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Who Are We to Judge?
Americans, that's who.


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Jonah Goldberg

Note: My apologies for changing the topic of this column from the one advertised. But I received so many e-mails from people asking, “Who are we to judge?” or “What’s the answer to moral equivalence arguments?” that I couldn’t contain myself. We’ll come back to the end of history another time.

Last year, bending to the pressure from a broad array of animal-rights groups, the British House of Commons voted to ban fox hunting. “A feudal relic from the Dark Ages,” is how one prominent critic summarized the popular view. In America, fox hunting is also under attack. But the controversy is more muted because the sport plays a smaller role in our national culture.

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Broadly speaking, I think it’s fair to say that the people here in America and in Great Britain who oppose fox hunting are also, in all likelihood, the same folks who lament the dissolution of “indigenous cultures” around the world. They believe it is a tragedy that Amazonian, African, and Asian tribal communities are losing their “traditional lifestyles.”

Somehow, the fact that these traditional lifestyles involve the hunting, killing, and ritualized mutilating of all sorts of animals which are not only cuter than foxes, but rarer or more intelligent, doesn’t trouble them. In America, there are those who want to give rights to rats used in cancer and Parkinson’s studies. But take a trip up the Congo, down the Amazon, or along the Yangtze and all of a sudden it’s okay for Third Worlders to eat dogs, kill jaguars, and slaughter monkeys by the barrel.

I bring this up to illustrate the point that here in America all that is traditional, the few “feudal relics from the Dark Ages” we have left, are subjected to constant purges and social cleansing. Customs like fox hunting or men’s clubs are denounced as barbaric, patriarchal, and antediluvian throwbacks, whereas the truly barbaric, patriarchal, and antediluvian traditions of various stagnant indigenous cultures are viewed with reverence, nostalgia, and envy.

I can just imagine the Susan Sontag readers of my native Upper West Side on a cultural safari, “Oh, look how the Shaman shows the monkey pancreas to the bride before he eats it! That’s to show the demons are gone. Isn’t that marvelous honey?” Meanwhile, back in New York, if you mentioned at a cocktail party that you go duck hunting, martini glasses would drop to the floor from the widespread shock that the doorman allowed such a barbarian into the building.

A few examples of the conventional wisdom among liberal elites:

  • VMI’s policy of educating only men to be officers and gentlemen was seen by feminists as horrific.
  • Bob Jones University? Good God! Boys and girls can’t hold hands in public!
  • For the American intelligentsia, zoning against strip clubs or denying a federal grant to self-mutilators and perverted exhibitionists is so much Comstockery.
  • Drawing any distinction between homosexuals and heterosexuals — in employment, marriage, whatever — is broadly considered brazen bigotry.

Indeed, just think back to the apoplexy of the “open-minded” people you’ve encountered in your own life: the college kids who think a moment of nondenominational prayer is theocratic; the humorless feminists who’re convinced that restrictions on late-term abortions turn women into state-owned “breeders”; the Volvo-drivers whose deepest thinking is transcribed on their bumper-stickers; the civil libertarians furious that the privacy rights of convicted pedophiles aren’t sufficiently respected.

Yet, when these folks’ gaze wanders across a line on a map all such convictions disappear in an instant with the abracadabra words — “Who are we to judge?”

Throw the possibility of bloodshed into the equation and even more suddenly America (or democratic Israel) is the only state worthy of being judged harshly. Sophisticated secular Jews who are scandalized by a Christmas tree at city hall are suddenly mute about fatwahs calling for the murder of all Jews everywhere. The bile ducts of hordes of “first wave” feminists run dry when the subject changes to nations where women aren’t allowed to drive. Peaceniks who denounce America’s “war machine” and our planes over Iraq, are untroubled by Iraq’s gassing of Kurds and Saddam’s slaughter of dissidents. Artistes who pound their easels into splinters when their NEA check is late are reluctant to say America should do anything about the philistines who bowdlerized the Bamiyan Buddhas.

The Taliban (which is only marginally more oppressive than some other Middle Eastern regimes) refuses to let women learn how to read and keeps them locked away out of public view. It kills homosexuals. It jails, banishes, or kills dissenters of any kind. Hindus must wear yellow badges.

But, hey, who are we to judge?

As disgusting as I find the moral obtuseness of people who think we are no better — and often worse — than the various backward and repressive nations that hate us, the fact that we are capable of asking the question “Who are we to judge?” is a small and healthy sign that we are better — yes better — than these other places. The very point of being civilized is to adhere to a higher standard. And we adhere to it.

Sure, we have arguments about how many “feudal relics from the Dark Ages,” or from 50 years ago, we want to keep in our society. I’d like a lot more, liberals would like a lot less. But, the fact that we can have these debates and arguments in the first place (and the fact that even if you lose the argument you can still live the way you want to in your own home) makes us better than those places where people are not free.

It’s good that we have a healthy skepticism about the actions of our own government and our intentions as a people. But, never forget, “Who are we to judge?” is not an answer. It is a question. And there is a response to it.

We are the United States of America, a free society and a free nation which has been, and continues to be, along with a few other comrades-in-arms like Great Britain, the greatest force for good in the history of the world — even after you deduct our considerable mistakes and shortcomings. Through our ideas, enterprise, and generosity we have done more, in the words of Francis Bacon (hmm…bacon), to relieve man’s estate than any other nation or people in human history. To refute this is not a sign of sophistication; it is a sign of ignorance.

If you want to ask me whether we are better than France, I will give you an answer (oh boy will I), but there’s an argument to be had there. Comparing free nations with different cultures is infinitely subjective and more than a little sophomoric. But comparing backward and tyrannical nations with free and open ones is a no-brainer. So, if you are going to ask me whether, as a nation or idea, America is better than the Taliban or Syria or Iraq or scores of other places revered by the Sandalistas of the world, my answer will be a simple “Of course we are.” Ask me again when they have an election and stop killing their non-criminal citizens.

Now, when it comes to those people who use “Who are we to judge?” as a way both to cut off debate and belittle the United States of America, I have nothing but contempt. These people simply and simple-mindedly leap to the conclusion that America must be wrong in any and every circumstance. “Who are we to judge?” becomes an uncontrollable, Tourette’s-like outburst caused by an acute cerebral fecal impaction. Intellectual Huns like Susan Sontag and noisome bandersnatches like Michael Moore have so internalized the healthy skepticism implicit to a liberal society that they’ve become reflexive and unthinking in their morally inverted conviction that America must always and everywhere be wrong.

These are the same fools who, until a week ago and probably even now, think the phrase “Taliban wing of the Republican party” is clever, funny and accurate. These are the same liberals who call American conservatives “Nazis” (See “Springtime for Slanderers“) but call Fidel Castro misunderstood. These are the same people who are legitimately torn by George Bush’s question, “Are you with America or with the terrorists?” And for that they should be ashamed.



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