Americans and Moral Superiority


February 24, 1991|By RAY JENKINS

A FRIEND WHO lives in Canada, after reading President Bush's State of the Union Speech, recently wrote:

"Among the nations of the world only the United States of America has both the moral standing and the means to back it up." I have trouble believing George Bush actually said that in reference to the Gulf War, but that's the quote in the paper. Do Americans really think they are morally superior to everyone else?

My Dear Canadian Friend:

You ask a good question. It's not easy to answer, because it depends upon whom you ask.

If you ask a Native American, he might tell you: This is the nation whose forebears came to the land my ancestors had occupied peacefully for centuries, lied to us, cheated us, drugged us with firewater, killed us with firepower, took away our land and relegated those few who survived to concentration camps they called "reservations," where our once proud culture is now in its death throes.

If you ask a black American, she might tell you: This is the nation whose forebears went to Africa, seized 2 million of my forebears by trick and trap, transported them against their will to a distant and alien land, enslaved the ones who survived that perilous journey, destroyed their ancient culture, "emancipated" them only to relegate them for a century to a second-class status barely above slavery, and has now relegated the great majority of them to the squalid Third World known as the "inner cities" of America.

If you ask a poor white of a once-thriving textile town like Manchester, in Georgia or New Hampshire, she might tell you: This is the land which took my grandfather, gave him no education, denied him the protection of child labor laws, put him in a cotton mill from dawn to dusk at the age of 10, and turned him out a spent man at the age of 45, without pension or medical benefit, to die of brown lung in a tenement.

If you ask an older Japanese-American, he might tell you: This is the nation which put me and my family -- patriotic, American-born citizens -- in a concentration camp for most of World War II simply because of the shape of our eyes and the oddity of our names. While we were interned, they dropped the only atomic bombs ever used in war on civilian populations in my ancestral homeland, killing 100,000 defenseless people.

If you ask an immigrant from Vietnam, she might tell you: This was the nation which thrust itself into a civil war in my country, killing civilians and soldiers alike, men, women and children, and when just one of your soldiers was tried for war crimes, your president in effect pardoned him.

If you ask an Iranian refugee living in the United States, he might say: This was the country which for 25 years supported the brutal regime of the shah, thus setting up the bitter conditions which led to the present nationalistic fanaticism which grips my native land.

If you ask an Arab-American living in Michigan, he might tell you: This is the nation whose Marine general only last week told the world that Saddam Hussein -- and by implication all Arabs and even all Muslims -- did not have the same "respect for life" that "we" have.

If you ask a Latin American, she might tell you: This was the country that happily supported generations of brutal dictators like Somoza and Pinochet in 50 countries in my world so long as they were "pro-American" and did not flirt with Marxism.

If you ask a working poor person today in Cambridge, Md., he might tell you: This is the country which, during President Reagan's first term in office, cut the taxes of the rich by 50 percent while raising my taxes by 500 percent, and even today I am among the 34 million Americans who cannot afford either medical care or medical insurance for myself or my children.

If you ask a battered homeless woman in New York trying to save her children on a frigid night in a cardboard box on a street beside Central Park within view of million-dollar apartments, she might be simply too dumbfounded at your question even to respond.

Oh, it's true, you could find a few eccentric religious sects whose members believe that America is indeed a New Promised Land whose inhabitants are blessed by God with moral superiority because their ancestors were so righteous and industrious. And you could find a few neo-conservatives like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Norman Podhoretz who believe that no people on earth are the "moral equivalent" of Americans. They're just the modern equivalents of Stephen Decatur, who said, "My country, right or wrong, but my country!" -- unaware that G. K. Chesterton had paraphrased the remark devastatingly, "My mother, drunk or sober, but my mother!"

But if you put your question to "the average American" -- including most who belong to the very groups mentioned above but who aren't well acquainted with their nation's history -- most will give the matter little thought, and will simply go along with George Bush's implicit claim that God wouldn't have given us all those marvelous weapons if He hadn't trusted us to use them for righteous purposes.

So the answer is, no, most Americans don't really believe they are "morally superior." They just believe, like most people in most other nations, that might makes right.

Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.

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