The Axis of Evil…Now

Byron York writes about the Bush speechwriter responsible for the term “Axis of Evil,” and his reflections on whether it fits today.

Recently I called David Frum, who is a friend and also the Bush speechwriter who came up with the “Axis” concept. (He originally wrote it as “Axis of Hatred.”) Given the seriousness of the situations in Iran and North Korea today, I asked, why all the mocking of the concept, virtually from the very beginning?

“The thing I never cease to marvel at,” Frum told me, “is that the phrase has become more and more of a joke even as the demonstration of the validity of the concept has become more extensive.” Frum listed some of the things the public knows now that it didn’t when Bush gave his speech — the A.Q. Khan network, the Iran-North Korea connection, the Iran-Hamas link. That’s just the kind of thing Bush was talking about.

But why were people ever laughing? Well, a lot of them just liked to laugh at Bush. But Frum believes there’s something else — the complicated nature of the word “evil.” “It just seemed overtorqued,” he told me. We use the word “evil,” Frum explained, in two very different ways. One is the totally serious sense in which we describe a very, very small group of bad actors — a group that doesn’t extend far beyond Adolf Hitler. The other is the sense in which we use “evil” as a light-hearted description for things that are at most a bit naughty — like saying we feel “evil” after ordering the chocolate cake. “If you’re not talking about Hitler, you’re talking about cake,” Frum said. “That’s why it was funny.” But that incongruity made it difficult for people to take the “Axis of Evil” seriously, even though it was, and is, quite serious.

…[T]wo-thirds of the “Axis of Evil” are still at it, and still among the most pressing problems facing the United States today. And that’s no “Saturday Night Live” skit.

I have a different thought about that word “evil.” Whether you’re talking about an evil tinpot dictator or an evil slice of chocolate cake, in my mind, is fairly well determined in an instant, right down to the very core of the brain of the person using or hearing the word. I don’t think Frum’s thoughts here make a great deal of sense, frankly, because I don’t think there’s any lack of understanding or ambiguity here whatsoever.

I think that lack of ambiguity is the problem. People laugh at the term…out of nervousness.

It commands a sense of responsibility. It commands action. I say “that guy down the street did something rude…” or “liberal…” or “radical…” or even “environmentally unsound…” and it seems more than reasonable to leave well enough alone, go back to watching Dancing With the Stars and gnawing on a butter stick.

But to say someone close by did something evil — that’s practically the same as demanding someone actually do something about it. Who among us can say out loud “I know of an evil thing that is being done but I’m not going to do anything about it”? Sure you can do that, but you can’t take pride in it.

So if you’re already fixated on laziness, and someone comes along to point out something evil was done, that gentleman is ruling out continued laziness as an option. That’s why he has to be ridiculed and mocked. It’s absolutely necessary.

The irony is, in such a lazy society, the only thing that remains truly evil is noticing evil. And, after a time, the only thing that remains “good” is a readiness, willingness and ability to pretend evil is not taking place when you know damn good and well that it is.

These are treacherous times. We’re allowing our court jesters to become our kingmakers. Down that road lies a sure path to ruin.

“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil…” — Isaiah 5:20

Cross-posted at House of Eratosthenes.

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