Monday, October 10, 2005

Did I Forget Anything?

An interesting conversation in the blogosphere has begun over when it is appropriate to note American abuses in the context of much worse abuse around the world. The spark was this post at Feministe, detailing a case of Domestic Violence in Saudi Arabia that finally managed to shatter the silence such crimes are normally treated to in that nation. What got the right's gander up was the ending paragraph, which stated:
It's too easy to read a story like this and respond, "Wow, they sure are backwards over there in Saudi Arabia," thus exoticising domestic crimes and excusing yourself (ourselves) from any ownership over this society, which also tacitly excuses violence against women. Yes, women in the United States have far more resources than Saudi women when trying to escape abusive situations, and the cult of silence around such violence has had holes poked in it here. For that, we can all thank feminism. But to claim that the cultural ills which promote and allow intimate partner violence exist there and not here is delusional to the point of being dangerous.

For that disclaimer, Jeff Goldstein takes her to task as a textbook case of leftist self-flagellation (tip: John Cole). He then approvingly quotes a comment by Karol of Alarming News:
Is America perfect? Yes, compared to the land of Saud, we are. You do a disservice to the battle against violence of women by even noting our problems in the same post as Saudi Arabia. America bashing is always fun, I'm sure, but it makes us take the problems of Saudi Arabia much less seriously when you draw a moral equivalence between what happens here and what happens there. It's actually a classic liberal problem, to be unable to criticize anything without first criticizing America. It makes people tune you out and not to take you seriously and whatever point you were trying to make becomes muddled or irrelevant under that equivalence.

We might first quibble with the wording, that America is perfect "compared to the land of Saud." Perfect, of course, is not a comparative term, you can't be perfect compared to something, you either are perfect or you aren't, and America isn't. It is clearly better than Saudi Arabia (a point Feministe concedes), but to say we're perfect is to make invisible the myriad of ways we clearly are not. To be blunt: "better than Saudi Arabia" is a pretty strong dilutation of "perfect" when it comes to woman's rights.

But more fundamentally, Karol is distorting Feministe's stance. Look at her own rhetoric: "It's actually a classic liberal problem, to be unable to criticize anything without first criticizing America." But that's the exact opposite of what Feministe did--she criticized Saudi Arabia first and then added a single paragraph at the end noting that we have significant problems here as well.

The problem Karol points out is a real one. It comes in the form of some leftists arguing to the tune of: "You shouldn't criticize Saudi Arabia when America abuses women too." In other words, until we've totally obliterated American abuse (attacked America first), we have no standing to attack other nations on their abuse. People do that sometimes, I admit, but any honest reading of Feministe's claim shows she isn't in that group. She makes the perfectly valid claim that Saudi abuse is horrific and must be opposed, but it can't be within the framework of the noble and flawless American Paladin saving the savage from his ignoble ways. Because we're no Paladin, and it does a disservice to abused woman in America to act like there's nothing to fix here. When faced with abuse in America and even more horrible abuse in Saudi Arabia, the Feministe position (and the one I share), is simple: let's fix both. Let's protest both, let's condemn both, let's march against both, let's blog about both. Don't try and hide one in false solidarity with the other. That does nobody any favors. But by distorting this comprehensive narrative to fit within the stock conservative attack of leftists who refuse to see any wrong but in America, the effect of Karol's statement is to facilitate the continued abuse of women here at home.

It's not so much that I think Feministe made the perfect argument here (I'd have preferred a sharper distinction between the situation in Saudi Arabia and America). But Karol completely twists Feministe's structure so it fits within her pre-set paradigm, and everybody is going along with it. The effect is to chill any liberal who sees a problem in America and wants to fix it, because even if they do couch their point within a global framework that recognizes this isn't "just our fault," it'll simply be ignored and they'll be grouped with the raving Michael Moore set. Feministe's post wasn't an example of "blame America first." It was an example of "this problem is widespread in Saudi Arabia, and it's widespread here, so let's fix the damn thing before another woman has her face smashed into a marble wall."

Goldstein continues:
We in the US know our failings. We know our past. But after 911, the majority of us surrendered the liberal guilt we had the luxury to wallow in when we thought we'd reached the end of history precisely because we know, at heart, that we are a good country. And we have little time for such self-flagellation, particularly when such strains to point up a symmetry between ourselves and the culture from which our enemy springs like sword-wielding weeds.

Do we really know these things? I'm not convinced we do. If we did, then we'd see a far more concerted effort by America to rectify these inequalities and injustices, these "failings" in our past (and present). But I never see conservative blogs rail against domestic abuse in America. I never see conservative blogs argue in favor of difficult sacrifices to make up for our failings to African-Americans, women, and other minorities continually left behind in the America dream. Very occasionally, the subject comes up, but it's only instrumental to other goals ("Many black children live in broken families. We have to ban gay marriage!"), it's never discussed for it's own sake. In that respect, I'd disagree with Jeff. I think America is doing it's best to ignore it's failings and forget it's past. If it were otherwise, I think you'd see some very different prioritizations in congress and in the blogosphere. But alas, these issues are only raised by the left, and the center and right doesn't want to hear them because it's far more comfortable to label ourselves "perfect compared to Saudi Arabia" (talk about a stacked deck!).

Effectively, then, my challenge to the conservative blogosphere is this: If you want your criticisms of "Blame America First" leftists to have any weight, then show you actually recognize that America has problems at all. Speak up about domestic abuse in America--and tell us what plans you have to stop it. Condemn institutionalized racism in America--and condemn the politicians who use it for electoral gain. I just wrote a post about a set of policies designed to shift voting strength away from law-abiding black citizens to rural white counties and representatives. Where's the outrage? Our drug laws are explicitly set to ensnare black defendants for multi-decade sentences while letting white defendants off with misdemeanors and treatment. Where's the outrage? Show us that it is possible to improve America without hating America and without the crutch of pointing to other countries which are worse. Because the current stance, "America: We're better than Saudi Arabia," just doesn't fly with me.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the more than fair analysis. Very grateful considering that I feel Jill and I have been misrepresented as of late.


Anonymous said...

I'll second what Lauren said. Thank you.

The probligo said...

With respect to the "criticism of America", you have said a whole mouthful.

I posted some while back on "confirmation bias" (you can look that up on Wikipedia now I believe) and the fact that I suffer from it myself.

In relation to your analysis in this instance I think that it needs to go further.

Perhaps we should create an extension of "confirmation bias" under the heading of "precognitive understanding", essentially reading (or hearing) something in such a way that it fits with existing preconceptions.

Lead balloon?

Fair enough. I still enjoyed your post.

Anonymous said...

My name is spelled with a 'K'.

David Schraub said...

Lauren: Thanks

Jill: Thanks

Probligo: Thanks (?)

Karol: Fixed

Anonymous said...

Sadly this distorts our entire political debate. As a child in the sixties and a teenager in the seventies I was disillusiond by our history in regards to race. Indians and the rest along with activities in SE Asia and other parts of the third world.

By the late seventies it was clear to me the horrors occuring in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Vietnamese imperialism of Laos and N. Vietnamese suppression of S. Vietnamese, the persecution of Chinese and the Sino/Viet wars that followed yet most "leftists" who had been so concerned by Americanm abuses there were ignorant of headlines and rationalized them when they they were pointed out.

They did not care and do not care about third world people any more than the right. Of course there are exceptions, but one is anguished because the mainstream flow is one of indifference where human rights are raised only as a partisan issue.

Cathy Young said...


Interesting comments, but I think the criticism of the Feministe post is warranted.

"Blaming America first" may be an unfortunate term. But I do think that both the placement of the comment about domestic violence in America in Jill's post — in the concluding paragraph that sums up her point — and its wording have the effect of shifting the focus from the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia to the "cultural ills" that afflict women in America. If Jill had wanted merely to acknowledge that we have problems too, why not say, "Yes, America has problems with domestic violence and gender inequality, too, but to even compare them to the abuse and oppression of women in America is delusional to the point of being obscene"? The way her post is written, its main point ends up being: Let's not feel too superior to those Saudis.

For more of my comments see here:

Feminism, Multiculturalism and Domestic Violence