Monday, January 12, 2004
With his finger he wrote on the ground
Because I think hierarchies are inevitable I think the commitment to Anarcho-Syndicalism is a mistake. But Chomsky is dead on when he insists that American political discussion is distorted by a belief in American moral exceptionalism.
Case in point: New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman. He is a bright guy who makes an effort to stay informed and who (unlike a certain Times columnist whose name rhymes with liar) sincerely tries to present a truthful analysis of world events. And yet, a belief in American moral exceptionalism pervades his work.
For example, in a recent column he wrote:
"The cold war ended the way it did because at some bedrock level we and the Soviets "agreed on what is shameful." And shame, more than any laws or police, is how a village, a society or a culture expresses approval and disapproval and applies restraints. But today, alas, there is no bedrock agreement on what is shameful, what is outside the boundary of a civilized world. Unlike the Soviet Union, the Islamist terrorists are neither a state subject to conventional deterrence or international rules, nor individuals deterred by the fear of death. And their home societies, in too many cases, have not stigmatized their acts as "shameful." In too many cases, their spiritual leaders have provided them with religious cover, and their local charities have provided them with money. That is why suicide bombing is spreading."
Some of what Friedman has to say is insightful. There is something to the idea that societies are defined and regulated by implicit agreements concerning the character of acceptable acts. More importantly, he is right that the current condition of global unrest is due, in part, to the fact that we have become a global community without achieving any kind of ethical concord, and that, ultimately, the unrest cannot be ended unless we are able to achieve some kind of common understanding of the ethical boundaries within which we are to live.
But Friedman also labors under the misapprehension that here in the West we have a shared ethical grounding that governs our actions. The plain fact is that our government routinely engages in actions which are utterly shameful on any reasonable standard. To cite a single example, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was picked up by American officials while passing through an airport, shipped to Syria for torture by proxy, and released-uncharged-ten months later and forty pounds lighter. A nation which acts in this way cannot lecture from a position of presumed moral superiority.
That's not to say that Americans can't condemn suicide bombings. But the conversation in which they are condemned has to be one in which we also ask what it is we are doing to be hated so much. That is, it has to be a conversation wherein the United States and its detractors are granted equal respect, and where each side is expected to acknowledge both its own misdeeds and the legitimate concerns of the other. It has to be a conversation in which each party stands ready to modify its behavior in response to what is learned.
When we believe, as Friedman apparently does, that our government has comported itself well in the world, then we will not be able to understand the motivations and values of those who tilt against the United States. We will instead say that they have sacrificed rationality at the alter of religion, that they lack normal human fears and desires, and that they have somehow placed themselves outside of the ethical community. And when we say these things we have stopped the conversation before it starts.