Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Humbler and More Truthful American Narrative

The controversy surrounding the comments of Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has once again highlighted a major divide in American politics. At one extreme are those who believe that America is an exceptional nation chosen by God to bring democracy and justice to the world; at the other are those who hold that America is no different than other imperial powers. Formed in slavery and genocide, it is as responsible as any other nation for the atrocities that stain human history.

Many on the left criticize those on the right for what they view as a form of mindless and blind patriotism, of obliviousness to the evils committed by Americans. Those on the right view many leftists as bordering on traitorous, unable to recognize that America has more often than not been a benevolent power that has sacrificed greatly to promote freedom around the globe.

The middle ground is rarely articulated in American political discourse, and yet this is where the truth lies. What we need is a humbler and more truthful American narrative.

Such a narrative would begin by acknowledging the great tragedies of Native American genocide and black slavery, the legacies of which linger to this day. It would recognize that slavery hardly ended with the Civil War; it continued in one form or another until WW II, and then morphed into an extremist racial segregation that continued until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In fact, of the more than 350 years of American history, fewer than 50 have been characterized by even a modicum of decency towards black Americans. It is not an exaggeration to describe the treatment of blacks in America as domestic terrorism, made all the more evil because it was perpetrated by American citizens against other American citizens who happened to be of a different color.

But the evils that were committed against blacks, Indians, and other immigrant groups throughout American history have always been tempered by the ideals set forth in our founding documents. The Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal. This was a revolutionary doctrine, and it was always there to prick the consciences of those who realized what it said about our treatment of blacks and Native Americans and yes, women too. Over generations, the ideal that all men and women are equal helped to create one of the most multi-ethnic and economically mobile civilizations of all time. America may be a nation of sinners, but it is also a nation that strives to live up to its ideals and to overcome its moral imperfections.

Americans, believing deeply that freedom is a universal right, have also sacrificed tremendously to help spread liberty throughout the world. Americans died by the hundreds of thousands fighting Nazism and Communism, wicked ideologies bent on world domination. Today American military bases around the world do more to prevent conflict than to incite it. While Iraq makes the headlines, no one hears about the relative peace and tranquility secured by American forces throughout much of the world.

America’s foreign policy has aided and abetted heinous crimes, but this was usually done to oppose what we understood to be even greater evils. For example, while there is no real excuse for American support of dictators and oppressors, we justified these steps during the Cold War in the face of Soviet aggression and expansionism. This irrationality reached its apex during the Vietnam War, when it became common practice to destroy entire villages in order to “save” them.

Despite all the contradictions and wrongdoings, the American experience has been marked by continual moral progress: by the knowledge that we must do more to live up to our highest ideals, and by our movement toward them. America will never be perfect, but this does not take away our legitimate right to try to influence world events. American power is best used with one eye on our own shortcomings, and the other on promoting those universal human rights that represent the best of who we are.

A more humble and truthful American narrative recognizes how easy it is to commit evil in the name of good, and the need to guard against this; at the same time, the narrative gives us confidence that our highest ideals are worth promoting across the globe.

P.S. A time stamp for the comments is coming soon. Thanks for your patience.

Jason Scorse

Comments (10) | Permalink

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Dangers Of Utopianism

I just finished reading Arthur Koestler’s 1940 anti-Stalinist masterpiece Darkness at Noon. It’s about a former high-level Russian Communist who is jailed by the Party when things do not turn out as planned and reactionary forces take over. The novel grapples with the big moral question of how people can commit heinous crimes in the pursuit of utopian dreams.

In many ways it is a question as old as humanity itself. Groups that promise a new “golden age” are almost always willing to engage in the most barbarous acts in order to get there. These utopias can be religious or secular, they can lead their followers to the Crusades or to communism and fascism. No matter how much the brutality escalates, believers are always assured that the end is just around the corner and things will get better; they will make good on their promises and all will be forgiven.

The book’s main moral lesson is the rejection of the doctrine that “the ends justify the means”. Western Civilization is premised on the exact opposite precept: that individual liberties are inalienable rights, and are not to be trampled on and sacrificed in the name of some distant utopia.

But the urge for utopia is not confined to the great outrages of religious crusades and Russian communism; it also found in the history of colonialism and in its most recent incarnation, the Iraq War.

Colonialist history is filled with accounts of massive brutality waged against indigenous peoples in the name of making them more civilized. Without fail, the perpetrators of these crimes always cited the best interests of the natives; the colonizers convinced themselves (and tried to convince their victims) that the barbarity of the present would be rewarded with the stability and prosperity of the future.

Before I draw this analogy to the Iraq War let me make it clear that the goal of having a democratic Middle East is a noble goal, and in no way am I equating the Bush Administration and its supporters with the icons of communism and fascism. In addition, I believe that the American military has gone to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties and not engage in the “scorched Earth” policy that was common in previous wars.

But that is largely beside the point.

The invasion of Iraq has diminished if not destroyed the life prospects of an entire generation of Iraqi mothers, fathers and children. More than two million Iraqis have been displaced and may live out the rest of their lives in the squalor and second-class citizenship of refugee camps in foreign lands. Virtually no Iraqi families have escaped unscathed; almost all have had family members brutally murdered. The country’s infrastructure is in a shambles and daily life is miserable almost everywhere (except in the Kurdish north, which was stable even before the war).

But, we are told by the war supporters, in words eerily reminiscent of Darkness at Noon, that this is a “generational effort”; when we look back from the vantage point of history 50 years from now, Iraq will be prosperous and free; all of the death and destruction will have been worth it.

What they are saying is that the ends justify the means (and even these ends are not in the least guaranteed).

This is an immoral proposition that runs counter to the foundations of Western democracy and liberty. No Western power has the right to sacrifice an entire generation of Iraqis for some far-off and uncertain objective. It is not our choice to make. It is the Iraqis’ choice, and they did not ask to be guinea pigs in our grand experiment to remake the Middle East.

What we did have the right to do was protect ourselves, which after 9/11 legitimately included getting additional weapons inspectors into Iraq and even taking offensive action against Saddam Hussein if he didn’t cooperate. It did not include the right to invade and endlessly occupy the country, which led almost directly to the chaos and carnage that we now witness.

Utopian fantasies are always dangerous and immoral, even if they come wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy and freedom. This is a lesson that we have not learned, despite the fact that history is littered with examples.

P.S. As if on cue, there is a great piece in the NYT magazine that examines how Iraqi exiles are coming to grips with the failures in Iraq. The piece touches on many of the themes in this piece and also shows once again that Al Qeada has been a peripheral factor in the war, not the central actor as the neocons would have us believe.

Jason Scorse

Comments (22) | Permalink

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Ending The Legacy Of Slavery

We are nearing the end of the first decade of the 21st century and yet it is still true that the color of a person´s skin is probably the best predictor of their material standard of living. On my recent trip to Brazil I saw this firsthand and was struck yet again by the enduring legacy of slavery and racism.

In the elite neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities, the residents have almost entirely European features and the overwhelming majority of blacks are maids, street cleaners, or other service workers. The proportion of national income that goes to whites versus blacks has changed little in centuries and the concentration of wealth is even greater.

The same situation persists throughout Latin America, where the treatment of indigenous people also includes blatant human rights violations and virtual second-class citizenship. Whatever can be said about inequality in America and its racial component, we have come a long way and progressed much further than our Southern neighbors.

But we have a long way to go.

For four decades we have experimented with various methods of affirmative action based on raced-based preferences, which have resulted in significant upward mobility for blacks and other minority groups. That we have a fairly robust and sizeable black middle class and a rising Latino professional class is a testament to the success of affirmative action (which is not to say that many of these men and women would not have succeeded without racial preferences).

But there is a perception that racial preferences are un-American and amount to reverse discrimination. The perception has become widespread; there are too many examples of preferences being extending to the sons and daughters of the minority elite, and patience with affirmative action is wearing thin. Fortunately there is an easy fix that is starting to catch on. By simply changing preferences from race to economic status, we can lose the stigma of race and yet still lend a hand to those at the bottom of the economic ladder, who are disproportionately black and Hispanic. If we also happen to assist poor whites from Appalachia or the Pacific Northwest or anywhere else, all the better.

The second thing that should be done to help ameliorate the effects of racism is to wholeheartedly promote universal preschool education. For a long time educators have realized that a child´s cognitive potential is largely determined before the child ever sets foot in kindergarten. From birth until the ages of 3-4 a child´s brain is absorbing information at a staggering pace. Without significant stimuli, a child´s development during these years is severely handicapped and their potential significantly stymied. Increasingly, researchers are showing that investments in preschool are some of the best that individuals and society can make.

Neither of these policies will completely end the legacy of racism, but they represent improvements over the status quo. They are policies that all countries should adopt, especially those where slavery once reigned.

Jason Scorse

Comments (25) | Permalink

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Human Priorities In A Godless World

Last week I had nightmares after reading Nicholas Kristof’s description of the Guinea worm–a two-foot long parasite that lives inside human beings and slowly burrows out of their bodies in the most unpleasant places–in his editorial on Jimmy Carter’s work to eradicate the disease. Besides my sleepless night, the article helped to solidify two things for me.

The first is that parasites like the Guinea worm should forever lay to rest the notion that there is a benevolent god who created humans in his or her image and the Earth as the place for our dominion. (It’s ironic that Carter, a devout evangelical, has done more than any other single person to help wipe out this disease; then again, those who believe in a god who would send his only son down to earth to be tortured and nailed to a cross have set the bar very low for the evidence of a benevolent divinity).

Bottom line: In this world we are but one among millions of creatures competing for resources. There are many out to kill us, but also many living inside of us that do us great service (or great disservice). Within the cycle of life that we call nature we humans do not take precedence; we are not the end point of all natural processes. While on many dimensions we are the most advanced, there are areas where we are less advanced. But perhaps most important, the extent to which we adhere to moral principles and ethics is due solely to our own conceptions of how things ought to be, not how they are.

Where this morality comes from is one of the great questions humanity faces. Increasingly, I believe that evolutionary explanations are the most persuasive, but not necessarily in a traditional way. Yes, we evolved to cooperate because it was in our interests to do so; but as our knowledge has grown so has our ability to empathize with other humans and non-humans. This ability, I conjecture, is at the root of our moral progress. We know pain and are able to easily conceptualize how others feel pain. For most of us it makes us feel better to help prevent that pain rather than to inflict it. The more our ability to empathize grows the more we are willing to alter our behavior to serve the needs of others.

This brings me to my second realization. We really need to do a better job of prioritizing the problems that we address as a global community. Curing the world’s most terrible diseases and making sure that not a single human being ever has to suffer the pain and indignity of diseases like the Guinea worm should be at the top of the list. There are many other issues hovering near the top, such as providing clean drinking water for all. Only when those problems have been adequately addressed should we then turn our attention to the next tier of problems, no matter how pressing they may seem to some. This next tier includes many environmental concerns, which I specialize in.

In this spirit I decided to shift the bulk of my charitable giving in order to reflect these new priorities (even though this will mean not giving, at least temporarily, to causes that I have long supported). I also plan to shift some of my research to areas of higher priority as well.

I am thankful that Mr. Kristof helped to remind me of these priorities.

Jason Scorse

Comments (23) | Permalink

October 2, 2005

Saddam’s Trial: Justice Before Retribution

One of the most crucial (and sadly, under publicized) events of the century is set to begin in just under three weeks. On October 19th, Saddam Hussein will stand trial for murder in the 1982 slaying of 148 Shia Muslims in Dujail. This is a mere fraction of the actual carnage and trauma Hussein carried out during his nearly quarter-century reign, but a trial of this magnitude is an enormous first step towards stability for such a fragile and volatile country. (And just the first of many planned hearings in the Iraqi war crimes tribunal.) While many people around the world are heralding the trial as a first step towards bringing a tyrant to justice, I cannot help but wonder whether justice would be better served by pushing the trial back a bit.

Saddam’s attorney, Khalil Dulaimi, recently submitted a motion to delay the trial on the grounds that the prosecution has had an unfair time advantage for trial preparation. Several other reasons were cited in the motion, including limited access to Saddam and recent defense personnel changes. The exact date that charges were filed against Saddam is a bit hazy; however, all members of the defense team received the prosecution’s case files by August 10th, which nullifies the claim of insufficient time (the standard trial time lapse rule in Iraq is a minimum of 45 days between filing charges and the start of the trial. This rule also applies to proper prosecutorial disclosure to the defense). This leads to an important question: Whether or not the charges were filed a minimum of 45 days out from trial, can Saddam’s legal team provide the best possible defense within this relatively short amount of time (as opposed to the nearly two and a half years Dulaimi claims the prosecution has been developing its case)? And even more crucial, would it be fair to deny the defense’s motion for continuance?

I understand the urgency to want to try, convict, and (perhaps) put to death Saddam for his crimes; however, the reasonable and fair thing to do is to grant a continuance for the defense. However furious and bloodthirsty Saddam’s victims are, the Iraqi courts need to retain the impartiality crucial to proper judicial procedure. Hanging him tomorrow will bring his victims’ families no greater sense of revenge or closure than hanging him in three or even six months. Despite the vile nature of Saddam’s crimes, adherence to procedure, rather than emotion, will allow justice to prevail. Hasty justice is not swift justice, and is actually not justice at all.

Why the push for such a speedy trial? The haste with which this trial has been initiated is due largely to four things: 1.) international pressure to bring Saddam to justice, 2.) Shiite Muslims and Kurds now leading the historically Sunni-dominated government. (This is not as simple a turnover as passing the Congressional torch from Republican to Democrat; the Baath party, made up of mostly minority Sunni Muslims, terrorized and murdered countless groups under Saddam, including both the Shiites and Kurds. Let us not underestimate the awesome power of memory and revenge), 3.) many of the actors involved are doing so at great personal risk. Raid Juhi, the chief investigating judge, receives constant death threats from pro-Saddam insurgents. The sooner the trial is over, the sooner the court officers can focus on other important, less life-threatening work, and 4.) recent history has proven that crimes against humanity tribunals can take too long and momentum can collapse. (Slobodan Milošević’s trial is moving forward at an excruciatingly slow pace.)

Despite the legitimate reasons for starting the trial as scheduled, it is in all of the parties’ best interests to wait. A delayed trial will still underscore the determination of the Iraqi people to bring justice to their former ruler, while at the same time alleviate any potential conflicts of interest in regards to the change in leadership. October 15th is the scheduled constitutional referendum and December 15th kicks off Iraqi elections. While I am not attempting to diminish the valid hatred that the new coalition government’s members have for the former Baath party and its leader, nor accuse them of using their power for revenge, a swift trial and conviction are definitely strong campaign props. Ensuring the Iraqi people justice is one of the new government’s top priorities. Doing so before the December elections would seem to be a political blessing, but one that could actually jeopardize the government’s credibility (as well as the court’s). Pushing the proceedings against Saddam until after elections will demonstrate the government’s interest in justice, rather than in speedy revenge.

As for the personal safety of those involved, the brave officers and administrators of the court knew well before the trial date was set that this is a noble, and therefore dangerous, assignment. I do not take lightly threats against their lives and families, and Iraqi as well as Allied Forces are providing the best possible security and protection for the court officers, but there is neither victory nor justice without struggle. In regards to past tribunals, no one can predict how Saddam’s trial will play out, but pushing forward with no regard for process or equity is almost more damaging than slow and painful deliberation.

I have no sympathy for Saddam; however, he is entitled to a fair trial. What could be a more fitting fate for the former dictator than to be tried and convicted in the fair and equitable manner that he so brutally opposed during his reign? This should also be seen as a great opportunity for the Iraqi government to demonstrate its fortitude; even amidst political, social and physical instability, the interim government can demonstrate legal competence, the ability to handle its own affairs, and its commitment to improving the country for all of its citizens.

Of course, the United States stands to gain something from a fair trial as well. We already know that many of Bush’s justifications for invading Iraq were false. Weapons of Mass Destruction? No. Iraqi links to Al Qaeda? Well, there are now. Saddam’s atrocities against his own people? This is the only one that still stands. Through this trial, the Bush administration has the ability to make good on ONE of its primary claims about Iraq. Delaying Saddam’s trial to allow the defense proper preparation time will aid the prosecution (tutored by Allied Forces legal experts), the national legal system, and the Iraqi citizens far more than it will the defense, while conversely, denying the motion hurts the defense less than it does the other stakeholders (including the U.S., who can only benefit from a healthier, more equitable Iraqi infrastructure since the sooner the Iraqi people and government can truly fend for themselves, the sooner we can get out of there).

Few people in the world would deny that Saddam should be punished for his atrocities against humanity, but the international community deserves greater satisfaction than a hasty, inadequate pretense at justice. Granting the defense’s motion for a continuance not only demonstrates a sophisticated and mature sense of judicial discretion, it will provide the world with a greater sense of justice. Those who believe he is innocent will have less ground for complaint or appeal, and those who believe he is guilty will still get to see Saddam at trial. Both sides will benefit from a definite strengthening of the legal system.

In his most recent VOR piece, J.S. asserted “I will always put my faith in humanity above all else.” Whether or not you subscribe to this philosophy, it’s a potent reminder of how much power people have to secure justice under the laws we have written (but only if they are exercised without prejudice). If we value trials as merely an administrative means to a punitive end, then the trial date means nothing. The tribunal could declare the date reset for tomorrow and the verdict would probably be the same. But court hearings are inherently much more important and complex than trying a criminal and sentencing him or her to death. Trials re-legitimate and reaffirm our commitment to a process that above all else (at least in theory) views each human member of society as equal and worthy of equal protection under society’s laws. Treating the legal process as a necessary and valuable part of society, which includes allowing both sides of the courtroom reasonable time to prepare cases, is crucial to ensuring that everyone gets a fair trial. Even Saddam Hussein.

Stephanie Kline is an environmental policy graduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, CA.

Jason Scorse

| Permalink

July 24, 2005

Legalize It

Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that state laws which legalized marijuana for certain medical conditions do not trump Federal laws against marijuana use. This is no surprise, and if the Court had ruled the other way hundreds of other Federal laws would’ve been undermined. Shortly thereafter, the House of Representatives in a 264-161 vote rejected a measure that would’ve legalized the use of marijuana for the severely ill. This too is unsurprising, since in our Puritanical and “tough on crime” culture, justice and commonsense all too often fall by the wayside.

The fact is that marijuana use should not be a crime, period.

That marijuana still carries with it the stigma from the “reefer madness” days, and is somehow considered a terrible menace to society, is a product largely of ignorance and historical prejudice. Cannabis (the scientific term that was later substituted for “marijuana” since giving it a Spanish name helped to demonize it) is a relatively mild drug for which there has never been a single documented case of overdose– that’s right, not one person has ever died from consuming too much marijuana at one sitting. The effects of alcohol are much stronger than marijuana, and yet this drug is celebrated everywhere in our culture. In addition, alcohol and tobacco-related deaths are orders of magnitude greater than from cannabis. As far as being a gateway drug, marijuana is almost always preceded by alcohol and tobacco use, which are the two biggest gateway drugs in the world.

None of this is to say that marijuana isn’t a drug or that it doesn’t have ill effects- it is and it does, but our society is filled with dozens of much stronger legal drugs. The onus should always be on those who want to restrict people’s freedom to prove that the act in question is so detrimental to society that the coercive power of the state must be brought to bare to prevent such behavior. In the case of smoking cannabis, this “litmus test” is nowhere close to being met. Alcohol, which is associated with drunk driving, spousal abuse, violent crime, and acute toxicity is a much sounder candidate.

So why is it that a rational assessment of marijuana use cannot occur in American society in the 21st century?

One would expect that Republicans, with their commitment to individual liberty (at least when it comes to guns) would be natural champions of decriminalizing marijuana. Unfortunately, as the Party has become increasingly infiltrated by the religious right, which seeks to legislate the country’s morals, legitimizing cannabis use is not a winning political strategy. As for the Democrats, their aversion to marijuana decriminalization comes from two sources; first, they don’t want to appear “soft on crime” (or the country’s morals), and the second is that marijuana use is associated with hippies and the 1960s, which they have been trying to distance themselves from for decades.

And so locking people up in maximum security prisons with murders and rapists for simple marijuana possession will continue, while we waste billions of dollars on ineffective law enforcement (instead of taxing marijuana and actually making money on it) since marijuana is literally a weed that can grow just about anywhere. As to the cancer and AIDs patients who could greatly benefit from marijuana use (it decreases pain and improves the appetite), they’ll just have to go on relying on synthetic drugs with nasty side-effects that pharmaceutical companies can monopolize and cash in on. And the organized crime syndicates that thrive on the illegal trade (based on high prices due to the illegality) will continue to murder and terrorize people around the world. Adding insult to injury, we will also continue to outlaw the commercial production of hemp (the non-drug component of marijuana), which is an amazing agricultural crop with multiple uses and huge environmental benefits that was once considered a sign of patriotism to cultivate during WW II.

This is the sorry state of drug policy in a society that should be able to rise above this nonsense, but simply can’t. Add this to the list of things that we will all look back on one day and shake our heads in both wonder and sorrow.


P.S. For a more optimistic take on this issue check out this article.

Jason Scorse

| Permalink

April 20, 2005

Respecting Culture, or Sanctioning Oppression? Part 2

My piece two weeks ago sparked a number of interesting responses, and I feel that I need to clarify some aspects and also expand the arguments that I laid out.

Judging by the reactions, I must have conveyed the impression that there isn’t much wrong with American culture. In fact I feel there’s a lot wrong. For example, American laws and attitudes towards gays are extremely oppressive and immoral. The fact that we have allowed our prejudices to deny gays basic human rights, such as serving openly in the military or to enter into civil unions and even marry, is simply indefensible. There are no legitimate reasons for these restrictions on their personal liberty (for an earlier discussion on this issue click here).

On a more general note, the main point I was trying to make is that there are some human rights that are non-negotiable: rights that no society can deny based on the supposition that doing so goes against their “culture.” This is most exemplified with respect to women’s rights. A huge portion of the world has laws and customs that are extremely oppressive to women that are often considered “cultural.” Saying that these aspects of culture are oppressive is not ethnocentric or culturally imperialistic; it’s simply stating a fact. A common rejoinder is to ask who am I to say what is right and wrong. It is not my personal opinion that is the standard here; it is the standard of Universal Human Rights that has existed for almost 60 years. These rights (while incomplete) have been accepted by virtually every nation on Earth, and they lay out the fundamental principles of human decency that transcend culture.

Let me clear that when I state that there are certain universal values that transcend culture I am talking about a relatively small set. There is plenty of room in our global society for people to worship whatever gods or god they want to (or don’t want to), to speak various languages, to create various forms of art, celebrate different holidays, or to foster different types of political institutions; I am not calling for uniformity across cultures. What I am saying is that there is a universal set of principles that is greater than any single culture. The fact that this has become controversial for many on the Left demonstrates how liberalism has lost its moral foundation.

The Left used to be the champion of universal principles and civil rights, and was instrumental in the formation of the United Nations. Left-of-center politicians throughout the better part of the 20th century were unfailing in their commitment to liberty and freedom, and weren’t afraid to say so. These days, however, under the blanket of postmodernism the Left suffers from a severe case of moral relativism that is paralyzing the movement. It boggles my mind that many on the Left take tolerance to such an extreme that they are afraid to call oppression when they see it.

It is wrong to require women to cover their entire bodies and walk behind men.

It is wrong to deny women legal rights.

It is wrong when women aren’t allowed access to contraception.

It is wrong when women are not educated.

It is wrong when religion teaches hatred against gays.

It is wrong to have a caste society that deems certain members of the public “untouchables.”

Female genital mutilation is WRONG.

And the list goes on.

The American people, while largely tolerant, do not trust politicians or political parties that don’t have a core set of values that they hold dear under all circumstances. As the Left has retreated from making strong moral judgments we have seen this vacuum filled by the Right, who have now appropriated almost all of the moral rhetoric that used to define the Left. By ceding this moral ground, the Left has done an incredible disservice by allowing morality to be defined in a one-sided manner largely on religious terms (as evidence of this see what the new Pope has to say about tradition and relativism). Secular humanist ideals, which are responsible for so much of the progress in American society, have now given way to a political correctness that is counter-productive and a rightful source of ridicule.

If the Left is to revive itself it needs desperately to regain its moral bearings. This doesn’t mean being arrogant or elitist, but returning to the principles that the Left traditionally stood for. (Doesn’t somebody out there wish Kerry had forcefully stated that all the gay-bashing that took place during the last election cycle was wrong, and that America is great because it has always expanded civil rights, not restricted them?)

It is easy to look back in time and feel morally superior when comparing ourselves to slave owners, or to those who didn’t believe women should have the right to vote. What is much more difficult (and important) is to ask ourselves what people in the future are going to chastise us for. When will we take off the moral blinders that prevent us from seeing the oppression in our status quo? The Left used to be capable of this essential task, but it has lost its way in a sea of self-doubt, insecurity, and relativism. America and the world will be better when the Left can regain its moral compass.

Jason Scorse

| Permalink

April 6, 2005

Respecting Culture, or Sanctioning Oppression?

It’s a common complaint that Americans are obnoxious and disrespectful travelers, blazing into foreign lands with our T-shirts and jeans, talking loud, and demanding Budweiser. Anyone who travels knows there is some truth to this stereotype, even if it’s somewhat exaggerated. The phenomenon begs the questions: How should we approach other cultures (even on our own soil), and what does respecting them actually entail?

This may sound simple, but it’s far from it.

This is because these days the word “culture” is often used to stymie debate or critical thinking. As soon as someone declares that something is an element of their culture (or religion), it is somehow automatically immune from criticism. The problem is, however, that the root of culture is “cult,” and many elements of people’s culture (including our own) are unjust and oppressive; little more than the product of centuries of prejudice, ignorance, and subjugation. When people speak of culture they tend to perceive of it as the product of historical consensus; in fact, prevailing traditions have often been enforced through coercion, violence, and the persecution of minorities. For example, slavery was part of American culture for hundreds of years, and so was segregation in the South until relatively recently. The oppression of women has been an integral aspect of cultures throughout the world for even longer.

The first moral of this story, therefore, is that cultures should be subjected to the same types of critiques and assessments as all other aspects of society. We should all hasten the day when cultures are not treated as “sacred cows,” but are defended based on reason, rationality, and their contribution to global well-being. At the same time, the moral relativism that is inherent in using any single “culture” as a standard for human decency should give way to universal codes of human rights. Saying that it is one’s culture to oppress women is simply not acceptable; neither is hating homosexuals, regardless of its cultural context.

Needless to say, confronting oppression that is endemic to long-standing cultural traditions is extremely difficult, and the potential exists for alternative forms of elitism to arise. For example, many instances of genocide have occurred at least in part due to one culture’s feeling that it had a duty to change or wipe out the members of an inferior culture. In addition, sometimes oppression has become so deep-rooted within certain cultures that the oppressed defend their oppressors; this was the case with some African slaves, and is the case today with many Muslim women who argue in favor of the fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran.

The essential point is that an uncritical acceptance of culture as something fixed-in-stone acts to perpetuate the status quo, and often allows oppression to proceed unchallenged.

Looked at from this perspective, it’s good that Americans sometimes make people feel uncomfortable through their expressions of personal freedom and individuality. Human progress rarely comes without ruffling some feathers. Sometimes discomfort and unease can lead to questioning, dialogue, and an expansion of one’s world view. Other times, however, these emotions can lead to distrust, fear, and other reactionary tendencies. Therefore, it’s important to proceed with caution and try to be as sensitive as possible when confronting people with other worldviews.

It is no doubt a difficult balance to strike between respecting culture and yet not tacitly sanctioning oppression. For me personally, my inclination is always to err on the side of offending someone if it means pointing out something that is unjust and immoral. In general, we should all look forward to the day when oppressive forces can no longer hide behind their “culture.”

*For an excellent program on a Muslim woman who is struggling against the oppressive elements of Islamic culture click here.

Jason Scorse

| Permalink