We are better than them. When all the other arguments for why we can’t fight back have been exhausted this is the one that remains in the background presenting our moral exceptionalism as the reason we shouldn’t fight to protect ourselves.
“Fight back? But then we’d be no better than them?” If we waterboard then we are no better than the headchoppers and mutilators. If we profile then we are no better than the genocidal jihadists. If we treat our friendly Pakistani and Saudi visitors the way they would have been treated a century ago– then we would be guilty of being un-American.
But is that really the difference between us, that we treat everyone equally even when they are cutting our throats, and the moment we deviate from the standards of the Trial Lawyers Association then we’re no better than the Taliban or Al-Qaeda? Does our exceptionalism derive from our laws, in which case if we compromise our laws then we give up the only worthwhile thing about us and there is nothing more to fight for– or are our laws the means by which we protect our individual and national exceptionalism?
We are better than they are, is the argument put forward so often by those who do not truly believe that we are, and even when they do they don’t understand why we are. The Bill of Rights did not spring full-grown out of a barbaric culture, nor did any of the same judicial rulings and quotes so often used by advocates of the 10 percent defense plan.
We are not better than they are because we guarantee civil rights to our enemies– we are better than they are because of Michelangelo, the microchip and universal education. We are better than they are because of Shakespeare, the space shuttle and the World Trade Center. We are better for all the reasons around us, the accomplishments, the achievements, the knowledge we have gained and the society we have built.
Our laws were crafted to protect these achievements, the exceptionalism of the individual from the government, and that of the nation from internal and external enemies. The laws have no individual life apart from the culture of the nation that created them and maintains them. It would be possible to transpose the United States Constitution to Indonesia, Libya or Pakistan and it wouldn’t last a single day there. No mere document can safeguard rights and freedoms that a culture does not value, and no culture that does not value them is deserving of their protection if such protection has the cumulative effect of destroying those same rights and freedoms.
Freedom isn’t just defended on the battlefield, by the time things get that bad then the damage will be hard to contain. We defend it every day by defending the culture that makes it possible. Against external enemies there is the war of armed conflict, economic competition and geographic positioning. Against the internal enemy there is the culture war, the war of ideas and institutions.
Who we are is seen in the connections that define our culture and those connections tell us who we are. Rewire the human brain so that its connections are no longer streamlined and identity breaks down into fragments of things that no longer make sense. The same is true of a culture, lose the connections and you end up celebrating holidays you don’t understand and fighting for things that feel intuitively right, but no longer seem to fit into the new order of things. It is the task of the culture warriors to rebuild those connections so that the culture understands itself.
Connections don’t just store information, they define priorities by reminding us which thing is dependent on the other. They remind us that governments sre instituted to keep laws and laws are implemented to keep the people. Governments serve the law, but the law serves the people.
And the people are not some random mass, they are not defined by passports and identity cards or place of birth– the people are the keepers of the flame of their culture. This need not be a matter of birth, immigrants can be among the greatest heroes and natives among the greatest traitors. But no one who is committed to the destruction of the culture, in concrete or abstract terms, in the immediate present or the indefinite future, can enjoy the protection of legal codes that exist to protect the freedom of the individual within the integrity of a free culture.
The more sophisticated a culture becomes the less it is concerned with survival. Bubbles grow in its centers of government and learning within which philosophies and ideas seem more real than reality. Opposing philosophies struggle to lobotomize the culture with revisionist histories and social philosophies that place their own ideal at the center of all human striving. But ideas are sterile without a culture to carry them forward. Kill the culture and the ideas become orphans that me adopted in an altered form by some other culture– if they are lucky.
Tolerance and civil rights are worthless unless the countries and cultures where they are expressed are also defended. Any form of tolerance which leads to its own destruction is not only poisonous to a host culture, but is also literally self-destructive. All healthy entities whether biological, organizational or intellectual contain the means for their own continuance and self-perpetuation. Any entity which does not is poisonous and must be treated as such, and to defend any idea or code above the survival of the culture that carries it is a homicidal act.
When conflict comes, two questions are asked. Is the threat real and is our culture worth fighting for. The latter question is most often asked by elites against whose bubble ideals no real culture can ever measure up to, and by outsiders who have the least invested in the survival of the culture.
“If we do this how are we any better than they are?” is the question of the bubble elite whose abstract ideals exist apart from flesh and blood people, who do not measure their ideals by the culture, but measure the culture by their ideals, and always find it wanting, who think that the culture with its millions of people and centuries of history exist to shepherd their ideals and die for them– and ought to be grateful for the privilege of dying so that no Muslim is ever profiled at an airport.
The bubble elites distrust nationalism and patriotism because they center not around ideas, but the people’s sense of solidarity. The only exceptionalism that they will accept is the exceptionalism of ideals, and if the nation does not represent its ideals then it does not deserve to live.
In the face of such reasoning it is important to remember that we are not better than our enemies because we represent ideals, but because we create ideals along with skyscrapers, paintings, high powered microscopes, novels, better mousetraps, systems of philosophy, muscle cars, musical styles, theorems, charities and sandwiches. We are makers and shapers, movers and thinkers, seers and doers. We reach for the stars and find ways to keep premature babies alive. We are imperfect, dynamic and changing– and the world would be a much poorer place without us in it.
Whatever we do to protect ourselves against outside enemies in thrall to a hostile ideology, regardless of where they were born is fully justified by our accomplishments, our past, our present and our future– and even if all these things were not present by our right to individual, national and cultural survival.
It is not by becoming pacifists that we will be better than them, but by fighting for what we have and who we are. And if we do not stand up for our countries, our peoples and our cultures then we will not inherit the moral high ground, but the low killing pits of the victims of the thousand year spree of terror. There is no moral high ground to be gained in refusing to struggle to your utmost for the things that you hold dear, only through the struggle to protect our individual and national exceptionalism, can we gain the high ground and justify the assertion that we are better than them.
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