There is a particular line coming from Lupus Liberals that I find troubling.
It has to do with American Exceptionalism.
The argument usually goes like this (between fellow liberals, mind you):
- It’s really bad that Islam has so many anti-humanist values and beliefs built into it, since confused or evil people can read those things and think they’re divinely inspired, or even required.
- That stuff isn’t in there. That’s just crazy people pretending it’s in there.
- No, it is. It’s here, here, here, and here. Just for a few examples.
- Ok, I guess it is. Well, there’s lots of bad stuff in Christianity as well, so it’s being racist to just criticize Islam.
- The difference is that people aren’t using Christianity as a justification to murder as many people as possible right now. Most people don’t read the bad stuff, and when they do they just substitute their own morality. With Islam that’s harder to do.
- Sounds racist to me. Why don’t you like brown people?
- Islam isn’t a race, actually. It’s a religion.
- Whatever. Sounds like that’s your excuse to hate a certain race.
- What race is that exactly? Muslims are Asian, Arab, African, etc. What race are you talking about.
- I don’t know the details. You just sound racist.
- That’s ridiculous, but let’s get back to the main point. Don’t you agree that it’s bad for millions of people to believe homosexuality is evil because of religion? To believe that women are inferior? To force marriage on women? To keep them out of school. To charge them with a crime if they are raped?
- Sure, but Christianity is kind of the same, and I don’t hear you saying anything bad about them. First, I do criticize Christianity all the time. Second, they’re not remotely the same. Women have more rights in the United States and Britain and Scandinavia than just about any Islamic country out there, if not all.
- Well, all I’m saying is that we don’t have all the answers.
- What does that mean?
- We’re just as evil as anyone else.
- We killed the Indians. We took their land and killed them. And we made Israel up out of nothing. And we gave Saddam the chemical weapons to fight against Iran. Plus we bombed that hospital the other day.
- That was an accident.
- Maybe, maybe not.
- Do you have a brain injury? How does it help the United States to bomb a hospital full of doctors and patients?
- Yeah, probably was an accident. Still. What about the Indians and funding wars all over the world and pushing our interests?
- Yes, we’ve done some horrible things in our past, and we’re no doubt still doing some shady stuff. I also disagree with several things that our government is doing. But that doesn’t make us the same as those who are outright against the things we care about.
- You think we care about them, but we really don’t.
- Really? So why do people come to the United States then? For the food? Why is it that when there is a humanitarian crisis, like the one in Syria, everyone there immediately heads to Europe to avoid persecution? The Arab countries close their doors, and Europe, the United States, and Canada all take people in because they need help.
- (pause) You sound like a racist.
[ NOTE: I controlled both sides of that conversation, which makes it seem a bit strawmanish, but trust me that exchanges like this one can be heard all over the western world on a daily basis. ]
This dialog touched many subjects that are other problems with a particular liberal perspective of the world, but I want to stay focused on one.
Implied throughout this conversation, and many like it, is a simple statement: America is not great because it’s done some very bad things, and becasue of this, we are not fit to judge the behavior of others.
This is just ridiculous. Let me show you why.
- Martin Luther King Jr. was an adulterer and he plagiarized his dissertation
- Ghandi was willing to sacrifice many to return the world to primitive time, and he was high anti-semitic
- Babe Ruth and Walt Disney were racists
- Thomas Jefferson owned slaves
- Michael Jackson was a sexual deviant
- Mandela killed countless civilians as a terrorist leader
- Bill Cosby drugged women and had sex with them
- Tesla supported eugenics
- Chuck Berry created rock’n’roll, but he’s a convicted armed robber
- Sir Isaac Newton believed in alchemy and chronology
Now, here’s the question: Does doing something bad remove your greatness?
I think the answer is clearly, “no”.
If we searched the lives of all of the world’s heroes, what we would find would undoubtedly disappoint us. We’d find out people were racist, or sexist, or hated gay people, or they were pedophiles, or they kicked puppies, or something like that.
Not all, but many. Perhaps most.
And here’s where it gets trickier: What if it’s more likely that this is true the more great the person (or thing) is?
Something to think about.
And what of America?
So now we come to the United States. We’ve done some horrible things. And we continue to do them, I’m sure.
But we’re also doing great things. And we surely have done great things in the past. Creating a beacon of hope for a better world I’d put in that column. Helping win World War II I’d put in that column. Being a place where people can come from anywhere and be accepted. That’s another one.
So we clearly register high on both scales.
Comparison to current enemies
Our current enemies, e.g., the Taliban, ISIS, and Al Quaeda, want to run a civilization where girls have acid thrown in their faces for learning to read. They kill gay people. They perform mass beheadings as marketing material.
In other words, if you took the worst stuff we have done—things we’re ashamed of—they do ten times worse, except they’re doing it as a selling point. They think that’s an example of excellence.
So, no. We’re not the same. We’re not in the same game. It’s not even the same sport.
Most people are a little bit messed up. If we were to broadcast to the world all the nasty things you’ve thought or done in your life you’d be a social pariah for all time.
Great people (and great countries) aren’t the ones who haven’t done bad things—they’re the ones who have done great things.
At some point in the ever-present mixture between these two sides of everyone and everything, there is a crossover that turns the person into being remembered as purely bad.
Christopher Columbus is about to transition from a great man to a horrible man, for example, and I think for good reason. He did some exploration, but he was a horrible person who had no regard for the lives he encountered.
How does that compare to Ghandi who popularized peaceful resistance, yet who hated the Jews and was willing to see countless people die for his belief that industrialization was evil?
I don’t know. I don’t have the answers.
All I can say is that it’s an interesting question, and that the answer is not that 1) anyone who does something bad loses their status of greatness, or 2) that anyone who is great can do anything without worrying about losing their status of greatness.
America has done some horrendous things in the past, and it’s still broken today. But she is still great for both what she has done for the world, and what she continues to today.
It’s confusing. It’s a moral mess. But you have to see that both are simultaneously true.
Let us not confuse these situations, however, with pure evil. When a group plans world domination for the goal of returning the world to 7th century Islamic law, it’s not the time to rehash the mistakes the West has made during its colonialist period.
It’s not the time.
Now is the time to come together against a clearly common threat. We can continue the work of fixing ourselves, and reflecting on our mistakes, once we have secured our ability to even have the conversation.
- None of the claims in the examples section are really controversial, although I’m sure people debate the details.
- I put the U.S.’s support of Saudi Arabia as it’s top moral failure right now, as it’s a clear trade of moral high-ground for money.