Calling Peter Singer controversial is of course, an understatement. Be that as it may, the controversial Princeton University professor of ethics packed a downtown D.C. bookstore Friday hawking his new book, The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush (Dutton, 288 pages, $24.95). If the ethicist's reaction was any indicator, the event was less than a rousing success.
This heavily Democrat crowd, weaned on the argumentation of Molly Ivins and Michael Moore, must have become so accustomed to any sentence with Bush's name in it ending with a punch line that, on several occasions, they broke out the laughs while Singer was clearing his throat or striking a thoughtful pause. Think of annoying drunks at a comedy club who have come determined to laugh at anything and you'll begin to get an idea.
Rather than the black-clad, twenty-something pseudo-anarchists that one might expect Singer to draw, the crowd was made up overwhelmingly of well dressed middle aged, mom and pop liberals. The only outliers were a few obvious kooks in Indian shawls with thick hemp necklaces, who kept dancing around.
During the crowd's unwelcome outbursts, the slight, pale professor often stared disdainfully out at his audience as if he was looking at a rowdy classroom full of freshmen students who were there not to reach a higher level of consciousness, but to get a general educational requirement out of the way.
SUFFERING THROUGH THIS AGE of liberal anti-intellectualism, one might be inclined to feel sorry for Singer, but flipping through the pages of his latest book will quickly strangle any sympathy in the crib -- it is clear he has brought this plague of stupidity upon himself. Singer's other works have led many conservatives to accuse the ethicist of having a deviant sense of morality, but there is an undeniable brilliance and lucidity in his writing.
Singer's critique of Bush's ethics, on the other hand -- both in speeches and in his new book -- is juvenile. Discussing the president's opposition to using human embryos for research, Singer states that yes, embryos are unique, but so are snowflakes, and "we don't have laws protecting snowflakes."
The U.S.'s involvement in Iraq is completely unethical since we did not intervene in Rwanda and also because we will likely keep military bases there. Even the Taliban are on a higher moral plane then the United States as they proved "willing to hand over Osama Bin Laden to a court provided with an Islamic judge."
Singer also takes Bush to task for being a "bad Christian." "If you say you follow the Bible, as Bush does, you ought to at least take seriously the idea that you should turn the other cheek when someone strikes you," Singer sermonized to applause. After September 11, Bush was "actually upset" the military couldn't get moving faster, and "wanted to kill people." All of which Singer declared was decidedly un-Christian behavior, even as made sure the crowd knew he doesn't go in for that Christian nonsense in the first place.
Throwing a bone to the conspiracy-minded, Singer told the mom and pops that Bush's reign may be the result of the efforts of a cabal of neoconservative followers of Leo Strauss. These Straussians believe that "the masses can never be trusted with the truth" and that religion should be used to "keep people in line." Unfortunately these intellectuals didn't have the personalities to win elections and so were forced to use the simple-minded, "patrician" marionette to seize power.
Of course, Singer wanted to raise this paranoid fantasy without accepting any responsibility to present actual proof. "It's a speculation worth considering," Singer allowed, his index finger thoughtfully tapping his chin.
THOSE WHO KNOW Peter Singer's work understand there is something genuinely perverse about his passing judgment on anyone's ethics.
I happen to agree with the premise of his 1975 book, Animal Liberation; that those with the ability to understand suffering and its causes have a responsibility to avoid inflicting it. This stance, however, is difficult to square with Singer's subsequent work, which advocates the right of parents to kill "defective" children up until age three. "Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person," Singer argues plainly. "Very often, it is not wrong at all."
What constitutes a "defect" is left up to parents, and children of Baby Boomers will be happy to know that Singer thinks we are all capable of deciding whether our parents belong in a nursing home or a hole in the ground. That'd be one way to solve the looming Social Security crisis, I suppose.
Let's play that again: The same man who argued we should avoid causing suffering to clams by not eating them, writes in Practical Ethics that, "the life of a newborn baby is of less value to it than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee."
Singer urges readers to "put aside these emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects of the killing of a baby" so we can understand that "the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants." Suggesting a human baby has more intrinsic worth than a pig is dismissed as rank "speciesism."
YET DURING THE BRIEF question and answer period, no one stood up to challenge Singer, on his silly new book or his deeply troubling corpus. "Isn't going after Bush on ethics just too easy?" one person asked, as if Bush's villainy and depravity were generally accepted hypotheses with this crowd. Later, Singer cracked one of the only smiles of the night as the noise of the cash register ringing up copy after copy of his book filled the room.