The late Derrick Bell proposed (pdf) — in a theory that I don’t entirely buy — that America only pursued desegregation, and only ended Jim Crow, because racial equality obliquely benefited elite whites, in that it terminated a major Soviet propaganda point. Russia, the theory goes, gained some traction by arguing that for all of its vaunted equality, capitalist democracy in the American style failed to provide meaningful options to large swaths of its population, and so proved the communist thesis of western oppression. Living up to our own values, by this theory, wasn’t a democratic imperative: it was at least partially a cynical way to score points against our Cold War foe, and it just so happened to be the right thing to do.
Like I said, I don’t entirely buy it: reform doesn’t happen without the cooperation of the top, but it doesn’t even begin without the deeply-felt convictions of men like Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, etc., all of whom acted out of a commitment to equality, not to prove a point on the world stage. But taking Bell’s theory as perhaps partially true, it’s not a bad story to tell, that for all the evils that came out of the Cold War, our mortal enemy forced us to live up to our own hype. As a nation built on high (and often unattainable) principles, it helps to hear hard truths about how poorly we meet our lofty goals, and if the elites won’t hear those truths, except through the mouth of an implacable foe, so be it. Perhaps we need an ideological enemy — preferably not one that drives the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation — to see ourselves clearly, identify our failures, and remedy them.
Arguably, that’s something we lack today. Al-Qaeda, and other global terrorist groups, rarely speak in our language of rights and self-determination, even to point out (say) problems with our implementation of multicultural democracy. And when they do — by criticizing the Bush-era torture policy, for example — we categorically reject the message for its messenger, rather than mining it for opportunities to build common ground. I don’t mean that we should take our cues from Al-Qaeda, but if ending torture both restores us to our moral high ground, and moots an enemy propaganda point, we shouldn’t be afraid to take the opportunity.
Instead, we’re stuck with politicians who view our opponents’ obvious evil as an excuse to lower the bar for our own conduct. Contra candidate Gingrich, for example, we shouldn’t repeal the First Amendment as to Muslims just because Saudis gleefully persecute Christians. That’s playground thinking, not statesmanship. Exceptional nations don’t indulge in the global race-to-the-bottom; they lead by example, even when it’s inconvenient, because doing so helps our citizens, and demonstrates to all of the world the value of living in a free society. We need a challenger, someone to keep us honest — but we also need leaders willing to accept the challenge.
With apologies for my recent, lighter posting schedule.