Friday, July 9, 2010

What is wrong with worrying about Western-sins-first, revisited

There is a notion among Western progressivists that we in the West should concentrate on Western sins first because those are the ones that we can do most about. (I critiqued it in this post but want to put the problems with this notion more directly.)

There are several things problematic about this claim.

First, it rates victims, not by their degree of oppression, but by who is oppressing them. Can there be anything more belittling than to imply the most important thing about a victim is who is oppressing them? That they are to be situated, not by their suffering, but by who is causing it? That the perpetrator is the person who sets the effective moral parameters? What has often be criticised as the implicit racism of uneven progressivist moral concern flows directly from this.

Second, it directs moral attention according to the convenience of the observer, not the urgency or importance of the oppression. Instead of directing attention to what ways might be sought to relieve the worst oppression, it asks what expressions or actions of concern are most convenient to oneself. There is a moral convenience in this that leads easily to moral vanity: to conspicuous compassion as a mode of convenience, not serious moral action.

Thirdly, it distorts one’s sense of what actually makes things better. By any measure, Western liberal democracies are the most successful (and the most morally tender) human societies—indeed, a recent study points out (pdf) that the more Westernised a society, the more prosperous it is (via). If one defines moral concern against the most successful societies, one will be naturally inclined to end up promoting a lot of failure, since the prime examples of social and moral success become the prime objects of moral critique and thus the salient examples of moral failure. So, even where one does engage in moral action, it is likely to be ineffective or even disastrously counterproductive. Indigenous policy motivated by the aim of entrenching differentiation of indigenous folk from the mainstream provides plentiful drear examples of this, but so does development policy and advice more generally.

Fourthly, it is disingenuous self-justification. It is clear that what really drives such selectiveness is ideological convenience (typically, some sort of anti-capitalism and/or highly selective anti “imperialism”) and sense of status.—since what really counts for status is asserting oneself against folk around you. It is about feeling morally superior to their own society. Which both motivates and aggravates all the above identified problems.

There is no better case in which to identify these dynamics than Western progressivist critique of Israel. Is such criticism remotely proportional to Western progressivists actual capacity to influence Israeli policy? Clearly not. But Israel provides a splendid butt for all sorts of progressivist moral hobbyhorses. How Western nationalism (e.g. Zionism) is unacceptable, though non-Western nationalism (e.g. Arab nationalism) is just fine; endorsement of pride in non-Western cultures, and the grievous failings of Western cultures; focusing on the evils of Western “imperialism”, particularly “settler” imperialism. And so on.

It also allows progressivist Europeans in particular—with their ambition of being the moral elite for the globe—to exorcise the embarrassing historical reality of the Holocaust. By projecting all sorts of Nazi imagery and analogies on Zionism, the spectre of the Holocaust is projected outside Europe. That the projection is loaded on the Jewish state makes it emotionally so much more effective (and morally disgusting, but if you “get” that, you are not one of the “virtuous”).

Besides, thinking Israel may have a case raises all sorts of worrying issues about Europe’s own growing Muslim minorities and suggests that the world is not hovering on the edge of a future without war. There are a lot of progressivist demons that anti-Zionism exorcises.

It also justifies and reinforces anti-Americanism, further identifies (Western) nationalism as the great evil (the thing the EU exists to stop, hence the importance of EU elites "restraining" popular sentiments, which becomes circumventing citizen control—the "democratic deficit" as feature not bug, a feature globalised through the increasing internationalisation of policy), supports abhorring of military action as the product of moral failure and allows vote-getting deals with Muslim countries in international forums: hence the viciousness of anti-Israeli sentiment in Europe. As is noted here:
Israel is the only state in the world whose legitimacy is widely denied and whose destruction is publicly advocated and threatened; Israelis are the only citizens of a state whose indiscriminate murder is widely considered justifiable.
This attempt to bundle together anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism in order to “escape from the burdens of history” (part of a general escape that is the aim of the EU itself) is in fact a pathetic failure, part of a wider failure in Europeanist outlooks. After all, holding that:
(1) The world would be better if run according to how Europeans say;
(2) Colonials are vulgar, uncultured brutes;
(3) The masses should do as their moral and intellectual superiors say; and
(4) Blame the Jews!
hardly represent new departures in European history or thinking. It is just relabelling of some very old, and noxious, ideas. The notion that this represents “cutting edge” moral virtue, a new achievement in moral understanding, would be utterly pathetic if it was not so sad (and so noxious).

None of this is some call for any belief in Western moral perfection. It is a call for moral judgements to be made according to moral criteria: nothing more, nothing less.

It is a call for us to be moral cosmopolitans (using the language of Martha Nussbaum in her updating of Stoic outlooks) not moral patriots or (even more pathetically) moral anti-patriots.

Patriotism, as an emotional and political attachment to one’s own country, may well be a necessary glue in political life. It should not be confused with some strong moral claim, however. But anti-patriotism—an attachment to making strong moral claims against one’s own society—is simply contemptible at so many levels. A destructive and self-indulgent arrogance that is not "reality" based at all, but a flight from reality into a fantasy of moral perfectionism and cognitive superiority.


  1. I bet the R^2 of a regression of Aboriginal prosperity on distance (both cultural and geographic) from western civilization would be very high.

  2. My patience cup of "self-determination" woo hath runneth over I'm afraid. Time for the tough love.

  3. I'm an Israeli, and I used to belong to Peace Now -- I opposed some of Israel's policies vis a vis the West Bank, Gaza and settlements.

    But what used to be the 'peace camp' in Israel has fragmented. One of the main fissures (but not the only one) is between a peace camp that views itself as patriotic and views Israel as a legitimate country making mistakes, and the anti-patriotic (or anti-Zionist -- some would characterize themselves as patriotic) camp who considers Israel itself illegitimate.

    I belong to the former.

    I can tell you that the kind of attitude you describe was one of the reasons for the fissure, when people who were somewhat critical of their country started feeling that it wasn't just a certain policy that was under attack but the legitimacy and existence of the country itself. Whereas the other peace camp in Israel started speaking more loudly against Israel's existence, when in the past both camps seemed to share the same goals.

    One of things that is troubling for me with the attitude toward Israel is that all Western countries (and others too) have a checkered past and present. This is viewed by some as regrettable mistakes that do not reflect on the country's legitimacy. Others view it as sins that were cleansed as part of the evolution to a more liberal society, but do not reflect at the legitimacy of the present. With Israel the attitude is that the country is tainted, every action, past, present and future, and the only acceptable outcome is elimination of the country itself.

    I can't help but feel that some people want Israel to die for the supposed sins of the West. It is as if we and the Palestinians are characters in a morality play. Sometimes we're Christ and sometimes Judas, but the end is never happy.

  4. Micha: cofirming experience is always cheering, however sad the case in question.

    I can't help but feel that some people want Israel to die for the supposed sins of the West. It is as if we and the Palestinians are characters in a morality play. Sometimes we're Christ and sometimes Judas, but the end is never happy.
    Very well put and, alas, I think there is a lot of truth in what you say.

  5. This is a superb post, Lorenzo. I wrote a review of the book What's Left by Nick Cohen, in which he says the following:
    Consider how much tougher it is to get to the truth in a dictatorship where the penalty for saying a word out of turn is death. Asymmetries in access to information have the paradoxical effect of making it easier to expose the abuses of power in open societies than dictatorships. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, came up with ‘Moynihan’s Law’ to encapsulate the distorted vision that follows. It holds that the number of complaints about a nation’s violation of human rights is in inverse proportion to its actual violation of them. To put it another way, you can find out what is happening in America’s prison cells in Guantanamo Bay if you work very hard, but not in Kim Il-Sung’s prison cells in Pyongyang.

    So it's easier to find out information in a Western democracy, and it's easier to protest about it without being killed. I think that explains to some measure the disproportionate emphasis on human rights violations by Western democracies.

    What you capture really well is the icky way in which people don't get as upset about unpleasant behaviour that's not as close to home. For example, I was somewhat stunned by the comments of some feminists on my "Going Burq-o" post which typified this approach.

  6. Thank you.

    I haven't read Nick Cohen's book, but I have read some of his online pieces and various reviews of it (yours is excellent btw), and I am confident we would agree a lot. (My take on torture is clearly congruent with yours.)