Saturday, 10 June 2006

National Humility

Once upon a time I dreamt that perhaps hundreds or thousands of people would regularly stop by here to soak in my pearls of wisdom, but there are advantages to relative anonymity. It's less of a big deal if I take extended breaks from writing (sorry though, to those of you who wish I would post more often), and I really don't need to worry so much about delivering messages that will backfire, and hence be used against the causes that I care about. I've also come to realize just how many excellent writers and thinkers there are out there, most of whom never get the lucky break to become widely read. It's wonderful that we have this vehicle for sharing ideas, and I'm pleased to see the current widespread outcry from disparate corners of the blogosphere to protect "net neutrality" from undue corporate control.

Recent revelations about the atrocities apparently committed by a few Marines in Haditha got me to thinking about the national humility we need to adopt, a subject which gets far too little attention precisely because any politician approaching it would fear a swift and strong backlash reaction and accusations of being unpatriotic. The mere fact that many such subjects become politically taboo damages our ability to have honest and open dialog, because politicians are constrained to finding popularly acceptable frames within which to make the case for whatever it is they are advocating.

It's quite acceptable for ministers to preach about humility as a virtue, and for individuals to seek an appropriate balance between positive self esteem and humble recognition of their own limitations. But to talk about the need for our nation to find such a comparable balance between marketing the ideas which have made us great and recognizing that we don't have every answer and often have much to learn from other cultures and other experiments in governance is a sure way to be dismissed by many as unpatriotic and unworthy of attention, if not traitorous.

Why can't we celebrate that which is wonderful about our traditions and simultaneously seek to improve on them and recognize our limitations without worrying about drawing such vitriolic scorn? In fact what is wonderful about our system of government is that it attempts to grant great freedom to the individual while providing checks and balances against any one group or portion of government gaining too much control. This brings me back to that wonderful quote by James Madison:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
But people today confuse the greatness of our system with the goodness of our people. While growing up in a democratic context in which respect of our fellows is an inherent value can provide a template for decent behavior, at heart we are no more or less human than anyone else on the planet. In the stress of war, Americans are no different than anyone else, and some will tragically misbehave. Abu Ghraib and Haditha should be wake up calls for a little national humility. The justification of torture, or at least of inhumane and degrading treatment of suspects in custody is born of a misapprehension that Americans can be trusted, simply because they are Americans. If national humility were accepted as a desirable counterweight to our national pride, then we would likely avoid such hubris.

A Google search of "national humility" turns up a few interesting hits, but few American politicians since Lincoln who openly call for it. One exception I found extolling national humility was surprisingly Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar, who quotes former Democratic Senator William Fulbright who said:
Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor.
I also found a portion of a sermon which acknowledges a practical reason for not extending such a humility too far, but nonetheless to apply some national humility wisely:
We must be careful to extend the analogy of personal humility to national humility with great care, for in many respects the analogy does not hold. Governments have a responsibility to protect that individuals can set aside in a spirit of self-sacrifice. Nevertheless, the American government can conspicuously put others first by making sure that profits on oil, for instance, are fairly distributed in a country before the oil is taken out, and can make sure that poor nations in Africa have the most advantageous condition for the development of their agriculture in a world market.
Finally, I shall leave you with this article in Common Dreams by Thom Hartmann in which we see that Jefferson like Lincoln understood the need for a national humility. It suggests to me that the current taboo against acknowledging that we don't have every answer is stronger now than it was in the first century of our nation's existence. This article was written in advance of our last presidential election in which Hartmann asks whether we will choose the path of empire or the path of democracy. We made a grievous choice, as I've noted before, but it's not too late for humbler choices to follow. Let us recognize that representative democracy by its nature is both noble and humble.

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