Sunday, May 09, 2004

The politics of moral outrage 

Read Iowahawk on the recent events in an alternate universe:

"The recent apology of US President George W. Bush for abuses by American military prison guards continued to reverberate around the globe today, as the White House was again inundated with a flurry of 'apology accepted' notes from world media, governmental leaders, and Islamic fundamentalist clerics.

"Typical of the responses was a personal note from Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, who wrote 'aww, dude, you know I can't stay mad at you,' saying that the apology had prompted him to immediately dismantle his country's secret nuclear weapons program. In a postscript, Assad added, 'good luck to the Rangers this year'...

"The apology also prompted an outbreak of gratitude in the Arab street, as hundreds of thousands of Muslims took to the streets Friday in an impromptu demonstration of thanks. In Gaza, a cheering crowd estimated at 30,000 waved American flags and banners reading 'No Prablem Bosh' [sic], while in Damascus throngs gathered in the Square of the Martyrs chanting 'U-S-A, U-S-A'...

"Perhaps the biggest reaction to the Bush apology occurred in Saudi Arabia, where leaders of the fundamentalist Wahabbist sect issued a rare commendation of the president. 'It's just been such a catharsis for all of us,' said Imam Abdelkarim Matwalli, prayer leader of the Grand Mosque in Medina, choking back emotion. 'All we really ever wanted was a simple 'I'm sorry,' and Mr. Bush delivered. Thank you, America'."

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the prisoner abuse continues to be the news story of the moment, with Google news listing over 4,200 recent articles and news reports on the topic.

It was quite clear before, but now as a result of this recent controversy it has become even more painfully clear, that in their righteous anger the global left (and I loosely include among them majority of the educated Muslim opinion, on account of their prevalent anti-American and anti-Western sentiment) is more concerned with who the perpetrators are, than the victims.

The sad truth is that so many around the world seem to very stoically accept the fact that Muslims will invariably kill, torture, imprison, rape, persecute, mistreat and oppress their fellow Muslims. Lest I invariably get accused by the usual suspects of focusing too much on Muslims (or Arabs), let me add that so many around the world also accept the same about the Africans, and (although much less so today) the South Americans and Asians.

It seems that it's only when the Westerners (the Americans in particular, the Israelis on a much smaller scale) are involved as perpetrators that the outrage can truly reach the fever pitch. The intra-faith or intra-ethnic bloodshed and mayhem is so often ignored or excused, and on the occasions it manages to touch the world's conscience, the emotions it generates are not nearly as strong and long-lived as when it's the West that's deemed to be the culprit.

Tutsis and Hutus can keep slaughtering each other (and how many other conflicts in Africa can you name that each year cost the lives of hundreds of thousands?), Arabs can kill, imprison and torture each other, dictators all over Asia, Middle East and Africa can keep on denying their people the most basic human rights - but these sad facts of life are taken almost for granted. The special moral indignation and outrage are reserved only for the occasions when the United States or some other Western country stumbles and falls.

I'm not excusing the failings of the West. But I ask the critics: why do you spend so much time criticising those who don't always live up to the high standards they preach, and not those who don't aspire to any standards at all? Why do you consider a hypocrite to be worse than an unrepentant sinner? Why do you see the sliver in somebody else's eye but not a log in your own?

The argument that the West should be held to higher standards than everyone else, because it's the West after all and not everyone else that goes around preaching about democracy and freedom, I'm afraid doesn't cut it with me. Not because I don't believe that the West shouldn't be held to high standards, but because it's a cop-out and an excuse for the rest of the world to never have to look at itself in the mirror. Worse, it's an insult to human beings all around the world who have to live under appalling political, social or economic conditions to tell them that as non-Westerners they can't and won't inhabit the same moral universe as the West. Yet so often the people who argue that the "Asian values" should not be used to stifle political freedoms get accused of being Euro-centric, those who argue against native kleptocracies and dictatorships are dismissed as racists and neo-colonialists, and those who want to see freedom spread to furthest corners of the earth are found guilty of cultural insectivore, ignorance, inconsistency and worst of all, hypocrisy. Those people are deemed to have no right to lecture the world about freedom and democracy - but the reverse is rarely true. All too often those who shout the loudest about human rights are those who want to drown out the cries from their own torture chambers.

So in the end I say this to all the critics: the West is trying to make the world a better place - we're not always consistent, and sometimes we fail - but at least we're trying. What are you doing to help spread democracy, freedom, prosperity and human rights around the world? I'll give you a small hint: criticising the West is not enough.


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