Tuesday, August 30, 2005

In Politics, Morality Loses

Picking up on this commentary by Peter Daou, Digby of Hullabaloo (now probably my favorite left-of-center blog) makes a strong argument for the moral underpinnings of the liberal stance on Iraq, the "war on terror," and foreign policy in general, and, conversely, against the fundamental amorality of a conservative administration that claims the right to invade a country, kills tens of thousands of civilians, destroy the government and the local infrastructure, and transform the nation into a breeding ground for terrorism, all for our own benefit--so that we can "fight them over there instead of over here."

Here's the key paragraph of Digby's post:

I think this is a good way for liberals to think about our government and how the world works. And it can even be done in simple, common sense terms that may just resonate with those who wonder what it is we stand for. And aside from the fact that an amoral superpower is a country not worth living in and one that shames all of us who live within it, moral authority leads to material good as well. A great country behaving in an immoral way makes that country weaker, not stronger. Allies mistrust it and are reluctant to join forces. Enemies are emboldened, not cowed, because they see the country behaving in an almost desperate fashion and perceive that it is much weaker than it is. And when leaders of the most powerful country in the world leave the impression that they care nothing for the world's opinion, the world begins to see that country as a potential enemy instead of a friend.

I'm with Digby (and Daou) on the substance of this issue. I share Digby’s outrage over the Republicans’ success at expropriating words like “morality” and “values” to cloak their evil policies and bamboozle unwary Christian voters into identifying faith with twenty-first-century conservativism.

But I’d be very worried about taking the next step and assuming that reclaiming “morality” for the Democrats (especially in regard to foreign policy) is a winning political position. Unfortunately, I think all the evidence points the opposite way.

In part, the problem lies in the word “morality” itself, which has been rendered almost useless by conservatives’ relentless association of it with private sexual behavior. Current shorthand makes “moral values” synonymous with abortion, gay marriage, and abstinence-only education. I bet most people would be at least briefly confused even to hear the word “morality” used in the same sentence as “war in Iraq.” In a world of soundbites and slogans, this is no small problem.

But there’s a larger problem. To grossly generalize, Americans surely like to think of their country as “good.” In fact, decades of self-congratulatory propaganda have made it almost impossible for any sizeable fraction of the population to even imagine that America could ever do anything “bad.” After all, don’t we all “know” that America invented democracy, that America saved the world from the Nazis and the Japs, that Americans give more to help the world’s needy than anyone else, that America bends over backward to open doors of opportunity for minorities and women, that America has the best health care system in the world, and that poor people in America live in greater comfort than middle-class people elsewhere? Never mind that many of these “facts” aren’t true—“we” believe them.

This designation of our country as “America the good” has become the virtually official position of our culture, as reflected in its ritual acknowledgment in every newscast or political speech. So even raising in public the possibility that the US might be doing something “immoral” in Iraq, or that we need to seriously and painfully examine our behavior there in order to judge its “morality,” is to challenge an assumption that is deeply ingrained in our culture. Getting a hearing for this position would be an uphill battle—especially since it involves a challenge to the audience’s amour propre, which is never a recipe for popular success.

To make matters worse, there’s an equally ingrained assumption (which subtly contradicts the assumption about American “goodness” yet somehow coexists with it) that, in matters of foreign affairs, “morality” equals wimpiness.

Most Americans (again generalizing wildly) readily accept the idea that we live in “a dangerous world,” filled with evil, violent, hateful people (many of them dark-skinned or slant-eyed) and well-meaning but effete appeasers (i.e., Europeans) who wouldn’t lift a finger to defend themselves, let alone us. In such a world, we “good” Americans have no choice but to fight back against the “dangerous” ones by any means necessary. If that means transgressing the lines of “morality” drawn by schoolmarms, ministers, or philosophers, so be it. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, God helps those who help themselves, etc. etc.

The deep acceptance of this assumption at the heart of our culture helps to explain why, when besieged by foreign enemies and dissenters at home, Americans in the late 1960s and 1970s turned not to the “wimpish” moralist George McGovern (with his wistful cry of “Come Home, America!”) but to the “tough-minded” Richard Nixon and his tutor in realpolitik, Henry Kissinger. (Never mind the fact that the “tough-minded realists” had no more idea of what to do about Vietnam than
the “intellectuals” or “idealists,” and that Nixon and Kissinger’s policies prolonged the war, cost tens of thousands of American lives, and did nothing to prevent a Communist takeover of Vietnam. Total failure doesn't shake the believers in “toughness” and “staying the course,” as Iraq is proving yet again.)

The cult of toughness also explains why, for every American who applauded antiwar movies like Born on the Fourth of July, three cheered on the exploits of ass-kickers like Stallone’s Rambo, Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and Bronson’s avenging killer Paul Kersey—mean guys who didn’t hesitate to violate rules, procedures, and the dictates of “morality” in pursuit of violent retributive “justice.”

In the last fifty years, only one presidential candidate has won by appealing to Americans' sense of morality. That candidate, of course, was Jimmy Carter. He won in 1976 only because of the prolonged episode of national retching that followed the Watergate scandal—not due to Nixon’s “immorality” (although I would apply that word) but because of his obvious paranoia and near psychological breakdown. And four years later, Carter was swept out of office, in large part because the Republicans (and the media) convinced voters that his concerns about America's “moral and spiritual crisis,” his calls for energy conservation, and his failure to somehow “take out” the Iranian hostage-takers (at whatever cost to the safety of the hostages themselves) were all signs of his “weakness” and “wimpishness.” It was time for another “tough guy,” in this case a fellow who’d shown (in the movies) that, when necessary, he could punch out a bad guy and do it with a smile.

So I'm with you, Digby, on the substance of this one--but not on the politics. We need to find some way of selling our positions on Iraq and America’s place in the world that doesn’t turn on the word “morality.” In electoral politics, morality is a loser.
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