Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Early morning musings

I used to think that this was a great country, perhaps I still do. I'm liberal in my very genes[1]; I don't think I've ever believed that we were great because we were powerful and forceful, but rather because at our core we had humanistic moral principles.

Our crimes are great: the genocide of the American Indians, our naked colonialism in the early 20th century, our use of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, on civilians in World War II, our material support for blatantly evil governments later in the 20th century, the moral monstrosity of our invasion of Iraq. I'm sure any reader could add a dozen more.

But we have done some good: As bloodily and incompetently as we fought the Civil War, we fought it in no small part to forcibly end slavery. As criminally as we fought World War II, we could have punished our vanquished enemies as ruthlessly as after World War I, ruled them with a vicious tyranny, or simply abandoned them, but we didn't: We helped them rebuild. And these virulently authoritarian societies became, almost by magic, relatively liberal, peaceful democracies--not perfect, but seemingly much improved.

We were the first nation in modern times to explicitly state that our government derived its power from the people, not from birth, class, or the divine right of Kings. We were the first to at least call the members of our government the servants of the people, and renounce the idea that the people were merely the tools of the King, to be used at his pleasure. We put the Enlightenment ideals of individual liberty into into real legal practice. We have contributed substantially to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

Our goodness has been the goodness of restraint. When we have violently projected our power, even for seemingly good ends, our goodness was only relative: 1939 Japan and Germany did not set a high moral bar, nor did the American South of 1860. Hindsight is always 20/20, but there are good arguments that with only ordinary foresight the same ends could have been obtained peaceably, or at least with considerably less destruction and horror.

In any event, my concern is not with judging the past, but trying to put today's events in a moral context. One's own times are, of course, the most vivid. It's easy to see the corruption in one's own time as being fundamentally worse than any in history.

Still, something has happened to us.

One need only compare the slightly goofy but sincere liberal optimism, humanism and can-do spirit of gun-hating Angus MacGyver[2] with the dark, brutal pessimism of Jack Bauer to see how our narrative has changed. These shows are how we're presenting ourselves to the world. I'm told by no small few of those living in other countries that MacGuyver was instrumental in forming their good opinion of America and Americans. What are we telling them with 24? What are we telling ourselves?

Compared to many other countries, we're not so bad, I suppose; compared to others we're not so good. No nation, no individual, can lay claim to moral perfection, even in his or her own eyes, much less the eyes of others. Humanity is still clawing its way up from its animal origins and the ruthless, pitiless law of the jungle and biological evolution.

I don't think we should be afraid or defensive about confronting our moral flaws as individuals or as nations. We don't have to be perfect, just honest and sincerely trying to improve. It's no sin to make a mistake, even a horrible mistake; it's a sin, I think, only to try to justify or ignore our mistakes.

I see threads of this truly humble attitude in any number of narratives, including Christianity. But even Christianity got it wrong from day one; Christians seem all too often to humble themselves only before God (who is, after all, a fictional character) and use that faux humility to support their self-righteousness towards their fellow human beings.

The mistake, I think, is to elevate law from a means to an end. Paul and the founders of Christianity erred in incorporating Jewish law. The Chinese erred in incorporating Confucian law into Buddhism. Muhammad erred in making his scripture about very little but the law. This is a human failing, I think: our tendency to elevate useful means to arbitrary ends which do little but promote self-righteousness.

I don't know that I have a point here. I don't know what to do about all this. I'm just a snowflake in the avalanche. All I can do is act as my conscience dictates and add my tiny voice to humanity's roar.

[1] When I was six or seven years old, I wrote a letter to President Nixon suggesting that he trade places with Ho Chi Minh as a way to end the Vietnam war. Roll your eyes if you please; I was six.

[2] Perhaps it's significant that MacGyver was Canadian produced.

1 comment:

  1. I wish I'd written this post. Beautiful stuff. Exactly my thoughts.

    I will say though that Canadians are overrated. MacGyver is a very American show.


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