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state of the union: jeffrey stout on leaders (like bush?)

February 2nd, 2006 by isaac · 3 Comments

A while ago I had a discussion with someone about Hauerwas and Stoutian criticisms (look here and here). Well, I’m reading Jeffrey Stout’s hot book on democracy again for a class on radical democracy, and found a quote that I don’t mind too much. I might even say that I dig it. Maybe it stuck with me because president Bush’s state of the union address is still echoing in my head. Here are some excerpts from Bush’s speech a couple nights ago:

In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores. There is no peace in retreat….
In the coming year, I will continue to reach out and seek your good advice. Yet there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure….
Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy. Members of Congress, however we feel about the decisions and debates of the past, our nation has only one option: We must keep our word, defeat our enemies and stand behind the American military in its vital mission.

This “war against evil” is the only way forward into a world of perpetual peace (yes, think Kant). There is “only one option;” the decision of US foreign policy is self-evident; it’s a matter of necessity. Ok, now listen to this passage from Stout’s book which attempts to develop the American democratic tradition. The passage below is taken from pages 186-187 of Democray and Tradition:
The necessity excuse almost always turns out to be false. Even when it is false, it often works. The desire to make it work therefore gives politicians an incentive to create a sense of emergency among the citizenry. Leaders who tend to act badly tend also to play upon our fears. They portray neighboring nations…as threats…. The stronger the sense of emergency the leader can arouse, the more plausible the necessity excuse becomes. The more plausible the necessity excuse becomes, the greateer the leader’s temptatoin will be to act badly. The more scope we give our leaders to act badly by accepting the necessity excuse, the closer we move to unconstrained rule by the holders of power. The closer we move to unconstrained rule, the less reason some citizens will have to trust officials to protect them or otherwise serve their interests. In the absense of such trust, a democratic culture tends to dissolve. The necessity excuse belongs to a vicious cycle that has been detrimental to democracy in contexts as different as the final phase of the war against Japan, nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, the Balkans in the 1990s, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the global struggle against terrorism. Politicians who plead necessity are usually enemies of democracy.

So, Bush starts talking about these omnipresent groups called terrorists as enemies of freedom. And second-guessing the necessary decisions of Bush’s administration in their search to root out the forces of evil (which, I guess, refers to those people who exercise their freedom and decide that they don’t like what the American establishment calls “democracy”). Then we have Stout. He asks us to exercise some concerned discretion when politicians develop arguments from the necessity excuse and who develop a stronger sense of emergency by playing upon our fears. I guess I’m struggling to figure out what counts as “democracy” or “freedom” and how you can figure out what it means to be an “enemy” of it. And, maybe most importantly, who has the authority to name the enemy, our enemy (it’s all about the “we” or “our”—which “us”, which “people”?)

Tags: theology

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Eric Lee // Feb 2, 2006 at 7:59 am


    Wow, it’s uncanny how similar those two snippets are!

    I guess I’m struggling to figure out what counts as “democracy” or “freedom” and how you can figure out what it means to be an “enemy” of it. And, maybe most importantly, who has the authority to name the enemy, our enemy (it’s all about the “we” or “our”—which “us”, which “people”?)

    Well, in the case of George Bush, he gets to define anything he wants because he’s under the impression that he has the ultimate power to do so, no matter how far his definitions may contradict the face of reality. And speaking of, wasn’t it one of Bush’s aids who said this?

    ‘’That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’’ he continued. ‘’We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’‘

    Somebody made this observation before, but how postmodern of them to say such a thing!



  • 2 melissa // Feb 4, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    i train
    are you taking a class with romand this semester?


  • 3 TheDegu // Feb 14, 2006 at 10:31 pm

    Edmund Burke said something to the effect that there is nothing worse than an abstract metaphysician in politics.

    These sweeping generalizations, ‘all men want to be free’ and the like are precisely what he had in mind.

    ‘Freedom’ is defined in Bushian terms, and when people reject this ‘freedom,’ then what? We know now…