How does a snarling misanthrope like Dick Cheney or William Bennett manage to convince himself and others that he’s a man of virtue? It’s easier to understand with Cheney than it is with Bennett. After all, this was a man with genuine power over others. He could have had you drowned 83 times a month, or had death rained on you from the skies with nothing more than a word or two in the right ear. It’s one of the sadder truths of the human condition that power, which by definition can avoid any effective scrutiny of its own motives, has often been able to masquerade successfully as virtue. Cheney, in short, has had a lot of help.

Bennett is a different kettle of fish altogether. His persuasiveness seems to be rooted not so much in power as in an uncanny, and possibly unique ability to enlist gravitas into the service of hypocrisy. I’ve heard critics attribute this to the fact that his intellectual training began in a Jesuit high school, but I doubt that where he went to high school has that much to do with who he is at 65. Jesuits may have a certain reputation for confusing sophistry and pedagogy, but I can’t honestly see why Gonzaga should have to accept the blame every time one of its graduates falls victim to the sin of pride. Bennett, in my opinion, is nothing if not sui generis. The sublime contempt for human weakness which grants him license to indulge his own appetites at the same time he decries them so eloquently in others is almost certainly the expression of a natural talent, no matter what other influences have nurtured it along the way.

Be all of that as it may, if Cheney’s claim to virtue lies in power, and Bennett’s in eloquence, why have I lumped them together here? My answer is that doing so isn’t as arbitrary as it may seem. It’s not so much that they share an ideology, or an uneasy relationship with much of the rest of the human race. It’s that in America, the traditional homeland of irreverence, somehow they’ve both managed to make successful public careers out of imitating the Voice of God.

Here, for example, is Cheney, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on May 21st:

In top secret meetings about enhanced interrogations, I made my own beliefs clear. I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.

If you didn’t know any better, would you ever have guessed that he was talking about Torquemada’s water board, or having people beaten to death, or suffocating them by hanging them upside down by the ankles, or hanging them right side up by the wrists until their feet swelled to three times their normal size? No? Well, you weren’t meant to.

To paraphrase Mary McCarthy, every word out of Cheney’s mouth here is a lie, including and and the. To start with, it’s clear from recently released documents that enhanced interrogation is, by definitions in use for at least three hundred years in every major language, torture plain and simple — no ifs, ands or buts.

Ordering someone to be tortured or carrying out that order is illegal under American law, and has been for decades. It’s been moral anathema for a lot longer than that. Thus Cheney simply calls it something else. He performs the same feat of linguistic legerdemain with the phrase hardened terrorist. As we now know, his minions tortured everyone who fell into their grasp, male, female, old, young, even children…. One is tempted to observe that it isn’t patriotism, but euphemism which is the last refuge of scoundrels.

Except, of course, that when euphemism won’t do the trick, an outright lie is pressed into service. Cheney says of these enhanced interrogation methods that: they were legal, (clearly they were not) essential, (not according to FBI interrogators, retired CIA operatives, armed forces generals, and others with experience in human intelligence operations) justified, (only in the eyes of the torturers themselves) successful, (no credible evidence of such success has ever been publicly presented) and the right thing to do. (Who says so, apart from Cheney himself?)

A man who speaks, as Cheney does here, in calm, reasoned tones, grammatically correct and rhetorically rounded, in defense of deeds which are fundamentally indefensible, is a man unused to being contradicted. Fortunately for America, citizen Cheney may now have to accustom himself to being contradicted far more frequently than Vice-President Cheney ever was.

In William Bennett’s case, it isn’t so much that he defends the indefensible, it’s that he decides what to defend — and what to decry — according to a moral compass which is far less impartial, not to mention eternal, than the claims he makes for it. Here he is, writing in The Death of Outrage, published in 1998:

In the end this book rests on the venerable idea that moral good and moral harm are very real 
things, and moral good or moral harm can come to a society by what it esteems and by what it 
disdains. Many people have been persuaded to take a benign view of the Clinton presidency on the basis of arguments that have attained an almost talismanic stature but that in my judgment are deeply wrong and deeply pernicious. We need to say no to those arguments as loudly as we can — and yes to the American ideals they endanger.

This passage, in case its pieties obscure its meaning, is Bennett’s venerable idea of something which is a deeply pernicious threat to American ideals, namely President Clinton’s blowjob, and his subsequent lies about it.

By contrast, here is what Bennett said in an interview with Anderson Cooper on April 24th about President Obama’s release of the infamous torture memos from the Bush Administration’s Office of Legal Council, and the possibility that the President might allow Attorney General Holder to proceed with investigations of alleged misconduct by government officials:

Well, I think so, but let put me down a marker here. I think Barack Obama’s going to regret that he did this.

He’s going to regret that he changed his mind, too, because it looks less, frankly, right now like the rule of law, or a — you know, saluting the rule of law, and more like bloodlust. The president said let bygones be bygones, we’re moving forward, let’s put this behind us, and then flipped.

And it looks, from all evidence, that he was pressured into this for political reasons.

Now, can there still be an inquiry that’s not politically based? Yes. But just bear this in mind. When you build the gallows, be sure you know who it is you plan to hang, because, when all of this comes out, some of the people who are, you know, yelling the loudest for Dick Cheney’s head or for these lawyers’ heads — and this is not going to happen — may find themselves in trouble as well.

So a society’s moral destiny is decided by what it esteems and what it disdains — is that the lesson we should take away from the wisdom of William Bennett here? God forbid that his own moral destiny should be determined by the same standard of judgment. I’m not a Roman Catholic, but I know of no moral universe, Judeo-Christian or otherwise, which finds adulterous sex, and blushing lies about it, more of a threat to the community of the virtuous than torture, and the refusal not only to prosecute those responsible for it, but even to discuss what it is that they’ve done in our name. Ah, but Mr. Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues, thinks otherwise. We must move forward, let bygones be bygones — if we don’t, we’ll have allowed bloodlust to take the place of the rule of law.

What utter nonsense. To call a piece of sophistry like this disingenuous is to be kinder to Bennett than his own implacable God will be when the day comes, if it comes, that he’s called to eternal judgment. In the meantime, if I go looking for a Book of Virtues to read to my own grandchildren, it won’t be William Bennett’s.

15 thoughts on “Misanthropology

  1. LWM May 26, 2009 / 4:00 pm

    I’ve skimmed this and I intend to give it more attention later but misanthropy isn’t entirely without some redeeming qualities when we consider other notable “misanthropes”. I don’t necessarily include Jefferson in that category.

    Thomas Jefferson to Dr. James brown

    Washington Oct. 27, 08

    Dear Sir,

    —You will wonder that your letter of June 3 should not be acknoledged till this date. I never received it till Sep 12, and coming soon after to this place, the accumulation of business I found here has prevented my taking it up till now. That you ever participated in any plan for a division of the Union, I never for one moment believed. I knew your Americanism too well. But as the enterprise against Mexico was of a very different character, I had supposed what I heard on that subject to be possible. You disavow it; that is enough for me, and I forever dismiss the idea. I wish it were possible to extend my belief of innocence to a very different description of men in N O; but I think there is sufficient evidence of there being there a set of foreign adventurers, & native mal-contents, who would concur in any enterprise to separate that country from this. I did wish to see these people get what they deserved; and under the maxim of the law itself, that inter arma silent leges, that in an encampment expecting daily attack from a powerful enemy, self-preservation is paramount to all law, I expected that instead of invoking the forms of the law to cover traitors, all good citizens would have concurred in securing them. Should we have ever gained our Revolution, if we had bound our hands by manacles of the law, not only in the beginning, but in any part of the revolutionary conflict? There are extreme cases where the laws become inadequate even to their own preservation, and where, the universal resource is a dictator, or martial law. Was N O. in that situation? Altho’ we knew here that the force destined against it was suppressed on the Ohio, yet we supposed this unknown at N O at the time that Burr’s accomplices were calling in the aid of the law to enable them to perpetrate its suppression, and that it was reasonable according to the state of information there, to act on the expectation of a daily attack. Of this you are the best judge…


    Monticello, September 20, 1810


    —Your favor of the 14th has been duly received, and I have to thank you for the many obliging things respecting myself which are said in it. If I have left in the breasts of my fellow citizens a sentiment of satisfaction with my conduct in the transaction of their business, it will soften the pillow of my repose through the residue of life.

    The question you propose, whether circumstances do not sometimes occur, which make it a duty in officers of high trust, to assume authorities beyond the law, is easy of solution in principle, but sometimes embarrassing in practice. A strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means. When, in the battle of Germantown, General Washington’s army was annoyed from Chew’s house, he did not hesitate to plant his cannon against it, although the property of a citizen. When he besieged Yorktown, he leveled the suburbs, feeling that the laws of property must be postponed to the safety of the nation. While the army was before York, the Governor of Virginia took horses, carriages, provisions and even men by force, to enable that army to stay together till it could master the public enemy; and he was justified. A ship at sea in distress for provisions, meets another having abundance, yet refusing a supply; the law of self-preservation authorizes the distressed to take a supply by force. In all these cases, the unwritten laws of necessity, of self-preservation, and of the public safety, control the written laws of meum and tuum. Further to exemplify the principle, I will state an hypothetical case. Suppose it had been made known to the Executive of the Union in the autumn of 1805, that we might have the Floridas for a reasonable sum, that that sum had not indeed been so appropriated by law, but that Congress were to meet within three weeks, and might appropriate it on the first or second day of their session. Ought he, for so great an advantage to his country, to have risked himself by transcending the law and making the purchase? The public advantage offered, in this supposed case, was indeed immense; but a reverence for law, and the probability that the advantage might still be legally accomplished by a delay of only three weeks, were powerful reasons against hazarding the act. But suppose it foreseen that a John Randolph would find means to protract the proceeding on it by Congress, until the ensuing spring, by which time new circumstances would change the mind of the other party. Ought the Executive, in that case, and with that foreknowledge, to have secured the good to his country, and to have trusted to their justice for the transgression of the law? I think he ought, and that the act would have been approved. After the affair of the Chesapeake, we thought war a very possible result. Our magazines were illy provided with some necessary articles, nor had any appropriations been made for their purchase. We ventured, however, to provide them, and to place our country in safety; and stating the case to Congress, they sanctioned the act.

    To proceed to the conspiracy of Burr, and particularly to General Wilkinson’s situation in New Orleans. In judging this case, we are bound to consider the state of the information, correct and incorrect, which he then possessed. He expected Burr and his band from above, a British fleet from below, and he knew there was a formidable conspiracy within the city. Under these circumstances, was he justifiable, 1st, in seizing notorious conspirators? On this there can be but two opinions; one, of the guilty and their accomplices; the other, that of all honest men. 2d. In sending them to the seat of government, when the written law gave them a right to trial in the territory? The danger of their rescue, of their continuing their machinations, the tardiness and weakness of the law, apathy of the judges, active patronage of the whole tribe of lawyers, unknown disposition of the juries, an hourly expectation of the enemy, salvation of the city, and of the Union itself, which would have been convulsed to its centre, had that conspiracy succeeded; all these constituted a law of necessity and self-preservation, and rendered the salus populi supreme over the written law. The officer who is called to act on this superior ground, does indeed risk himself on the justice of the controlling powers of the constitution, and his station makes it his duty to incur that risk. But those controlling powers, and his fellow citizens generally, are bound to judge according to the circumstances under which he acted. They are not to transfer the information of this place or moment to the time and place of his action; but to put themselves into his situation. We knew here that there never was danger of a British fleet from below, and that Burr’s band was crushed before it reached the Mississippi. But General Wilkinson’s information was very different, and he could act on no other.

    From these examples and principles you may see what I think on the question proposed. They do not go to the case of persons charged with petty duties, where consequences are trifling, and time allowed for a legal course, nor to authorize them to take such cases out of the written law. In these, the example of overleaping the law is of greater evil than a strict adherence to its imperfect provisions. It is incumbent on those only who accept of great charges, to risk themselves on great occasions, when the safety of the nation, or some of its very high interests are at stake. An officer is bound to obey orders; yet he would be a bad one who should do it in cases for which they were not intended, and which involved the most important consequences. The line of discrimination between cases may be difficult; but the good officer is bound to draw it at his own peril, and throw himself on the justice of his country and the rectitude of his motives.

    I have indulged freer views on this question, on your assurances that they are for your own eye only, and that they will not get into the hands of newswriters. I met their scurrilities without concern, while in pursuit of the great interests with which I was charged. But in my present retirement, no duty forbids my wish for quiet.

    Accept the assurances of my esteem and respect.

    • William Timberman May 27, 2009 / 10:38 am

      When such things are done by men who are decent, honest, and willing to have their transgressions, such as they are, affirmed or denied by subsequent appeals to the collective wisdom of the people’s representatives, Jefferson’s exceptions seem wise, in that they rely on the same principles as those which are sometimes used to justify civil disobedience.

      In the former case, tyranny is not at issue, it seems to me, any more than anarchy is in the latter.

      (How’s that for an Eighteenth Century reply?) I realize that you’re a contrarian, and someone moreover who loves to get any goat left outside the boma at night, but I hardly think that one can conclude from these letters alone that Jefferson would have supported Cheney’s position on torture. If in fact there’s no one left in America capable of making the distinction between honesty and travesty, necessity and savagery — as Jefferson clearly did — then the republic is in dire straits indeed.

  2. LWM May 27, 2009 / 1:50 pm

    I’m not a contrarian. Greenwald and his minions are the contrarians, the mirror image of the “Safety-Above-All-Else mentality” straw man they create for anyone who recognizes that “self-preservation is paramount to all law” and the proper course of action is always determined in accordance with situational exigencies. Enlightened pragmatism and self interest.

    A strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.

    This is what Jefferson really believed. These men were flawed human beings, not saints, and thank the gods for that. But these two letters are a fascinating insight into Jefferson’s often guarded mind. And I too made that connection with tyranny and rebellion, but at the time of these correspondences, he was just as concerned with invasion and Indian attacks (terrorism). And no, it does not excuse Bush, Cheney, et al but it does give us a hint as to how Jefferson might have been less inclined than some of our contemporaries to “criminalize” policy differences or what has come to be called the Executive’s emergency powers. To be sure, we can’t really know what his mind would be on these matters but I can imagine he would less inclined to give the current batch the benefit of the doubt.

    • William Timberman May 27, 2009 / 3:48 pm

      Abraham Lincoln clearly thought the same. And yet, in both the Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses, you can see that he understood that there was a price to be paid, and that no one involved could legitimately claim an exemption.

      Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.

      That about sums it up. I’m not making Glenn Greenwald’s argument here; I’m arguing that Cheney and Bennett lack character, that they shouldn’t be trusted to be the moral arbiters that they claim to be.

      In Cheney’s case, I’d also argue — and have argued elsewhere — that we shouldn’t have granted him the powers that we were rightly willing to grant to either Jefferson or Lincoln, nor should we have allowed him to usurp them. Finally, I’d argue that what he did was criminal not only in the narrow sense, but in the broader sense as well, and that a decent society should prosecute him for his acts. In that sense, and in that sense only, I agree with Greenwald.

      • LWM May 27, 2009 / 6:34 pm

        If I say that I have no argument with this, it is still “we” who granted to these men without the requisite character, through some putatively “democratic” and “fair” process, the right to govern us. This is the problem with outsourcing agency and responsibility in forms of representative government.

        On another note. I am now Thomas Jefferson’s unitary executive sock puppet. He was a neocon, don’t you know.

        • William Timberman May 27, 2009 / 6:43 pm

          The key word here is putatively, is it not? I don’t disagree with you; I just believe that it’s better to try to ameliorate the known problems of representative government than it is to begin a new romance with authoritarianism.

          In fact, you might say that my doing what I’m doing here is at least in part an attempt to contribute to that process — if you’re feeling charitable, that is.

          • LWM May 27, 2009 / 11:39 pm

            Reading about Burr and Wilkinson it occurs to me that there are many similarities between Cheney and both men. Not the least of which is shooting people in the face. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

      • LWM May 31, 2009 / 10:25 pm

        William: Finally, I’d argue that what he did was criminal not only in the narrow sense, but in the broader sense as well, and that a decent society should prosecute him for his acts. In that sense, and in that sense only, I agree with Greenwald.

        I wanted to add that I don’t necessarily disagree with Greenwald’s argument, vis a vis emergency executive powers, but the clumsy way he does at times frame it.

        The President doesn’t have some broad, vague duty to “protect Americans.” The Constitution really couldn’t be clearer about the President’s primary responsibility: it’s to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. Sometimes, the duty actually assigned by the Constitution is consistent with the duty to Keep Us Safe, but many times, Constitutional imperatives are, by design, in conflict with the goal of maximum security.

        And this, possibly the silliest sentence he has ever written:

        The claim that the President takes an oath to “defend the country” — as though he’s some sort of National Security Daddy-Monarch whose supreme, overriding duty is to Keep Us Safe — is one of the most basic, common and destructive myths in our discourse.

        I really do think the Founders, almost to a man, would have laughed in his face. If the president doesn’t have some broad vague duty to protect Americans we are truly screwed. It is implicit. And my problem has always been the fanatics he attracts who actually do think Lincoln was a Dictator and Tyrant for preserving the Union.

        Glenn is not insane, he may be a bit fanatical at times, but I think he would have no argument here with Jefferson. Glenn is definitely a Madisonian, however, and all that entails, including a healthy respect for Madison’s Calvinist roots and belief in the doctrine of human depravity and imperfectability. He doesn’t trust any man with that emergency power. They just don’t make men like that anymore, the Founders, I mean.

        “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

        Barry Goldwater

        This is an interesting comment but I’m not sure I agree with it. I’m more inclined to agree with the attribution to Franklin but probably authored by Jackson, which people tend to parse incorrectly and misunderstand.


        Nicknamed Omniscient Jackson. What a great nick name.

        Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

  3. LWM May 27, 2009 / 2:24 pm

    “and someone moreover who loves to get any goat left outside the boma at night”

    I’ll grant you that, but it hardly makes me a contrarian in the sense of black vs. white. I’m never that certain about anything.

    • William Timberman May 27, 2009 / 3:58 pm

      I’m never that certain about anything.

      It’s your most endearing character trait. That and your willingness to think out loud, in front of God and everybody. 😉

  4. LWM May 29, 2009 / 3:25 pm

    No posts on empathy? I’d have thought this would be right in your bailiwick. German philosophers? Einfühlung was first coined by German philosopher Rudolf Lotze in 1858.

    • William Timberman May 29, 2009 / 3:41 pm

      Nope. The next one’s on what is to be done. (German philosophers, yes, but I’ve also read my share of politicos, including some not presently in favor with the king.)

      Anyway, there’s a kink or two that developed toward the end — not surprising, I suppose, considering how often my reach exceeds my grasp — but I figure it’ll be up before the weekend’s out.

    • sysprog May 30, 2009 / 11:37 am

      Word derivations.

      My first cousin (*) Moritz Steinschneider, who specialized in both Hebrew and Arabic, is generally credited for coining antisemitisch in 1860.

      Moritz used the word to describe philologist J. Ernest Renan, who was theorizing that speakers of Semitic languages were members of a Semitic race, and that Semitic people(s) (Jews AND Arabs) weren’t cosmopolitan enough.

      Later, of course, the anti-Arab meaning was dropped from the word.

      Not cosmopolitan enough! You can’t win.

      — sysprog, rootless cosmopolitan
      (*) first cousin, four times removed

  5. pieceofcake June 1, 2009 / 8:38 am

    now here I have respectfully to disagree –
    and that’s why I HAVE to write – I think Dick Cheney doesn’t deserve to be called a misanthrope at all. In my book misanthropes are still some kind of romantically fascinating characters – like great minds who have gone bitter – So Jefferson would fit in perfectly – but Cheney? – Never! –
    There is this German saying: ‘Ab vierzig bist du fuer dein eigenes Gesicht verantwortlich’ and Cheneys face says it all. He is one of these sardonic old bureaucratic Korinthenkacker who call the police if the kids next door are to noisy and even the ‘nickname’ Darth Vader does him much to much honor.
    He should have been punished with the name of one of the simpler cartoon villains like Duke Sigmund Igthorn the ‘antagonist of the Gummi bears.
    (What he lacks in arcane knowledge or demonic blood paths, he compensates with badassery)
    And ‘badassery’ probably would be the perfect expression for Cheneys actions if he wouldn’t have done it in the US of A.
    And about that Bennett dude – perhaps them same old same old with a little more conscious –
    Whenever people are having good feelings, he just literally sucks the feeling out of them, injecting a creepy pedo-vibe.

    And I know all of this is actually not funny – because these type of characters are not supposed to run countries – But it happened and I loved the Jefferson letters – and Hi! – William!

    • William Timberman June 1, 2009 / 9:47 am

      Hi, PoC, benvenuto(a) in Canecittà.

      Yeah, I understand the romantic view, but those are the misanthropes of comedy — il Dottore, perhaps, or the older Beethoven as depicted in the movie, slapping at the ankles of a pack of tormenting children with his cane.

      The world moves faster these days. I’d say that if you haven’t freed yourself of the bad habit of blaming your parents and their generation for everything by the time you’re thirty, you most likely never will. As for your face, the plastic surgeon is as likely to be responsible these days für dein Antlitz as you are yourself — assuming that a) you aren’t poor, and b) you aren’t Dorian Gray.

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