"Fire in the Mind"
Midway through his inaugural address, when the president proclaimed "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," I wondered if Bush or his speechwriters knew or cared how alien this ultra-revolutionary rhetoric would seem to conservatives of the old school – and soon had my answer:snip
"Because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom. And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it. By our efforts we have lit a fire as well, a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power; it burns those who fight its progress. And one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world."
A fire in the mind – surely, I thought, Bush's speechwriters can't have inserted this phrase without knowing its literary origin. It is taken from Dostoevsky's novel, The Possessed, a story set in pre-revolutionary Russia in which the author chronicles the intrigues of the emerging revolutionary movement: one of the main characters is based on the infamous nihilist Sergei Nechaev, whose aim is to make a revolution of such destructive power that bourgeois society will be completely destroyed. Their strategy is to provoke a violent crackdown on all dissent – which will then spark an explosion of revolutionary violence. To this purpose the nihilist Peter Verkhovensky worms his way into the confidence of Lembke, a provincial governor, convincing him of the need to crush rebellious workers who are distributing revolutionary leaflets and generally agitating against the government. The result is an uprising of murderous anger, a volcanic eruption of nihilistic violence that consumes the provincial capital in a great fire. In the end, Governor Lembke stands amid the crowd watching his mansion go up in flames:
"Lembke stood facing the lodge, shouting and gesticulating. He was giving orders which no one attempted to carry out. It seemed to me that every one had given him up as hopeless and left him. Anyway, though every one in the vast crowd of all classes, among whom there were gentlemen, and even the cathedral priest, was listening to him with curiosity and wonder, no one spoke to him or tried to get him away. Lembke, with a pale face and glittering eyes, was uttering the most amazing things. To complete the picture, he had lost his hat and was bareheaded.
"'It's all incendiarism! It's nihilism! If anything is burning, it's nihilism!' I heard almost with horror; and though there was nothing to be surprised at, yet actual madness, when one sees it, always gives one a shock.
"'Your Excellency,' said a policeman, coming up to him, 'what if you were to try the repose of home? . . . It's dangerous for your Excellency even to stand here.'
"This policeman, as I heard afterwards, had been told off by the chief of police to watch over [Lembke], to do his utmost to get him home, and in case of danger even to use force – a task evidently beyond the man's power.
"'They will wipe away the tears of the people whose houses have been burnt, but they will burn down the town. It's all the work of four scoundrels, four and a half! Arrest the scoundrel! He worms himself into the honor of families. They made use of the governesses to burn down the houses. It's vile, vile! Aie, what's he about?' he shouted, suddenly noticing a fireman at the top of the burning lodge, under whom the roof had almost burnt away and round whom the flames were beginning to flare up. 'Pull him down! Pull him down! He will fall, he will catch fire, put him out! . . . What is he doing there?'
"'He is putting the fire out, your Excellency.'
"'Not likely. The fire is in the minds of men and not in the roofs of houses. Pull him down and give it up! Better give it up, much better! Let it put itself out.'"
In Dostoevsky's novel, that fire in the minds of men is not a yearning for liberty, but a nihilistic will to power that can only end in destruction. Put in George W. Bush's mouth, those words are not a paean to freedom, but a manifesto of pure destructionism. Like Governor Lembke, President Bush has no dearth of hardline advisers who counsel him in ways calculated to provoke a violent reaction: unlike Lembke, however, there is little chance George W. Bush will learn his lesson, even if it comes too late.
The fiery imagery that pervades the text of Bush's second inaugural address is disturbing because it is so constant. He describes the course of history in the last fifty years, and "the shipwreck of communism," followed by "years of sabbatical" that ended in "a day of fire." The fiery prose heats up quickly, raising the rhetorical temperature to a fever pitch:
"Hope kindles hope" – "By our efforts we have lit a fire, a fire in the minds of men."
The flames leap up, as the mad Governor Lembke cries out.
"It warms those who feel its power," avers the President, "it burns those who fight its progress."
The revolutionary nihilists in Dostoevsky's novel, and those real-life nihilists in pre-revolutionary Russia on whom the characters were based, believed themselves to be agents of progress, destined by History to sweep away the old in the purifying flames of a great uprising that would be the prelude to a new world. A similar messianic sense of being on the right side of history pervades Bush's polemic:
"History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction set by liberty and the author of liberty."
This is quite possibly the most worrisome and even frightening speech ever delivered by an American president. Its imagery of a fire burning up the world, coupled with the incendiary promise to aid "democratic reformers" against "outlaw regimes" worldwide, evokes the spirit of another murderous "idealism" – one that made the 20th century the age of mass murder. As he ranted on and on – "the expansion of freedom in all the world"; "Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation"; "When you stand for your liberty we will stand with you." – Bushed sounded more like Trotsky addressing the Red Army than an American president addressing his people.
It was a strange speech, short and strident, far too idealistic, far too ignorant of practical matters-- so strange such that the speech really took on messianic overtones. That's really NOT the tone a president should be aiming for, and as Raimondo notes, it IS scary.