Thursday, May 26, 2005

Mirror, Mirror on The Wall

Who's the most moral of them all?

There has been chatter on the blogosphere about Amnesty's latest Human Rights report, posts that tie in nicely with my recent thoughts on the subject.

We start our journey over at Obsidian Wings, who links to a comment (the top one) in this Belmont Club post, which says the following:
It's odd, isn't it, how moral relativism works. A country like say, North Korea or Iran takes dissenters and throws them into the gulag and that's government policy. In the US when someone mistreats a prisoner there is an investigation and the individual wrong-doers face criminal sanctions... that's our government policy. And yet, somehow the two are equal. As bad as moral relativism is, though, it's the fact that those who indulge themselves in this sort of thinking aren't even aware there's a problem.

My own opinion is that most people are talking about a strawman when they refer to most forms of "moral relativism." That's neither here nor there at the moment, though (you can go here if you really want my in-depth analysis of "moral relativism" or, in my case, Perspectivism). But Obsidian Wings and I have essentially the same answer to this sort of critique. As he puts it:
All the shouting about "how dare they" criticize us strikes me as willfully blind to the way that, by proclaiming our moral superiority, we are asking to be held to a higher standard. It seems to me that Amnesty's point was that as the world's remaining superpower, the US bears a bigger responsibility than North Korea or Iran to set an example. So any critique that doesn't account for how the President declared himself qualified to preach to the rest of the world about such matters in his last Inaugural address, leaves a bit of a gap in how one is meant to interpret responsibility and credibility. I mean, it's human nature for problems to arise, but when so many problems are arising (G-bay, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, extradition, false arrests in the US, etc.) AND the president is still declaring we'll lead the way toward the end of tyranny, then I think AI and others have a right to suggest, because we're holding ourselves up as an example of a higher standard, that we're failing in equal measure to those holding themselves to a lower standard.

Or as I do:
To be clear, Amnesty is definitively NOT saying the US is the worst human rights violator in the world. That would be delusional, what with North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Belarus, etc etc to choose from. But none of those countries are seen as examples by the rest of the global community. For better or for worse, the US is a beacon. Other countries look to us to understand what freedom and democracy means. That is a privilege that the US has earned over years of being the world's most consistent shining light for humanity. But it comes with a heavy responsibility, to conduct ourselves within the most scrupulous ethical guidelines, to not take the easy way out, to try an elevate the status of moral behavior around the world rather than depressing it and/or trying to get away with the absolute bare minimum. When the world sees America the Free locking up persons in isolated detention camps with no trials, no attorneys, and no rights, is it any wonder that they go back and do the same?

OK, I'll lapse into relativism, but just for a second. It strikes me as all together plausible that who the actor is has some bearing on the morality of a given action. When a prominent sports star goes out and says "I use drugs, and you should too!" that's qualitatively different than some junkie on the street doing it. Why? Because he has influence. Nobody really objects to this sort of distinction, and those who do at least recognize that the taxonomy is real, even if they don't think it should be. Similarly, the US is the role model when it comes to human rights. Nobody looks at North Korea and then tries to justify their own abuses by saying Pyongyang does it too. But saying the US does it? That's a pretty powerful endorsement, when the field is freedom and liberty. And that's why the American rights abuses are far more dangerous to international stability that those of other countries. Fair? Maybe not. But it represents a social reality that has to be dealt with.

However, there is a flip side to that argument: the US still cannot be the sole (or even, I'd assert, primary) target of our moral indignation. For while the social reality that American rights abuses matter MORE (in the grand scheme of things) has to be dealt with, it is equally true that this social reality is not something America controls (or at the very least, it isn't one we want to rectify by NOT being the world's example for what it means to be protect human rights). On a pragmatic level, its important to hold the line on the United States because we know what the realistic implications of slippage are. However, on an ideological level, we still have a very real obligation to criticize, and sharply, the real monsters in our midst. And it is in that light that we need to take this Oxblog post very seriously:
The purpose of Khan's speech was to introduce and summarize AI's annual report on human rights. Before getting into what Khan did say, it is far important to observe what she didn't say, namely anything about North Korea, let alone Cuba or Syria. This sort of calculated ignorance constitutes nothing less than a betrayal of the millions and millions who suffer at the hands of the world's most reactionary dictatorships.
Of course, there is a chapter on Syria in AI's annual report. The same is true of Cuba and North Korea. But when the head of the organization singles out the US and UK for criticism, she lets the Cubans, Syrians and North Koreans know that they are not her biggest concern. It's exactly the same as when Bush singles out Egypt for criticism but lets Pakistan and Saudi Arabia slide.

Criticizing the US for Human Rights violations is important because it forces us to practice what we preach. Solely criticizing the US (or being hyperbolic) about it is counterproductive because it gives cover and moral legitimacy to the truly evil nations that exist--North Korea, Syria, Sudan, etc.. And when the Left gleefully seizes upon such statements as proof of how evil the US really is, it effectively dooms those most in need of aid and rescue.

As usual, the answer lies in the balance. Criticize the US for not setting an example, but still blast the Sudanese for creating a world where examples still need to be set. Either one, alone, represents a fatal blindspot in our moral judgment. Put both together, and there may yet be hope for progress.

UPDATE: Okay, I'll bite. How does this traffic jam really work?

Also, they may wish to be informed that the page they tell you to go to for "more information" appears not to exist. Is this some Nietzschean drama being performed on unwitting newbies, without our knowledge?

1 comment:

Marc Schulman said...


There's nothing wrong with the US being held to a higher standard -- after all, both Republican and Democratic administrations have long proclaimed that we hold ourselves to a higher standard.

So that's not the issue. The issue is the propagandistic nature of AI's Secretary-General's message. It's that message that most people and -- more importantly -- the media -- will read, if they read anything at all.

To proclaim that Guantanomo is today's gulag is to imply that what is happening there is worse than in numerous Islamic countries, North Korea, and Cuba. This is both quantitatively and qualitatively wrong. Quantitatively because the number of prisoners is much smaller. Qualitatively because many, if not most, of the Guantanomo prisoners are terrorists and enemy combatants, while the far more numerous inmates of the real gulags are civilian dissidents.

As far as I'm concerned, AI now has zero credibility. It's political agenda has taken precedence over campaigning for human rights.