February 04, 2019

Concerning Moral Judgment, and Moral Monsters

If we are to consider the particular question of moral judgment that concerns me here, we must first identify a preliminary issue -- and then, as abhorrent as we may find it in many respects, we must set that issue aside, albeit in a strictly limited sense. That preliminary issue is this: how do we judge a person who orders that certain actions be undertaken, knowing that those actions will necessarily and unavoidably lead to the death of at least one (and, most typically, more than one) entirely innocent human being? I must add an especially pertinent fact: nothing compels the person to order that these actions be undertaken. That is, the person orders the actions freely, voluntarily and consciously, aware of what he/she is doing. That the person in question may try to convince him/herself (and others) that circumstances exist that compel him/her to take these actions is of no matter; murderers always have justifications.

Most people would agree that such a person has placed him/herself beyond the bounds of civilized society. Persons of this kind have arrogated to themselves the power of life and death: they claim the right to determine who shall live and who shall die, and there is no recourse to their decision. They will order that innocent human beings shall die -- and there is not a damned thing you or anyone else can do to stop it. This is a claim of absolute power. Full stop.

Now, consider: such a claim has been made, implicitly and/or explicitly, by every President of the United States since World War II. When you consider all the interventions, both overt and covert, engaged in by the U.S. around the world from the mid-20th century onward, there can be no question about this. (The same is true of most, if not all, of the Presidents prior to World War II; we will not review all of U.S. history here. But the proposition is painfully, obviously true since the end of the Second World War.)

What moral judgment can we legitimately make at this point? This one: all the Presidents of the United States since the end of World War II have been moral monsters. To order actions that you know will lead to the death of even one innocent human being, when you could choose differently or even refrain from acting altogether, is utterly damnable, and entirely unforgivable. How do you make amends to the husband or wife left behind, or to the children without a mother or father, or to any of the other survivors? How do you find forgiveness for ending the life of a single, precious, irreplaceable human being?

So we are left with a procession of moral monsters, who are "honored" as leaders of a "great" nation. The newest members of this procession are Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump. Make no mistake: they are both moral monsters. They both have the blood of innocents on their hands, many times over. Some may conclude that the depravity evidenced by their actions exiles both of them to the underworld of the damned and further moral distinctions are meaningless, and even offensive.

In one sense, I would not argue against that perspective. In fact, before proceeding, I will insist that we recognize the immense evil represented by anyone who wishes to be Commander in Chief of an Empire of Evil, an empire founded on compulsion, violence, suffering, torture and death. No one chooses to lead such an empire innocently. And yet, there is a sense in which one of these two most recent members of the Procession of the Damned is worse than the other.

I was prompted to reflect on these matters when I reread a striking passage from Franz Kafka. I had placed the passage at the beginning of an essay a little over two years ago. As a writer, I feel that I am always in search of Kafka's axe. These thoughts are my fumbling attempt to find an axe that might be of some momentary use. In today's world, particularly when one considers matters of political import, we need such axes every day, and usually many times a day. If we are not on constant guard, the frozen sea will inexorably overtake us. And we will die. Even if our physical form should survive, we will be dead spiritually. Perhaps that form of death is the only one that ultimately matters. Since most people fail to recognize the crucial importance of Kafka's axe, our prospects are grim. Surely this is not news.

After I reread the Kafka passage and thought about it for a while, I continued reading my essay. I didn't remember exactly what I had said about the Kafka excerpt, or why I thought the passage was especially revelatory. The major part of the earlier essay concerned a New York Times story about Trump, and how certain of Trump's policies built upon and were made possible by policies carefully and diligently pursued by Obama. Of course, for the Times the problem was not that Obama first chose and followed such policies, but that a man like Trump subsequently inherited them. In discussing the Times' treatment, I wrote:
Note the critical phrases: the Trump administration "will find some assistance in a surprising source"; Obama "and his successors could be trusted to use them prudently"; "policies that Mr. Obama endorsed as lawful and legitimate for sparing use." In two brief paragraphs, the article depicts Obama as "prudent," a man of wisdom and restraint who can "be trusted" to use frightening and lethal powers "sparingly." And, of course, Trump is none of those things. For the Times, we should be terrified of the man who would make greater use of these powers, but not of the man who established the legality and legitimacy of such powers in the first instance.
I also discussed how the Obama administration claimed it had the "right" to murder anyone in the world, any time it wished, for any reason it chose or invented, and that it need never tell anyone about its actions or the reasoning behind them. The Obama administration claimed absolute power, the power of life and death itself. About this, I said:
You can appreciate how difficult the truth would make the Times' unceasing efforts to portray Obama as a "prudent," restrained and wise leader, one who can be trusted with all-encompassing power. If the nature and full meaning of Obama's policies are made explicit and if they are genuinely understood, we must conclude that Obama is a monster. When Trump uses the same powers -- and we can be certain he will -- he will be a monster, too. But he won't be the first one. ...

While the [Times] article makes the point that Obama fought against any legal finding that the policies in question are illegal, a battle which he won, the author works very hard to leave the impression that all would have been well, if only all future presidents were as "prudent" and "restrained" as Obama. With Trump's election, these calculations are invalidated. In this view, Trump is the problem, not Obama. This narrative ignores completely the extent to which Obama devoted himself to making certain that these policies would become a permanent part of State power going forward.
As I reread my previous essay (and there is much more detail in the full article), one thought kept repeating in my brain, growing steadily louder and more insistent: Why, Obama is far worse than Trump. It's obvious! Because Obama knew what he was doing.

In this way, the Times makes such a judgment of Obama unavoidable. In its own way, it's perfect, and a powerful example of unintended just desserts: in its unceasing attempts to justify and idealize Obama, it presents all the evidence necessary to pass the most severe of negative judgments against him. Of course, such a judgment requires that one identify fully and truthfully the nature of Obama's policies -- and this, above all, is the identification that the Times, and most mainstream commentary, is resolutely determined to make impossible.

The most common criticisms of Trump reinforce the judgment that Obama is far more culpable than his successor. According to most commentary critical of Trump, he is either an idiot or crazy. Or both. Let's take those criticisms seriously: how much does an idiot or a crazy person understand about the nature of the policies he pursues? Any such understanding will be incomplete and even accidental, at best. But the Times and most commentators endlessly insist that Obama was brilliant, "prudent," and "restrained." Obama was aware of the great dangers represented by the policies he championed -- and yet he did all he could to make certain that those policies would be protected from all legal challenges, and that those policies would be permanently grafted onto the operations of the State. As for Trump, if his critics are to be believed, an achievement of that kind would be entirely beyond his abilities, strictly limited as they are by his idiocy and lunacy.

So there you have it: on the one hand, an idiotic lunatic who unquestionably represents great and lethal danger, given the immense, terrifying powers at his command -- and on the other, a thoughtful, knowledgeable, reflective and exceedingly careful president who made certain that such powers would be available to all subsequent Commanders in Chief. Who do you think is the guiltier of the two?

It's not even a close call.


Many thanks to the six people who made donations in response to my post yesterday. I'm deeply grateful. I'm still $500.00 short of what I need for February rent and a couple of other first of the month bills. And if I can't pay the rent by the end of tomorrow ... well, it will be the beginning of very bad things. The pain is a bit less today -- hence, this post -- but it's still there. I'm still considering going to the ER in the next few days. We'll see how it goes. If I do go, it would be nice to have a little money for whatever prescriptions I might be given (it seems fairly obvious to me that a few prescriptions will be in order). At the moment, I can't afford to buy anything, including food. Donations in any amount will be hugely celebrated. And my gratitude will be immense. Thank you.