As Armed Liberal has noted in "Why Am I A Democrat?," the larger war we face is not a just clash of cultures, but also a clash within our own civilization. A "war on bad philosophy" that must be won if our civilizaton is to survive long term.Greenpeace's mentality, noted in my last post, is but one example. More enlightenment came via an interesting exchange yesterday in the Comments section of my post on Russia's Sweetheart Gas Mega-Deal with Turkmenistan. Commenter Jonathan noted my use of the line: "If the USA did this, it would be called the worst kind of energy imperialism," and responded:
"Rightly so, no? Why is this important? Maybe I'm missing something, but if you're an American, it should be your responsibility to expose US crimes and conflicts of interest, not Russia's. Unlike the latter, you can, at least in theory, do something about the former." Posted by Jonathan at May 29, 2003 10:37 PMIt's a common refrain I hear from liberals as well as the far-left, one whose underlying logic and inherent moral turpitude needs to be exposed and crushed right quick if there's to be any hope of a decent left.
Oh yes, Jonathan, rightly so indeed. The Turkmen gas deal was made by playing to the paranoia of an unhinged tyrant, and has "ripoff" written all over it in big neon letters. I'm not an economist, but the terms sure look like energy imperialism to me. I wasn't shy about saying so. Should we criticize our own societies too when it's justified? Of course.
We stop agreeing, however, when Jonathan intones the mantra of America-haters everywhere:
"...if you're an American, it should be your responsibility to expose US crimes and conflicts of interest, not Russia's. Unlike the latter, you can, at least in theory, do something about the former."This excuse is ages-old, for "excuse" is exactly what it is. It's an open declaration that one will only see evil in America, a twisted philosophy whose logical end point is James Hudnall's line that "No one seems to get outraged by mass murder unless Americans or Israelis are involved." This is, I submit, despicable.
I've heard variants of this argument all too often, and not just from the far left. In fairness, not everyone who espouses it hates America or the West. Those who do often preach it, however, and the meme itself is unsound. If allowed to grow, it leads to both immoral ends and devastating long-term political consequences.
Transpose one identity, and rewind to 1940, and presumably it would remain equally true:
...if you're an American, it should be your responsibility to expose US crimes and conflicts of interest, not Nazi Germany's. Unlike the latter, you can, at least in theory, do something about the former.
Which was, of course, an argument put forth at the time from the isolationist right. Americans' responsibility was to attend to American matters alone. It was very persuasive, at least until Pearl Harbor. A similar cry was heard elsewhere in the 60s, 70s and 80s, from demonstrators who protested U.S. policy in Europe and said not a word for the people like Vaclav Havel and others, or the Gulags of Russia. Read Vaclav Havel himself for his reaction:
"How much trust or even admiration for the Western peace movement can we expect from a simple yet sensitive citizen of Eastern Europe when he has noticed that this movement has never, at any of its congresses or at demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of participants, got around to protesting the fact that five years ago, one important European country attacked a small neutral neighbor and since that time has been conducting on its territory a war of extermination which has already claimed a million dead and three million refugees? Seriously, what are we to think of a peace movement, a European peace movement, which is virtually unaware of the only war being conducted today by a European state? As for the argument that the victims of aggression and their defenders enjoy the sympathies of Western establishments and so are not worthy of support from the left, such incredible ideological opportunism can provoke only one reaction -- utter disgust and a sense of limitless hopelessness."
Read, too, Havel's contemporary Adam Michnik. They're still bitter, and still hold those people in the most abject moral contempt. Rightly so.
In response, one expects the common refrain, "but we couldn't do anything about that." So much easier to just focus on America's wrongs, isn't it? That way, one doesn't even have to notice how many pressure points actually exist, and how much effect it is possible to have. No, the excuse that one cannot do anything about evils elsewhere is not a thought-out position. It's a mantra in the truest sense of the term -- a phrase explicitly designed to clear the mind of thought through repetition.
I covered this excuse and some of its consequences back in "Liberal Builders, Conservative Defenders, and Political Debate," and explained the depth of its mistake. As leftist commentator Michael Walzer notes in "Can There Be A Decent Left?":
"What was necessary after September 11, and what is necessary now, is an engagement with our fellow citizens that recognizes the fellowship. We can be as critical as we like, but these are people whose fate we share; we are responsible for their safety as they are for ours, and our politics has to reflect that mutual responsibility. When they are attacked, so are we;"
Indeed. As I noted in the follow-up:
"One thing a consistent approach to demonstrations and pressure would do (besides isolating the extremists), is clearly show committed liberals to be fundamentally on the same team as the rest of their society. This is not trivial or a waste of time. It's the very foundation of everything you want to build, and essential to a grown-up political movement.
Unnfrair to single us out, you say? Dislike the implicit presumption? Get over it. Conservatives face this same imperative in the economic sphere. For similar reasons. This is your albatross, and like the Right your movement acquired it the old-fashioned way - you behaved yourselves into it."
It's a point worth heeding. At least, if one wants to belong to a decent left that has any credibility with mainstream American society... or with serious people elsewhere.
--- UPDATES ---
- As always, we have a smart and lively comments section going with good participants.
- Matthew Stinson of "Fearful Symmetry" has some interesting thoughts in response to this post, including a useful typology of the left: academic, bureaucratic, liberal, and Democrats.
- My responses to Matt Yglesias can be found in the comments sections of his blog: "Can There Be A Decent Right" and "Life In the Real World". Matt's history shows that he is not an example of this tendency, though the lib-left as a whole still has this problem. I point to the indicators that the problem is an "actual world" one, show the link to something Matt himself cited in the past, and explain why addressing the issue would benefit liberals most of all.
- Michael Totten reformulates Jonathan's statement to remove the "... not Russia's" clause, and adds an obligation to be reasonable. This removes many of the problems with Jonathan's statement, and indeed one would expect that a good deal of one's attention should fall on one's own society. Good advice - but "responsible criticism" isn't the issue here.
To summarize: I'm NOT saying "all American Democrats/liberals hate the USA" - though some clearly do, just as some conservatives can take their antipathy toward government to cancerous levels. Rather, I'm arguing that a very specific "can't do anything about..." meme which extends way beyond the far left, inelecutably leads toward a position that can only become excited about evil in America while giving others a clear pass. I'm arguing that this meme is unsound, has immoral consequences, is highly corrosive in numerous ways, and hurts both liberals' political standing and the body politic of which they are a part (q.v. Walzer, Havel, Shalala, Bloom, 25-40% security poll gaps, et. al.). Finally, I'm arguing that removal of this meme and sharp, sustained criticism of it from within the liberal-left could do much to restore liberal fortunes and shore up their philosophy's foundation in America.
Over to the actual world: Should energetic demonstrations be organized against slavery in the Sudan? Should they have been organized against the Gulag system (or the present Laogai system in China, which may produce some of the goods you yourself buy)? Is a Russian gas deal with an unhinged dictator that makes the pipeline more than the gas producer legitimate grounds for criticism as economic exploitation of the Third World? Should Greenpeace have mounted a serious campaign to stop Saddam's spiteful, politically-motivated destruction of a huge wetlands ecosystem? Etc., etc.
The too-frequent refusal by many (not all) on the liberal-left to seriously acknowledge evils unrelated to the West, or to take energetic action against them, was really the central issue... something that goes beyond just the injuction of "responsible criticism". It does translate into cultivated alienation from the wider polis, and a pose of undeserved superiority, but not necessarily hatred.