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For Decades, Right-Wingers Have Pushed Paranoia and Xenophobic Politics and Called It 'Moral Clarity'

Conservatives live in a world of seething aggression that most progressives can't even fathom.

As he was prepared to slink off into the history books as arguably the worst president in American history, I actually sat down and watched George W. Bush speak.

There was one passage, in particular, that rang in my ears long after his final goodbye. It probably went over most Americans' heads -- but it went right to the heart of Our Problem With George:

As we address these challenges -- and others we cannot foresee tonight -- America must maintain our moral clarity. I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense and to advance the cause of peace.

That phrase "moral clarity" -- conservatives use it a lot. And it always sounds absurd to progressive ears, coming as it does from members of an administration that shredded the Constitution, deprived people of due process, committed horrific acts of torture and lied the country into the worst military debacle in its history.

It's always bewildering to listen to such people lecture the rest of us on "moral clarity." What in the hell are they talking about?

They keep using those words. It turns out that they don't mean what we think they mean.

This was brought home to me over the holidays, when I devoured J. Peter Scoblic's U.S. Vs. Them as part of my vacation reading. Scoblic's book looks at the way the conservative penchant for "othering" (a word I coined to describe their perpetual need for someone to project their own demons onto, and then hate on) has shaped U.S. foreign policy from the beginning of the Cold War through the Bush administration.

Throughout the book, Scoblic traces the roots of this recurring phrase -- "moral clarity" -- and discusses the very specific and narrowly defined meaning it has to conservatives.

The phrase first appeared in describing the Manichean worldview of the anti-communist right in the 1950s. To William F. Buckley, Frank Meyer, Whittaker Chambers and other National Review writers, "moral clarity" meant fully understanding and accepting the essential good-versus-evil nature of foreign affairs.

People with "moral clarity" recognized the ultimate existential evil of Communism and were constantly on guard against its unceasing efforts to bring down the capitalist world by any means necessary.

To these early movement conservatives, having "moral clarity" meant that you weren't the kind of weakling who would be deceived into negotiation with the Commies, or consent to arms control, or be duped into merely containing their relentless march across the globe. It meant that you had the intestinal fortitude (or pure enough vital bodily fluids, as you wish) to do whatever had to be done to permanently exterminate America's implacable enemies -- whether it was to send in the Marines or drop the bomb.

This definition of "moral clarity" has been a major factor in U.S. foreign policy ever since. From that day unto this, the conservative movement has never been without a demonized Other to focus its vaunted "moral clarity" on.

"Moral clarity" is why conservatives hate summit meetings; why they've scuttled every attempt at arms control and nonproliferation; why every problem in the world can only yield to a military solution; and why defense is the only valid government expense.

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