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The Perils of an Open Society
Moral equivalency between America and her enemies is wrong.
In Philosophy Between the Lines, Arthur Meltzer explains that ancient philosophers knew that every human society stands upon myths. Every society fails to live up to its ideals. Every society has done terrible things.
Ancient philosophers worried that were the unvarnished truth to be uncovered, it would unleash a self-destructive force that could tear down even the best societies. But later philosophers forgot that. The Enlightenment brought about something new in human history—an open society. In our WEIRD age, we believe that no harm could possibly come of that. But nothing in life is free of tradeoffs.
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Liberal democratic capitalism has done enormous good for the human race. But the ancients were right, and we are now reckoning with the forces our open society has unleashed. We are faced with a new question: can we keep the benefits of our open societies, while dealing with those self-destructive forces?
Some have commented that it is strange that Western societies are tearing themselves apart. Russia, Iran, China, and especially North Korea, seem free of the vitriolic self-criticism which plagues us. Of course, some on left and right have taken that fact as proof that we are uniquely evil. According to these critics, America (and Western Civilization) is the greatest oppressor in the world.
This is a lie. What we are seeing is the direct result of the openness we prize so dearly. It is because Western societies (and other liberal societies like Japan) allow for self-criticism, while our enemies do not, that the self-destruction is one-sided. Our cultures encourage and incentivize self-criticism, which has the useful role of leading to self-improvement and self-correction. But it has the downside of building to a suicidal fever.
Free societies are the only societies that do this. Because of that, we are both uniquely good in the history of the world and uniquely self-flagellant. China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and others take advantage of this. They stoke our self-criticisms while stifling any dissidents at home.
For the self-loathing oikophobes in this country, it will never be enough that America holds itself to a higher standard than any other nation. When we fight our enemies, America and Israel go to greater lengths than anyone else (in human history) to minimize civilian casualties, but the same people who are today proclaiming that Hamas needs to break a few eggs to “free Palestine from unjust occupation” will scream bloody murder whenever an American missile harms a single noncombatant.
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In destroying evil men who enjoy murdering women and children, Israel will inevitably cause collateral damage, because their cowardly enemies use their own wives and girlfriends as human shields to hide behind. This will be greeted with more cries of “apartheid,” by people who conveniently only care about oppression when there’s a conflict between Jews and Palestinian Muslims, but stay silent when Han Chinese oppress Uyghur Muslims.
America has been a great force for good in the world. We have done more to promote freedom and oppose tyranny, to defend innocents, to correct our own terrible errors. We have done bad things, but the ancient philosophers knew the truth: every society has. In that way, our societies mirror us as individuals. Christians know that no human being is innocent of all sin, that each of us needs the redemptive blood of Christ to save us from sin and to allow us to become the good people we desire to be. Conservatives know that human nature has a dark side, and that no individual or society exists which is free of this dark side.
With self-criticism comes the possibility of self-improvement, but when self-criticism becomes the only thing, when we forget our ideals and ignore the tremendous good we have done, we go down a path leading only to ruin. Self-loathing leads to self-destruction, and if the free societies of the world self-destruct, what will become of the human race? Do we imagine our enemies will improve the human lot?
The line between good and evil may cut through every human heart, but let us not forget that there are such things as good and evil. Our enemies have chosen evil. Russian men slaughter women and children and celebrate doing so. Iranian proxies slaughter women and children and celebrate doing so. We may not always succeed, but America and her allies try to do the right thing. Most of the time, we do succeed.
It is interesting to see so many critics of America and her allies lining up to support the regimes that unapologetically do immoral in the world. Apparently, crimes are only crimes when they’re our crimes.
Americans, Westerners, citizens in liberal societies the world over, should see this false moral equivalency for what it is: apologetics for evil. Our open society allows us to see the myths upon which our good societies are founded, and we are horrified by what we see. But what we see is not unique to us. It is all too human. We should not excuse our bad behavior, but when self-criticism tempts us to throw away the very things that have helped us to make the world a better place, we should ignore the temptation.
Utopians—who measure America against the best society they can dream up—are much more tempted than those of us who are anti-utopians—who measure most human societies against the worst that we know human beings are capable of doing. But if free societies are to solve the paradox our self-critical cultures have created, we are going to need utopians who can ignore that temptation.
We need moral clarity, rather than self-loathing. America is the greatest nation on Earth. The American Founding was one of the best things that ever happened to the human race. And the most stunning thing about those statements is that, when we take a look at all the sins America has committed, those statements are still true. If there are good guys in the human race, we are the good guys.
Scott Howard is an undergraduate student at the University of Florida. An alumnus intern of National Review, he is currently an Editor at Lone Conservative and volunteers as an Associate Editor for the Freemen News-Letter. @ConservaMuse
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