Chavez said George Bush is the Devil.
With all due respect, I beg to differ.
The Devil has been with us for thousands of years. Few have seen him. Or more accurately, few recognized him for who he was when they saw him. But if we take our cues from the rich Devil lore, especially the strain elaborated by Christian thought and art, it should become clear that George Bush is perhaps a poor devil, but certainly not the Devil.
The Devil is a Christian take on a mythological character, a trickster god, with versions in many different traditions -- as Hermes, Loki, Coyote, etc. The most important aspects of this personality are a cunning intelligence, a knack for deception, a delight in mischief, and lack of moral scruples. Bush scores high on lack of moral scruples. But where is the creativity and the intelligence?
According to the mythology immortalized in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Devil, Lucifer, was one of the highest angels in heaven. He succumbed to the sin of pride and challenged God’s rule. God cast him down to hell together with the many lesser angels that followed him. Lucifer’s fall was thus tragic -- a fall of a great but imperfect character. He may have overestimated his worth, but not by much. Satan appears as cunning, intelligent, resourceful, and above all a grand master of human psychology and language. George Bush may also be guilty of the sin of pride. He imagines his God as a kind of a super-sized Karl Rove, a faithful behind-the–scenes adviser who helps him be “the decider” that he is. Bush may imagine himself to be God’s boss. But his sin of pride is more farcical than tragic. George Bush clearly lacks the insight a tragic hero needs. Whereas Satan enjoyed the fall of humanity, Bush can’t comprehend the magnitude of the damage and pain his decisions inflicted on others. He honestly cannot fathom why so many people hate him. The poor devil!
The biggest point of difference is this: Satan doesn’t use force. He deceives; he tempts; he seduces. But he doesn’t bully. He doesn’t even twist arms. And he certainly doesn’t “shock-and-awe” his victims. The kind of behavior most associated with George Bush is more like what we’d expect from the God of the Old Testament than from Satan. Compare “thou shalt have no other gods before me” to “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Or compare the U.S. love of aerial bombardment to the treatment of the city of Sodom. Or recall that early speech in which Bush explained that, being the President, he doesn’t have to explain his decisions and compare that to God’s speech in the Book of Job.
Like the Roman emperors before him, some of Bush’s divine attributes come with the office. As Commander in Chief of the greatest concentration of fire power since the burning of Sodom, Bush is the modern day Lord of Hosts, who sets to lead his people to the promised land through the so-called “long war” (will it be forty years?), and in between has to zap, drown, bury, exterminate and shock-n’-awe every insubordination to his plan for “infinite justice.”
That is a far cry from the cunning and devious Satan in all his mythological permutations. Satan is a guerilla fighter and a cave dweller. He has no great fire power, but a lot of brain power. He fights with tricks and traps. Like a black belt Judo master, whatever force he has is borrowed from his opponents. Satan doesn’t destroy Paradise. God does. Satan merely whispers in Eve’s ear the fateful words that would undo her fealty to His order.
The Christianized Devil is above all the consummate salesman. He sells you what you crave, or at least what you think you crave. Fame? Knowledge? Immortality? Money? Sex? Power? You name it. Satan is happy to oblige. Whose fault it is if he doesn’t point you to the small print in the contract? Did you ask? And not that he wouldn’t tell you the truth if you did ask persistently enough. Satan deceives but he doesn’t lie. If he is ambiguous, non-committal, it is because you heard what you wanted to hear, and you understood what you wanted to be true. His greatest weapon is his knowledge of human weakness. Satan traps us with our own desires, which he then serves us back together with the bill.
Does that sound like George Bush? Would you buy a used car from him? Billions of people clearly wouldn’t, including a majority of Americans. Bush may seem to be selling public opinion on spun tales of WMD or “democracy,” or whichever catchphrase his speechwriters dreamed of, but these are not really sales pitches. They only go through the motions of trying to convince the listener. They are motivational speeches for a captive audience. They do not aim to draw in and seduce. They have neither logic nor beauty. Their goal is to drill into humanity's head the fact that we have to listen, to remind us of our position of subordination. He talks. We listen. And the sillier and less appealing his words, the more effective they are in making us aware of our impotence and his power.
Satan is primarily a speaker, a seducer, a master of language and its capacity to veil and to reveal, to draw, to incite and to move. And because of that, Satan is a character that exists through us, depends on us, is powerless without our consent and our active will -- free will, if you want to be theological. With his not-quite “My Pet Goat” level sentences (“I think war is a dangerous place”), Bush is anything but a seducer. Bush’s imperial rhetoric is the very opposite. He is “the decider.” Not only does he exist independently of us, we are merely spectators and extras in his drama. He acts. We watch. He creates reality. We in the “reality-based community” study it. He is more “Fiat Lux!” than “Lucifer.” The terseness of his language is a claim for divine authority.
George Bush’s power isn’t to sell and to seduce, but to buy, to bully and bludgeon. The success of his presidency (and say what you will, it is a smashing success, practically every Bush backer was handsomely rewarded, some beyond their wildest imagination) does not depend on Bush’s salesmanship skills but on the state of ruin of public signification. Take the latest torture show. Take John McCain, Mr. Principles, who supposedly hates torture because he was tortured in his Vietnamese cell. For many months he held fast, publicly resisting George Bush’s campaign to legalize and institutionalize torture on principle. But finally he agreed to a compromise that effectively allows torture to continue -- as long as nobody hears them scream. Why? Was his month-long opposition a charade? What does the popular McCain have to fear from the lame duck George Bush? Does he not trust his ability to make the case for his “convictions” (which do have, in fact, wide support)? It is one thing to cut political deals in the normal business of the senate, or under pressure, and quite another to compromise needlessly on the very principles that one’s public persona and biography is built upon. But McCain’s persona, like all of Washington’s politicians and opinion makers, is virtually weightless; it can spin in any direction with the gentlest blow of wind. Only in this world full of sound and fury but signifying nothing can an empire be effectively sold and managed with tales told by an idiot.
Torture is not a mere example; it gets to the essence of the New Washington. Here we must contrast the Devil to the Torturer. The Devil wants hearts and minds. The Torturer wants only the outward compliance of the body. Supposedly, American forces in Iraq toil to conquer Iraqis’ “hearts and minds.” And supposedly, American politicians get on TV and pontificate in order to sway the public’s heart and mind. But neither seems to be the case. It is by now clear that “hearts and minds” will never be won in Iraq, and equally clear that U.S. policy in Iraq and elsewhere does not suggest the slightest genuine effort to sway opinions favorably. The domestic situation is murkier, but the arrows point in the same direction -- in the last few years, with redistricting and electronic voting, the U.S. made a great leap forward towards the complete emancipation of politicians from the yoke of public opinion.
Torture is applied to get one to follow a script, admit to certain crimes, sign a certain confession, submit, be silent, be broken. It doesn’t matter what the victim thinks. It is not therefore by chance that torture is brought back by a President who is a “unilateralist,” not only in the technical “foreign policy” sense, but also in the larger sense of having no concern for anyone else’s heart or mind. Nor is it by chance that the legalization of torture is rubberstamped by a chattering class that no longer cares whether it is making sense or not. It would be facetious to draw an equivalence between the torture of detainees at Abu-Ghraib and other places and the “torture” of having to listen to George Bush (or James Carville, etc. etc.) There is of course a world of difference between torture of the real and the metaphoric kind. But there is also an underlying unity of purpose. In both cases the goal is not to convince but to subdue, not to communicate but to dominate.
Chavez was looking for the Devil in the wrong place. For whether we apply the trickster figure or the Christian devil as template, Chavez himself fits both much better than Bush. If Satan is the consummate tempter of souls, politicians with large ideas and committed mass following are always potentially Satanic. The power to tempt and to deceive is the flip side of the power to reason and to inspire. Both depend on a language that has weight, a language that is used to convey ideas that matter, and that demand our consent or dissent with some urgency.
For a while now it seemed as if that model of politics had been superseded in the all-too-enlightened West. We gave different names to that transformation: “the end of ideology,” or “the end of history,” or “the third way,” etc. It was, at least for some, a cheerful send off to past illusions. “Begone, Satan!” But today, with Blair and Bush, we begin to glimpse the fuller articulation of a world at last free of Satan, a world with no temptations of the soul, and we may want to rethink the eagerness to see his back. We are in a Devil-forsaken world, with neither false illusions nor true dreams. The chatterers cannot inspire, so they threaten and bully. And when that fails, torture is their last hope. We talk about “a battles of ideas” but the West no longer cares about ideas. The President of Iran has ideas. He even writes them in letters and mails them to Western heads of states. It doesn’t matter whether his ideas are bad or good -- some of them are pretty awful. That is indeed what he invited Bush and others to debate. It matters that he dared to use language seriously, that he dared to communicate. That is enough to cast him as a dangerous madman.
Not that Chavez is necessarily the Devil, but unlike Bush, at least he could be.
And that makes him so seductive.
Gabriel Ash is an activist and writer who writes because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword and sometimes not. He welcome comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Gabriel Ash
The Case for
Israel, by Israel
* Dear Ayatollah
* Settlements: A User’s Guide
* A Victory for Israeli Democracy
* Don’t Get Mad, Get Going!
* Pink Delusions