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The Squandering of Moral Greatness

March 26, 2009

THE CONCEPT OF “NATION” defined in Ernest Renan’s terms:

Renan’s definition of a nation has been influential. This was given in his 1882 discourse Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (“What is a Nation?”). Whereas German writers like Fichte had defined the nation by objective criteria such as a race or an ethnic group “sharing common characteristics” (language, etc.), Renan defined it by the desire of a people to live together, which he summed up in a famous phrase, “avoir fait de grandes choses ensemble, vouloir en faire encore” (having done great things together and wishing to do more).

Philosoraptor Winston Smith notes that patriotic conservatives seem to subscribe to this sentimental notion of having done great things together and wishing to do more. A sentiment which stems, it seems, from our deeds in The Good War:

…many (though not all) conservatives have a reverence for America that is largely based on a view about its moral goodness. These views are largely shaped by WWII and our national conduct therein. However, many conservatives are dismissive–even contemptuous–of the actual principles that made our conduct admirable, e.g. the humane treatment of prisoners.

Smith attributes this syndrome mainly to a particular subset of conservatives: “Bush/Cheney conservatives.” Here I thought the Bush/Cheney hangers’-on love of country was shaped more by a divine endowment of infallible moral clarity. Or unquestioning faith in the wisdom of our rulers loving protectors. Or Capitalism. Or some shit. But that’s not really here nor there. The claim of “moral greatness,” regardless of it’s basis, is enough to go on for argument’s sake.

Smith also says:

In my view, America’s moral capital is/was among our most valuable assets. It is this moral capital that Bush, Cheney and their minions have squandered.

And though I’m starting to wonder who is putting more stock in the moral capital we built in that war(!) long ago when it was acceptable that civilian casualties were a feature not a bug in military strategy, Smith brings it on home summarizing the paradox:

Thing is, you can’t get all misty about American one minute, waving the flag and waxing poetic about our moral greatness, and in the next minute emit a spittle-flecked tirade about how we ought to f*ck up them terrorists at Gitmo and teach ’em not to mess with us.

Any claim to moral greatness based upon our actions in WW2 while overlooking the incineration huge swaths of cities with firebombs, let alone the obliteration of cities with atom bombs, is highly dubious to my mind. Furthermore, whatever ‘moral goodness’ we could claim with respect to war prisoner treatment in WW2 went out the door in the ’60s when we started developing the torture techniques we see in use today, which were put into use in South and Central America and Vietnam well before Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. Admittedly the Other Bush, Cheney and many of their minions do seem to have been involved in much of this development and implementation, however to find fault specifically with Bush conservatives, when the policy of using torture as an instrument of state power has spanned many administrations of both parties, is either to cravenly play partisan politics, (X proclaims the morality of his or her politics, and the immorality of all who oppose it,) or to pine for (whether naively or willfully) the days when our ‘moral goodness’ was based not on exemplary behavior, but rather on the-world-not-knowing-about-the-torture-chambers.

Whether our national imperative is Truth or Simulacrum, having done great things together (of the sort discussed above,) and wishing to do more, amounts to either disaster or terror. Either way evil. Either way poor grounds for a claim to moral greatness.

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