Friday, February 04, 2005

The Moral High Ground

My friend Debbie said some time ago: Israel has clearly lost, by the whole Palestinian thing, a huge portion of the moral high ground handed to Jews-in-general by the Nazis.

This statement is, to me, one key to the problems of identity politics, not to mention the psychology of abuse.

In my opinion, nobody gets the moral high ground based on anything but how they’re behaving now. It’s based on what you actually do, not who you think you are and not what was done to you. Neither heroism nor victimhood is an entitlement, much less an excuse.

I hereby declare a moratorium on using victimhood as a deed to the moral high ground.

Victimhood—now or in the past, direct or indirect, whether determined by chance, genetics, race, creed, color, social status, economic status, age, shape, size, gender, sexual preference, accent, disability, personal achievement, birth order, irrational dislike, or anything else—is not a free pass marked "Get out of Guilt Free." It does not grant you permanent immunity from responsibility for your actions, nor can you hand down such immunity to your great-grandchildren or to people who share similar culture or genetics. It does not justify your use of unfair or cruel tactics in self-defense. It does not automatically award you the coveted Halo of Martyrdom—a razor-edged circle that, when thrown like a Frisbee, can decapitate your enemies. (In self-defense.)

This goes in personal relationships as well. I know the psychology of abusers. I know how it feels to say, “They made me do it to them.” I understand violence—physical and emotional and even financial—done in self-defense. And it’s wrong.

I also declare a permanent ban on claiming heroism or good-guy status as an excuse for behavior that would shame a wolverine.

That means the United States cannot decide that since we rode to the rescue of Europe in 1917 and 1941, anything we do now (or did then) is automatically virtuous. The firebombing of Dresden was an atrocity. We did it. It would be wrong no matter who did it, and pretending that our status as world heroes makes it acceptable is contemptible. The same kind of thinking made the Glen Ridge high school football stars think it was fine to rape a mentally retarded girl while their teammates looked on. They were heroes, and heroes are allowed.

We cannot whine that Hitler was worse, or that the Soviets cold-bloodedly murdered 15,000 to 25,000 Polish officers at Katyn Forest and two other sites. Moral responsibility is not a zero-sum game. There is plenty of it to go around.

Self-proclaimed heroism is just as dangerous as being a victim.

Hitler could argue that he was just trying to defend and protect Germany, which had been shamefully treated by the Treaty of Versailles. Stalin could argue that he was trying to build a new society free of the brutal oppression that characterized life under the Romanov czars. Nicholas could argue that he was just doing what he thought was best for his country, that the peasants were like children who needed a firm hand, and that he and his family lived relatively simple lives. The French aristos could argue that they were just having fun. They gave to charity and went to church. Was it their fault that the peasants were filthy and starving, that a few rogue aristos killed the peasants for sport? And Robespierre could argue that he had to build a new France, that the purity of his goals justified Madame Guillotine.

In justifying atrocity, victimhood and heroism tend to work together. Much of current US foreign and domestic policy is based on a revolting mixture of the two. As victims of a dreadful attack, we behave as if we’re justified in violating the basic tenets of the Constitution we are supposed to be defending. And as heroes and good guys, we invaded Iraq—not even questioning the effect of what we’re doing.

From the days of the Revolution, the United States have always defined ourselves as the good guys. We the people started out doing something unprecedented, and, yes, laudable in idea if not in practice. (I revere our Constitution as much as anyone, but the line about slaves being counted as 3/5 of a human being makes me sick.) But instead of using that sense of righteousness as a yardstick to measure our actions, we have all too often used it as a way to justify violence, oppression, and naked greed. And these days, torture.

It all boils down to individual responsibility of a very specific kind. Each person is responsible for the damage they do directly or enable to be done indirectly—both for kicking the cat and for buying clothes made by slave labor.

We have to stop pluming ourselves on who we are, and start looking at what we are doing.