George W. Bush, A Decent Sort: Discussing Ethics and Necessary Truths at the Close of a Bush-Wrought World

The following interview was conducted December 5, 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This interview was with Raymond Darr, Phd, a philosophy instructor who teaching ethics and logic at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Dr. Darr also has research interests in medical ethics and the Tuskegee Experiment.

Obama ran on a message of change. What about those of us that didn’t want achange? I was pretty happy with the way things were going.

George Bush was a decent sort of man. I liked the idea of redefining terror attacks, away from a police matter, as under the Clinton administration. We had several attacks then, everything, everything from the Kobar Towers to the first World Trade Center attack to the U.S.S. Cole. Various embassies had been attacked. The basic consensus after 9/11 was to turn this matter from police work and arrest to that of military action. We were at war.

Of course the weapons of mass destruction became a focal point. Everybody thinks we were fighting Iraq because of weapons, but during the Colin Powell U.N. presentation, there had been about 23 separate instances of U.N.-issued proclamations. The had said “If Saddam crosses this line,” and then “this line,” Iraq would be in big trouble. And Iraq continued to violate these U.N. edicts. We know he had them. I have 50 quotes from Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, saying just that. Everybody thought he had them. Madeline Albright, Sandy Berger.

Bush acted on the best intelligence available when he invaded. He made some logistical errors and some tactical mistakes in the Iraq war. I think he should have gone bigger and gotten it done with. But he didn’t. Kind of unfortunate.

But what I liked about Bush—I thought he was a straight shooter. I didn’t see him as a swindler, like the radical left saw him. I saw him as a decent sort of man with conviction and faith.

There are a few tipping points for me, and one of them is the abortion issue. And George Bush in every instance came down on the right side. His vetoing of the partial birth abortion bill—not allowing babies to be born partway and then executed summarily—I think that was a strong point that history will remember. I just wish he had done more and disallowed late-term abortions altogether.

You deal primarily with ethical questions such as death and dying. A current anthropological question I am discussing is cultural violence. The root causes, the differences between culturally acceptable violence, such as boxing, and the unacceptable, such as human murder. From this I’ve been thinking about the idea of evil. Evil people, good people. Evil groups, good groups. The word is bandied about so much—how is this world being used when expressed?

I really think there is evil in the world. I don’t think it’s just cultural. And I do teach a course in ethics. Your ethics must, for example, condemn the bombing that just occurred in Mumbai India. You do not allow people to take it upon themselves to justify their ends, no matter how admirable. Whether it’s the reunification of Kashmir with Pakistan or trying to to drive George Bush out of the Middle East, whatever the goal you do not strap dynamite to a five-year old child and march them into a restaurant before remote detonation. You don’t use children as bombs. Anyone who thinks that could be justifiable could defined as evil.

And that is a known quantity: the ends justify the means. The YWCA—the Young Women’s Christian Fellowship—has adopted this to fight racism, and I don’t think they understand what it means. But they operate by any means necessary, a belief of Malcolm X. And this is a philosophical position that really needs to be challenged. I don’t know if “by any means necessary” is compatible with democratic and free nation, or a legitimate stance to take. It doesn’t matter how much you oppose racism or whatever your pet political crisis is. “By any means necessary” allows the room for evil. There are some means that are not legitimate.

Our country has a times used drastic means because of professed necessity. Even the creation of our country was a violent action, yet viewed as necessary. The Civil War, World War II. How do these differ?

America gets accused of being a racist country. I hear it every time the subject of dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is raised. That it was an attack against people of color, and thus people of color need to band together and America’s racist attack. And they didn’t drop the bomb on Europe, is was against the people of Japan.

However, if you’ve ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and the firebombing of Dresden, the Royal Air Force sent in 700-odd bombers to level the city, and we bombed continuously for two days. And some of the stories are…. Now is that evil?

If you take away the ethnicity you’re still felt with a similar action.

That’s what I’m saying. The fact of a nuclear bomb—maybe that would have been better? I don’t know. The bombing of Dresden, there’s nothing to be proud of there.

So we all have the capacity for evil, whatever you want to call it. The electro-shock experiments of the 1960’s, to help answer why normal Germans were complicit or active during the Nazi regime showed that also quite normal American people, if pushed a little, most would end up administering a fatal shock. Were they suddenly evil?

The milligrams experiments. That’s very interesting, just from the grounds that the people who participated had received all of the rewards they were going to get. The subsequent shock of people was just incidental. The experiment was overbefore

they started shocking. They had already received all of their grades and all of their rewards. The only thing left was the ability to obey. To do what the person in charge of the experiment wanted them to do. By giving that little extra boost they weren’t going to get a better grade or any more money. And just ordinary people that were complicit.

Why are we complicit here? There’s still the reservation system with the American Indians, but also interment of the Japanese-American citizenry during World War II. We did that. Our of fear. We were afraid.

I think George Bush has been pretty good in avoiding this. I know with the Patriot Act there has been a lot of criticism, but there hasn’t been any gross abuse like those past examples.

Will future generations look back to Guantanamo Bat with possible regret, or with understanding?

I’ve got really mixed feelings about Guantanamo. The inmates there have an incredible practice of taking whatever container they have, filling it with spittle, urine, feces, or whatever else, and then splashing a guard walking by in the face.

Now, if you try that in a prison like Joliet you wouldn’t have a tooth left in your head. The guards would brutalize you and beat you. Look, the inmates at Gitmo have a dietitian! The staff is culturally sensitive to the Muslim population. And we’ve got the worse of the worse incarcerated there. The majority of those released because of some legal haranguing have already rejoining the ranks of the ranks of the terrorists to kill soldiers.

And I have a son in Iraq right now. The thought of turning some of those characters loose again to fight my son, I take that personally. I do know that Obama has promised to do away with Guantanamo. The question wold become: what do we do with them now?

To go further with evil, there was just the coordinated military attack on Mumbai’s civilian population. It was a terrible tragedy. Yet again with Dresden, it was a coordinated attack against a civilian population. Nagasaki was a coordinated attack against a civilian population. Can we then ever truly condemn the Pakistani terrorists for Mumbai when we committed such atrocities—supposed atrocities?

Is it then a matter of tactics, or is it a matter of something else? Okay, Hitler invaded Poland, right? And George Bush invaded Iraq. Can you say they are the same? And the radical left does do that, saying George Bush is the Hitler of the 21st century. Are these two events really comparable? This was our classroom philosophical debate today. I personally do not think so. You and I might disagree vehemently about George Bush, however, if we disagreed about Hitler invading Poland we have an entirely different line of disagreement.

I would say that while each leader were making their respective decisions, the similarity was that both Bush and Hitler wore pants. Besides this, the scenarios, the goals, the geography, the cultural history, and the means diverge. But this also doesn’t award Bush high and lofty goals. Simply, they were different campaigns and a different era. This seems plain enough.

We can criticize Bush on tactics. Whether he should have invaded or not—

Just this week, for the really the first time, he said his biggest regret were Iraq planning flaws.

Flawed, okay. Flawed. But I’m trying to get to your question of evil, and I think what Adolf Hitler did was evil, but I don’t see what George Bush did was evil.

And I felt the weight of it, when as a history student this week, I checked out a Mein Kampf from the library. I was so acutely aware of its reviled reputation that I waited for a time when I was also going to be checking out a wider assortment, form Martin Luther King and Gandhi. I also got His Struggle, which was an answer to Hitler’s book. I knew I would be required to read it, and looked on it as a serious academic exercise, but somehow you still feel you should apologize, the librarian, those you’re walking past. You feel what we would call evil when reading this book.

If you are required to read it as a history student for an assignment or research, then it is just your work. Next to the Communist Manifesto it probably the greatest influence in the modern world. Well—I actually think that the Declaration of Independence is the single most significant document, at least in American history. It was the first time in world history that law became the final judgement. A purely rational approach no longer under the fiat of a king. We would now appeal to law.

This is the significant to the whole idea of freedom. The Declaration and its necessary truths, and what we can do with that. The challenges of Rosa Parks, she was not part of the liberation front. She was a tired individual who just didn’t want to get messed with when getting onto a bus. She said, basically, ‘arrest me but I’m not moving;’ but she did not do it as a premeditated political statement. She did it because she was tired. And her humanness won her a place in history. Because of our Bill or Rights.

You know, you have to be a sensitive individual to appreciate the Bill of Rights. Terrible consequences come when we deny the truth of the proposition that “all men are created equal.” That is what makes it a necessary truth. If I deny the truth of all men created as equals then we have severe consequences. We have the Saddam Hussein and the Adolf Hitlers of the world. And the King Georges, who didn’t believe that was true.

This idea was formed over a joining of many layered, building philosophies, instead of a sudden, fully-formed bolt of lightening. And as such it is something we still grapple with today.

This goes to Guantanamo Bay. The Declaration of Independence is also the basis why a place like that can be challenged. You couldn’t have challenged it in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But you can challenge American’s right to keep Guantanamo Bay open.

It’s the principles we live by. I know some are saying it really means all citizens are entitled to such rights to such rights, the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I would suggest it be viewed universally.

The granting of such rights to illegal immigrants makes many people very uncomfortable or upset.

I can’t demand a Michigan State or Yale education for my children, but many illegal immigrants are demanding education. In California if you’re an illegal immigrant your children gets a tuition-free state university education.

What of such education being used, in this special case, as a plan to head off larger future problems if the children were not educated: problems of poverty and crime? Better to spend the money now on a future productive member of society than supporting a ballooning prison population created by socio-economic forces?

I agree with you on that. But this basic human right of health care—I’m not a big fan of universal health care. I think it is a claim, right, that if you are hurt the hospital has to take care of you. They can’t turn you away.

Actually this week the Bush administration pushed for—and I’m unsure of the final outcome—that an emergency is not required, or will be held liable for refusing help, to anyone not suffering from life-threatening injuries.

Wow, that puts a little damper on it.

Does this go against the oath of what doctors are sworn to do?

Well, I don’t think doctors are sworn to do anything. “Do no harm” is not part of the Hippocratic oath. That part was written by Galleon. In terms of health care and having to pay for it, I finally have health care with this instructor position. But if I didn’t I don’t see why you should have to pay for my health care. I don’t quite understand that.

Even if I were selfish I would say that I don’t want you sitting at home with, for example a back injury, if it could be treated, because it’s keeping you from your contributions to society. I also might simply not want you to be in pain.

Alright, let’s switch it up. Give me an example of an ethical problem that can be ripped from today’s headlines.

The partial-birth abortion in Chicago of a baby being born alive as a result of a botched abortion. The baby wasn’t granted any any unordinary measures to keep it alive. No crash carts called. The baby was put on the shelf to die. That’s an ethical issue that has to be addressed.

Another is the right to self-defense. North St. Louis is such a war zone that people are getting shot daily. The police can’t do anything, they’re understaffed. So an alderman named Strobe advised his constituents to arm themselves. Protect their family and property. Missourians have the right to concealed carry, so I don’t have a problem with it.

The very next day after this announcement the police call for another gun buy-back. Now, who in their right mind is going to sell a handgun back to $50, an assault weapon for $100? On average a nice pistol’s going to cost you $400–500. An assault weapon’s about $800–900. Who’s going to do this?

This is a matter of conscience. Will a person say “Oh, I realize how wrong I was for owning a gun, and I need to give it away?” If you needed the money, the $50, you would probably take it to the pawn shop and at least get a fair trade-in. I’m thinking this is just a silly attempt by the police department to disarm the citizenry. In my humble opinion what they are offering are crack-coupons. For a gun we’ll give you a $50 bill, but we pretty much know what it is going to be exchanged for.

Instead of reducing crime the police are actually increasing crime, by indirectly encouraging home break-ins and muggings in order to gain a firearms to then sell. And this program is no-questions-asked. I had a federal firearm license for about twenty years and the paperwork required for me to transfer possession was staggering. But now the police have no-questions-asked to received your crack-coupon. To me this is an ethical question, if the police could step in and do this. I believe it’s a violation of the second amendment.

I’m not sure of the violation if it is a voluntary program. Right after Obama’s election there was a rush of gun purchases. Leaving aside the right of ownership, what warranted the sudden need of a gun?

Obama, when he was state senator here in Illinois, got a grade of F from the National Rifle Association. On every piece of legislation Obama has been on the wrong side of it. Now, something that was encouraging, and perhaps a move to the center—and people are holding their breath—is Obama believes in the second amendment as an individual right.

The second amendment allows militias in defense of a free society. The question the is, what is a militia? The militia is the police department. Because we have an armed police department and an armed military I need guns to protect myself from them. Without it none of the other amendments to the Constitution really make any sense. The right to have guns will be one of George Bush’s great legacies, by his appointment to the Supreme Court of Samuel Alito and John Roberts. We just narily kept the right to retain our arms by a vote of 5–4.

While I think Obama was wrong, I have the greatest hope that he will be successful. I am not an ideologue. I voted Libertarian for so many years but I have this great hope for our country that things he is accused of are not going to happen.

When I think of any large, dispersed population, I’m unable to apply an overarching label to that mass. Calling any big gathering or people either “good” or “bad” is like the shiver I get from “a company that cares.” A company is soulless and unable to care, obviously, and in this same way, a country—taken holistically—does not have a soul either. How do we then often take individualistic qualities and and affix them to a given country?

That’s a good question. I teach the Bill of Rights in my logic class under the heading of “necessary truth.” Contingent truths are truths that depend on something outside of us to make it true or false. Such as “your car is blue.” True of false? Yes, it is blue. It’s a tautology, a question of identity. Something either is, or it isn’t. But then there’s necessary truth: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And that’s how we measure goodness and badness in our country.

Originally written by Jefferson it was supposed to read: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Yet Benjamin Franklin wanted it a little more secular, and not quite so religious as Jefferson wrote it, and Franklin won out.

So we instead “hold these truths to be self-evident what all men are created equal.” Now, originally the definition of “man” was a proprty-owning Caucasian male. We’ve of course expanded it, and I think we’re further expanding it now to include the world population. The illegal immigrants, everybody, gets the Constitutional benefits of equality.

Not so in other countries. Not so in Saudi Arabia or Iran. If, let’s say, the Freedom Riders of the early Sixties rode in Kuwait or Baghdad, do think they would have been afforded the same generous treatment when we were arrested?

I don’t believe the treatment of the Riders here, deep in the Jim Crow South, could be called generous.

And that’s what the whole idea of “evilness” hinges on. What are the basic, necessary truths? What we mean by a necessary truth is that if I deny that proposition: all men are created equal. We’re not talking about biology or physicality. The spirit of all men are created equal was evident during the Civil Rights era. The question of where to sit on a bus, or which fountain to drink from. The necessary truth of just being as good as the next person. I remember this question in Arkansas as a child. I remember “colored-only” restrooms or seating at movies. Thank God those days are gone. So are we better than we were in the Fifties? I really think so; we’ve seen some real progress.

Obama-what a wonderful thing. “All men created”—it doesn’t matter the gender, the skin color. This was an exciting year. We had women running for president and vice-president. One of the disappointments I had was when Sarah Palin was being attacked so unfairly—the feminists that were against her.

Feminism, though, is a desire to be treated by individual merit, and not have a presupposed judgement—both undue scorn or aid—because or gender.

I didn’t vote for [Libertarian candidate] Bob Barr. I went with McCain, but I liked Palin. I thought the only hope of the Republican party was Palin. And McCain just leaves me cold. Palin, however, was a breath of fresh air when she came out, and I liked that—and the fact that she wasn’t a lawyer or a Washington insider. I liked her demeanor and thought she was a very attractive woman. I felt comfortable listening to her. But then I thought she was treated unfairly, and I think that was one of the things that put me in her camp. She never got a fair shot from the news media.

I think she had some great challenges, and I don’t particularly trust these edited interviews with Katie Couric. The Katie Couric interviews were basically phony, because I could turn the tables on Katie Couric. I listening to that one, about the Supreme Court decisions, that Sarah Palin disagreed with. Is that a prerequisite, the ability to name court cases? Personally, however, I think Palin blew it. I would have said Roe v. Wade.

You could be vice-president then.

I could have done it. Or the Teri Shivo case.

And we just thought of those sitting around in the moment.

Well, beyond the interviews, what I thought was unfair was that this is this the first time that the news media became inconsequential. No longer can you trust the news media for objective reporting. I found Fox News pretty good, but then they loaded up. I don’t feel that I was getting the true story. The Joe Biden gaffes, none of those were ever reported. His gaffe of Roosevelt getting on television every day, and telling the people what the problems were during the Depression. That seems bigger than anything Palin ever gaffed on. Yet very little that John McCain or Sarah Palin would say would make headlines.

***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here:

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