Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Capricious Crusaders, Myopic Moralists, and other Pathetic Primates (4/4)

Finally, in our panoply of pathetic primates we come to a creature that likes to utter shortsighted moral maxims. Remember Jane’s platitude at the dinner table about war not solving anything? I’m not advocating war by any means, but this is a false blanket statement. I’ll let the American Civil War, the sine qua non of abolition in the Old South, suffice as an example, for I do not want to get sidetracked here. These myopic moralists have an inability to look beyond the confines of their narrow ideology and appreciate the fuller, nuanced and complicated world around them; they miss the forest for the trees. Usually they’re just parroting something they’ve picked up from their self-enclosed habitat of like-thinking primates. Once again, I’ll use examples in an area that I have some expertise: war and diplomacy. (I trust you’ll agree that my undefeated record at the board game Stratego, coupled with multiple viewings of Saving Private Ryan, qualify me as an expert.)

You might recall a question that made the rounds just after 911: Why do they hate us? The they in this instance referred to the Muslim world in particular, if not the world beyond our shores in general. The question implies a moral obligation to take stock of our deleterious impact around the world. Because the United States is an aggressor that antagonizes peoples and countries abroad for its personal gain, we should reverse course and strive to show a kinder and gentler face to the world. The question seems legitimate, but it’s insufficient. Is it enough to ask why they hate us? I think not. More pertinent is who hates us and for what reason. Hitler hated us, enough to declare war on the United States in December 1941. Was he justified in hating us, if the criterion is simply hate? Is it at least feasible, I ask you, for a nation’s affection or hatred to be based on its national self-interest rather than some Platonic universal form of pure Truth? Is it not especially the case for dictatorships or stateless organizations to manipulate its people with fear to hate a particular country or part of the world, say, the United States or the West? Is it of significance that Al Qaeda or the Baathist regime in Iraq or Hamas in Palestine hates us? The Serbs despise President Clinton for getting NATO to drop bombs on their death squads in the late 1990s. Should we therefore condemn Clinton and at the same time do some soul searching? Or does this apply to only Republican presidents? Are they unjustified in hating us? Or do they hate us because we put a stop to their murderous oppression of ethnic Albanian Muslims in Kosovo? So, myopic moralists pose a loaded question with a degree of nearsightedness; they can only arrive at an answer that makes sense for their worldview.

The television series Star Trek occasionally made reference to something called the Prime Directive. The basic idea was that one should not intervene in other civilizations, but only observe—a concept not coincidentally created during the Vietnam War protests. It’s a good idea in general. History attests to the devastation created by bully empires and tyrannies that invaded and imposed their dictates on neighboring kingdoms, communities, or tribes. We should be mindful of foisting our values on another country, well-intentioned or otherwise, without heeding the internal dynamics and cultural rhythm of that particular country. Fair enough. But once you think about the real world, not the world of make-believe, the concept is difficult to maintain in many situations. Heck, it’s not even adhered to by the crew of the Starship Enterprise, let alone in our own galaxy. Can you remember an episode in which randy Captain Kirk is not getting his freak on with an interstellar sex kitten? Me neither. But is this multicultural nonsense and alleged respect for other cultures as moral as pontificators seem to suggest? Weren’t evil, chauvinistic Westerners, in the form of the British Empire, putting a stop to the Indian practice of satee, to wit, the self-immolation of widows upon the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands? Should the Redcoats have left this practice in place?

Permit me to explore this line of inquiry a bit further. Should we cease our condemnation of forced clitoridectomy and female infibulations occurring in places like Eastern Africa? And how about those Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan throwing acid on the faces of women who have the temerity to pursue an education or simply walk outside without a burqa? Between tossing stones at alleged adulterers and sodomizing boys it’s amazing they find time for their Koranic devotions. Come to think of it, why don’t we bring back human sacrifice? How dare the Spaniards for disrupting that venerated Aztec custom of gouging out a victim’s heart! And how dare law enforcement officials put a stop to those Mormon polygamists in Colorado City, Arizona. Those middle-aged men, bless their hearts, should be able to keep their 13-year-old wives. Multiculturalism, it would appear, must be a euphemism for misogyny, considering the fact that it usually supports practices harmful to women’s health. If that’s what the myopic moralists want to do, fine. But I say to them: Don’t include me in your wretched, pseudo-moral crusade. I’m in for the fight.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am aware that Western empires have also done some terrible things; indeed, I have written about such atrocities at length elsewhere. But that’s not the issue here. The Prime Directive, or “respect” for other cultures, can possibly be an immoral act itself. More generally, one should not thoughtlessly subscribe to simple maxims, so full of sound and fury but upon closer scrutiny signifying nothing. Once we homo sapiens developed a spiritual consciousness, it didn’t take long for us to forge our moral sense into ironclad precepts, codes and statutes for the purpose of domination. Why should you expend energy on beating your rivals senseless, biting off their hands, ripping out their windpipe, perhaps eating them too, when you can get them to submit to your will—and have them deliver up their females—with the power of words. The guilt trip was probably the first tool of manipulation known to man.

I’m not advocating moral relativism. My own view is that truth is out there; we just can’t identify it sometimes. And our moral codes serve an important function, whether one believes they were inscribed on Mount Sinai or a byproduct of evolution. Instead, I’m addressing moral selectivity as a function of cooption, social engineering, or self-vindication in our species. “The brain,” explains Robert Wright, “is like a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth, regardless of whether they in fact have any of either.” Next time you’re at the hypothetical Smith household and are subjected to lofty-sounding platitudes that seem to favor one cause over another, you’ll just have to take it, for its endemic to these capricious crusaders. I’m not asking to you confront them, but I am concerned about your upset stomach, so do bring along a puke bag.

One chimpanzee says to another: “You should eat watermelons with both hands.” The other responds: “Really?” He scratches his head and grimaces. “Why, yes, of course. How silly of me. That makes sense.” The first chimpanzee continues: “Yeah, that’s the way you’re supposed to do it. Just hold it like so, like a bowl, and then go at it in wild abandon.” “Sweet!” exclaims the second primate. “You are so right,” he adds, as melon juice drips from his face. “What was I thinking before?” The first chimp, his brain the size of a clenched fist, rests comfortably with the thought that he has persuaded his hirsute compadre to take up his way of doing things.