Mr. Nice Guy
There’s no pleasing some people. I spent yesterday’s Whatever slagging Dubya, and the mail I get pounds on me for a throwaway comment I make about Dubya probably being a nice man (I specifically wrote: “I don’t doubt Dubya’s a nice man and not traditionally what one describes as stupid, but his thought processes are shallow and stagnant, like week-old water in a unused kiddie pool.”). Apparently calling the sitting President the most incompetent resident of the White House since Warren Harding, and doing so in an interesting and creative way, isn’t enough. One has to maintain he’s soul-warpingly evil as well, just the sort of guy who takes welfare babies, strangles them with wire, runs their tiny corpses through a deli slicer, pan fries the cold cuts and then feeds them to his Rottweilers, which he’s kicked for three hours a day since they were puppies in order to make them extra vicious when he sics them on poor, wrinkled Helen Thomas at the next White House press conference.
Sorry. Can’t do it, because I don’t think Dubya is that guy. I would suspect that on a day-to-day basis and in his personal encounters the man is normal enough, which makes him, like most people, a generally nice person to be around. I’m also sure that, like most people, he has his moments of irritability, neuroses, and supreme dickheadedness, which unfortunately for him are played out on the world stage and make for good news, while the rest of us get to have our moments of incivil stupidity in relative obscurity. One correspondent, in listing Dubya’s not-nice crimes against humanity, noted to me that the man is reportedly given to irrational bouts of rage. Well, maybe he is. On the other hand, yesterday I beat a malfunctioning phone to death with a hammer. So maybe I’m not the best person to judge someone for their irrational bouts of rage. And anyway, hammering my phone to death does not make me any less nice (except, in a very narrow sense, to malfunctioning phones). Yes, yes, where I hammer a phone in a fit of pique, Dubya can bomb a country. But I’m reasonably sure they’d bring in Colin Powell to hose him down first.
Dubya’s nice. Bill Clinton was nice, too. All of our recent Presidents have been nice enough people, in the generally accepted sense of the term; you have to go back 30 years to Nixon before you find a genuinely unpleasant occupant of the Oval Office (Johnson was apparently no prize, either, but at least he was a principled son of a bitch rather than fetidly paranoid, as Nixon was). Our Presidents are at least superficially pleasant people because as a nation we are at least superficially pleasant as well; people who are actively unpleasant generally make us uncomfortable. While unpleasantness may work on a small scale (note the number of truly feculent members of the House of Representatives), at a national level, gross non-niceness is a serious liability.
Dubya-haters want him to be evil because they perceive his policies to be evil: A nice guy wouldn’t invade Iraq or deprive children of school lunch money or take a weed-whacker to the Constitution and so on. The problem with that formulation is that it’s totally wrong; nice people do these sorts of things all the time. On the extreme end of it, you have Arendt’s banality of evil or Milgram’s zappers: Otherwise normal, nice people doing horrific things to other people because they either don’t see or choose to ignore the far-reaching consequences — or they don’t see the consequences as being wrong.
Most of us don’t take things that far, but the principle is the same: Fundamentally, there’s no connection between whether someone is personally nice, and whether they pursue an agenda inimical to what you perceive as desirable. On a day-to-day basis, evangelical Christians are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and yet the bland, theocratic, prayer-at-Friday-football-games and stadium-church-on-Sunday America many of them want to foist on the rest of us is something I know I’ll wearily spend the rest of life fighting against. By the same token, I’m sure that most evangelicals would find me genuinely pleasant to be around, since like most people I’m friendly enough, and I prefer people to be comfortable in my presence. But that’s not to say they won’t recoil in horror against my position that gay people should be able to marry, evolution is scientific fact while creationism is a fairy tale and both should be taught as such, and that a woman should get to evict an unwanted occupant of her womb if that’s what she wants. We’re all nice people. We just disagree vehemently about details.
Fact is, I have very little tolerance for the “If you disagree with me, you’re evil/sick/just not nice” line of thinking. Rhetorically, it’s boring. There simply aren’t that many people walking around the US being evil on a daily basis, evilly buying groceries, evilly watching Friends, evilly having routine but pleasant married sex, and evilly putting their head on a pillow to dream of evil, evil, evil. As a society, we’re not nearly that dysfunctional. But more importantly, it dehumanizes those whom you disagree with, and that’s a dangerous thing. The process of dehumanization is subject to Newton’s Third Law — you can’t dehumanize someone else without dehumanizing yourself in the bargain.
I’m not in that much of a rush to dehumanize myself, thank you all the same. Anyway I’m perfectly capable of holding the thoughts of “You believe things I don’t” and “You’re not a bad guy” in my head without the fear of doublethink because they’re not in fact automatically mutually opposing statements. I would suggest that if you believe otherwise you’re probably rather intellectually lazy and you prefer to idealize those who oppose you as flat, uninteresting cardboard representations of evil rather than as interesting, capable, nice human beings who must be considered as such if you wish to overcome their positions or find some sort agreeable accommodation so you can both keep living your life with some reasonable measure of felicity. Which means you’ll always be at the disadvantage. And that’s just kind of stupid.
You’re free to disagree with me, of course. I’m sure you’re otherwise very nice.