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America the good

Tuesday, Apr 15, 2003

President George W. Bush often speaks about the “goodness” of America and about the “evil” of various world tyrannies. Is this language meaningful — or is it, as many critics both at home and abroad contend, empty and sanctimonious rhetoric?

A strong case can be made that the very fact that an American president refers to America as a good country and speaks about a standard of good and evil is itself a compelling argument on behalf of America’s essential goodness.

How so? Isn’t such rhetoric just mere words?

Not at all. The rhetoric that leaders use to describe their nations tells you a great deal about those nations. And no other nation’s leaders use this goodness terminology nearly as often as American leaders (of both political parties) do.

That this rhetoric is largely confined to American leaders may be surprising to most Americans, as they probably believe that other national leaders use similar rhetoric. But it does not surprise foreigners. A leading French political scientist, quoted in The New York Times, accused Americans of speaking in terms of good and evil, something, he said, Europeans just don’t do. And a German adviser to political leaders in his country told me the same thing on my radio show.

But if other leaders don’t use such rhetoric, what language do they use?

The answer depends, of course, on which leaders and nations we are talking about. But whichever they are, their national self-description rarely includes the goodness rhetoric used by American leaders.

This is true regarding both tyrants and elected leaders.

Adolf Hitler did not speak about the German people’s goodness, but about the racial superiority of the deutsche volk . Joseph Stalin spoke about economic and social “progress,” about moving toward a communist utopia. Saddam Hussein spoke about Iraqi and Islamic “greatness,” and increasingly relied on the religious language of “sacrifice for Allah.” Many European national leaders rarely laud their countries, but instead speak of international law and European unity. And when they do express pride in their country, Europeans rarely invoke moral criteria. The French, for example, express pride in their culture — their arts, museums, cuisine, etc. And, along with Germany, Belgium and the Scandinavian countries, they regularly boast of their commitment to peace. But not to goodness or to fighting evil.

That is America’s self-image. As it has long been. We Americans regard ourselves as a nation with a moral mission; a nation that is, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “The last best hope of mankind.” Europe, on the other hand, identifies a sense of national mission with fanaticism and chauvinism.

In America itself, there are many who eschew this self-image. Like Western Europeans, the American Left does not use goodness rhetoric; it prefers the language of “fairness,” “rights” and “equality” to the language of morality. Thus, the Left divides the world into rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots, the strong and the weak, the white and the non-white, not good and evil. The Left dismisses that division as “simplistic,” “being judgmental,” and seeing a gray world in black and white. Some on the American Right, too — as exemplified by Pat Buchanan and his supporters — also reject a moral mission for America. They divide the world between Americans and non-Americans, not between good and evil.

This preoccupation with good and evil is a primary reason America is hated. If people demonstrating against the American-led war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq cared about peace or about good and evil, they would have been rioting against China, against Sudan, against North Korea, against Iran’s mullahs, and against Saddam. But America, precisely because it is good, and precisely because it fights evil, shames all these people. And you never hate anyone as much as he who forces you to stare at evil and at your acceptance of it.

Because America talks about good and evil and does something about it, those nations and individuals, including many Americans, that have other priorities resent this America, and some even wish it “a million Mogadishus.”

Rhetoric matters. May we long believe that we are a good people and strive to prove it.

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