Some of you probably know the story, but too many people don’t. So I will repeat it here. General Charles Napier was the British commander-in-chief of colonial India. His most notable military accomplishment was conquering the province of Sindh — now in modern Pakistan — despite not having been instructed to do so. After securing victory, he reportedly sent a one-word message back to the Home Office: “Peccavi.” In Latin, “Peccavi” means “I have sinned.”
But that’s not the story I have in mind. On one occasion a delegation of Hindu priests came to Napier to repeat their objection to the British prohibition of sati, the practice of widows’ throwing themselves onto their husbands’ funeral pyres, sometimes under compulsion. You Brits, they explained, do not appreciate what a venerable custom this is in India.
Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.
Yes, yes, let us all note that imperialism is an ugly thing. But this is still a glorious example of might and right working in tandem. Too often we are taught, in a kind of implied fallacy, that because “might doesn’t make right,” might must always be wrong. There is nothing wrong with power, per se, only with the abuse of it. Speaking truth to power is a fine thing, but sometimes the truth one should speak is “Stay the course.”
The Napier anecdote has been rattling around in my brain for weeks, ever since the New York Times reported that American soldiers have been ordered to ignore rampant child rape by Afghan militias, even on U.S. military bases. Special Forces captain Dan Quinn beat the tar out of an Afghan commander who’d kept a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave. As a result, Quinn has been drummed out of the military.
Of course, the Pashtun fondness for buggering young boys is well known. Kandahar’s reputation as the pederasty capital of South Asia — worst tourist slogan ever! — goes back centuries. The practice, called bacha bazi, is a kind of Veblenesque “conspicuous consumption.” Rich and powerful men — chiefly warlords — take on sex slaves as a status symbol. The unpopularity of the practice helped fuel the rise of the Taliban, which banned it. Local village elders complained to Quinn and others about how predatory the militias had become. So beating the child rapist can be understood as an improvisational effort to win the hearts and minds of the locals. But even if not, it was the right thing to do.
I’m no wild-eyed idealist. If we absolutely need to ally ourselves with scummy, backward people in furtherance of a broader strategic imperative, so be it. But you know what? Tolerance is a two-way street. Our troops are taught to adhere to many local customs around the world as a sign of respect. Take off your shoes when you enter their homes. Eat from the communal bowl with your right hand only. Etc.
Well, in return, our allies should be expected to meet the minimum requirements of our culture. And way up high on the list of good manners in the West — much higher, in fact, than the proper use of salad forks or covering your mouth when you cough — is: Do Not Rape Young Boys When You Are a Guest of the Americans. An important follow-up in the etiquette manual would state: “If you wish to follow your own customs in this matter, take note: It is an American custom to beat the stuffing out of men who chain up and rape young boys.”
Such civilizational confidence is being taught out of our children today. It is an outrage to even suggest that there might be something to celebrate about Western civilization, beyond, of course, its capacity to immolate itself in the name of “self-criticism.”
Nietzsche was right when he said that “every nation has its own Tartuffery, and calls that its virtue.” And Obama was right when he suggested that every country thinks it’s exceptional in its own way. And every parent is right to think that his kid is special. One can acknowledge all of these things without making the nihilist’s leap into the belief that there are no meaningful moral distinctions. All kids are special to someone, but everyone can agree who the piano prodigy is — and isn’t. Every country is exceptional, but not in equal measure. As the late William Henry III put it in his book In Defense of Elitism: “It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose.” Every culture has its pieties and therefore its Tartuffian hypocrisies, but not all pieties are equal.
The irony is that it is the Left that teaches that all cultures are equally good, while failing to recognize the logical consequences of this idea. If all cultures are equal, then there is no outside standard by which to condemn some and praise others. If that’s the case, then there is no moral argument against, say, the once proud British custom of conquering other countries and civilizing them.