Sunday, November 16, 2008

O Caption! My Caption! Our Fearful Trip Is Done

(My caption, to Marleen Bariteau's photo.)

Another trope that turned up a lot during the 2008 Presidential campaign was the line that while the United States undoubtedly has many faults, its virtues outweigh its defects. (A variation was also applied to the Heir-Apparent himself: okay, Obama's not perfect, but we have to get Bush out of the White House! It could just as easily be reversed: Sure, McCain's not perfect, but we can't let a Muslim terrorist Socialist community organizer take over the country! Or: Sure, Bush isn't perfect, but we can't let the terrorists win!)

As an empty argument, it's hard to beat. I stumbled on it again this morning while looking through old posts for some link, and it occurred to me first to wonder if anyone has ever actually totted up America's defects and virtues, and how one would weigh them. Of course not. Even if it were possible, the people who use this argument don't care -- this is America we're talking about, people! Land where my fathers died, home of the Pilgrims' pride, from sea to shining sea. And then I realized what a monumentally dishonest and irrelevant evasion it is.

Leave aside the question of whether America's virtues actually do outweigh its defects. Suppose for the sake of argument that the US has only one defect -- killing two million Iraqis, let's say, to keep it current -- against all its many virtues. Does that excuse the killing of two million people? Does that mean that the killing can go on until the virtuous US decides it feels like stopping? Would anyone take such an argument seriously if it were deployed in defense of another country, especially one that was on the current American shitlist -- Cuba, or Venezuela, or Russia, or Iran? Would it have worked as an argument against the invasion of Iraq itself? (I know Saddam isn't perfect, but Iraq's virtues outweigh its defects.)

Would such a defense work in a court of law? Imagine a child rapist, or a serial killer, arguing in court that his virtues (devoted husband, loving father, minister of the Gospel, pillar of his community) outweigh his defects (a few violated brats, a few bodies buried in quicklime). So he's not perfect -- let's not allow a few hate-filled extremists to put this decent man in prison. Or imagine your doctor refusing to treat your diabetes or angina because your body's virtues outweigh its defects.

The Virtue/Defects line is an evasion by people who don't really know much, but they know what they like. It seems to be most popular among liberals, those who are used to being attacked as anti-American by their relatives and co-workers for their feeble and lukewarm criticisms of Republican presidents. They're vaguely aware that their position could also be attacked from the left, and they are anxious to differentiate themselves from what they'll happily agree are real America-haters. They're mostly ignorant of politics and current events, so they're vague at best about the differences between the Democrats and the Republicans, but, like their Republican counterparts, they're sure those differences are very great, with no middle ground, no shared positions at all. What they have is slogans and bumper stickers: Anyone but Bush. We've got to get Bush out of the White House. Hope. Change we can believe in. Yes we can. We've got to do something. It's too soon to criticize President Obama, of course he's not perfect but give him time and wait and see what he does.

This is not just about Obama, of course. During the Vietnam Era I argued with people who agreed that the United States was not perfect, but couldn't or wouldn't name anything wrong it had ever done. If we really want to bring about change, we're going to have set these evasions aside. That the US has virtues as well as defects can be assumed; whether those virtues outweigh the defects is irrelevant. The defects are going to have to be addressed and if possible corrected, without giving way to these increasingly dangerous distractions.