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October 16, 2007

Is America Inherently Good?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Last week, Michael Cohen, in response to a post of mine, disagreed with my statement that “the understanding that while we may be good in some abstract sense, we are not, and cannot be, inherently the major point of distinction between liberal interventionists and neo-conservatives,” and rightly countered that while he did believe in America’s inherent goodness, that didn’t make him a neo-con or more willing to invade other countries. He went on to say that our inherent goodness “comes from the basic values that I believe underpin this nation, from not only our founding documents and in particular the Bill of Rights, but from the ongoing efforts to ensure the spread of freedom and opportunity to all our citizens.” However, if goodness, as Michael suggests, “comes from” something else (i.e. our constitution), then it cannot, by definition, be inherent.


Inherent means “existing in someone or something as a permanent and inseparable element, quality, or attribute.” The question, then, is whether “goodness” is a permanent and inseparable American attribute? If the answer is yes, then, as Eric Martin of American Footprints commented, “America could scrap the Bill of Rights - indeed the entire Constitution - revert back to slavery and adopt a brutish fascistic militarism but still be good by dint of some inherent quality that is intrinsic and immutable.” So, yes, to again echo Eric, our goodness is not inherent, but rather contingent on our founding documents, and, moreover, on acting in accordance with the values espoused in those documents.

In any case, what I really want is to use this exchange as a point of departure into other, perhaps more troubled territory. Michael said something which I found intriguing, not because I disagree with it (because for the most part I don’t), but because it seemed so far removed from the reality as so many other people see it: “No nation is perfect and America has its flaws. Of course we have acted badly, it would be disingenuous to deny that and it pains me to no end that we have acted badly in Iraq and Guantanamo. However, I don't for a second believe that Abu Ghraib, as just one example, reflects what America is really about and I hope you don't either.”


Yes, Abu Ghraib does not reflect what we think America is really about. But, it does reflect what hundreds of millions of other people think America is really about, and, presumably, this matters. Whose viewpoint takes precedent, ours or theirs? The unfortunate fact is that there is no good reason for the average Arab or Muslim to think that we are “inherently good” or, for that matter, even just “good.” All they have to go on is our actions, and those actions certainly speak louder than our words, increasingly hollow as they've become. Much of the misery they encounter on a daily basis is at least partly attributable to our policies. After all, the dictatorial regimes that oppress, torture, and even kill them are often supported or funded by us (Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco. And that’s not even including the rest of the Muslim world, i.e. the Kissinger-supported bloodbath that was Suharto’s Indonesia). Why should Iranians ever forget what happened in 1953? That by itself is enough. The U.S. sponsored, funded, and organized the coup which ended Iranian democracy as we know it, and fifty years since, they are paying the price, with their blood and tears, for our misdeeds. And why should Algerians ever forget 1991? Why should any Iraqi believe that Abu Ghraib does not reflect who we are? There is nothing for us to say now.


Having lived in the Middle East after 9/11, it would be fair to say that Arabs' dislike of us has turned into something approaching outright hatred (a phenomenon which includes much of my extended family). We assume the best of our intentions. But they assume the worst. The difficult question for us to ask is how this gap between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us came about, harder still to inquire into the reasons. If we believe ourselves inherently good, these are questions which are dangerous to ask. However, if we believe ourselves to be exceptional, not despite our misdeeds but precisely because we are willing to face them head-on, then these questions must be asked, and urgently.


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The gap came about quite simply. You say that we assume the U.S. acts with the best of intentions. That assumption is often wrong. Or irrelevant. Consider the coup we backed in Chile that ended with the murder of Salvador Allende and the start of the Pinochet dictatorship (which we subsequently supported). Maybe we had the best of motives with regards to Soviet influence and the Cold War. But if those motives lead us to murder a democratically elected leader in order to install and support a dictator, what do those motives matter?

The gap between perceptions exists because we've done terrible things -- not because of the occasional Abu Ghraib. We're being judged on a century of foreign policy.

If what we want is an answer to the question of our worth, the worst people to ask would be ourselves and the nation or nations we are currently in conflict with. Worthwhile evaluation requires objectivity, which requires distance. After all, it's not really surprising that there's a gap between how a country that invades feels about itself and how the country invaded feels about the invaders, is it?

In times of war it is easy to assume the worst of your enemy and the best of your homeland. In the short run, the relevant question isn't whether the Iraqi's view of the US or our view of ourselves is more accurate--both are subjective and in conflict--the question is which view our actions will bear out.

In the long run we might be able to come to a more defensible conclusion, but whatever answer we arrive at might be different when viewed over 200 years then over ten years.

The notion of inherent goodness is out of bounds for a Calvinist right from the start. Moreover I'm not sure that its literal meaning is really what Michael Cohen intends to convey, and wish he would consider revising his language on this point.

As for Shadi Hamid, I hope he realizes that his coin of perpetual Arab grievance has two sides. I'm not convinced that he does, for the trademark of that grievance is the ascription of blame for every ill befalling the Arabs to someone else. Always the Arabs are victims; never are they responsible for their own actions. All Muslims everywhere must share Arab grievances; other Muslims' grievances are Arabs' concern when it is convenient -- as for example here, when they are needed to pad a list of complaints against America. (Note to DA's file: the mangling of the Indonesian history timeline, its relationship to Henry Kissinger, and the identity of its violent spasms' principle victims is telltale padding)

Of course the generalization above, applied to Arabs as a whole, is grossly unfair. People, and even governments, of many Arab countries have long sought simply to make a way forward for themselves in the world, aware that they are not its central preoccupation and prepared to accommodate the demand that they share Arab political grievances only because one consequence of failing to do so is a greatly increased risk of assassination by other Arabs.

Regrettably theirs is not the dominant strain of political thought among the Arabs we hear in the United States. Shadi Hamid is a better representative of that, and I regret he has not been in this country long enough to put some distance between himself and the Arab ideology of reflexive grievance -- or to grasp how unlikely it is that Americans will ever judge their own country by the number of Arab failings we get blamed for.

So, yes, to again echo Eric, our goodness is not inherent, but rather contingent on our founding documents, and, moreover, on acting in accordance with the values espoused in those documents.

This is idolotry, and confuses established political and civil rights with moral rightness and universal justice. The Constitution is the charter of a form of government, not a compendium of universal morality. That form of government is indeed a rather good form of government, in many ways. But acting in conformity with the Constitution is no guarantee at all of acting justly, wisely and well; and it would be entirely possible for the US and its citizens to act in conformity with their Constitution 100% of the time and still be rather bad actors in the world.

The Constitution outlines a form of republican government, and gives us all the civil freedom to engage in a wide range of behaviors: moral behaviors, immoral behaviors or amoral behaviors. It allows me to practice and advocate almost any religion I want, even pernicious ones. It places no real obstacles in the path of exploitation and greed. It does not outlaw selfishness and concupiscence. It does not even forbid the United States government from making aggressive war; it only lays down procedural requirements that must be fulfilled in order to wage that war legally. It does not really prohibit Americans from going abroad and using violence and coercion to expropriate the property of others; from conspiring to extort their labor; from indenturing them to crushing debt; from corrupting their children and whoring their women; from profaning their religions or imposing our own mores on other peoples and societies. In short their are few constitutional prohibitions on the domestic expression of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride, and even fewer on the expression of those human weaknesses abroad.

Forget about whether America is inherently good or bad. Whether the United States is a country that is even on the whole good or on the whole bad depends on its moral culture, on the virtues and moral habits that have been internalized by its people. Just having and following a good constitution doesn't make one a good person or make a country a good country.

Zathras' comment seems like a classic example of misdirection. Rather than explore the delusional aspects of our own thinking (and by "our own" I mean the thinking of Americans, such as Cohen's bizarre claim that the U.S. is "inherently good") Zathras directs us to examine the delusional thinking of (some) Arabs.

No thanks. I'll focus my interest on the community I belong to, and the one I might have some influence over.

Zathras, for the record, I was born and raised in the U.S., and, as far as I can tell, I only have one passport. I'm not sure why you would feel compelled to suggest otherwise and to say that I haven't been in America "long enough" when clearly I have.

I thought this was a good post, and especially since it countered what I considered a really annoying point made by Mr. Cohen.
However, I have to agree with Dan that some of what you said about the Constitution is a little overboard. The Constitution, while being a very good document, is only a document, and it's how we use that document that makes the difference. Slavery, our treatment of Native Americans, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, and all of the other problems we all know about from our history were depicted at the time as being in line with the Constitution. But it is a document, and we are the ones acting. We have re-interpreted it (the living Constitution) and we have amended it 27 times, and it's important to not over-idolize that document when considering the history or moral fiber of this country.
Just look at Bowers v. Hardwick, and Lawrence v. Johnson if you want a view on how malleable our Constitution really is; but also how our country can progress in that malleability.

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