Moral Responsibility is not Anti-Americanism

(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.

So what?

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?

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13 Responses to “Moral Responsibility is not Anti-Americanism”

  1. Chris Austria Says:

    Every year, I ask my students, (college, high school, and middle school) this question.

    Are you prepared to give up your luxuries in order to do what is morally right?

    This is what we need to do. Jesus sacrificed so that our sins can be forgiven. If we want to do what is right as a country, then we must forgo our luxuries. The same luxuries than oppress and suppress people.

    Great Post!

  2. greenjenni Says:

    Awesome post — you hit the nail on the head!

  3. Jennifer Says:

    A friend on a different list echoed Chris’ thoughts by saying that every time we demand or expect things beyond our true needs, we exploit and steal, magnified by the amount our lifestyles exceed our needs. Good reminder to stand back and ask what we need and what is a “luxury”…..

  4. Aaron Orgill Says:

    You show some great insights. I wouldn’t go so far to say, “so what,” however. It is our responsibility to stamp out evil in the world wherever we find it; I don’t know that I feel more of a responsibility to point out my own country’s wrongdoings than others. I have said many times in conversations with friends that most of us in this country have no business complaining about anything. Our problems are often not problems at all. We don’t have enough money to go out for a night on the town after paying the mortgage on our 2,000-square-foot house. We treat that like a disaster when so many are living in cramped and filthy conditions and lack the basic necessities. We complain when one of our kids has a disability and is struggling in school, while across the ocean a child with similar problems has no resources nor understanding from those around him, and may be in for a lifetime of mistreatment and marginalization. And things like child soldiers and civilians losing limbs in mine fields going about their daily work shocks our sensibilities, and it seems to me that perhaps that is why Americans see things in the way you described: because we have it so good. We have the most affluence and the best form of government ever devised, so it seems dramatic when people, liberal or conservative, are overly harsh about what’s wrong. I will say that I find myself irritated when that kind of talk goes on for too long. And brother, are you ever right that the conservative side does the same annoying woe-is-America speech on moral issues all the time, and it’s just as obnoxious. I feel very comfortable in my own moderate, libertarian skin, and without arrogance I feel I can say I’m one of few who are really bothering to listen to both sides.

  5. andrewsmiracledrug Says:

    While I have no intentions of voting for John McCain in the presidential election, I wil always consider him a true statesman.

    A couple of years ago when the coercive interrogation/torture debate raged, some conservative pundits and legislators continually pointed out to the monstrous acts of our opponents – “These people are beheading Americans!” “They killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11!” Accurate statements, but justification for our own acts of torture?

    Much like the Chomsky statement you site, Derek, John McCain had the courage to say, “This isn’t about who they are; it’s about who we are.”

    This is, for me at least, the fundamental reason I’ve opposed the doctrine of “pre-emptive” war and torture, and many other Bush policies/doctrines.

    America, I believe, should represent our beliefs in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in deed as well as word.

    Aaron’s point is salient to mine, though I think we might disagree about the lengths that we should go to to stamp out evil (I for instance, opposed the Iraq War, not because Sadaam wasn’t brutal and a serial, mass-murderer, but because I didn’t believe our justifications went far enough for an unprovoked war, nor did I think it would help our cause in fighting terrorism on a larger scale).

    The debate that I wish we were having was not about whether water-boarding is legal or is or isn’t torture, but rather, how far should the United States go in promoting liberty and life, and stamping out evil.

    The core values are ones that i think all Americans can agree on.

    Sorry for the ramble-y comment. Thanks for the thoughtful, thought-provoking post.

  6. Aaron Orgill Says:

    Andrewsmiracledrug, actually I was against the war from the very first day. When I speak of our responsibility to stamp out evil, I’m speaking about us as individuals and members of the Church. Obviously America can’t rid the world of all its dictators. That was a wonderful point about McCain. He will probably get blown out in the general election, since many in his own party refuse to support him, but the man stands up for what he believes without fail, and there are far too few such statesmen willing to do what’s right without regard to the consequences.

  7. green mormon architect Says:

    Best part of the post for me:
    “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.”

    Amen! All we are doing right now is spending hundreds of billions creating new enemies and rekindling old ones.

    The environmental movement is a good example of the responsibility you are talking about. There is no leader of this group. It is made up of thousands of non-profits and millions of individuals each trying to do what is right and making a difference.

  8. Dave Redden Says:

    Thanks for the great post! I follow foreign police pretty closely because it seems like when you want to gauge how your government feels about people you look to how they treat the people in other countries. Let’s hope for better things ahead!

  9. John Williams Says:

    andrewsmiracledrug and Aaron Orgill – I HAD the same opinions about McCain until the recent months when he has caved on several of his “principals” in pursuit of his own power play. He has recently voted in support of Bush’s policies regarding torture, in direct contravention of his past anti-torture positions. Not long ago he specifically supported making the Army Field Manual definitions and rules regarding torture the standard for all branches and agencies, but when that same exact bill came up for a vote in the Senate, he voted AGAINST it. On this and several other issues (now in support of Bush’s tax cuts for the rich that he voted and spoke against when they were passed in the Senate, etc) he is foresaking his “principals” to gain support from the less-principaled Repub’s. Seems like they aren’t really principals at all – just words he likes to use when it is convenient. Not very “true statesmanlike” (made up word!).

  10. Aaron Orgill Says:

    I don’t really want to get into a war about McCain. He really hasn’t been my favorite politician, and you’re right that some of his favorite fights have been opportunistic.

  11. Aaron Orgill Says:

    Sorry, my son sitting with me clicked before I was done. At any rate, McCain also has a record of refusing to tell people what they want to hear. And ultimately, you have to take his actions in Vietnam seriously. He refused an easy way out of a hellish prison camp. I don’t think many people could do the same. And if Obama doesn’t put me at ease regarding his approach to business (tax the hell out of them because they don’t “need” the money, McCain will get my vote).

  12. Professor Zero Says:

    Great post.

  13. fstaheli Says:

    In light of this topic, I’ve found it ironic that several conservatives–including many with whom I usually otherwise agree–claim that because Barack Obama would have discussions with Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela that he is now a terrorist sympathizer.

    I particularly appreciate your reminding us that

    From the outset, the leaders of our nation saw our nation as an example which would hopefully inspire enlightened change throughout the world.

    Sadly, we have gone far astray in this regard. For over 100 years, while allegedly promoting liberty throughout the world, the United States (through its domination rather than example) has either promoted enslavement to dictators or the myopic economic interests of its large corporate conglomerates.

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