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Merold Westphal

The Fonda Fallacy All Over Again

Note on the title: In September 1991 I published an editorial essay in Perspectives entitled, "The Fonda Fallacy." On the eve of the so-called Second Gulf War, the American led invasion of Iraq, I submitted the following essay to the Op-Ed page of a national newspaper and subsequently to that of our local paper. Neither was interested. Now that we have "won" the war and seem to be losing the peace, the time for these thoughts may have come.—Merold Westphal

Opponents of the Viet Nam war, using a Manichean logic that blinded them to some fairly obvious facts, often assumed that since the United States and the South Vietnamese were the bad guys, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong must be good guys. But this is a non sequitur, a bad argument whose conclusion doesn’t follow from its premises. What about the possibility that both sides to a dispute may be evil in different ways and in different degrees?

I call this particular non sequitur the Fonda Fallacy, named in honor of Jane’s (in)famous trip to Hanoi. But, of course, Jane Fonda did not invent this mode of thinking; nor is it the collective creation of the antiwar Left of that era. They learned it from the anticommunist Right of the fifties. Then the widespread assumption was that since communism was evil, we must be good, along with whoever allied themselves with us against communism, no matter how corrupt or tyrannical.

The so-called loss of innocence during Viet Nam could also be described as the recognition that this was fallacious thinking, that our hands were not necessarily clean because we were against the communists. But that did not keep the Fonda Fallacy, which merely reversed the roles of communists and anticommunists, from having widespread appeal, even if it came accompanied by a feeling of deja vu.

Now we have deja vu all over again. Shortly after 9-11, President Bush assured the American people that in the fight against terrorism, "God is not neutral." The clear assumption was that God is on our side, and I shuddered, remembering the song Joan Baez used to sing, "If God is on our side, we’ll start the next war."

Now that we are on the verge of doing just that, perhaps the time has come to think more clearly. Terrorism is evil. There can be no mistake or uncertainty about that. But to assume that it follows from this that God is on our side because we have become targets of terrorism is to (re)commit the Fonda Fallacy. Non sequitur. What about the possibility that both sides in a dispute may be evil in different ways and in different degrees? And in such circumstances, who can be sure which side has tried God’s patience the most?

A biblical example may be helpful, especially for those who are most eager to commit God to our war. The ancient Assyrians and Babylonians were cruel and rapacious imperialists. Ancient Israel understood itself to be the covenant people of God. Surely God must be on their side when they were threatened and eventually overwhelmed, first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians.

But the message of their own prophets as recorded in the Bible was just the opposite. To be sure, when God was finished using them, the Assyrians and Babylonians would get theirs. But in the mean time, God had lost patience with Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant and for the foreseeable future was on the side of their indisputably evil enemies. The purveyors of the Fonda Fallacy in those days assured the people that God would not let anything bad happen to them. The biblical name for them is false prophets.

No doubt such a biblical argument will have little force for those who do not seek their wisdom in the Bible. But the President and the vast majority of Congress identify themselves as believing Jews or Christians, as do the vast majority of Americans outside the beltway. If those who profess a biblical faith were to take the prophets seriously we would experience a sea change in national consciousness.

Moreover, even those who give no special weight to the Bible should at least be able to see in this story an illustration of the fallaciousness of the Fonda Fallacy. For the logic of the situation presupposes no faith commitments.

In the face of terrorism, what could it mean to suggest that we are evil too, that God might be firing a warning shot over our bow? Well, there’s the corruption in our corporations and our churches, in big time college football, and even in Little League baseball.

There is our willingness to make cultural icons out of shamelessly amoral superstars of our sports and entertainment industries.

There is our voracious appetite for addictive chemical substances and the willingness of so many to profit thereby. Are not cigarettes a weapon of mass destruction, a more clear and present danger to American lives than al-Qaeda?

Not to mention our multiply unfulfilled promise of liberty and justice for all and our national indifference to dehumanizing poverty both at home and abroad.

Thomas Merton, a prophet from our own times, writes, "We never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggressivity and hypocrisy."

We can put God’s name on our coins, in our pledge of allegiance, and on our bumper stickers. But it does not follow that God is on our side. "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."

Merold Westphal is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University.

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