Hey, look over there!

Many right-wing bloggers use the “Hey, look over there!” move when the misdeeds of the Bush administration or the US military are pointed out. The charge is usually that since others are doing worse, it is unfair to single out the US for criticism. (Often the charge is phrased in more inflammatory language: aid and comfort to the enemy, borderline treason, kneejerk anti-Americanism.) My main response to this is that the actions of others are irrelevant to whether or not we have done wrong, and changing the subject just makes it more likely that we will make the same mistakes in the future.

GB at Riding Sun quotes Arthur Chrenkoff deriding what he imagines to be the reasons for lack of outrage at misdeeds by those who aren’t American.

[a]American misdeeds are the worst in the world;

[b]There are worse misdeeds in the world, but that’s to be expected of others, so who cares? now back to American misdeeds;

[c]American misdeeds are the most offensive because America holds itself to a higher moral standard than others;

[d]American misdeeds deserve the most attention because by publicizing them within the Western world, you actually have the greatest chance of effecting change. (This is a sort of backhand, and often unintended, compliment to the strength of the American political system.)

Now, [a] is just a strawman. (Maybe you could find someone saying this, but you can find idiots who believe any given idiocy. The mainstream left is not that divorced from reality.) [b],[c], and [d] , however, are actually pretty good reason for Americans to focus on American misdeeds.

As an American citizen, I am morally responsible for the acts of my government. This means that when agents of that government do wrong, I take it personally. Especially since I still believe (perhaps naively) that the US is the greatest nation in history when it lives up to its ideals, I hold my country to a much higher moral standard than I hold other countries. In my mind, this is the definition of true patriotism. (By the same token, on an idividual level I don’t expect other people to live up to the higher standards I set for myself.)

Outrage about American misdeeds is also more productive. America’s enemies don’t care what I think–in fact they are likely to be happy to have caused my outrage. There is nothing I can effectively do sitting here at my computer that could possibly affect their actions. On the other hand, if I express my outrage at US misdeeds, there is a chance that this could lead to policy changes or at least a dialog. In a democracy, dissent and criticism are a necessary part of the process, and can make a difference for the cause of justice.

The world has many evil people in it. Rapists, murderers, sadists, and sociopaths can be found everywhere, and getting worked up about every evil just wears one out. Of course the atrocities of others disgust and anger me, but I choose not to focus on them because my rage will only make me tired and unhappy without doing any good. So call my outrage “selective” if you wish. I prefer to think of it as rational.

3 thoughts on “Hey, look over there!”

  1. Hey, glad I inspired you to start posting again!

    Since you are weary of the “searching under the streetlight” metaphor, I am hereby retiring it in favor of my new “climbing Mount Fuji” metaphor.

    Basically, protesting American misdeeds is like climbing Mt. Fuji — easy to do, and not much of an accomplishment, so plenty of people do it. Other mountains, even if lesser-known, may in fact be much more dangerous and challenging.

    Also, you can delete comments permanently in Blogger now, so they don’t even show up as “This post has been removed…” 

  2. Sorry it took me so long to respond. I’ve been laid up with the flu.
    I’m not sure I’ve actually started posting again, but this seemed too long for your comments section. Thanks for the heads-up about comments. It looks like the older version of bloggerhacks couldn’t handle the new blogger comment system.

    It seems that we agree on the basics, but disagree on matters of degree. You agree that dissent and internal criticism are necessary parts of our self-correcting political system, but you think the left is currently overdoing it. I agree that others are guilty of far worse, but think that in order to have international legitimacy we need to subject ourselves to greater scrutiny and hold ourselves to a higher standard.

    I also should note that my comments are about Americans criticizing America. When America’s enemies point out our misdeeds to excuse their own sins, I consider it the same kind of “look over there” fallacy. 

  3. That’s a good point you make about Americans criticizing America. I have no problem with us as a country looking at our own failings and trying to improve. It’s a good thing.

    To draw an unfortuate analogy, it’s like in The Godfather, when Michael tells Fredo not to take sides against the family. You can criticize Mike in private, but not in front of Moe Green.

    My concern, therefore, is when Americans level criticism at America not to ultimately strengthen it, but to weaken it.

    I sense that some, if not most, of the critics pounding away at the Abu Ghraib story are doing so not to help America preserve the moral legitimacy of its troops as they fight overseas, but to keep those troops home all together.

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