I am supposed to be cranking on a review of Anatol Lieven’s America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, and actually I am. However, I couldn’t resist picking up a galley copy of Eric Liu‘s new book, Guiding Lights: The People Who Lead Us Toward Purpose in Life.
This is the perfect book to get on Oprah, spend a morning with Katie Couric, and even to get on Letterman. Some will spoof it — like I am tempted to do and may do yet in this post. But millions and millions of parents are going to rush to buy this book.
It is written by a Blue State guy — who worked in the middle of the Clinton White House — but it captures the essence of family values/white picket fence/let’s all just be positive about ourselves style thinking that really sells in red states.
It’s an optimistic book — but regrettably way too optimistic and positive for me. I need to confess that Eric Liu is a friend and colleague of mine at the New America Foundation.
But so is Robert Wright, a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of NonZero: The Logic of Human Destiny, who also penned “War on Evil” in Foreign Policy magazine recently. According to Wright, stark treatments of good and evil debilitate and constrain healthy debate, and that — he argues — has been a central tactic of the Bush administration.
From Wright’s thoughtful essay:
Some conservatives dismiss liberal qualms about Bush’s talk of evil as knee-jerk moral relativism. But rejecting his conception of evil doesn’t mean rejecting the idea of moral absolutes, of right and wrong, good and bad. Evil in the Manichaean sense isn’t just absolute badness. It’s a grand unified explanation of such badness, the linkage of diverse badness to a single source. In the Lord of the Rings, the various plainly horrible enemy troops — orcs, ringwraiths, and so on — were evil in the Manichaean sense by virtue of their unified command; all were under the sway of the dreaded Sauron.
For the forces of good — hobbits, elves, Bush — this unity of badness greatly simplifies the question of strategy. If all of your enemies are Satan’s puppets, there’s no point in drawing fine distinctions among them. No need to figure out which ones are irredeemable and which can be bought off. They’re all bad to the bone, so just fight them at every pass, bear any burden, and so on.
But what if the world isn’t that simple? What if some terrorists will settle for nothing less than the United States’ destruction, whereas others just want a nationalist enclave in Chechnya or Mindanao? And what if treating all terrorists the same — as all having equally illegitimate goals — makes them more the same, more uniformly anti-American, more zealous? (Note that President Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” formulation didn’t court this danger; the Soviet threat was already monolithic.)
Anatol Lieven also deals with America’s “good vs. evil” habit. He writes:
Bush and his leading officials. . .possessed, and expressed, a boiled-down, simplified and extreme version of a vision of America which is in fact held very widely in American society and has deep historical roots: “The U.S. primarily goes to war against evil, not in its self-perception, to defend material interests.”
In addressing how this technique was used by other Presidents, such as Harry Truman, Lieven writes:
. . .The dubbing of the enemy as an enemy of civilization itself and teh embodiment of evil. . .also suggested that it was pointless to seek to understand his motives, even if doing so was in order the better to resist him.
And as applied to the post-9/11 era:
The tendency both to demonize and to homogenize different kinds of “enemy” has had a specific and very damaging aspect in the context of 9/11 and the struggle against terrorism. Immediately after 9/11, Bush eliminated any discussion of the concrete issues at stake between the United States and Islamist radicals from his own and the administration’s public statements. Indeed, avidly abetted by most of the media and the political class, public discussion of these issues was to a great extent suppressed.
Now, back to Eric Liu’s Guiding Lights. From what I have been able to tell so far from his book and in previous meetings and discussions I have enjoyed with him at New America, he does not deal with evil. This is a book entirely about good stuff, living a fulfilling life, on good influences.
He writes in his forward:
One day I was speaking with a group of doctors who teach in medical residency programs. I asked them who their most significant influences were. Their answers were wonderful: My mom. My grandfather. My first boss. My husband. My swim coach. Franz Kafka. my residency director. My freshman econ professor. Bach. A family friend. My hometown physician. Virginia Woolf. My piano teacher. My eighty-seven-year-old neighbor who taught me how to live.
There is something very alluring about Liu’s book because I think it depicts what many hope for: a world that might just be this innocent. Though I admit that Kafka’s and Virginia Woolf’s presence in the list above doesn’t make this a complete Pleasantville exercise.
When I first heard Eric Liu’s presentation of an outline of this book of interviews of people — race car drivers, acting coaches, scientists, artists, CEOs, athletes, etc. — who taught, people who learned, and how it all happened, I suggested a “Darth Vader” chapter. How did drug dealers learn to become drug dealers? What motivated suicide bombers and terrorists?
Brent Scowcroft may agree with me, I think. In his comments on January 6th at a forum I chaired, Scowcroft said:
You know five years ago, a suicide bomber was the occasion of a front page about ‘what motivates the suicide bombers,’ ‘how could people do this,’ ‘how do they recruit,’ and so on. Now there seems to be a waiting list. There’s a suicide bombing every day and no one even notices that somebody prepares to either drive a truck or strap weapons on and blow themselves up. What’s behind this? What is the phenomenon that leads to the kind of warfare that we are singularly unequipped to deal with? So we’ve got to get to the roots of what drives terrorism and respond — not for ’05 necessarily, but we need to deal with that phenomenon.
I am interested in the dark sides of behavior — not mushing it all together so that we don’t see or understand its component parts, which Robert Wright and Anatol Lieven suggest is an ineffective way to come to terms with the many faces of “evil.” In fact, I think that many behaviors considered bad by some are simply part of human diversity, like Alfred Kinsey discovered.
I do think that Eric Liu’s book might have been better had he included chapters asking dictators, thugs, narco-kings, thieves, and terrorists how they teach what they do — or maybe how they learned — but I don’t think Oprah Winfrey would then be as enthusiastic as I imagine she will be for this book.
And the title, Guiding Lights Does anyone remember Poltergeist? Carol Anne, “Don’t go into the light!” Now, I’m being facetious.
Congrats to Eric on his book — but I am tempted to write the dark world version of this volume if he has a best-seller here.
— Steve Clemons