Purity and Danger on the Campaign Trail

June 3, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mary Douglas, in some of her later writing after Purity and Danger, noted that some cultures are more rigid about the categories they use to think about things in their world; other cultures accepted a degree of fuzziness and ambiguity.

American politicians have often found success in appealing to the more rigid world view. They call for a hardening of boundaries — geographic, moral, and cognitive. It is the view that divides the world into good and evil. The most famous example in recent history is George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” State of the Union speech in 2002. Referring to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, Bush declared, “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”

The “axis powers” of World War II , the basis of Bush’s phrase, were in fact linked by alliance. The countries in Bush’s axis of evil had no such alliance, and two of them, Iraq and Iran, had just fought each other in a devastating nine-year war. Bush was trying to build support for the invasion of Iraq as a response to the terrorist attack of 9/11. So even though the 9/11 terrorists had nothing to do with Saddam’s Iraq, Bush could lump them all together as “evil.” This reduction of the world into two simple categories, good and evil, worked. Nearly half of all Americans believed that Saddam had been behind 9/11, and of course nobody in the Bush administration did anything to disabuse them of that mistaken idea. Bush was able to sell the invasion of Iraq as part of the war on terror (he might just as well have said “war on evil”) — sell it to America, that is.  But while Bush was successful in the US, the rest of the world rejected his logic, his “facts,” his policy, and quite possibly his good-vs.-evil world view.

You would have thought that the experience of Iraq had taught us something. In the movies, when you get rid of the evil ruler, all the Munchkins hail you as a savior, send you back to Kansas, and live forever in happiness and peace. But in the real world, Iraq turned out to be a much more complicated array of political, religious, and ethnic alliances than merely good and evil. Even if Saddam was evil, getting rid of him did not exactly unleash the forces of good, as the daily press reports from Iraq remind us. The world of international politics is more complicated than good and evil, and the country that has benefited most from our wars against evil in Afghanistan and Iraq has been that axis-of-evil linchpin Iran.

Nevertheless, here is Fred Thompson, former senator and now probably a candidate for president: “This is a battle between the forces of civilization and the forces of evil and we've got to choose sides.”

Thompson has not even officially declared his candidacy for President, but in the polls, he’s already ranked third among Republicans. If Mary Douglas is right, we should also see this Purity-and-Danger view underlying the position of Thompson and his supporters on the subject of immigration: Harden the boundaries, wall off the borders, keep out the dangers of impurity.

Stay tuned.

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