January 22, 2005

A radical inauguration

President Bush's second inaugural speech may well turn out to be one of the most important speeches in our nation's history. It was certainly eloquent enough to stand alongside the speeches of Kennedy and Roosevelt, if not quite those of Lincoln.*

The thing that struck me most powerfully about the speech, though, was how un-conservative it was.

There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.

It used to be that conservatives distinguished themselves from Marxists by their scorn for junk concepts like the "forces" of history. Apparently, no longer. While the Marxists proclaimed that the forces of history would result in the end of class struggle, Bush enlists these same forces to proclaim the approaching "end" of tyranny. Ending tyranny would be like ending sloth and envy. It's a radical utopian dream, which would require a transformation of human nature far more radical than anything the Marxists ever dreamed of.

Inauguration speeches are occasions for overblown rhetoric, but every political creed can draw on their own rhetorical tradition for suitable excesses. Why does Bush use the rhetoric of the radicals?

We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events.

Bush acknowledges here that human beings are responsible for historical events. Why, then, should he have "complete confidence" in their eventual outcome? Real conservatives ought to recognize a bone when it's thrown to them. Conservatives have always been the last people to have "complete confidence" in the outcome of human endeavors on this earth. This is because most conservatives would agree with what Elrond said in Peter Jackson's version of the Lord of the Rings: "Men are weak."

Bush can have complete confidence about the human future only if he doesn't really believe that stuff about human responsibility. Which means that either (a) Bush is really an old-time radical who believes in the perfectibility of mankind, or that (b) the "triumph of freedom" he talks about isn't really a human endeavor after all.

Some I know have questioned the global appeal of liberty, though this time in history -- four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen -- is an odd time for doubt.

It may be true that Bush is a leftist radical in conservative clothing, but the better explanation for his lack of any doubt about the future is his fervent belief that God is guiding his hand.

Our President's fervent beliefs about what God is up to aren't due merely to his Christianity. Many Christians are much more comfortable than Bush is with the idea that God's actions in this world are indirect. Humans were made by God, and the nature and timing of the end of the world will be decided by God, but the time in between is mostly up to us. Christians of this sort can afford to be confident about the afterworld, but not about this world. Human free will makes earthly life a crapshoot, where doubt and uncertainty are as necessary for survival as breathing in and breathing out.

If, however, you think the lines between the earthly and the heavenly realms are blurred, you might plausibly achieve the level of confidence about human events exemplified by George W. Bush.

When our founders declared a new order of the ages, when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty, when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner "Freedom Now," they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled.

History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty.

It's no wonder that Colin Powell is no longer a member of Bush's cabinet. His realism and doubt was incompatible with Bush's fervent belief in a God who "means" our hopes to be fullfilled on earth, and who "authors" not only our liberty but our history as well. I've heard that Colin Powell is quite a religious man, but Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld (both of whom are quite possibly areligious) are a far better fit for the Bush cabinet than Powell.

To the extent that Bush intends to serve as God's right-hand man in His inevitable plan to end tyranny and fulfill ancient hopes of freedom, the worldly, neoconservative faith in bombs, covert operations, and interrogations free from court oversight is much easier to live with on a day-to-day basis. Bush, for his reasons, and Cheney, for his, share the same overt hostility towards doubt and reflection.

Seymour Hersh has an article in this week's New Yorker about this lack of doubt in the White House:

Despite the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, the Bush Administration has not reconsidered its basic long-range policy goal in the Middle East: the establishment of democracy throughout the region.
If the mess in Iraq will not give this administration pause, it's unlikely that any arguments against "bold action" in Iran will carry much weight with our President or his advisers either. We'd better hope that Bush is right about God's plan, and that Tom Friedman is right that "many young people [in Iran] apparently hunger for Mr. Bush to remove their despotic leaders, the way he did in Iraq."

Forgive me, Lord, but I'm doubtful.

* It was at least an eloquently written speech. Bush might have bungled the actual speaking part. Prof. Bainbridge reports: "It was poorly delivered, even by Bush's minimal standards. He consistently accented the wrong words and mucked up the flow. There was no grace to his speaking style whatsoever; indeed, he seemed to be going through an unpleasant exercise.

Posted by Carey at January 22, 2005 09:51 AM

I wonder who wrote the speech. Karl Rove?

Posted by: Larry at January 22, 2005 12:29 PM

not much to disagree with in that. i just had an article in a local paper about the very same article that hersh wrote. And he also says it, that the only people who think that iranians will welcome an invasion on their sovereignty, are the neo-cons.
The only thing that it will do, is that it will light on fire, the nationalism of the people, and unfortuantely make the mullah regime into a rallying point.

Posted by: loopy superstring at January 24, 2005 12:57 PM