Thursday, November 28, 2002

Andrew Sullivan, in his piece in Salon this week on the violence surrounding the Miss Universe contest in Nigeria, takes an opportunity to, one more time, exploit heart-rending tragedy for disreputable purposes: As a stick with which to beat a petty partisan drum.

Animosity and horrific violence between Muslims and tribal, often Christian, groups in Africa has a long history. Including a devastating recent history that Americans of all political persuasions have mostly ignored. And, intrusions of Western commercial culture into the region have sometimes provided the spark.

Dealing with, and working to avoid, such violence, on a smaller but constant scale, was a routine part of my husband's job as a construction supervisor for a major oil company in Sudan in the early 1980s. Which is why his employers so valued his credentials as a former Green Beret with experience of the bloody conflict in the Congo in the 1960s. The violence in Sudan, of course, got much bloodier still a decade later – but still, we Americans barely noticed. Just as few, outside the "paleo-feminist" movement, as Sullivan deems it, have, over many decades, barely noticed the ongoing and equally morally reprehensible violence that Islam routinely visits on those within its own ranks.

9/11 has certainly heightened our awareness, and made us cast a more critical eye at those who have often been our business partners. But the primary reason this recent event has so thoroughly captured the attention of our media, and therefore our attention, is because the Miss Universe contest is a Western media event.

Sex and violence sells. Wrap it in some shallow and ersatz political moralizing with Old Glory for a backdrop, and it sells even more.

Mr. Sullivan's latest contribution to the Punch and Judy Show of Culture War, practiced by our elites to so little good effect for the unity and welfare of our own country, adds nothing to our understanding of the situation.

Because what happened in Nigeria is not about us.

And it is certainly not about an ever-more-debased and self-serving dispute over which wing of the American political spectrum holds the most correct moral attitudes.

In a world grown smaller and more inter-connected, in which American interests extend to even the most remote and dusty villages -- and American commercial culture is ever more on display in those remote places -- we are neither innocent bystanders, stalwart moral saviors, or malevolent provocateurs. We are simply humans going about our business, following our enthusiasms, indulging our pleasures, for good and ill, in a world that has diminished in size, but not in complexity.

This, in a parallel to a phrase of Mr. Sullivan's, is what cultural egotism, decadent culture-war journalism, and ever-more self-congratulatory conservative polemics, like Sullivan's, amounts to: a failure to grasp that freedom is a rare commodity.

And that unless leavened with liberal tolerance, as well as integrity, responsibility and humility, it is no salvation against hatred and violence. In fact, it can be quite the opposite.

It is not their “ hatred of our freedoms” that led to the violence in Nigeria. It is their hatred and intolerance of each other: Their moral arrogance, lack of humility, and the violent insistence of some that their freedom depends on controlling, and extinguishing the freedom of, others.

In other words, their inability and unwillingness to view morality in any terms other than the most partisan.

One of the keys to our free society is freedom of the press -- even to be disrespectful, annoying, blasphemous – even to sow division, encourage rancor, heat up resentment and focus moral hatred. What just happened in Nigeria, has happened here. Bombings and arsons, threats against the families of political officials, the death of a doctor or young receptionist here, the death and injury of bystanders at a public event there, the death and injury of only a few hundred bureaucrats, children and citizens somewhere else. These were immoral acts undertaken, and yes, to some degree incited, in the name of a partisanly defined morality. Hatred of the freedom of others exists even in the land of the free.

To say, as some conservatives do, that they cannot be equated with what others do elsewhere is morally reprehensible. To, over and over again, dismiss such events as solely the result of a lone and alien evil, and dismiss their context, is morally dishonest. The innocent dead are dead, and they must be accountably acknowledged, and the context of their deaths honestly expatiated, if we are to, anywhere, speak with any moral authority at all.

It isn’t envy, as Mr. Sullivan says, that genuinely challenges Americans as we become more and more entangled in this complex world -- where conflicting values, traditions and ancient hatreds still reign. A world that is, in fact, and nonetheless, becoming more and more free.

It is finding the answer to this perplexing question that freedom always poses: How to be both moral AND morally tolerant.

And further, how to relate to the many whose moral values so offend our own, without making war with more than half the world -- or, succumbing ourselves to the morally reprehensible.

If we hope to find the answer to those questions in relationship to the rest of the world, we may have to find it first right here at home.

And, inevitably, we will find it in the context of those liberal values -- freedom balance by tolerance and respect, the desires and passions of the self balanced by obligation and accountability to community -- that Mr. Sullivan, and so many contemporary others, so disdain.


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