Ezra Klein's essay on 'American values' reminded me of a famous quotation from Ernest Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms:
There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the name of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything.
Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
I know exactly what he means. Watch:
America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.
So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world....
Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon. Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom. And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it. By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well - a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world. -- President George W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address.
Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Haditha. Bagram. The Salt Pit. The Dark Prison. The Kandahar Airport. The Palestine Branch. Masra Torah. Camp NAMA. FOB Mercury. FOB Tiger. Camp Diamondback and Camp Glory. The Tigris River. Balad. Dover Air Force Base. Walter Reed Army Medical Center. A trailer near the Baghdad Airport. New Prague, Minnesota. Baghdad. Baghdad. Baghdad. Baghdad. Baghdad. Baghdad. Baghdad. Baghdad.
Believe me, it makes me as sick as Ezra. And the problem isn't only George W. Bush or Michael Gerson. There is no abstract noun on earth that is so beautiful, powerful, essential or true that it cannot be corrupted or misappropriated.
It doesn't even help to shift from acting in the name of beautiful, glittering words (freedom, liberty, justice) to acting against the ugly ones (torture, slavery, genocide). The National Review is perfectly capable of arguing, with a straight face, that because our enemies torture prisoners and kill civilians, in order "to promote human dignity, [they] belong in a black hole." If we accidentally throw some of our enemies' victims into that black hole, too bad for them.
Paul Kagame, who became President of Rwanda after the genocide, later developed a charming habit of accusing his political opponents--including opposition parties, journalists, the national university, and the country's largest human rights NGO--of promoting "genocide ideology" and "divisionism." Several opposition politicians who were accused of this disappeared in April 2003, & have never been seen again. According to Human Rights Watch, at least one of the disappeared was an M.P. who had tried to save Tutsi during the genocide, and later testified for the prosecution in genocidaires' trials.
Do Kagame's actions discredit opposition to genocide in general? Do they make liberals' and human rights NGOs' general support for the genocide convention, and for human rights treaties in general, seem like a blunder? After all, countries routinely violate those treaties; I'm not sure they do it any less now than when they first passed.
I think the answer, quite obviously, is no. If we shouldn't make any moral argument that an unscrupulous leader can use an excuse for harming people, we basically shouldn't make any moral arguments.
Human rights groups don't allow leaders to stop at simply ratifying a treaty, or uttering "abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow," or "we must uphold human dignity", or "we do not torture," or "we oppose genocide", or "we support human rights". Their strategy is: first, get countries' leaders to utter those abstract words; to sign and ratify a piece of paper full of them. Then, document in excruciating detail the ways in which countries violate those treaties & fail to live up to those pretty abstract nouns--write reports full of concrete names of villages, the names of prisons, the names and numbers of the dead, the dates.
But American voters, unfortunately, don't tend to do this to our leaders. We sometimes seem to think that the beauty of our abstract nouns excuses us from worrying too much about the concrete effects of our policies. Look at these results from a recent CNN poll, for example:
Do you favor or oppose the U.S. war in Iraq? Favor: 30%; Oppose: 67%; No Opinion: 3%
Do you think the United States' action in Iraq is morally justified, or not? Yes, morally justified: 42%; No, not morally justified: 54%; No opinion: 4%.
Faced with the contradiction between the nobility of our stated ideals in Iraq and the concrete effects of our actions, there are a number of different potential reactions.
First, we can simply deny that the contradiction exists, and claim that we're actually winning. Second, we can admit it, and conclude that it's the Iraqis' fault. Third, we can admit it, and conclude that it was a noble cause, but unfortunately the Bush administration turned out to be incompetent.
Those three approaches are easy for me to reject. I don't think our actions in Iraq ever reflected our stated ideals; I think we should have known all along that the consequences would be terrible. I think Ezra, hilzoy, and publius probably all agree with me about this.
So how does one respond to a war fought in the name of "freedom," "liberty," "human dignity," "the idea of America," "human dignity", "democracy", which advances none of those things & leaves behind hundreds more dead and maimed bodies every single week? I can understand feeling that those abstract nouns themselves are partly to blame--a lovely excuse for ignoring the ugly reality of our policies, which Americans are only too ready to embrace. I can understand feeling like you can't stand to listen to these words anymore, not even from earnest liberal law professors and Democratic presidential candidates. I can understand feeling, as many of our commenters do, that even the relatively benign, liberal forms of "American exceptionalism" do more harm than good; that it's past time for us to outgrow them.
I understand that view. I don't accept it. A lot of people would call that naive, but I think it's less a matter of naivete than a strategic decision--or maybe just sheer stubbornness.
The contradiction between the lovely abstract nouns that America uses to describe itself and the concrete reality of our policies is as old as the country. The abolitionist movement faced them first: What do you do with a country founded by slaveowners who write beautiful, ringing declarations about the natural rights of man--not only wrote them, but meant them? What do you do with the Constitution & Bill of Rights when the Supreme Court interprets them not only to give black men "no rights which the white man was bound to respect," but to forbid Congress from interfering with slaveowners' rights over their "property"?
William Lloyd Garrison's approach was to burn them, in public, on the 4th of July:
The rally began with a prayer and a hymn. Then Garrison launched into one of the most controversial performances of his career. "To-day, we are called to celebrate the seventy-eighth anniversary of American Independence. In what spirit?" he asked, "with what purpose? to what end?"....
Holding up a copy of the U.S. Constitution, he branded it as "the source and parent of all the other atrocities--'a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.'" As the nation's founding document burned to ashes, he cried out: "So perish all compromises with tyranny!"
Two years before, Frederick Douglass took an entirely different approach:
Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.
Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it.
What would be thought of an instrument, drawn up, legally drawn up, for the purpose of entitling the city of Rochester to a track of land, in which no mention of land was made?....Now, take the constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.
There's something to be said for Garrison's approach. It probably got more people's attention. You could also argue that it's far more honest. The word "slavery" did not appear in the Constitution, but we all know which clauses referred to it and I think Douglass did too.
But there is a reason that the word doesn't appear in the text--the same reason why no amount of contrary evidence will ever stop George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from insisting that "we do not torture": it's embarrassing. It would contradict all of those beautiful abstract nouns, all those lovely stories we tell ourself about our country.
So Douglass takes those abstractions, and he compares them to the concrete realities of slavery. And he tells his audience that they cannot keep both:
I was born amid such sights and scenes. To me the American slave-trade is a terrible reality. When a child, my soul was often pierced with a sense of its horrors. I lived on Philpot Street, Fell's Point, Baltimore, and have watched from the wharves, the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake.
You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties), is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria, and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and bodyguards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina.
You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education; yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation - a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty.
You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against her oppressors; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse!
You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country....
You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you "hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;" and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, "is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose," a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.
Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie.
Douglass, if anything, understood the concrete realities of slavery better than Garrison did. He had, if anything, better reasons for concluding that the Declaration of Independence's promises were lies; that the Constitution was a "pact with hell" rather than a "GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT". But he didn't.
Those glittering abstract nouns aren't sufficient, but they can be damn useful. They aren't accurate descriptions of this country right now, and probably they never have been, but a lot of Americans are sincerely attached to them. And sometimes, when presented with a stark contradiction between the bedtime stories we learned about this country as children, and concrete effects of our actions, we will choose to make the bedtime story true rather than give it up entirely.
It's not an easy thing to do, but it sometimes works. It's worked a number of times in this country's history.
As I said before, it's the exact same strategy that the human rights movement has adopted: it's much easier to get Egypt, Haiti, or Uzbekistan to make some universal promise never ever to torture or murder any human being ever, than to actually get them to stop torturing and murdering people. So first you get them to make the universal promise, signed and in writing, knowing full well that many of these countries have no intention of keeping it. Then, when you carefully gather all the concrete evidence of them torturing and murdering specific individuals, it's somewhat harder for them to respond: "but they're foreigners/Sunnis/Shi'a/black/enemy combatants/enemies of the state/traitors/Jews/etc. etc." They will probably keep committing atrocities, and they will probably keep making those arguments, but they can no longer do so openly without admitting that they are breaking their word and violating the law. It's embarrassing, and it's even more embarrassing to be the first country to withdraw from one of these treaties.
Douglass talked about this too, by the way, in that same 4th of July speech:
Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable.
The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest comers of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are, distinctly heard on the other. The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, "Let there be Light," has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.
It doesn't always work--not in this country, or in any other. But sometimes it does, and I don't know of a better strategy. Why should liberals abandon it now? Why should I cede the words "liberty" and "justice" and "human dignity" to George W. Bush because he's an idiot who gives no thought to the consequences of his policies? He may not bother finding out the names of the specific cities and people destroyed by his policies, but I damn well will; I damn well have. So why should I stop talking about those specifics in relation to abstractions like justice, liberty, and "the idea of America"? Stopping won't shrink the military, or end U.S. hegemony, or prevent future wars like Iraq (which after all was originally launched in the name of protecting ourselves against a nuclear terrorist attack). It won't interfere much with Americans' desire to believe lovely fairy stories about their country, or politicians' willingness to tell those stories.
(edited to fix some typos).