MARCH 20, 2003
(This column was written on 3/13/03)
Recently, a restaurant in North Carolina changed the name of french fries on their menu to "freedom fries," a response to ongoing French resistance to the American and British push for war in Iraq. The restaurant owners described the change as a patriotic act, recalling sauerkraut's "liberty cabbage" moniker from wars of decades past.
Several weeks later, the cafeteria of the United States House of Representatives followed suit, also offering, as a breakfast option, "freedom toast."
The parallel that springs to my mind is the city of Iglis, Florida, and their 2001 resolution banishing Satan. "Satan is hereby declared powerless, no longer ruling over, nor influencing, our citizens," read part of the statement, copies of which were placed inside hollow poles at the four entrances to the town. At the time, the event held a certain distant absurdity, even an element of comic relief to the rest of the news.
The times we live in now, however, are thick with the rhetoric of evil. Walking around the concrete barricades of downtown Chicago, one encounters a new religious tract, "War With Evil," featuring a cover photo of one of the moment's most media-friendly dictators. One online columnist went so far as to denounce those marching in peace protests as "seriously misguided . . . or evil" in their refusal to recognize that the people of Iraq would be better off under American military rule.
The White House has set the tone for the current discourse. The administration tells us that the troubled state of the world is due to the power of evil, and they use the word repeatedly. In his State of the Union address, inventorying techniques of torture, President Bush assured us that if such acts were not evil, "then evil has no meaning."
It is precisely such rhetorical usage that causes the word evil to lose its meaning. We Americans are becoming as immune to that word as we are to living under our own version of military rule, replete with routine pat-downs and color-coded calendars. I am fairly sure that the Attorney General does not intend to call us to intense spiritual practice when he tells us to live our lives in a normal fashion, in constant awareness of the possibility of instantaneous death, yet the paradox remains.
It may give cheap comfort to recite denials of evil in the abstract sense, to order freedom fries, to take online polls deciding which foreign dictator is most evil, and to view evil as a force outside of ourselves, alien to our own thoughts, speech, and action.
On the other hand, to use the President's now-famous example, it may be evil for a man to give or follow the order to cut the tongue from another man's mouth.
But what do we call it when such acts are cast as plastic images, thrown around as rhetorical tropes? In many ways, the administration's freehand use of the word "evil" parallels restaurant decisions to delete the French.
In both cases, the swell of vague feelings of righteousness and patriotism remove us from direct confrontation with the situation of suffering. Munching patriotic foodstuffs and shaking our head at various evil regimes is far more comfortable than facing our fear or attempting to untangle, intellectually, the web of politics and economics that have led the world to this place.
Our government tells us, for the sake of our security, to keep constant vigil, to be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary. I suggest that one form of vigilance we should adopt is keeping a careful eye on the words that tug our emotions, examining the agendas behind them, especially when countless human lives, including our own, are at stake.
Evil is not some cartoon to cheer against, and it is better to stare down the devil than banish him with official letterhead. All of our smug resolutions and cute renamings will not stop the tide of hatred, on all sides of all borders and within our souls.
For that, we need, both as a nation and as individuals, a large order of vigilance -- hold the fries.
Spencer Dew is a Ph.D. student in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His work focuses on contemporary fiction and traditional Jewish theories of language and textuality