A couple of days ago, on this blog, I wrote a post attempting to refute the charge of ‘selective outrage’ that is often leveled against critics of Israeli policies in the current conflict in Gaza. In it, I pointed out how the accusation of hypocrisy made against the proponent of a claim does not affect its logical force, but must still be reckoned with for its rhetorical impact. Today, I want to note how accusations of hypocrisy often derail American attempts to provide moral instruction and leadership to the rest of the world.
Consider, for instance, Barack Obama’s statements during a White House briefing session yesterday:
President Barack Obama somberly warned on Friday that a forthcoming Senate Intelligence Committee report will show that the United States “tortured some folks” before he took office. But he dismissed “sanctimonious” calls to punish any individuals responsible and rejected calls for CIA Director John Brennan’s resignation.
In response, on a Facebook comment space, I wrote:
Why, oh why, is the world so strangely reluctant to accept our leadership in all things moral?
Many US presidents–and their administrations–before Barack Obama–and his staff–have used the bully pulpit provided by their office and delivered countless, sonorous, lectures to the rest of the world on the ethical and moral values that should underwrite their political policies. They, and many Americans, have often wondered why these instructions are not taken more seriously, and are instead responded to with a febrile mix of resentment, rage, and sometimes outright violence. These reactions then provoke the plaintive suggestions that these behavioral patterns are merely the ressentiment of the weak, or perhaps more ambitiously, an expression of an underlying hatred of the American way of life and its unique freedoms.
The answer is considerably less complicated. As I noted in a post on the problem of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation:
Perhaps the biggest stumbling-block to nonproliferation has been the failure of the ‘non-proliferation complex’ to internalize a simple truth:
[I]f smaller states are to be discouraged from acquiring a bomb, nuclear states will need to take real steps towards disarmament. Otherwise, non-nuclear states will regard their demands as self-serving and hypocritical – reason enough to think about creating an arsenal of their own. [from: Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka, ‘Who’s In, Who’s Out‘, (London Review of Books, 23 February 2012, Vol 34, No.4, pp 37-38),]
The self-serving hypocrisy of nuclear weapon states, and its implicit acceptance by the ‘complex’ is a long-running farce, depressingly well-known to most. This hypocrisy is the single most important factor in ensuring that non-proliferation is a non-starter; it ensures the non-proliferation manifesto is foundationally malformed.
Nuclear nonproliferation is a very good idea, as is nuclear disarmament; they can be backed up by very good economic, political, and moral arguments, and many of these have been made by very eloquent spokespersons. Their efforts, however, have always been handicapped because, all too often, they were deployed by the self-serving, sanctimonious, hypocritical members of the Nuclear Weapons Club, which merely seemed to be serving double-helpings of ‘pull up the ladder, I’m aboard.’ (I can personally testify that during my university years, as a young hot-head, despite having internalized quite well the arguments against India’s going nuclear for its domestic energy needs–on grounds of inappropriate technological fit especially–I was left almost speechless with rage on reading American lectures on the same topic; these also, for good measure, very often suggested Indians were simply incapable of managing technology of such sophistication.)
Barack Obama warns us against sanctimony, blithely unaware of his own. His listeners however, are not. They are similarly aware that when he ponders the question of which country would tolerate missiles being rained down on it from on high, he is conveniently forgetting about things that fly in the sky and rhyme with ‘phone.’