Morals, Ethics and Empire

The sad truth is to do good for humanity is one of the best ways to do evil.

Régis Debray

Once upon a time, there was a country founded on the principles of liberty, equality and justice for all. That same country was deemed a stronghold of democracy not only by its own citizens but by peoples around the world: a country where “the history of liberty” as Woodrow Wilson once said, was “a history of the limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it”; a country that protected not only its own freedom but the freedom of sovereign nations around the globe; a country that proudly waved its flag and led the world by example; a country that was the hope of the world. Behold a wonder!

That country was our nation, and the preceding paragraph is–alas!– only a beautiful dream. Originally expressed by our founding fathers, this dream had invited into its phantasmagoric world mostly whites with either some sort of property or at least some perspective of ownership. As Federick Douglass, 19th century escaped slave and human rights leader eloquently said in 1852, “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.”

Later on, the extended version of this dream was proclaimed by Martin Luther King Jr., who invited the government to share it with previously excluded blacks, poor and the rest of oppressed and marginalized. “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy,” he said. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

No matter how beautiful this dream , it eventually transmogrified into a dismal antithesis, the Paradise of Fools, to few unknown. It is now time for hopeful but deluded souls to realize that Americans have been daydreaming about having a real democracy in the homeland and–even more so — about our country’s ability to spread democracy around the globe. For example, even as America flaunted its democratic credentials during the Cold War, our country mirrored the actions of its ideological enemy, the USSR, or the “evil Empire,” as it was called by our ideologues. In his book, “A Normal Totalitarian Society: How the Soviet Union Functioned and How It Collapsed,” Vladimor Shlapentokh emphasizes that “during the cold war, the Soviet Union and the United States vied for geopolitical dominance using almost identical strategies: to expand influence whenever possible, oust or murder undersirable leaders, invade foreign countries, recruit spies from the opposing political and cultural establishments, collect information, and fund hostile propaganda.” Our supposedly democratic country, however, managed to conceal that its political wantonness and pride raise out of friendship hostile deeds in peace and led to either covert or widely known wars abroad, with thousands and thousands innocents lives sacrificed on the altar of U.S. interests.

While it took Odysseus only a year to wake up from Circe’s spell, save his enswined companions, and finally sail toward his home, we were–including a whole world–under this dream’s spell for a few decades at least. This unflattering analogy, nonetheless, suits us well. After all, for a long while our government’s actions abroad were concealed under the thick veil of this dream. Ballads and songs should be made how have [we] troubled all mankind with shows instead, mere shows of seeming pure. Neither we, nor the global community could clearly see that under the pretence of building democracy and protecting freedom of peoples abroad, “our government is guilty of supporting acts of murder and destruction upon the citizens of sovereign states.” Furthermore, as Harold Pinter pinned it down in his Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech, “The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”

A list of these crimes has long been available for those who could see, read and hear. For many years a few perspicacious authors such as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky exposed the illusion of the dream–or hypnosis, according to Pinter– in their writings, but the majority of us were like those three monkeys, who hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil. Let us not slip the occasion at least now to admit that our freedoms and rights have degenerated mostly into the freedom to consume and to the right to consent to our government’s fairy tales. Let us recognize that the resemblance of the highest dream–where faith and reality remain not–is not the dream itself, and that we rather lived under the influence of the illusion that the dream came true. To use John Milton’s words, it may be said, Princes, Potentates, Warriors, the flower of Heaven, once yours, now lost. It’s time to look around with sober eyes.

In the film, “The Adams Family Values” , one of its ghoulish personages admits: “So I maim people, so I kill.” The analogy is clear. So our political decision-makers snoop, so they kill. To mention just a few recent facts, the surveillance over U.S. citizens followed the snooping provisos of the Patriot Act. Nevertheless, this egregious encroachment on civil rights did not squeeze even one embarrassed bleat out of its mastermind, who should better hold his place by wisdom. As Bush told at the White House news conference, “The program’s legal, it’s designed to protect civil liberties, and it’s necessary.” He added, “there’s no doubt in my mind it is legal.” The emphasis is on his mind, of course. Well, “the advantage of an Empire is that it is able to prosper with an idiot at its head,” as Régis Debray so sarcastically said in his book, “Empire 2.0: A Modest Proposal for a United States of the West by Xavier de C***.” In this case, what does this unquestioned loyalty to the dream–without critical reflection and perpetual questioning about our social institutions and the prerogatives of “authority”–makes us, the U.S. constituency? O sacred name of faithfulness profaned! If we allow this to happen, are we not consanguineous then with those who make decisions for us? Even oppressed and brutalized Palestinians say, “we shall not seek friendships at the expense of our rights.” What about our stand of having civil rights for real, not only dreaming about them? What about preferring hard liberty before the easy yoke of servile pomp and protecting our own rights to be neither sold nor exchanged for illusory safety, nor subjected to our paranoid fears or to the paternalistic intrusion of our supposedly over-protective government?

As to killing, the gruesome reality is that during the last few decades hundred of thousands of civilians have been permanently trampled, their lives extinguished in Latin America, Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, etc., while the United States is “protecting itself and spreading freedom.” Indeed, justice divine mends not her slowest pace for prayers or cries. This fledging year of 2006 has already brought some news about innocent lives sacrificed for the sake of democracy. On January 13, the CIA airstrike in Damadola–a village in Pakistan near Afghan border–resulted in the deaths of 13 civilians, including women and children. According to the CIA officials, it was aimed at Islamic militants. Even if the latter were present and killed at the moment of the airstrike, this fact doesn’t bring innocent children back to life. Destruction with destruction to destroy? The logic implied is potent and dreadful. You will be free, whether live or dead. We will stop the bloodshed by bombing civilians. That were to make strange contradiction. And this logic warns that our politicial gurus–no matter how much inadvertently–follow the footsteps of Stalin, who liked the Russian saying, “when you cut down the forest, chips will fly.” Not to such an extreme yet, but still Right now, chips are flying in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, as well as they fly–on a much bigger scale–in Iraq.

O what are these, death’s ministers, not men, who thus deal death inhumanly to men? One might wonder, who are among our political paragons, elite of elites, who are the prime in order and in might responsible for the wanton international politics that purports to protect freedom and democracy by bombing innocent civilians? Heartless bureaucrats who care not about innocent lives being sacrificed on the altar of U.S. interests? Artificer(s) of fraud who camouflage themselves in the attire of the people’s representatives? Obscurantists “with high words, that bore semblance of worth, not substance? “Sweet-singing manipulators whose tongues drip “manna, and could make the worse appear the better reason, to perplex and dash maturest counsels”? Or half-educated poor souls whose only guilt is to know not about the distinction between ethical and moral choices? Perhaps, all the above? Are they first seen in acts of prowess eminent and great exploits, but of true virtue void; who having split much blood, and done much subduing nations, and achieved thereby fame in the world? However, even if we are gravely in doubt whether to hold them wise, we should not draw a boundary between our political decision makers and us; haughtily say, “God bless their enfeebled minds”; and blame only them for all deeds redounding to our country’s discredit. Let us no more contend, nor blame each other, blamed enough elsewhere. We are one of them; nay, we are them, for we are responsible to open and educate our own minds in order to tear asunder the panoply of ignorance and deception surrounding the highest dream.

While we let ourselves be manipulated by the illusion of the dream, the reality is that the truth with superstitions and traditions taint, left only in those written records pure, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. While we see our country and its politics through rose-tinted glasses, corrupt politicians seek to avail themselves of names, places and titles, and with these to join secular power, though feigning still to act by spiritual. Nevertheless, leaving the meditated fraud and malice of some of our political decision makers aside for a deeper analysis, let’s in conclusion illuminate one of the aspects of our foreign politics that deals rather with its awkwardness in terms of our foreign policies, speciously meaning good but getting negative results abroad. Let’s face it, in the eyes of the “ever wider community,” in G.H. Mead’s expression, our politics take an immoral path. Even if our political deeds are done with good intentions, we all know where these intentions can lead us, toward the gates of Hell. This said, let’s impute this political clumsiness, which is based on “good” intentions, to the notorious lapses in American education, and, therefore, not let pass occasion which now smiles. Let us share the intellectual delight of either acquainting or re-acquainting ourselves with Habermas’ distinction between ethics and morality and of understanding how this differentiation reflects on being either just or unjust in the international arena. For, undeniably, it’s possible to believe that we behave ethically and justly toward the world community outside of U.S. borders while acting immorally and spreading seeds of injustice.

Judge not what is best by pleasure. To paraphrase it, we can say, judge not what is the best policy by what is good for your country only. In his book, “The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory,” Jurgen Habermas analyzed the not-so-obvious difference between ethical and moral choices facing political societies and their governments. “We judge value-orientation and the evaluative self-understanding of persons or groups from the ethical point of view, whereas we judge duties, norms, and categorical imperatives from the moral point of view.” Ethical questions pertain to either the first-person perspective or to a shared ethos of a particular community. Namely, what is best for our country and questions of what’s being good or bad for our interests are looked at from the ethical point of view, whereas the aspect of being right or wrong either toward our own interests or other communities are dealt from the moral viewpoint. It is crucial to comprehend what is the ethical point of view because the latter is the foundation of the understanding of the national self-identity, of our “preferences and goals.” At the same time, the ethical standpoint allows for the breaking of the manacles of the egocentric position because “from the ethical point of view, preferences and goals are no longer given but are themselves open to discussion, they can undergo reasoned change through reflection on what has intrinsic value for us within the horizon of our shared social world.”

However, the limits of ethical reasoning–as Habermas explains it–“become manifest once questions of justice arise.” We might reckon “right” as what is self-interestedly good for us, and, therefore, consider our hasty actions abroad as justifiable, but as long as our politics ignore “an absolute priority of the right over the good,” (again, good in the sense of “good for us”) we are doomed to plant seeds of destruction instead of democracy and perpetually fall into the same illusion of having a beautiful dream instead of living it for real. Or, we can destroy, or, worse, by some false guile pervert the dream but still take its transmogrified version at face value. Habermas asserts that “without the priority of the right over the good one cannot have an ethically neutral conception of justice,” which is the sine qua non of “the equal treatment of different individuals and groups,” as well as being necessary for “the just regulation of international relations between states, for cosmopolitan relations between world citizens, and for global relations between cultures.” Having a righteous stand on the American way of life and its concomitant foreign politics is not the same as being right, or being moral on the international arena. After all, our notion of the good may considerably differ from other countries’ conception of the good. Furthermore, the continuing imposition of our way of the good on others “entails an intolerable form of paternalism,” if not worse. As a result of our lack of a proper education in this field, so little we know to value right the good before [us], but pervert best things to worst abuse, or to their meanest use.

The role of political liberalism in American politics is undeniable in its importance. According to Habermas, “Liberalism, which goes back to John Locke, has invoked the danger of tyrannical majorities and postulated the priority of human rights.” However, Habermas emphasizes that “the selective vision of a liberalism reduces the role of morality–as though it were the sum of negative liberty rights–to the protection of the individual good and thereby erects morality on an ethical foundation”, which leads to curbed justice toward other members of the global community. The universal responsibility of each for all ­- in a context of “ever wider community” ­- is a must of Habermasian understanding of “a morality, based on equal respect for everyone” and it is “not limited to those who are like us; it extends to the person of the other in his or her otherness.” The inclusion of the Other and the subtle interplay of the good and the right, with the good extending its limits toward the right leads to “a more comprehensive, intersubjectively shared perspective, or, what amounts to the same thing, the moral point of view.”

Pointing to the seemingly utopian idea of having equal respect for everyone, Habermas doesn’t leave out the great dilemma of achieving “a balance between popular sovereignty and human rights, or between the ‘freedom of the ancients’ and the ‘freedom of the moderns,'” for “either idea can be upheld only at the expense of the other.” In this regard, the right position, or the moral point of view, is razor-thin and as hard to dance as on a tight rope. As Earth self-balanced on her center hung, the aspiration of wise politics ought to strike a right balance between ethical and moral, between popular sovereignty and human rights, between public and private autonomies. According to Habermas, “the desired internal relation between human rights and popular sovereignty consists in this: human rights themselves are what satisfy the requirement that a civic practice of the public use of communicative freedom be legally institutionalized.” Therefore, the civic rights of our constituency should not be considered as external barriers by our officialdom, whose representatives–in cowardly fashion–shroud in secrecy their deceptive deals such as manipulative intelligence reports in regard to Iraq in order to justify an immoral war against the country whose people are obviously not respected in their “otherness.”

The egregiously paternalistic treatment of its own constituency of citizens and the recurring pattern of immoral foreign politics reveal that our government is not capable yet of achieving a delicate political balance as well as the fact that we, “as citizens of a state,” fail to make “use of [our] public autonomy.” Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence. It should be noted that the analysis offered by Habermas is much deeper than the scope of this article permits. For curious minds, however, his book is broadly available for future intellectual engagements. Let us not then pursue our state of splendid vassalage. Taking responsibility for oneself and for another–even if that another is “a stranger who has formed his identity in completely different circumstances and who understands himself in terms of other traditions”–is the moral point of view that is missing in our country’s politics, and it is up to us to bring it forward. As the Hopi elder wisdom saying suggests, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Let’s not forget Adorno’s “appeal to an actually existent state of consciousness.” If we allow domination–not so much representation–of political officials over us, let’s do it at least on the conscious–rather than so obtusely unconscious–level and, therefore, have dignity at least and not allow ourselves to be led by the false presumption of the dream.

ALEVTINA REA lives on Olympia, Washington and can be reached at

Cento: a literary composition formed by selections from different authors, disposed in a new order. This particular political cento is based on “Paradise Lost” by John Milton. All the italicized words are Milton’s.