Defending the virtues of liberty, free markets, and civilization... plus some commentary on the passing scene.

Freedom's Fidelity

Friday, August 19, 2005

Words of Wisdom

From Bruce Thornton:

No one should trivialize Ms. Sheehan's grief, nor fail to understand why she is angry and wants to hold someone accountable. The worst thing a parent can experience is to lose a child, and those of us blessed enough not to have had that experience cannot judge the reaction of those who have. Yet the media's eagerness to publicize and exploit a grieving mother's anger and sorrow can be criticized, for it points to a larger pathology in our culture - the privileging of the suffering victim as someone who possesses superior insight and so must be heeded and catered to.

This elevation of the victim into a combination sage and secular martyr reflects conditions peculiar to the modern world. Most important is the simple fact that compared to the vast majority of humans who've ever lived, we in the West today have been freed from the everyday suffering and misery that earlier generations accepted as part of human existence. For them, as the Greek playwright Euripides put it, "Suffering is necessity for mortals." Daily physical pain, early death, famine, malnutrition, chronic disease, violence from fellow humans and nature - all were simply non-negotiable realities of life that had to be endured. Suffering didn't make you special; it just made you human, like everybody else.

We moderns, of course, have eliminated many of those evils, while magnifying and dramatizing what suffering remains. And this success has created a monumental change in how we view life and its possibilities: rather than accepting that suffering is a necessity, we view it as an anomaly, a glitch in the system that should be corrected and that, given how litigious we are, someone is responsible for. The result is our outrageous expectations about human life and its risks and costs. We still want to achieve our various noble aims and good intentions - peace, freedom, security, and prosperity for all - but only if we can do so without making anybody suffer or even feel bad, including our enemies. We want utopia, a world in which everyone is well fed, secure, and happy, but we want it on the cheap.

This is exactly the dangerous forgetfulness that is the thesis of Lee Harris's brilliant book, Civilization and Its Enemies. In the Western world our standard of living is well out of the norm for human history. We, our lifestyle, is literally an aberration, a sentence or two in the long book of human history. The vast majority of human beings lived under uncivilized, harsh conditions, where your life depended on whether or not it would rain enough to grow your crops and you worried that your children may be slaughtered or sold into slavery by a victorious foe.

We, in the West are so far beyond those worries that it is hard to believe they were at one time real. Our free market capitalism, freely expressive societies, and tolerance for those not like ourselves are what has afforded us this unique civilization in which we all live and contribute. But, BUT, it can still be lost, because even with all of our wealth and sophistication, there are billions of people that still live under those brutal conditions that really are the hallmark of human existence. It's one thing to say that people shouldn't have to live with such injustices, that is hardly a bold statement. It's like being against racism, or landmines.

So yes, a brutal dictator who has murdered hundreds of thousands and is eager to achieve weapons to kill millions more should be eliminated, the suffering that he inflicts and that ruins our dinner stopped - but once the butcher's bill arrives, we change our minds. The same people who castigate us for allowing the slaughter in Rwanda and Sudan and a dozen other venues now chide us for insuring that such brutality stops in Iraq. They chafe at the unforeseen consequences, mistakes, and inadvertent death that always and everywhere has accompanied the use of force. How many tens of thousands died unnecessarily in World War II, the "good war," because of such contingencies? The tragic truth of action is that we have to accept those risks and accept that to achieve a future good we often have to risk a present evil. The only alternative is never to use force, and pacifism is a juvenile ideal refuted on every page of history.

So yes, the bill comes due and no one wants to pay, they just want injustices to disappear at the stroke of a pen, or magic. The UN can pass resolutions all they want, op-ed writers can demand an end to injustice from here to eternity. You can present a Saddam Hussein type with a piece of paper condemning his mass murder, and he will likely respond by putting a bullet in your head... if you are lucky.

When faced with a demon like Hussein you have two choices, remove him or do nothing. This is where the devil defeats the prospect of a free moral lunch -taking down Saddam Hussein kills, but leaving him in place kills too. Doing nothing, perhaps, helps remove the stain of guilt from the outsider. After all it is Saddam killing and not you, right? Fine, but please don't repeat the lie of 'never again' after the next tragically inevitable genocide comes to pass.


                                                                                                                                                                             Meter Weblog Commenting and Trackback by This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?