Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Two comments

A reader left a comment last night on a recent post, Patriotism vs. nationalism. The post quoted Emmanuel Macron’s distinction between the terms:

Le patriotisme est l’exact contraire du nationalisme : le nationalisme en est la trahison. En disant « nos intérêts d’abord et qu’importent les autres ! », on gomme ce qu’une Nation a de plus précieux, ce qui la fait vivre : ses valeurs morales.

[Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By putting our own interests first, with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive: its moral values.]
The comment read:
Boy I long for the days when the NYT brandished Reagan for calling the Soviet Union/Russia an Evil Empire.
I was curious to see what the Times had to say about “evil empire,” so I looked, and wrote a comment in reply. And got shut out of my own blog: “Your HTML cannot be accepted: Must be at most 4,096 characters.” That’s cold, Google, but understandable. Here’s my reply to the commenter:

Your comment made me curious enough to look in the Times Archive for context. Reagan used that phrase in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals. Though he acknowledged an American “legacy of evil,” he presented the international situation as a Manichaean struggle between good and evil. And you know of course which side was which. A specific context for the speech: proposals for a nuclear-weapons freeze.

I can’t find a Times editorial about the phrase. But here’s an excerpt from a Tom Wicker column (March 15, 1983):
Most of what I know about the Soviet regime I find repellent. But if the President of the United States proclaims to the world the view that this country’s relationship with the Soviet Union is a death struggle with Evil, then his own words inevitably suggest that there can be no real compromise with that Evil — not on arms control or anything else. Knowing that, why should those proclaimed as “the focus of evil” believe in the possibility of real compromise with a U.S. dedicated to their destruction? The holy war mentality on either side tends to evoke it on the other; and holy wars are both the hardest to avoid and the least likely to be settled short of one side's annihilation.
The question for Wicker was not whether the Soviet Union was a rotten system but whether the language of “evil empire” was the best way to deal with that system. In another column (September 30, 1983), Wicker asked,
Has Ronald Reagan’s management of foreign affairs, compared with that of his predecessors, reduced or heightened Soviet-American animosities? If the latter, for what purpose? Are we more secure, for example, for his having personally labeled Moscow's an “evil empire”?
That was not long after the Soviet Union shot down a South Korean passenger plane that had strayed into Soviet territory.

Two other items. One, a brief editorial comment commending a decision to return to the Soviet Union a sixteen-year-old who had asked to stay in the United States:
The Reagan Administration is not famous for its sensitivity concerning the Russians. We have it on Highest Authority, for example, that the Soviet Union is an “evil empire.'”
But the Times also wrote:
The Soviet Union remains a country that people are eager to flee, America a country people struggle to enter.
You’ll have to read further to see why the Times approved of returning the young man to the Soviet Union.

And on the same day, Russell Baker wrote about Reagan’s choices of words to suit his audiences:
He knows precisely when to make a sound like “evil empire” rather than “Soviet Union.” It is a sound that delights churchly fundamentalists. Mr. Reagan did not hesitate to make it for them in Florida during the spring. It was not a sound calculated to please American farmers, though. And so, when the time came to worry about the farm vote a few weeks back, the sound emanating from Mr. Reagan was not “evil empire” but “market.” Having uttered the correct sound, he approved record grain shipments from American farmers to — no, not the “evil empire” but the Soviet “market.” Here was a remarkable piece of retuning your instrument to the acoustics of the auditorium. A less skillful musician would have made an insufferable sound about “being nice to the evil empire,” and American farmers would have howled. American farmers don’t want to be any nicer to the “evil empire” than churchly fundamentalists do. All they want is a profitable market.

The question raised by these incidents is whether anybody cares anymore what is being said, as long as the correct sounds are being made.
I care what’s being said, always, and I think Wicker’s question is important: are we safer for language like “evil empire,” “axis of evil,” “little rocket man,” and so on, or not? The larger question, what the post was about: whether nationalism is a strategy for a better world.

[I searched the Times from March to November 1983.]

comments: 2

Chris said...


Michael Leddy said...

I wondered about that. Maybe the idea is waving Reagan’s name around threateningly?