An Exceptionally Moral United States

I have a confession to make.  Despite all my criticisms of waterboarding, American foreign policy interventionism, and a whole host of other aspects of the modern federal government, not to mention my refusal to consider most of Europe to be a socialist hellhole, I am a proud American exceptionalist.  Which is to say that I do believe there is something exemplary about the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and that as a result the United States can and should be a “shining city upon a hill.” 

Don’t get me wrong – I fully understand the roots of those documents in European intellectualism.  But so far as I know the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Articles of Confederation were the first attempts to implement all these ideas on a truly wide scale, albeit a scale with an unforgivable oversight, allowance of slavery.  That these ideals have since taken root to varying degrees throughout the world is a tribute to their power. 

The difference between me and other exceptionalists is that I’m serious about it.  If the US of A is to be the “shining city upon a hill” rather than merely a mirage in the desert, it must act that way.  If it wastes precious resources trying to force other cities to be just as shiny, it will find that it has lost some of its own shine in the process; if it tries to, chameleonlike, change its colors to defend against jealous neighbors, it will likewise lose some of the very shine that made those neighbors so jealous; and if it builds its walls too high, no one will see the glow that lies within.

To be sure, at some point that city has to have walls and archers if it is to protect against those jealous neighbors.  Compromises sometimes really must be made if the shining city is to retain any shine whatseover.  But the proud citizen will recognize that this tradeoff is being made and will lament it; he will not pretend that the city’s shine will be unaffected, only argue that the shine will lessen more if the tradeoff is not made.  He will not begrudge his fellow citizens their opposition to the tradeoff but will instead seek to convince them, as friends and neighbors, that the tradeoff is truly necessary.   Perhaps most importantly, the truly proud citizen will not do anything to dull the city’s shine without the approval of his fellow proud citizens.

It is this idealism of mine, this deeply engrained belief in American exceptionalism, that drives me to such anger and sadness over the interrogation and detention programs, amongst many other things, our leaders have implemented – in secret, usually – over the last several decades.  Being a shining city takes a lot of work to keep the shine polished – it is not, as Julian Sanchez explains so magnificently,  cost-free:

If you refrain from savage acts in wartime only when brutality would gain you nothing, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. Vague talk about “saving lives” obscures a vital question: What kinds of costs are you willing to bear, what risks will you accept,  in order to avoid doing evil? If you’re prepared to discard a principle as soon as there’s some significant benefit to be gotten by doing so, then it’s a principle of expediency, not morality. If you’re ready to resort to torture, or to targeting civilians, as soon as there’s some chance it would “save American lives,” then you’re declaring a commitment to abide by moral constraints, so long as observing them is free.

We are required, it seems to me, to choose: We can accept that we’re one more country like any other, guided by pure rational self interest, in which case “if it might save even one American life…” is as much justification as we can ask for any policy, and the only question (though still, of course, a difficult and complex question) is how we go about it.  If, on the other hand, we think there’s something exceptional about the United States—that we’re defined by a particular moral vision beyond the universal desire for comfort and safety—we need to accept that hewing to a moral vision sometimes comes with costs, and then ask how much ours is worth to us.

I couldn’t agree more.  If you think the United States is just another country, or even just another Western country, then the moral issues of whether waterboarding is torture, or whether it was a war crime to drop the atomic bomb, can and perhaps should be either irrelevant or only of minor significance compared to whether those actions saved more lives than they cost.  But if you are a true believer in American exceptionalism, then you must accept that maintaining that exceptionalism comes with costs, perhaps sometimes in human lives. 

Shining cities don’t just appear and maintain their shine without sacrifice and risk-taking by their citizens.  It does no one any good to pretend otherwise; nor does it do any good to secretly and gradually apply a bit of plaster and polish to a monument from which you have taken much gold restores the monument to its previous glow.  Instead, that monument must be stripped of its plaster for all to see in its newly grotesque shape.  Then, and only then, can the people properly evaluate whether the lost shine was worth the increase in safety. 

Yet this is exactly what far too many exceptionalists do today – they pretend as if that shine is not dulled when we torture or engage in other purely utilitarian calculations.  Other exceptionalists, perhaps recognizing this trade-off, simply recast the moral issues, inserting the plaster and polish of altered definitions of torture and waterboarding and “legitimate military targets.” 

Like Sanchez, this is not to say that I endorse the concept of “fiat justitia, ruat caelum.”  It is, however, to say that if we are to have any attachment whatsoever to the notion of being a “shining city upon the hill,” then we as a populace need to be in a position where we can evaluate whether the certain loss of our shine is worth the theoretical loss of some of our size.   We need to know what our government hath wrought on our behalf, whether it be the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the brutality of interrogation methods; and we also need to know how many of us those horrors saved, not just in a worst case scenario, but on average compared to other possible outcomes and methods. 

In the end, exceptionalists should remember that buildings and monuments don’t shine because they’re in the shining city, the shining city shines because the buildings and monuments reside within.

UPDATE: In the comments, I’m taking a heat for even suggesting that there is something to the concept of American exceptionalism.  I think these commenters are missing my point, which may well be my fault.  To clarify, I am NOT arguing that everything the US does is exceptional, nor am I arguing that the US is inherently a better country than anyone else.  What I AM arguing is that there is something unique about the US founding documents, and that the US is fairly unique amongst nations in that it is not a nation based on tribe or clan or ethnicity but rather almost entirely on a set of ideals.  The more the US fails to live up to those ideals and, when it does fail to do so, further fails to honestly examine the consequence of those failures, the less those ideals serve as the unifying factor for the US as a nation, and the less the US maintains a hold on what it supposed to mean to be an American.  This is explicitly NOT an argument that the US should tell other nations what to do, but is instead an argument that the US government  needs to live up to higher moral standards if it is to be the US at all rather than a nation defined merely by the makeup of its population in the year 2009.  Also – I can’t emphasize enough that one need not believe that the US needs to live up to a higher moral standard to oppose torture as immoral; I’m only arguing that if you do believe that the US system of governance is or ought to be exceptional, then you cannot easily accept waterboarding, the atomic bomb, a high incarceration rate, etc., etc.

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41 thoughts on “An Exceptionally Moral United States

  1. Mark Thompson: “If you think the United States is just another country, or even just another Western country, then the moral issues of whether waterboarding is torture, or whether it was a war crime to drop the atomic bomb, can and perhaps should be either irrelevant or only of minor significance compared to whether those actions saved more lives than they cost.”

    what?????? Torture is evil. It is the evilest, most intrinsically wrong thing that is imaginable. Wiping out hundreds of thousands of civilians with an atomic bomb is also incredibly evil. The fact that they are so evil is all the goddamn justification we, or anyone else, need to not do them.

    that has nothing to do with whatever delusions you’ve cooked up in your head about the blinding greatness precious purity of America or whatever. It actually disturbs me greatly that you think one needs to be an American exceptionalist in order to be sufficiently disgusted with the direction this country took over the past decade. Simple ol’ patriotism is quite enough, I think.

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  2. Raft: I did not say that one needs to be an exceptionalist to have a problem with the direction this country has headed in recent years. The point of this essay was merely that if one is an exceptionalist, then one must be concerned about far more than just the utilitarian calculus. I was not expressing an opinion on whether someone who is not an exceptionalist should consider moral issues. I am fully aware that those who have expressed the greatest moral outrage in this arena are, by and large, people who are most definitely not exceptionalists, for which I do not hesitate to applaud them.

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  3. This talk of exceptionalism can be so out of touch, if not downright offensive. It amounts to an assertion of moral superiority, and allows the opposite, moral inferiority, to be thrown right back in America’s face. The examples you cite – using the atomic bomb, torture, combined with those you don’t mention, such as having the highest incarceration rate in the world, continued use of the death penalty about once a week, etc — only confirm the case for negative exceptionalism. Do you think the USA is the only country with moral ideals? That every place else has only “rational self-interest?” It’s true that idealism is present in the founding documents, and arguably true that on one reading the aim is to work those ideals pure as history unfolds. Meanwhile, parliamentary democracies elsewhere have muddled through pragmatically to achieve a measure of justice in social and economic policies, in reigning in the executive branch, and so on. It seems to me that it’s both morally wise and in the rational self interest of the United States to avoid talk of exceptionalism, at least of kind expressed here.

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  4. Greg: I think you’re missing the point of the exceptionalism I’m trying to outline here. What I’m trying to argue is that there is something exemplary about the American foundational documents, examples that by and large the rest of the world now follows. But if America is to be exceptional, it must act exceptionally (ie, morally); it should be an example to follow, not a source of excuses for injustice. My point here is that the failure to self-criticize, or the belief that everything the US does is inherently exceptional, has utterly undermined those ideals. What I am arguing for here is that the idea of an “exceptional country” must be continually earned, not just assumed. And the only way it can be earned is if the US acts morally and exemplary in the international arena. It should try to lead by example, not by force.

    Moreover, I have written extensively in the past that I think quite a few European countries have surpassed the US in terms of actually living up to the ideals expressed in the US foundational documents. I have also written on a few occasions that I think denigration of Europe by the American Right is utterly hypocritical, misplaced, and ignorant of actual facts.

    All I’m arguing for here is that I am proud of the ideas expressed in the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and that the fact that those ideals were literally the basis for our union is something that is unique – we are not supposed to be a country united by tribe or clan or ethnicity but by a specific set of ideals. But if we are to be united by those ideals, then we have to live up to them, and we have to be honest about when those ideals are breached, which is far more often than we often care to admit.

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  5. Shorter me: I don’t believe in an exceptionalism in which the US is entitled to lecture the world what to do. I do, however, believe in an exceptionalism in which the US simply seeks to lead by example, trusting that other countries will follow suit. I am not in the least arguing that the US system of government is inherently morally superior to any other country; rather I am arguing that the US government should have as a major goal to be the single most ethical government on the planet, a goal that it has too often fallen short of reaching.

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  6. Mark –

    I’m no fan of American exceptionalism, but you do make a good point. Far too often “exceptionalism” is used in the sense of “make exceptions for us”, ie., an act is wrong except when America does it or it serves America’s interests. I’m skeptical when Americans make claims about their country being the “most free” in the world, as I don’t see anything to strongly suggest the US is substantively more free than Canada, Britain or various European nations. But it is still exceptional in some ways, something I’ve come to understand in studying French history. In the century following the Revolution France went through half a dozen or more different governments trying to hit upon a proper model, and continued changing it up to de Gaulle. Somehow, amazingly, America managed to get it right on the first try; not “right” as in perfect, but right in that your system of government has endured without ever being overthrown or experiencing a national revolution. That’s undeniably impressive. As a Canadian, I can’t help envying you your founders.

    I don’t consider your argument dependent on America being exceptional. Any democracy could use it, because citizens of any democracy would at least like to believe that their country acts based on what’s right rather than purely on what’s expedient. But for Americans seeking about for a message condemning the evils done by their country while nonetheless retaining strong patriotic notes, yours is a good one.

    America, in anything resembling its current state, will never become “the most ethical government on the planet”. Ethics and power do not go well together, and I cannot ever see America’s citizens – setting aside its government – consenting to lose their global preeminence. That preeminence, the imperial ideas it is entangled with, cannot be defended in a manner consistent with ethics. Most of America’s ethical failings in the last century have not been in response to existential threats, but to relatively minor threats to America’s power and authority – in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq and many others that never posed a danger to the safety of the country or its citizens.

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  7. M.T., you stepped in it this time! However, the responses and your comments have made my morning….keep up the good work!

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  8. Katherine: I think you get my point pretty well, and I can’t emphasize enough that I agree with your skepticism about claims of the US being the “most free” country in the world – there are in fact few things that grate on my ears more than Americans who denigrate every other country as some kind of outpost of slavery.

    The only disagreement I’d have with you – and it’s one of degree, not kind – is with this statement:

    “I don’t consider your argument dependent on America being exceptional. Any democracy could use it, because citizens of any democracy would at least like to believe that their country acts based on what’s right rather than purely on what’s expedient.”

    To a large extent you’re right, of course. My disagreement is just that I think this counts doubly for the US because of its history. Peoples of other liberal nations absolutely should be extraordinarily concerned with the ethics of their government; but with some notable exceptions, what defines other liberal democratic nations isn’t that they are a liberal democracy, but rather that they are a nation with a common heritage. For example, what defines the nation of Austria (which is one country that has surpassed the US by most measures of freedom) isn’t its system of government, but the fact that most of its people are Austrians – Austria would still exist under a different system of government. But take away the American system of governance, and Americans largely cease to be Americans. I would argue that this is exactly what happens a little every time we fail to examine in painful detail the sins of our present and past or question whether those sins were truly worth committing; in so doing, we acquiesce to the undermining of the very ideals that we like to think define us as a people.

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  9. There is no value to the question, “Is America more or less moral than other countries?” There is only value in the question, “Is America moral?”

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  10. Mark, I dig the post and I understand absolutely what you were going for.

    And, for the record, I think that most of your critics agree (though not in so many words). If there is a crisis in some 4th world country, the general attitude is that The US Ought To Do Something. If there is a tidal wave, we need to do something. If there is a drought, we need to do something. If there is a famine, we need to do something. Moreover, not just “the government” but the people donating to charity and the people volunteering… to the point where it makes sense after a disaster of some sort on the other side of the globe to say “we didn’t do enough!” when it would never occur to them to say such a thing about, say, Poland.

    I would say that they may have a point when it comes to the tackiness of pointing this out… but, hey, tacky is yet another area where the United States is the best in the world. If they don’t like it, maybe they can move to a country where the tackiness quotient is 3 or under… you know, like Somalia.

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  11. Freddie:
    “There is no value to the question, “Is America more or less moral than other countries?” There is only value in the question, “Is America moral?”

    I agree. However, I think that there is also quite a bit of value in the question “Ought America be more or less moral than other countries?” That to me is the real question that should underly exceptionalism; when exceptionalists ask “Is America more moral than other countries?” they ignore that the answer to that question is “no” unless America actually acts more morally than other countries.

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  12. Mark: okay, i apologize. I didn’t read your post carefully.

    That, said I still don’t understand what Exceptionalism is really good for. You seem to be saying that our ideals and society are a sort of inheritance or birthright that’s been passed down to us from previous generations, and it’s our obligation to keep that inheritance in good shape and maybe even improve upon it. As far as that goes, I think that’s right. But we can accept those obligations without asserting that they are objectively exceptional or superior ones. That’s what galls me about the triumphalist America-as-hero-of-the-world narrative. Exceptionalism is fundamentally premised on an assertion that we’re better than some other societies in some essentialist (as opposed to contingent) way. It defines us in relation to other countries and makes our conception of ourselves dependent on them. Thus the constant fear that random X bogeyman (Soviet Union, China, India) is going to usurp our place as the “shining city on a hill,” and the constant arrogance that we somehow deserve to be, or should be, there indefinitely. You acknowledge this undercurrent of exceptionalism when you define it as, “the US government should have as a major goal to be the single most ethical government on the planet.” Why *most*? Is it really so important to make it as a goal of national policy an explicit project to make ourselves *superior* to others?

    Why can’t we just say that we ought to try to improve ourselves and be better than we were, irrespective of what the rest of the world is doing or not doing? I suppose that way of thinking isn’t very exceptional, but on the contrary very ordinary. I strongly believe everyone would be better off if we adopted it.

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  13. “take away the American system of governance, and Americans largely cease to be Americans. I would argue that this is exactly what happens a little every time we fail to examine in painful detail the sins of our present and past or question whether those sins were truly worth committing; in so doing, we acquiesce to the undermining of the very ideals that we like to think define us as a people.”

    I really liked this passage. Of course, I’d argue that there are a number of different kind of “people” or social orders contained within the US which make the situation some what untenable

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  14. First off, great post Mark. What you are saying seems to be that the very term “exceptional(ism/ist)” has been co-opted by what really amounts to apologists for American hawkishness. There is no shame in being fiercely proud of one’s country; there is a wide divide between nationalism or show-patriotism, and true (profound) pride in one’s homeland. I think it’s important to take back the right to love and find exceptional our nation from those who simply use this attitude to justify our every action. We can love a child and still not condone their behavior, after all. Our country is no different.

    Freddie:

    There is only value in the question, “Is America moral?”

    I’m not sure about this, actually. It seems far too broad – and even should we narrow it down to “Is America’s government moral?” that still leaves out a great deal of the important considerations. I think we can only take it on a case by case basis – “Is America’s policy toward the Middle East (or Africa, or South America) moral?” and then, even further perhaps, to “Which of America’s actions and policies in such and such region are moral and which aren’t…and why?” And morality is such a dicey issue – we do often have to break it down to cause and effect, because good intentions, after all, can often be moral but still have horrible consequences….

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  15. Raft: I think there’s a big difference between what I’ll call positive or empirical exceptionalism and the normative exceptionalism that I’m trying to describe here. In fact, I think they’re in some ways antithetical to each other. Empirical exceptionalism rests on a claim that the US is inherently superior to other countries: it assumes that no matter how immorally the US may act, it is entitled to do so because of that inherent exceptionalism – in other words, the morality of the US’ actions is a given. Relatedly, it is also external-looking – since the US is inherently exceptional under this view, the only way that exceptionalism can be destroyed is if some foreign country beats it.

    I reject such a view. Instead, my normative exceptionalism views exceptionalism as a goal rather than as a given. Under this view, the US is exceptional only insofar as it lives up to the ideals with which it was founded, ideals that that are of undeniably world-historical importance. If the US does not lead the way, or try to lead the way, in exemplifying those ideals, then I think the strength of those ideals is weakened, which is bad for everyone the world over.

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  16. Jaybird: “And, for the record, I think that most of your critics agree (though not in so many words). If there is a crisis in some 4th world country, the general attitude is that The US Ought To Do Something. “

    I do not agree.

    The underlying assumption behind trying to save the rest of the world is that by virtue of our wealth and power and just general awesomeness we have the authority (economic, political, military, moral, religious) to go around trying to reshape other societies in our superior image. Our attention is directed outward, at other people, instead of inwards, at ourselves. That is the logic of empire.

    But we do not have this kind of authority. That is not a moral statement I am making, it is an empirical fact of reality. The history of the United States over the past four or five decades is one of overextension in disastrous overseas ventures of marginal utility while ignoring long festering problems at home. We were so focused on the travails and tribulations of faraway people that we forgot about putting our own house in order. The truth is that no empire in human history, not Rome, not the British and not America, has ever had the kind of unlimited power necessary to legitimately claim the mantle of god-like authority over the entire human race. We are not gods. And our imperial delusions and pretensions, just the ones of all those who came before us, can only ultimately end in disaster. The more unrecoverable blood and treasure we fling away into the ephemeral wind of empire, the less we have to take on the core problems of the home society. The last Presidential administration literally spent more time worrying about the oil sharing revenue agreement in Iraq than it did about the collapsing health care system in the United States. Empire corrodes in this fundamental way our sense of which things are truly important, and which are peripheral. And now we see the result: economic, financial, political, military, social catastrophe. In attempting to overreach our authority beyond all reasonable limit, we lost much of the authority that we actually had.

    It is long past time we shed the arrogance and the delusions of exceptionalism. Not only because it is wrong, but because it’s crazy and insane. we can put out as many random brush fires in the middle east or africa as we want, it won’t matter, because those are simply marginal concerns of little true importance. meanwhile half of black kids don’t graduate high school and the manufacturing sector outsourced itself to to the third world and we’re drowning in trillions of dollars of debt and real wages have been stagnant for decades and and the banks have a death grip on the political process and our obsolete mid-20th infrastructure is crumbling and the only discernible industrial policy we have is to build a lot of tanks and fighter jets and bombs. Oh, and China and India are growing at astonishing rates. Oh, and peak oil. And climate change. and massive technological change. Forget about the rest of the world, it will be a great, defining generational challenge to just save ourselves.

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  17. E.D. Kain: “What you are saying seems to be that the very term “exceptional(ism/ist)” has been co-opted by what really amounts to apologists for American hawkishness. There is no shame in being fiercely proud of one’s country; there is a wide divide between nationalism or show-patriotism, and true (profound) pride in one’s homeland.”

    i think that a investigation of the history of the concept of exceptionalism will show that it was never in any sense “co-opted” by the hawks but in fact from the beginning always was, and always will be, a vehicle for the manifest destiny of the hawks and their pretensions to empire via military and economic conquest. It is no accident that the so-called exceptionalists have continually turned a blind eye to three centuries of domestic social injustices stretching from slavery all the way through gay rights. However they never met a war they didn’t like.

    I like your family metaphor for patriotism, though I prefer to analogize love and pride for country to love and pride for one’s parents. However, just like it is childish to really believe your parents are objectively the best and most superior parents in every respect, as opposed to just your parents with many wonderful qualities and achievements but also flaws and mistakes, national exceptionalism is a primitive myth that ought to be discarded by civilized people.

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  18. Mark: Given your qualifications, doesn’t every country have access to this normative exceptionalism? What aspect, if any, makes it American? Given the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the subsequent international human rights regime – what gives America any privileged access to this moral space of striving? These impulses towards inclusive, multicultural communities exist in at least, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. Might I add that these peers of America (at least in development, and liberal democracy status) are good international citizens. That is to say, they are party to more of the core international human rights treaties, and have more readily incorporated these norms into their domestic legal systems; witness the debate about ‘foreign’ law in US Supreme Court decisions.

    I tend to agree with Michael Ignatieff when he remarks that,

    …the United States – increasingly stands apart. As international rights conventions proliferate, as newer states like South Africa adopt new rights regimes and older states Like Canada constitutionalize rights in new charters of rights and freedoms, the American Bill of Rights stands out in ever sharper relief, as a late eighteenth-century constitution surrounded by twenty-first century ones, a grandfather clock in a shop window full of digital timepieces.

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  19. Creon Critic: What makes it uniquely American is simply that it is the entire raison d’etre of our nation. I’ve explained time and again that I don’t think moral striving is something to which the US has “privileged access”; instead, I am simply saying that moral striving in government action should be doubly important to the US because those moral ideals lie at the very foundation of what makes the US, well, the US.

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  20. “As international rights conventions proliferate, as newer states like South Africa adopt new rights regimes and older states Like Canada constitutionalize rights in new charters of rights and freedoms, the American Bill of Rights stands out in ever sharper relief, as a late eighteenth-century constitution surrounded by twenty-first century ones, a grandfather clock in a shop window full of digital timepieces. ”

    Compare Canadian ideas of free speech with American ideas of free speech (for example).

    The American idea is that people can say what they want, pretty much. You can’t stop them.

    The Canadian idea is… well, let’s just call it “anemic” in comparison.

    That’s the main one off the top of my head but I’m going to jump ahead and call it representative. If you believe that Human Rights are seated in the individual, then America is the “Rolex” among a group of Timex Ironmans.

    If, however, you see “Human Rights” as seated in the society or culture or granted by the government… well, then you have to admit that we can’t judge attitudes toward homosexuality in Pakistan. Or attitudes towards women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Or “free speech” in Canada.

    Fundamentally we have to ask “where are human rights seated” and if the answer is “the individual”, then that gives us a hell of a lot more “so now what”s than if the answer is “the culture”.

    I’m much more a fan of the ideal of Enlightenment Values than the ideal of post-Enlightenment ones… mostly because the post-Enlightenment folks are becoming more and more indistinguishable from folks unfamiliar with Enlightenment Values.

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  21. Raft, you deserve a response to that and I’m formulating one but I keep running into the problem of “isolationism/non-interventionism” invoking John Birchism in my head. If I went on to say that I have trouble seeing a major difference between “imposition of *OUR* cultural values on Iraq” and “imposition of *OUR* cultural values on Houston”, you may see where I’m having the most trouble with your proposed solution.

    I’m still chewing on this.

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  22. Previous comment was as compliment; excellent post!

    How about this query: How moral is America to her citizens?

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  23. “How moral is America to her citizens?”

    What are our Human Rights? Depending on your answer, you will get *VERY* different answers to your question.

    If the answer is something like “free speech, a free press, etc”, then the US is pretty good. If the answer is “access for poor diabetic children to the best diabetes treatments money can buy”, you’ll get another.

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  24. “If I went on to say that I have trouble seeing a major difference between “imposition of *OUR* cultural values on Iraq” and “imposition of *OUR* cultural values on Houston”, you may see where I’m having the most trouble with your proposed solution.”

    I got a good chuckle out of this. The true limits of nation building?

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  25. Jaybird: excellent differentiation. Question: what obligations does the central gov’t have for her citizens?

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  26. “what obligations does the central gov’t have for her citizens?”

    Well, the primary answer seems to me to be “to govern with the consent of the governed.”

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  27. Bob Cheeks & Jaybird: Consent of what proportion of the governed? Is a majority enough? I’d see a lot more substantively in there, like equal protection under the law. I also see responsibilities to the citizen qua citizen. ‘Don’t be evil,’ isn’t enough. ‘Be good,’ is important too. Shorthand, promote human dignity. Longhand, don’t enslave, don’t torture, etc., etc., UDHR. Yes some ridicule ‘periodic holidays with pay,’ (Article 24), but in a pinch I’d say work-life balance is a fairly important thing, to the individual and the society. There are tensions, but I don’t see asserting second and third generation human rights as quashing the individual, on the whole they seem fairly empowering. In terms of first, second, and third generation rights, they’re, on the whole, interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

    Mark: To be honest, this is the first thing that came to mind upon reading just the title of your post,

    …the fact that many of the images are on postcards. The people who approved of or participated in these crimes sent photos of them via the U.S. mail, to share their subhuman pleasure with others. One of the postcards reads: “This is the barbecue we had last night.”… That ordinary people did these things is deeply disturbing; that they manufactured a social rationale for their acts is more disturbing still. Look for a while at the picture of the lynching of Rubin Stacy, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1930. Look first at Stacy, then turn to the little girl in the summer dress, looking at Stacy, and then to the man behind her, perhaps her father, in the spotless white shirt and slacks and the clean white skimmer. They will stand there forever, admiring the proof of their civilization.

    That is to say alongside, the founders and all that good stuff of American civilization, is the profoundly troubling – as you acknowledged “a scale with an unforgivable oversight, allowance of slavery.” But I want to make a claim that both are a part of the American identity; to me, America is ambiguous in a way that isn’t fully captured in statements like, “Other nations would not lose their identity if they ceased to be liberal democracies; the US would.” Or, “those moral ideals lie at the very foundation of what makes the US, well, the US.”

    Slavery, Jim Crow, the father-daughter pair also lie at the foundation of what makes the US the US. They are part of what make the US (like its peers & their atrocities) an aspirant to the title, liberal democracy – not a rightful claimant. The project of normative exceptionalism appears to skim off the best bits, incorporate them into American identity and fail to grapple with the deep ambiguities at America’s core – well, fail to grapple in the sense that they are stepping stones, or chapters, or past, or overcome. Under a rubric of exceptionalism the brutality becomes transitory and the ideal becomes an ever present fixture; the brutal are out-of-character elements in the American experience. I’d contend that both the brutal and the sublime are ongoing themes; the brutal is never vanquished.

    This is all coming out a lot less clearly than I’d have liked, I’ll just add that Graham Greene’s the Quiet American also came to mind. There’s something dangerous brewed in the mix of innocence, self-righteousness, and power that ‘American exceptionalism’ calls forth. Perhaps raft is right, exceptionalism is simply too loaded, to full of other baggage to quiet fit the gap between the ideals of America and the reality of America. “the United States is just another country,” – brings to mind the quip: Remember your unique. Just like everyone else.

    Shorter CC: It is just as wrong to tell ourselves we’re the superhero as it is to claim we’re the supervillain. We are merely human, with all the courage and the cowardice that that entails – as is vividly evidence by the torture memos. Our carefully crafted institutions, checks and balances, are as fragile a human project as any other.

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  28. “‘Don’t be evil,’ isn’t enough. ‘Be good,’ is important too.”

    I think that “Don’t be evil” might be the business of the government. Prevent murder, rape, etc. If someone is evil, the government can put them in the Panopticon until they are ready to rejoin society. Sure.

    “Be good”? I don’t know about that. Does that mean accepting gay marriage or protecting traditional marriage? Does that mean accepting community standards or does that mean asserting a deep right to privacy? Does that mean respecting freedom of expression or does that mean protecting The Children?

    “Don’t be evil” strikes me as a great rule of thumb.

    “Be good”? Eh. I wouldn’t want you to have a single power to make me be a better person that I wouldn’t want in the hands of Ted Haggard.

    No offense.

    That said, there are quite a few powers that I wouldn’t mind you (or Ted Haggard, for that matter) having to prevent evil.

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