Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Amoral False Equivalence

I keep The American Conservative in my RSS feed because they have a number of writers who are thought provoking, though I seldom agree with them. And then they have Pat Buchanan. Buchanan peddles a lot of the sort of writing which I'll read and think, "Responding to this is too cheap a shot. It's so obviously wrong that it's just showing off to point it out."

But then, if everyone thinks that way, the obvious problems never get pointed out. His post today on Americans being tried for undermining the Egyptian government is one of these sort of things.

A Cairo court has convicted 43 men and women of using foreign funds to foment unrest inside Egypt in connection with the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.

Sixteen of those convicted were Americans. All but one, Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute, had already departed. Becker fled this week rather than serve two years in an Egyptian prison.

And U.S. interventionists are in an uproar.


Yet the questions raised by both the Cairo and Moscow crackdowns on U.S.-funded “democracy” groups cannot be so airily dismissed.

Then comes the false equivalence:
Is it not understandable to patriots of the original “Don’t Tread on Me” republic that foreigners might resent paid U.S. agents operating inside their countries to alter the direction of their politics?

We have a right to advance our democratic values, we say.

But for the United States to push, for example, for freedom of speech, press and assembly in the People’s Republic of China is to promote political action that must lead to the fall of Beijing’s single-party state. Do we not understand why that might be seen by the Chinese Communist Party of Xi Jinping as subversive?

In the Cold War Americans learned that not only was the Communist Party U.S.A. a wholly owned subsidiary of Joseph Stalin’s Comintern, that party had deeply infiltrated the U.S. government and Hollywood. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, America was convulsed over communist penetration of our institutions.
If we were apoplectic that Soviet-funded communists were seeking to influence our culture and politics, why ought not other countries, with cultures and institutions far different from our own, react even as we did?
Now, this sort of thing has a sort of superficial fairness to it. "You wouldn't like it if other people messed with your country, so you shouldn't mess with other people's."

But except for the most blind nationalists, people don't tend to object to the introduction of good influences from other nations or cultures. Indeed, in such cases, we don't necessarily see the outside influence as being foreign. We just see it as a good example of what our country should do.

Many Americans objected to communist infiltration of our government not because they reflexively hated the idea of something from Russia influencing the US, the objected because they considered communism pernicious and they didn't want to see it influencing the US regardless of who was doing the influencing. And on the flip side, those Americans who did want to see the US become more communist tended not to object to the fact that the Russians were trying to infiltrate the US government. Indeed, it tended to be Americans who wanted the US to be more communist who were doing the infiltrating on behalf of the Russians.

The real issue at play in Egypt is that the new government no more (and in some ways less) desire than the previous one to allow freedoms of the press, religion, political dissent, etc. That Americans are among those helping to fund movements pushing for these freedoms may be a nice nationalistic peg to hang the objection on, but the real root of the objection is pretty clearly to the freedoms themselves. Home grown demands for them are no more welcome than foreign funded ones, except to the extent they are easier to squash.

Now, this isn't to deny that national and ethnic chauvinism exists. It, of course, does. And there are going to be times and topics on which people do not want to hear their flaws (or potential improvements) discussed by people of some disliked outside group. Americans may well constitute such a group for many nationalities. Among Americans, ethnic, religious and political identifications can cause similar problems. There are criticisms of behavior by Catholics that I am much more open to hearing from other Catholics (who are "in the family") than I am to hearing the same criticisms from "outsiders".

However, while realism necessitates remaining aware of such non-rational responses, there is not a principled objection to members of one group urging changes upon members of another group. And it is precisely this which Buchanan tries to do in his piece:
We may deplore this, but where do we get the right to intervene in the internal affairs of these countries if they do not threaten us?
Keep in mind, the only "intervening" being objected to here is that of American citizens providing support to organizations within Egypt seeking certain basic freedoms. Why, should we, as per Buchanan's earlier example "push... for freedom of speech, press and assembly in the People’s Republic of China"? Because those rights are aspects of human dignity that people should have. Unless we think that what is right in the US is not necessarily right in China or in Egypt or in Saudi Arabia, there is no reason principled why we should not support those seeking these freedoms in other countries. At times there might be cynical reasons for restraining this urge. (For instance, a comparatively "enlightened dictator" in certain cultures might in some ways protect minority religious and ethnic groups from persecution more than a government expressing the will of the people, and so one might wink that the dictator's suppression of political dissent.)

However, the implicit idea that all cases of citizens of one country advocating changes in another country are somehow equal is obviously wrong unless one accepts complete amorality. The comparison of Americans advocating greater freedoms in Egypt to communists attempting to impose communism in the US are completely wrong-headed.


Paul Zummo said...

There's a very odd moral relativism streak in paleo-conservatism that seems to me to be based on a warped interpretation of Edmund Burke. Burke preached the virtues of particularity - in other words, what works in one society may not work in another. However that has been badly misinterpreted (by both his erstwhile followers as well as critics like Strauss) as a refutation of natural law theory and the idea of an ultimate moral good. Just because societies can and ought to be structured differently doesn't mean that there isn't some kind of ultimate good.

Anthony said...

Buchanan doesn't make it clear to the uninitiated that it's his belief that the democracy-promoting groups are essentially arms of the U.S. Government - wholly funded by it if not actually part of the government. Given the U.S. government's track record of using nominally independent groups as proxies, there is a pretty good case that what's going on isn't just "citizens of one country advocating changes in another".

Given Buchanan's proclivites, I doubt he'd follow up with an article on how the CIA's use of nominally independent groups has poisoned the well against actual private activity in much of the Third World, exacerbated by the tendency of people in non-democratic countries to not believe that large organizations would be allowed to do things without the direction (or at least blessing) of the government.