In today's bizarre political climate, a relativist is someone who argues for moral consistency.
by Robert Jensen
A history professor of mine once returned essay exams with the comment that some students' attitude seemed to be, "Don't bother me with the facts--I'm going for the bigger picture."
George W. Bush wasn't in that class, but I thought of the professor's sardonic comment as I read the commencement address the president delivered at West Point earlier this month.
In addition to restating the Bush Doctrine (the United States has the right to destroy any society anywhere for whatever reason it chooses regardless of international opinion, law, or basic morality), Bush at West Point used one of the popular contemporary buzz phrases, "moral clarity."
Given that no one really argues for moral unclarity, claiming moral clarity is really just a cheap way to dismiss other points of view without providing a compelling argument or dealing with the messy world of facts. The West Point speech shows just how morally murky the president is.
In that speech, for example, Bush endorsed John F. Kennedy's and Ronald Reagan's refusal "to gloss over the brutality of tyrants" during the Cold War. That's accurate, if Bush meant the brutality of tyrants on the other side. American leaders have always been quick to condemn the crimes of enemies, which is perfectly appropriate.
But the United States has not only glossed over the brutality of tyrants on our side; it has often actively supported and funded such brutality. Where was the moral clarity when Kennedy backed an authoritarian regime in South Vietnam that had almost no support among its people? Where was it when Reagan supported vicious military dictatorships in Central America that killed tens of thousands of innocent people? In both cases, some moral clarity on the part of U.S. leaders would have saved lives.
"Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong," Bush continued. No disagreement there, but what about the U.S. military's direct attack on the civilian population of Vietnam through massive bombing and chemical warfare, or Reagan's support for the Contra army in Nicaragua that focused on what were called "soft targets" (undefended civilian targets)?
Or, what about the record of Bush's father, our commander in chief during the Gulf War? The U.S. military deliberately destroyed much of the civilian infrastructure of Iraq, including sewage- and water-treatment plants and electrical-generation facilities far from the supposed battle theater in Kuwait. The military itself predicted such attacks would kill civilians, as they were designed to do and did. The resulting civilian deaths continued long after the war, exacerbated by the cruel economic sanctions the United States demanded.
The point is simple: Calls for moral clarity, if they are to be more than empty rhetoric, require that we bother ourselves with the facts and pay attention to history.
Great powers have always gone about the business of conquest while explaining it was in the interests of the conquered. So, when the British ravaged India and extracted much of its wealth, it wasn't described as greed but as the grand enterprise of bringing civilization and religion to the natives--the white man's burden. The United States used similar rhetoric in its nearly complete extermination of indigenous people in the conquest of North America.
These days, we no longer talk of civilizing the natives, but about bringing freedom and democracy. Such a goal, if pursued in humane and lawful ways under the appropriate international institutions, would be to the good. But simply because politicians say that is their motivation for foreign and military policy does not make it so.
Upon examination of those messy facts, it becomes clear that the United States goes to war for the same reasons great powers have always fought--to secure markets and resources, to extend and deepen domination of strategic regions of the world. Old-style colonialism and conquest have been replaced with new modes of control through economic domination and the selective use of military power, but the goals remain the same.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the Middle East and Central Asia. Although sold to the public as a war on terrorism, the war in Afghanistan and the war the Bush administration is planning against Iraq are about control of those strategically crucial, energy-rich regions. The United States seeks not to own the oil outright, but rather control the flow of oil and oil profits.
The plans for Iraq make this painfully clear. Given that no one has produced evidence connecting Iraq to al-Qaida, it's hard to understand how Iraq is the next phase in the war on terrorism, as Bush officials proclaim. While it is true that Saddam Hussein's regime is brutal and repressive, he was every bit as brutal throughout the 1980s when he was our valued ally (because he was waging war on Iran, our enemy at the time). Officials warn that Hussein is a threat to the region, but ignore the fact that the Arab nations have rejected U.S. plans for war and apparently don't feel threatened.
It's not morality or a concern for the safety of people that leads Bush to decry Hussein's brutality, but an interest in replacing a hostile government with a client regime in a major oil-producing nation.
So, moral clarity, as the president uses the term, means just the opposite: the amoral--and sometimes immoral--self-interest of the powerful. An even more curious inversion of reality comes when those of us raising critical questions are accused of being moral relativists.
I am not a moral relativist. While I believe that we should be open-minded when considering the moral claims of others and humble in our own claims to having nailed down moral truth, I believe in the project of articulating and defending universal human rights. What seems to make me a relativist in the eyes of politicians such as Bush and intellectual attack dogs such as William Bennett is that I believe the United States should be as accountable to those standards as other nations. In other words, in this odd political climate, a relativist is someone who argues for moral consistency.
If moral judgments are applied consistently, it's clear that the United States, like other great powers, has much to answer for. Making this simple point these days leads to further accusations that I must hate America, another curious claim. How is it hateful to apply moral standards to one's own nation? If I articulate clear moral standards and try to apply them to myself as an individual, it is usually taken as a sign of maturity. But when done at the level of a nation, it is widely condemned as a sign of insufficient love of country.
So, to avoid confusion, here's what I believe: All human life has equal value, whether rich or poor, American or not. The United States has long pursued policies in the world that work for the interests of the rich against the poor and that sacrifice the lives of non-Americans for the affluence and comfort of Americans. Those policies are wrong, and American citizens have a moral obligation to stop them, using all the political freedoms that dissidents have struggled for and won throughout American history.
That seems both moral and clear to me.
Robert Jensen is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream and the pamphlet "Citizens of the Empire." He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org