I happened across the February 19th issue of Newsweek at the home of friends with whom I’m staying. Picking it up and thumbing through it (and how odd it seems to me nowadays to see a hard copy of a periodical anywhere outside of the doctor’s office) I saw a letter to the editors written in response to a review of Dinesh D’Souza’s new book The Enemy at Home.
I haven’t read D’Souza’s book, but apparently it has the singular distinction of having been panned by both left and right. So I’m not planning to discuss or defend it; what caught my eye was the text of the letter, which expresses quite well the abstractly idealistic point of view of many, if not most, of the liberals I know:
Taking a stand against torture, no matter the perpetrator; fighting for a belief in human rights and dignity for all, including women, homosexuals and others who are mistreated simply for how they were born; nurturing a hope that America will unswervingly uphold the principles of democracy and justice that it preaches to the rest of the world; tell Dinesh D’Souza I’m proud to belong to the “domestic insurgency” that holds these “decadent moral values.”
Who could argue with the general principles the letter-writer holds dear? Human rights, and upholding democracy as a beacon to the world? Certainly not most conservatives; these are their core beliefs, as well.
And of course those neocons—so widely excoriated by the Left (and hey, by much of the Right, too, if truth be known)—have as one of their basic beliefs the idea that peoples around the world are ultimately capable of democracy (which is the worst form of government except for all the others) and the preservation of their human rights.
So, what’s the problem? The problem is one of emphasis and absolutism.
When I read the letter what struck me first was the idealistic fervor and sense of righteousness there. What struck me next was an idea that seems to be implicit in the letter, the notion that what the US needs to do in order to be successful in these moral arenas in the political world is to lead by example, and others will follow.
It’s an old philosophical dilemma: can you help others before you can help yourself? And what standard of moral perfection of the self is required before one goes out into world to help others? And can this “help” ever be offered through force, or does one lead best by the example of one’s own life? And is there any responsibility to help at all?
There’s a certain type of argument prevalent on the Left that goes as follows: we must put our own house in order and become morally pure. Then other nations will look up to us and follow our example, and we will have the moral clout to speak on matters of human rights. Until then, we don’t.
There’s only one problem with this type of thinking, and that’s the fact that it ignores the way the world and the human beings inhabiting it actually work. In this respect it has something in common with absolute pacifism: adherence to an abstract principle of moral purity which has real-world consequences that could easily involve the triumph of those who would destroy human rights.
I’m not arguing against moral suasion as a force for possible good in leading by example. It tends to be more effective in the psychological and personal spheres, however, than in the political.
And even in personal terms it is hardly the answer to all problems. For example, when a parent manages to be exemplary in behavior, that’s no guarantee that the child will grow up exhibiting the same behavior. We like to believe that, if only we were perfect, the world would be a place in which force would not be necessary. But sadly, there are situations in which the only remedies involve a practical counterforce; that’s why we have police and jails.
No society can ever be perfect enough to lead all its citizens to righteous behavior, not only because we are flawed human beings who cannot always act morally, but because there are also poorly understood darknesses in the human mind and heart that mean that even the most perfect examples will not necessarily be followed.
If this is true for individuals, it’s even more true for political entities. A goodly part of what makes the political world run is power and force, and there is a place for using both to fight even worse evils. The fact that even so seemingly evil a thing as the use of torture (and its definition) can be debated by well-meaning people is proof that there are few moral absolutes in life.
The Newsweek letter represents a point of view I’ve described in my discussion of the contoversial debate about the use of torture, here, as “the ivory tower approach to the messy business of ethical decision-making.” In the world of the letter-writer, it appears that the most important thing is keeping one’s own hands perfectly clean. It is an almost faith-based belief system, a conviction that, if one could just be morally pure enough, the rest would somehow fall into place almost by magic.
Does anyone who takes a good look at the world truly believe that terrorists, those who follow them, or tyrannical third-world dictators are convinced of much of anything by our emphasis on human rights—other than that we are naive and weak? And, when the people of the countries involved are brainwashed by their own media, leaders, and clerics into thinking we are the devil incarnate, how could the word of our goodness get out even if we did achieve some sort of impossible moral perfection in these arenas? And what difference would it make if it did, if the rulers of those countries were determined to ruthlessly crush all opposition?
It’s important that we protect human rights, of course. But we cannot assume that if we do so it will have much effect on the way the rest of the world operates. Unfortunately, there are those who are far more ruthless than we and who have none of our respect for either human rights or clean hands. To fight such people effectively one can never remain morally pure, and to believe so is to believe a dangerous myth.