murder. The administration seems incapable even of using free markets for overall good, despite its ideological claims to love markets. The Medicare drug benefit plan, the media ownership rules, the energy plan—these are all cases of deliberate market perversion designed to enrich a lucky few at the expense of genuine competition. Free markets can do enormous good; but the Bush administration does not do good. It does evil.

Even in those few areas where Bush Republicans are inclined to treat the world “morality” as applicable, their actions these past four years have been profoundly immoral. The campaign against homosexuality, gay marriage, and civil unions is raw bigotry. This hatred, which Bush and his allies have been happy to fuel and to harness, cannot even be written off as selfishness or cowardice, the way so much of his foreign and economic policy can. No, it is a pure malevolence, a desire to deprive others of basic human rights, dignity, and fundamental legal protections out of a sheer desire to condemn people who have themselves done nothing wrongful. Call this hatred by its true name: gratuitous evil.

Or take reproductive rights, that other famous site of conservative “moral” outrage. Judge politicians and policies by their effects: the abortion rate fell under Clinton and has risen under Bush. On their own terms, Bush’s abortion policies have been moral failures.

Those terms, however, are themselves immoral. They value a small multi-cellular organism above a living person with memories, friends, plans, emotions, and reason. Their insistence on “life!” without inquiry into the details of that life would sooner have an unwanted child born into a family ill-equipped to take care of it than a wanted child born later into a family far better able to set it along the road to a happy and purposeful life. Their opposition to birth control technologies, an opposition which has awful effects for actual people, especially those living in extreme poverty, cannot be defended with reference to any objective set of moral criteria. And the stem-cell debacle illustrates further how morally bankrupt is a system of “morality” which prizes embryos over people.

George W. Bush is engaged in evil acts on a vast scale. Others may be more depraved, others may cause more suffering with their own hands, others may be more directly more misanthropic and malevolent, but no one else in the world has the power he does, which means that no one else actually accomplishes as much evil as George W. Bush does. He and his comrades-in-arms are the greatest cause of morally wrong effects in the world. To support him is to be complicit in this evil. To participate in carrying out his schemes is to have evil on your own hands. Opposition to Bush is a moral duty, one that applies to every American.

Those serving in government have a special obligation to moderate his policies and to restore the competence in execution his actions have lacked. This obligation does not necessarily require self-sacrifice; the question is what will do the most good. Sometimes, that will be civil disobedience; sometimes, it will be resignation in protest; more often, it will be serving as a wiser head and hoping to prevail. But the obligation still exists: if you serve in a Bush administration, it is your job to try to return a moral compass to an administration that is acting utterly without regard for right or wrong.

Once again, let us be clear. This is a moral obligation. George W. Bush stands for lawlessness, immorality, and evil. In his terms, he is a sinner, a prideful and unrepenetant one—and every time he sins, the entire world pays the price. Opposition to Bush is the only moral option.

They’ll Need a (Big) Crane


We’re going to take America to a better place. Let’s get the job done.

— John Kerry

Happy Election Day


Plus: I voted.

Minus: I have no hot water.