Friday, July 9, 2004

Come to your senses, America

I was up in the mountains a few weekends ago. One of those lovely weekends with good friends and their friends where you feel warm and cozy and can’t imagine being anywhere else or doing anything but talking and laughing and eating and drinking till you run out of things to say. Which is never.

“So what do you do?” asks this Australian expat sitting to my left at the dinner table. “I teach at Keio University,” I say. “Teach what?” “Well, I teach a course in ethics, and …”

“An American teaching ethics; now there’s a concept!”

Like I said, I love it when I’m in the bosom of my world of friends and their friends. I’ve lived among expats in Japan and elsewhere for over three decades now and they are a major part of my world.

I had never met this man before. I didn’t know him from a tree, but when he insulted me (or my country – I couldn’t be sure which) everybody burst out laughing. Including me. One of those loud healthy laughs that make you feel the stress is leaving your body like the air out of a balloon.

Without any introduction or apology, this Aussie comes out with an insult with stunning confidence. Well placed, it turns out, because the entire dinner party was comprised of people who share my view that having at Americans who even suggest a right to talk about morality is like shooting fish in a barrel.

This is hardly news. It’s now echoed everywhere. A recent Thomas Friedman column (IHT 6/21) summed up my Australian copain’s views – “the longing for an America that exports hope, not fear, and that is an example of the best global practices and values, runs deep in the world. In fact, it is one reason that some people abroad are so angry with Bush – because they blame him for taking that America away from them.”

One of my students gave a presentation in class the other day on affirmative action as government policy in Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. “Not in the moral sense, as they use it in America,” he said, “but in the practical sense, as they use it in Asia.” What he meant was that he was debating the pros and cons of affirmative action not as a moral obligation on the parts of white Americans to pay a debt to the children of those they had wronged in the past, but a means of striking preemptively and taking the wind out of the sails of minorities before they could get too riled up. It was a keen difference, and most of the audience missed it. But he had been in my ethics class previously, so I called him on his choice of moral vs. practical.

Doing something for its practical effect and “leaving morality to others” is an idea with broadbased support among my students and colleagues. They think of morality in terms of sex and religion, and dismiss moral thinking as inappropriate in the political arena.

But practical reasoning, as Kant argued, does not stand in contrast to morality; it can be morality itself. Going against the grain of a tradition of individual-based rights to give a leg-up to members of minority groups isn’t just moral; it’s practical. If it works, it should lead to the development of talents otherwise squandered, and that should help us all. The “moral” reasoning has a “practical” side, in other words.

Similarly, granting special favors to minority groups so that they will not riot, as in the case of Singapore, may be done ostensibly for practical reasons, but it contains an egalitarian moral impulse.

America’s war in Iraq was not merely immoral, but impractical as well. The damage done to America’s moral standing in the world may come someday to have devastating practical disadvantages.

That’s why, although while all people of good will, including most Iraqis, are happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein, most people (including all but 6% of Iraqis, according to one poll I saw recently) think it was done by means both immoral and impractical. The impractical side involves coming to terms with a new world in which America is no longer a model democracy, and with the exception of its open economy in some cases, no longer an example very many people want to follow.

As I write, Guatemalans are remembering the overthrow of their elected government by the CIA fifty years ago. Like the Nicaraguans, they have not forgotten that while America speaks loudly of spreading democracy around the globe, its goals are more often precisely the opposite. According to one UC Berkeley professor, the opposition to America’s war in Iraq is as high as 90% in parts of Latin America. (IHT – Latin American legacy, July 9, p. 6). The coup in Guatemala turned back land reform and favored United Fruit, a company tied to Alan Dulles, director of the CIA and Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, both members of the Eisenhower Administration. The nefarious shenanigans of the current administration didn’t spring out of nothing. They come, like most decay, out of the rot of immoral and impractical government left too long to its own devices, with insufficient oversight by Americans whose love of democracy is more than sloganeering.

I came across something written in 1934 by the French socialist leader Jean Jaurès the other day. Faced with fascism on all sides, Jaurès saw three hopes for peace: the “international organization of the working class,” the “cooperation of industrial and financial capitalism across national frontiers,” and “Anglo-Saxon America.” “We only see their dollar-mindedness,” he wrote. “(but)…should Europe be foolish enough to divide and tear itself apart tomorrow, this great enlightened American idealism would shame it with its proposals for arbitration.” Germans and French at each other’s throats; America proposing peace. How times have changed.

The Americans currently running the show seem not all that concerned about how others see them. Power and influence these days seem to be derived from America’s ability to flatten any part of the world at will, not from being any kind of shining example of morality, practical or otherwise.

In my ethics seminar, after racing across the surface of the ethical codes of the world’s major religions, we turn to the Enlightenment, and Kant in particular, before moving on to more current issues of professional ethics. This semester I had one of those joyous moments that comes to teachers from time to time when your students switch roles on you. One of my ethics students has gone hog wild over Kant and is now sending me e-mails filled with fascination for what he is encountering in Kant.

“No state at war with another,”
Kant writes, "shall permit such acts of warfare as must make mutual confidence impossible in time of future peace, such as the employment of assassins, of poisoners…. These are dishonorable stratagems. Some sort of confidence in the enemy’s frame of mind must remain even in the midst of war, because otherwise no peace could be concluded, and the conflict would degenerate into a war of extermination. For after all, war is only the regrettable instrument of asserting one’s right by force in the primitive state of nature (where there exists no court to decide in accordance with law)…. (S)uch hellish arts, because they are in themselves degrading, when once used, do not continue long within the limits of war but are continued in time of peace and thus completely frustrate the purpose of peace.”

Kant provided much of the enlightenment thought that went into the Geneva Convention and the ideals of democracy. Once, while the French were still struggling to get through the terror of their revolution, and establish principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, America was a step ahead of them in working toward government ruled by law.

Today, with lawyers explaining to us how rules against torture don’t apply if the president doesn’t want them to, how habeas corpus applies only when the bad guys are citizens, when illegal immigrants are sent to prisons thousands of miles from their homes to prevent their families from providing them with necessities, when a law is passed declaring that previous laws separating church and state must be broken three times instead of one before punishment is inflicted, so that one of the president’s primary constituencies can break the law with impunity, when we count our own dead but not the civilian casualties of a nation we invaded contrary to international law, America’s commitment to the rule of law and pride in its own decency is no longer capturing the world’s imagination.

A Japanese philosopher spoke out the other day. His comments caught my attention because he appeared to be among the few I’ve seen lately coming to America’s defense. Referring to the assertion made earlier in the day of an Iraqi prisoner humiliated by his American captors that he would have preferred to be killed than exposed to the sexual humiliation he endured, Shunsuke Tsurumi gave the event what seemed to me an interesting twist:

[The Iraqi prisoner’s] comment made me see the United States as being a far more redeemable nation than Japan. By releasing Iraqi detainees, the Americans knew they risked putting themselves in a compromising position because the Iraqis who were freed would undoubtedly reveal information damaging to the United States. Yet, prodded by public opinion, the U.S. government has begun setting them free.

When President George W. Bush likened his war to a crusade, I had to assume the United States was turning totalitarian. But its decision to release Iraqi prisoners signifies that some degree of democracy is still alive in that nation. (IHT/Asahi: June 17,2004)

Later in this article, Tsurumi makes comparisons between America’s democratic spirit and Japan’s. You may remember the Japanese hostage situation a few months ago, when most Japanese followed the media and marched lockstep behind the government to label the three young people as fools who embarrassed the nation. Tsurumi found this attitude deeply disturbing.

Where did he look for guidance?

Even though America's moral bankruptcy is deep, I still believe the United States will come to its senses sooner than Japan.

I hope you’re right, Mr. T.

July 9, 2004