Moral Superiority--Again

March 24, 1991|By RAY JENKINS

My dear Canadian friend:

Boy, did you get me in a peck of trouble! Remember, you had heard President Bush say that "only the United States of America has both the moral standing and the means to back it up." And you asked, "Do Americans really think they are morally superior?"

I tried to give an honest answer: It depends upon whom you ask -- American Indians, black Americans, the unfortunate Americans who spent last night on the streets because they had no home.

When my letter got out, did I ever hear from my fellow Americans! One said flatly: "For your information, not only is America morally superior but the establishment of this 'experiment in democracy' is the single most important achievement in history."

Half the writers said I should move to Canada, and one, a man who claimed to be speaking for the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland, wrote that I "do not deserve to live in this country and enjoy the benefits of citizenship" -- meaning, I assume, forcible exile.

I became the hottest topic of the day on the talk radio shows, those redoubtable outlets of public opinion in-the-raw. And one writer, who seemed to be quite serious, said the only thing I got right was that God wouldn't have given America all those marvelous weapons if He hadn't known we'd use them for righteous purposes.

Well, I guess I must confess: I knew perfectly well that my letter was certain to angry up the natives. But I believe that newspaper columnists are supposed to provoke thought and discussion -- most especially when the public is 90 percent behind the president.

So, in that sense, I achieved my devious purpose. I have to admit, I was wrong about one thing -- an error I'll confess at the end of this letter. But first, a few more words about Americans and moral superiority.

First, you must understand that this country has undergone a great crisis of confidence in the past 30 years. First there was the string of assassinations in the '60s. Then came the war in Vietnam. Then Richard Nixon's impeachment. Then two successive sitting presidents who couldn't demonstrate sufficient leadership ability to retain office. And just when it looked as if we had a resolute leader in Ronald Reagan, he was made a fool by a cabal of colonels in the Iran-contra affair.

So against that background, you can see how winning a war against a bloody monster would be soothing balm indeed to a country whose confidence had been so badly shaken. Too bad that tens of thousands of people who were already victimized by the bloody monster had to die in the process. Wars are always self-justifying, you know -- and less violent alternative options are forgotten in the thrall of victory.

The problem with this country is that in our 202-year existence we haven't yet gained the maturity of the European nations who, after centuries of killing one another over religion or ideology or just family quarrels, finally seem to have grasped the inescapable fact that these efforts have gotten them nothing but a continent soaked in the blood of brothers.

We're not even willing to admit that such success as we have today -- and it is notable -- was based largely on the riches we took away from the red "savages" and on the sweat of desperate people who toiled incredibly long hours at subsistence wages during our industrial revolution before we could pause to extend a little human compassion.

But it ought to go without saying that there is no such thing as a collective moral superiority, any more than there is a collective guilt. Nations can no more be "moral" than streams or mountains; only people can be moral. And for George Bush to imply Americans are "morally superior," as you quite clearly understood him to say in his speech, is to suggest that Ivan Boesky is more "moral" than Mother Teresa, or that the Los Angeles police chief is more "moral" than the pope.

President Bush says "by God, we have finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome." By that, he meant we have regained our self-confidence.

But there's a fine line between self-confidence and hubris, and I fear we've crossed that line.

So on reflection, I'm afraid I was being too generous when I said that Americans don't believe they are "morally superior," they just believe, might makes right -- or, as Bismarck put it bluntly but accurately, that in the end all issues are settled "by blood and iron." We have, in short, returned to what J. William Fulbright, the most intellectual statesman of our time, so aptly called "the arrogance of power."

I'd just as soon see our hubris tempered with a little humility; if that makes me a morally inferior American, so be it.

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

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