"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." -- Theodore Roosevelt

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Cultural Arrogance and the Denial of Evil

Check out Bruce Walker's article in American Thinker-- "Seventy Years After Appeasement."

Walker gives a quickie refresh on the appeasement politics that led to WWII, and makes some comparisons of radical Islam to the Nazis, as well as more tentative connections with Chavez's Venezuela, China, Russia, and North Korea. What really struck me in the article is his use of the word "evil."

Walker writes "History shows that peace does not come from just a childish pining wish, but peace comes from a combination of courage, good will, and wisdom. That means facing evil squarely, even when it is easier to pretend that good and evil are simply matters of viewpoint.

"President Bush was a flawed president with imperfect judgment, but he did grasp the importance of smiting evil before it grows too strong. Hitler, like radical Islamic terrorists, held Jews, Judaism, Christians, and Christianity in absolute contempt. The mockery of Nazi leaders for the Sermon on the Mound or the Ten Commandments was relentless. America was a decadent nation to Hitler, just like to radical Islam today."

While Walker labels Nazis and Islamic terrorists as evil based on their contempt of Jewish and Christian beliefs (certainly I would prefer he used their actions and their moral bases to earn the label of evil rather than their opposition to certain religious ideologies), his reasoning of facing down evil is sound. Yet, we Americans reflexively bristle at such an idea. It sounds melodramatic, old-fashioned, ignorant and violent. Why does this happen? Why do we ignore evil, and even deny its very existence? Perhaps some of it is due to the arrogant ignorance we cloak ourselves in when dealing with other cultures.

Indeed, while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts sends Anette Bening and a few others on cultural understanding missions, and Obama sends conciliatory "Happy Nowruz" messages to Iran (sans American flag), this attitude takes on more importance. Even when both were soundly rejected by Iran, Iran demanded an apology from Hollywood and dismissed Obama's message as empty politics (which it was), the American attitude is one of benignly arrogant befuddlement. We haughtily believe that these ignorant little people just don't know what a good thing we are offering.

This problematic point of view is addressed by Walker. He writes, "what men like Churchill grasped, and what men like Chamberlain did not, is that the Hitlers of the world have no real interest in improving the lives of their subjects. They are not concerned about the oceans of blood which their wars will bring. Their objectives are not our objectives; their methods are not our methods." But what must likewise be understood is that their values are not our values.

Americans, like many great peoples of the past, have the annoying habit of believing that our ways are necessarily the right way. Success is thought to be an absolute indicator of the rightness of our ways and cause. Whether from divine providence or merely demonstrating social scientific and economic laws, America's affluence and achievement has become to be seen, by Americans, as demonstrating the basic truth that we are correct. And since we are correct Americans are necessarily a shining example of what all others must, and want to, follow. The result of this mind-set is the mistaken assumption that values and attitudes that are in fact distinctly American, are universal human traits.

Obama's Nowruz speech (the full text of which can be in found in this post) is full of language such as "shared hopes" and "common dreams" and "mutual respect" etc. All of these are either American values or predicated by American values. Now, I am not saying that any of these concepts are exclusively American (they're not), but rather our version of them have an exclusively American flavor, were built from American thought processes, are Western values re-seasoned and re-contemplated by American thinkers before being passed on to us. They are not the same values of the British (although their net result can be very similar and our close cultural ties and common language make us quite similar), nor the values of Canada. And we cannot and should not carelessly assume that many of our values, in fact, exist in another culture-- nor their values in ours-- despite the astonishing numbers of cultures and beliefs that make up the American tapestry. If they did, all the world would be American-- as similar to one another as a Californian is to a New Yorker.

Obama is touted as a post-modern, post-racial (whatever that means) president. An intelligent, multicultural citizen of the world. From the OFA's fawning bio: "It has been the rich and varied experiences of Barack Obama's life - growing up in different places with people who had differing ideas [Hawaii and a few years in Indonesia]- that have animated his political journey." Yet, he demonstrates precious little knowledge of even the most basic ideas of culture. He does not seem to accept that he is American in his essence and that his core values and beliefs are not those of the rest of the world.

This is symptomatic of the sort of arrogance inherent in the idea of American multiculturalism. At the core of this highly-extolled belief is a denial of other cultures' intricacies and even their existences. In an effort to make ourselves closer to other cultures, we have taken the short-cut. Instead of attempting to understand the other, the multiculturalist learns enough to make analogies with America and then foolishly proclaims "Oh, they're just like us," and then assigns them our value system. Thus our understanding is preceded by our demand for the other culture's conformity to our conceptions.

From this mind-set we get lines from Obama such as "Indeed, you will be celebrating your New Year in much the same way that we Americans mark our holidays -- by gathering with friends and family, exchanging gifts and stories, and looking to the future with a renewed sense of hope." Such superficial similarities are touted and thought of as being some sort of inroad to deep understanding. Golly gee! Why this sounds just like our Christmas or a birthday! Wholly missing is any attempt to understand the cultural significance of such foreign holidays, the values it espouses, and the stamp that it makes the minds of the people. Rather ironic is multiculturalism's demand that such shallow comparisons be used to make ourselves understood to others. We make them judge us in the same superficial manner in which we judge them.

Yet even the concept of evil is uncomfortable for mainstream America. It's something from movies, presented as enticing, darkly intelligent and melodramatic (like Hannibal Lecter and Jigsaw from the endless string of "Saw" films). But it is also safely isolated from reality-- a Hollywood trick designed to titillate our sense of macabre, not unlike the make-up effects of zombie flicks or slasher films. To suggest now that evil is real is not unlike suggesting that the "Force is with us."

Bush was roundly criticized for his "Axis of Evil" concept, and intellectuals (and those who pretend to be) often bashed him for his "wild west" good versus evil mentality. Apparently we're too smart and sophisticated for such antiquated concepts.

When mentioning Hitler and the Nazis, most people can agree that they were indeed evil, but when asked why most just mumble things about the holocaust and WWII. Many roll their eyes as if the question itself is ridiculous. Of course Nazis are evil... It's as if asking if the sky was blue. Nazis have become transformed in our eyes, warped into demons and monsters... and of course monsters are evil. And when we do this, when we cut ourselves off from the truth of the matter-- the truth that Nazis were living, breathing, passionate, rational and intelligent human beings-- then we learn nothing from the horrifically expensive lessons of WWII. The simple truth of the matter, something that never sat very well in the minds of the WWII generations, is that living, passionate, rational, and intelligent human beings are capable of great evil and the greatest of atrocities. It is essential to approach the Nazis first and foremost as human beings. When we dehumanize the Nazis, dismiss them as cartoonish villains and bogeymen, we cannot begin to understand the way in which this evil came about and how it has repeated itself since.

Such approaches don't sit well with our fashionable humanist attitudes of today, the open celebrations of the human spirit (though we so seem to know so little of it), the hallowing of our great compassion and our so vehemently believed in natural compulsion for good. This belief persists despite the great atrocities of the recent past (the holocaust, the genocides of the Khmer Rouge, the Japanese' wholesale murders of Nanking and much of China and Southeast Asia, the devastation in Rwanda, the mass killing in Uganda, the multiple genocides perpetrated by Red China, the millions [possibly tens of millions] killed by Stalin, the Turkish attempt to eradicate the Armenians, etc.) that demonstrate man's capibility for great destruction. Armed only with optimism that seems born purely of self-love and humanistic faith, we mostly ignore all this evil. If we do acknowledge it, we shunt it off as the work of dehumanized monsters such as the Nazis, offer excuses (a friend of mine actually compared the building of the Hoover Dam with Kim Il-sung's brutal North Korean "modernizations"-- "people die when building infrastructure") and deny evidence. But mostly we don't allow it to sink in, we refuse to internalize this ugly affront to our beautiful conception of human nature.

Living in a technological wonderland, a place where the poor of New Orleans are obese, where evil is a Hollywood convention, it is easy to forget the hard realities beyond our intimate worlds. Hard-learned lessons of the past, knowledge purchased with blood and misery, should not be forgotten so easily and in so short a time. We should not allow our humanist optimism to make the world around us into a distant caricature. We need to remember that people like the Nazis do exist, that evil ideologies do murder millions of innocents, and that such things will happen again. We need to confront this reality, not hide from it, not pretend it is merely a different point of view.

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