Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"We're Special"

It begins with American Exceptionalism and it ends with American Exceptionalism.

Ronald Bailey of Reason Online reads about a repeat of the famous obedience tests ran by Stanley Milgrim. Milgram wanted to know how seemingly ordinary people could willingly harm others if they were instructed to do so by an authority figure. He discovered that most people will simply do what they are told if someone in authority gave them permission to do so or insisted that they do so. Yet Bailey still refuses to believe the evidence, and dredges up pathetic excuses why Americas are not as bad as other people. "As obedience experiments show, Americans are not really any better at resisting the claims of authority than other people," Bailey admits, "yet there was no Gulag and no Auschwitz here." He continues:

True, there was the immense moral evil of slavery, the destruction of Native
Americans, Woodrow Wilson's imprisonment of thousands of dissidents, Franklin
Roosevelt's internment of Japanese Americans, and more recently, the Abu Ghraib
cruelties. Leaders at all levels can persuade some Americans to participate in
immoral activities.
Ah, it's the Bad Apple theory of badness, a personal favorite of Donald Rumsfeld. The statistics say that about 67% of all Americans will torture others, yet when Americans torture it's just some bad apples. We're not bad, we're just reported that way. Sure, we killed most of the Native Americans and--what's the word?--concentrated the rest in the armpits of the country. Our Scotch Scots-Irish taught Indians to scalp and would bash out the brains of their babies, but we're not Nazis. We're not German. Well, many of us are and our culture is Anglo-Saxon Protestant like the Germans', according to conservatives, and a damn fine one because of it. And yes, we have a bad habit of persecuting those who don't obey authority or who happen to be on the other side of our guns and therefore make us a bit nervous when we see them on our streets. Abu Ghraib is the Big Bad of Bad Apples of course, and it's a good thing those people were all punished. But it doesn't mean that Americans would plan and implement torture procedures, except when they do which is all their fault because they are not Americans and not Freedom-Loving. Bailey continues:

However, the arc of American history has been toward correcting old evils and
the commissioning of fewer atrocities over time. Why? Because our institutions
of freedom have maintained and expanded the norms that limit the powers wielded
by authorities.

For example, a free press is able to criticize practices
like slavery and racial discrimination and help establish new norms. If Bill and
Joanne down the street send their kids Joe and Kathy to an ethnically mixed
school, in other words, it must be OK. In addition, American governmental powers
are fragmented and in competition with one another. As another Milgram
experiment showed, if two experimenters disagreed about continuing the
experiment, the majority of participants sided with the one who argued for
stopping it. In other words, when people could refer to an authority figure who
agreed with their moral views, they were much more likely to act on them.
Similarly, dividing up governmental power increases the chances that some
authorities will act ethically and thus inspire people to act on the dictates of
their consciences.
So if there is a dissenting voice that matches their moral views and if the system of checks and balances is intact and one branch has not grabbed as much power as humanly possible and if an equal authority is present and equally assertive, than most Americans won't torture other Americans. Otherwise they will, and the same people who quite happily permit relocation centers in the country at this very time will torture on command.

Rod Dreher reads Bailey, agrees with his conclusion, and goes further.

In other words, American culture, society and government are structured in ways
that discourage the kind of thing that led to Nazi totalitarianism. The capacity
to be a Nazi resides within each of us, but there are fundamental aspects of our
culture that keep these potentialities in check. The lesson to draw from this, I
think, is that culture and culture-making institutions matter. A lot. This is a
point similar to what Sam Huntington wrote about how these American institutions
evolved out of an Anglo-Protestant culture, and we would be foolish to give up
on that culture, even as Anglo-Protestants are in relative decline.
Gosh, Rod, weren't the Germans Anglo-Protestants too, at least by your standards? In fact, Rod, you would fit in perfectly with Germany's kirk, kinder, kuchen culture.

Over at Nation Review On-line, Jim Manzil agrees with Rod and Bailey. Manzil goes off into a tangent, however, stating that no American would believe that a university would actually torture anyone, so they went ahead and administered the shocks. If Manzil had read the study or Milgrim's fascinating account of his experiment, Obedience to Authority, he would know that is not true, but Manzil would probably find a way to rationalize that as well.

The reason the Germans went along with the Nazis is because they had been raised to obey authority unquestioningly. Americans are often raised the same way, especially conservative Americans. Obedience to God, president and country are integral to their beliefs.

Not everyone will torture. In Milgrim's study he runs across some people who refused to obey and nobody could make them do otherwise. In Bush's America, most conservative Americans jumped at the chance to support their authorities by supporting torture. They rationalized, pondered, thought and prayed, but in the end they always approved. They are, after all, Authoritarians, and would gladly imprison Hispanics and torture and kill Arabs--and they don't even have to push a button.


Anonymous said...

A tiny error - we're Scots-Irish, not Scotch. Scotch is just a drink. Sorry to be pedantic.

Great post. The thing about conservatives that always kills me is that they don't seem to understand the difference between fessing up to the uglier aspects of our history and just plain self-loathing. There's a huge difference. Saying that it probably wasn't a great idea to intern Japanese people means you hate America. What a load of bull.

Susan of Texas said...

Thanks, CP. I make that same mistake all the time.

I guess their self-image is so tenuous that they can't stand any criticism at all, even if it's in general. To criticise them or their country or religion is the same as criticizing their parents, who gave them all their values, and very, very few people can tolerate criticism of their parents. It throws their entire world-view into chaos.

It's difficult to raise children who aren't forced into blind obedience. They think for themselves and question you all the time. The sad thing is that these conservatives will never know that it's possible to love someone and be loved without conditions. The implicit understand that obedience and submission of one's self are being exchanged for love and "acceptance" does so much damage to people.

Susan of Texas said...