I really have nothing to say about the election. I agree with my 83-year-old father, who said that it would take a century to undo the damage to the country that Bush will be responsible for in the next four years. That is to say, the damage will not be repaired in my lifetime, let alone his; and probably not in the lifetime of my daughter either. The United States, and the world, will be a meaner and more oppressive place, with the virtues of tolerance and compassion increasingly under siege, if not altogether obliterated. And there’s nothing you or I can do about it.
What interests me most, in a morbid sort of way, is the motives and desires of the voters on November 2nd. For make no mistake about it: the American people have willfully and knowingly chosen to embrace radical evil. Yes, this was an election about “values.”
The question, at a time like this, is always what causes people to vote, and to pledge their lives, against their own interests. Most of the people who voted for Bush will be deeply screwed by his policies. They will see many more of their sons and daughters die in foreign, imperialist wars; they will see their incomes go down, their savings wiped out, their old age security taken away, their medical care reduced to nothing, their freedoms curtailed.
The old-time Marxists used to explain things like this in terms of “false consciousness.” People acted against their own interests, the Marxists said, because they were deluded by ideologies, because they were fooled by empty promises, because they were tricked by the ruling class into misidentifying their enemies, the source of their misfortunes. (Thomas Frank still pretty much makes the same sort of argument today). But this line of approach seems to me to be deeply wrong. It’s condescending, for one thing; it assumes that those 59 million Bush voters didn’t know what they were doing, and that “we” (whoever constitutes this we) know their needs and desires better than they do. For another thing, it wildly overestimates the degree to which people in general act rationally; despite what the free-market economists tell us, we do not start out with bundles of “preferences,” and then work to logically maximize the satisfaction of those preferences. In fact, people are far less motivated by such calculations than they are by passions, desires, values, committments, and beliefs.
I think, rather, that 59 million people voted for Bush in full consciousness of what they were doing. They were aware of the harms that they would suffer from this action, but they were willing to put personal advantage aside in order to serve a higher duty. In other words, the reelection of George W. Bush was an ethical decision, a moral choice. Kant says that the only moral action is one not tainted by “pathological” motives, by which he means (among other things) personal advantage and satisfaction. Lacan, Zizek, and Badiou, in this respect following Kant quite closely, say that the only ground for ethics in our “postmodern” world is to remain true to one’s desire even at the price of one’s own comfort and well-being; or that it is “fidelity to an event” (Badiou) when this event ruptures the homogeneous order of the world and introduces absolute novelty. Under all these definitions — probably the only ones that are adequate to describing ethical experience, where pragmatic, naturalistic, and utilitarian approaches are not — the choice of, and committment, to Radical Evil is just as authentic and meaningful an ethical decision as any other. The American people have said, in effect, that no sacrifice is too great, no price is too high to pay, when it is a matter of affirming the Values of bigotry, torture, xenophobia, ignorance, and general social corruption. They have pledged themselves to radical evil, transcendently, knowingly, come what may.
And that is why I have nothing to say. I only hope that I remember, in the years to come, that however grievously my family and myself are harmed by the results of the American people’s moral choice (and this harm will not be negligable: I am likely to find myself destitute in old age, and bereft of the freedoms that I have, thus far, unquestioningly enjoyed and pretty much taken for granted; and my daughter is likely to have many paths of advancement closed off to her), that nonetheless we are still in a relatively privileged position, so that the ills we will suffer will be quite trivial in comparison to those that will be suffered by the vast majority of the population, both in the United States and throughout the world.