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America-hatin’ libruls: a new defense

February 1, 2010

In the two-character dark comedy of American political discourse, Conservatives often accuse Liberals of applying unfairly high standards to their home country: what Liberals condone abroad they condemn at home—plainly, they hate America.

The standard Liberal response is just that they’re not being unfair–Conservatives just can’t handle the truth. A relative minority might argue America that should be held to higher standard, either because it’s exceptionally good or because it’s exceptionally bad.

What is often overlooked is that there is a good argument for applying higher standards to America but NOT because it’s in any way better or worse than other countries.

The basic argument was set out by Levi-Strauss in a different context, that of professional anthropology, as he grappled with the following dilemma: Say you’re an idealistic anthropologist and you want your research into other cultures to help correct injustices in your own. On the one hand, scientific objectivity requires that you approach those alien cultures on their own terms. That is, you need to abstain from any normative judgments about how good or bad those cultures are, lest such judgments distort your research. On the other hand, you want to reserve the right to make judgments about how good or bad your own society is: you are, after all, concerned to correct its injustices. How, then, can you be neutral in the field and committed at home?

Levi-Strauss’s answer, which he claims to derive from Rousseau, is that anthropology is objective but objective knowledge can be legitimately used to advance a moral or political agenda. Science is one thing; how you use it is another. Anthropology uncovers truths about human nature by studying, in an objective way, how societies differ, but this knowledge can then point the way toward genuine improvements in our own society. Here is the key passage from page 391 of Tristes Tropiques (translated by John Russell):

Other societies may not be better than our own; even if we believe them to be so we have no way of proving it. But knowing them better does none the less help us to detach ourselves from our own society. It is not that our society is absolutely evil, or that others are not evil also; but merely that ours is the only society from which we have to disentangle ourselves. In doing so, we put ourselves in position to attempt the second phase of our undertaking: that in which, while not clinging to elements from any one particular society, we make use of one and all of them in order to distinguish those principles of social life which may be applied to the reform of our own customs, and not of those societies foreign to our own. In relation to our own society, that is to say, we stand in a position of privilege which is exactly contrary to that which I have just described; for our own society is the only one which we can transform and yet not destroy, since the changes which we should introduce would come from within. [my emphasis]

In other words, we are to take the same neutral scientific attitude toward all societies, but it is only right that we take a non-neutral moral attitude toward our own society since we are, after all, its members. (It’s worth noting that the lessons that are supposed to be won through anthropological study are not precepts taken from the rulebooks of other cultures, but are instead principles that emerge when you place whole societies side-by-side.)

I think a similar kind of argument can be made in the realm of political science. Political science proper requires a certain level of objectivity and neutrality, but, as political actors in our own polity, we needn’t apply knowledge in a similarly neutral way. We can condemn at home what we condone (better: are neutral about) abroad precisely because we are citizens specially positioned, indeed obligated, to affect what goes on at home. And if all judgments in political science are inevitably colored by the investigator’s implicit normative standards, then, well, we should apply higher standards when we speak as political actors.

Thus, I suspect that many ‘America-hating’ Liberals appear to treat America unfairly because they are sensitive to the different rules governing scientific and political discourse. They are more dispassionate, less inclined to moralize about other countries because it’s not them that they help govern.

Obviously, the same defense is open to Conservatives who are similarly accused of condemning at home what they condone abroad, but it’s most often Liberals who meet with this charge.

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