Friday, November 03, 2006


CNN has recently gotten into trouble for airing a video showing Iraqi sniper killing an American soldier. They have been roundly roasted on the blogosphere, and have argued in their defense that the airing as part of their fundamental mission, to show the objective truth (in Anderson Cooper's own words at the link above, "to present the unvarnished truth as best we can"):

You should also know we tried to put all of this in context. Our reporting included an interview with a current U.S. sniper in Iraq. He's been both under attack from insurgent snipers and he has himself operated as a sniper. We also heard from Major General William Caldwell, a coalition forces spokesman in Iraq, and CNN military analyst General David Grange, formerly with the Green Beret, Delta Force and Army Rangers.

Presenting the unvarnished truth is certainly a worthy goal for any media organization, but should it be only one? Should, for example, an American media organization want America to win a war in which it is involved, in which the organization is covering? Even CNN presumably believes this to some degree, in that they refuse to release information on imminent troop movements and other things that would lead to more American soldiers being killed in us all. And yet indirectly, that is precisely what the video does – by allowing either those who actively want the Iraqi insurgency to win or are on the fence about it (or even those who oppose it yet are fearful of the consequences if it wins – e.g., the fledgling democrats in Iraq who know will happen to them if the democracy dies) to believe that its victory is more likely. This is the function of all propaganda, and in showing the video, CNN has clearly aided and abetted the current enemy of the US military. But they have also performed another useful function, which is to increase the amount of information the public has about the war. So were they wrong to do it?

If the insurgents win, clearly, Iraq will not be a society where objective reporting of the truth by the press will be prized. And so in introducing a new product that instrumentally aid to the insurgency, CNN is in a modest and only long-term way actually damaging the cause of freedom of the press. But that the question has to even be posed in these terms is a sign of an increasing phenomenon in all Western societies – what we might call post-patriotism. In post-patriotism, love of country is not a worthy value. Instead there is a devotion to some higher principle – objective truth, multinational brotherhood, multicultural relativism, or some such thing. Patriotism, an old-fashioned relic of less enlightened generations, must be sacrificed to this higher goal. University professors feel the obligation not to paint American history optimistically, and sometimes not even objectively, because to do so will further a political goal – the continued maintenance and even growth of the American society they sometimes harbor deep skepticism about and sometimes outright despise – that they find unacceptable.

I have some sympathy for any rejection of knee-jerk patriotism. The post-patriot might justifiably point to all of the nationalistic calamities, especially in Europe, that it has created. And yet at some point, patriotism becomes almost unavoidable if one believes that the ideas encoded in various national cultures are different, and that some of them are objectively better than others.

Ten days after Adolf Hitler came to power, the Oxford Union, the world’s most famous debating society, debated a resolution that proposed "that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country." The motion carried overwhelmingly, by 275 votes. The results of the debate were reported all over the world, and people not just in Germany but in places as far removed as Latin America drew the quite-rational inference that the British would not fight. This story of appeasement and its consequences is well known, but the incident also illustrates that for a long time there has been a tendency in the West toward relativism, a refusal to make comparative judgments, even a refusal to believe in objectivity. The outcome of the Oxford debate was obviously a result of the carnage or World War I, which could very reasonably be argued to be the logical outcome of patriotism taken to excess. And if patriotism means “I love my country simply because it is mine,” then the dangers to humanity if enough people hold this belief are obvious.

But what if patriotism means "My country (or culture) stands for certain principles, and those principles are simply better than those of other cultures, and in particular those who wish us ill"? Suddenly post-patriotism – the belief that it is more important to be objective or to respect other cultures than to defend your own – becomes extraordinarily dangerous. And the danger lies not just to the culture that no longer believes in itself, but to the rest of humanity that sees the values of the better culture, which will be transmitted around the planet in accordance with that culture's strength, replaced by those of the inferior but more vicious one. It is the bitterest irony that the culture that invented the notions of objective observation of the universe, that cultures can be scientifically categorized and compared, and even that no one surrounded by one culture is in a position to judge the practices of another, that this culture may one day run the risk of being annihilated by those that believe in nothing more than patriotism and their own cultural superiority, simply because the culture is theirs. Postmodernism gets all the press, but it is post-patriotism that deserves it.

Not long after I wrote the above, I came across a story about a Halloween party that the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Gutmann, threw for students in her house. Now that the president should do such a thing is questionable in my judgment to begin with; I am not all that comfortable with making a university presidency a casual office where students are simply the president's pals rather than people in need of supervision and guidance. But leave that aside. What makes it remarkable is that two of the guests came dressed as suicide bombers. In the course of the party they took a number of photographs in which they staged mock executions of hostages. And what is most striking is that the president actually posed with one of the bombers for a photograph:

Now in my line of work, this it will we call a "teachable moment." One might have supposed that a university president not afflicted by post-patriotism would've taken the students aside and said that this is unacceptable. But as far as I can tell that did not happen. Indeed, President Gutmann seems positively delighted to be in the photograph. For the record, one of the students has apologized, and this is fine. He is young, and perhaps a little foolish, and can be forgiven this mistake. But that a university president would brandish her moral indifference so flagrantly is a disappointment to say the least. And what do you want to bet that faculty at the University of Pennsylvania proudly boast of how much "critical thinking" and "social responsibility" are emphasized in the curriculum?

Update to the Update

President Gutmann has issued the following statement at the university website:

Statement by President Amy Gutmann
November 03, 2006

Each year, the president hosts a Halloween party for Penn students. More than 700 students attend. They all crowd around to have their picture taken with me in costume. This year, one student who had a toy gun in hand had his picture taken with me before it was obvious to me that he was dressed as a suicide bomber. He posted the photo on a website and it was picked up on several other websites.

The costume is clearly offensive and I was offended by it. As soon as I realized what his costume was, I refused to take any more pictures with him, as he requested. The student had the right to wear the costume just as I, and others, have a right to criticize his wearing of it.

This is commendable, but not overly so. If I were the president I would've expelled both of them from my house immediately, rather than simply refusing to pose for more pictures and taking refuge behind their "right to wear the costume." (The right to wear a costume does not denote a right to wear it in a particular place.) The mock executions of other students at the party, with everyone smiling, are also well-represented in the pictures, and would also be sufficient to end any obligations of hospitality I felt toward my guests. Perhaps this is part of the reason why I will never be a university president.


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