Monday, November 24, 2008

Why people do bad things, according to liberals

So I just came out of my weekly HON 401 class - Global Issues. I came in late, but today we were talking about torture. Near the end of the class we were given a mini-assignment. The question arose about whether President-elect Obama should continue working with Pakistan as an ally in light of reports of widespread physical abuse of Pakistani women. ( An article we read from the NYT time today by Nicholas Kristof. Here is a salient excerpt:
One new cabinet member, Israr Ullah Zehri, defended the torture-murder of five women and girls who were buried alive (three girls wanted to choose their own husbands, and two women tried to protect them). "These are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them," Zehri said of the practice of burying independent-minded girls alive.

For the life of me, I couldn't believe that there was any question about what Barack Obama should do about this. Our professor asked us what we would say to Obama if we were his advisors. I was astonished that there was even any question about what Obama should do. This is the man who walks on water, can part the Red Sea, heal people with the gentle touch of his messianic hand. So the answer is pretty obvious - he should just sit down and talk with the Pakistani leaders and tell them it's time for change. How could anybody resist The One anyway? It's futile. Sorry guys, it doesn't matter what you've done for centuries. Obama says you must change, and you will. So there.

But, we pretended for a moment that Barack Obama were only a mortal and not the demi-god that he is and proceeded with the discussion. The consensus in the classroom seemed to be that, although such acts are deplorable, the US will act in its own interest, and if that means working with Pakistan to fight Al-Qaeda, so be it. To me, it's a matter of which of the possible outcomes is the least bad. In my mind, the circumstances for all Pakistanis, not just women, but their husbands, their brothers, their children and everyone else will be all the worse if Pakistan were overrun by al-Qaeda and its thugs. So it's a question of some women suffering abuse versus an entire country suffering because the US wanted to 'make a point' about human rights.

Someone picked up this quote in the Kristof piece:
"Some worry that militants, nurtured by illiteracy and a failed education system, will overrun the country or that the nation will break apart."

The conversation then devolved into one about the causes of militancy, lawlessness and anti-Americanism. Most of the class agreed with the notion that would-be terrorists are compelled to violence and lawlessness not because of any kind of authentic hatred or animus but because it allows them to brutishly vent their frustrations about not having food, clean water, shelter, etc. Or, in the case of illiteracy and ignorance, the argument is that these people are not learned enough or wise enough to know right from wrong. I admit there is likely some truth to the notion that people's privations make them more desperate and therefore more disposed to doing whatever it takes to secure the necessities of life. But to give such primacy to people's material wants as the central impetus of human action is both false and dangerous. Just as when Obama made his infamous 'bitter' remarks to explain why people in small town America cling to guns, God and antipathy to outsiders, this tired liberal bromide presupposes that when people act badly, it's no fault of their own but is instead the fault of society, or institutions, or of external conditions or bad governance. In essence, poor people, uneducated people, rural people - in other words, barbarians in the world of the liberal - are exculpated for their sins because they were merely acting out in response to their destitution and ignorance.

The appeal of this model of social causation to libs is pretty evident, and it goes back to what Thomas Sowell's thesis about the two competing visions - the constrained and unconstrained. Liberals ultimately subscribed the latter and see human nature not as timeless and unchanging, but they see humans as ultimately perfectible, if only the wisest and most virtuous among us would show the rest of us benighted yokles the way. When it is thought that human failings are the product of bad institutions, bad governments, dysfunctional societies or poor living conditions, it follows that those human failings can be remedied simply by having the right people dream up a better scheme.

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