(Shortly after I first posted this essay, I found that I had inadvertently uploaded an earlier draft of the post. I’ve now uploaded the intended final version, with some slight revisions. Sorry for the error.)
“Anti-American.” “You hate America.” “Blame America first.” These are some of the epithets repeatedly slung in the face of liberals when defending their political beliefs. “We’re essentially a good nation; why can’t you give America a break?” Strangely, few accuse conservative critics of hating the U.S. when they condemn the nation’s moral decay. These labels lack merit; they only stifle meaningful debate, and reflect an immature and simplistic notion of national moral responsibility.
Not infrequently, the term moral equivalence is thrown into the discussion to further muddy the waters. What a silly concept! As if we could add up the quantity and quality of sins committed by nations and then gloss over U.S. actions because our total in blood, pain, and suffering is calculated as lower than that of others. The equation is always rigged, of course. Those who rely on the concept insist that the crimes of the U.S. are somehow justified, and by some feat of calculus ameliorate our tally. John Adams keenly observed:
Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak, and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws (letter to Thomas Jefferson, 02.02.1816; courtesy of WP).
(Adams knew whereof he spoke, having rationalized the egregious breach of civil rights in signing the Alien and Sedition Acts; but in contrast to our conservative friends, he had the integrity to keep the nation out of an unnecessary war with France for which much of the nation was clamoring.)
No, we must seek a more honorable and morally sound perspective than one constructed on a subjective, comparative foundation—a perspective like the one I’ve found that in the paradigm of liberalism. I came to appreciate this perspective largely as a result of my religious instruction and, ironically, the parenting of my politically and socially conservative parents.
I was rather a handful as a child. Overheated disputes with my brothers and sisters were not uncommon. Invariably, my parents would be alerted by the commotion and swoop in to break up the fracas and dispense judgment. And almost as invariably, I would be held most responsible, no matter how irritating, obnoxious, or otherwise culpable (in my entirely objective opinion) the brats had been.
“You are the oldest,” my parents would inform me “You should know better.” Or perhaps “you’re bigger than they are.” And for good measure, “I expect you to be an example.”
By this method, repeated more times than I care to remember, my parents stressed an important principle, one taught by the Savior.
For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required (Luke 12:48).
Morally, those who have much are more accountable than those who have little. Much can refer to wisdom (being older than my sibings, I was expected to be more emotionally mature). It can also refer to temporal power (being older and larger, I was perceived as more capable of causing physical harm through carelessness or spite than the younger children).
Our nation was founded not ostensibly on conquest, or ethnicity, or the personality of some charismatic ruler; but instead on the loftiest of ideals, collected from the accumulated wisdom of at least a couple thousand years. We cannot condone the betrayal of those ideals simply because it may be strategically expedient at a given time. From the outset, the leaders of our nation saw our nation as an example which would hopefully inspire enlightened change throughout the world. That hope has been echoed in our nation over it’s two-hundred plus year existence. Those ideals and the words of hope will come back to condemn us if we continue to capriciously abandon those principles whenever it suits our interests.
No less have we been given much in regards to worldly wealth and power. We are the world’s sole superpower, with wealth beyond anything the world has ever before dreamt—and destructive power unparalleled in the world’s history. As the saying goes “when America coughs, the whole world catches a cold.” Wrongdoings on our part are far more likely to have far reaching consequences than those of smaller states. Our very preeminence and power requires us to maintain the utmost circumspection.
Another question my parents frequently asked when I would grouse about the transgressions of my siblings is “what did you do to them?” Likely as not, an inspection of the events revealed that some thoughtless or intentionally spiteful action on my part had instigated the misbehavior of my siblings.
This is no less true in the realm of U.S. international relations. The U.S. has often used its might around the globe both thoughtlessly and at times in a deliberately self-serving manner. It is disingenuous for us to then act surprised or offended that we’ve engendered a great deal of hostility in the Middle-East, South America, or Asia. Some few brave souls not typically associated with left-wing politics, such as the late Harry Browne (former Libertarian Party presidential candidate) and Ron Paul have had the intellectual and moral integrity to recognize this reality. Unfortunately, they’ve been rebuffed by most conservative voices for their rationality.
By no means does this mean that all hatred for and violence perpetrated against the U.S. by outside (or internal) forces is a result of U.S. wrongdoings. But I am confident that we will be far more successful in curbing such hatred and violence by reforming our own actions than by force or retaliation.
As seriously as I take all these considerations, I consider them secondary causes for my perception. The most important reason was expressed somewhat cryptically by Noam Chomsky in verbal exchange about U.S. involvement in the corrupt and brutal government of Suharto in Indonesia (I believe it was with William Buckley). When his adversary defended U.S. actions by citing the crimes of the other side, Chomsky was unwavering. “That was them,” He insisted. “I’m talking about us.”
I could relate instantly to Chomsky’s rather laconic rebuttal. It was completely consistent with the lessons I’d learned from my parents. I recalled an occasion from my childhood in which I was in a spat with Dan, another child in the neighborhood. My father noticed the scuffle, and was quick to take me aside for a reprimand, and cut off my defense. “I don’t care who was wrong,” He declared sharply. “Dan is somebody else’s business. I’m responsible for you.”
As the years have passed and I’ve (mostly) outgrown the pugnacity and excitability of my childhood, I’ve come to realize that the principle about which Chomsky was speaking and upon which my father was acting was an extension of the admonition of Jesus to his disciples.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye (Matt. 7: 3-5).
We should concern ourselves first and foremost with our own morality. If we believe in protecting the environment, we should first and foremost take responsibility as individuals to reduce our ecological footprint. If we believe in the importance of lifting up the downtrodden, we must first and foremost seek to find ways as individuals to aid the disadvantaged.
Yet our responsibility does not end with ourselves. There are hierarchies of responsibilities in our lives. My father was concerned with my actions because I was his child. Though my sins were not his, he had a legal and ethical concern and even responsibility for my actions. As a member of his family, they reflect upon him.
The actions of the U.S. federal government are likewise within the hierarchy of responsibility of me and every citizen. Because the government is ultimately accountable to us, because it derives its legitimacy solely from our consent, we can and should hold it to account. The actions of our nation reflect upon us, and should be of concern.
Yes, other nations or extra-national entities act foolish, unethically, criminally, and barbarically. I recognize that France has shown a callous disregard to freedom of expression, and has amorally sold weapons to repressive tyrannts; that Turkey is dishonest in denying their genocidal history regarding the Armenians and their repression of their ethnic Kurds; that China has viciously abused its populace and continues to neglect their welfare; that South American leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro have been repressive, power-hungry, and corrupt; that many nations in the Middle-East are barbaric in their treatment of minorities and dissenters; and so on and so forth.
I’m variously saddened, outraged, and horrified by these and many other tragic facts abroad. But I am not responsible for the actions of France, Turkey, China, or the rest. They do not represent me. The U.S. does represent me, and I am responsible—if only in some small way—for it.
We as a nation need to be more mature in our perspective. We must stop rationalizing the transgressions and crimes of our land by pointing to the sins of other nations. It is our duty to focus on the civil rights abuses, warmongering, power grabbing, disregard for the welfare of our citizens and our environment, economic pillaging of other lands, and all other manner of sins of our own nation regardless of what other entities have or have not done. Contrary to the vitriol of the Right, this isn’t about pessimism, negativism, anti-Americanism, hating America, or blaming America first, any more than my parent’s efforts to hold me accountable was about negativism, anti-Derekism or hating Derek. It is about growing up. Are we ready as a nation to do this?